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Mountain Home Magazine

Out of Vietnam

by Carrie Hagen

At 1300 hours on Wednesday, April 30, 1975, Lieutenant John Hummel stood on the deck of the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier stationed in the South China Sea. As a light rain fell, John looked up at a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog circling overhead. He wondered about the pilot’s intentions. American and South Vietnamese pilots had flown numerous small planes like this one, but never onto an aircraft carrier. John thought it might be an enemy attack.

Four and a half years before, the Navy had appointed John the Aircraft Handling Officer of the prime recovery carrier should South Vietnam fall to the North and the military need to evacuate Saigon. They called the plan Operation Frequent Wind. Over the course of the operation—which began on April 29, 197, and ended in less than forty-eight hours—seventy-one helicopters removed thousands of American citizens, South Vietnamese personnel, and their dependents from Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam. It was the largest helicopter evacuation in history.

As part of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea, Lieutenant Hummel directed the launches and landings of many of these helicopters, but neither he nor his team anticipated recovering any winged aircraft, such as the Cessna O-1. He attempted to contact the pilot through emergency radio frequencies. There was no response. Concern spread through the Midway as the small plane approached and turned on its landing lights.

“We had no idea of its intentions or desires,” remembers John, now seventy-eight and living in Covington, Pennsylvania. For all his team knew in the moment, an enemy could have been planning to drop a grenade or use the two-seater plane itself as a weapon. John had to rely on an instinct honed by specialized military training to navigate the unknown.

The USS Midway was one of over thirty Navy ships involved in Operation Frequent Wind. Since his assignment as Aircraft Handling Officer, John had joined the operation’s leadership in twice-yearly trainings, including how to best recover and transport thousands of evacuees and refugees from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) before they fell into enemy hands.

That April, North Vietnamese forces were moving south faster than anticipated. If caught, any national, American, or other foreign national who had aided the South’s fight against the Communist North would face torture and/or execution. Tens of thousands had fled. Thousands remained. When John reported to the USS Midway on Monday, April 28, it was waiting along with other ships in Task Force 76, about sixty-five miles east of Saigon in the South Pacific.

At 5:16 the next morning, twenty-eight Air Force special operations helicopters arose from the Midway’s deck. Over the next thirty-four hours, they and forty-three others would make 689 trips between the Seventh Fleet and Saigon, centering their recovery efforts on the United States Embassy compound. As Armed Forces Radio played “White Christmas,” the signal for the final evacuation, over 2,000 people waited for rescue inside the gates, and a reported 10,000 were desperate to enter from the street.

Several hours after the operation began, American and South Vietnamese helicopters swarmed the guard channel leading to the recovery ships in the South China Sea. Almost every one had a low fuel emergency. “Every US Navy ship with a landing platform is recovering birds [helicopters],” John wrote of his experience soon after it ended. A typical passenger load on a South Vietnamese helicopter, he recounted, “included the pilot and his family, which included grandparents and parents from both sides, brothers, sisters, wives, and everyone’s children.” A bird with seating for fourteen carried, on average, thirty. Many carried more.

Smaller vessels, such as the Blue Ridge command ship, had a deck with room for only one aircraft to land at a time. During the rush of the evacuation, there was no time or space to refuel any helicopter when others with empty tanks needed to disembark passengers. To save as many people as possible, pilots repeatedly sacrificed their aircrafts, following instructions to land, unload, relaunch, and then “ditch” the helicopters beside the ship, ejecting themselves in the process.

At 1 a.m. on Wednesday, April 30, the Midway held 5,800 evacuees/refugees. Nearly four hours later, its crew learned that all United States citizens had been rescued except for 140 Marines, and President Gerald Ford had given orders to stop evacuating Vietnamese. At the American Embassy, Marine and Air Force helicopters navigated ground fires and difficult landing zones to airlift the final Marines by 7:30 a.m. A few hours later, the Seventh Fleet received word that the Republic of Vietnam had surrendered to the North Vietnamese Army, bringing an end to the twenty-year Vietnam War.

The number of evacuees in Operation Frequent Wind surpassed the military’s expectations and could have very well presented an operational nightmare. In By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia, Edward J. Marolda writes that the operation facilitated a “human tide” out of South Vietnam, and reports that in the final fourteen hours of the operation, Marine helicopters lifted “almost 8,000 United States military personnel, South Vietnamese, and their dependents.”

When evacuees and refugees exited helicopters, military guards surrounded and directed everybody to move into lines, submit to a body search, and hand over any weapons.

“They appear to be a thankful people,” John wrote. “I am certain not one of them has any idea of what is ahead of them, but it can never be as bad as what they just left.”

