Saturday, April 30, 2005

Thirty years ago

Thirty years ago I was an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, serving on board the USS Long Beach (a nuclear guided missile cruiser). Along with many other U.S. Navy ships, the Long Beach was engaged in the effort to evacuate the remaining U.S. personnel. We also aided a large number of Vietnamese who were (or believed they were) in imminent danger of losing their lives to the North Vietnamese forces that were conquering the south.

The Navy has a decent brief official history of the event. It mentions my ship, but only in passing, as there were many dramatic events in those few days.

Those of us on the Long Beach at the time witnessed many things we never expected to. We had several ARVN helicopters crash land on our fantail (which could only hold one helicopter at a time). Working parties were quickly organized to push these helicopters over the side. We had small boats approaching us seeking to be picked up at all hours of the day and night, most of them extremely and dangerously overloaded. We witnessed hundreds of helicopters and small aircraft landing on the several carriers in the area, and many of them were also pushed over the side to make room for more.

There were heroes in those days; there was much tragedy in those days (completely outside the larger political/military context). Many people, mostly Vietnamese, died in accidents or because they missed any of the dozens of ships in the area. Some helicopters ran out of fuel as they waited to land on a ship; some of them crashed, some ditched and then passengers drowned, some crash-landed (including one on the Long Beach) and made it.

When the flow of people out to the ships stopped, the ships (including the Long Beach) were crowded with huge numbers of refugees. We were told at the time that there were more than 25,000, though I have no way to verify that. The refugees on the ships were brought to the Phillipines, to an island in Subic Bay that had theretofore been a recreation area for Navy personnel at (or visiting) the huge base there. I have heard many stories about the people on that island, including some directly from the people there; most are sad, some are tragic.

The experience is one that is still easy to recall, even after thirty years. I suppose this is because it was so shocking to me at the time. We had no expectation of this flood of refugees that came out to the ships. It's also one of the few times, sadly, that I was very impressed with our Navy's commanders. The local commanders, so far as I know completely on their own, quickly decided (as the first refugee aircraft started to be spotted on radar) to take on the humanitarian role of rescuing these people. It could have been much worse — if instead of this quick and sensible reaction they had behaved in the bureaucratic, cover-your-butt mode I was used to seeing, many more people would have needlessly perished...

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