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Operation Frequent Wind
Evacuation of American civilians and "at-risk" Vietnamese from Saigon
On April 22 the USS Oklahoma City arrived in the South China Seas to join Task Group 76 for Operation Frequent Wind. I was surprised to find that even though the Okie Boat was the Seventh Fleet Flagship at the time there is very little information on her role in the evacuation of Saigon, South Vietnam. As the imminent collapse of Saigon became evident, Task Force 76 was assembled off the coast near Vung Tau to support a helicopter evacuation and provide air support if required. The total number of Vietnamese evacuated by Frequent Wind or self-evacuated and ending up in the custody of the United States for processing as refugees to enter the United States totaled 138,869.
The USS Oklahoma City received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for the period 28 April - 30 April 1975 for her participation in Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Vietnam. Later in the bill "House Rpt.107-772 - NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2003" SEC. 542. The option to convert the award of Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal awarded for Operation Frequent Wind to Vietnam Service Medal was authorized. BM2 David Campbell received the Navy Achievement Medal from the Secretary of The Navy for "Heroic Achievement as Petty Officer in Charge of the flight deck" on 28 April 1975. According to his citation there were 154 men, women & children evacuated with 12 helicopter landings on the USS Oklahoma City. The Humanitarian Service Medal was rewarded for the recovery of the helicopters that landed on the flight deck to disembark the evacuees safely to all the units at sea that took part in the evacuation. To the left BM2 David Campbell talks with a VN pilot on deck during the evacuation.
I was topside during the evacuation, manning the "crash and smash" crew as nozzle man to Hose Team Starboard Side. Our task was to provide firefighting and rescue in the event that a helicopter crashed or caught fire on deck. One member of the crew wore a fireproof protective suit which looked like the early astronaut suit called a proximity suit. Unfortunately I lost nearly all my photos and as the fire team were not allowed to take pictures from the flight deck during the two day evacuation effort I am using images found on the internet as well as photos I took at another time. The photo of the two sailors donning the proximity suit displayed here are from my service aboard the USS Elliot DD-967 during the WESTPAC 79 cruise. Whereas the Elliot had a helo hanger to secure the helicopter assigned to her, the Okie Boat did not and the helicopter assigned was secured to the fantail. The Helo Detachment consisted of 2 officers 7 enlisted men who flew and maintained the Kaman UH-2B Seasprite (Blackbeard One) helicopter.
I believe our role was to supply communications and rescue support to the operation and initially were not expected to receive any incoming helicopters. As the Seventh Fleet Admiral flew off the Okie Boat to take up command on the USS Blue Ridge prior to our taking up our station among the Task Group we did not expect to have much to do. The flight deck crew was assembled on the flight deck to assist in any aircraft that found itself in need of an emergency landing. There was a Marine Detachment of 30 men plus 5 more assigned as Flag Marine Orderlies. During the operation the marines manned machine guns on turrets that the Repair Department welded topside just for this occasion. The organization of the ship's crew can be view on Phillip R. Hays (PhD LT USNR-R) excellent site HERE.
I remember seeing the first chopper approaching our ship. It was crammed full of evacuees to the point of being dangerously close of being too heavy to remain inflight. They had taken all the hardware off the chopper, including the machine guns, to make room for the people. After the chopper landed and all the people were escorted safely off the flight deck the pilot would either take off again and ditch the chopper a short distance from the ship. We had all our liberty boats in the water at the time to rescue any pilot who found himself in the water. On a couple of occasions the chopper would remain on the flight deck, quite empty, the pilot having taken off his uniform and mingled with the civilians as they were escorted off the flight deck. We would then push the chopper off to make room for another incoming chopper
The scene from the flight deck was tense and one that I shall never forget. From Helicopters being ditched in the ocean, being pushed off the flight deck and a few I saw crash into the water from being overloaded (?). I remember seeing the USS Blue Ridge in the distance when several, what looked like Baby Hueys, approached her. It appeared that they would land and disembark the evacuees and the pilot would take off to ditch the plane. One helicopter after disembarking its passengers and heading out to ditch the place hit the side of the Blue Ridge before hitting the water. I remember hoping that the pilot made it out safety as I could not see if he had jumped. There was another chopper that was flying very close to the water that I could see people jumping out of before it banked off and hit the water. I could not tell if it was civilians or army personnel that jumped to safety before it struck the water.
A year later I left the Oklahoma City and returned to civilian life after four years of service. In 1997 I re-enlisted and was station aboard the USS Eliot DD-967. WESTPAC '79 found me once again in the waters off Vietnam rescuing evacuees that were referenced as the "boat people" who were fleeing the country. During that time Elliot picked up 158 refugees for which the crew was awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal. One image sticks in my memory from that period, after we sank the boat to avoid a navigational hazard to other boats in the area a bowl of rice was floating on the water with several large cockroaches clinging to the rice. The hopeless portrayed in that scene mirrored the horror that befell many of the boat people we were unable to rescue.
Posted by HT1 Roberts 06.13.2016