Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"If I Ever See that Son of a Bitch I'll Kill Him:" Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Fall of the South

DAN BERNEY Remembers

The Military Sea Lift Command MLS) is a component of the United States Navy just like the Military Air Lift Command is part of the Air Force. There was an entity known as the Army Transport Service which operated ships and boats and tugs and a whole bunch of other water craft and basically was in the ocean transportation business when the Military Integration Act of I think 1947 or thereabouts was signed off and the consolidation of the services and so forth. The ocean transportation parts were taken away from Army Transport and transferred to the Navy, this being the agency supposedly with the smarts and the expertise and the capabilities, the infrastructure and all that sort of thing. So that became MSTS, Military Sea Transport Service in 1948. Subsequently one of the admirals we had decided he wanted to rename it and renamed it MSC, Military Sealift Command. It's an integral part of the Department of Defense and our mission is to provide ocean transportation for the Department of Defense and other government agencies as required.

Q. For the DOD, not just --

That's right. We support the State Department upon request, which includes USAID and any other agencies.

MSC is the arm of the Department of Defense that is charged with providing ocean transportation. It's manned largely by civilians but it's headed by a military officer.

The ships themselves are uniformly manned by civilians, the ones that we man, with civil service mariners. We also have ships and many of them were involved in the evacuation of South Vietnam that were chartered ships. These were with civilian crews, the normal type out of the union halls, employed by steamship companies. U. S. Lines, for example, had a number of ships under charter to us. One of them, I think it was the Pioneer Contender wound up I think with something like sixteen thousand five hundred people on it. That was one of our ships.

We had a lot of other hairy experiences. We had a tugboat, I think it was the Harumi if I remember correctly, that was up in the vicinity of Da Nang and they'd been boarded on all sides by refugees fleeing from Da Nang. They ended up with between five and six hundred people on that tugboat and the skipper was in fear that the ship was going to capsize. I almost literally moved heaven and earth in order to put out a distress call on the international distress frequency in order to get some relief to this guy and it was impossible. You couldn't do it. Navy ships can't operate on 500 kilocycles and we had no way from Saigon of contacting any ships. I tried the Tokyo marine people through our agencies up there. Even NSA had some listening stations in that area and I got in touch with them. I think there was one in Thailand and they either could not or would not put out a distress call for this guy. He survived anyhow.

Q. Did he get to Nha Trang?

I think they came to Cam Ranh. I'm not certain.

Q. MSC was in operation in Korea. Were you with them in Korea?
Oh, I'd been in Korea, yes. And I was in Japan for five years.

Q. Were you in the Korean War with MSC?

I was in the Korean but on active duty in the Navy at the time.

Q. When did you join MSC?

I was employed by a commercial company, Tidewater Oil Company, which operated tankers and I was going to sea at the time. They were getting new ships and they were larger and faster and there were fewer employment opportunities. We went from a fleet of about fourteen ships down to about six. Obviously they required fewer people to man them. It just didn't look like a good future for promotion. I was sailing as Second Mate at the time.

I was going to school to raise my license to Master's License, and there were some people there from MSTS as it was then known. I guess they'd been asked by their headquarters to recruit if they could, so the next thing I knew, I got a couple phone calls from MSTS wanting to know if I was interested in employment. I really wasn't, but I think something happened, I got ticked off at somebody at Tidewater, so I started considering it more seriously anyhow. I went to work for them in 1964 or '65.

Q. About the time of the buildup.

Yeah;, well that's what was going on. They were breaking more ships out, crewing them and so forth, MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service) was, and consequently they needed more people. I had a remarkable career. I think I worked for MSC for about six months. I was assigned to a ship down in Port Hueneme, called the Range Tracker, a range instrumentation ship on the Gemini and Apollo programs, and I think I was first officer, chief mate, and within six months I was Master. This was just phenomenal.

Q. Did these ships carry troops to Hawaii?

I sailed on the troopers also. The General Walker, the General Sultan, and we hauled troops, San Diego Marines primarily, and Army troops from mostly the San Francisco area, to -- I think we dropped some off in the Philippines, but most went to Vietnam.

Q. How long would that take?

It was about two weeks as I remember. They were fairly fast ships. They did about eighteen, nineteen knots. But it was still a long trip. They usually broke it in Hawaii and Subic in the Philippines.

Q. Did you have a home?

Yeah, I had a house in Palo Alto. My ex-wife still has it.

Q. When you got to Vietnam, did you stay there, get to look over the situation?

No, I was totally uninterested. I didn't even bother going ashore. Well, I think I went ashore a couple times in Da Nang and Cam Ranh to buy something at the exchanges,-- toothpaste, film -- I had no interest in Vietnam at all until the Paris Peace Treaty came along. And at that point it was decided that the MSC mission there would continue partly because of the civilian aspects and because we had contracting capabilities. I don't know whether people actually foresaw these things, but in any event it was really an excellent decision because we were able to do things that nobody else could, for a variety of reasons.

In any case, they were looking for somebody to run the operation down there. I'd been in Japan just slightly over five years at that point and as you probably know, in Civil Service there's a five-year limitation on overseas tours. You're not supposed to spend more than five years. You have to come back to the continental United States to renew your citizenship for a minimum of two years and then you can go overseas again.

