CAPTAIN EDWARD Flink,( OF THE PIONEER CONTENDER) INTERVIEW
Q. Did you have any questions of me before we start?
A. The only thing is you have to refresh my memory on some things.
Q. Okay. I've talked to a lot of guys in the Military Sealift Command-- Don Berney and others. What I'd like to hear from you is your personal remembrances of the events. Let me begin by asking if you had been to Vietnam before the Spring of 1975?
That was my first time out there.
Q. During the war years had you been a captain in other parts of the world?
Oh, yes. I was a captain for about thirty years before 1975. I sailed captain in 1944 or 45.
Q. In the second world war then. In the Pacific?
Mostly the Pacific. I was in the Leyte invasion. In fact I watched McArthur walk ashore. After four shots he made it.
Q. At that time you were an enlisted man in the Navy?
No I commanded.
Q. Did you go to Annapolis?
No, I went to Kings Point -- the US Merchant Marine Academy
It was a conglomeration. It started out as Maritime Commission then all three branches of the service had it at one time or another.
Q. The Pioneer Contender was a United States Lines ship? Being the captain of that you were an employee of whom?
The way they worked that, I was an employee of the United States Lines and the ship was chartered to the government.
Q. What about the crew.
They were merchant marines.
Q. Is there a home port for the Pioneer Contender?
The home port was New York. We were all registered in New York.
Q. In '75 you sailed New York to Saigon carrying supplies or what? How did you get to Vietnam at that time?
We were chartered to MSC. Whatever MSC wanted, why we would carry or go where they directed us.
Q. When you were going over did you have any inkling that this was going to be an unusual--were you aware the situation was deteriorating in Vietnam. Did you have any concerns that this would be out of the ordinary?
No, not at the time.
Q. You landed in Saigon and unloaded in March, I assume-- or did you go to Da Nang?
We went to Saigon first to unload and then went to DaNang. Our orders were to pick up some heavy lifts--trucks, heavy equipment.
Q. That was not unusual either? To get an order like that?
What happened at DaNang the orders changed did they not?
When we got up to Da Nang they told us to hang off -- we got there late in the evening if I recall. They told us to hang off until early the next morning. Told us to stay out of sight for a while because there was another ship in there and they wanted to get her loaded and then bring us in.
Q. Did you come into port the next morning?
Yes, we came into port. They told us not to anchor, just drift and not to let anybody on board the ship. And after that somebody from MSC come out and said that instead of heavy lifts we were taking some passengers back to Saigon.
Q. Could you load passengers from docks there?
No. We couldn't get alongside the dock because the gunfire was about four hills away.
Q. Did they come out you in small boats then?
They kept all the small boats away from us and the boats that they sent out contained the personnel from the various embassies.
Q. Who was the "They" that kept the small boats away?
It was supposed to have been the Vietnam navy.
Q. Did you just load embassy personnel or what?
It was all embassy personnel except for a very small American group that stayed until the last. It had the second Vice Consul from the American side and there was the Japanese, Chinese, French, and whatever Consul was in Da Nang.
Q. Did you personally as the captain meet these people when they came on board?
Well, the Marine guard that was stationed at the embassy came out and they were the ones that were at the gangway receiving all these dignitaries. They started coming on board, then I had MSC reps, and other medical people and they started saying they need "x" amount of space for each person on board the ship, et cetera, and my limit was supposed to be only five thousand that I could carry at one time. This was supposed to be a one-shot deal from Da Nang to Saigon.
With the Marine guard from the American embassy keeping head count, the first group they sent on board was all the embassy people and then the second group was the third class citizens, the people that worked in the embassy for the Americans. And then after that there was the leading Vietnamese merchants, because the Vietnamese who were dealing with the Americans were the next ones to get shot if the VC got a hold of them. So they were the third group to come on board. And that was it. That was the first five thousand.
I hot-footed it down to Saigon, and discharged all of them in Saigon. Then they sent me up to Da Nang. The second time at Da Nang they kept me out all evening outside the three mile limit. I would go in in the morning into Da Nang and pick up the leaving refugees again.
Q. The second time did you have the Marine guard, was it disorderly?
After we left Da Nang. I couldn't have a Marine guard or U.S. personnel while I was in territorial waters.
