Off the coast of Malaysia, actually nearer the coast of Vietnam a U.S. Navy warship is steaming toward their final port visit before completing their mission. The war in Vietnam had been over for almost five years, although for some still fresh in their minds. The weather was sunny and mild with unlimited visibility. The seas were as glass with not a ripple. The morning bridge watch was just beginning so the lookouts were fresh and alert. The Junior Officer of the Deck was intently watching his radar screen. A quiet and subdued conversation was going on between the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch and the Messenger of the Watch. Suddenly the Starboard Lookout reports, “Sir I have a contact bearing 045 at 2000 yards”. The Officer of the Deck responds, “Aye, contact bearing 045 at 2000 yards”. The OOD steps over to the Starboard wing of the bridge to scan the horizon in the vicinity of the Starboard lookouts report. With his binoculars focusing in on the distant contact he can see that the vessel is small and apparently Dead in the Water. He reports the contact to the Captain as the Captain’s Standing orders stipulate that all contacts are to be reported to him.
“Captain on the Bridge” exclaims the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch. Captain James notices that the OOD is on the Starboard wing and wonders over to join him. “What have we got LT” voices the Captain in his deep but friendly voice. The OOD is adjusting his binoculars and tells the CO, “looks to be a small wooden vessel dead in the water and riding low in the water”. The CO takes a look with his binoculars and tells the OOD to bring the ship closer to the contact. “Helmsman, right rudder, steer course 044 to bring us closer to the contact at 045 degrees”. The helmsman brings his rudder right and steers course 044 degrees exclaiming, “Aye, Aye Sir, steering course 044 degrees”. As the ship closes on the contact all hands on the bridge are watching and hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever the CO seems so intent on closing.
Looking through their binoculars, the CO exclaims first, “LT, looks like a boat full of people intently and excitedly waving at our ship. “No doubt about that Captain”. “Lee Helmsman bring the ship to slow ahead” exclaims the OOD. Sure enough, they have come upon what appears to be a small wooden boat that is overloaded with passengers and is listing to Port. The boat has what looks like a hand made flag illustrating the colors of South Vietnam. The US Navy ship is now within hearing range and the passengers can be heard screaming loudly in a language that does sound familiar to the Lieutenant. He thinks that it sounds like Vietnamese. The Captain knows the language is Vietnamese as he had spent time in country during the late ’60’s while being attached to a River Patrol Boat unit. He is remembering that there is a crewman on board the ship who is of Vietnamese extraction who may understand and speak the language. The Captain relays his thoughts to the officer of the deck, “Boatswain Mate of the Watch, pass the word over the 1mc for Seaman Lam Phan to report to the Bridge” orders the OOD. Within three to four minutes the seaman reports to the Bridge. The sailor enters the bridge and asks the BMOW what’s up. The boatswain’s mate of the watch tells the seaman to report to the OOD on the Starboard Bridge wing.
Seaman Lam Phan walks up to the OOD and renders a hand salute in a proper Military manner saying “reporting as ordered Sir”. The OOD returns the salute and asks the young sailor if he speaks his mother language. Seaman Lam Phan replies in the affirmative…”great, the Captain will be requiring your language skills sailor” exclaims the officer of the deck. “It appears that we have a refugee boat of some kind near our position and we will want you to talk to them when we are close enough”.
Many of the crew have begun lining the lifelines and life rails of the ship to better see what all of the commotion is about and why the ship has slowed to a crawl. While all of this action is taking place the Chief Boatswain Mate has the First Class Boatswain’s Mate man the Motor Whaleboat Davit.
By this time Captain James has begun speaking on the 1MC to the crew. He explains that the ship has encountered a Vietnamese Refugee boat that is in distress and the ship will render assistance. The ships’ Executive Officer and the boat crew prepare to board the motor whale boat that has been lowered to the side of the boat deck. Seaman Lam Phan becomes part of the boat crew. The MWB is successfully launched and heads toward the refugee boat. The people on the boat, the ones that are able, can be seen smiling and waving knowing that they hopefully have been rescued.
After about one hour the motor whaleboat returns to the ship…pulling alongside the ships’ accommodation ladder that has been rigged in place the XO and Seaman Lam Phan embark and head for the Bridge where the Captain is awaiting the report of conditions aboard the small wooden vessel.
“The boat is not in good shape at all Captain” reports the XO. “It is taking on water and the engine is inoperable. HT1 is in the process of dewatering the boat at this time. EN1 says that the engine is completely destroyed and beyond repair. The boat had apparently encountered pirates who destroyed what they could. By my rough headcount, I count at least 400 people, maybe more. The refugees are huddled together with nothing on but the rags they are wearing. The boat is definitely overloaded. There are many women and small children with a newborn baby as well. They have no food or water”. “Well XO looks like we are on a rescue mission. I will need to send out some SITREP messages and inform Seventh Fleet what we have encountered and explain the situation, advising the condition of the boat and the passengers” expresses the Captain. Turning again to the officer of the deck, “LT, get hold of the OPS O for me and tell him to report to me on the Bridge”. The Operations Officer steps out of CIC. “I’ve been monitoring your conversations Captain and have already drafted the first SITREP for your signature Sir”. Captain James is pleased at this. He then tells the XO to have the Supply Officer get some food and water down to the motor whaleboat as quickly as possible for delivery to the stricken refugees.
