Monday, December 17, 2012

Harold J. Murphy's Vietnam


Q. The people who will be reading this know very little about Vietnam and about the Military Sealift Command. Keep in mind when you tell me the story, don't assume I or my readers know anything. Explain fully.

What is your background before 1975.

I was born and raised in New York, went to sea during the war with what was at that time the Army Transport Service. And then I quit and went ashore and worked in the police department for about nine or ten years.

Q. In New York City?

I put ten years in there and my grandfather passed away up in Pennsylvania and he had a small Dodge agency. So I left the job and went up there to run that thinking that it would be a better opportunity for me. But it didn't work out too well. Then I went back to sea.

At that time I was sailing as an able-bodied seaman, and a boatswain and carpenter, you know. I sailed on and off, because I was married and had a family, and it's difficult to go to sea when you have a family. So I would sail a while and go back ashore and get a job and try to stay home. But in '66 or '67 I went to school in New York and took the Coast Guard examination and got my license as a Third Mate. And then I went to work -- well I was working for the Military Sea Transportation Service. They changed the name later on. They had a program where you went to school and took the courses and if you passed the exams and got the license they would pay the tuition. I took advantage of that.

I got licensed in '67 and was sailing as Third Mate. Then I came out to Tahoe in '71. My wife was killed in an automobile accident in '70 and I wanted a change of scenery so I came out here to live. I ran a paddle wheel old Mississippi River boat, tour boat on the lake. In '75 I got the urge again. Going to sea is like an incurable disease. It's very difficult to quit.

Around '75 I got the urge again, went back to New York.

Q. Why did you get the urge in '75? Any particular reason?

No, it just comes over you once in a while. If you have any family or friends who've been to sea, you'd understand. I started when I was very young and it was almost impossible to quit. All the time you're ashore you're thinking about going back to sea.

I went back to New York and they didn't have a Third Mate job open at the moment. But they had a ship, the usns Greenville vICTORY, with a carpenter's job open and the Third Mate was going to leave the ship at some point and I would relieve him, which is what happened eventually. So I went on the Greenville as carpenter. We loaded ammo here in Port Chicago on the west coast so I got to come home while we were loading. And we took a load of ammunition to Cam Ranh Bay and DaNang. I'm going to be hazy on exact dates. I remember that we finished up our work and were in Thailand on Easter Sunday in late March. That's where we were when we got the word to go back to Nam.

Q. Were you aware of what was happening in Vietnam at that time, the crisis?

Yeah, we were aware of what was going on. The United States had pulled out a year or two before. What we were supplying were the Vietnamese.

Q. But you were aware that they were in pretty deep trouble by that time?

I was aware that they were in deep trouble and I was aware that we had really done them a bad turn. I felt really guilty about that.

Q. This was your first time in Vietnam?

Yeah, it was. The ship had been there before and most of the people on the ship had been there quite often. But it was my first trip to Nam. But of course I was aware of what a mess it was and the controversy.

Q. Had you gone ashore at Cam Ranh or DaNang? Did you talk to people or assess the situation at the time?

Not really. They didn't really know how bad it was, I'm sure. And I don't think we did either. We knew that it was bad and that they couldn't last too much longer. But I don't think anybody knew that they were going to break out as quickly as they did. They started up in Hue and came down Highway One.

We went to Cam Ranh first and then DaNang. In fact, in Danang it was a very tense situation. You knew something was going to happen. They had swimmers in the water trying to plant limpet mines on ships and there were boxes of concussion grenades every fifty feet along the deck and we'd chuck them overboard once in a while in case there were any swimmers in the water.

We went back to Thailand to back load military cargo and return to the United States. But as soon as we arrived there this thing broke loose, so we were sent immediately back. We were sent to DaNang and told to attempt to rescue survivors. When we got back there, the commies were moving down so fast that it was gone before we got there. We made several attempts down the coast to get into various ports -- which I've forgotten the name of and the same thing happened. They were moving so rapidly they were ahead of us. Then one or two places that we went into, there were people there but there was no means to load them. No landing craft or boats to bring them out. They were on the beach and we couldn't load them. We saw them on the beach.

One place in particular we went in and the beach was loaded with people and there was no way to get them out of there.

