Ray Iacobacci, Master of the USNS Greenville Victory
Photos courtesy of Joe Semon who served with Ray Iacobacci
top photo: Joe Semon (left) and Capt. Ray Iacobacci (right)[Ray steering a lifeboat with me(JS), 1981-82, Diego Garcia lagoon.]
Middle Photo: Ray at the tiller of the lifeboat, 1981-82, Diego Garcia lagoon
Bottom photo:Ray and Joe Semon are at the stern of the boat looking forward at the U.S. Navy C.O. Of Diego Garcia (1981-82) and the deck department able bodied seamen. They are returning to the U.S.N.S. Mercury T-AKR 10 (now in reserve status and named the S.S. Cape Island AKR-10).
"We Don't Want to Go There, Captain"
In the spring of 1975 we carried ammunition from Port Chicago to Vietnam and then we sailed to Thailand. In Vietnam at the same time as they were discharging we had carpenters come aboard and build about seven outside privys on the main deck. I had them all on one side because I figured if I ever tied up to one ship on the other side I would have no problem. Then we had steps with handrails built in each cargo hold, down each level.
They did this, they said, because we would probably be picking up refugees. This was the Military Sealift Command and the Army doing this.
We were in Thailand when I got word to head back to Vietnam and I had to round up the crew. I left five men behind because we had to sail. I went around searching for the crew. Word of mouth was passed that we were sailing. But still when I sailed I left five behind.
We were supposed to head up for Danang, I believe, but by the time we got around there it had already fell and we had to go to I think, Nha Trang. And that had fallen so my orders were to go to Cam Ranh Bay and we anchored in the stream there picking up a bunch of people off barges.
There was order in Cam Ranh Bay. Then I tied up on the south side of the long pier. The weather was calm, very little wind.
The people were coming on pretty fast. You couldn't stop them all. They were coming up on cargo nets, pallets, and both gangways. I only had forty-two people on board, including me.
And we took on over 8,000 on the first load. About eighty-two hundred.
After we got under way from Cam Ranh I was supposed to bring them to an island called Phu Quc over by Cambodia. I always thought it was off Cambodia.
We were getting a lot of worry from people who were friendly to us that there was going to be trouble and they didn't want to go to Phu Quoc. There's not enough water there, they said, not enough food for the people. They were coming up to the bridge and telling me this and even coming to my room to tell me. It took about four days to get to Phu Quoc. One thing I want to say, nobody died on our ship. We had four babies born but nobody died. On all the other ships I believe people got killed. No one died on our ship. It got to be known as the good luck ship.
There were other ships at Phu Quoc --American Challenger was there, the Pioneer contender, the USNS Miller. We anchored and you could feel the pressure building up on our ship because the people didn't want to go there.
We anchored and after a couple hours I got a hold of authorities on the VHF and I told them if they could send some gate boats to start getting these people off. "The pressure is building up here." "Well we'll get to you in due time," they said. They had so many other ships that they were working. They were working on the American Challenger, bringing them over on my gate boats.
We were off Phu Quoc there I tried to get the LCM8 --Landing Craft. They didn't get them over to me in time. We had word that these people didn't want to get off. I was down in my office talking to some of the Vietnamese and I got word they wanted to see me up on the bridge. So I go up on the bridge and here come the Vietnamese on both bridge wings coming inside the bridge. So one guy is the spokesman. He told me "We don't want to go there, Captain." You could see they had arms.
So we walked in the chart room. He showed me a Shell Oil road map that he had, pretty well ragtag, and he says, "Captain, we want you to bring the ship over here." And he showed me on a chart. It was near Cambodia and Vietnam on the southern tip. I said, "I can't bring the ship there. There's not enough water. No way." So then he talked it over with a couple of the other guys. Then he says, "All right Captain, you bring us to Cam Ranh Bay." I said, "Okay."
I get on the VHF and told the other ship masters what's going on, "We're pulling out." I heaved up on the anchor and started steaming south. At the same time a black LCU gunboat tried to follow us but she couldn't keep up with our speed. I was told it was a Cambodian gunboat. At the time we were still friendly with Cambodia. We finally established contact with the MSC rep and I told him what happened, what we were doing. We kept close contact about every four hours let him know our position, course and speed, all that day and all that night. And the following morning right around daylight there were two destroyers and a cruiser that steamed up right over the horizon coming right at us. They were American ships and as they approached you could feel the tension on the ship.
