Sunday, May 11, 2014

We Were Their Saviors: Harold J. Murphy's Vietnam

Around 1975 I got the urge to go to sea again. It just comes over you once in a while. If you have any family or friends who've been to sea, you 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 to New York and they had a ship, the Greenville Victory, with a carpenter's job open, and they told me that the third mate was going to leave the ship at some point and I would relieve him. So I sailed on the Greenville Victory as a Carpenter. We loaded ammo in Port Chicago on the West Coast and we took a load to Cam Ranh Bay and Danang in South Vietnam.

The Vietnamese didn't really know how bad it was at that time, 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 the North Vietnamese were going to break out as quickly as they did.

We went to Cam Ranh Bay first and then Danang. In Danang it was a very tense situation. You knew something was going to happen. They had swimmers in the water trying to plant 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 load military cargo and return to the United States. But as soon as we arrived there, this thing broke loose, so we were sent back to Vietnam. That was on Easter Sunday in late March. We were sent to Danang and told to rescue survivors.

We were aware of what was going on in Vietnam. The United States had pulled out a year or two before. I was aware that they were in deep trouble and that we had really done them a bad turn. I felt really guilty about that.

The first place we got into was Cam Ranh Bay, 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 the people came out in small boats and we loaded them from boats. They lived on these boats you know and some of them came out with their belongings. Of course we couldn't take anything except the people, some foodstuffs and their little 50 cc Honda bikes. We let them take those -- I don't know how many of them.

These people were civilians -- women and children and South Vietnamese army personnel, obviously on the run, whom we tried to disarm because we did not want all of 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 they 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.

We loaded about ten thousand people. This was a Victory ship, remember. It is about a 500 foot 9 or 10 thousand ton ammunition ship with five cargo holds. We just loaded them like cargo. They were everywhere. Even the lifeboats were full of people.

We tried to keep them out 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. We just did what we could for them. We all felt, at last I did, that maybe in some little way we could atone for the lousy things 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!" And they were incapable of doing it.

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.

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

Ammunition ship holds are lined with wood battens to prevent seat 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. We gave them tools to cut the wood properly and put it in these fifty-gallon drums and cook their rice over those and not start any fires on the ship.

The entrance to Cam Ranh Bay is surrounded by high cliffs, fortified with 105 mm 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 to practically zero and we got out under cover of that.

The US 7th fleet was offshore. It had orders not to come any closer than thirty miles, so they lay offshore, but we were naturally in radio contact with them and under their command as a Navy ship. We were civilian crew, but a Navy ship.

We were told to take them to an island called Phu Quoc, offshore near the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. I think it took us two or three days to get there. We 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, the people refused to get off the ship!

The landing craft that were supposed to disembark them didn't show up. So we lay there at anchor for a day or so. They got very uneasy, and they finally sent a delegation up to the wheelhouse. This is why Captain Ray Iacobacci says he was lucky to get 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. They would not go ashore. They said that, number one, Phu Quoc was a former penal colony, which they didn't like the sound of. And second they would be trapped there if the Communists did come. There was no way off this island and they were dead meat if they stayed there, they feared.

Then they said they had enough weapons and explosives in the hold to destroy the ship and they would do exactly that if we did not 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 the ultimate decision was, "Let's get the hell out of here."

I sympathized with them. I don't blame them. I'd do that, too. Captain Iacobacci 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 understands what they were saying. There was no escape from there.

You know I didn't really feel my life was in danger at all during that time. But also I didn't doub that they would sink the ship. I had no doubt that they meant exactly what they said.

They never threatened an individual crew member. Oh, no. We were their saviors.

We left Phu Quoc and we returned to Vung Tau. I forget the 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 they, to speak of.

During all of this operation we lost one person. Some of them had come out on a barge, and one little boy fell between the ship and the barge and did not come up. That was the only fatality we had. Actually we were ahead of the game, because I think two babies were born on board.

We were in Vung Tau when the country fell to the North Vietnamese. We watched the choppers go overhead from the Embassy. We knew it was all over. The chaos broke out again. Thousands of boats came out to us. Small boats, big boats, all kinds of boats. And we loaded people from the boats with our cargo nets mostly. And when they left their boats 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. Those boats had been the people's homes. And now it was sad to see people burning their own homes.

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 on board with them.

We had to move every so often because they crowded around us, 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 sank one boat with our propeller in the course of backing up. It was total confusion. But we continued to load people on into the dark until we were full. And then we took that load to Subic Bay in the Philippines.

We had no problems. We confiscated as many weapons as we could. Some we kept on board and thousands were just thrown overboard.

The people wanted to get out of there, so they cooperated with us. Everybody on the ship that could do anything did it. Where 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.

The whole crew was involved in this thing one hundred percent. This was more than just a job loading ammunition. Those people were in big big trouble. Their lives were on the line. We were the only hope they had to get out of there. They were American sympathizers or in the eyes of the North Vietnamese they were the enemy, they were collaborators. We were the enemy of the Communists and these people had cooperated with us and that was their death warrant right there.

There were no deaths on the way to Subic. And we added one more baby -- a boy -- to the number of refugees making the trip.

When we had been back in Saigon there were a couple of relief organizations that showed up with tons of food. We were stocked with food for the second pickup. We were much better prepared for the second go around. We made fire pots to cook the rice on top on tripod legs and on the fantails, back aft.
We didn't know what we were going into the first time. All we knew was, Go in and see if you can rescue some of those refugees.

The refugees were all very friendly, considering what they'd gone through and were going through. They were wonderful people. And there were so many of them! They were everywhere. For me to walk from midship to the bow I had to go through all these people. They would move aside to make a path for me so I could walk through. Every square inch of space was filled with people.

There was an island in Subic Bay that they used as a staging area. They took them all to that island and I guess tried to ascertain names and identification and make some kind of record of what was going on, and they had us stand by. We stood by there a month or two in Subic Bay 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.

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

After Subic Bay we went to Mobile, Alabama, 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. We've all got a pice of paper that says thanks for a good job, which is nice.

You can talk about it afterwards and try to find reasons for what you did, but actually there's the thing to do and 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. You are so full of adrenaline 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. They just do the job. These are merchant seamen, not military personnel. Professional sailors that each do the job of ten men. the ships we sailed on, a ship like that, the Greenville Victory, was a ten thousand ton ship with a crew of about thirty-eight men. If it had been a Navy ship it would have had a crew of three hundred and fifty men. We are professional seamen and I was always proud of that.

I never ran into any of the people I brought out at that time. I've often wished that I had a name of somebody that was on that ship that I could meet -- one of the Vietnamese that got out of there on the Greenville Victory and made it here. I read an article in the paper not long ago about the Vietnamese community on the West Coast and how successful they had become, some of them. They are industrious people, great great people. They work hard, don't want welfare, want to work and sends their children to school. One of them, I think, graduated at the top of his class at one of the military academies I read recently. That kind of thing doesn't surprise me one bit. It surprises some of the rednecks that these people can to it. But the Vietnamese are very intelligent people and they are industrious.

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

My own dhildren are thirty-seven, thirty-five, thirty-three and a stepson who is fifteen. After I was back I told them I thought that we had abandoned those people in South Vietnam and nobody ever asked me 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?" Not with animosity. It was like a kid would look up at his father and ask, "Why did you hit me?"

But they were wonderful, those people. I love them. I really do. I wish we had gotten them all out of there. Or better yet, I wish it wouldn't have been necessary to get them out of there. It should not have been necessary.

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