Sunday, May 4, 2014

"To Hell With What You Say, We're Coming in Right Now:" John Degler and the Fall of Saigon

Coming Soon.

Col. George Slade, USMC, aboard the USS Midway [CV-41] on April 30, 1975, with his souvenir from the evacuation of the Saigon Embassy.

When operation frequent wind commenced on April 29, we were all in a state of control excitement. Everything was under control, but we were all somewhat tense because this operation was definitely out of the ordinary. We were part of a gigantic task force. I had never before seen as many ships in one place as I did in the last days of April in the South China Sea.

It was my duty to film the entire operation for the ship’s record. At the end of the first day I was exhausted, but I thought I had done a pretty good job. On the early morning of April 30 I was up on the 05 level taking some pictures of the ship. The 0-5 level is the fifth deck up from the main deck. The executive officer of the ship was standing next to me while I was filming. I turned the camera up to pan the horizon and I saw what looked like a little specs of dust on the lens. So I turned the camera around to dust off the lens and I looked up at the horizon again. At first I saw what looked like a huge swarm of bees coming across the water toward us. But as they came closer I saw that it was really a cloud of helicopters – Huey’s. I stepped back for a moment and bumped into the executive officer. He was looking at those Hueys and he said, What in the hell is that? And then he said, “oh, my God!” and then he quickly departed from the O-5 deck.

It was really remarkable because all of a sudden all those helicopters converged on the fleet. There had been no radio communication from them – no warning that they were approaching. And for a moment we did not even know if they were friendlies. As those Hueys came buzzing in, the people on the back were trying madly to wave them off. Then people started running everywhere. And they started landing. They were landing anywhere they could find a place to set down. There was panic and mass confusion. It was like they were saying, “to hell with what you say, we are coming in right now.”

Everything in Operation Frequent Wind had gone according to plan until that moment. I started to film the Hueys coming in. Then all of a sudden I felt on my back this hot wind and I heard the approaching whup whup whup -- the sound of the blades of a helicopter. So I turned around and here’s a helicopter right behind me – the blades are turning 6 to 10 feet from me! I could look right into the pilot’s eyes. The guy was trying to come in for a landing between a huge deck crane and the edge of the ships island. And because the ship was moving and because the island serves as a windbreak and all of the wind was coming around it, this little chopper was bouncing around in midair trying to land, just like a confused bee. I was ready to hit the deck because I knew he could never make it in that small space with that wind. But he was making one hell of a try.

Finally he backed out. Down below they were madly trying to wave him off because they knew if he crashed when he landed the rest of the operation would be in jeopardy and he would have wiped out a lot of people. So after he backed off and came in from another direction, they loaded up that section of the ship (where he had tried to land) with our own helicopters, so nobody else would try to land there.

When those Hueys landed it was unbelievable. They were filled with women and children. One particular aircraft, I'll never forget, came in with 53 people on board, including a pilot and a copilot.

I took a picture of one of the first Hueys to land and it is kind of comical. The pilot was talking to members of the deck crew and they were all looking at a map – God knows what for. It looked like they were trying to explain to him that he made a wrong turn and would have to go back or something. It was pretty funny.

When the Hueys landed we had Marines on deck who would disable the helicopter immediately by locking the rotors in place. Then they disarmed all of the passengers. We were very afraid that somebody was going to attempt to sabotage our operation or take over our ship. And there was no good way to stop them. There were so many Hueys coming in that one might have come in with explosives and really done some damage.

We got organized in a hurry to take care of those people. We tried to create some order on the landing deck. Right away, though, we had an unexpected problem. The prop wash from the helicopter rotors was so great, and the Vietnamese were so little, that some of the first ones on board stumbled and fell and were blown across the deck. So for safety we use some ropes to guide them from the helicopters across the deck and down the stairs to a processing center. That way we got them safely across the flight deck, and we kept them from getting hit by the other helicopters and prevented them from massing together in one spot on the deck. When people led them across the deck on a rope they looked like big caterpillars coming out of Hueys in going to the side of the ship.

Throughout the entire two days of Frequent Wind I was completely into the operation itself. I knew that this was history, and I saw my job is filming something like “Victory at Sea.” I hoped that someday my footage would be used for something like that. So I felt a very strong obligation to do a good job and get everything on film.