Well my time was up, and I had a couple of friends on the staff who were active in planning this thing out. I was completely disinterested. I knew it was going on, they were going through all these plans for setting up the organization. IL just wanted no part of it. One of them was a Lieutenant Commander, and another was in the Personnel Department, really kind of talked me into it. And the more I thought about it, the better it sounded to me, because I didn't particularly want to come back to the States at that time. And this was an alternative. I could get a tentative appointment down there, and also I got a promotion out of it, which wasn't all that important to me at the time. So I applied for the job and I was selected to what they called, using the Army nomenclature, Chief of the Military Sealift Command Office in Vietnam. Everybody was a chief down there. In the Navy we'd call him "commanding officer" or something like that. We had the Chief of the Navy Division, Chief of the Air Force Division, etc. With an office in Saigon.

We had an office at Number One Trinh Minh The. It had been established by my predecessors because we had an all military office before I went down there. One of the interesting things is, Trinh Minh The was right down on the waterfront on the river right next to the Saigon Yacht Club, incidentally. During World War II it had been the headquarters for the Japanese Navy in Vietnam. We inherited that. It was a very picturesque building. I really like it because it was a kind of self-contained operation. My boss was three or four thousand miles away in Yokohama. Nominally I answered to the Defense Attache Office (DAO) but I had a good deal of independence. I was on General John Murray's (the Defense Attache) staff at the time.

Q. Did you know Henry Hicks also?

Oh, sure. He was the personnel officer there.

Q. Henry actually has the manifests from the 7th Fleet for April 29th 1975, which lists every civilian that came aboard, their names, birthdate, passport number, and I was able to use that. He's been extremely helpful.

Q. Tell me about employing the Vietnamese. How many did you hire?

We had about thirty, thirty-five.

Q. Good employees?

Well, money is good. We had some bad ones, particularly toward the end. I discovered this long after the fact after I got back to the United States -- we moved our office from Trinh Minh The by direction of DAO to the downtown area. And then toward the end there, I initiated a move with the approval of the Admiral Arthur Benton, from the building we were in to Newport, primarily because I wanted to be closer to the ships. My overt reason was we could get to the ships and could manage it better. My not-so-overt reason was that I wanted to be close to them in case I had to get the hell out of there, so I could get on the bloody ship. I had no confidence in these people at the DAO getting us out of there.

Q. A lot of people didn't seem to.

With good reason. Anyhow, --

Q. In those years what were you doing?

There were cargoes going into Vietnam, mostly military stuff that we were concerned with including ammunition, trucks, tanks, you name it, the usual stuff. There was a lot of it going out of the country. Tanks were going back to the United States, for example, tanks and APC's went back for overhaul and repair, that sort of thing. There was a fair amount of retrograde, but nowhere near the amount that was coming in. We were pouring stuff into that country. Nominally we were limited to the amount that was on hand when the peace treaty was executed and to the best of my knowledge this was observed, but they were using up ammunition at a phenomenal rate. They'd learned from the U.S. Army, I guess.

Q. You didn't sail you just administered from Saigon?

That's right. We did all the grungy little jobs. Husband these things, seeing that they got pilots, supplies, medical care.

Q. Once they arrived in the country, when did your responsibility for them shift to someone else?

As soon as it came in. It was our responsibility until they left.

Q. I was thinking about the supposed corruption down at the docks, with pilfering and going to the black market. Was that part of your problem?

Well, not that I am aware of. I know it went on. One rather gross example, -- you said you talked to General Homer Smith (succeeded Murray as Defense Attache)-- he probably doesn't even know about this, but toward the end there, Homer Smith's wife was in Saigon with him, and I guess they'd done quite a bit of purchasing like all of us did. A lot of stuff there was nice stuff and good pricing to it. So the appropriate division of DAO packed all of his household goods for shipment and the planes were loaded with refugees going out so they couldn't get the stuff on any of the planes, the C141s and C130s and C5s that were coming and going. So I had a call from one of the guy in the transportation department asking if we could get them on one of our ships. So we went through a horrible flail trying to get these -- I guess we couldn't get a truck into Tan Son Nhut. We needed a big flatbed or lo bed trailer to load this stuff on. We sent one out there and they couldn't get in because of the crowds of refugees around the gate. And so we tried again and got it in. I may have this a little out of sequence. But anyhow we finally got loaded and got it down to the docks.

We were going to load it on one of the two ships that we had remaining in port. One of the things that took place, I loaded the Green Wave with refugees. Ended up with about six hundred fifty or six hundred seventy people on there. That's a story in itself. But we didn't trust the stevedores. They were Army stevedores. It was an Army port, operated by Vietnamese Army, but they were a pretty rough bunch of characters, like stevedores are every place and we simply didn't trust them. So we wanted to get the ship loaded and we had all these people. We had around three or five hundred people in my office which was about half the size of this room here. The toilets were overflowing, sick babies screaming, you wouldn't believe the scene. Anyhow, I was working with the lieutenant colonel who was the commander of Newport, and we had this agreement between us, so we knocked the stevedores off at eleven o'clock to get them out of the port so we could go ahead and load the ship.

One of the results of this was General Smith's household goods didn't get loaded on the ship. We sailed the two ships early the next morning. One of the guys who worked for me was down on the pier and he said, "Oh, my God, the general's household effects are still down on the pier." He said they had been broken into and some of the stevedores had already broken into one of the containers. So we did what we could to provide security for them. And then we moved them back out to Tan Son Nhut and eventually we got them on a plane and they flew them out. They ended up in a warehouse in Emeryville California and whether by accident or design, because a lot of this stuff got pilfered, they thought there was gold and narcotics and stuff coming out in these boxes, the warehouse burned down. He lost everything.

