Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fifty-One Years Ago: 74 Souls are Lost in Three Minutes

As seen from the aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVA 37), USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) takes on fuel somewhere in the Pacific in 1953.  Named for a Marine Corps general who had seen combat from the Philippines at the turn of the last century to France in World War One, the Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer was originally commissioned in February 1945, just in time to participate in some of the last battles against the Japanese during the Second World War.  Just before the tragic accident that would send this section of the destroyer to the bottom of the South China Sea during Exercise Sea Spirit in 1969, Evans had just wrapped up her fourth deployment to the gunline off the coast of South Vietnam.  (Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Douglas Price via Flickr
The evening of June 2, 1969, had been a quiet one for USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754). There was unrestricted visibility over the South China Sea and the nearly full moon shone down from the broken clouds silently gliding by. Despite the peaceful weather, this was no time for her crew to relax. Evans was part of a screening group that included four other vessels from three other navies, protecting the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy, the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R 21).

Evans was practicing to hunt a “submarine pack” made up of American and British submarines playing a simulated undersea enemy as a part of Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) exercise Sea Spirit in preparation for a possible war in the future, yet the danger involved was real.

Before dawn, one-third of her crew, and half of the ship, would be gone

As the final hour of the evening ticked away, Evans’ captain, Commander Albert Sydney McLemore, retired to his sea cabin for the evening. After all, the captain of any U.S. Navy warship cannot be on the bridge 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, nor can a single navigator, helmsman, or any other member of the bridge team. It is for that reason that on a set schedule, usually every four hours, aboard every ship in the fleet, a new team assumes the watch to perform critical day-to-day duties that would exhaust an individual. The most important watch stander aboard any vessel is the Officer of the Deck (OOD), who is specifically responsible for the safety of the ship.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Ronald Ramsey, the ship’s communications officer, took the watch at midnight. He was the most recently qualified OOD serving aboard Frank E. Evans, having earned his qualification just a few days before the beginning of Exercise Sea Spirit.

Since 20:00 local time, Evans and the other screening vessels kept station around Melbourne while making a complicated series of course changes, or zigzags, practicing for a scenario in which they had to thwart a submarine attempting to torpedo Melbourne. The task group would frequently change course, in unison, making a zig-zag pattern. Each vessel had to maintain position in its assigned zone in relationship to the carrier as each turn was made.

In this case, the zigzag plan dictated that the base course for all vessels began at a course heading of 220 degrees. Imagining that zero degrees is north, 90 degrees is west, 180 degrees is south and 270 is west, a 220-degree heading was slightly south-southwest. Following the plan, the ships of the group would turn every 30 minutes to a new heading that could vary from the base heading by as much as 90 degrees. The zigzag pattern, however, would be suspended during flight operations, upon which time the carrier would orient itself appropriately with the wind, which could also diverge from the base heading by a large margin. The position of the screening ship selected as plane guard within the group would also change at this time, because the rescue destroyer had to post itself astern and to port (behind and slightly to the left) of the carrier.

For the first couple of hours of June 3, Evans was serving as point destroyer ahead and slightly to starboard of Melbourne, but Evans had changed position, turning further to starboard wide and around the carrier, to take the rescue destroyer position three times that evening without incident.

At a little before 02:00, Ramsey handed control of the destroyer to his Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) Lieutenant Junior Grade James A. Hopson, a former Navy corpsman who had earned a commission and assignment to Evans two years before as electronics officer, although by that time he was the destroyer’s assistant engineering officer.

Up to this point there does not seem to have been any confusion among the members of the bridge team, but a misunderstanding about basic heading, and a lack of communication between Evans and Melbourne would result in tragedy after Evans was ordered once again to assume plane the guard position for flight operations.

When their current operational plan took effect a few hours before, the base, or starting-off course heading was 220, five degrees south of due southwest (225 degrees).  Melbourne signaled to her screening vessels to resume the zigzag plan at 02:15 in relation to that base course. But at 02:52, the carrier signaled the formation to turn together at heading 185, which was only five degrees west of due south. One minute later, Melbourne signaled for the formation to resume the zigzag course once again, centered upon the original base course.

Aboard Evans, however, Lt. j.g. Hopson had mistaken the order of 02:15, believing that the new base course was 185 degrees. The 35-degree divergence in base course between Evans and the rest of Anti-Submarine Group 1 would result in tragedy exactly one hour later.

At 03:07, Melbourne and her screening vessels were to come to a heading of 260, 10 degrees south of due west. Evans, still proceeding under the mistaken assumption of the base course, turned to heading 225, exactly southwest, drifting to port (to the left) in relation to Melbourne and the other screening vessels from its original location ahead and slightly starboard of the carrier. At 03:15, the zigzag plan called for a turn south to 240. Lt. j.g. Ramsey, believing in error that the base course was 185, thought that Melbourne’s heading was 205, a full 35 degrees south of her actual heading.