But I was seeing everything that happened through a camera lens, and thinking about camera angles and lighting. I remember one incident in particular when I had taken all of my cut shots of people doing this or that, and I decided that I would follow one group of people through the process of landing, getting off the flight deck, being processed and examined and fed, and then departing on another helicopter to another ship in the fleet. So I picked one shopper that was coming in. The second it landed I stepped inside and started filming the people on board. Then I found them getting out in giving up any weapons they were carrying and then being led across the flight deck. I followed them through the ship and back up on the other end of the flight deck where another helicopter was waiting to take them to another ship. I got down low and shot them getting on the helicopter ramp and shot the ramp going up and then the chopper taking off. And as it lifted off I was lying on the deck filming and I felt myself being pushed by the prop wash toward the side of the flight deck. I was pushed all the way to the side and ended up with my leg over the walkway along the edge of the ship. And I was still shooting. When the helicopter was gone I put the camera down and I started thinking, “what did I just do?” I had forgotten about my own safety, and the feelings of those people, and I had just taken pictures. It was at that moment that I really started to realize the meaning of all of this. Up until then I was pretty much in a daze – it was constant activity, and excitement, hurrying, the roar of engines, the feel of the prop wash, and the sound of the rotors of the helicopters coming in and going out. But suddenly it hit me what all of this really meant. We were saving people. And those people had just been torn from their homeland. You could see the torment in their faces. Many of them had fled from their homes only a few minutes before death would have found them. We had a home to go back to when this was all over. But they did not. We represented the first minutes of a completely new and strange life for all of those poor people.

I took a lot of pride in my work. All of us on board the Midway felt proud when the operation was over. We realized that we had saved an ungodly number of people in a hazardous situation. We did something that had never been done before. Every man on that ship, from the flight deck down to the engine room, was proud because we had worked together as a team and we had been successful. That knowledge really brought us together. It is hard to conceive of something like that without actually going through it.

For a few hours our ship became a city taking in thousands of refugees. We had to take care of those people and supply them with food and medical care and sanitation facilities. Crew members gave up their bunks for the refugees so they could rest while they were on board. We gave them the royal treatment. I talked with a few of them to find out what towns and cities they were coming from. They were very humble and grateful and afraid.

They just kept saying over and over again, “thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Every time we gave them something or treated them courteously, they just flooded us with thank you’s.

I saw a lot of crying among those refugees. And a lot of embracing between people when they found their family or friends also had made it out to the Midway. A lot of emotion was expressed that day.

At the end of the operation we were packed and ready to leave the area, and everything was in order. We had all the helicopters arranged on the ship. Then all of a sudden this lone aircraft showed up. We were sitting out there in the South China Sea when this guy comes out of nowhere. He buzzed the ship several times. We couldn’t figure out who he was and what he wanted because the ship had no radio contact with him. Every time he passed over the ship he dropped something. Three times he missed the deck. Then on the fourth time he dropped a wrench and it hit the deck. There was a note wrapped around it. The note said that he was Major Buong and that he had his wife and five kids on that little plane with him and he wanted to land on our deck. His plane was just a little Cessna 0-1 – one “Bird Dog.” Once our captain got that information he put us all to work. In 30 minutes we moved every helicopter and aircraft to the bow of the ship so Major Buong could have the full flight deck with a landing approach to land on. Everyone on board the ship knew how dangerous this was going to be. It was a little plane, overloaded, and we were rolling around in the sea. Everyone pitched in to make it as easy as possible for him, but in the end he had to land that aircraft himself.

I filled him coming in fully expecting him to crash. But he just came floating in like a bird, made two bouncer and rolled to a stop. And at that moment everybody on that ship just broke out in cheers. We were applauding and jumping up-and-down, we were so damned happy for that guy. The crowd of people ran out and surrounded his plane, still applauding and laughing. And the group got bigger and bigger. I went out with my camera to film him getting out of the craft. And as he helped his wife and kids out of the plane, somebody yelled, “Where in the hell did you learn to fly, anyway?” And he turned around and said “Texas!” Well, that just blew us away. We all cheered some more. We were just crazy with joy for that guy. That was the end of our operation – Major Buong landing. It was a happy note to end on. We could not of planned it better. It was a neat little victory at the end.

I was only 24 years old at that time. And the experience changed me immensely. I had experienced many things before that time. But those few crowded days off the coast of South Vietnam really opened my eyes. I saw what life could be like for other people. And that woke me up to the fact that terrible things were happening out there in the world. Being an American, I hadn’t even imagined things like this happening to people. I had new strength after that. I think all of a sudden the whole crew of the Midway did, too. We discovered what we were capable of accomplishing when we were called upon to do it. We all did an awful lot of growing up in those days. And best of all, when it was over, we knew we were the good guys and we had come to the rescue. And we did what was right.

When we got home there were no cheers or anything. No parades. I wish now there have been. I wish more people knew what we really did out there.


John Degler said...

This was my father. Thank you for posting this, it was like a call from beyond the grave...

KW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KW said...

This was my father as well, to hear his words and pure and his dedication along with the others makes me so proud. I don't where this came from but I can't thank you enough. So many parades should be happening for our military. ~ Kristen M Degler

KW said...

This was my father as well, to read his words and feel his dedication along with the others makes me so proud. I don't know where this came from but I can't thank you enough. Thank you to all on that ship, and thank you Dad.. So many parades should be happening for our military. ~ Kristen M Degler