Friday, April 10, 2020

A few days in April

March 25, 1975, we were arriving in Subic, dropping off some South Vietnamese officers that we were training in Korea, and picking up supplies and marrines to head to Vietnam. Some of the marines were a bit scared and we all had no idea where or how we were going to help. Initially, we were charting for Da Nang.

March 30, 1975. We left in the afternoon. We steamed originally with the Frederick and Joined the Dubuque along the way. My wife was in Australia at her parents house. She found out while watching the news and seeing a picture of the three ships racing to get there.

March 31, 1975.  We were halfway to Vietnam. This was about the time that we were sent further south. Many of you had various jobs to get ready including readying boats, building toilets attached to the side, and organizing the supplies needed to take on refugees. My job was to chart the mines going into the harbor. at 1300, we began small arms practicing off of the fantail. at this point, it was still just us and the Frederick.

April 1, 1975.   We now approach a coastline that now is loaded with resort beaches but they were far from that back then. We were now at the staging area awaiting further orders. Reports from DaNang are that refugees were taking to whatever floated to get away and were being shot like a shooting gallery. At 1700 hrs, we set flight ops and began shuttling 46 pallets small arms amo and 6 pallets MRE's to the Frederick. Took about an hour.

April 2, 1975. "The Durham has never before undertaken a humanitarian effort more important than this one." He went on to say that that we need to understand the torture that many of gone through. Capt. Bridge is still the Senior officer present but that is soon to change as we link up with the Dubuque and Blue Ridge (who has RADM Whitmire). At approx 1400 hrs, we head to our final destination at nearly full speed and begin shuttling marines back and forth via helicopter. We don't secure flight qtrs for four hours. At around 2130 (930 PM for you who have forgotten), we slow down to 5 kts and almost drift as we await the next two days of which most of us will never forget. The marines we have taken on are hardened and many of us stay out of their way.

April 3, 1975. I had the mid watch that night. We were close enough to the shore to see the battles going on. I have always likened it to an electric storm. My memory is this. I brought a cup of coffee and a cigarette out to the bridge wing watch. We were drinking our coffee, smoking, and watching the battle from afar. We knew that the next day, we were suppose to go in. One of us said, "I really don't want to go in there.". The other agreed. I have seen that memory over the years. Around 930, we began moving in. at 10, flight qtrs was set and we began shuttling what I believe were more Marines. The Marines were placed on the ladder to take on refugees. Around 1500, we began taking on refugees. The Marines were rough on them as they brought them up the ladder. An hour or so later, Capt Bridge had seen enough. He Halted the evac, pulled the Marines off of the ladder, and replaced them with volunteers from the ship who did not have details at the time. By 1730, we were close enough to anchor. As they realized we were there, small boats began frantically trying to get to our side. We had to use water hoses to keep them in line as we unloaded them one by one. Around 1830 a South Vietnamese chopper landed with interpreters who joined our crew members on the ladder and barked orders to the small boats to help keep them in line. Around 2000, Capt Bridge called it a day, we weighed anchor and pulled back out of the bay, our holds loaded with refugees.

April 4, 1975. Most of us got very little sleep that night. When we were not on watch, we were taking food, drink, blankets, and bottles for the babies. One of the babies was newly born having given birth in the boat on the way out to the ship. Others escorted refugees to relief stations off the side of the ship. We took the women to our own bathrooms around the ship. Bill Holic escorted a young woman to one. She stood in front of the sink and began taking off of her clothes to bath herself. Once Bill realized what was happening, he spun around , went to parade rest, and guarded the door until she had completed. At 730, we set the sea and anchor detail. An hour later, we dropped anchor. We began taking on refugees off of boats and via helicopters. I am not sure if it was todayor yesterday, that Ed Zyer, dove into the water to save a baby.
We worked all day until around 1800. We watched the battle on land as we worked. I was watching in the big eyes. I saw a small church with a cross on it. The church exploded as I watched. When the dust settled, there was nothing. I was so angry as someone would target a church. A few months ago, i was having coffee with a intelligence officer who knew the area. Without me saying anything, he looked at me and said, "You know, the Viet Cong hid a huge cache of arms under a small church there.". Who knows if it was the same but it sure hit me. Around 1800, we got orders from above to leave. The base was gone. The NVA had shot a shell over the bow of the Frederick. As we hoisted our anchor and left, small boats floated around us, waving at us. They thought we were coming back....but we were not. As we left the area, the NVA lined their tanks up on a cliff pointed out our direction. We left and headed towards Vung Tao, where we were to transfer our charges to the SS Transcolorado.

April 5, 1975. As we steamed to Vung Tao, the night in the holds was similar to the one before, except for a few changes. First off, we had even more people to look after. No one really knows the count, but as I remembered it was over 4000. I have always put it at 4500. Besides the number, there was two more differences. First off, when we pulled the people out of the water, many were fearful or in shock. Just imagine leaving all that you knew, fearing losing your lives, and floating out to a large grey military ship to be saved? At first, when we brought food and drink to them, they rushed us in a panic. Then, as they began to realize their safety and that we had plenty, that seemed to settle a bit. Secondly, however, was the aroma. Take thousands of people who might not have taken a bath in a bit. Put them in a tight quarters with the warmth of the tropics. Then, add in the fact that some of our guests had decided that the tie down holes in the holds were put their for their relief. Yes, that is right....they began using them as their toilets. Once again, however, the men of the Durham took their responsibilities to heart spending another fairly sleepless night. By morning, we were at Vung Tao. We anchored just 3 miles off of shore at around 0900. Two merchant vessels sat close to us. The Greenville Victory and the Transcolorado. The Blue Ridge command ship was close by and we were guarded by the Destroyer Escort Reasoner and the Light Cruiser Long Beach. (A side note....the Operations Officer on the Long Beach at the time is now my close friend and neighbor, Retired Commander Mike Chambers. We have discussed the time from our different perspectives a few times.) Around 1030, we began to recieve small arms fire. As Edward Rathke, recalls, Chief Lookingbill, yelled at them to duck. He then got in the Lt's face as only a chief can and said, "They are pinging us!". We hoisted anchor and moved further out so their shells could not reach us. Around noon, we began the process the other way, taking our friends down the ladder and loading them on our boats to take them to the Transcolorado. It seemed a bit easier this time and our guys helped them on to their new ride. While we shuttled, our helos carried over cases of rations. By 1800, our transfer was complete. An hour later, we hoisted our anchor and were underway further out to sea to a holding area. Tonight, we would get some needed rest.

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