EVACUATION OF SAIGON, SOUTH VIETNAM
Originally from USS Hancock (CVA-19) Memories
After normal preparations for deployment, such as taking on all manner of supplies, ammunition, etc., we were ready to embark our Air Wing, which for this deployment was CVW-21. All preparations for getting underway were made on the morning of 18 March 1975. The normal number of dependents and friends were on hand on the pier saying their good-byes. Lines were cast-off, and we were soon steaming across San Francisco Bay, and out under the Golden Gate, a scenario I had been a part of so many times before. We were bound (we thought) for the Western Pacific on a normal 8-month cruise. The "Mess Deck Telegraph" message was that this was to be the old girl's final deployment, and she was to be turned into razor blades when we returned home? But, we had received nothing official as yet. Our "normal WESTPAC" was soon to change drastically, however. We steamed into Pearl Harbor, rendered honors as we passed the old USS ARIZONA on 22 March, and were soon tied up pier-side.
Almost immediately upon arrival, we were ordered to debark two of our Squadron's from CVW-21 to make room for the aircraft and 300 men of Heavy Marine Helicopter Squadron 463. Sailing from Pearl on 26 March, we arrived at the Carrier Pier, Cubi Point Naval Air Station, Philippine Islands, on 6 April. Once again, almost immediately after tying-up, our unorthodox conversion was to be completed. Our Air Wing was beached in it's entirety, and more Marine helo's, plus 500 Marine ground troops in full battle dress were embarked. We didn't know what was going on by this time! I recall writing my wife, telling her I had a strange feeling I was about to be part of yet another history-making event in my career.
Now our new "Air Wing" consisted of 16 "Sea Stallions," 16 CH-46 "Frogs," 4 AH-1J "Snakes," and 2 UH-1E "Hueys." It then became officially designated as Provisional Marine Air Group THIRTY-NINE (MAG-39). Practically overnight "Fighting HANNA" had become an LPH! In fact, some enterprising Sailors or Marines painted a neatly lettered sign on canvas designating us as such, and stretched it across the fan tail over our already painted name designation, USS HANCOCK! The "Mess Deck Rumor Mill" once again turned to, and was now really working overtime! The Skipper did not approve of our "new" designation, so the nice canvas sign soon was thrown on the scrap-pile of history! The Marines began to paint all their birds a drab combat green, covering all markings. We knew we were going to do something... .but what remained the question? We rapidly got underway from Cubi Point on the morning of 9 April, and once out at sea we received an underway replenishment (UNREP). Shortly thereafter, the Captain came over the 1-MC and announced that our ultimate destination had now been confirmed as the Coast of South Vietnam. However, true to form, these orders were soon changed, and on 10 April we changed course and steamed for Cambodia, arriving off the coast on the evening of 11 April. Things were moving fast. Early on the morning of 12 April, the Marines launched some of their aircraft for an inbound flight. It was learned their mission was to pull out our Ground Security Forces from Phenom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. The operation went very smoothly, and all aircraft and personnel were back on board by 1230. Operation "EAGLE PULL" had been successfully completed as planned, and with no casualties. We were not to be quite so fortunate later on, however.
Getting underway once again, the Skipper announced to the delight of all hands that we had been granted permission for an R & R port call at Singapore. We arrived, anchoring out in the busy harbor on 16 April. However, almost immediately upon arrival we were placed on a 72-hour alert, but liberty was granted. Liberty had been nearly non-existent since we left Alameda. By this time news reports we had been receiving told us South Vietnam was very quickly falling apart, with Communist Forces approaching Saigon in force, scattering South Vietnamese troops in their path! It didn't take too much intelligence to figure out what our next mission would probably be, or why we had been placed on alert? While we were in Singapore the situation in our part of the world, and higher command were mapping out plans for us. The Captain soon passed the word about our next mission. It was to be the evacuation of American citizens, endangered South Vietnamese, and various third country nationals. This mission was to have the operational code name "TALON VICE." However, the name had been compromised by it's publication, almost in it's entirety, in Newsweek Magazine! Therefore, the operation was necessarily renamed "FREQUENT WIND." On 18 April, we were suddenly placed on a 4-hour alert status. Then, just as suddenly, we got underway at 2030 that evening, enroute to waters off the Coast of South Vietnam. I had skipped liberty in Singapore as I was coming out of a bad case of the flu. I had the after brow Chief Petty Officer of the Watch as we made preparations for getting underway. It had already been a hectic watch, as I had been almost constantly in the process of ejecting native peddlers from the float tied alongside. They were trying to sell "pirate" audio musical tapes, which was a no-no!