Q. So just you and your crew went in to pick up the refugees?
Q. Who maintained order then? Or was there order maintained?
What order? The thing is -- I tried to keep down to five thousand, which was my limit as far as carrying refugees was concerned. But the thing is, after I got the leaving dignitaries on board first and put down the gangway and whoever came on board, that was it. They put a couple barges alongside, the ones they were towing up the river, a hundred and fifty feet long and sandbagged up to about eight feet. They loaded those up with refugees on the pier then towed them out to where I was floating around.
Q. Who did the loading?
MSC had a tug that was fortified.
Q. Was it orderly or were these people panicked? DId you have armed people come on board?
Anybody coming up the gangway, I told my crew, all rifles, ammunition and arms, over the side.
Q. And that was done?
Q. You were just sitting off shore and boats were coming out?
They were being loaded from the barges. The barges -- I had one tied up on either side, and the way some of the crew worked it, they were using the winches that they'd send down a big airplane platform, circular platform, and they'd put it down in the barge and the refugees would get in and they'd pick it up and I'd put them down into the hatch. They were also coming up the gangway and ladders.
Q. You didn't worry about your own or your crew's safety at this time? There was a certain amount of order maintained?
Yeah. My orders were to lock all the screen doors in the midship house and back aft on down into the steering engine room and no Vietnamese were allowed in the midship house. There again, I was concerned that one hand grenade can do a heck of a lot of damage.
Q. You were worried about sabotage, but not piracy?
There again, you get a group of people who are highly excited, they'll do anything to get out of danger and I had a couple instances where there was some kangaroo courts being held on the fantail of the ship where military who were dressed as civilians hitched a ride down to Saigon. With the kangaroo court, if they didn't like the sergeant, or the major or the colonel or whoever was the officer, they'd either wire his hands together and let him go for a swim, and then others they'd tie a hand grenade around his neck and drop him over the side.
Q. You saw this or just heard about it?
This was retaliation of the Vietnamese soldiers or military against their superiors.
Q. Did you actually see it?
I was up on the bridge all the time. Once in a while I'd hear an explosion or what sounded like a couple of firecrackers going off and that was it.
Q. How did you find out what was going on?
I heard about afterwards.
Q. Did you try to stop it or anything?
With five thousand people staring me in the face?
Q. How long did the trip take from Da Nang down to Saigon with a load of five thousand?
It took overnight. It was supposed to be about twelve hours.
Q. Did any of your crew feel in danger?
Most of the crew stayed in their quarters. With the short run it wasn't bad. But then when I had the big amounts and went down to Phu Quoc -- that was a problem.
Q. Tell me about that now. You dropped these five thousand off in Saigon?
Yeah. I was the last ship out of Da Nang.
Q. No firing from the shore at you?
Yes, we had a couple rockets fired at us. Small arms--we were out far enough where it didn't affect us.
Q. Did you have any air cover?
No. Nothing. The only thing was that when I went in in early morning, I was supposed to leave at five o'clock, but with the barges alongside, when the people got off the barge onto the ship, the small boats, fishing boats, would come out and as many people as got on board the ship were replaced by the small boats. So, I was just supposed to pick up the two barge loads which was a total of five thousand people, but with the small boats coming out that five thousand never seemed to diminish.
Q. Did you ever get an accurate count?
A rough head count, I think, was seven thousand.
Q. These were dropped off safely the next morning where?
At Cam Ranh.
Q. Then where did you pick up your big load?
It was at Cam Ranh. I discharged the whole works. Then they sent me up again towards Da Nang, but I got part way up and they said to return to Cam Ranh. I think I had a couple of C I -- I picked them up. That was a quickie, in and out. Then when I had him on board that's when they told me to go in to Cam Ranh and pick up refugees.
Q. Did you pick up some of the same people you just let off?
Yes. I picked up about the same amount I dropped off.
Q. Armed this time? Or still unarmed?
I managed to keep small arms off the ship.
Q. Where were you supposed to take these people now?
That's the Phu Quoc group. In Cam Ranh they had one of these Philippine landing craft that the Americans gave them. I was floating around in Cam Ranh Bay itself and I started picking up refugees first from small fishing boats. I put the gangway down and the small fishing boats would come put their nose up against the ship and turn their motors on full ahead so they stayed alongside until what passengers were on the fishing boat got off. The last one off would put the boat astern to pull away and as soon as one boat left, another boat took its place. The boats at the bottom of the gangway were fanned out in a semi-circle with their motors going full ahead pushing against the side of the ship until the refugees got off. They had a couple of drownings coming on the gangway. They'd get excited and fall in the water between the boats and by the time help got to them they were down under where they couldn't get rescued.
