By: Jim Barton
41 years ago. My oh my how time flies in the life of a sailor.
On April 30, 1975 aboard USS Kawishiwi (AO-146) returning from the Gulf of Thailand after Eagle Pull (Evacuation of Phnom Penh) we were about 20 miles from the Saigon Evacuation (Frequent Wind) Task Force holding area still proceeding at slow speed near the coast when a lookout reported around 1600 that a group of boats was approaching on the port side at a distance of a couple of miles. I was Chief Engineer. Captain Ned Hogan ordered the machine guns manned. I was on the port wing of the Bridge when the order was given. It looked like the boats included at least one gunboat.
Captain Hogan was apprehensive and ordered shots fired across the bow of the lead boat which appeared to me to be a PCF Swift boat. I went aft to the “big eyes” to get a better look and reported to Hogan that these boats were full of women and children. The upper gun tub on the PCF had a tire over the guns making them unable to operate. To me their intentions were peaceful. We ceased fire and allowed them to close the ship. There were three or four boats in the small flotilla. In the distance, we could see others heading along the coast toward the east in the direction of the holding area and a few broke off and headed our way.
We threw together a hasty plan and gathered up cargo nets to rig over the side and assembled an area on the O-1 level aft to accommodate these refugees. Once the first boat (PCF) was alongside I climbed down the cargo net and as Officer in Charge. I assessed the situation. This boat was crammed full of people. I did not get an exact count but there were at least 75 people on board. Some of the people were officers from the Vietnamese Army and Navy. They were wearing uniforms and most were armed. Before proceeding with the evacuation to Kawishiwi, I directed that all of the firearms be placed in a stack at the rear of the boat. I was joined on board by two of our Gunners Mates. The disembarkation went rather quickly, no more than 20 minutes. We hand tended lines and moved the PCF forward to make room for the next boat, a fishing boat Viet Thuan. The boat was under the command of an ARVN Major named Phung Chou. The oldest were two men each aged 78. The youngest was a baby boy aged 3 months named Huynh Cong Phuong.
After convincing the mother of one of the babies I meant her no harm, the disembarkation went smoothly. Phung Chou went up first to serve as translator and then the mother to whom I handed the baby. And so it went until all 180 evacuees were aboard. We would continue this over the next few hours until we had 700 evacuees on board. We rigged a virtual tent city on the O-1 level aft with food serving line. Initially, we rigged showers but later permitted the evacuees to shower in the crews shower room over the next two days they were aboard.
For me, the Vietnam War came down to these and other moments in the evacuation. The humanity of this was overwhelming. This was my 4th trip to WESTPAC. I had seen much of this war. And it all came down to this.
There is much more to this story but this will have to suffice for now.
The author is a retired career US Navy Surface Warfare Officer whose assignments at sea include duty in all Line Departments in the Destroyer and Auxiliary Forces up to and including command of a Frigate. Ashore he served in key national policy positions on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations.