USS Mars Was There Part four
By Glenn Hendricks
May 1st now. Once the helicopter evacuation was over most people back in the States figured that was it. They were wrong.
While the chaos of the past week was behind us things still were crazy off Vung Tau. The carriers were loaded down with civilian refugees and tons of helicopters they’d not expected. While these large units headed back to the PI with their load much of the task group stayed behind. While those who could get to aircraft had made it out, there were tens of thousands still trying to getaway. Many of these people were escaping by boat.
I’ll confess that the timeline is mixed in my memory. While I think the following happened in the days after the helo evac it may have occurred before.
Off Vung Tau the Navy set up what was basically a floating corral. Vessels from small 15-foot-long boats to 150-foot-long coastal steamers were leaving the South in droves. They’d sail east looking for rescue and salvation. Most were grossly overloaded with people fleeing the south. Men, women, and children crushed together in ancient watercraft. We herded them into large areas patrolled by Destroyers. This corral was maybe 10 miles across. From the O3 level, you could just barely make out the other side. It was incredible.
We were sailing independently when we came across one of the coastal freighters. It had a high bow sweeping down to the holding area and a superstructure aft. These were as common as flies in SE Asia and defined the term ‘rust bucket’. The deck was completely covered by refugees. They had no room to sit or rest, they were crowded together in a way I’d never seen before.
The refugees started waving at some distance and the freighter turned to intercept us. Apparently, the bridge and signalmen tried multiple ways to contact the ship but they didn’t respond to the radio, signal lights or flags. We continued on course toward the corral and the freighter followed us, just off our starboard quarter. I was on the fantail watching this going on, I probably had dumped trash over the side and was taking a smoke when all this started.
The freighter was about 200 yards away when they suddenly sped up and turned directly toward us. They were making a beeline toward the fantail and it appeared that they were going to try to tie off. I felt the screw bite deep below me and water churned beneath the stern as the throttleman responded to urgent bells from the bridge.
We dug away from them, opening a gap of a couple of hundred yards. The OOD then slowed the ship again and allowed the freighter to move closer. The signalmen and radiomen were still trying to get them to follow us to the corral, but they mistook the signals as permission to come alongside. We pulled away again. I think this happened a couple of times before they got the message and took up station off our stern. I know it happened at least twice while I stood there. I headed back to the hole.
Later that day and for a couple of days we sailed near the corral of refugees. Slowly they were transferred from the smaller boats to something more robust. We returned to Subic once our supplies had all be unreped.
In Subic, Grande Island recreation area was turned into a refugee camp. There were thousands of people camping there. The base had patrol boats constantly on station around the island to keep the Vietnamese on and to keep everyone else away. We spent some time in port waiting for our next orders.
On May 7th, President Ford announced that the Vietnam War was officially over. “The period beginning on February 28, 1961, and ending on May 7, 1975, in the case of a veteran who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period.”
For the refugees and for some of us cleaning up after the war would continue for several weeks. For others, the war has never ended.
We were given orders to find a spot 1/3 of the way between Subic and Guam and start sailing in circles. We were serving as lifeguard for ships loaded with refugees on their way to the States. Over what I remember as being the next ten or twelve days we’d steam in circles as ships crowded with people would pass by. They never needed anything from us so we’d watch them cross the horizon from the west, sail past and then off toward the east.
After the last ship passed we turned north to Sasebo. I don’t remember when we got home, I do remember that the pier was lined with families.
Coda: My sister’s dentist was one of those boat people. As a small child, he was in the evacuation. She mentioned in passing that I’d been in the fleet and he told her “I thank God for the US Navy. Without them, I would not be here today”
We done good shipmates. We done good.