Viewpoint: Decide Now to Choose the Right

Contributed By the Church News

  • 28 May 2017

The USS Midway with a deck full of aircraft. In 1975, this ship was off the coast of Vietnam. As a family of refugees approached the Midway, Captain Larry Chambers had little time to make his decision.

Article Highlights

  • Admiral Larry Chambers knew that he needed to choose the right, even if he was later reprimanded.
  • Like Admiral Chambers, we can decide now to choose the right in any situation.
  • Like in the story of Lot, even our small decisions can have significant consequences.

“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.’” —United States Navy Admiral Larry Chambers

United States Navy Captain Larry Chambers was just a month into his command of the aircraft carrier Midway when he faced a life-defining choice that came, curiously, in the form of a hand-scribbled note.

In a moment of noisy chaos, he chose—as the hymn enjoins—to “do what is right; let the consequence follow” (“Do What Is Right,” Hymns, no. 237). His decisive actions would redefine ethical leadership in the military and beyond.

An urgent decision

It was April 29, 1975. Saigon had fallen and thousands of South Vietnamese were fleeing their country to escape the advancing North Vietnamese Army. In a final effort to save his own family, South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly crammed his wife and five children into a two-seat Cessna, took off from Con Son Island, and flew out over the South China Sea.

The major had no defined destination. Hope was his only option.

The tiny plane’s fuel tank was almost dry when he spotted the 972-foot Midway. The famed carrier was assisting with the evacuation of Saigon, and its flight deck was crowded with helicopters being used to ferry hundreds of at-risk people from the Vietnamese mainland.

As he flew over the carrier, Buang-Ly dropped a note describing his family’s desperate situation and asking that space be cleared on the Midway’s flight deck so he could land his Cessna. The “request to land” note soon reached the hands of Chambers.

The captain had assumed command of the Midway just weeks earlier. He was still learning his way around the massive “city at sea,” but the veteran naval officer knew there was no easy way to accommodate Buang-Ly’s request.

Given the Cessna’s fuel situation, Chambers had few options. There was no time to call the president, the Pentagon, or even his fleet command for direction.

But, as always, there was time to choose the right.

Chambers immediately dispatched every available seaman to the flight deck. Then he issued an unorthodox order: begin pushing helicopters overboard to make room on deck for Buang-Ly to land.

The Midway’s men followed their captain’s orders. An estimated $10 million in aircraft was soon sinking to the bottom of the South China Sea. Moments later, a young Vietnamese family safely landed on the deck of an American aircraft carrier.

“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,’” Chambers said. “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” (interview with Shipmate magazine, Apr. 2017).

The humble naval officer was quick to praise his men for also choosing the right without fear of the consequences.

“Not only did I get all the [flight deck] 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 junior officers who weren’t flying because all the airplanes were down on the hangar deck, they all showed up,” Chambers said. “I made the air department a 3,000- to 3,500-man working party to clear that flight deck.”

Chambers’s choice that day to scuttle the helicopters was later judged correct and appropriate. He was eventually promoted to rear admiral—becoming the first African American to achieve flag rank.

There are many lessons to learn from that day on the Midway flight deck. Long before a Vietnamese father asked permission to land on his ship, a naval officer had decided to always do the right thing.

We too can make the right decision when a choice is placed before us. We don’t face such choices alone. As the hymn reminds, “In the right the Holy Spirit guides.”

Choosing the right every day

Unlike Chambers’s dramatic decision, most of our day-to-day choices happen quietly and seemingly without immediate and dramatic consequences. But the divine charge to “choose the right” remains significant. How we choose matters.

The ancient patriarch Lot, for example, chose to part from his uncle, Abram, and relocate in the fecund Jordan Valley. There, he unwisely “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Genesis 13:12). Perhaps he reasoned his choice might endanger his family—but not too much.

Eventually Lot was living in Sodom. That wicked city had become his home. His poor initial choice to seek riches, live close to Sodom, and expose himself and his family to its dangers would prove disastrous for generations.

“Most of the problems that Lot later encountered in his life, and there were several, can be traced back to his early decision to position the door of his tent to look upon Sodom,” taught Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (“The Power of Deliverance,” Apr. 2012 general conference).

So how can we choose the right, avoid temptation, and protect our families and ourselves in a time that many have compared to the time of Lot?

Consider this timeless counsel from President Spencer W. Kimball:

“Develop discipline of self so that, more and more, you do not have to decide and redecide what you will do when you are confronted with the same temptation time and time again. You need only to decide some things once. How great a blessing it is to be free of agonizing over and over again regarding a temptation. To do such is time-consuming and very risky.

“Likewise, … the positive things you will want to accomplish need be decided upon only once—like going on a mission and living worthily in order to get married in the temple—and then all other decisions related to these goals can fall into line. Otherwise, each consideration is risky, and each equivocation may result in error. There are some things Latter-day Saints do and other things we just don’t do. The sooner you take a stand, the taller you will be” (President Kimball Speaks Out [1981], 94).