By Edward J. Marolda
The U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command (named MSC in September 1970) and its predecessor, the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), supported U.S forces throughout the conflict in Southeast Asia. In Operation Passage to Freedom, which lasted from August 1954 to May 1955, 39 MSTS transports carried many of the 293,000 Vietnamese who emigrated by sea from North to South Vietnam.
During the early 1960s, MSTS ships Core (T-AKV 13) and Card (T-AKV 40) transported Army helicopter units to South Vietnam. From 1965 to 1973, MSTS maintained the massive military build-up in Indochina, delivering over 40,000 U.S. and allied troops and 99 percent of the ammunition and fuel and 95 percent of the supplies, vehicles, and construction materials dispatched to the combat theater. At the height of the war, MSTS operated a fleet of 527 reactivated World War II ships and chartered vessels managed by offices in the United States, Japan, and South Vietnam.
Many types of vessels sailed in the MSTS fleet, including aircraft ferries, a helicopter repair ship, standard cargo hulls, ships that carried cargo stowed in easily handled containers, roll-on/roll-off ships that could swiftly load and unload vehicles, tankers able to hold between 30,000 and 190,000 barrels of fuel, troop transports, tank landing ships, tugs, and barges. The Navy's sealift effort ensured that the half-million-strong U.S. contingent in South Vietnam was well supplied and armed to fight the determined Communist foe.
When North Vietnam launched its major conventional onslaught against South Vietnam in March and April of 1975, the Navy called on MSC to evacuate friendly Vietnamese troops and civilians from the northern and central regions of the country. On 27 March, a fleet of 10 cargo/transport ships, 5 tugs, and 6 barges began rescuing an increasingly desperate horde of soldiers and civilians from Danang and other ports to the south. Crowding, the lack of sufficient food, and displeasure that isolated Phu Quoc island instead of Vung Tau had been selected as the disembarkation point led some armed passengers to threaten the American crews. As a result, the Navy deployed 50-man U.S. Marine security detachments to the ships. By 10 April, MSC had transported to Phu Quoc 130,000 American and Vietnamese refugees.
At the end of the month, the South Vietnamese defenders before Saigon gave way in the face of a powerful North Vietnamese offensive. With Communist occupation of all South Vietnam now virtually certain, President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Frequent Wind, the final evacuation of Saigon. Anticipating just such an order, during the month MSC had filled its ships with food, water, and medicine and stationed Marine security detachments on board. In concert with the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which began lifting refugees by helicopter from Saigon out to the offshore flotilla, MSC took on board a growing flood of refugees. Between 29 April and 2 May, when the operation ceased, the MSC ships embarked more than 50,000 evacuees. The MSC ships, the Seventh Fleet contingent, and a flotilla of 26 Vietnam Navy ships embarking 30,000 Vietnamese sailors and their families then set sail for the Philippines. Thus closed the last act in the long Vietnam drama.
Marolda, Edward J. By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia. Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1994.
Schreadley, Richard L. From the Rivers to the Sea: The U.S. Navy in Vietnam. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
Reproduced with permission from: Tucker, Spencer C., ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.