The following story was written by John Larson, one of the VP-4 pilots during our 1975 deployment. Even 30 years after the fact, it’s nice to know these folks made it and I ‘guess’ this counts as a atta boy…
I was not able to attend, so did not get the chance to meet the folks we saved. This was one of two groups of refugees we saved on that deployment, in addition to being off Saigon April 15th, and participating in the Mayaguez rescue from locating it off Koh Tang Island, to the morning of the Marines hit the beach. We were pretty busy for those six months…
On August 6, 2005, the VP-4 (Patrol Squadron Four) Association Reunion at Portsmouth VA hosted a very special event, the unification of former Vietnamese boat-people refugees and members of VP-4 Crew Two who found them in the South China Sea over thirty years ago on May 23, 1975.
Three months ago, one of the Vietnamese survivors posted a web site notice asking for assistance in locating the crew of an unknown U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft that discovered him and twenty nine other Vietnamese refugees precariously afloat in a small boat, 200 miles off the South Vietnam coast.
The VP-4 Association PAO (Public Affairs Officer), John Larson, determined that the flight crew that located the refugees was attached to VP-4, then forward deployed from NAS Barbers Point HI to NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines. The Japanese merchant ship Alps Maru, which was located and vectored to them by VP-4 Crew Two flying a P3 Orion, subsequently rescued all of the refugees and took them to Kobe Japan. All thirty of the refugees immigrated to the United States, and have successfully established themselves and their families within both the Vietnamese and American communities.
11 of the original 30 Vietnamese survivors were in attendance at the reunion and six of the twelve Navy crew-members were also present: Plane Commander Claude Timmerman, Co-pilot Ben Francisco, Tactical Coordinator John Kennedy, Navigator Carl Stocks, 2nd Flight Engineer Webster Hayden and In-flight Technician Dale Poklington. Also in attendance were Commander Bill Broadwell and Commander Ted Rogers. Commander Broadwell was the commanding officer of VP-4 and, additionally, Commander Task Group (CTG) 72.3 at the time of the rescue. Rogers was squadron executive officer.
The survivors presented an overview of their escape and rescue with the following highlights. Right after the fall of Saigon April 1975, those South Vietnamese citizens who were associated with the government or the military, or had ‘helped’ the U.S. government or military in any way, were sent to “re-educations camps”. Also, there were economic retributions, private property was confiscated, and people were sent to re-settlement camps.
The new Vietnamese government had to approve any religion and whether former South Vietnamese citizens could attend higher education institutions. From 1975-1990, roughly 2 million former South Vietnamese citizens fled the country and many of them didn’t make it to freedom.
Of the group of 30 refugee boat people located by VP-4 Crew Two, three members had been imprisoned for being in the military or working for the former South Vietnamese government. Several families got together and sold whatever valuables they had at the time to acquire an old 30-foot wooden river cargo boat. They had no plan except to be rescued after they had reached international waters and the South China Sea shipping channel. No one had any seamanship skills; only one person had any mechanical skills. To avoid being recognized by the communist authorities, several families traveled by a family bus from Saigon to Go Cong, a coastal town about 70 miles away. Along the way, they picked up the others that joined them in their escape. There were seven families and a total of 30 people on board. They could not take sufficient amounts of supplies and food because this would raise the suspicions of the communist police and military. They used as an excuse ‘an across town wedding event’ as their cover to disguise their movements.
To further avoid suspicion, they used a sampan, a small passenger boat resembling a very large kayak, commonly used in the Mekong Delta, and met the larger escape boat which was anchored in the middle the river, a few miles upstream from its mouth. There was no covering for the group’s passengers on the sampan except for the small top over the amid-ship engine. On the second day of their escape, as they were leaving the coastline, they were detected by a communist coast guard boat that chased them for 20 minutes before turning back toward land. Later that evening, they encountered a severe tropical storm and the boat began taking on massive amounts of seawater. In order to save the boat from sinking, they detached and pushed away their spare outboard motor. The only navigation aids that were available to them, a Boy Scout type compass and a map from World Atlas, were washed overboard that night. The bad weather worsened and large waves completely covered their boat several times. It was just shear luck that the boat remained afloat because no one aboard had any seamanship experience. The boat’s self-taught pilot was washed over-board and managed to cling on the aft rail of the boat and climb back on board. The children aboard were inside the cabin that housed the engine and the adults were hunkering down in the exposed cargo compartment of the boat.
