RFT 099: Admiral Lawrence Chambers

July 3, 2017

In 1954, after 18 months of flight training, Lawrence Chambers was designated as a Naval Aviator. His first fleet assignment was to an air-antisubmarine warfare squadron, VS-37, where he flew the Grumman AF Guardian. Transitioning to the light attack community, he later flew the A-1 Skyraider with VA-215 and then, following postgraduate education, transitioned to jet light attack aircraft, flying the A-4 Skyhawk with VA-125 and VA-22. He then established VA-67 (later VFA-15|VA-15) as its first commanding officer, flying the A-7 Corsair II.

From 1968 to 1971, Chambers flew combat missions over Vietnam from the USS Ranger and the USS Oriskany. In 1972 he was promoted to captain and placed in command of the USS White Plains, a combat stores ship.

In April 1975, while in command of the aircraft carrier USS Midway, Chambers was ordered to “make best speed” to the waters off South Vietnam as North Vietnam overran the country to take part in Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of U.S. and South Vietnamese personnel. At the time the carrier was in Subic Bay Naval Base with the engineering plant partially torn apart.

On April 29, 1975, South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly loaded his wife and five children into a two-seat Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and took off from Con Son Island. After evading enemy ground fire Major Buang headed out to sea and spotted the Midway. The Midway’s crew attempted to contact the aircraft on emergency frequencies but the pilot continued to circle overhead with his landing lights turned on. When a spotter reported that there were at least four people in the two-place aircraft, all thoughts of forcing the pilot to ditch alongside were abandoned – it was unlikely the passengers of the overloaded Bird Dog could survive the ditching and safely escape before the plane sank. After three tries, Major Buang managed to drop a note from a low pass over the deck: “Can you move the helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly for one hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me! Major Buang, wife and 5 child.”

After consultation with the USS Midway Carrier Task Force CO, Admiral William L. Harris, Chambers issued the order to allow the plane to land on the Midway’s flight deck. The arresting wires were then removed, all helicopters that could not be safely or quickly relocated were pushed over the side and into the sea. To get the job done he called for volunteers, and soon every available seaman was on deck, regardless of rank or duty, to provide the manpower to get the job done. An estimated US$10 million worth of UH-1 Huey helicopters were pushed overboard into the South China Sea. With a 500-foot ceiling, five miles visibility, light rain, and 15 knots of surface wind, Chambers ordered the ship to make 25 knots into the wind. Warnings about the dangerous downdrafts created behind a steaming carrier were transmitted blind in both Vietnamese and English. To make matters worse, five additional UH-1s landed and cluttered up the deck. Without hesitation, Chambers ordered them scuttled as well.

 

 

Admiral Chambers and family/descendants of Major Lee:

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