- South Vietnamese air force pilot makes Houdini-like escape
- Pilot refused to tell how he saved family for years
- Pilot Ha emotional reunion with American sailors who helped
- Pilot's daughter says her quiet father turned into Tom Cruise
(CNN) If you'd seen him in the crowded room that night, you might not have given him a second look.
He was the frail old man in a wheelchair. He wore a black ascot cap, a burgundy tie and a gray tweed jacket that covered his 140-pound frame. Ba Van Nguyen couldn't speak, could barely move; just a tiny man in a roomful of big Navy men swapping war stories.
But rewind the clock 40 years, slap a pistol in Nguyen's shoulder holster, add about 10 pounds of wiry muscle, and strap him into the seat of a military helicopter armed with an M60 machine gun and he becomes something else:
A total badass.
On April 29, 1975, Nguyen did something that could have been ripped from the script of a "Mission Impossible" movie. He was fleeing from the North Vietnamese army with his wife and their three young children as communist soldiers crashed the gates of Saigon. For 20 excruciating minutes, Nguyen's copter literally hovered between life and death over the South China Sea as a group of astonished U.S. Navy sailors watched from the deck of a nearby ship.
"We couldn't figure out how he did it; he was a Houdini," said Hugh Doyle, the chief engineering officer aboard a U.S. naval ship that encountered Nguyen at sea.
Snippets of Nguyen's story have been told before. "The Last Days of Vietnam," a riveting documentary, which aired on PBS this week, shows photographs of Nguyen's Houdini maneuvers. A book, "The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk,'' also explores Nguyen's exploits.
But what happened to Nguyen after his "Mission Impossible" escape hasn't been explored. In some ways, what he did when he came to America was just as impressive.
'I knew my dad was coming'
Nguyen was no hero on the morning of April 29, 1975. He was desperate. He was just one of thousands of South Vietnamese who were trying to flee the country as the North Vietnamese steamrolled into Saigon.
The U.S involvement in Vietnam had officially ended two years earlier with the signing of the Paris Peace Accord. But American civilian and diplomatic personnel in Saigon were being evacuated to U.S. naval ships in the South China Sea and hordes of South Vietnamese were trying to hitch a ride. Many were soldiers like Nguyen, a major in the South Vietnamese Air Force. If captured, they faced execution and the dispersion of their families to brutal work camps.
Nguyen, though, had a plan. He moved his family to his mother-in-law's house in a residential neighborhood in Saigon, and he told his wife, Nho, to start packing. He would return in a CH-47 Chinook, the largest helicopter in the South Vietnamese Air Force. The distinctive whump whump whump of a Chinook could be heard from miles away.
"If you hear a Chinook coming, get ready," Nguyen told his wife.
Miki, Nguyen's oldest son, slept under his bed the night before his family's escape. He could hear the crackle of machine guns and whistling missiles as the North Vietnamese drew closer, but he remained confident.
"I knew my dad was coming," he says in the documentary "The Last Days of Vietnam."
Miki heard the Chinook the next morning. He grabbed some clothes and baby milk for his 10-month-old sister, Mina, and sprinted to the Chinook with his family and several of his dad's friends. Once inside, he heard his father say that he saw U.S. helicopters headed out to sea. They had to be landing somewhere.
"Let's see how this goes," Nguyen said as he steered the helicopter to the South China Sea, just as an ominous red light appeared on the dashboard indicating that the craft was running low on fuel.
Once at sea, Nguyen turned on his radio's emergency frequency and heard the chatter of American naval officers. Someone in the helicopter spotted a U.S. Navy ship below. It was the USS Kirk, and it had a landing deck. Nguyen steered the Chinook to the Kirk.
The Kirk was led by Capt. Paul Jacobs, dubbed "Big Jake" by his crew. He was a straight-talking, no-nonsense New Englander who stood 6-foot-3. He had orders to shoot down any unidentified aircraft that might threaten the aerial evacuation from Saigon.
Jacobs could have ordered the destruction of Nguyen's aircraft, but he took a chance. He figured Nguyen was a South Vietnamese soldier fleeing for safety. The sky was buzzing that day with South Vietnamese pilots ferrying their family and friends to U.S. ships in stolen military helicopters.
