USS Mars Was There, Part Three
April 29/30 1975
We were steaming as part of a carrier group for the next couple of days. We had unreped most of the group and were standing by to deliver more supplies as needed. I recall we were with the Enterprise (but I could be wrong on which carrier) with the carrier on our starboard side. We were all moving at about 16 knots when the first of the helos showed up. The first batch was mostly heavy-lift Sikorsky C-53s. We usually didn’t see many of these in normal circumstances. We didn’t know it at the time but they were bringing in people from the embassy in Saigon. Everything was falling apart.
As we watched the helos came on in normal order, they’d approach the carrier from the stern and fit into the arrival pattern. They’d unload, fuel and take back off heading west. This was in no way a precursor to the chaos of the later afternoon.
The CO had the Airedales and SKs clutter the helo pad with cargo and gear. We didn’t know it at the time, but his decision would make sure we had a viable landing area for the next week.
M division was on three-section duty and my watch was on the 4-8s. MM1 Rosy Beckett was top watch, MM3 Cliff Farsje was lower level, I had the throttles and FN Ed Amato was the messenger. We had breakfast after watch and turned to in the hole. Somehow we always seemed to find a reasonable reason to make our way to the main deck for a while to see what was going on. It was incredible to watch.
We were maybe a mile away from the carrier and just abeam of them. The initial helo landing started changing as the Sikorsky’s were replaced with Hueys with ARVN markings. The normal routine flight operations of the morning transitioned to a swarm of helos around the carrier. I counted 4 or 5 at one time with more coming in from the west. You could see them as far as you could look, small specs heading toward salvation.
Once the Hueys landed most often everyone bailed out, including the pilot. They were loaded with men, women, and children. Civilian families of the pilots, friends, and hangers-on. It seemed like every helicopter ever flown in Vietnam was heading our way.
A couple passed over us, but the decision to block the pad kept them off. We would need that helo deck in the days to come.
Our watch gathered at the starboard rail around 1520 or so. We’d taken a break and catching a smoke before we had to go back for the watch. The starboard side of the ship was lined with people watching the show. The carrier had started pushing Hueys over the side to make room for the next incoming group. You’ve seen the video and the photos, but I have got to tell you, the impact of watching those aircraft going over the side and hitting the water was amazing. It will stick with me for the rest of my life. One after another they pushed them over.
I stood there with a Winston, watching history. I knew I was seeing history being made in front of my eyes and that I was fortunate to be able to watch it rather than being in one of those choppers trying frantically to escape the unknown future in the hands of a generational enemy.
Then I tossed the butt into the sea and we went down to the hole for the 1600-2000 watch.