Page 218

Page 218(The Bitter End)




tinued until about 2200. The commander of Task Group 76.5, Surface Evacuation Forces, Captain James D. Tregurtha, USN, credited predeployment preparations for the ease with which refugees were moved between ships.* He recently recalled, "One of the reasons refugee processing was handled fairly smoothly was that during predeployment workup and a MAU-size practice landing at Camp Pendleton, we had male and female volunteers from the amphibious base at Coronado act as refugees. They were bussed up to the landing zone where they were interrogated, identified, and accommodated on the ships."25


While Mike boats continued to deliver Vietnamese refugees to the Pioneer Commander
well into the predawn morning of the next day (Wednesday, 30 April), the last
Mike boat in the first wave unloaded its passengers at 2200 and departed.
This gap in traffic left, for the first time that day, the loading ramp/causeway
unguarded and accessible. With its sides unprotected, the platform offered
an opportunity which the circling Vietnamese vessels did not decline. Gunnery
Sergeant Robert Wicker recalled what happened next:


"The departure of the Mike boats left the platform open on three sides, and
the population on the platform increased from 8 Marines in a matter of minutes
to 200, 500, 1,000 refugees and they were jumping on and off boats, passing
kids and household effects until the platform was packed. With the mad scramble
by the refugees driving the Marines back until they were pressed around the
base of the accommodation ladder, it became impossible to process the air
evacuees to which the Navy had given priority. The platform was slowly cleared
after Marines were placed on the outer edges of the platform to keep the fishing
boats away-Utilizing the Interrogator-Translator people and a Vietnamese priest
we were able to get the crowd settled down.28


The work of loading the passengers from Mike boats continued until 0400 when the last of the refugees from the Navy ships boarded. At this point, the rush to occupy the platform began again, and this time order could not be restored. As a consequence, the ship hoisted its accommodation ladder with the Marines still on it, and this act finally made a impression. Gunnery Sergeant Wicker recalled, "The refugees were informed that we would leave them if they did not become orderly, quiet, and with as little confusion as possible start to board the ship."27


By sunrise, all of the refugees on the platform had been loaded and the Pioneer Commander then directed seven newly arrived vessels to nearby MSC ships. Still, the scene that Wednesday morning (30 April) was one of utter chaos with the sea crowded with abandoned fishing boats; some burning, some dead in the water, and some circling with their helms tied down and their motors running. Avoiding these dangerous shipping hazards, the Pioneer Commander weighed anchor and proceeded to the holding area. Once there, it waited for other ships to Join it for the express purpose of forming a convoy for the voyage to Subic. The Pioneer Commander spent the next 20 hours embarking an additional 650 people, 200 of them from the Greenville Victory. After a health and sanitization check, Navy medical personnel gave the Pioneer Commander, the Pioneer Contender and the American Challenger medical clearance for a trip not to exceed five days. The first two ships in the convoy, Pioneer Commander and Pioneer Contender, pulled up their anchors at 0230 on 2 May and headed for Subic Bay at 21 knots.


Shortly before their departure the deluge of refugees peaked and then began to subside. During this period, the third ship in the convoy, the American Challenger, remained in the holding area and assisted the overcrowded Greenville Victory by relieving it of 3,000 Vietnamese refugees. Once loaded, ^American Challenger set off in pursuit of the Pioneer Commander and Pioneer Contender.


Thirty-eight hours later, while approaching Subic Bay, the Pioneer Commander received word of a new destination, Guam. Less than two hours after that, while undergoing a night medical resupply by helicopter, the Pioneer Commander steamed out of Subic Bay and headed for Apra Harbor, Guam, leaving the Pioneer Contender behind- Meanwhile, the third ship to leave the holding area, the American Challenger, received its updated orders: proceed directly to Guam.


While American Challenger, Pioneer Commander, and Pioneer Contender headed for Subic, the MSC ships and their Marine security detachments wrestled with the most serious challenge still confronting them, disarming the remaining refugees. The combination of overcrowding, fatigue, and a never-ending stream of refugees, driven by a sense of finality or "no tomorrow," had created an extremely volatile situation. Stripping them of their weapons during the loading process




*Captain Tregurtha also credited the logistic planning when he added: "Success
of the evacuation was also due to the setting of a goal prior to deployment
that all ships would deploy with no 'Cas-Reps' (disabled or non-functioning
equipment). This was accomplished and the squadron transited to Vietnam and
operated for over a month before the first 'CasRep' occurred. By then our job
had been completed." Tregurtha Comments.









Page 218(The Bitter End)