[Image 1: Department
from the Tuscaloosa
is maneuvered into
of the MSC ships
designated to take
refugees by LCM-6sfrom
the Durham. The
pontoons were used
as a platform
where refugees could be screened before boarding MSC ships.]
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tion as 15 miles off the coast of South Vietnam, southeast of the Vung Tau Peninsula. The next morning, 25 April, Captain Michael T. Mallick and November Detachment left the Dubuque and embarked in the SS American Challenger. Twenty-four hours later their new ship moved to within three miles of South Vietnam, off Long Hai, to load refugees shuttled from the beach in Vietnamese landing craft. Major Quin-lan recalled, "This was the first of many instances when our commodore really responded to our needs. Thinking that the American Challenger was too far from the task group without protection and close enough to the shore to take fire, I requested a destroyer escort for the ship carrying my Marines." In response. Captain James D. Tregurtha, Commander Task Group 76.5, ordered the John Paul Jones (DDG 32) to join immediately with the American Challenger^
To ensure the cooperation and communication desired by Captain Tregurtha, Major Quinlan or a member of his staff preceded each of the transferring detachments to the MSC ship. They met with the ship's master and explained the desired relationship between him and the Marine detachment commander and the rules of engagement that guided the Marines in their shipboard security duties. From 22 to 27 April. the remainder of the detachments. Kilo, Quebec, and Romeo, provided security and working parties for the small boats conducting logistical and administrative runs between the MSC ships and the Dubuque. First Lieutenant Johnnie Johnson, the Romeo Detachment commander, oversaw this exchange of logistical stores, including the transfer of "C" rations, which served as the major source of nourishment for the Marines who slept on the decks of the MSC ships they guarded.
On the evening of 27 April, thinking his work done, Johnson retired to his "bed" on the Dubuque. His sleep was shortlived as he was awakened by a one-hour alert "to assume evacuation stations." ForJohnson, this meant overseeing the Seventh Fleet Service Force's resupply of the evaucation ships, an event critical to the welfare and safety of both the participants and the refugees. The replenishment of ships' stores translated into a 12-hour task using a continuous chain of working parties drawn from the Dubuque's detachments. This feat marked only the beginning of an incredibly hectic period of resupply.12
By the time LicuienantJohnson received the order to resupply the Seventh Fleet ships in preparation for the anticipated arrival of thousands of more refugees, his fellow officers and Major Quintan's AESF was spread throughout the South China Sea, already assisting in the rescue of thousands of evacuees who had elected the open sea and starvation over Communist hospitality. On 28 April, the disposition of Major Quinlan's forces read more like a cruise novel than a military operation, as most of his detachments were on civilian-run Military Sealift Command ships. Only 12 days earlier, all of these Marines had been on Okinawa. Yet by Monday, 28 April, almost every one of them had shared in the danger and frustration of handling refugees, eyewitnesses to incredible displays, in turn, of courage and cowardice.
Essentially, however, the Marines of the AESF waited for the final act in Vietnam's
tragic history and the expected onslaught of refugees that would surely follow.
As Captain Charles J. Bushey, the executive officer of the AESF, recorded
in his diary: "So far nothing has happened although I expect all of that to change very quickly and on very short notice. Everyone is ready as they are going to be. We have sent some more detachments of about 54 people to the MSC ships to provide security. Now all they do is wait."13
Captain Reutcr's Echo Detachment, because it was one of the first to deploy, had endured the frustration of waiting the longest. Since 19 April, the Marines on board the USNS Sergeant Kimbro had anticipated their first refugees. Ten days passed before, on 28 April, a "Da Nang-Saigon" ferry, escorted by a Navy ship, transferred 150 South Vietnamese to the Sergeant Kimbro. Captain Reuter recalled, "The group was comprised of upper-class professional people, including doctors, lawyers, nurses, a province chief, the
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