Page 089

Page 89(The Bitter End)

ITT. Captain Bushey's counterintelligence team prepared a simplified instruction card for the small unit leader that included basic Vietnamese phrases and human relations oriented "do's and don'ts." Preparation for this event was a total effort.9

On 3 April, the task force lay off Nha Trang. At this point, Colonel Alexander sent two UH-lEs aloft as a means of visually reconnoitering the coastline for refugees. He flew in the lead "chopper." The sight that greeted the airborne observers was incredible. Literally thousands of boats of every description loaded to the gunnels with refugees, were headed out to sea. Refugees on the larger craft were packed like sardines in numbers staggering the imagination. Keeping a safe distance from the shore, the airborne Hueys could see the semi-destroyed towns of Qui Nhon and Nha Ti-ang where isolated fires dotted the landscape. The stage was set for a massive movement of panicked and fear-stricken refugees toward the ships that symbolized the last vestiges of freedom and a promise for safe haven, their most immediate need.

The next day, the Durham, with Security Force "A" on board, received the first group of refugees while off the coast of Cam Ranh Bay. They came slowly at first; cold, hungry, and fearful. Their numbers then rapidly increased until a priority for receiving craft had to be relayed to the refugee flotilla by interpreters. The process of evacuation, with some initial rough spots, went smoothly enough and the Durham took on board almost 4,000 Vietnamese. Next the Frederick and the Dubuque made preparations to receive refugees. Frederick pulled in relatively close to the port of Cam Ranh Bay, and its Marines and sailors watched intently as the South Vietnamese naval base fell before their eyes. After the North Vietnamese Army's tanks rolled over their opposition, they began firing at the South Vietnamese Swift boats* The proximity of these tanks, visible to everyone on the ship, Justified a quick withdrawal and a temporary cessation of evacuation operations. Meanwhile, Dubuque began accepting refugees into her well deck. One unusual sidelight of this effort was gleaned from interviews with the evacuees. In preparation to receive the refugees, the Dubuque, an LPD, ballasted down (filled with water) to provide a water access by which the small craft could enter the ship's well and navigate all the way to the loading ramp. The refugees mistakenly interpreted the ballasting down as the slow sinking of the ship and naturally were reluctant to leave their overcrowded but otherwise seaworthy vessel for one that was "sinking."10

At this point in the operation, the task force received a message that impacted both on the operations at hand and the long-term mission of the security force. It learned of the Joint Chiefs of Staff decision to place Marine security forces on board Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships. The Marines of the Amphibious Evacuation RVN Support Group, already involved in the Navy's evacuation effort, had been chosen to assist the MSC ships, besieged with more refugees than they could handle. One of the primary considerations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a commitment they could not ignore, Cambodia, still held first priority for the Seventh Fleet and III MAF. Worse yet, new developments in and around Saigon did not bode well for the continued life of the Vietnamese government. This alarming development meant Seventh Fleet amphibious shipping might be needed to respond to two events simultaneously. The decision to release the task force from refugee operations and move the Marine security force to MSC ships reflected senior military commanders' recognition of the dilemma facing American forces in the Western Pacific in early April 1975.

As the battlefront conditions worsened for America's allies in South Vietnam and Cambodia, it became painfully obvious that the United States was faced with innumerable uncertainties and too few solutions. Events in the Western Pacific were converging at breakneck speed, producing a seemingly unavoidable crisis, Clearly, the United States was taking decisive action to deal with the crisis, but it was impossible to determine if those steps would be enough.

Recognizing this state of affairs, the commanding general of III MAF, General Hoffman, prepared for the worst-case situation. Having only six infantry battalions available, with one, 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, already committed to Operation Eagle Pull, he decided to increase the number of battalions available for deployment by relieving, as soon as possible, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines of its ship security duties. Once replaced by another contingent of Marines, the battalion would be reorganized and redesignated BLT 1/4.

*Designed by the Lauisiana-based Stewart Seacraft Company, the United States
sent 84 Swift boats to South Vietnam prior to 1967 to augment the VNN's Coastal
Surveillance force. These 50-foot craft armed with .50-caliber machine guns
and an 81 millimeter mortar could attain speeds in excess of 20 knots, Edward
J. Marol-da and G, Wesley Pryce III, A Short History of the United States
Navy and the Southeast Asian Conflict, 1950-1975 (Washington: Navy Historical
Division, 1984), p. 46.

Page 89(The Bitter End)