It was just before 1 p.m. on April 30, almost two hours after learning of South Vietnam’s surrender, that John noticed the Cessna O-1 winged plane—a strange sight in a sky full of helicopters. The Midway made a tight port turn, a signal to discourage landing. The pilot flew over the deck, indicating his intention anyway. Twice, the Midway’s crew noticed the pilot’s attempting to release something from the plane onto the carrier. At least one sailor thought it could be a grenade. John moved to a helicopter on deck and managed to make some radio contact, directing the pilot to ditch the plane in the water.

Instead, the pilot tried a third time to drop something on deck. It was a note, now tied to the weight of a pistol belt. John held the paper.

“Can you move the Helicopter to the other side,” it read, “I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough to mouve. Please rescue me. Major Buang, wife and 5 child.”

The pilot, as John later learned, was South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly. He had flown from Côn Sơn Island off the south coast of Vietnam, a base deemed important largely due to its radio station. During the evacuation, Station Côn Sơn stayed on the air as long as possible to direct signals to aircraft and ships. Fleeing at the last possible second, Major Buang-Ly crammed his family of seven into the two-seater Bird Dog and took off amidst gunfire. Unsure of where to go, the major flew out to sea. Soon enough, he noticed a swarm of helicopters in the distance. He followed them to the Midway.

John conferred with the ship’s captain, Lawrence Chambers (only the second African American to graduate from the Naval Academy and the first to command a Naval aircraft carrier). Major Buang-Ly wanted the helicopters moved because there was no room for a plane to land on the deck. (At one point, the carrier held 222 helicopters). Aircrafts were still landing on the carrier while John’s team decided what to do with the Cessna, and, in the meantime, Buang-Ly was running out of fuel. Out of options, John received the okay from Captain Chambers to call all available hands on deck. Together, they pushed twenty-two helicopters overboard to make room for the Cessna. Then the Midway crew waited to see if Buang-Ly could handle the difficult landing. He did it so gracefully that the deck erupted into cheers.

The major followed his family off the plane. Hands raised to his head, Buang-Ly asked if he could refuel, launch, and go back for more people. He was denied. At 2:30, the Midway transferred evacuees to transport docks on the USS Denver, Duluth, and Blue Ridge. The Midway alone had helped to rescue 6,914 South Vietnamese and foreign nationals, and 575 U.S. citizens.

John and the crew stayed aboard for a few more days, recovering people fleeing in small boats and on rafts. On Tuesday, May 6, Operation Frequent Wind ended. Reports reflect that during the evacuation, over fifty-four Marine, Naval, and Air Force helicopters (valued at $10 million) were pushed over the side of carriers to make room for those carrying more people.

“I doubt the crew of the carrier really realized that they had just participated in a significant event,” John reflects, forty-plus years later. “I really don’t believe such thoughts went through my mind. Even today, I don’t dwell upon it much. I guess my biggest feeling of accomplishment was that I was there and pretty well successfully accomplished my duties.”

In June 1976, one year after Operation Frequent Wind, John retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. It was a career that had begun in boyhood dreams.

“Since he was a little boy,” says his son-in-law, Steve Jaso, “he wanted to be a pilot in the Navy.”

Born in 1941, John grew up in Smethport, Pennsylvania. He learned about aircraft carriers around age five, and never envisioned doing anything but flying planes on and off of them.

“My parents were determined that wasn’t going to happen,” he laughs, remembering his mom’s safety concerns. Nevertheless, he enlisted in the Navy right out of high school. After boot camp, he attended Naval electronic programs before receiving his first assignment with VW-11, an early-warning naval air squadron that flew the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line, a series of radar stations placed across the North Atlantic to detect incoming Russian air attack.

Just hours into his first operational mission near Iceland, John received a message saying he had been accepted as a candidate in NESEP (Navy Enlisted Scientific Education Program) and needed to respond within twelve hours. Landing in Spain on a Friday, John had to get to San Diego by the following Monday. He flew into Roanoke, Virginia, and hitchhiked to the West Coast. After a six-week preparatory program, he attended Penn State on a full scholarship and graduated with a BS in Aerospace Engineering in June 1963.

Two years later, after finishing Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, John was flying a Naval F-4 Phantom off an aircraft carrier in Southeast Asia. To get there, however, he had to prove he was physically, intellectually, and psychologically qualified for carrier aviation, a process he calls “an extensive evaluation.” First, he attended a seven-day sea and land SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program in Pensacola, essentially a selection camp that qualified future aviators for the thirty-day SERE program at a remote training site in southern California.

To survive these competitive programs, John says, pilots have to have the right mindset. “Your concentration abilities have to be very strong in carrier aviation. Your mindset says, ‘By God, I can do it.’ I thought I was invincible. Every fighter pilot is invincible.”

After he finished the thirty-day SERE training, he received his first deployment to Southeast Asia. But he wasn’t yet ready to fly combat duty in Vietnam. First, he had to complete an additional ten-day jungle survival program in the Philippines. It was an exercise that would save his life.

