[Image 1: Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 10420075 A young refugee from MR l is befriended by a Marine
1/4, a member of Amphibious Evacuation RVN Support Group. Many BIT Marines
went on board MSG ships during Operation Fortress Journey.]
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Phu Quoc's only claim to fame was that it was the home of a nuc mam (sauce made from fermented fish) factory. The government did not want the evacuees unloaded near any of the southern population centers for fear of touching off a panic.
Once established on board the Pioneer Contender, after a dramatic night arrival, Lieutenant Lee turned his attention to getting his vessel's refugees to Phu Quoc without any casualties. Lee's platoon of Marines would accomplish this objective by maintaining good order on the ship through a disciplined display of force. Throughout the trip south, the proper mix of Strength and confidence calmed the passengers, enabling the Marines to control them despite numerous challenges, not the least of which was the wretched living conditions, typified by the ankle-deep human waste running over the decks.13
Time and time again. Lieutenant Lee and his Marines went forward to distribute food and water at locations predesignated by their interpreter. The Marines literally risked their lives each time they did this, because many of the refugees were starving and desperate. Just for one feeding, distribution throughout the ship was an all-day evolution, consequently causing many to fear that supplies would run out before their turn arrived. One incident pointed up the danger involved in the daily feeding routine. On that occasion, a group of Marines simply delivering the daily ration, was overwhelmed by the crush of refugees, instantly placing them in danger of being killed or seriously injured. A young Marine, Private First Class Charles P. Vidaurri, from his position in the superstructure, observed the commotion in the restless crowd and immediately delivered a burst ofM-60 machine gun fire over their heads. This enabled the Marines on deck to restore order quickly and then finish distributing the day's food and water allocation. As each day seemingly grew longer in the hot sun, Lieutenant Lee used ever increasing amounts of warning fire to maintain order. He took the precaution of arming himself with a shotgun and told his platoon sergeant. Staff Sergeant Earle Livermore, a veteran of the Vietnam War, to do likewise. These precautions helped avoid the use of deadly force and the journey to Phu Quoc was completed without a casualty.14 Military Sealift Command Operations
Lieutenant Lee's deployment on board the SS Pioneer Contender marked a shift in operational priorities. The next day, 5 April, all embarkation of refugees on Navy ships ceased. (The amphibs did not get involved in evacuee transport again until the helicopter evacuations of Phnom Penh and Saigon.) The Navy ships now were free to maneuver as necessary. The restored mobility enhanced their participation in the evacuation by allowing them to locate additional refugees adrift at sea.
In this capacity, aircraft of HMM-165 conducted daily reconnaissance flights. At first, these flights covered only the Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and Cam Ranh Bay areas, but eventually they ranged as far south as Vung Tau. Each flight observed the same thing-thousands of Vietnamese fleeing by boat from their homeland. On the coast, the North Vietnamese blitzkrieg was forcing those in its path to flee hastily, and as a result the seaborne evacuation could not keep pace with the flood of refugees. Recovery of these evacuees by the Military Sealift Command ships began off the coast of Cam Ranh Bay and within three days had moved south to Phan Rang and then Phan Thiet. Thus in less than a week, the evacuation effort had become
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