Q. Colonel William E. LeGro lost all of his stuff too.

Thank God I got my stuff out. Mine was in a warehouse in Sparks Nevada or some ridiculous place.

Q. During your years there did you gain any affection for Vietnam?

Well, it's really kind of a hard question to address, because over the last few years my feelings about Vietnamese have been somewhat solid. But yeah, I liked it. I had a very good life, really, in spite of the horror show that was going on around.

Q. The war didn't affect you to the degree there was sabotage, etc?

Yeah, it was something you live with, I guess. It certainly was not really analogous to a combat-type situation. As far as I know, this action happened -- it was in the weeks just before evacuation. We had a lot of civilian contract workers working out at Bien Hoa Air Base and mostly they lived in Saigon and were bused out there. So one morning -- this is the story I heard, I didn't witness it so I can't say it's true -- one morning a bus load of Americans was heading out toward Bien Hoa. It was in downtown Saigon, and a guy pulled up alongside the bus on a motor scooter and he reached over and pulled open the pneumatic door and tossed in a hand grenade. Somebody in there had the smarts to pick up the hand grenade and threw it back out. The bus was rolling forward and was almost past the hand grenade when it went off. It blew off the engine cover. There were no windows, so no glass, and nobody was hurt. It scared the hell out of them, I guess.

Q. No sabotage of your ships as there was in '63 and '64?

You mean sappers? and mines? No. The USNS CARD was one of ours, in '64. (The Attack on the USNS Card was a Viet Cong operation during the Vietnam War. It took place in the port of Saigon in the early hours of May 2, 1964, and mounted by commandos from the 65th Special Operations Group. The Card was first commissioned into the United States Navy during World War II, playing a significant role in destroying German Navy submarines as the flagship of Task Group 21.14. Decommissioned in 1945, the Card was reactivated in 1958 and entered service with the Military Sea Transport Service, transporting military equipment to South Vietnam as part of the United States military commitment to that country. With the USNS Card a regular visitor to the port, it became a target for local Viet Cong commando units. Shortly after midnight on May 2, 1964, two Viet Cong commandos climbed out of the sewer tunnel near the area where the Card was anchored, and they attached two loads of explosives to the ship’s hull. The attack was a success and the Card sank 48 feet, and five civilian crew members were killed by the explosions. The ship was refloated 17 days later, and was towed to the Philippines for repairs.)

Q. Did you keep up with what was happening by reading the Saigon Post?

No. I mean, I read the newspapers and particularly toward the end I attended the same intelligence briefings that General Murray and everybody else went to that Colonel LeGro put on. I thought I knew what the hell was going on. In addition to that, my neighbor directly under me, was this fellow Wally Driver who was a CIA agent. By then I knew that he was. And we exchanged information. I didn't find out until months later when I came back to the United States after the evacuation, I went back to Japan and was living in a BOQ (Bachelor Officers' Quarters) there and there was a bunch of schoolteachers there as well, and one of them had put a box of magazines out in the hallway for anybody who wanted them. I was looking for something to read so I picked up Newsweek and Time and some other magazines. I started reading these things. They were for April and May 1975, and I swear to Christ, my hair stood on end. I didn't know how bad it was when I was in Saigon.

If I had known, I'd have been running.

Q. At what point did you start pulling refugees out, and military people, from DaNang and some of the cities. Do you remember getting the word that you were going to do that?

Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, I think again, MSC and in this case my office, deserves a great deal of credit for it. I have an article in the MSC magazine that describes this particular evolution where Rear Admiral Sam H. Moore sent a contingent of tugs and barges north to carry out assets and to bring out people. Well, what actually happened was -- I worked closely, on a friendly basis, they were personal friends of mine, with these transportation people at DAO who had called me and said, "Can you send some barges up north to Da Nang and I think Qui Nhon. What they were interested in at the time was trying to rescue as much of the assets up there that they could, rolling stock, tanks, trucks, maybe even aircraft. I don't know. And also petroleum if there was any way of getting it out, and ammunition." This was a peculiar situation because you get into these typical government stupidities that I had a whole contingent of tugs and barges that we had been using to haul ammunition up the Mekong River. This was under a totally different contract and there was no legal way that we could do what DAO wanted. Well in the end it was worked out, but anyhow, they wanted to know if I could send some up. So I called my headquarters in Yokohama and told them what was going on. And I was told not to do it. Primarily because of contractual problems.

I had a pretty good idea of what was happening up country, and so on my initiative, I sailed the barges. What I figured was, if they really came down on me, I could turn around and bring them back. We could communicate by radio. And on the other hand, if we got an okay to go ahead with it, we'd have them in position. They'd be up there. It took about two and a half days, as I recall, from Saigon to get to the northern part of the country by water. So that's what I did.

We sent about three or four tugs and barges, some of them towing more than one barge, whatever we had available. They were just sitting down at Vung Tau. We weren't using them for anything. So it seemed expedient. Anyhow, it was the beginning of the thing.

We had ships in the area and they started picking up refugees too. These people are coming out in boats and you had to do something with them. You couldn't throw them in the water. So that's where the Pioneer Contender loaded, and if I remember correctly it was up in the vicinity of DaNang. So that was sort of, in a nutshell, the way we got into the refugee business.

