30 Apr. 1975
Dearest Susie & kids,
Yesterday and today have been two of the most indescribable days of my life. The monotony of waiting for something to happen was shaken to levels one can't even begin to imagine. When you hear the news back home people I'm sure won't ever give it a second thought as that is the natural reaction for something that is far away and carries no meaning for you. But when you are witness first hand to evacuees fleeing for their lives in the proportion that I have seen these past two days it is something that affects you deeply.
At about 6:30 a.m. yesterday it started to happen. A Vietnamese Army pilot had flown a CH-47 Chinook helo to the USS Blue Ridge with his family. The Blue Ridge is a small ship with just a small landing area and was the Communications Control ship for this operation. It was BGen Carey's flagship. Gen Carey was in charge of the Ground Support Forces who occupied the landing zones while the helos picked up the evacuees. Gen Carey spent about 14 hours on the ground in Saigon during the evacuation. After the landing on Blue Ridge a Marine pilot then flew the Chinook to Midway. At 0830 the highest ranking Vietnamese official flew aboard Midway in his helo with several of his General officers. That was Nuyen Cao Ky. Off and on for the remainder of the day until about 3:00 p m small Vietnamese helos flew out to Midway and landed. Most of them were just pilots who had picked up their families and came on out. At 3:00 we got the official word to execute the evacuation plan and all of the USAF big helos lifted off to bring them out of Saigon. It originally was supposed to be a single lift to bring out just Americans but it turned out to be a mass exodus of multi lift. The helos from Midway made 6 lifts and brought out about 1800 people. In the meantime several Air America helos took refuge on our decks. Even though we began transferring the evacuees to other shipping capable of handling large numbers of people by smaller helos, we still had over 1200 evacuees on board of all nationalities mostly Vietnamese, during the night. Now all of that may sound exciting but it was nothing compared to today. We were only supposed to have a maximum of 500 on board because of our limited facilities, sanitation, food, etc. Several Marine helos almost out of fuel had to make unscheduled landings on Midway when they couldn't get back to the USS Hancock. This resulted in a very confused situation at times, at night with USAF helo pilots making their first night carrier landings with very overloaded helos, some with as many as 90 people on board. We were refueling helos while still running to get them off so others could land before running out of gas. All in all it was a fantastically well executed operation. We lost two Marine helicopters. One crashed just after taking off from the USS Hancock and everyone was rescued. Another UHIE (small one) ran out of gas and ditched beside a destroyer with no injuries. A Marine helo was shot down with a missile in Saigon but repaired and flown out. Some helicopter pilots flew for 19 straight hours and 150 of the Marines Ground Support Forces did not get lifted out of Saigon until early today at about 06:30 a.m. The US Ambassador came out at about 04:00 a.m. The last USAF helos completed their lifts at 0430 having started at 3:00 p m the afternoon before. Some of the Marine Ground Support Forces were lifted out by the USAF helos from Midway and spent what little bit was left of the night on our hangar deck. There were people scattered all over and instead of 500 maximum we had over 1200 which I think were very well managed considering the circumstances.
Today was the really exciting day. Thinking that our main job was over we initially, this morning, concerned ourselves with how to get the 1200 people transferred to other ships equipped to handle them. But, the mass exodus of UHIE helos from the Vietnamese Air Force began in earnest. They were all flying their families out. The weather turned worse today with rain which complicated their problem of finding the ship. It wasn't bad as long as only one UHIE (Huey) came out at a time. But soon they started coming in twos, threes, 6, & 7s. Most were low on fuel, scared to death and grossly overloaded. One guy came in with 4 people in the front seat, where only two belong, and 50 people, mostly small kids in the back.
The biggest thrill of all though was an L-19, a small single engine plane, that came out and kept circling the ship when the deck was completely packed with helos. He did not speak English and his radio was VHF instead of UHF which complicated speaking to him. He made several low passes trying to throw a note overboard and finally got one on the deck. He said he was a major and had his wife and 5 kids on board. This is a 2 place airplane! We found out from a Vietnamese who talked to him on the radio that he had 1 hour of fuel remaining so Capt Chambers (the ships Capt) made a very gutsy decision and decided to let him try and land on the carrier. This is an airplane without a hook! But first to clear the landing area took 30 minutes to tow all the big helos forward on the catapults. Then by heading into the wind and steaming the ship at 25 knots we gave him a headwind of 30 knots. He had about 400 feet to stop safely in and made a beautiful landing, stopping the plane on the deck with brakes.
Later on some really hairy things happened but miraculously we recovered all the helos who tried to land on our deck. There was a flight of 25 who all tried to land at the same time. In that group we had to push 3 helos over the side into the water to make room for the last three.
It's dark now and we have resumed the transferring to other ships. At one time we were just holding our own. About as many Vietnamese were flying out here trying to land as were flying off to other personnel transportation ships. But now at midnight we are down to about 400. We have 45 Vietnamese UHIE's on the deck plus 3 CH-47 Chinooks plus our own ships 3 SH-3G plus the 10 USAF CH/HH-53 Jolly Greens whose blades do not fold making parking a difficult task.
Assuming we get everybody off early tomorrow, we'll head for Utapao Thailand so the Air Force can fly their big ones off and we can turn around and go back to the Philippines.
But who knows what tomorrow will bring? There may be thousands of Vietnamese fleeing in small boats and I suspect we'll take some more aboard tomorrow from one means or another. I am glad we were able to get as many of those helos aboard as we did rather than leaving them for the Communists like at Danang. The VNAF flew as many of their planes out as they could. The F-5E's went to Thailand with their C-130's and C-119's. So at least we have salvaged a small part of the money that was spent there by American taxpayers. The USS Hancock also has a lot of Vietnamese Hueys aboard as does the USS Okinawa. Hancock is a carrier like Midway but a little smaller and Okinawa is a helo carrier.
My EA-6A planes on the USS Coral Sea did a lot of flying yesterday. They were airborne constantly between 1500 (3:00 pm) and 1:00 a.m. today. The fixed wing planes on Midway though did not do any flying. It was an impossibility with the helos.
Well enough of that. Time for some sleep.
I love you and miss you very much, and after today more appreciative than ever of the good fortune we Americans so often take for granted. Imagine what it would be like to leave your country with just the belongings you can carry. That of course is a better alternative than many of the high ranking officers faced which most assuredly would have been death.
All my love