Q. When you left Cam Ranh were there still people trying to get on? Did you at some point just pull away?
With this landing barge-- I was still receiving refugees on the port side and the landing barge came up on the starboard side. He was pretty well loaded down with refugees. The landing barge was the same height as the ships rail, so they just walked from the landing barge to the ship. They kept coming the same thing there. The small boats came up alongside the landing barge and transfer to the ship. So when it got to a point where I couldn't see the deck, I said, "That's it," and took off. The thing is, there again, the Greenville Victory was there and the Sergeant was there, and a couple others. The Greenville Victory was the first one to go out. The Sergeant was next, and mine was the last.
I was ordered to take them to Saigon. Coming out of the Bay you pass the Navy base and then around the island there. As we got past the Navy base and just swinging by the island, they blew up the Navy base. The island protected the ship from the explosion at the base.
Q. How big was the explosion?
Well, it was the Fourth of July, something like that.
Q. Fuel and ammunition was stored there?
The Vietnamese Navy was in there and also the American Navy, so what was left, why it went.
Q. Did you actually start up the Saigon river?
I was supposed to go into Saigon. When I got to Vung Tau at the mouth of the river, they said to turn around and proceed to Phu Quoc.
Q. That's a long trip. Isn't that another day or so?
That was overnight. Leaving Cam Ranh they put a contingent of Marines on board.
Q. Did you request them or what?
That was the Navy in there. I asked if I could get an escort or safety measure, because I had at that time-- after the head count was finished I had sixteen thousand six hundred.
Q. How many Marines came on board?
A company. Twelve men.
Q. Any trouble?
I asked for a couple men back aft around the steering engine room and to let nobody in there, and then a Marine at each door around the midship section and to let no Vietnamese into the midship house. This was for safety of the ship.
Q. Nobody tried to get in there?
Yeah, they did, but with a Marine there with a rifle on his shoulder they didn't try.
Q. No Kangaroo Court this time, no incidents?
That I couldn't say. I heard a lot of tales after it was all over.
Q. What happened at Phu Quoc? Did you discharge these people or did they refuse to get off?
All four US Lines ships were in there. They were all waiting their turn. The only thing was the Vietnamese command at Phu Quoc said, first come first served, so I had the refugees aboard the ship for a couple days.
Q. Did you have food and water?
The Navy supplied me with food. The Vietnamese also supplied me with this packet of rice that they have, emergency rations. They'd come on board once a day and they'd come along side. The crew would bring the food up on board the ship by ship's gear and from there it was distributed through the hatch.
Q. What about sanitation?
Well, with sixteen thousand on board the ship, where you sat you slept. Where you slept you did your business. Imagine you traveling subway or a crowded bus and this is the way the people were with the sixteen thousand on board the ship.
Q. Were there any bodies on board. Did anybody die, get crushed?
They didn't get crushed, but there again, the older people passed away. While I was in Phu Quoc I'd see them during the daytime and then the next morning they wouldn't be there. For all the old people that passed away--for every two that passed away -- there was one born. There were quite a few pregnant women.
Q. Were there any medical facilities on board the ship?
Yeah, midwives, that was it. It was their time and the tension kind of helped it along.
Q. Did you get sleep during this time.
Cat naps. I was up on the bridge all the time. The only time I left the bridge was to ring the gong or something like that.
Q. Was your crew eating?
Oh, yeah, the crew was eating all the time. I had regular stores.
Q. Did these people get off after the two days you sat there?
It was three --
((End of side A))
. . . I got them all discharged. Then they gave me orders to go back to Vung Tau, empty.
Q. What about cleaning the ship?
I had one day of cleaning where I just gave it a quickie by the ship's crew, with salt water, and that was it.
Q. So you went back to Vung Tau?
Yea. The Sergeant was there and we were supposed to pick up any refugees that made it down the river from Saigon.
Q. Were there any?
Well, we had one or two, but then again at Vung Tau, the Vietnamese got a hold of the American three inchers and we had a couple of waterspouts around the ship.
Q. How far off the coast were you sitting there?
About a half a mile. When the waterspouts started popping up I pulled out and went further out. Then after that they brought us down to the staging area that was on the corner where you make the right turn to go to Phu Quoc. They brought in all the ships to pick up the refugees.