Q. These were the horror stories that started. Were you aware of --

Oh, yeah, I was hearing from people who had been on the ships. I told you, I think, that one of these fellows, an AB&T (Alaska Barge and Transport Company)representative, our contractor, who had been at DaNang, had been on the bridge of one of these ships when they were shooting people and one thing and another -- rather unsettled conditions shall we say -- and when he came back, the guy practically had a nervous breakdown, he was a basket case. We had to evacuate him.

Q. He was watching this?

Yeah. Well it was pretty unsettling, I guess, because he didn't know what the hell was going on.

Q. And he couldn't do anything about it. Was he armed, were your crews armed at all?

A typical merchant ship may have two guns. The Chief Engineer and the Master probably each have a thirty-eight pistor and that's it, if they have that, and if they work.

Q. Did these crowds that came out just take over the ships?

In a couple of cases, yeah. There were a lot of military personnel and they were armed. These guys were coming on with M16s and ---

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. . . barges and the ships, we couldn't get in to the piers. They were controlled by North Vietnamese. So about all we were able to scoop up were the ones that came out to the ships. The tugs did go into the ports, at least in a few cases.

Q. The Vietnamese Army got stuck out in the water, too, didn't they?

Well, the Vietnamese Army were the worst performers of the whole damn thing, really.

Q. The ships you sent up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, that was increasingly dangerous wasn't it?

It was extremely dangerous. What it really came down to, we were a bunch of god damn civilian mercenaries fighting a war up there. There are a lot of aspects of that that have never gotten out into the open, so to speak. We operated through one of several contractors we had. Alaska Barge and Transport. These people deserve a tremendous amount of credit too. They were a real going outfit. Anyhow, under the contract we had, they operated the tugs and barges that transited the Mekong River. We had an operation going that was code named "Scoot" or "Scoot-T". And the acronym stands for "Supply Cambodia Out of Thailand". The hyphen T is "Transhipped" from Vung Tau. We were loading the stuff at Sattahip Thailand. Our ships would come in to Sattahip in Thailand and off load the ammunition at the piers there. This was a Thai military facility at Sattahip. And we would in turn back load the barges, tow them over to Vung Tau, stage somewhere, make up convoys which supposedly were escorted, and then take them up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh.

This was too time consuming, too expensive and it didn't work out too well because the Thai pirates and the VC were ripping us off, boarding the barges. We had a barge come in with five hundred pound bombs missing off of it and I have never to this day figured our how the hell on a boat rolling at sea they took a five hundred pound bomb and loaded it into a sampan.

You remember that big flail about ammunition they found out in the surf in Thailand. It was an international incident. M16 ammunition. I think this came from some of our barges. Anyhow, there were these problems, and the Thai pirates who were not one of my favorite subjects incidentally, after what they'd done to the refugees and that sort of thing. They were really bad people.

Q. They preyed on the barges too.

Oh, yeah. And the tugboat skippers weren't about to argue with them. They knew what was going on. They'd see them back there, although it was usually at night. But the tug skippers were not armed and the pirates were.

Q. A tug would tow how many barges?

Well, anywhere from one to three depending on the size of the tug and various other things.

Q. So they couldn't see behind?

Oh, they could see. They could see them on the radar if nothing else at night.

Anyhow, it was decided to ship the operation over to Vietnam and we got involved in it -- I, my office, Bill Ryder and myself, along with other people from DAO and various other places, were involved in the planning of this thing. Our headquarters up in Yokohama was putting the brakes full on. They didn't want any part of this. The commander we had up there, named Captain Darryl Ruson, was a personal friend of mine, but he was opposed to the whole damn thing down in Vietnam. And had a very negative attitude toward everything that was going on down there. Bill Ryder and I, and particularly Bill, I think, were the local warriors.

Q. Why didn't he want to get involved? It would seem to be extremely profitable.

Not at that point, no. Not in terms of military career. He was stationed up in Yokohama and as far as I could see it wouldn't have done him any good. Here's the headquarters up there pulling this way and Bill and I are down in Saigon stirring the pot with these generals and admirals that are coming in from Hawaii and various other places, Washington and so forth. So we helped to sell the idea.

We set up this operation and I was looking to -- I don't know what you'd call it -- "empire building", that sort of thing. So we had our own stevedore operation down at Vung Tau. We got a contract and set it up. What happened was that we brought the ammunition ships in, we staged barges down there, we loaded the ammunition, sandbagged it and put all the great stuff around it that we needed and then ran the convoys up to Phnom Penh. We controlled it entirely from Saigon. This went on for months.

In the course of this, initially the Cambodian KR, the Khmer Rouge, the communists, would shoot at the barges and try to set off the ammunition. There was other stuff being hauled up there too, POL, petroleum, rice. But we were concerned primarily with the ammunition. So they tried to either set the ammunition barges on fire or explode the ammunition and they were successful in some cases. There are a number of choke points in that river up there where the channel narrows down. They can just sit there and zero in on you. It's a little difficult to navigate.

Then we started providing protection for the barges. We sandbagged the barges and they started using the Strella, D40, rocket propelled grenade, which as you know has a shaped charge. I understand the stuff will go through ten or twelve inches of mild steel, and it certainly goes through sandbags. So General Ira Hunt who was the deputy at USAG [US Army Garrison] in Thailand -- USAG as near as I can understand had the oversight responsibility for Vietnam and certainly for Cambodia. We got the job of trying to figure out some way to protect the barges and Captain John Spiller, or Jack Spiller, who was head of the Navy division at that time, called together several conferences and there were contributions from various people. I don't think we MSC contributed a hell of a lot for various reasons, but collectively we came up with a concept for what we ultimately called "mosquito nets", or screen barges. These were flat barges. We had the barges, so we were intimately involved in this thing. We provided many of the barges. Some of them we got back from the Vietnamese army. They are called BC barges, or barge cargo in Army nomenclature. Fairly small, as I recall they were about seventy-five or ninety feet long or something like that.

