During mid-August 1954, our ship took part in a little known but important part of the history of Viet Nam. Over the years, Viet Nam had been a colony of France. This effectively ended on May 7, 1954 with the fall of Dien Bien Phu, and an agreement on June 3, to grant independence to the state of Vietnam and the partition the country into North and South Viet Nam. As part of the agreement reached, those persons living in the North of the country (controlled by the communist Viet Cong), were given a chance to move to the Southern (democratic), part of the country.
In the summer of 1954, we left our homeport of San Diego, California, and headed into the Western Pacific. We had been over there in 1952, taking part in the fighting in Korea, and visiting ports in Japan, but a truce had been signed in 1953 in Korea, and we didn't think we would have to go there. I do not remember that we were told exactly what we would be doing when we got near Viet Nam, but then, that is the way of the Navy! We were ready for anything!
Our ship was built in 1944 for use as an attack transport, carrying soldiers or Marines into the beaches during amphibious attacks. So we had 26 boats of various sizes, mostly 36 foot LCVP's (Landing Craft, Vehicle & Personnel). We were built to carry, feed, provision, and land 1400 combat loaded troops.
We got up to Touraine Indo China, (later to be called Da Nang) and met up with some French troops, who loaded a large amount of rice and cans of fish sauce (you could not get near the fish sauce when the can was open!) aboard the ship. We steamed up to the port of Haiphong, which is just a short way from Hanoi, and prepared to board the refugees that were going south to freedom.We were certainly unprepared to see so many people, and see them in such dire need. They were brought out to our ship, which lay at anchor in the outer harbor, in LCU's (Landing Craft Utility, that could carry four tanks and land them on beaches) and you could hardly see the LCU for the people! We later estimated that they were carrying from 500 to 750 people! The people were of all ages, including children and old folks, but all were very thin and of course dressed in the traditional "black pajamas" and thatch hats. Many brought only their bedding over their shoulder, and perhaps a few pots and pans to cook with when they got to where they were going. Many were infested with parasites because they had been waiting in camps for our arrival. A remarkable fact is that the vast majority of these folks were Christians, as French-speaking Catholic Priests had led them out of the North. My memory was that there were anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 of these refugees aboard ship during the trip. They filled up the troop quarters, and the cargo holds, and then we began to load them out on the open deck! The crew marked out passages along the deck so that we could walk around and do our job, but it was very crowded. Most folks up on deck would gather into little family circles with their belongings in the middle. There would be old people and children, as well as the mom and dad. When the refugees first came aboard, they would not eat the rice that our cooks made for them, because the Viet Cong had told them that the American sailors would poison them! So the cooks took about six of the male refugees into the shower and scrubbed them down, so they could cook the rice in the galley with our ships cooks! It worked, and twice a day the ships loudspeaker would blare; "com tuuuie" which had to be "come and get it"! The rice was served out of new, clean, galvanized trash cans (we called them GI cans) and each family would get a pot of it for their group, or if they did not have a large enough pot, they carried the rice in their hats! They would then open up the cans of rancid fish oil and salt and put that on the rice! But that food was better than they had been getting, and pretty soon the refugees started to get happy, and confident that they were going to escape to the South so they could be free. The younger ladies of the group were quite pretty, until they smiled at you! Then you could see that their teeth were black from years of chewing betel nut! The family groups up on deck would mix up balls of betel nut and tobacco, roll them around on the deck and let them dry in the sun. Then they would pop these into their mouths and chew them later. During the trips to the South, several babies were born on board. One of these I remember was named Hope Faith Charity Magoffin Nu! This little girl was the first born on the ship, and we all had a sense of fatherhood for her! Sanitation on these trips was somewhat of a problem! When the mothers first went in to the heads, (bathrooms to the landsmen) with their babies, they wanted to wash their babies and their clothes in the troughs that were used in our culture to carry excrement out of the head and over the side! They quickly were "re-trained" and even though they couldn't figure why we used so much water, they got on to it. We gave them soap to wash with, and had to train them as to what it was for. Many of the refugees were from the interior, and had never seen soap. They used fine sand that was in the village creek to wash their bodies and clothes. Most had never seen a white person, or any other except their own kind. I don't remember how many total trips we made, but the first trip ended back in Touraine, and the next trip took us down to the mouth of the Saigon River, then the 40 miles up to the city of Saigon, where the refugees were unloaded and sent to settlement camps. Little did I dream that we would be caught up in the conflict there and that I would be back there in 1964 & 1965 in another ship at places called Qui Nhon, Cam Ranh bay, and Nha Trang.
The operation was called: "Passage To Freedom", and carried over 310,000 refugees from the North to the then free South. The U.S. Navy committed over 113 ships of various types to this operation.
This account of a little bit of my history is dedicated to my Granddaughter Corrie Lee Christy.
Chief Engineman, USN (RET.)