JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - RANDOLPH, Texas --
The 45th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion had five guests who managed to escape from Vietnam two years after Americas POWs were released. From the beginning of the Vietnam War in 1954 till the end in 1973, America played a role in defending its allies in the Republic of Vietnam. The incentive was to end the growing communist system in Vietnam.
As part of the alliance between the two countries, the U.S. military helped train South Vietnamese troops.
Among those trained were Vietnamese War pilots Chau Trinh and Hai Le. Both Trinh and Le trained and received their pilots wings at Randolph Air force Base in 1964. Later, in 1966, they were sent to Williams AFB, Arizona, to be trained in the F-5E fighter jet.
After training, both returned to Vietnam to join the war, but were separated into different flying squadrons.
The U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended in August 1973, but the war did not end until April 1975.
On April 29, 1975, the last day of the war, the North Vietnamese forces captured the city of Saigon and Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where Le and Trinh were stationed.
“At the last minute April 29, 1975, everything was collapsing, a disaster; and we had to make a decision, a difficult one,” said Trinh. “We had to get out of Vietnam in a hurry. Another major and I took shelter at the bunker, but then we heard a lot of jets taking off, so we rushed to the flight line.”
The F-5E is a single-seat aircraft, but that didn’t stop them. After finding an available jet, Trinh and his friend managed to get into the jet together.
“We found a jet and ripped out the parachute so we could both fit in there,” said Trinh. “I had no choice, we were in a hurry and had to get out of there. I sat on the lap of another major. He sat down and was my cushion. Neither of us had helmets or parachutes. Nobody was controlling the air from the air traffic tower. We just started the engine, went down the runway and went airborne as soon as possible so we wouldn’t get hit by an oncoming rocket. We landed in Utapao, Thailand, where we were surrounded by Thai military police. They wanted to send us back, but we ended up staying there for a couple of days, then were sent to a Marine base in Guam.”
After being in Guam for three weeks, Trinh was sent to Eglin AFB, Florida where he waited to be reunited with his family who were sent to a refugee camp a week prior to the end of the war.
Similar to Trinh, Le also left Vietnam on April 29th.
“That morning, shelling was increasing in intensity,” said Le. “Airplanes were burning and people were wounded. While waiting for a ride back to my squadron, I was helping our wounded flight staff get transportation to the infirmary. Then I saw my wing commander and three of his staff members get out of a jeep and start checking F-5s that were still in flying condition. I was surprised to see their presence because they didn’t usually fly combat missions, especially in a situation like this. A few more jeeps arrived. I asked a colonel, who was a friend of mine, if we were evacuating. He did not answer, but his eyes said yes. I then started searching for an F-5 for myself.”
Le then ripped out the parachute just as Trinh did, to fit two people in the seat. This was dangerous because it meant that they would not be able to connect to the oxygen tank and would not be able to evacuate in case of an emergency.
“I sat on Lieutenant Xuan’s lap, and flew the plane, he served as my cushion,” said Le. “As I taxied out to the runway, I ran over a piece of shrapnel, which cut my tire and flattened it. Lieutenant Xuan was alarmed and suggested we abort the flight; I refused.”
The pair encountered hydraulic problems and faced the risk of losing control of the plane, but trusted that the backup system was working.
Because Le knew how to get to Ubon Air Base, an American installation in Vietnam at the time, they headed in that direction.
On their journey there, Le noticed a formation of Russian aircraft.
“I was scared. We had no sidewinders or enough fuel to engage in a fight, so I decided to get out of their way,” said Le. “As I lowered my aircraft’s nose to get away, I checked the rearview mirror to see if they were following us. They weren’t. At that point our left engine flamed out and we were running out of fuel. We could not bail out because we did not have parachutes, and we could not survive a crash. So I started praying. I am quite surprised I maintained my calmness. We could both die in a few minutes.”
“Suddenly, I felt Lieutenant Xuan tap my shoulder repeatedly and he showed me a small road stretching out on our left wing. We had to take our chance, so I started circling down. There were a few cars on the road as we were ready to land. I flew over some of them. As I touched down, I saw a yellow bus in front of me, so I took the plane up and touched down again.”
They ran out of gas after landing and had a hole in the right wing. Rockets were barely holding on, but they managed to land on a narrow dirt road.
“I did not know it was possible to come out alive in the situation we were in,” said Le. “All I could think was ‘Thank God, we made it. We are alive.’”
Years later, Le and Trinh both retired to Houston, and remain lifelong friends.
Both returned to Randolph AFB this year to participate in the Freedom Flyers 45th Annual Reunion.
“We were here 54 years ago, it feels great to be back and hear the jets taking off again,” said Le.