Although the boat was badly beaten up by the storm with the bow cracked and with water leaking in, they fortunately survived that perilous night. The next afternoon they spotted a fishing boat and steered toward it. It was a communist government owned fishing boat, but they were in a desperate situation, so the adults asked for help to save the children onboard. After intense negotiation, the adults agreed to give up all of their valuables (jewelry, watches, etc.) that they had brought along. The families were transferred to this fishing boat and stayed there for 3 days. The leader of the escapees was told that he should return with the fishing boat to Vietnam, but that would have certainly meant going to prison. So they had a choice to return or keep going and decided to continue their journey in their little riverboat. On day eight, they saw a big white merchant ship that slowed down for them. Everybody was excited that they might at last be rescued. They had pulled along side within 30-40 feet of the merchant ship and when one of them noticed the yellow hammer and sickle on the red background painted on the smokestack and realized they were approaching a Soviet ship. They turned around and speed away as fast as they could in the opposite direction.
This was the only time that any ship was willing to stop for them until the intervention of the P-3 Orion. They were now about 200 miles off the coast of Vietnam. Day 9 came with little more than five gallons of diesel fuel left and no food for a couple of days. Someone found a small bag of rice submerged in the water inside the engine compartment and they decided to use part of the wooden boat for fuel to cook this rice. Just as the rice was done, someone saw a small dot in the sky. They were all happy because they thought they saw a bird and that meant they were close to land. As the dot grew larger and larger the shape of a P3 Orion aircraft started appearing. The plane flew just a couple of a hundred feet over the boat and slightly dipped its wings on the first pass. Seasick and without food, the desperate crew was filled with joy when they realized that this aircraft was there to save them. On the second pass the, P-3 dropped a set of smoke markers. The aircraft then departed and about one hour later a Japanese merchant ship the “Alps Maru” arrived from the northeast.
The refugees were rescued and traveled aboard the Alps Maru to its homeport, Kobe Japan. They stayed there in an old monastery church as guests of an American Baptist minister for 5 months and then immigrated to the United States settling with sponsors in Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, and Louisiana. They learned a new language, lived in rental apartments and found jobs. The children grew up and went to many well known colleges/universities. They became teachers, doctor, dentists, engineers, a Naval submarine officer, computer scientists, and other professions.
They worked for the Navy, Army, the government, private industry, and for government contract companies. Some own their own businesses. The children, who were 3 to 14 years old at the time of the rescue, now have families of their own.
At the VP4 Reunion, the eleven Vietnamese survivors presented plaques to the VP-4 Commanding and Executive Officers and the Crew Two members present for saving their lives and giving them all a new start in the United States. They also presented a plaque to the current Public Affairs Officer of VP-4, LTJG Robert Ward, who was present for the reunion.
The VP-4 Association presented the survivors with VP-4 coffee mugs, VP-4 baseball caps, and made them honorary members of the VP-4 Association. It was an extremely moving event for all present as these former Vietnamese refugees finally met the navy aircrew who facilitated their rescue. Coming thirty years after the fall of Saigon, this meeting is symbolic of the joining of tens of thousands of the South Vietnamese boat-people that escaped the communist takeover of their country with the many U. S. Navy maritime patrol crews that searched for and located such refugees during Operation Frequent Wind during the mid-1970s.
I’m glad we were able to save those we did; thousands of others died trying to escape. From my point of view, there was no where else I would have rather been- Out on the pointy edge, getting things done and making a difference. The VP Navy has done a number of rather impressive things in both wartime and peacetime, but many of those exploits will never see the light of day due to security issues. I don’t regret a day of my service, nor the long hours and multiple separations…
I like to think in our small way, we made a difference in the world; and thankfully NEVER had to do our primary mission, which was to sink Soviet submarines.