29 April 1975: As NVA tanks were moving into the city, the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, Graham Martin, sent the below telegram to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, at the White House, during the evacuation of Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Martin states that he is, “well aware of the danger here tomorrow and I want to get out tonight.” He asks that the President send an order to finish the job quickly, evacuating the rest of the Americans and their children.
The American Ambassador to Vietnam resisted limiting the evacuation to Americans, as 10,000 locals were crowding the compound’s gates. In this cable he asks repeatedly for 30 CH-53 Sea Stallions:
“Perhaps you can tell me how to make some of these Americans abandon their half Vietnamese children?”
The helicopters did come, shuttling away the non-combatants all night. In all, some 7,000 people, mostly newly homeless refugees of the now-former South Vietnam, were airlifted from the Embassy complex by the Marines and from a series of other sites around Siagon by CIA-front company Air America.
A CH-46D, Swift 2-2, of HMM-164 lifted off with Marine detachment commander Major James Kean and the 10 remaining Marine Security Guards, leaving at 07:53 on 30 April. Just 37 minutes later Swift 2-2 landed on USS Okinawa (LPH-3) just offshore.
By noon, NVA regulars were in possession of the abandoned former U.S. Embassy. A mix of about 350 loyal Vietnamese employees and South Korean citizens still awaited a rescue that would not come.
The remains of MSG detachment 21-year-old Corporal Charles MCMAHON, Jr, 023 42 16 37, USMC; and 19-year-old Lance Corporal Darwin L. JUDGE, 479 70 89 99, USMC; killed on 29 April by an NVA rocket attack at the Tan Son Nut Airport, were, unfortunately, left behind during the withdrawal. They were later recovered via diplomatic means in 1976 and buried with full military honors.
Maj. Kean’s after-action report is available, here.
This 1985 photo of a Columbian marine participating in an amphibious/jungle assault during the joint US/South American Exercise UNITAS XXV, complete with his M1 helmet and M14 rifle, could almost be mistaken for a U.S. Marine in 1965 South Vietnam.
Alabama-born Special Forces Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins, MoH, was a man among green-faced men when in 1966 he was part of an A-team at Camp A Shau and the fit hit the proverbial shan.
Command Sergeant Major Bennie G. Adkins distinguished himself during 38 hours of close-combat fighting against enemy forces on March 9 to 12, 1966. At that time, then-Sergeant First Class Adkins was serving as an Intelligence Sergeant with Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces at Camp “A Shau”, in the Republic of Vietnam.
When Camp A Shau was attacked by a large North Vietnamese force in the early morning hours of March 9th, Sergeant First Class Adkins rushed through intense enemy fire and manned a mortar position defending the camp. He continued to mount a defense even while incurring wounds from several direct hits from enemy mortars. Upon learning that several soldiers were wounded near the center of camp, he temporarily turned the mortar over to another soldier, ran through exploding mortar rounds and dragged several comrades to safety. As the hostile fire subsided, Adkins exposed himself to sporadic sniper fire and carried his wounded comrades to a more secure position at the camp dispensary.
Sergeant First Class Adkins exposed himself to enemy fire transporting a wounded casualty to an airstrip for evacuation. He and his group then came under heavy small-arms fire from members of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group that had defected to fight with the North Vietnamese. Despite this overwhelming force, Adkins maneuvered outside the camp to evacuate a seriously wounded American and draw fire away from the aircraft all the while successfully covering the rescue. Later, when a resupply air drop landed outside of the camp perimeter, Adkins again moved outside of the camp walls to retrieve the much-needed supplies.
During the early morning hours of March 10th, enemy forces launched their main assault. Within two hours, Sergeant First Class Adkins was the only defender firing a mortar weapon. When all mortar rounds were expended, Adkins began placing effective rifle fire upon enemy as they infiltrated the camp perimeter and assaulted his position. Despite receiving additional wounds from enemy rounds exploding on his position, Adkins fought off relentless waves of attacking North Vietnamese soldiers.