Q. No small boats came out to you?

Not in that particular place. That's how we finally loaded all the people that we did. The first place we got into was Cam Ranh, back into Cam Ranh, and there we started to load at the docks and it was utter chaos. So we left the dock and went out at anchor and they came out in small boats and we loaded them from boats. They lived on these boats, you know, and when we loaded them, some of them came out with all their belongings, and of course we couldn't take anything except the people, some foodstuff and their little Honda, little 50 cc Honda bikes, we let them take those, I don't know how many of them.

Q. These were just civilians then?

There were civilians, women, children, and Vietnamese army personnel, obviously on the run, whom we tried to disarm because we didn't want all those weapons on the ship. We did the best we could. But you had to be there to see this. This was really chaos. We loaded them in cargo nets, put the booms over the side and loaded them like cargo and the just clung to each other trying to get aboard. And some came up the gangway.

At any rate we disarmed as many as we could. We had a whole room full of rifles and grenades and weapons, but we didn't get them all. And that's another story.

We approximated we loaded about ten thousand people. This is a victory ship, it is about a five hundred foot, nine or ten thousand ton ammunition ship with five cargo holds. There's a main hold and two smaller 'tween decks above that. There's about three or four levels in the hold. We just loaded them like cargo. They were everywhere. The lifeboats were full of people.

Q. Where did you get food, and how about sanitation?

We had no food or water for them or sanitary facilities. Mind you now, ten thousand people. You can imagine what happened. At any rate, as far as the food went, we had no food. They brought rice with them, and the ship could make about fifteen tons of fresh water a day with the evaporator, and they were using thirty. It was a no win situation as far as water went.

So we set up the fire hoses and turned the fire pumps on so they could bath at least in salt water and wash the excrement off the decks. It was bad.

We left Cam Ranh -- the entrance to Cam Ranh is surrounded by high cliffs fortified with 105 howitzers and we didn't know if they'd start firing them at us. But luckily about the time we had as many people aboard as we could handle we were hit by a very heavy rain squall. Visibility fell down to practically zero and we got out under cover of that, really.

The fleet was off shore. It had orders not to come any closer than thirty miles, so they laid off shore but we were naturally in radio contact with them and under their command really as a Navy ship. We were civilian crew, but it's a navy ship. We were told to take them to an island called Phu Quoc off shore near the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. So we did that, we proceeded there. And I think it took us two or three days. When we arrived there we anchored and planned to discharge the people there. And then go back and see if we could help some others.

Well they refused to get off the ship. Number one, the landing craft that were supposed to disembark them didn't show up. So we laid there at anchor for a day or so. They got very uneasy, very restless, and they finally sent a delegation up to the wheelhouse. This is what Captain Ray Iacabocci means about he was lucky he got out alive, I think. The delegation was a Catholic priest and other people who were representing the people on board. And their demands were that we leave the area immediately. That they would not go ashore. Number One, it was a former penal colony, which they didn't like the sound of. Secondly, they would be trapped there if the communists did come and had no escape, which was true. There was no way off this island and they were dead meat.

At any rate they said they had enough weapons and explosives in the hold to destroy the ship and they would do exactly that if we didn't leave immediately. They had a Gulf Oil road map with them and we asked them where they wanted to go and they pointed to Vung Tau, the port at the mouth of the river that leads up to Saigon. So there were naturally communications back and forth and the ultimate decision was, let's get the hell out of here.

Q. Did you feel your life was in danger at that time?

I didn't, not really. But I didn't doubt that they'd do it. I didn't doubt they'd sink the ship. No doubt that they meant exactly what they said.

Q. None of the crew members had been held hostage or anything like that?
Oh, no no. We were their saviors. You had to be there. We loaded these people almost one at a time. A lot of women and children. It was really a mess. It was a very moving experience. It really was. I hadn't thought about it in years until you called me. But I think we all thought -- it seemed to go on forever. We had no time to sleep or eat.

Q. You had your own quarters separate from them, didn't you?

We tried to keep them our of the main interior of the ship, the crew's quarters, but they were in there too. We fed them what we could, but there were too many of them, ten thousand of them. We just did what we could for them. We all felt, at least I did, that maybe in some little way we could atone for the lousy thing we did to them, because we did, really. We shouldn't have gone there in the first place, maybe, but once we were there we should have done what was right, and we didn't. We just left and said "Here, now you do it." They were incapable of doing it.