What we did was set up two cyclone fences on these things. And they were double layers of cyclone fencing on each one of these things. We had people fly out from Washington here who were ordnance experts to advise us on all this kind of wonderful stuff. The first net would usually detonate or dud a rocket grenade, and if any got through a hole, the second net would catch them. It was a pretty good concept. They were spaced around four or five feet apart or something like that. We put these on either side of the barges. They worked beautifully. As a matter of fact, I found out years afterward that the marines were using something very similar to that at some of the outposts they had up in the highlands to protect themselves from the RPGs.

Now that we had the barges protected, the only target left was the tugs and they started shooting at that. So the skippers -- we didn't have enough barges to go around, but the masters on the tugs who were all third country nationals incidentally, we had no Americans there for obvious reasons. I think we had a couple of Australians, a German or two, some Thais, Vietnamese, you name it. Good people too. Top pay was six or seven hundred dollars a month and they were getting their ass shot off every time they went up the river there. Incredible. The skippers on the tugs, on their own, after they'd get under way, would take the screen barges and put them alongside the tugs. So the tugs were then protected, the barges were protected, and we weren't impregnable, but they were pretty well set.

Then they mined the river on us. The last vulnerable spot, get us from underneath. So the last thing we did, we put together a tremendous effort and took two big barges, not the BC barges. They were some of our cargo barges that were under contract. We made one of them into a mine sweeper and the second we used as a standoff barge and put them ahead of one of our big ocean-going tugs. In addition to that, we took some of the screen barges that we had and rigged up gun emplacements on them. Now if you don't think this is going to war, you name me some other better way. On each barge we had two structures on either side and two levels in them. On the lower level we had twin twenty millimeters and on the top we had grenade launchers, or something like that. And these things were rigged alongside the tug. In the event we never got a chance to use them because they closed the river on us. The Cambodian army walked away, or got chased away and it was just impossible to get up the river. So that thing folded.

Shortly afterward, of course, Phnom Penh folded.

Q. You said they would pull the barges beside them?

Yeah, lashed them alongside. You can push a barge ahead, tie it alongside, or tow it.

Q. What about when the river narrowed?

Those were the choke points.

Q. They could still get through with the barges lashed alongside?

As long as they were still shooting, yeah. The last run we made up the river they had it mined and they got several of our tugs.

The Third Field Hospital in Saigon that became the Adventist Hospital. We had one entire ward full of our people. They blew a couple of our tugs out of the water.

Q. How many casualties?

I don't know. I never did find out.

Q. You told me what the captain saw and went bonkers when he got back.

The U.S. Lines ships were configured with refrigerator compartments in the upper tween decks. THey've got a foot, foot and a half insulation around them and wood sheathing. The decks have gratings, and they have tie down points for whatever they carry in there. I was told this story. I didn't see it and I wouldn't want to. But apparently they picked up a VC who was trying to infiltrate, or at least they thought he was, and they took him down to one of these refrigerator compartments, tied him down to the deck, stuck a hand grenade under him and pulled the pin.

Q. The other people, if you were suspected of being a communist, they just threw you over the side?

Well, shot them first. These are the stories I was told.

Q. The barges were being pulled by the tugs, so these soldiers and so on, didn't really have access to the tugs, or did they?

Well, some of them did. If they came alongside in a boat and the tug is moving really slowly picking up people. We had the same problems even during the formal evacuation controlling people, because -- that's another thing that bothered me at the time and still does. The refugees were coming out to the ships and we were loading them. I'm not sure where the instructions came from, whether or local or what, but we kept moving farther and farther off shore until we about the fleet and our MSC ships with them. We were out sixty or seventy miles from shore there and pretty soon there were no more refugees coming out because they couldn't make it out that far in their small boats and so forth. It was a deliberate maneuver.

Q. Did they pull the barges out that far too?

Well the tugs and barges were with us. These are big ships that we are talking about. U.S. Lines ships, etc.

Q. If I remember right, when I saw pictures of the emptied barges there were dead people, trampled and stuff.

Yeah, we had -- there were about three phases to this thing. During the first phase, which was the initial attacks and so forth up in the northern part of South Vietnam, Da Nang and that general area, we had barges loaded with people. Of course, we'd sent the barges up there, as I told you earlier, to pick up material. I think we did get some but I can't even remember what. Mostly they were loaded with people. Some of these people were on there five, six days, no food, no water, and there were casualties. Some of them were wounded, sick, infants and a lot of people died. When we got them back down south, I think we off loaded at Cam Ranh Bay during that aspect of it. At least the Vietnamese government thought it was a reasonably secure area.

We brought the barges back down to the Saigon area. We knew of course that there was more coming at us, so we were confronted with the problem of getting these things clean. So what we eventually did, through our contractor, was to stage the barges down at Vung Tau as Cape St. Jacque, and they paid exorbitant pay to Vietnamese laborers and in addition fed them as much liquor as they could hold and sent them out to the barges to get rid of the bodies and excrement and garbage and whatever.

