Tale of a Vietnam-Era Helicopter Pilot
I am privileged to serve as a volunteer at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in NYC. It gives me the opportunity to meet fascinating people from all over the world who come to visit and explore the museum. Here's one story.
I was on the Admiral’s Bridge post one Sunday morning when a family came through: a young couple and an older couple. They were about to file past me when I noticed the older man had on a USS Midway cap. I asked him if he had served on the Midway. He replied, “I didn’t serve on it, but I landed on it.” I asked the family to step out of the guest flow so I could hear more about his unusual remark.
He introduced himself as An, but half a century ago he was ARVN Captain An Nguyen, pilot of a UH-1 Huey gunship during the Vietnam War. An landed his Huey, crammed with 18 of his company, on the USS Midway on April 29, 1975 - the day before the end of the Vietnam War. He had saved his men from the advancing North Vietnamese Army which was advancing into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
You may have heard that the Midway’s captain ordered an estimated $10 million of Hueys pushed overboard that day. That was done to provide landing space for a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog. It was piloted by Major Buang Ly and contained his escaping family of five. He had dropped a note onto the deck of the carrier saying that he was almost out of fuel. He asked if some of the helicopters littering the deck could be moved so he could land.
Captain (later Rear Admiral) Lawrence Chambers - incidentally the first black American to command a US carrier - ordered all hands on deck to make room for Major Buang to land. He landed safely to wild cheering and arm-waving by the crew on the flight deck. An’s Huey was one of the many helicopters pushed overboard into the South China Sea that day!
Back on Intrepid's Admiral’s Bridge I asked An if he would like to see Intrepid’s Huey. It wasn't on general public display that day because it had recently been moved to the museum's Aircraft Restoration Hangar for repainting. He said he would very much like to do that. So I directed him and his family to attend a demonstration I was to give in 15 minutes on the carrier's flight deck.
After my demo ended I escorted the Nguyens into the hangar where An was able to get “up close and personal” with a Huey like the one he flew half a century ago. I asked An a lot of questions. Over the next half hour he recounted some of his experiences in the war. His wife began video recording An, telling me later that she had never heard most of what he recounted.
An flew over five thousand hours of Search & Rescue and ground support missions over Vietnam and Cambodia in the Vietnam War. He typically carried two door gunners with Miniguns and six air-to-surface missiles. He told me that he flew General Westmoreland on more than one occasion because the general wanted his geographical knowledge as well as his combat experience.
He told me he always carried three items strapped to his waist on all missions: a Walther P-38 in a cowboy holster, a survival knife, and a flare gun. He also carried the P-38 24/7 for self-defense. He said that was encouraged “because it cost so much to train replacement pilots.”
An told me that he had been wounded on five separate occasions by anti-aircraft fire: twice over Cambodia and three times over Vietnam. He rolled up his right sleeve to show me bullet entrance and exit wounds through his right forearm. He told me that a 12.7mm bullet entered the plexiglass floor of his cockpit, went through his left thigh, then his right forearm and then hit his copilot in the face. He piloted the Huey back despite his wounds since his copilot was unable to. He passed out after landing safely and woke up the next day in a hospital. He had been patched up but his unwounded left arm was discolored and swollen to twice its size because an IV had been improperly attached. He told me that he decided at that moment that after the war he wanted to go into the medical field.
An is one of Vietnam’s Hmong people, practicing Buddhism. He grew up in Vietnam under French rule. He first became interested in flying helicopters when he was eight years old. His school’s English teacher took his class on a trip to the beach. A French helicopter crew landed on the beach and gave the fascinated little boy a ride in their helicopter. Twenty-two years later, An was landing his Huey on the deck of the USS Midway on Dixie Station in the South China Sea.
He recounted the Midway’s passage to Subic Bay with hundreds of Vietnamese refugees on the hangar deck. With the help of a famous Vietnamese actress who was among them, he told me how he scrounged cigarettes and coffee from the Midway's crew and distributed them to his people during the trip. He told me how the refugees would squat in a circle of ten on the hangar deck passing around a single cigarette or cup of coffee to be shared.
When An was asked where he wanted to settle in the US, he asked for Savannah, Georgia, where he had made many American friends during the advanced flight training he had attended during the war. He settled there, married his Vietnamese childhood sweetheart, raised two boys (one of whom was with us that day), and was a respiratory therapist for 30 years at a hospital in Savannah. He’s retired now and is an official at the Cat Tuong Buddhist Temple in Savannah.