We left Phu Quoc and we returned to Vung Tau. I forget the total days, total length of time they were on board the ship, but it was at least five days and we were really without food or water for them to speak of.

What they did was -- ammunition ship holds are lined with wood battens to prevent sweat from damaging the ammo, anti-sparking and everything else. They were ripping the wood down off the lining of the hold and building fires so they could cook their rice. Of course they started quite a few fires. Some of the fires got out of control and we had to put them out. So we cut oil drums in half eventually -- fifty gallon drums, and showed them how to make a fire pot out of that. We gave them tools to cut the wood properly, cut it up and put it in these fifty gallon drums and cook their rice over those and not start any fires on the ship. Which they did.

We returned to Vung Tau and finally discharged them. Landing craft came out and took them off. We went up the river then to Saigon to get the ship cleaned. It was beyond description.

Q. Any bodies on it?

No bodies. All of this operation we lost one person. One little boy fell down between the ship and a barge -- some of them had come out on a barge, and one boy fell down between the ship and the barge and didn't come up. That was the only fatality we had. Actually we were ahead of the game because I think two were born on board. I don't remember exactly when in the course of events this happened, because we had two loads of people.

We had that load and then we went back and got another one. We were in Vung Tau when the country fell. Choppers went overhead from the embassy. We were in harbor and we knew it was all over. We loaded another eight or nine thousand there. I don't remember where in the chronology this fits, but at one point we had an outbreak of pink eye and it spread like wild-fire so we had ten thousand cases of pink eye, including the crew. The marines sent a medical team in from the fleet that was off shore with some magic juice, I don't know what they had, but they administered eye drops to ten thousand people and the next day the pink eye was gone.

We went up to Saigon to clean the ship, which took two or three days, and then we proceeded down the river again and were given some other ports up the coast to attempt to get refugees out of. We didn't succeed in any of them, either because the communists had already taken the port or there weren't any landing craft to bring the people out. I'm hazy on the number of places we went to.

Q. Several days of cruising up and down?

We went to several ports. Our job was to rescue refugees. That was our assignment. When and where we could. There were two or three other ships there. I can't remember names. Some civilian ships. Two at least, civilian ships that had been carrying military cargo and they were doing the same thing. One ship somewhere along the line came alongside and we discharged -- gave them some of the people we had on board because we had so many.

One of the Vietnamese there that was being transferred from our ship to another ship, he had his little Honda there and we started to send that over and he had had enough. He said "don't bother." In fact I brought it home to Lake Tahoe with me. That was his gift to me.

We went back to Vung Tau and we were in Vung Tau when the country fell. Then chaos broke out again. Thousands of boats came out. Small boats, big boats, all kinds of boats. And we loaded people from the boats with cargo nets mostly. We swung the booms out and loaded. And when they left their boat they would poke a hole in the fuel tank and set it on fire so the communists wouldn't get it. The whole place was full of burning boats. It was sad to see people burning their home.

Q. Were they still burning at night?

What those people went through, I think a lot of American people would go crazy. They set fire to their homes with all their possessions. They couldn't bring anything with them.

Q. At night you could see the ships burning?

We had to move every so often because they crowded around so many thousands of them that we couldn't work. We had to back away a mile or so and start over again. We did that several times. I think we sunk one with our propellor in the course of backing up. It was total confusion. This was day and night.

Q. Did you have big lights at night? How did you work.

We had deck lights. Most of it was in daytime. I don't remember how much we did at night. The best I can remember it was evening when the choppers went out, towards the end of the day. We continued to load people on into dark until we were full. And then we took that load to Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Q. Were there any problems at this point with weapons?

We had not problems. We confiscated as many weapons as we could. Some we kept on board, and thousands were thrown overboard. We didn't want them armed.

Q. Did you have any marine guards on the ship?

No military on the ship. A civilian crew.

Q. So the people cooperated.

They wanted to get out of there. And we were there to get them out. We were not the enemy. We were their friends. There was no problem at all. We just took the weapons they had and threw them overboard. I don't remember how many we wound up with. I guess it was a lot.