The Navy’s survivor school curriculum is classified, but a senior naval officer (who asked to remain nameless) familiar with aviator preparation shared that the program involves “fire-building techniques, natural shelters, identifying edible plants, learning to assemble some kind of primitive first aid kit, and survival navigation.” A candidate like John Hummel would also have needed to learn to make compasses and train in distress signal techniques, such as whistling patterns and assembling logs on a beach.

John flew combat missions in Southeast Asia for three years before he had to test his survival training. On November 27, 1968, as part of Navy Fighter Squadron 161, he and his Radio Officer were flying north of Hanoi when the North Vietnamese Army targeted their plane. As it caught fire, John directed his RO to hit the ejection button, which should have released both officers. But there was a malfunction. Only his RO ejected. John, with a broken arm and a hole in his leg, had to manually release himself from the plane. Falling between an estimated three-eighths of a mile to a mile away from where his RO landed, John soon realized that the North Vietnamese had taken his co-pilot. He wouldn’t see him again for four and a half years.

He canvassed the area, which he recalls as “a mix of light forestation with remotely scattered agricultural land.” Moving as quickly as he could, with terrible wounds and nearly fifty pounds of equipment that included a survival vest, two handguns, water, two candy bars, some dry rations, a lifeboat, a blanket, and two vials of morphine, he found a hiding spot in dense bush.

It was the start of the winter season. During the day, as temperatures settled in the mid-seventies, John hid in a trench along a creek bank. He spent hours scanning the sky, a survival school skill. After recognizing two planes as United States combat aircraft on his first day of hiding, he spent the next nine signaling to them.

At night, with temperatures in the low to mid-fifties, he used a compass to estimate which way to move, and where the military might be planning to pick him up. He saw members of the North Vietnamese Army twice but nobody else. John supplemented his rations with bugs. Finding even small items to eat, he says, was “good for the mind.” His biggest desire was for water. He found a stream, and drank in small quantities.

“There’s a danger of being dazzled by your circumstances in survival situations,” explains the naval officer regarding the psychological preparation offered in survival coursework. “It takes a special personality to be consistently faced with your limitations without getting locked in on the worst possibility.”

This “special personality,” the officer continues, learns to seek self-knowledge in the circumstance, no matter how difficult it may be. “You can’t lose sight of potential. Learn tendencies of yourself. Keep your wits about you. Notice your natural response. Your instincts will say, ‘You’re going to know a lot about yourself here.’”

While he waited for a sign from the combat aircrafts that communicated his rescue time, John thought about the Thanksgiving turkey he was missing back on the carrier. He talked to God. He said to himself, “I’m a mean son of a bitch. I can do this.” He realized how well survival school had prepared him.

At 7:30 a.m. on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day), three helicopters landed and rescued Lieutenant Hummel. Within thirty-six hours, he was in San Diego for medical treatment.

One year later, the military began an advanced training school for fighter pilots. John was in the second class of the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (the inspiration for the movie Top Gun). John says the program instantly elevated the abilities of fighter pilots in Vietnam, noting that “training taught the student aviator to fly the plane as close to the extreme as possible, and to see how many G-forces it could handle.”

Within two years of finishing the program, John earned the role of Aircraft Handling Officer on the prime evacuation carrier should Saigon fall.

After retirement from the Navy, John didn’t want to pursue a career in commercial aviation. Steve Jaso once asked his father-in-law why he didn’t fly again.

“Once you fly those airplanes and see the things you can do,” John told him, “I just couldn’t do it again with anything else.”

Instead, John took a job as a maintenance foreman at a plant south of Detroit. He met Jean Dewitz, his second wife, at his apartment complex. The two moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, before settling in Covington. Jean worked as the director of the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center in Wellsboro, and John as a facility and plant engineer with the Waupaca Foundry. Before he retired in 2008, he designed a pollution reduction heat-exchange system that attracted the interest of scientists around the world.

His daughter, Michelle Jaso, a nurse in Gallitzin, Pennsylvania, says her father never brags of his successes.

“My dad’s just the nicest guy,” she says. “He’d do anything for you.”

John has spent much of his retirement serving with Jean at various First Presbyterian Church functions in Wellsboro, and he is dedicated to the Wellsboro Area Food Pantry, and to the help it provides to area families.

Every day, he is reminded of his service in Vietnam, not least because of health complications resulting from Agent Orange exposure, yet he shies away from divulging all of his accomplishments, or from dwelling too long on the details of his remarkable military career.

“I’m an ordinary human being and I had the opportunity to work in a selective profession,” he says with finality. He chooses to live life the way he helped direct it on the USS Midway. “You are on a team. If you don’t understand you are on the same team, you’re endangering people. Nobody is better than anybody else. Every person is a team member.”

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