The Chief Boatswain Mate grabs his boat crew again and has some of the men in deck force break out a portion of the towing hawser as he knows they need to tow the stranded boat back to the ship. The entire crew is pitching in to help in any way they can with whatever they can. The ship’s Doctor and Corpsman, HM1 Whitmore, scramble down to the motor whaleboat as they know their assistance will be required. This is of course becoming a long ordeal for Seaman Lam Phan, now the official interpreter on this humanitarian mission.
As it is too deep to anchor in these waters the ship remains steaming at dead slow, with a minimum amount of turns on the shaft to maintain steerageway. Thankfully the weather is co-operating and the fifty foot refugee boat lays astern of the ship attached to the previously rigged towing hawser nicely. It has been almost twenty-four hours with no reply received from Seventh Fleet or CincPacFlt. Captain James is becoming frustrated as are the rest of the Officers and crew of the ship. Sleep has become a short commodity as the crew is making preparations to hopefully embark the refugees and assist in any way possible. As luck would have it, the hull technician gang, under the leadership of HT1 Wrigley and assisted by BM1 Gatlin had fashioned a tent of sorts to provide shade to a large portion of the Helo Deck prior to departing their home port. The tent was intended to support the port visits the ship would make during this cruise. The crew called some of these visits the “tea and crumpet circuit” as the visits were meant to “show the flag”. The ship would be hosting dignitaries from various Island Nations with the ships’ cooks and bakers providing the “tea and crumpets “.
By now it has been about thirty-six hours since encountering the Refugee boat. As the ship’s Captain is discussing the situation on the Bridge, the Operations Officer steps out of CIC on to the bridge. “Captain, we have a reply to our last SITREP,” exclaims Ltjg. Bettinger. “The reply is from the State Department via Seventh Fleet” he continues.
The directive from the State Department instructs the ship to embark all of the refugees and deliver them to an International Refugee Camp located in Thailand. The refugees will then further be granted asylum in the United States of America. The second portion of the State Department directive tells the ship to sink the refugee boat to prevent it becoming a hazard to navigation on the open seas.
Captain James breaths a sigh of relief at this good news. He grabs the microphone for the 1MC and addresses the crew.
“This is the Captain speaking. Looks like our crew size will be increased. The State Department has directed us to embark the refugees and deliver them to an International Refugee Relocation camp located in Thailand. I have already directed the department heads to make all necessary arrangements for embarkation of these people as quickly as possible”.
The Chief Engineer, known as Cheng, details HT1 to temporarily install commodes on the fantail in order to provide sanitary facilities for the refugees. HT1 has no problem devising this solution…sanitation problem solved. BMI and his deck gang begin installing and rigging the “Big Top” on the Helo Deck. The ship’s Doctor and HM1 have fashioned a second sickbay in the ships Helo hanger to attend to the many cases of dehydration and other illnesses the refugees have been caused to suffer from during their days at sea.
As all arrangements for embarkation have been completed the rickety wooden refugee boat is brought to the accommodation ladder rigged on the port side of the ship. The coxswain of the ship’s motor whale boat assists in keeping the water soaked refugee boat alongside the accommodation ladder while the refugees embark on their temporary home. Many smiling faces can be seen among the crew and of course the refugees are the happiest group of people that could ever be found.
BMC Griffin knows that his next job is to figure out how to scuttle the old wooden derelict so that it will not pose a hazard to navigation. BMC and BM1 go aboard the old derelict and commence preparations for sinking the boat. After completion of this task they reattach the towing hawser with a quick release device so the Ship’s towing hawser won’t be damaged when the wooden boat is released. Upon completion of their tasks, the Chief reinspects the work and when satisfied he and BM1 go back aboard the ship.
The ship’s gunnery Officer locates the Chief Gunners Mate and tells him to prepare for some small arms target practice. GMGC is looking forward to this.
BM1 Gatlin takes charge of the towing detail. Preparations are made to pay out the towline upon instructions from the bridge. The Bridge team is fully manned in short order. The Bridge has been at a relaxed sea detail during the embarkation process and is now ready to make further preparations for steaming. Orders are passed to the Lee Helmsman, “Slow Ahead” orders the Conning Officer. As the ship increases weigh, orders are passed to the towing detail to ease out the towline. BM1 and his crew pay out the towline as ordered. The ships’ Captain is keeping a close eye on the entire operation…as the Captain gages distance from the old wooden boat he determines it is time to release the tow. The OOD gives the order to the Lee Helmsman for Dead Slow and then to the fantail to release the tow when ready. BM1 gages the catenary of the towline and notes that the towline has gone slack enough that it is safe to release the tow. He gives the order to his towing detail to release the tow. The tow is released without any mishaps. The ship now begins a slow turn to come about on a reciprocal bearing. The gunnery detail is called to order…as the ship comes within firing range of the wooden boat the Captain gives the order to commence firing. The old water soaked wooden refugee boat takes a beating from the crew of this warship. After about an hour of a constant barrage of fire from a 50 Cal. Machine gun, an M240 Machine Gun, and an M203 Grenade Launcher that was lobbing 40mm grenades into the wooden boat, the little wooden boat finally gave up the fight and began sinking beneath the waves. Once the craft could no longer be seen the Captain told the OOD to make turns for Thailand to rendezvous with a US Navy Amphibious ship to unload the Refugees to Freedom.
The ship is steaming towards their rendezvous point in Thailand and the Captain is reflecting on how well his crew performed their duties during this unexpected humanitarian mission. He reflects with pride at their willingness to extend a helping hand to those who most needed assistance. He also marvels at the persistence that the South Vietnamese displayed in their self determination to flee a country that has become communist and to seek a better life for themselves.
As the sun slowly sets Captain James is a happy and proud Skipper.