Adkins then withdrew to regroup with a smaller element of soldiers at the communications bunker. While there, he single-handedly eliminated numerous insurgents with small arms fire, almost completely exhausting his supply of ammunition. Braving intense enemy fire, he returned to the mortar pit, gathered vital ammunition and evaded fire while returning to the bunker. After the order was given to evacuate the camp, Sergeant First Class Adkins and a small group of soldiers destroyed all signal equipment and classified documents, dug their way out of the rear of the bunker, and fought their way out of the camp.
Because of his efforts to carry a wounded soldier to an extraction point and leave no one behind, Sergeant First Class Adkins and his group were unable to reach the last evacuation helicopter. Adkins then rallied the remaining survivors and led the group into the jungle – evading the enemy for 48 hours until they were rescued by helicopter on March 12th. During the 38-hour battle and 48-hours of escape and evasion, Adkins fought with mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, small arms, and hand grenades, killing an estimated 135 – 175 of the enemy and sustaining 18 different wounds. Sergeant First Class Adkins’ extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces and the United States Army.
Adkins, age 86, passed away this weekend, reportedly from complications of COVID-19.
In related news, while the Tomb Guards at Arlington are still walking post, the Old Guard is currently conducting Memorial operations while wearing masks, in accordance with Army and CDC guidelines.
“There are socialists, communists, cubists, capitalists, Vichyists, fascists, meharistists, nudists, syndicalists, existentialists, lampisists, Marxists, monarchists, Gaullists, Bonapartists, violinists, pushers..etc.
If you’ve not made your mind up yet if you’re a man, why not become a parachutist?” –French military recruiting poster, 1950.
The French were actually one of the first countries to field paratroopers, after a group of officers studied with the Soviets in the 1930s, with the 601e G.I.A, forming in 1937. Continuing their service with the British during WWII as part of the SAS, the 1st Parachute Chasseur Battalion (1er BCP n°1) was formed in 1943.
During the Indochinese War, Paris organized almost a dozen Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian airborne battalions.
These augmented an even larger force of Colonial Marine and French Foreign Legion units that raced all over Southeast Asia as a fire brigade to try and put out Viet Minh flareups.
Some were rushed to Dien Bein Phu with their combat jump being the first time they hit the silk.
They kept up the trend in Algeria with the 14th and 19th Algerian Parachute (Parachutistes Algériens) battalions.
With the force shrinking after 1961– where the two airborne divisions (10e D.P and 25e D.P) along with the Legion’s 1e REP were all disbanded when they took part in the revolt against De Gaulle– today the Republic still has the 11th Parachute Brigade (11e BP), the French Foreign Legion’s 2nd Parachute Regiment (2ème REP), as well as the 2nd Marine Parachute Regiment (2e RPIMa) to call on.
Although they now use German-made rifles, because, why not?
The Iowa-class battleships received official helicopter pads and a helicopter control station below their after 5-inch director–although no hangar facilities– in the 1980s during their Lehman 600-ship Navy modernization.
They used them to host visiting Navy SH-60 and SH-2s, as well as the occasional Marine UH-1, CH-46, and CH-53 while also running their own early RQ-2A Pioneer UAV detachments–to which Iraqi units would later surrender to during the 1st Gulf War.
However, it by far was not the first time those dreadnoughts sported whirly-birds.
Back in 1948, while the ships still had floatplane catapults and a quartet of Curtiss SC-2 Seahawk floatplanes on their stern, USS Missouri (BB-63) accommodated a visiting experimental Sikorsky S-51, piloted by D. D. (Jimmy) Viner, a chief test pilot for Sikorsky.
With the cats deleted in the early 1950s, the Iowas saw more HO3s, now equipped with folding blade rotors and externally-mounted rescue hoists.
New Jersey also supported the occasional helicopter during her reactivation in the Vietnam war. Notably, she received 16-inch shells and powder tanks from USS Mount Katmai (AE-16) by H-34 helicopter lift, the first time heavy battleship ammunition had been transferred by helicopter at sea.
But wait, old boy
With all that being said, it should be pointed out that it was the Brits who first successfully used a helicopter on their last battlewagon, HMS Vanguard, in 1947, a full year before Missouri’s first rotor-wing visit.
And Vanguard would go on to operate both RN FAA Westland WS-51 Dragonflies and USN Piasecki HUP-2s on occasion in the 1950s.