One of the things that bothered me about this was that the port captain at Vung Tau was a fellow by the name of Hui, a civilian, and I found out much after the fact that AB&T had had to pay this guy so we could clean his god damn barges, and get the Vietnamese bodies off it so we could haul more Vietnamese out. I found out years later while I was in New Orleans, this Captain Ha who was a chief Saigon pilot had gotten out subsequently and is now living in New Orleans, working there as a matter of fact, as a cargo surveyor, and he told me that Hui was in Miami and he expected that he was going to come up to New Orleans and I told him at that time, "If I ever see that son of a bitch, I'll kill him." And I would, I think, if I made a determined attempt at it.

There was an awful lot of that kind of thing that went on. I have never been able to understand the Vietnamese mentality in that regard. Certainly they are not all like that, but . . .

. . . I had told Admiral Hugh Benton, the CINCPAC rep in Saigon that I was determined that we were going to get all or any of our Vietnamese employees who wanted to leave out of the country if there was any feasible way of doing it. Of course part of the whole thing was the ships that we had in port and so on. So ultimately on the afternoon of the 25th, I think, in the morning I had been directed to sail these ships and have them outside the territorial waters of Vietnam the following morning. I think 11 a.m. was the deadline they gave us. I'm not too clear why that was. This came from the Joint Chiefs in Washington.

I decided at that point that we had to take some action in order to get our people out. I'd thought about it a little bit. I guess it took me a little while, and I talked to Bill Ryder about it, and we decided to go ahead and load the people on one of our ships. In the event, we decided to use the Green Wave. For whatever reason, I don't remember, perhaps bravado, perhaps being a little sadistic, I called Admiral Benton and told him what I was doing. He wasn't grateful to hear this. He accepted the information. And evidently he acted on it as well, because this message is a result of that. It may have saved my skin. He apparently interceded with Ambassador Graham Martin and told him what I was doing. And when this message came out, which was sent, I think, from CINCPAC Honolulu obviously on information from Benton or maybe even Marvin Garrett, the Mission Warden at the Embassy. I didn't see this until days later after I got out to the Blue Ridge when this turned up in some message traffic.

Q. Wasn't the original plan to have everybody leave by ships and barges?

No. It was always air. I sat in on some of these planning sessions.

Q. Wasn't Garrett the one who briefed everybody on the plan? The mission warden?

Yeah, Garrett was what they called head of security, I think, for the embassy. I worked with him six or nine months before in an attempt to update some of the plans, as they called them, for the various areas. And one of the things I recommended in the plans I reviewed and annotated, was the provision of a sea lift option. And it was never seriously accepted. Never included in any of the plans and the various people there made their presentations and there was no provision for a sea lift option in any of these plans. And at some point, in the conference room there was a big oval table and General Vaughn was sitting at the head and I was sitting right behind him where there were about three rows of seats. I was just behind him and to his right, and after the presentation, I believe it was Garrett who made the embassy presentation and there was no sea lift considered. So General Vaughn, as I recall, looked around at me and I said, "General, I don't think there's any need for my input. I'm going back to my office." And he said, "Sit down and shut up." Jokingly.

The sea lift option was never really considered as far as I know, and to this day I still blame the embassy people for this. Admiral Benton and I between the two of us had cobbled up sort of a half-baked deal where we kept, as I told you previously, five ships in port. We were subsequently directed to sail three of them, which we did. We kept two in and were finally told to get them out of port as well. And at that point I decided to put our people on one of these ships.

I hadn't really firmed up any plans, if you could call it that, at that point. I had gone down to the United Seaman's Service Club for lunch, from my office. The master of the Green Wave was also having lunch there. So I walked over to his table and said, "Captain, how would you like to take a few people out with you when you said tomorrow morning?" I'd already told him he was going to sail. This was the 25th to the best of my recollection. Incidentally, the chronology is better in here (in documents). My memory is getting a little hazy, partly I think because I made a deliberate attempt to forget a lot of this stuff. In any case, he was very enthusiastic about it. He said, "Fine, give us all you can."

Incidentally, the other ship we had in port, which was one of the U.S. Lines ships, the skipper was ticked off because we didn't put anybody on his ship. He wanted to get into the act too. Everybody was a real gung ho bunch. Some of the things that these guys did was just incredible. There's an after-action report in here by Captain Iacobacci and several other reports.

The master agreed that he would take some people, and from that point, at say, one o'clock in the afternoon and curfew was eight o'clock at night, we had that much time to get this thing put together and get the people down there. We tried to keep it very quiet, but obviously we were not successful, because some of our AB&T people were leaking the information. In the event, I think it was a good thing. I went scurrying around. I went out to Monique's place out near Tan Son Nhut, and I had a previous arrangement with her that when the time came and I knew it, I was going to come get her. So I phoned first and went out there, and she wasn't there. I waited and waited and it was getting closer and closer to curfew. Things were pretty twitchy around Saigon anyhow. You never knew what was going to happen. So she finally showed up and clutched in her hot little hand was a fistful of passports. She had just bought passports for herself and her entire family and airplane tickets. So she didn't need my help to get on the ship, she thought. She never did get out.

But she asked me, and I agreed to take with me, I've forgotten his name now, but he was the dean of the college of dentistry at the university of Saigon and his family. She told me at the time he was a relative of hers, but I don't think he was. We did take him out on the ship. Monique stayed there and when she went out to the airport it was too late. They confiscated her tickets, passports and everything else, and that was it. So she went to Paris on a legitimate visa. She bought it -- they were a pretty wealthy family, but it all went in these various evolutions. She bought her way into France and from France to the United States, and she has this garden cafe in San Jose. Ask for "Monique".

