Command Chronology - RLT-4 -30 April 1975
As the situation in the Republic of South Viet Nam became daily more critical, concurrently with deterioration of the situation in Cambodia, activation of the Headquarters, 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade and Headquarters, 33rd Marine Amphibious Unit was directed. 33rd MAU was activated effective 072300Z Apr75 under the command of Col. A.M. Gray, who also was additionally assigned as the Deputy Commander, 9th MAB. Upon activation, Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/9 and Logistic Support Unit (LSU) 1/9 reported for operational control (OPCON) to 33rd MAU. HMM-165 (-) and HMH-463 were directed to report for planning only.
Both the 9th MAB and 33rd MAU Headquarters were directed to transient from MCAS Futema, Okinawa to NAS, Cubi Point, RP aboard Marines C-130 Aircraft. On arrival, liaison was established with assigned shipping, and the laborious task of combat loading began amid the most difficult of situations. A short response time was essential as the situation worsened in Viet Nam. Compounding this problem was the fact that the primary ship in support of this element of the task force, the USS Hancock (CVA-19), was not ideally configured nor had the crew received refresher training, to support a helicopter force. Additionally, to embark the numbers of the Landing Force troop aboard the assigned amphibious shipping required major adjustments in the area of embarked troop billeting, to include sleeping on hanger decks, which was far less than an ideal situation for troop rest and comfort. Amid the flurry of embarkation in Subic, elements of the 9th MAB and 33rd MAU's staff previously embarked aboard the USS Blue Ridge began the task of planning for Operation 'Talon Vise', later called 'Frequent Wind', with available information. Those staff elements had been a part of a composite staff that was quite active in support of 'Amphibious Shipping for RVN Evacuation'.
The plan envisioned was to be developed on worst case situation in support of primary option IV of C OMUSSAG/7AF 5060V CONPLAN. This plan addressed the evacuation of American citizens, Third Country Nationals (TCN) and Vietnamese Refugees from Saigon and surrounding areas.
On 12 April rendezvous at sea occurred between USS Hancock and USS Dubuque. The 33rd MAU Staff was cross-decked to establish operations initially in conjunction with assigned Phibron (CTG 76.5). Since the operation was gaining momentum and a part of the 33rd MAU's Staff was still aboard the USS Blue Ridge the major planning component of the 33rd MAU's Staff was then reassigned aboard the USS Blue Ridge. This decision was wise in view of the subsequent designation of the 33rd MAU as RLT-4. 33rd MAU chopped for planning to CTG 79.1 effective 130100Z April 1975.
As the tension in Viet Nam began to slowly diminish, the Task Force returned to Subic Bay, RP on 17 April 1975. Planning, however, continued at an accelerated pace in view of the well known NVA/VC threat that existed in and around Saigon and adjacent areas of concern.
On 18 April 1975 the Task Force was ordered to return to the operational area and resume an increase readiness posture near Vung Tau on the Southern Coast of Viet Nam. This MOD LOC position would provide the best Helicopter accesses to Saigon considering the SAM missile threat that was beginning to roll across the expose Viet Nam Air Space like an Ebb Tide.
Information and guidance from various higher Headquarters was also being provided at an increased pace. As planning accelerated, a number of critical planning factors had to be considered. Paramount was USSAG/7AF CONPLAN 5060V which directed that planning had to accommodate the evacuation of 1500, 3000 or 6000 evacuees from Saigon and adjacent areas. The only feasible course at this time was to orient the planning efforts based on the worst case which proved to be, on 29 April 1975, a very wise decision. As planning continued with the objectives to accommodate each likely option under the USSAG/7AF CONPLAN 5060V and also other likely operational requirements from other higher Headquarters, a restructuring of the Ground Security Force (9th MAB) organization was directed by CG III MAF. This restructuring would significantly improve the overall capability of the Ground Security Force to formulate plans and respond to a grater variety of missions.