The more you know…
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
-A special WW this week due to events…
Warship Wednesday, April 1, 2020: From Red Rover to Comfort
Here we see the side-wheel steamer USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship, on the Western Rivers during the Civil War, with two rowing boats alongside.
Built during 1859 at Cape Girardeau, Mo, the riverboat was originally bought by the Confederates on 7 November 1861, and served as CSS Red Rover, a barracks ship for the floating battery New Orleans.
At Island No. 10, near New Madrid, Mo., from 15 March 1862, she was holed during a bombardment of that island sometime before 25 March and abandoned as a quarters ship. Seized by the Union gunboat Mound City the next month, she was repaired, and taken to St. Louis where she was fitted out as a summer hospital boat for the Army’s Western Flotilla “to augment limited Union medical facilities, to minimize the hazards to sick and wounded in fighting ships; and to ease the problems of transportation-delivery of medical supplies to and evacuation of personnel from forward areas.”
Steamers, such as City of Memphis, were being used as hospital transports to carry casualties upriver, but they lacked necessary sanitary accommodations and medical staffs, and thus were unable to prevent the spread of disease.
Rapid mobilization at the start of the Civil War had vitiated efforts to prevent the outbreak and epidemic communication of disease on both sides of the conflict. Vaccination was slow; sanitation and hygiene were generally poor. Overworked military medical personnel were assisted by voluntary societies coordinated by the Sanitary Commission founded in June 1861. But by 1865 typhoid fever, typhus, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, smallpox, measles, and malaria would claim more lives than gunshot.
Red Rover, serving first with the Army, then with the Navy, drew on both military and voluntary medical personnel. Her conversion to a hospital boat, begun at St. Louis and completed at Cairo, Ill., was accomplished with both sanitation and comfort in mind. A separate operating room was installed and equipped. A galley was put below, providing separate kitchen facilities for the patients. The cabin aft was opened for better air circulation. A steam boiler was added for laundry purposes. An elevator, numerous bathrooms, nine water closets, and gauze window blinds “… to keep cinders and smoke from annoying the sick” were also included in the work.
Red Rover provided yeoman service throughout the rest of the conflict, treating over 2,400 patients during her career. She was sold at auction in November 1865.
The Spanish-American War
Fast forward to 1898 and the military, going to war with Spain, quickly moved to create a new hospital ship. The Army took the lead and purchased the three-year-old 3,300-ton steel passenger liner SS John Englis from the Delaware River Ship Building Co. and sent her south to Cuba as the hospital ship Relief.
The Navy also rebooted its hospital ship program in April 1898 when they bought the 5,700-ton steamer SS Creole from the Cromwell Steamship Lines. Converted to the USS Solace, she was the first Navy ship to fly the Geneva Red Cross.
She was converted in just 16 days
“as an ambulance ship, complete with a large operating room, steam disinfecting apparatus, ice machine, steam laundry plant, cold storage rooms, and an elevator. She could accommodate two hundred patients in her berths, swinging cots and staterooms. Her hurricane deck was enclosed with canvas to be used as a contagious disease ward. The vessel’s fresh water tanks held 37,000 gallons of fresh water, and her system of evaporators and distillers maintained the supply. She was given gifts of supplies and equipment from groups such as the Rhode Island Sanitary and Relief Association and the National Society of Colonial Dames, gaining an X-ray machine, a carbonating machine, etc. SOLACE’s crew included a surgeon, three passed assistant surgeons, three hospital stewards (one of which was a skilled embalmer) eight trained nurses, a cook, four messmen and two laundrymen. The ship and her crew had the honor of inaugurating antiseptic surgery at sea. The vessel also had twenty contract nurses who were members of the Graduated Nurses’ Protective association.
As noted by DANFS “The hospital ship was in constant service during the Spanish-American war, returning wounded and ill servicemen from Cuba to Norfolk, New York, and Boston.”
After the war with Spain was over, both Relief, which had been handed over to the Navy, and Solace were mothballed. However, when the Great White Fleet was organized to globetrot the country’s new all-steel Navy, Teddy Roosevelt stressed it needed a hospital ship to accompany it and the former USAHS Relief was updated as USS Relief.
WWI Hospital Ships
By 1910, Relief was a floating hospital at Olongapo while Solace, on the East Coast, was more mobile and would lend her hull to be loaded with wounded veterans returning from France in the Great War.
Two other steamers were taken up from service from the Ward Line– SS Havana and SS Saratoga— and were converted and renamed USS Comfort and USS Mercy.
They were the first Navy hospital ships to have female nurses aboard, with a capacity of seven, including a chief nurse. Both ships were outfitted with state-of-the-art operating rooms, X-ray labs, restrooms, and could accommodate 500 patients each.
It was around this time that the Navy turned to the concept of a purpose-built hospital ship. She would carry the name of the old Relief and, the 10,000-ton ship was the first ship of the U.S. Navy designed and built from the keel up as a hospital ship.
The above plan was intended to satisfy characteristics issued on 12 April 1913 by the General Board. This design concept was selected for the construction of the Relief (Hospital Ship # 1). This plan provides a total berthing capacity of 674 for patients, no armament, and a speed of 14 knots in a ship 460 feet long on the waterline, about 61 feet in beam, with a normal displacement of somewhat less than 10,000 tons.
USS Relief (AH-1), was laid down 14 June 1917 by the Philadelphia Navy Yard and completed in 1920.
WWII hospital ships
Spending a full career in peacetime service before the balloon went up at Pearl Harbor, Relief would “steam the equivalent of nearly four times around the world” during WWII and evacuate “nearly 10,000 fighting men as patients from scenes of combat in nearly every military campaign area of the Pacific Theatre.”
Other Navy hospital ships would join her during the war, such as the converted USS Solace (AH-5), the latter starting life as the 8,900-ton liner SS Iroquois. If the numbering scheme sounds odd, keep in mind the Navy allocated AH-2 to the original SpanAmWar-era Solace and AH-3/4 to the Great War-era Comfort and Mercy, even though none of those three ships were around as Navy hospital ships in WWII.
Other WWII hospital ships were USS Bountiful (AH-9) and USS Samaritan (AH-10), both converted WWI-era troopships as well as USS Refuge (AH-11), with the latter being the former APL line steamer SS President Garfield. Another liner, SS Saint John, became USS Rescue (AH-18). All of these would be disposed of after 1946.
What about AH-6, AH-7, and AH-8? Those were the purpose-built 6,000-ton hospital ships USS Comfort, USS Hope, and USS Mercy, respectively.
Completed late in the war (1944) they served in the last days of the conflict in the Pacific then were put in mothballs from which they never emerged in U.S. service again.
A new generation
Speaking of being completed late in the war, the 15,000-ton Haven-class hospital ships were ordered in 1943 and by and large missed the conflict.
Large vessels with a 700-man crew/hospital staff, they could accommodate 800 patients and make 17.5-knots on ocean-crossing trips. The six-ship class held the line for the Navy in Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. They consisted of the USS Haven (AH-12), USS Benevolence (AH-13), USS Tranquillity (AH-14), USS Consolation (AH-15), USS Repose (AH-16), and USS Sanctuary (AH-17).
The last of the class in service, Repose, was on station off Vietnam during the 1967 USS Forrestal fire that killed 134 sailors and injured 161. By that time, the Haven-class ships were typically supplied with patients via medevac helicopters. Added to this were thousands of Marines who were injured ashore.
Following Vietnam, the Navy’s hospital ship line consisted of the WWII-era Haven-class ships, which were being disposed of.
With no purpose-built AHs on the Naval List, Big Blue’s go-to plan for hospital ships in the event of a conflict from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s was to convert Tarawa-class LHAs as needed, as these amphibs would be completed with decent medical bays, although nothing like that seen on earlier white hulls.
While each Tarawa could field “17 ICU beds, 4 operating rooms, 300 beds, a 1,000-unit blood bank, full dental facilities, and orthopedics, trauma, general surgery, and x-ray capabilities,” the bottom line was that they were command-and-control ships for amphibious landings stuffed with Marines and their equipment, aircraft and vehicles and could scarcely be taken out of the line to serve as dedicated hospital ships.