But the whole thing was quite an experience.

Q. Did the crew members talk among themselves about what was happening?

They were involved in this thing 100 percent.

Q. Where did that dedication come from, do you think? You were just working seamen, weren't you?

just deliver ammunition. But this was a human situation. This was more than just a job. These people were in big trouble. Their lives were on the line. We were the only hope they had to get out of there . They were dead people if they were caught because they had collaborated with us. They were American sympathizers, or in the eyes of the North Vietnamese they were the enemy, they were collaborators. We were the enemy and these people had cooperated with us and that was their death warrant right there.

Q. On the way to Subic, any incidents? Good weather?

No trouble. We didn't have any problems at all.

Q. No deaths on the way there either?

None that I recall. Just that one little boy.

Q. How long does it take to get to Subic? And what did you do about water and food during that trip.

Oh, that's another thing. When we went back into Saigon there were a couple of relief organizations that showed up with tons of food. We were stocked with food for the second pickup. Noodles, like Ramen, packages of it. I've forgotten the name of the organization that provided this, but an endless supply of it really. I don't know where it came from. We were much better prepared for the second go around. When we loaded the second load we were much better. We had made fire pots to cook the rice on up on tripod legs and whatnot, on fantails back aft. We were much better equipped the second time. We didn't know what we were going into the first time. We had no idea. All we knew was go in and see if you can rescue some refugees. We didn't know what we were in for.

But the second night, after we left Saigon, and went back out we were much better equipped and knew what we were about to do.

Q. How many days to Subic?

Three or four, I guess. I don't remember.

Q. What did you do sailing back to Subic?

My job, the carpenters job on a ship, the ships are made of steel but they still carry carpenters. The carpenter's main duty -- one of his duties -- is ground tackle. The anchor, the windlass and all the running gear on the ship. He's the grease man. He also hoists and drops the anchor. Evidently in Vietnamese anchor or anchor man is Niao because that's what they called me every time I'd went forward.

We anchored and moved around a lot, and every time we'd go up to heave the anchor they'd be yelling "Niao, Niao!" That was me in Vietnamese. They were always glad to see me because it meant we were going someplace. . . .. that piece of steel that's used to work on the windlass, it fits in the slot and you move the windlass. Any way, they saw me walking forward with this piece of steel and that made them happy. Wherever they were they wanted to move. And they's say Niaio, Niaio.

They were very friendly, considering what they'd gone through and were going through, they were wonderful people.

Q. The number seems overwhelming.

It was. They were everywhere. For me to walk from midships to the bow I had to go through all these people. There was no clear deck area. They would move aside to make a path for me so I could walk through. Every square inch of space was filled with people.

Q. When you got to Subic there was no problem?

We went to Subic and there was an island in Subic Bay that they used as a staging area. They took them all to the island, and I guess tried to ascertain names and id. and make some kind of a record of what was going on here, and they had us stand by. We stood by there a month or two in Subic in case we were needed to transport them to Guam which was going to be the main staging area. But we were never used for that. I think most of them were flown to Guam. But we stayed for the time until they were sure they didn't need us. In fact it was finally in Subic that I relieved the third mate. ---

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Q. With that number of people in such close quarters, it's amazing that nobody got impatient enough or angry enough so that there were no fights. That's incredible.

It was. They are wonderful people.

Q. But even the crew. It must have tested your nerves, your patience.

Yes, it did, but not to the point where there was any fight. Everybody did what they could do. Everybody was totally exhausted, you know.

I don't know if this is for publication, but I remember one of the people we got out of Can Ranh was a CIA man, I guess, and he was so glad to get out of there he threw a party at the Seamen's club in Saigon. We had a hell of a party in Saigon that one night.

I think it was two days or three days we were there and everybody got a rest. And we went out for the next one we knew what we were in for. It was a total commitment on everybody's part to get these people on the ship and get them out of there. Everybody including Clinton Harriman, or anybody else. Everybody that could do anything did it. Whether it was down on the gangway handing up babies or whatever it was. There were a lot of kids, a lot of babies, handed up from man to man up the gangway.