Q. Tell me about yourself leaving.

Well, I was ordered out. We had a prior arrangement. We discussed this. And when I say "we", there was Rear Admiral Benton, the Deputy CINPAC Fleet and he was acting as CINCPAC Fleet's representative in Saigon at the time and was helping out in the boiler room down there . . .


(((BEGIN TAPE 2.)))

. . . CINCPAC is a unified command. Army, Air Force, the whole thing. They cover the entire pacific area. CINCPAC FLeet is Navy, period. He and Admiral Benton and I had discussed this thing and the arrangement we came up with -- I'm sure there were other people involved as well, but I don't know who. The arrangement we came up with was that we would continue operating in Saigon up to some point, and when it began to be critical some of us from MSC would move out to Commander Task Force 76, which was the Seventh Fleet. And we'd establish an alternate command post in effect. What actually happened was, I went out to the Blue Ridge. They gave us operating space there, a flag plot, radar operators and radio operators and so forth, provided by the Blue Ridge. The Blue Ridge is among other things a communication ship. It's a command ship.

So we hung around out there until the actual evacuation took place. And Admiral Benton, I understand, called Bill Ryder who was still in Saigon and said, "Okay this is it, pack it up." And Bill called us on the radio which we were monitoring continuously of course, and gave us some cryptic explanation about securing operations or something to that effect. They packed up the radios. We had already arranged this. We had fire axes to destroy our communications gear, but we were able to bring it all out. Bill packed it all up and took it down and loaded it on the tugs. And this is in his after-action report, they didn't head directly out to sea. They moved some of the barges to where the Navy headquarters were in Saigon, or the commercial pier -- they moved down to the waterfront and loaded people. Now part of the reason for this was there had been one or more busloads of Americans who were trying to get across town to Tan Son Nhut and couldn't make it. I've forgotten just what the communications situation was, but they got word to Bill, evidently, through some of the CIA people who were operating around there that these buses were stuck. So they turned them around.

They discussed it and worked up a plan and turned the buses around and brought them down to the waterfront and loade the people onto the barges. Of course they loaded Vietnamese as well. At this point they were full. One of the interesting things about this was that the national police, actually exercised crowd control in loading these people. They kept them under control, kept them from panicking and rushing the barges. Bill has more stories along with that.

He was standing along the pier watching these people loading. These were empty ammunition barges with sandbag walls and fences around them. There was only about two and a half feet of freeboard on the outsides of the barges and there was an old woman, a grandmother evidently, carrying a baby in her arms. She was standing on the side and in the crush she got shoved over the side and she and the baby went down and nobody even looked. This is the thing that got Bill, I think. Nobody even looked.

They eventually took their capacity load and headed down river. They saw a little action, I think, on the way down. Somebody, nobody knows whether they were communists or ARVN troops or who, was shooting at them on the way down. By daylight, I think, the next morning, they were down off Vung Tau and they off loaded the people to the various ships that we had down there. Bill joined me on the Blue Ridge along with a couple of other people who were from my office and we continued the operation from there.

This was on the 29th.

Q. Those barges can't go out very far, can they?

Well, we were very fortunate, because the weather was perfect. A couple of weeks later there would have been a lot of dead people because monsoon starts and it gets rough out there.

Q. How far could they go? Not to Malaysia or anything?

Well, we used to tow those things over to Thailand across the Gulf there. But not with people on them, obviously. We towed barges from Da Nang all the way down to Cam Ranh and to Phu Quoc Island.

Q. What happened to the barges after the people got off?

We got most of them out. They were cleaned and stayed. Some of them at Vung Tau we left behind because the tugs couldn't get in to pick them up. They were shooting at them from the beach at that point. They were empty barges. I guess some of them loaded people as they were moving out.

Q. None were scuttled, or cut loose?

No. Not to my knowledge. We left a barge at an ammunition depot up the Saigon River. We couldn't get in there because it was under VC control at that point. It was considered too hazardous to go in and get it. We knew that area of the river was controlled by VC or North Vietnamese, or both. It just didn't make any sense to risk a tug and people to get a barge out.

Q. So you had come out before the 29th?

Yeah. I was directed by this Admiral of CINCPAC Fleet apparently at Admiral Benton's direction to leave on the 25th, I guess it was, and I stalled them, because of getting these ships out. Finally, I didn't realize it, but apparently they were waiting for me, because I went out with this whole damn crew, this admiral, and Erich Von Marbod and a Marine Corps colonel who was down there from Washington. I don't remember whether there was anybody else in the helicopter or not. There was one of my Vietnamese guys, a fellow named Mike Quong.

The admiral was a little perturbed when I told him I couldn't make it the previous day and I think I understand why now, because I was delaying his departure too. Maybe that's what it was, I don't know. We all went out together. And even then it didn't work out too well. It was an Air America helicopter that we were supposed to meet, and the admiral and the rest of the party were sitting in the helicopter and we were sitting in the terminal for about a half an hour. Finally I walked along the tarmac and saw them out there. It was very embarrassing to keep an admiral waiting.

Q. Were you conscious that would be the last time you saw Vietnam? Were you taking careful looks around to try to remember?

Yeah, I guess so. We were pretty low going out. I was kind of familiar with the landscape or whatever you want to call it out there. Yeah I was conscious that was pretty much it.

