Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN
First African American to Command an Aircraft Carrier
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017, 228 pages
Book Review published on: August 17, 2018
Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN: First African American to Command an Aircraft Carrier presents not only an engaging overview of a dedicated serviceman, retired Rear Adm. Lawrence “Larry” Chambers, but also his times and the chaos associated with Operation Frequent Wind during the Vietnam era. During Operation Frequent Wind, Chambers was not only the first African American to command an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, but he also made the controversial decision to scuttle millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to clear a landing deck for a civilian aircraft. He was shaped by the poverty of his youth, his education, and his service. This exceptional leader displayed bravery by opening his heart at a crucial time and saved lives in the midst of the tragedy of the end of the Vietnam War.
Ric Murphy outlines key events in Chambers’s early life without excessive sentimentality and with a real emphasis on their effect on the man. Born in Bedford, Virginia, in 1929, the early loss of his father, Fred, and his strong primary and high school education were key to making Chambers the man that he would become as he excelled the Naval Academy and beyond. His father died when he was four years old, and his mother, clearly his personal hero, worked diligently to support five children. His family moved to Washington, D.C., so his mother could earn a living as a government clerk. As a result, Chambers attended segregated schools, where a combination of both positive and negative factors exerted a tremendous influence upon his development. Highly educated African Americans at the time were not often given opportunities suited to their training, and they often turned to the teaching profession, so Chambers was instructed early by extremely talented individuals. He was expected to excel in academics and be a productive member of his family and community. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy precisely because he knew it afforded his other siblings an opportunity to attend college.
During his distinguished career, Chambers became a naval aviator and served in both the antisubmarine and light attack communities. He flew several combat missions over Vietnam during 1968 to 1971. Eventually, as a captain, he was selected to command the aircraft carrier USS Midway. He was only in command for one month when Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of U.S. and South Vietnamese personnel, commenced in 1975. A lone Vietnamese army major made a desperate attempt to escape with his wife and five children by flying a Cessna out over the South China Sea. Communication was established with the Midway by dropping paper notes, and Chambers gave the order for the deck to be cleared by any means necessary so the small plane could land. He actually thought that he would be court-martialed for scuttling millions of dollars of military equipment into the sea.
This book is authoritative due to Murphy’s sincere investigation of the family with first-hand quotes and accounts from many eyewitnesses to events. He also does a reasonably good job of summarizing international events that had a profound effect on the career of Chambers, such as the First and Second Taiwan Strait Crises. Some events with which the reader may already be familiar with could merit a summary review to give context to Chambers’s professional assignments.
A person who wants to understand how dedicated and detailed work can help any man advance on merit will find this book interesting. The fact that Chambers was only the fourth African American to graduate from the Naval Academy, in addition to the Academy’s terrible reputation for race relations at the time, provides a clue to the man’s attitude toward that institution. Despite obvious unfair barriers imposed upon him, Chambers comes across as highly intelligent, hardworking, and unassuming. It reminds all of us that many times when we are on the verge of doing a great thing, we may be uncertain of our actions. We can only be true to our morals and values during everyday events in preparation of that moment, and when it occurs, we will hopefully make the right decisions. One inspiring fact is that the crew of the Midway wholeheartedly supported the decision of their commander, because they realized it was the humane action to take. During racially charged times, it is always heartening to realize that loyal Americans will always follow wise and brave Americans no matter what their race may be.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John T. Miller, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia