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Operation Passage to Freedom
First Seabees in Vietnam Evacuate Citizens to South

An operational report by Cmdr. L.N. Saunders, Jr.

If there is one truth about Seabee deployments, it is that every war brings the Seabees to an unfamiliar land. Like a one-two punch, the Seabees deployed to Korea and Vietnam early in the 1950s.

The Seabees’ association with Vietnam grew like a festering boil. From August 22, 1954—the day Det. Peter of ACB 1 arrived in Haiphong—to 1965, numerous detachments and 13-man Seabee teams deployed into the abscess.

Then on May 7, 1965, the boil burst—for the Seabees, at least. NMCB 10 landed at Chu Lai. Then like succeeding waves of Marines hitting the beach, 1965 saw NMCBs 3, 9, 8, 5 and 4 (in order of deployment) land at Da Nang and Chu Lai.

Before the last Seabee boarded the plane home, one brigade, two regiments, two maintenance units and 21 mobile construction battalions and one amphibious construction battalion had served at Bien Hoa, Chu Lai, Da Nang, Dong Ha, Hue and Quang Tri.

Saunders was commanding officer of ACB 1 during this period.

In accordance with directives received from CTF 90 on August 11, 1954, Det. Peter of ACB 1 was activated, outfitted and embarked in designated shipping to participate in Operation Passage to Freedom involving evacuation of personnel and equipment from the Tonkin Delta region of French Indo-China. The detachment consisted of five officers and 60 men from ACB 1, augmented by one officer and 10 men from Boat Unit 1 with two LCM tugs. Its mission was to install and operate one 8-section or two 4-section pontoon piers on the Do-San Peninsula (approximately 15 miles south of Haiphong). The detachment was manned and equipped for independent operation on the beach without logistic support for 30 days. Resupply of food and fuel was to be furnished by available ships. No shore party was planned.

The first echelon of Det. Peter, consisting of administrative, camp and equipment operating personnel with camp gear, rations, fuel, equipment and supplies, was embarked in the USS Epping Forest (LSD 4) and departed Camp McGill on August 13. The second echelon (causeway crews and causeways) was embarked on the USS LSTs 887, 901, 1096 and 1149 and departed Yokosuka on August 16. Both echelons encountered Typhoon Grace during passage but no damage to equipment was sustained.

The first echelon arrived off Haiphong on August 22. Upon arrival the following were discovered:

  • The terms of the truce agreement prohibited the landing of foreign military units or the establishment of foreign military installations ashore in French Indo-China.

  • The previously selected beaches on the Do-San Peninsula were not suitable due to shallow water and heavy swells.

  • The French were opposed to loading out equipment over beaches and desired to lift all personnel and equipment from Haiphong waterfront.

The Epping Forest, with the first echelon still embarked, sailed for Saigon on August 24. On August 25, on directive from CTF 90, the two LCM tugs with crews were dropped at Tourane (later named Da Nang) for temporary duty with CTF 90.3 to assist ships coming alongside the USS Caliente (AO 53) for fuel. The Epping Forest, with the remainder of the detachment, arrived Saigon on August 27.

Upon arrival in Saigon, representatives of the MAAG discussed the construction capabilities of the detachment and requested its assignment to Cap St. Jacques to assist in the construction of a 15,000-man refugee camp. Since a camp for personnel could not be established ashore, the Epping Forest was directed to Cap St. Jacques to land the construction crews and act as barracks ship during the work as well as direct the unloading of refugees from amphibious shipping.

The detachment was landed on August 28 and commenced work immediately on clearing the camp site. Work was already underway by STEM and Vietnamese personnel and housing (tents) for 3,600 people had been erected. On August 29, withdrawal of all equipment and personnel was directed due to objections raised to the landing of American military personnel and equipment. On August 31, approval was received to land two D8 dozers with operators to complete the clearing of the camp site since this work was beyond the capacity of local forces. As directed, all American military identification was removed from the tractors and operators were sent ashore in clothing not identifiable as military uniforms. Clearing of the area was completed on September 4 and equipment reloaded in the Epping Forest. A request was made at this time for shipping space to return Det. Peter to Camp McGill. Equipment and personnel were directed to load aboard the USS Bayfield (APA 33) for return on September 9. In the meantime, a request was received to do additional clearing work to permit expansion of the Cap St. Jacques refuge camp. Accordingly, two D8 dozers with operators and one officer remained to complete this work and loaded aboard the USS Mountrail (APA 213) on September 11. Elements on the Bayfield returned to Camp McGill on September 16, and personnel and equipment on the Mountrail returned on September 17.

The second echelon arrived off Tourane on August 29. As directed by CTG 90.3, the personnel were moved from the LSTs to the USS Ajax (AR 6) and the pontoon causeways and other ACB 1 equipment placed ashore on Ajax Beach.

Ajax Beach, a one mine-long beach situated on the north side of Tourane Bay, became a recreation beach for all ships of CTF 90 that resupplyed and refueled at Tourane. The personnel and equipment of Det. Peter were used to develop this recreational beach. Six 16 by 16 tents (two with two by four frames to serve as an officers club, the rest for use as dressing tents and heads) were erected. A large area behind the beach was cleared of brush and vegetation to serve as a ball field. Two causeway piers for use as boat landings were put into place. A steel frame building, donated by the French, was erected and numerous tables and benches built. ACB 1 personnel also maintained a small camp on the beach as a 24-hour watch was maintained on equipment.

Ajax Beach, sometimes used by 1,000 men a day, played a great part in maintaining the morale of the ships in CTF 90. The personnel of Det. Peter were personally commended by Admiral Gano, commander of Service Squadron 3, for their part in constructing and maintaining it.

Due to the onset of the monsoon season, the Logistic Support Group of CTF 90 was directed to move north to the Haiphong area on September 28. Having no further use for the ACB 1 personnel and equipment, it was reloaded aboard the USS LSTs 758, 846, 887 and 1148, departing Tourane September 26 and arriving at Camp McGill on October 6.

This story is found in No. 5 (Winter 1999) of the Seabee Log.

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