Page 212(The Bitter End)
The helicopter problem reached crisis proportions when Vietnamese pilots started to cut in front of Marine helicopters on final approach to their respective ships while other Vietnamese pilots tried to land on barges filled with refugees. Although the numbers these helicopters carried were incidental, the hazards and difficulties they created were totally unanticipated and nearly impossible to handle. More than 30 empty Hueys went to intentional ocean graves at the hands of Navy crewmen attempting to keep the flight decks of their ships clear.
Although many unexpected events such as this occurred, it can be argued that the large number of evacuees was anticipated and predicted by Ambassador Graham Martin. On 23 April, in a message to the Secretary of State and Admiral Gayler, he estimated that the total number of evacuees for the entire operation could be as high as 200,000. Likewise, Rear Admiral Hugh G. Benton expected some problems as a result of the size of the potential evacuee population. Placed (on 5 April) in overall charge of the ongoing evacuation from South Vietnam as CinCPac's representative in Saigon, Admiral Benton predicted some problems with shipboard evacuation in the final days. He alerted Admiral Gayler in Hawaii by wiring on 23 April: "It is proposed that operational control ofMSC shipping be passed to Commander Seventh Fleet early enough to permit an orderly turnover and provide continuity of operations. It is recommended that additional MSC personnel be assigned to Commander Seventh Fleet when MSC ships are chopped." (Chopped means the transfer of tactical control from one commander to another.)9 According to the Seventh Fleet commander, this transfer of control never took place. Admiral Steele stated, "Operational control of Military Sealift Command was never passed to Commander Seventh Fleet as recommended by Rear Admiral Benton. In my opinion, this was a serious error. It was another instance of violation of the cardinal military principle, unity of command."10
The release of the message authorizing the refugee receiving center on Guam, the reorganization of the Amphibious Evacuation Security Force into 14 MSC shipboard detachments, and the use of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines to construct and outfit the Grande Island refugee camp indicated that the events of 29 April were not unanticipated, possibly just underestimated, especially in terms of magnitude and speed of occurence. The fact that these actions happened immediately after the release of the Weisner and Benton messages signalled a gathering consensus that additional preparations had to be made. The Philippines Government's diplomatic note provided the stimulus. These decisions, made none too soon, would have a far-reaching impact on the Marine Corps.
Marines would be affected in four different areas. It would touch first and foremost the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. Additionally, the AESF would feel the impact as the group most directly involved in the handling of refugees- The third area affected would be Guam and its Marines, and the 3d Marines on Hawaii. Additionally, a contingent of Marines drawn from Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station El Toro would also become involved in the process. The links in the chain to freedom were forming and the Marine Corps would continue to play a major role in forging it. Preparations: 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and the Task 'Force
When Admiral Donald B. Whitmire's Task Force 76, Major Quinlan, and the AESF sailed out of Subic Bay on 18 April leaving the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines behind, Lieutenant Colonel Hester felt certain his battalion had completed its contribution to the evacuation effort. Little did he know that before the month ended, he and his Marines would be key players in relieving what stood as a potential diplomatic roadblock to continued refugee operations. Lieutenant Colonel Hester reported: "1st Battalion, 4th Marines played a large role in the orderly processing of thousands of refugees through Grande Island, by providing manpower for movement of equipment, setting up of over 140 refugee tents and assisting in the overall control of the evacuees."11 Just as importantly, the Marines assisted in the unloading of barges and shipping and provided security for all of these activities. Petty Officer First Class Paul Long recalled that, ". . . before the evacuees arrived, the Marines and Seabees worked around the clock, erecting hundreds of tents, building a chain-link fence, installing security lights and setting up nearly 200 toilets on the island."12 The Headquarters and Service Company commander. Captain James P. Rigoulot, stated, "We averaged about 300 Marines a day working, pitching 140 tents, and setting up."13
As the numbers of South Vietnamese attempting to flee the country multiplied, other means of transport exceeded the use of the helicopter. Approximately 30,000 escaped on a Vietnamese Navy flotilla of gunboats, patrol boats, and other small craft.14 The first refugees to reach Grande Island arrived well before the
Page 212(The Bitter End)