The USS Midway played a major role in rescuing 3,073 refugees in 30 hours when Saigon fell on April 29 and April 30, 1975.
The coordinated military rescue called Operation Frequent Wind began when the signal song “White Christmas” was broadcast over American Armed Forces Radio.
That day, the Midway's air boss, Vernon Jumper, was in charge of every plane and helicopter landing onto a patch of the flight deck the size of a tennis court. The crew pushed aircraft into the ocean to make room for incoming helicopters loaded with evacuees from Vietnam.
“We pushed over the side four Hueys and one Chinook helicopter,” said Jumper during an interview on the aircraft-carrier-turned-museum. “At one time in the afternoon of the 30th, we counted 21 Huey helicopters circling the Midway and we got everyone of them aboard… everyone.”
From four stories above the flight deck, the ship’s air boss is the air traffic control commander responsible for the lives of pilots and crew in the “near-heart-stopping” launch and landing of each aircraft on the carrier’s tiny air strip, just three football fields in length.
Four decades after the fall of Saigon, 83-year-old Jumper reveals the personal toll of making life-and-death decisions for thousands of people.
“It was very dangerous and my heart was in my throat half the time," Jumper said. "I was so frightened that one of those helos would crash on this flight deck."
The stakes got higher when a stolen two-seat fixed wing plane wobbled over the Midway's landing deck twice, dropping notes that ultimately blew overboard.
“He had no radio. We had no way to talk to him,” said Jumper.
Finally, a note stuffed into a leather gun holster landed on the deck.
As the world remembers the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, KPBS highlights the stories of San Diego County's Vietnamese refugees and Vietnam War veterans.
“That note said and I’m quoting now, 'Can you move those helicopters to the other side? I can land on your runway. I can fly one more hour, we have enough time to move. Please rescue us.' And he signed it Major Buong, wife and 5 children," Jumper said.
After helicopters were moved out of the way, South Vietnamese pilot Major Buong Le landed his young family safely — just 100-feet short of the ocean.
In the following hours, about half of the refugees on the Midway were taken to nearby ships. The remaining 1,600, including many women and children, remained on board along with more than 3,000 sailors and personnel.
Jumper's smile broadens when he talks about what happened next.
“On the hangar deck I had roughly 20 aircraft and hundreds of refugees living underneath these aircraft," Jumper said. "We found bubble wrap, blankets for them, and the sailors were playing with the kids. They were making toys for the kids. It was just beautiful.”
But, his smile abruptly leaves when he puts the rescues into context.
“It was a sad end to the Vietnam War," Jumper said. "You could see the dread in their faces. They are leaving their land, all of their worldly goods in a pillow case. The little kids were just scared to death.”
Jumper relives those days fondly as a docent at the USS Midway Museum. But when asked what it’s like to see generations of people who owe their lives to the mission accomplished four decades ago, he humbly passes the praise.
“I send all the praises to the Vietnamese [refugees] because they settled in our country and really became great citizens, hard working people through sacrifice," Jumper said. "I’m so proud of them.”