Q. The people themselves sound kind of well organized too. They organized a committee, the babies were all taken care of, nobody was abandoned.

It was controlled chaos. They are wonderful people. They really are.

Q. You sound like you feel really good about yourself at that time.

Yeah, I think we did a good job. We got eighteen thousand of them out of there. I wish we could have gotten more.

Q. What happened after Subic? Did you stay with the Greenville Victory?

Yes. It went to Mobile and we had a big reception in Mobile. You had the mayor and the whole town, and the band and all that good stuff, you know.

Q. So people knew what you had done?

Evidently. We got a nice reception in Mobile and ceremony and we've all got a piece of paper that says thanks for a good job, which is nice.

We went to Mobile and from Mobile we went to Sunny Point, North Carolina where we loaded another load of ammunition and went to NATO this time, and took it to Bremerhaven, Greece and Turkey. Finally went back to New York and that's where I got off.

Q. During that trip back to Mobile did the crew members reflect much about what had gone on? Did any of them have a community feeling of real pride, a natural high?

Yeah. I think we thought we did a pretty good thing.

Q. It's a most unusual situation. Most people aren't given a chance to respond as heroically --

You can talk about it afterwards and try to find reasons for what you did, but actually there's the thing and you do it. When something presents itself in front of you, you just do it. Maybe later on you think about it. There these people are, let's get them out of here. It's that simple.

Q. How about the physical effort? Did you sleep?

Very little. We didn't sleep or eat. It was exhausting. But that was later. You are so full of adrenalin at the time that you don't really think about it. Seamen are a funny lot, you know. They do the job when the job has to be done. They are good people. The best people I ever knew in my life were the seamen I sailed with. They just do the job. Then they talk about it later, but they get the job done. These are merchant seamen, not military personnel. Professional sailors that do the job of ten. The ships that we sailed on, a ship like that, a ten thousand ton ship has a crew of about thirty-seven or thirty-eight men and if it's a navy ship it has three hundred and fifty. We each do the work of ten men. We sail the ship. We are professional seamen and I was always proud of that. I learned a lot of things there. It was a good part of my life, the years I spent at sea.

Q. Why did you leave the Greenville Victory in New York?

The ship was laid up. That was its last voyage, and I wanted to go home. I'd been on there a year, I guess, and it was time to go home. I had driven to New York. My brother lives in Long Island, and my truck was there. I went to his house, got my truck and drove back here.

Q. Did you ever want to tell people, did people want to hear what you had done?

I don't know. I wouldn't say that it was never discussed. In the course of conversations you meet people naturally that have been to Nam, we have Vietnam veterans here. And the subject of Vietnam would come up and I would tell them about the refugee situation we ran into. But it wasn't a big story.

Q. Did you ever run into any of the people you brought out?

No. Unfortunately. Harriman can tell you an interesting story about that. He had a girl friend there, or a wife, whichever. We got her out. He located her, she was in Saigon and we got her out. He got her out somehow, we got her to the Philippines, because -- when I came out here I got married again and the gal that I was married to at the time showed up in Mobile when the ship got there, and she made arrangements with Harriman to take care of this girl, brought her back here to Tahoe and set her up in a place to live until he could make arrangements to come and get her. Got one out anyway.

Q. Is Harriman married to her now?

I don't know. I haven't seen him since.

Q. You don't miss it any more?

Yes. Sometimes.

I'm fifty-nine and I just want to stay home now. I run a limousine and meet a lot of interesting people there and that will do me now, I guess.

Q. DO you ever think much about that experience? Does that come back to you when you saw the 10th anniversary stuff on Vietnam?

Yes. I've often wished that I had a name or so of somebody that was on that ship that I could meet -- one of the Vietnamese that got out of there on the Greenville and made it here. I read an article in the paper not long ago about the Vietnamese community here on the West Coast and how successful they had become, some of them. They are industrious people, great people, they work hard, don't want welfare, want to work and send their children to school. One of them, I think, graduated top of his class at one of the academies. That kind of thing doesn't surprise me. It surprises some of these rednecks here that these people can do it. But they are very intelligent people and they are industrious. I'm married to one now and it's the best thing I ever did. My wife if Filipino. I just like oriental people.

