Escaping From South Vietnam: An Air Force Squadron Commander Ditches His Helicopter At Sea

Toan Anh Nguyen


Toan Anh Nguyen was born in 1939 in northern Vietnam. His father worked for a French company, and after the Geneva Convention partitioned the country in 1954, his family moved south to Da Nang because they could not live under communism. After high school, he attended college for a year before deciding to join the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) in 1963. He traveled to the United States for English language classes at Lackland Air Force Base before starting pilot training at Fort Wolters, Texas. Returning to Vietnam, he flew both the Sikorsky H-34 and the Bell UH1-H, first in the 213th Helicopter Squadron and then in the 239th Helicopter Squadron, which he commanded as a Lieutenant Colonel. Both squadrons were stationed at Da Nang. His missions primarily consisted of supporting the Army by ferrying troops and delivering supplies, conducting search and rescue, and defending the base from attack. After the Americans pulled support from South Vietnam, he had difficulty keeping his helicopters operational, while he knew the North Vietnamese were being supplied by Russia, China, and North Korea. When the South Vietnamese government collapsed on April 30, 1975, he escaped with his deputy commander and their families by flying out to the U.S. 7th Fleet east of Vung Tau. After unloading his passengers on the ship, he was forced to ditch his helicopter in the ocean and swim to a waiting boat. As a refugee, he traveled first to Subic Bay, Philippines, and then to Guam and Wake Island before ending up at Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. In 1980, he earned his American citizenship to better prepare himself and his family for the future. He returned to flying helicopters, eventually working for PHI (Petroleum Helicopters, Incorporated). He is very proud of his service in the Vietnamese Air Force, and of his brothers’ service in the Army and Navy. In this interview, he describes his experiences as a South Vietnamese Air Force Officer, and highlights some of the missions he flew. He recalls getting shot up over the DMZ, and later being wounded without initially realizing it. Finally, he reflects on his positive refugee experience and his acceptance he encountered in America.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Leadership Courage Refugee Vietnamese VNAF Patriotism Character Injuries Life After Military
interviewer David Siry
date 09 February 2019


name Toan Anh Nguyen
service Republic of Vietnam Air Force
unit 213 Helicopter Squadron; 239 Helicopter Squadron (Commander)
specialty Helicopter Pilot H-34 and UH-1H
service dates 1963 1975