The impact on the 33rd MAU was its deactivation on 18 April 1975. With this deactivation of the 33rd MAU, RLT-4 under the command of Colonel A.M. Gray, was activated as the ground component of the 9th MAB. RLT-4 essentially would be organized from the austere 33rd MAU Staff, BLT 1/9, formerly the ground component of the 33rd MAU, and BLT 2/4 the ground component of 31st MAU. On Okinawa, 35th MAU was being constituted with BLT 3/9 as the designated ground component. BLT 3/9 would be chopped to RLT-4 as the third BLT.
Ninth MAB began to take shape with RLT-4 as the ground component, PROVMAG-39 as the helicopter component and a BLSG as the support component which would be structured from the three available LSU's. This organization would provide the essential flexibility that was required to support NEMVAC Operation 'Frequent Wind'. The operation envisioned was a monumental helicopter undertaking employing three carriers, one LPH and two CVA's, all with a full compliment of either Marine or Air Force Helicopters. With initial planning complete, on 20 April 1975 CTU 79.1.2 (RLT-4) OPLAN 1-75 (FREQUENT WIND) was published in support of CTG 79.1 (9th MAB) OPLAN 2-75 (FREQUENT WIND).
During this period, a series of liaison trips were being conducted by Headquarters, 9th MAB, Forward, now located at the DAO Compound in Saigon to the USS Blue Ridge to update the staffs from 9th MAB, RLT-4, PROVMAG-39, and BLSG. These briefings proved to be invaluable and provided vital information that was essential to continue the refinement of published plans.
Even considering this exchange of vital information, many questions remained to be answered. In order to continue the flow of information, it became necessary to send selective personnel from the embarked staffs to establish on the ground coordination and to conduct essential reconnaissance of the various evacuation points. These trips probably more than any single act ensured the complete success of the NEMVAC Operation 'Frequent Wind'. As a result of these trips, adjustment to the RLT-4 OPLAN were necessary and appropriate changes were disseminated.
As the situation in and around Saigon began to further deteriorate, augmentation security was ordered for the DAO Compound from elements of RLT-4. To support this requirement all BLT's were placed in an alert status to be prepared to support, on order, with a 40 man security platoon. A platoon from BLT 1/9 (3rd Plt, Co C, under the command of 1st Lt. Thompson-Bowers) was selected to fulfill this requirement. At 1100H 25 April this security platoon began movement from USS Hancock by Air America contract Helicopters to the DAO Compound. Here they would provide critical security until late on the afternoon on 29 April 1975. Their effort would, under the most critical observation, measure up to the performance of any of their predecessors.
On 27 April 1975 the alert status of the Task Force had been increased by higher Headquarters Directives. Additionally, planning continued with the thrust of the effort being directed toward DAO Compound and nearby Air America Headquarters. The situation at Vung Tau also began to further deteriorated and BLT 3/9 was directed to accelerate the refinement of their planning, one of the many taskings of RLT-4, to support a possible evacuation operation on or near the Peninsula of Vung Tau. BLT 1/9 was likewise tasked to support the same requirements, since the operation had gained greater complexity due to the increased enemy threat and the greater number of refugees being considered for evacuation at Vung Tau.
During the early morning hours of 29 April the situation worsened around Saigon. The tempo for this deteriorating situation had been set the evening prior when 4 A-37 aircraft had conducted air strikes against Tan Son Nhut airfield, the Vietnamese capitol, and some vital bridges within the city. On the morning of 29 April at about 0400H, artillery and rockets began impacting at the Tan Son Nhut airfield and adjoining areas. One of these adjacent areas was the DAO Compound proper. As a result of this fire the danger to human life was even more real. An artillery round impacted near two young Marines assigned security duty at DAO from the American Embassy, death in both cases was instantaneous. This one round had created yet another page in the annuals of Marine Corps History. D-Day would be 29 April 1975. The young Marines around the DAO Compound dug-in, located cover near their security positions and began the long wait while always hoping to see the in bound flights of CH-53's with embarked Marines from the Ground Security force.
As already stated on 29 April 1975 the situation began to deteriorate further in and around Saigon. Artillery and rockets continued to impact around Tan Son Nhut and the DAO/Air America Complexes. Concurrently aboard the USS Blue Ridge and the other ships of the Task Force, Marines and helicopters were notified and all were being brought to the appropriate state of operational readiness. At about 1215H inside the DAO, a copy of an execute message for Operation 'Frequent Wind' was provided to the Deputy, GSFC, Col. W.W. Taylor. The situation during this period throughout the Saigon area was extremely fluid with many unknowns yet to be answered. Specific areas to be considered by the Deputy, GSFC prior to making a recommendation to the GSFC aboard the Blue Ridge as to the force size to be introduced was (1) what crowd control problems would occur in proximity to the DAO; (2) what would be the rate of advance of the NVA/VC forces into Saigon; (3) and what would be the response of the Vietnamese Military Forces in and around Saigon? Since no positive assessment could be made, it was essential that the Ground Security Force be introduced based on the worst case situation. The force size recommended by Colonel Taylor was one of the options of the RLT-4 plan, which called for the rapid introduction of one BLT within the DAO Complex and up to a BLT in the Air America Complex. However, for Air America Complex initially, only one Rifle Company (rein) with a small Battalion Command Group was recommended with the capability to build up, if required, to the second BLT.
Aboard the Blue Ridge, L-Hour had been initially established for the GSF to be 1230H. However this was impossible due to the necessary reaction time to support a complicated multi-deck helicopter operation which was essential to respond to the assessed security requirements of the DAO/Air America Complex.
The minimum time requirement to move the initial force to the DAO/Air America area after the security elements were aboard the deck-ready helicopters, was a minimum of two hours. Factors that influenced this two hour time requirement were (1) prior notification so that the state of readiness could be progressively improved; (2) limited cross-decking of some key elements based on readiness notification; (3) the option to be implemented; (4) the security situation at the designated evacuation point; (5) the rate of introduction of the security force; (6) and the helicopter flow which was essential to support the Security Force configuration which was selected. Based on these aforementioned factors, L-Hour was redesignated as 1400H by higher Headquarters. At this point the GSFC and the CO, RLT-4 launched for the DAO(aboard Command and Control helicopters so that the situation could be further assessed from the DAO).
During this period the advanced elements under the Deputy, GSFC had been taking positive steps to ensure that the communications inside the Evacuation Control Center (ECC) was functioning properly, and that the landing zone control teams (LZCT) were in the proper position to support the helicopter insertion of Ground Security Forces and to coordinate the subsequent helicopter extraction of the evacuees.
While the GSFC and CO, RLT-4 were in transit to the DAO, L-Hour was again changed with concurrence from appropriate authority of the GSF remaining aboard the Blue Ridge. By changing L-Hour to 1500H this would place the GSF in a posture to implement the most responsive security plan based on the worst case situation in Saigon which seemed to be surfacing at this point. As a result of the changes in L-Hour, the rapid build-up of Ground Security Forces could occur. Another influencing factor to support his rapid build-up, which was quite germane, was the witnessed AAA activity near Tan Son Nhut. Members of the DAO and advanced elements of GSF had witnessed VNAF aircraft destroyed in flight, on the 28th and 29th of April.
In retrospect the consideration of an advance element under the direction of the Deputy, GSFC proved to be an advantageous move in support of the complicated command and control responsibilities of NEMVAC Operation 'Frequent Wind'. This organization had essentially consisted of the Deputy, GSFC, highly skilled communication personnel to operate selective communications equipment in the ECC, and selective aviation personnel to ensure the activities of the LZCT were closely integrated with the planned insertion of the GSF and the subsequent extraction of designated evacuees.
At 291315H the GSFC had departed USS Blue Ridge for the DAO Compound. The GSF had commenced loading aboard CH-53 helicopters from HMH-463 and HMH-463 and initial elements would touch down in the DAO Compound at 291506H to the cheers of awaiting evacuees almost all of whom were overcome by emotion at the sight of the well organized and disciplined Marines. The sight of these Marines signified to the evacuees that there would be a tomorrow. The extraction of evacuees commenced immediately in a smooth, orderly fashion.
