Posted: April 30, 2015
I was reminded of something driving to work today. Forty years ago today, Lt.(jg) Conroy was Officer of the Deck on the 550 Foot long USS Vancouver (LPD 2) steaming in slow circles in a 2 mile x 2 mile quadrant off the coast of South Vietnam. My main job was to avoid hitting the USS Enterprise in its quadrant to the north and the USS Hancock to the south. The Captain was below and the ship was all mine. It was very peaceful.
I had the 0800-1200 Watch. About two hours into it, the lookouts reported a strange cloud formation to the west. I stepped out on the bridge wing and looked at it through binoculars with the Junior Officer of the deck, Ensign Griggs. As we watched it got larger and larger and was coming straight for our formation of 50 ships, virtually the entire U.S. Seventh Fleet. Radar confirmed what was now becoming obvious to us. The “cloud” was hundreds of helicopters escaping Saigon and the surrounding area. The orders had been given to “bug out”, and Operation Frequent Wind was officially underway.
For the next 24 hours it was organized chaos as hundreds of helicopters circled over the fleet looking for any open flight deck before they ran out of fuel. The first to land on Vancouver was a South Vietnamese Chinook carrying about 40 refugees. The pilot refused to take off and return to Vietnam. The flight deck crew asked me for instructions. I told them to put the pilot on the radio. I told him there was a large barge adrift about a mile to the east and to land over there and I would send a boat to pick him up. He agreed and took off.
Soon we were overwhelmed with helicopters of all shapes and sizes. The orders were given to start rolling them off the side of the ship as soon as they were emptied to make room for others that were hovering waiting for any open deck. The only ones we kept were the blue and white ones.They were Air America, the CIA’s Air Force, and contained the latest top secret electronics that the Russians would have loved to fish out of the Tonkin Gulf after we had left.
Our crew of 360 sailors and 800 marines were pretty much overwhelmed for the next 24 hours. Vancouver took on over 2,200 refugees that day – everything from mothers with children to South Vietnamese generals with suitcases filled with gold. (We confiscated those as per orders of the Admiral) Anyone not on watch helped out. The entire inside portion of Vancouver is a hollowed out football field where we keep the marine’s landing craft and can flood it to launch them. It became our triage center, freeing the flight deck up for the helicopters. By nightfall it looked like the railroad yard scene in “Gone with the Wind” when Sherman was entering Atlanta.
After very little sleep I came back on watch as Officer of the Deck for the 0400-0800 watch. It was dark, the ship was quiet, and I felt the awesome responsibility of being in charge of an 8600 Ton Ship carrying 360 sailors, 800 marines, and now 2200 refugees.
As the sun rose I looked to the east and saw, to my chagrin, a floating barge adrift with the outline of a Chinook helicopter and a very tired pilot still waving his arms. In the chaos of the morning earlier I had completely forgotten to launch a boat to pick him up. Boy was I embarrassed. I immediately ordered a boat to pick him up, a hot meal to be ready for him, and directed that he be brought to the bridge. When he arrived I couldn’t even get in an apology as he hugged me and said he was just happy to be alive.
We arrived in Subic Bay in the Philippines a few days later with our precious cargo.
Forty years ago today.
The MDNA is proud of all the men and woman that have served or are currently serving in our great country.