Join in the continuation as Al recalls the Hancock and crew's role in the rescue of approximately 2,000 people during Operation Frequent Wind – but with that success came more than one horrific tragedy...
On the morning of April 29, 1975, the sky was still mostly dark, but when Al looked along the horizon, he could make out as far as his eyes could see Navy ships – about 50 in all – at the ready. The code for action aboard the Hancock was Operation Deep Purple, and finally the sailors, tense from days of waiting, heard the words they’d been waiting to hear for days: deep purple, deep purple, this is not a drill!
The Marines began launching their helos for their flight into Saigon. Al glanced up at the sky, and it looked like there was a swarm of bees. South Vietnamese helicopters were landing one after the other, and they just kept coming. Al watched as the first helo landed, and although cameras were forbidden, Al always had his little 110 camera at his side, and he crawled under different helicopters in order to quickly snap a picture of that first helo’s cargo: a man, his wife and kids, a grandmother, a goat, and a motorcycle. That was all this family had left; the refugees had brought with them everything they could. The people and their possessions were guided to safety while the helo was pushed to the bow. And then additional helos started coming, and it seemed they would never stop. Safety had always been the number one concern on an aircraft carrier. Pilots and crew knew nothing ever came in close contact with rotor blades on a helo. The pilots that were coming in began landing if they were still flying in the jungles in combat, and if they had two inches on either side of the rotors, they would try to land. The yellow-shirts were out trying to wave the pilots off to gain some semblance of order; the yellow-shirts immediately realized that if they didn’t move, the helos would land on them.
Hancock crewmembers moved helos out of the way as quickly as they would land, but it soon became apparent that the flight deck was getting full. The sky still looked like it was filled with bees, and those helicopters kept coming and coming and coming. The crew had little choice, and they began pushing helos over the side of the ship to make room for more incoming. Before it was over, the Hancock crew pushed several helos over the edge, and Al assisted in pushing some of the bigger ones off the back. All of these helos had been through the war and many had scars to prove it: bullet holes and blood-stained seats. When it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough deck space to accommodate the massive number of South Vietnamese helos, orders were given to unload the refugees, and the pilot would fly over the water, ditch it and wait to be rescued. For Al, Frequent Wind was the most intense operation he had ever experienced.
One Internet source stated that, in all, 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and third-country nationals were evacuated by American helicopters. And how were all of these people coordinated to make their escape? Al would find out later that when the song I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas was played, that signaled the beginning of the operation to the Americans and dependents on shore that it was time to go. The total number of Vietnamese evacuated by Frequent Wind or self-evacuated and ending up in the custody of the U.S. for processing as refugees to enter the U.S. totaled 138,869. The Hancock had rescued approximately 2,000 people, and they were directed to go down in the hangar bay. Al wondered about all of these people who had nothing to embrace in their immediate future save the fact that they were no longer in Vietnam. Much later, Al would learn from his mother that a missionary from Ubly was among those rescued and brought to the Hancock. Al had only wished he’d known at the time, for he could have helped make life easier for the man.
Be sure to look for the continuation next month when Al makes his way back to the States and receives new orders to work aboard the USS Enterprise.
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