Immediately on arrival at the DAO, the forces of BLT 2/4 under the command of LtCol G.P. Slade deployed to their assigned security areas. The planning for this operation proved to be completely coordinated and understood down to the Fire Team level. This sterling execution can be attributed to the excellent small unit leadership and numerous briefings that had been conducted under the continuing direction of the Officers and SNCO's from BLT 2/4. The BLT 2/4 forces were augmented and assisted by the 3rd Platoon, Company C, BLT 1/9 under the able leadership of First Lieutenant Thompson-Bowers. This platoon operating under the most trying of circumstances had been consistently subjected to incoming artillery and rocket fire during the last 24 hours. Relief for the platoon occurred at 291600H as they were heli-lifted to USS Hancock.
Coincident with the insertion of 865 Marines from BLT 2/4, a ready reaction Sparrow Hawk Platoon from Company A, BLT 1/9 was launched aboard two CH-46 aircraft. The high state of readiness of both BLT 1/9 and BLT 3/9 was apparent as each was poised with Sparrow Hawk teams and a command Group with two Companies for the call to launch, if required.
At the DAO the GSFC, and after consulting with CO, RLT-4, modified the plan to introduce only BLT 2/4 in the DAO Compound. After assessing the full situation, his rationale was that (1) crowd control operations were going smoothly; (2) GVN/ARVN security for the most part was effective (3) and the imminent enemy threat was not in close proximity to the compound at this time because ARVN forces were actively fighting the NVA/VC at Tan Son Nhut and were temporarily containing them.
As the evacuation process at the DAO Compound continued to occur smoothly, the situation at the American Embassy began to unfold. The number of evacuees present far exceeded that expected by the Ground Security Force. A total not to exceed 100 evacuees had been anticipated at the Embassy with the helicopter evacuation to be accomplished by Air America. The security provided by the small Marines Security Guard Detachment at the Embassy was proving to be insufficient to control the large crowds. Three platoons (130 Marines) from BLT 2/4 were therefore helo lifted from the DAO Compound to the American Embassy between 291700H and 292100H. The total force of 171 Marines proved to be a saving factor for the continued orderly evacuation at the American Embassy.
When the evacuation finally terminated at the American Embassy, a total of 978 U.S. citizens and 1,120 Third Country National and Vietnamese refugees had been evacuated from that location by the Marine helicopter force.
At the DAO Compound, a total of 395 U.S. citizens and 4,475 refugees were evacuated in an orderly manner. As the evacuation began to terminate at the DAO, the DAO Annex had been vacated and the Ground Security Forces had began its preparations for withdrawal. Withdrawal of the GSF would occur from the DAO only after receiving concurrence and direction from higher Headquarters. The first elements of BLT 2/4 were extracted from the DAO Compound at 292250H to return to assigned amphibious shipping. At about 292250H BGen Carey, the GSFC, departed the DAO Compound for return to the USS Blue Ridge via USS Midway passing control ashore to Col A.M. Gray, CO, RLT-4. This transition was smooth since the austere staff which had functioned during the initial phase of the operation under the command of BGen Carey continued under Col Gray. At 300012H the last GSF elements from the DAO Compound conducted a successful extraction as the noise of tank firing began to draw ever closer to the DAO Compound. As the last two (CH-53) helicopters lifted off, flames spread in the compound as a result of the activation of previously positioned thermite grenades within designated structures and vital areas.
Concurrently the evacuation at the American Embassy would continue throughout the night until the early morning hours of 30 April. The evacuation of Ground Security Forces from this location began at about 300400H and continued until the last CH-46 lifted off the American Embassy rooftop at 300753H with all Marines aboard. The performance of the Marines at the Embassy was excellent. They maintained a cool and truly professional attitude throughout despite receiving small arms fire from nearby buildings. No combat casualties had occurred within the Ground Security Force. Only three non-serious, non-combat casualties occurred among the Ground Security Forces throughout the operation.
This operation again re-established the vitality of the Marine Air/Ground team as well as the Navy/Marine team. In summary, NEMVAC Operation 'Frequent Wind' was successful because long, arduous hours had been spent in preparation and planning. The success of 'Frequent Wind' was no stroke of luck.