To add to all that confusion, we had most of the crew and Marines ashore on liberty, scattered all over Singapore, and we had just 4-hours to get them back on board! We somehow managed to do it, which was a tremendous feat in itself. We may have left some ashore, but my recollection now is that we did not. On 20 April, we arrived of f the Coast of South Vietnam, and were immediately placed on 4-hour alert. All hands would get ready, stand down, get ready again, stand down again... .sound familiar? We did this drill for a solid week! The code word that was to come over the 1-MC to begin the operation was "DEEP PURPLE." We heard that many times during that anxious week, only to have it canceled each time. I told the Air Wing Chief that bunked next to me that this was about like the little boy "crying wolf," and when the time really came to go, nobody would believe it! On 25 April, we were placed on 1-hour alert at 0200. I didn't go back to sleep because I thought, "this is it." Then at 0300 we went back on a 6-hour alert... .and so it went, day after day, and night after night, as the tension mounted.
Early on the morning of 29 April, word was passed over the 1-MC to "clear the flight deck." I went topside to see what was happening? The sky, almost as far as one could see, was thick with helicopters! Next, the word was passed to "clear the deck for incoming South Vietnamese Air Force aircraft." Then finally, "DEEP PURPLE," "DEEP PURPLE," "this is no drill," came over the speakers, and its "go" for Operation "Frequent Wind." At approximately 1235, the Marines began launching their aircraft for the inbound flight to Saigon. Tensions rose even further as word was then passed that there was a possibility the North Vietnamese might attempt an attack on some of our ships in the area, especially the carriers with small torpedo-type attack craft. Security tightened. We went to General Quarters at least, but fortunately no such attacks were forthcoming. On deck, as I looked around from a position on the Signal Bridge, I saw a sight I had not seen since the Korea War. There was a tremendous armada of ships all around us, as far as one could see. Three other carriers were on station with us, and there were fifty U.S. Navy ship's in the Armada:
Back to the operation on the flight deck. Things had to be done quickly, because as soon as our helo's had cleared the deck for their inbound flight, the South Vietnamese pilots began to land. It was their first and only carrier quals, and their last flight for their country, and Air Force... South Vietnam was quickly ceasing to exist as a country! We knew things were "hitting the fan" on the beach. Tan Son Nhut Air Base was burning, and large black clouds of smoke were billowing into the afternoon sky. As soon as the South Vietnamese began to touch down we began to see what we'd be up against. All their aircraft were loaded... .no, overloaded, with various refugees, both civilian and military. We discovered most were family and friends of the pilots making good their escape from Saigon and other places. All the carriers, and most of the other ship's faced the same dilemma. Later, our helo's began making trips back and forth from our Embassy in Saigon, also loaded with passengers. Even a Piper Cub landed on our flight deck, and about eight Vietnamese piled out of it! I was handed a bull horn by the XO, told to get a detail together and go to the flight deck to assist in getting these people of f the deck and below so they could be processed. As soon as the Vietnamese choppers touched down, small details of Sailor's would meet them, search them, disarm them, then escort them below to the hangar bay. Our Detachment Marine's were doing the same thing, and also providing security. This first phase was done on the flight deck, and at the end of the evolution there was a huge pile of small arms of every type and description, ammunition and other gear stacked next to the island.
We found out later four Marines from the ground troops had been killed ashore, two of the bodies were never found. The two that were had the dubious distinction of being among the last two American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War. But, they were not to be the last. That distinction was being saved for us. The day before the operation began, two other Marines, Embassy Guards, died in a rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base. They were: Corporal Darwin L. Judge, USMC, and Corporal Charles McMahon, Jr., USMC. That is what prompted President Ford to order the final assault and evacuation to begin on 29 April. More than 800 Marines from the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade were flown into Saigon to set up defense perimeters for our arrival. We tried to take out all the South Vietnamese we could who had worked for us, and who the Embassy had determined were on the Communist's "Hit List" for execution.