We got into Cam Ranh Bay and I dropped the hook. I then got hold of the Blue Ridge and told them to get me some marines out there. I had no docking orders. The Trans-Colorado came in. The captain pulled up in front of me and he dropped his anchor and he was going to drift back on me by slacking on his anchor chain, and he had marines and they were going to jump on my ship. But just before all this -- he did drop his anchor and drifted back -- I got orders to pick up anchors and proceed to the dock. Which we did.
We got to dock and everybody got off the ship. There were a few guys that didn't go that were very loyal to me. They were my people to keep me informed on what was going on down below. They were figuring that there were a lot of disgruntled people who if they ever got ahold of them, well, it would be bad. So we kept them hidden on the ship. Then we got orders to proceed to Saigon.
When we got to Saigon, they started cleaning the ship out because the ship had a pretty strong odor down in the cargo hold. The hold was washed down three times with disinfectant and then they started to put more provisions on the ship. So we were up there for four and a half days, got cleaned up, plenty of food now on deck. Orders are to proceed to Cam Ranh Bay and drop hook.
We dropped the anchor there, and then I got orders to proceed to another port, north of there along the coast. By the time we got there, as soon as I made the turn, an artillery shell came and hit in the water, splashed. So my orders were to proceed back south to Cam Ranh Bay. And we anchored again. I stayed six miles off shore, right near the sea buoy, I believe, because the rockets had a range of six miles.
We stayed there for a while, then I got orders to proceed to another port that was just north of Cam Ranh Bay. By the time we got there there were a lot of ships, we were the last, just steaming back and forth. You could see people on the beach, but none of them came out to the ship. We reported to my superiors and were told to go back to Cam Ranh Bay again. So I stayed again anchored. Then they told me to go south and I did.
We were expecting holy hell to break loose, and suddenly it did. As far as the eye could see, east to west, as far north as you could see there were boats coming down bringing refugees. Hundreds and hundreds. We started getting stragglers coming down. Like I remember we even had a boatload of nuns and children. Vietnamese. And they even had a bishop on board.
I went on the air and told the authorities about it. I used the word "Armada" of fishing boats coming down. They started to crawl all around our ship. We just can't handle them all, so we're drifting, you can only load so much. Now I've got marines on board this time. I got about fifty-three marines.
We brought them on board with nets, accommodation ladder, and hoisted them up on the pallets. They were surrounding the ship and abandoning the boats. I had to keep them away from the propeller because the propeller was turning over slightly and didn't want to damage the propeller.
The were all coming out of the Saigon River. It's unbelievable. One guy came with a big seagoing tugboat. He was going to abandon the tug. He had his family, the crew members had families on that tug. All the people got on my ship and he abandoned his tug.
As we were drifting more and more people were coming around, all leaving their motors run on their boats. The exhaust, smoke, began to get to people. The boats were out five or six piled against each other piled against the ship. And there was even an LCM8. I remember we had to steam away. We just can't handle them all that fast. So we steamed away slowly and got a little room to breathe.
Then this LCM8 came with a bunch of Vietnamese girls and women and guys, and the guys were fighting the women trying to get on the ship, pushing them out of the way. I sent one of my men down and he's fighting with these guys to let the women go on board. So they all rushed on board. Even the boat crew came on board. And the abandoned the LCM8. These were civilians and soldiers. They were abandoning everything they owned except the clothes on their backs.
There was one woman who wanted permission to go back down on the LCM8 so Harry(Harrison) came to see me and asked and I said, go ahead and send her down. She was looking for her satchel because she had lost a whole bunch of gold coins. But she never found her satchel. I don't know what happened on that.
When they told me I had about eleven thousand aboard I had to stop loading. Then I was supposed to move further south with other ships, American Challenger and some others. Then my orders were to proceed to Subic Bay, which we did, and we tied up on a barge where the people got off our ship and went on the Trans Colorado because she had more fresh water capacity than we did. We had outdoor fire hoses on deck for showers. We didn't have enough fresh water for everybody, but we made it.
You can't forget a thing like that, ever. I felt sorry for the people.
When we got back to Mobile we got the best welcome I ever had anywhere. There were many Congressmen were there, several admirals, high ranking labor union officials. And one thing I was struck with, the people were all nice, the band and about twenty-five flower girls in big Civil War skirts, big hats. We had a very good welcome. It was real nice.
The Greenville Victory was later sold for scrap. The Greenville, the Miller, and the Robinson were sold for scrap, I believe in 1980. From the Greenville Victory, I got the last American flag that flew on that ship.