I spent a lot of time in the Far East and I think that probably that experience in Vietnam really showed me what those people are made of.

Q. You don't have any down side to the memories?

No, other than the sympathy that I felt for those people.

Q. To me it would have been scary having the delegation say they were going to blow up your ship.

I sympathized with them. I knew what they meant. I don't blame you. I'd do that to. Captain Iacabocci said, "What am I going to do?" I said, "What the hell. Haul the anchor and get the hell out of here." It's simple. I think everybody understood what they were saying. I didn't blame them for not wanting to go ashore. I wouldn't have wanted to go there either. There was no escape from there.

Q. When you talk to people about Vietnam today, people who have seen movies and things, do you find the experience is so distorted in popular movies that people don't know anything about it?

I think so. I think a lot of it is forgotten. Remember all the protests and all the controversy. Vietnam seemed to go on forever, remember.

Q. As the years passed I've found the people who protested really didn't know that much about it and today they know even less.

People like to protest. They don't know what they are protesting, but they like to protest. Maybe I'm too strong-minded about it, but I think if we involve ourselves militarily in anything, we should go 100 percent and finish it, win it and get out of it. We always did before.

Korea was not our fault. The United Nations tied our hands there. But Korea we had the option of doing what had to be done. Either pay attention to MacArthur's advice because he said never attempt to fight a land war in Asia. So either follow his advice and don't go there at all, or if you do go do the thing right. We had the capability of doing the job right. How many years did that drag on? It was ridiculous.

At the time I thought I don't want my kid going over there and getting killed either, if he can't win it. I don't mind him fighting a war if he can go over there and do the job, win it, and get out. I wouldn't want him there as cannon fodder either. I think we did the whole thing wrong.

Q. Do you remember the countryside when you went into Saigon or Vung Tau? Was it as beautiful to you at that time?

It's pretty country, yes. It's very pretty country. That's the Delta area. We went up the river and all along the river are rice paddies, looks similar to the Mississippi delta. But it's pretty country. I didn't get inland. All I really saw of Vietnam was Cam Ranh, DaNang and Saigon. I didn't go ashore in Vung Tau. Vung Tau is a resort, a beautiful town right on the ocean.

Q. Have you ever wanted to go back and see it?

Yes, I wouldn't mind. There's a lot of places in the Far East I would like to go back to. If I hit the Lottery or something here I will. Yes, I would like to go back there.

This happened rather quickly, you know. We didn't have time to do any sightseeing. I would like to go back, look over the place. Maybe I'd see it this time.

Q. When you talk to your kids, or try to explain to someone the meaning of all of this

I have children from thirty-seven, thirty-five, thirty-three, and a stepson fifteen. Yeah, I told them I thought that we had abandoned those people and nobody asked me if I thought we should do this, if I thought we should pull out and leave those people. Nobody asked anybody anything. You don't have any say in what happens then you have to regret it. I felt very strongly when I was there that -- you could almost see it in their eyes, "Why did you abandon us? Why did the Americans leave us?" But not with animosity. It was like a kid would look at his father, "Why did you hit me?"

But they were wonderful, those people. I love them. I wish we had gotten them all out of there. I wish it wouldn't have been necessary to get them out of there. It shouldn't have been necessary.

Another little side story, while we were in Subic they sent that crew over to get the Mayaguez out and Harriman can tell you more about that. There were about six or eight men that went to get that ship.

Q. How did they go?

They went on Marine helicopters. They cut the anchor chain with a torch and put a line on a destroyer and towed it out of there.

Q. I'll be talking to them tomorrow.

My address is *********** Yeah, tell old Harriman I said "Hi." And Iacabocci you can tell him I said Hi. We have a mutual friend, Joe Seaman, I sailed with for years who was here about a month ago to visit me from New York. They were good friends. In that business you don't see people for years sometimes.

Q. Robert Paige, a cook?
Yeah, that sounds familiar.
Q. Damon Smith
That's the purser.
The yeoman took pictures of all of us. Yeoman storekeeper, Robert Griffin, Massachusetts. If you find him, he promised to send me copies of his pictures and I never got them.

Bayonne military terminal, Atlantic headquarters of the Military Sealift Command.

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