Q. Did you get loaded there in the next few days with boats coming out?
Yeah, they had boats coming out. This was controlled by the Navy and the Marine Corps. They had a doctor come out with the regular medical personnel to say that the ship was ready to pick up refugees.
Q. How many people did you load up this time?
Seven thousand, I think. Then they had a last group of Vietnamese military who were floating around in landing craft and were shooting up in the air. They finally decided to divide up the group that came down and put them on the ships. The group I got, I put them on top of the mast houses to keep them separate from the rest of the Vietnamese.
Q. Why was that?
They were a little on the rowdy side.
Q. Officers or enlisted men?
Some officers. Each boat had an officer and he had his group of men that he had with him.
Q. Why on the rowdy side? They'd just lost a war.
They'd lost a war, but this was retaliation for losing it.
Q. Then you took these people to the Philippines?
Q. What types of things did you hear had been going on on the way to Phu Quoc that you didn't see, and who told you?
Crew members, and the evidence after the Vietnamese had got off. On the ship they had reefer boxes in the up between decks five and six. In the reefer boxes they had this alloyed aluminum plate as a ramp to get over the sill. What they did was the Kangaroo Court would put the person that they were going to work over between the two plates then set off a couple of hand grenades, so there again, you'd have the victim splattered all over the hatch. Plus the hand grenades would indent these ramp plates.
Q. When you unloaded were there bodies on the ship too?
Yes, there were a couple. Older people.
Q. When you got to Subic, was that it for you?
They discharged two thousand and I think I ended up taking four thousand to Guam. That ended it for me in Guam.
Q. You describe it now as if it were regular business. Was it intense for you and emotionally intense?
My concern was the safety of the ship and the crew. If you carry passengers as a commercial enterprise, why you get some cranks and this and that and everything else.
Q. Did you have any sense of participating in a major historical event?
After it was all over, yes. But at the time this was something you best be concerned about transporting people from one area to another. Another thing now too, some of the refugees I picked up at Cam Ranh I had already put ashore in Saigon. They came back again. The refugees were--you had the American Consul and third class citizens. The next group was the Vietnamese merchants and the people that dealt with the American military. Then the third group was the peasant group, the farmers, fishermen, and that class of people. The third group were just interested in getting away from the immediate fighting area and when they thought it was all over then they'd go back again. Some of them I picked up twice.
Q. Did any of these people thank you, single you out for praise?
No. There again they were more interested in their own safety and to get away from the fighting.
Q. You didn't go for the Mayaguez incident?
Yeah, I went to Cambodia, but -- well I was in the area.
Q. When you went to Phu Quoc did anybody not want to get off? I know on one of the ships the people refused to get off.
I had no problems with that because I was overcrowded. But the sixteen thousand, six, were willing to get out just to get some breathing space.
Q. Did you get any type of award or Presidential citation?
I was mentioned in Congress in the Congressional Record. I received a couple of plaques when I got back to the States for a job well done.
Q. And you feel you did the job well, too? You are pleased with the way it came off?
The crew was just happy to get back to the States and go home.
Q. Did you ever see that crew again, have a reunion?
No, just some of the prominent crew members that worked for US Lines in my later years I ran into them one place or another after it was all over.
Q. Everybody seems to make such a big deal out of this. This was a terrific move, but you don't. You were never involved in an operation like this again were you?
No. I was involved in the Leyte invasion so that was -- if that invasion went into anything like this.
Q. Had you been involved at Inchon in Korea?
I was up there. Every time I went to Inchon was in the middle of winter and when you take a shower you can write your name in the frost on the bulkhead.
Q. So you had been in more dangerous situations, more heroic episodes, I guess. Are you still active as a ship's captain?
I'll be sixty-five in October and since US Lines is Chapter Eleven, the last steamship company on the East Coast, so that's it. You got other US companies that have shrunk down to practically nothing. You walk in there at sixty-five, what are you going to do? So I'm retiring.
Q. On the West or East Coast? I see your home in '75 was Massapequa, New York.
Yeah, well that's where the wife lives. But I have my choice of Florida, California or New York. Wherever I hang my hat, that's where it is.
Q. Do you sail at all?
I've got a sixteen-foot outboard motor boat, that's all.
Q. Thank you very much.
((End of interview, exchange of phone number and name, etc.))