Finishing my detail on the flight deck, I was placed in charge of a second detail in the hangar bay. It soon became almost too much to handle... truly an overwhelming situation! People were streaming out of those helo's, and had to be taken care of in an expeditious and orderly fashion. In the hangar bay they were put through a "delousing" line, and sprinkled with a white powder. The Vietnamese pilots wore black flight suits, so that powder wasn't invisible! Next, names and necessary personal data on each person had to be taken down. This was done in the main by our ship's company Yeomen, Personnelmen, and a few others assigned to assist them. The refugees were then escorted to previously designated spots in the hangar bay where hundreds of canvas cots, with blankets, had been set up. At first it was a mass of disorganized, frightened and confused humanity, which under the circumstances was normal. There were people of every age, color and description. Military personnel, old people, sick people and babies. Besides the Vietnamese, there were American civilians, including members of the press, and others of various nationalities. I marveled at the magnificent job our Sailor's and Marine's did in caring for these people... .getting them calmed-down, and organized in an orderly fashion. Right away, Sailor's and Marine's began "adopting" small children. Getting them fed, to the bathroom, and a myriad of other tasks that needed to be done with a group of 2001 people. That, by the way, is the number we finally received on board. HANCOCK had now become "home" to over 6,000, including our crew, Marines, 101 American civilians, 1,815 South Vietnamese civilian and military personnel, and 83 third country nationals. Altogether, 45,000 refugees had been air-lifted out of Saigon. Many of our Sailor's and Marine's gave up their bunks to the sick, elderly, infirm, and children. During my rounds, I befriended a South Vietnamese Doctor and his wife. Doctor Ngoan Le Van, and his wife, Hao Nguyen Thi. We spent several hours over the next three days talking about the situation ashore and other things. I have often wondered how they fared? They told me they wanted to get to Guam as they had friends there. I hope things went well for them.
We were beginning to have very serious problems on the flight deck. With all the South Vietnamese aircraft now on deck it became virtually impossible for our returning helo's to land with their human cargo. Something had to be done to alleviate the situation, and fast, before our helo's ran out of fuel. So, the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD), began an all hands effort. Along with help from other departments, they began stripping the South Vietnamese aircraft on deck. It was a piece of work I'll never forget. In an amazingly short period of time the aircraft were stripped of all usable parts down to, in most cases, the rotor blades and seats! Then all the empty fuselages were pushed to the edge of the flight deck and pushed over the side. The job was accomplished none too soon, as many of our helo's had been circling, waiting to be able to land with most running low on fuel. As I recall, we retained only four of the helo's that were flown in intact. Two had been the personnel aircraft of South Vietnamese President Thieu, complete with chrome trim and customized interiors! The other two belonged to Air America, the name the CIA flew under. We secured them back on the fan tail.
Shortly after this evolution was completed, I sadly witnessed our only casualties of the day. A Marine CH-46D, flying plane guard, suddenly went into the water off the port quarter. It sank into the depths almost immediately. Marine Corporals Stephen R. Wills and Richard L. Scott, crewmen, escaped, and were lifted out of the water. Unfortunately, however, the pilot, Marine Captain William C. Nystul, and his co-pilot, Marine 1st Lieutenant Michael J. Shea, never got out of the cockpit and were lost. A traumatic, terribly sad ending to an otherwise successful operation felt deeply by all hands. These two gallant Marine officers were listed KIA, thus becoming the final American casualties of the Vietnam War. Ironic they should meet their deaths in a humanitarian act, and not in combat to gain such a distinction. At approximately 0830, 30 April 1975, Operation "Frequent Wind" ended when Marine CH-46s carried the last Marines off the Embassy roof in downtown Saigon.
We arrived back at Cubi point in the Philippines on 3 May, and debarked our human cargo, and our Marines, who we had grown rather attached to by now. We embarked our Air Wing and returned to duty as a CVA. Our cargo had been taken just off-shore to Grande Island, where a camp had been set up for them. Staging areas had also been set up at Clark Air Force Base, and on Guam, Marianas Islands. Our Navy Seabees of Mobile Construction Battalion FOUR, and other Navy volunteers had worked for several days around the clock to prepare camps for an estimated 50,000 refugees. Some were also taken to Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and Camp Chaffee, Arkansas. Camp Pendleton later housed 18,000 refugees in Quonset huts at Camo Talega, a site normally used for summer training of Marine Corps Reservists. There were also tent cities set up at Pendleton's Camp San Onofre, and the Camp Valo Del Rio area.