"Unless somebody shoots at us, we ain't shooting," Jacobs told his crew.
Nguyen radioed the Kirk as he slowly approached. He spoke little English, but the Kirk had a sailor who spoke rudimentary Vietnamese. In his book, "The Lucky Few," the author Jan Herman recounted Nguyen's desperation. He told the Kirk's radio operator that he had women and children aboard, and he was running out of fuel.
"I must land or crash into the sea," Nguyen said. "Please help us."
The Kirk's crew tried to wave Nguyen away. Its landing deck was too small for the Chinook. If Nguyen tried to land, the Chinook's blades could tear into the ship, killing passengers and crew.
Nguyen had an idea. He radioed the Kirk that he would hover just above the deck. Then he would order his wife and three children to take their chances by jumping out of the helicopter, into the arms of sailors. Kent Chipman was one of those sailors waiting below. He was a Texas native with a droopy mustache who everyone called "Chippy." He weighed only 130 pounds, and wondered if he was big enough to break the fall of the Chinook's passengers. As he held up his arms, he had a thought:
This is going to be bad
Nguyen deftly steered the Chinook over to the fantail of the ship, keeping the copter's rotors clear of the ship's superstructure. A sudden gust of wind, a wrong nudge on his part, and the blades could tear into the ship, killing his family and the crew.
His co-pilot opened the door. He motioned to Nguyen's wife, Nho, that women and children should go first. Miki jumped first, followed by his little brother. Then Nho grabbed her infant daughter, extended her arms, and dropped her to the sailors below before jumping as well. Kirk sailors caught all of them; no one was injured.
Nguyen was now alone in the Chinook. How could he safely get on the Kirk as he wrestled with the 12-ton helicopter? He had another idea. He would attempt something that he had never tried before -- a ditch at sea. He flew the helicopter a safe distance from the Kirk and hovered for about 10 minutes as his wheels dipped in and out of the water.
Chipman watched what Nguyen did next from the deck of the Kirk.
"This is crazy; he's taking off his clothes," Chipman thought to himself as he watched Nguyen.
Somehow Nugyen took off his flight suit and his shoulder holster -- all while working various sticks and controls to keep the massive helicopter stationary. One pilot who watched it said he couldn't figure out how Nguyen undressed while keeping the Chinook stationary. Nguyen then rolled the helicopter with its whirring blades to the right, away from the ship. As it began to tumble over and hit the water, he jumped into the sea.
The impact sounded like a train wreck. Jagged shrapnel from the helicopter's blade whistled by the Kirk. The helicopter then turned upside down in the water, its wheels pointing upward. There was an ominous silence as the crew watched something red spread across the spot in the sea where Nguyen jumped.
No one could see him. Then someone spotted a tiny head as it bobbed to the surface. Nguyen was alive. He had managed to somehow dive under the water when the Chinook hit. The red liquid was hydraulic fluid.
The crew on the Kirk exploded with applause, whistles and cheers.
"Attaboy!" one said.
"Did a beautiful job," said another.
A motorboat from the Kirk was dispatched to pick up Nguyen. He was brought on board wearing nothing but the red boxer shorts his wife had made for him and a white, floral shirt. The gold bars he had placed in his pockets were gone.
"He wanted immediately to be reunited with his family," said Doyle, then the ship's chief engineer.
A snippet of film footage shot by various crew members showed Nguyen right after his narrow escape. He stood next to Jacobs, coolly nodding as both made small talk. His body was still and his demeanor unruffled; you'd never imagine he had just escaped death and saved his family.
The Kirk would go on to rescue a ragtag flotilla of South Vietnamese naval ships, merchant ships and fishing boats. Jacobs and his crew would eventually save 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees.
Today, Jacobs says his crew was skillful, but they were also lucky. The South China Sea was notoriously rough; 20-foot waves and nasty winds were common. Yet the sea was placid that day.
"God was looking out for us, because for several days we had seas as flat as a flounder," he said.
Chipman never forgot Nguyen's coolness under pressure and the relief he felt when he successfully caught the pilot's infant daughter and wife.
"It was a happy ending to a shitty war," he said.