Realizing this was a no-go in the event of a mass-casualty event, the Navy cheaply acquired a pair of decade-old San Clemente-class oil tankers, SS Worth and SS Rose City, in the mid-1980s.
After a 35-month, $208 million conversions, these 65,000-ton beasts emerged as the MSC-crewed USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20), following in the numbering convention started by the 1898-era Relief.
The third-largest ships in the Navy by length surpassed only by the nuclear-powered Nimitz– and Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers, they are crewed when on a 5-day standby by a 70-man complement that swells to over 1,200 when fully operational, with one stationed on each coast. They have 1,000 beds and have proved useful in regular peacetime hearts-and-minds style goodwill cruises as well as in the Gulf Wars and in hurricane relief.
The ships are fully equipped on-par with a large metro hospital.
Nutritionist-managed patient/crew meals
All backed up by logistics
Both ships are now activated and deployed to help backfill hospital capacity to free up room for COVID-19 cases.
USNS Mercy arrived at Los Angeles on 28 March
While USNS Comfort arrived in New York on 30 March
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The Wall Street Journal has a report that the Marines are set to drastically reboot in the next decade. In short, they will get leaner and lighter, shedding about 15,000 Marines, ditching lots of old-school 155mm tube artillery in favor of mobile truck-mounted anti-ship missile batteries. The 8th Marines would be disbanded along with some helicopter squadrons while the number of UAV squadrons will be doubled.
The focus of the new 2030 USMC would be an updated Wake Island 1941 program-– landing on and defending small Pacific islands to deny the use of an area to a Chinese naval force.
Oh yeah, and the Marines will also lose all of their beautiful and hard-serving Abrams main battle tanks.
A century of support to the Devils
The Marines got into the tank game in the 1920s and has employed armor in every major combat action ever since– with the exception of Wake Island.
In 1923, the Marines established Light Tank Platoon, East Coast Expeditionary Force at Quantico with a handful of Great War surplus U.S. Army (a trend that would continue) M1917 Renault light tanks, two-man 6-ton vehicles armed with a light machine gun.
In 1927, this platoon was assigned to the 3d Marine Brigade in China, where it would operate for a year before it returned to the States and was disbanded in 1930.
Then came two armored platoons stood up in the mid-1930s equipped with the light (5-ton) Marmon-Harrington tankettes, of which a whopping 10 were acquired.
On 1 August 1940, the USMC established the 3d Tank Company with M2A4 light tanks. This unit the next year became Alpha Company, 1st Tank Battalion and by early 1942 were rushed to defend American Samoa. By August, they were landing at Guadalcanal.
Upgrading to M4 Shermans in time for 1943’s Cape Gloucester, New Britain operation, the Marines would continue to use the hardy medium tank in a force that would grow to six battalions.
By Korea, the Marines were able to put their Shermans to pasture and begin using the 90mm-equipped M26 Pershing and the M46 tank.
Lessons learned in Korea brought about the medium-and-heavy combo that was the M48A1 and the M103, which were used in Lebanon in 1958, the Cuban Missile Crisis (where Marine tankers were ashore at GTMO) and the 1965 landing in the Dominican Republic.
Then came Vietnam, where the Marines continued to utilize the upgraded M48A3 although the Army was switching to the M60 Patton.The Marines would only upgrade to the M60A1 in 1975, once Vietnam was in the rearview, a tank they would keep– with much modification– through the First Gulf War. Importantly, it was the M60s of the Marines that were the first serious armor on the ground in Saudi Arabia in Desert Storm.
Since 2001, Abrams-equipped Marine tank platoons have been very busy, deploying multiple times to the Middle East. This included company-size deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as well as carving platoons off to float around with MEUs in the Fleet.
The Corps currently fields 403 M1A1/A2 variants, less than one-tenth of the amount the Army/National Guard has on hand. Of course, as the Marines just have three tank battalions, one of which is a reserve unit, there are only about 180 of these tanks in unit service, with the rest of the hulls forward-deployed in places like Norway and in other forms of long-term storage.
If all goes according to plan, by 2030 the Marines will have zero Abrams.
Planned upgrades, scheduled to take place through 2024, naturally will be a footnote.
And the beat goes on…