Q. Did you see it in tragic terms?

Tragic, I don't know. I tried to understand and explain the effect this thing has had on me. One of the explanations I can come up with is I personally, because I was so deeply involved, in effect lost two wars within the space of about three or four months. This was a very traumatic experience. We were all very deeply committed to what was going on. Deeply committed to the Cambodians. There were a lot of friends of mine who died at Phnom Penh and I guess a fair number in Saigon, come to that. I had a lot of friends there.

There were other things as well. I've never really come up with a satisfactory explanation, but for years afterward, if I was talking to somebody about Vietnam or something, I'd suddenly break out in tears. I couldn't help myself. And still to some extent there are some very deeply buried feelings. I don't really understand what they are. I'm not sure how much I want to go into that. I'm not the only one. I thought I had a few screws loose for a long time, but I've compared notes with other people there. This friend of mine Wally had very much the same reaction with the added, if you will, aggravation, that he used to wake up with screaming nightmares because he was one of the last guys out of Saigon. He was one of the senior clandestine agents there and if the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese had ever gotten a hold of him he would have had a very unhappy life, what of it remained. And he was well aware of that.

Q. You didn't have dreams?

I never dream anyhow. Never have. No, I didn't.

Q. When the Memorial was dedicated, did you go over and see it?


Q. Have you ever?


Q. You are close to it too, aren't you? At work?

Yeah, I guess so. I thought about it a few times. I don't know. It just doesn't seem important.

Q. What about these people who point to Central America and talk about the Lessons of Vietnam.

That's garbage. It's a totally different situation as far as I can determine. There are similarities, but it's like talking about Watergate and Irangate. They're comparing apples and oranges.

Q. What about the movies, like the Killing Fields?

I saw the Killing Fields. This friend of mine in California, Wally thought it was left-wing propaganda. it didn't hit me that way. It was a little too realistic in some aspects. When that guy was wading through bones, for example. It bothered me, yeah.

Q. What about Platoon?


Q. Or Deer Hunter, or Apocalypse Now?

The Deer Hunter I've seen, yeah.

Q. This is how kids are educated about Vietnam. It's really through the movies. I wondered if --

I also saw the series based on Stan Karnow's book. The Vietnamese community at least in California, and here too, seem to feel that this was very badly slanted. Some things they would probably be in a better position to know about than I would. There were certain aspects, certain parts of the thing that bothered me as well. For example there was a great deal of emphasis in my recollection, on the effect of bombing on North Vietnamese hospitals and residential areas and that sort of thing. What was omitted, but maybe wasn't possible to include, was what the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese did in South Vietnam.

One example that pops into my memory, and they were deliberate terrorist tactics. This was during the so-called peace phase after the peace treaties. In one of the suburbs of Saigon somebody lobbed a mortar shell into a schoolyard at noontime while the kids were out playing. They killed about thirty kids, and wounded a whole bunch more. Nobody ever seems to talk about these. I'm getting a little rabid maybe, but nobody ever seems to talk about these things. It's all the things the Americans have done. Christ knows, some terrible things happened, some of them deliberate, some accidental, but I have serious reservations about either the sanity or the patriotism of many of my own countrymen here. I'm really on a soap box now.

Q. Particularly the Press.

Yeah, you got that.

Q. Were you friendly with any of the press people in Vietnam?

No, I stayed away from them. Deliberately, as a matter of fact. The only one I became acquainted with was a photo-journalist by the name of Wally Driver who in fact was working for CIA.

Q. How did you know their stories were slanted, they weren't doing a good job?

Well, some of them I could compare the facts, things that I had seen or knew of first hand, with the stories that appeared in the press. I wish I could remember the name of this journalist, the AP guy. Some of it is just a matter of putting words together and the adjectives you use. You give a totally different complexion to a statement. I may be appreciative of this because I do the same kind of thing myself in my business. I write memoranda and point papers and all this kind of garbage for effect. You're trying to accomplish and end, trying to influence a commander or something like that, you crank all this stuff in. You try to use all the right words and leave out the wrong ones. Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I think that I recognize some of this stuff when I see it.

The Press, and god knows, I haven't done a concentrated survey or anything like that, but just an overall impression over the years, the Press has been almost consistently left-wing, I guess. And that taken together with some of our other patriots like Jane Fonda and her husband and some of the other comedians, the ex-attorney general, Ramsey Clark -- what a darling. I don't know what the hell these people think about. At least Joan Baez has the grace to admit she was wrong. Jane Fonda, I think, is still asserting that she was right and everybody else was wrong.

Q. It's not commercially wise to talk about it any more.

I didn't intend to get into politics here.

(((End of interview at ctr 235, tape 2)))

1 comment:

Colette N. said...

What an amazing and interesting experience! My father-in-law worked for USAID at the Saigon docks and he and family escaped on a barge pulled by a tugboat. I learned more from this article than I have ever gathered from my husband's family as they, understandably, don't often talk about the experience. My husband does have vivid memories but can't recall certain details because it was quite traumatic not to mention he perhaps didn't understand wholly the situation since he was so young - for example did not know what type of sea vessel they were on and was unfamiliar with the docks, neighborhood, and things he saw there. I would love to know more about the evacuation from the Saigon dock and how interconnected MSC and USAID were if Mr. Berney wouldn't mind. I understood my in-laws left Saigon on April 30 but perhaps it was April 29. I know my father-in-law specifically knew what was happening because of his employment there and managed to help many in his extended family escape. Also curious if the referenced 7th Fleet manifests in the possession of Henry Hicks were of Vietnamese refugees as I assume many did not have passports. I was a bit confused by this. Thank you so much!