Today marks the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war.
Occasionally I wander and this post has nothing about motorcycles. However, it has everything to do with appreciating veterans.
You may recall that the U.S. entered the war to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment. The southern city of Saigon – later renamed as Ho Chi Minh City – was surrendered on 30 April 1975 to Vietcong troops when several tanks smashed through the gates of what was then known as Independence Palace and the last of the Marines were evacuated from the embassy roof.
The 6th Missile Battalion (HAWK), 71st Artillery was activated by General Order 17, dated 19 February 1962, Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Defense Center, Fort Bliss, Texas. The HAWK – from the Latin name Accipter (birds that are known as hawks) – were made by Ratheon, and was an all-weather, surface-to-air, medium-range/medium-altitude missile system. All HAWK missile artillery battalions served under the 97th Artillery Group (Air Defense Artillery) — “Hoomau i Luna” (Always On Top).
It would be three years later in July 1965 that the Battalion received Alert Orders for overseas deployment to U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) South Vietnam. The alert order initiated a series of actions to qualify the crews and readied the equipment for deployment. In less than a month, the Battalion had multiple successful missile exercises and by 15 August 1965 the equipment was ready for shipment. The PRD (Personnel Readiness Date) was established as 1 September 1965 and all personnel were POR qualified. The Battalion’s personnel were alerted for movement from Fort Bliss, Texas to Oakland Army Terminal, Oakland, California.
The main body (including my father) of the 6th Battalion (HAWK), 71st Artillery departed Oakland Army terminal aboard the USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey (T-AP-121) on 11 September 1965. My father mailed me the above card which I’ve saved as a reminder of that voyage. And in a twist of irony the ship turned out to be the very same troop transport ship that he traveled to Asia when deployed to serve in the Korean War some twelve years earlier. Go figure. At any rate, on the card above (name intentionally blocked out) you’ll note that at departure my father wore a Specialist E-5 Insignia, indicating the rank of Specialist E-5, or Spec 5 as it was commonly called. It was phased out after the Vietnam War and today, all E-5’s are Sergeants, but during the Vietnam War, Spec 5’s were sometimes squad leaders or in charge of technical groups. Most E-5’s in a Hawk Battery were senior radar or missile technicians and they reported to an E-6 or above maintenance Sergeant. Interestingly an E-5 was the highest rank a draftee could receive without re-enlisting. The E-5 in charge reported directly to the Maintenance Warrant Officer and functioned as the Sergeant in their chain of command.
So, why were HAWK missiles in Vietnam? It turns out that in 1965 the U.S. significantly increased the scale of its air strike operations against North Vietnam, and in response the North Vietnamese were using Mig-17’s with a top speed of over 1300 MPH and could suddenly pop up on radar screens without much notice. In addition they deployed Russian Il-28 bomber aircraft which had the potential for first strike. The heightened air threat from North Vietnam and the lack of allied low altitude radar coverage in the region meant that if the enemy wanted to exploit this weakness it was estimated that the bases in South Vietnam and north-east Thailand would be open to decimating attacks in minutes. As a result, the 6th Missile Battalion men were deployed in various locations across Vietnam to defend their assigned air bases, fuel and ammo dumps, cities, major troop concentrations areas and free world ports in the Republic of South Vietnam.
My father along with rest of the 71st Artillery debarked at Qui Nhon after 17 days aboard the USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey (T-AP-121) on 28 September 1965. In November 1965, Battery C, 71st Artillery became the first fully operational HAWK unit in Vietnam. In 1966 the battalion relocated to Cam Ranh Bay where it remained until departure. During the first six-months my father served as an Engineer Equipment Technician and Supervisor, however, in the final six-months he was assigned to the 41st Signal Battalion as a M60 “Door Gunner” on a UH-1 “Slick” Huey. The “Slick” version was the configuration used for carrying maximum troops and other than the M60’s was not fitted with external weapons to save on weight. The unit received numerous Vietnam citations ranging from Defense; Counteroffensive; Tet Counteroffensive and Consolidation. My father returned to Fort Bliss, Texas in September 1966 and retired some ten years later.
Many of you know that the polished black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial is engraved with 58,256 names of fallen soldiers. It unfortunately includes my cousin “Mike” who was KIA on Saturday, 08 April 1967 along with seven other men in his squad from Co. F, 2nd Bn., 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. The following excerpt is from PFC James Popp’s Navy Cross which explained the situation:
“Private First Class Popp’s squad was conducting a squad-size patrol against the Viet Cong forces in Quang Nam Province. While moving along a trail in search of the enemy, the squad was suddenly taken under a murderous volume of small-arms, hand grenade and 40 millimeter grenade fire. The heavy volume of fire rained in from three sides,…continuation HERE…or HERE”.
But, what about that ship you ask?
It turns out the Admiral W.S. Benson-class troop transport – USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey (T-AP-121) – was built at Bethlehem Steel in Alameda, California and its history dates back to WWII where Admiral W. L. Capps made several trans-Pacific voyages to the Far East with troops between November 23, 1944 and August 4, 1945. Then from September 1945 to December 15, 1945, it made three trans-Atlantic voyages returning troops to and from Europe. In the 1950 – 60’s, the ship had a diverse service record where it spent almost two decades carrying men and material to American installations throughout the Far East and the Pacific Ocean during the Korean and Vietnam War support.
The ship was placed out of service and struck from the Naval Register, 9 October 1969 and then transferred to the Maritime Administration for lay up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The ship was then reacquired and reinstated in the Naval Register on 1 November 1978 and was placed in service as a barracks hulk in Bremerton, WA., to serve as a barracks ship for the crews of ships undergoing major overhaul. Later the ship was laid up in the NISMF Pearl Harbor, HI., and struck from the Naval Register on 25 October 1993. In the ultimate irony, her final duty was a missile target North of the Hawaiian Islands during the RIMPAC 2000 EXERCISE where she sank on 16 June 2000, at location, in a depth of 2,730 fathoms.
Sure I’m proud of our family’s military service, but this post is more than that. It’s about remembering the fallen of the Vietnam War. Many came back to a non-welcome committee and deserve a major shout out. There are Veteran Motorcycle Clubs and many independent riders across the U.S. who are dedicated to helping and honoring veterans. If you are one thank you. If not, then when you see a Vietnam Vet or any Vet for that matter, try and make a point to thank them for their service to our country. Believe me they’ll appreciate hearing it!
Research for this post courtesy of: Army; BBC; 6th Battalion, 56th Artillery; GruntsMilitary.com; Global Security Org; General Orders and Code of Conduct; Military Personnel Records; Wikipedia; Navy; and family history.
Note: Photo of me above taken in El Paso, TX., circa; 1969 or ’70 and I’m in a ROTC uniform.