Courage of His Convictions

Pictured: RADM Lawrence Chambers ’52, USN (Ret.), right, with his brother LtGen Andrew Chambers, USA (Ret.), in 1982. The two were the first African-American siblings to reach flag rank.

More than 40 years later, the grainy video images of the fall of Saigon remain so vivid. The city under fire, the sky swarmed with helicopters, sirens filling the air, thousands of South Vietnamese racing to flee their country ahead of the advancing North Vietnamese Army, many scrambling for space aboard U.S. helicopters.

On 29 April 1975, South Vietnamese Air Force Major Bung-Ly loaded his wife and five children into a two-seat Cessna, took off from Con Son Island and made his way out to the South China Sea. There he encountered the U.S. carrier Midway, assigned to assist with the evacuation, its deck already jammed with helicopters delivering other evacuees.

His fuel running low and no other options in sight, Bung dropped a handwritten note on Midway’s deck, asking to move the helicopters so he could land. With moments to spare, Midway’s commanding officer ordered every available seaman on deck to make room as expeditiously as possible amid rain, wind and the arrival of additional evacuating helicopters: by pushing the helicopters overboard.

The man responsible? Captain Lawrence Chambers ’52, USN, who retired as a rear admiral in 1984. In addition to returning to the Yard in February 2017 to address the Midshipman Black Studies Club, Admiral Chambers also took time to share his reflections with Shipmate.

Q: How did you make the decision to scuttle those helicopters—probably at least $10 million in aircraft—to save the major and his family?

I had only been in command on Midway since 25 March [1975], and we had just got underway on 31 March. I figure I’ve been in charge about a month, and I’m going to go down as the shortest command on record, but my whole attitude was, I’m going to do what I think is right, and have the courage of my convictions, and if I’m wrong, OK. The court martial can come. I was out there in a war zone. If you’re going to let women and children drown over pushing some equipment over the side, that’s an easy decision to make.

Q: Were there any other options?

He could have ditched, but I was looking up at the plane, we saw there was a civilian woman behind him, holding a child. I could see another head sticking up from behind the second seat. Then he dropped the note about having his wife and five children on board, seven souls on a two-seat airplane. Hell, only two of them were strapped in. That would sign the death warrant for everyone else. One of his notes said he only had an hour of fuel left, not enough to make it back to the beach. We had desperation on our hands. I figured if I don’t give him the chance to land, he’s going to crash it on board, because the only chance he has of surviving is to put it down on something solid, because if they land in the water, they’re going to flip.

Q: How did the crew react?

Not only did I get all the blue shirts, the brown shirts and the green shirts … but the engineers that weren’t on watch, they showed up. The Marines that weren’t on watch, they showed up. The JOs [junior officers] who weren’t flying because all the airplanes were down on the hangar deck, they all showed up. I made the air department a 3,000- to 3,500- man working party to clear that flight deck.

Q: One of the Naval Academy’s top priorities today is the development of the kind of ethical leadership skills that help officers make tough decisions, like the one you made on 29 April 1975. What kind of role do you think your Academy education had in your development as a leader?

I tell you, one of the people at the Naval Academy that made the biggest impression on me was a captain by the name of Captain Joseph Taussig ’41, USN (Ret.), who won the Navy Cross for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He taught leadership, and some of the things he preached stayed with me for a lifetime. He said too many people worried about their careers, hesitated in tough situations because they wondered what it would do to them personally. He taught us to do what we thought was right and to have the courage to believe in ourselves.

Q: How did you decide to attend the Academy?

That one was easy. I was valedictorian of my high school class, Dunbar in DC, and I had a scholarship offer at MIT and one from Harvard, but in those days, while scholarships covered tuition and books, they didn’t cover room, board and other incidentals. I had two younger brothers, and there was no way I could go to an Ivy League school and the family still support them through college. They both graduated from Howard, and my younger brother, Andrew, would end up as a three-star general in the Army.

Q: You were also one of the first African-American Naval Academy graduates, the first African-American graduate to achieve flag rank, the first African-American to ever command an aircraft carrier, and you and Andrew were the first African-American siblings to hold flag rank. Did you experience any unique challenges or pressures as a result of these roles?

At the Naval Academy, Wesley Brown [Class of ’49] took all the bad stuff, and B. [Benjamin] O. Davis Jr., who went to West Point, he spent four years there, and not a damn soul spoke to him, not even his classmates. That, to me, is a tough guy.

I talked to Wesley Brown before I agreed to accept the appointment, and Wesley’s roommate was my first classman, so I had a couple of guys looking out for me that Wes didn’t have when he was a plebe. I could go hang out in their shack, and no one would harass me when I was hanging around with my first classman. In that sense, I’m sure I had it 10 times easier than Wes did, and unbelievably different than what was experienced by the first couple of [African American] guys at West Point.

When I was there, first classmen harassed everybody, and I don’t know if the system has changed any. So was I harassed? Yes, but I lived with two fantastic guys, Pay Dwight Sierer and Hugh Arthur Benton. Hugh went into submarines, worked for Rickover and retired as a rear admiral. He was number one in our class until my other roommate beat him out first class year. Pay became a naval engineer and was the smartest guy in our class. When you live with two geniuses, life gets pretty easy.

Q: You service selected naval aviation, but didn’t go to Pensacola right away. Why not?

Because of class standing, I had a choice of ship, and I took a small one, but the commandant called me in and said he wasn’t going to let me do that. He sent me to Columbus, a heavy cruiser, where his good friend and classmate Captain Gordon Campbell ’26, USN, was CO [commanding officer]. He told me he knew I’d be treated fairly there. The Academy was trying to take care of me—Truman had just authorized the desegregation of the armed forces. They wanted to make sure I got a fair shake, and I did. I qualified as OOD [officer of the deck] for formation steaming before I went to flight training, and I always volunteered to stand bridge watch. I ended up standing bridge watch on every single carrier I ever made a cruise on, and by the time I got around to being CO of a combat stores ship or a carrier, I would stack my bridge time up against any of my black-shoe friends. I knew I had a target on my back, so that’s why I spent all the extra time standing bridge watches. I knew it was necessary, I knew it would pay off one day, and it did.

Q: You did become a carrier pilot yourself, flying the AF Guardian, AD Skyraider, and A-4 Skyhawk, among others. What are some of the highlights of your aviation career? 

I lost my logbooks in one of my many moves, but I think I’ve got somewhere around 5,000 hours of flight time, 800 to 900 carrier landings, and I know I have 351 night landings, and except for when I did a tour on the staff at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and a tour in NavAir as program manager, I spent much of my career at sea. My advice to anyone is to go to sea, stay at sea, and if there’s a trouble spot anywhere in the world, go to the ships that are going to the trouble spots. That’s what I did.

Q: You retired from the Navy in 1984 after commanding Carrier Group Three during the Iran hostage crisis. What have you been doing in the years since? 

First I worked for an 8 A (minority small business) company doing specific work for the Department of Defense for a few months, then Unisys for a long time. I retired again, and got hired by a Swedish conglomerate which was trying to turn old Russian military satellites and equipment into telecommunications support materials. They had operations in 27 Third World countries, and they needed old guys like me to go see all those ministers and senior government officials. I did that until I was about 75, and I’m 87 now. I finally decided I was going to play more golf, and I’m still hitting the ball pretty good. I refuse to act my age.

Source: Shipmate, April 2017


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