Evans was already drifting rapidly off course about 3,800 yards ahead of Melbourne, crossing her bow and into the adjacent zone of HMNZS Blackpool, when Evans received the signal to once again assume rescue destroyer position. “When I checked to see if we were on station before I started helping Mr. Hopson,” Ramsey said later, “we had the carrier bearing approximately 044 degrees true at about 3,800 yards.” In preparation for the turn, Lt. j.g. Hopson checked the radar repeater on the bridge and found Melbourne at bearing 084 and 3,800 yards away. This was 40 degrees off a reading Ramsey had reported a short time earlier. As Evans began coming about, Hopson stepped outside the bridge and took the first and only visual reading of his watch. Looking aft, the carrier should have been drifting behind them slightly to the right. Instead, Melbourne was heading left in relation to them.

“The ships were at darken ship and all I could see of the Melbourne was a shadow,” recalled Hopson. “I could see no aspect at all. I then told Mr. Ramsey that she was drifting left and the I applied 5 degrees left rudder.”

After checking bearing and range of the carrier, Hopson testified later, “I then informed Mr. Ramsey that my intention was to come around to the right and pass down the starboard [right] side of the Melbourne and fall in astern of her at 1,000 yards… At this time I would have been on her starboard bow.”

If Evans had been off Melbourne’s starboard bow at the beginning of the maneuver, coming about to starboard and slowing down to let the carrier pass safely by before executing another starboard turn to take the rescue destroyer position would have been the appropriate course of action. Because the divergence in heading of the last half-hour had actually placed Evans ahead and to port (the carrier’s left-hand side), Evans would be turning into the path of the carrier. Despite both officers being wrong about where they were in relation to Melbourne, neither felt the need to call the Combat Information Center (CIC) watch officer or send the messenger of the watch to wake the captain.

Meanwhile, Evans came around to starboard, which from above would look like Evans was making a giant fishhook a mile in circumference. But instead of Melbourne moving past Evans at a safe distance into the middle of the fishhook’s arc (as the officers on the bridge assumed), Evans came around on a northeast heading to find Melbourne’s giant dark outline dead ahead.

Suddenly, the carrier’s flight deck lights flashed on. To the bewildered Hopson, this meant that flight operations were already commencing before he or Ramsey had confirmed that Evans had taken up the rescue destroyer position. More confusingly, although Melbourne’s flight deck lights were on, her navigation lights were not and one couldn’t be absolutely sure whether they had already reached rescue destroyer position with the carrier heading away from them, or, terrifyingly, the carrier was heading straight at them at a combined speed of 38 knots! Hopson blurted to Ramsey and the rest of the bridge crew, “I don’t get it.”

Moments later, it suddenly dawned upon Ramsey that the carrier was indeed coming right at them. Although he had not gotten a positive visual bearing, he ordered right full rudder. It was a rash but decisive move designed to take Evans out of the rapidly oncoming carrier’s way at the last second.
Ramsey couldn’t have known that at the same moment he was ordering right full rudder, Melbourne had also decided to take evasive action because of a lack of response from Evans to their warning messages.

Both ships turned simultaneously, but even more towards each other, at 03:14. If Evans had turned to post or Melbourne to starboard, there might still have been contact and damage. Possibly an international incident would have had to be smoothed over afterwards. But the collision might not have been an existential threat to Evans and her crew. As it happened, the two ships could not have set a more devastating course, exactly perpendicular to one another.

“[Melbourne’s] next and last transmission,” recalled Ramsey, “was ‘My rudder is hard left.’ I can’t understand this. I stood frozen in the center of the bridge… Mr. Hopson yelled out several times, ‘She is going to hit us. She is going to hit us.’”

Both officers stood motionless for a moment, failing to grasp what had transpired in the last ten minutes, not to mention what they should do in the next ten seconds. A collision was imminent, yet they did not sound the collision alarm. Cmdr. McLemore was still in his sea cabin asleep as was two-thirds of his crew. The last order Ramsey belted out as they presented their broadside to the Melbourne’s looming bow was “Engines, all back full!”

Evans’ machinist’s mates on duty in the engineering spaces struggled to comply with the order, but before they could do anything, Melbourne’s bow struck the center of her port side, at the location where the only other officers who might have known where Melbourne was in relation to Evans, those in her CIC, were on duty.

Melbourne’s collision alarm sounded during the last few seconds before impact at 03:15, rousting a few of Evans’ crew from their racks before the rest were violently tossed onto the deck or against the bulkheads. Evans rolled violently to starboard, almost capsizing under the carrier’s 22,000 tons of momentum. With a sound described as being like "50 automobile accidents happening at once," the 3,200-ton destroyer broke in two.
An artist's depiction of the collision between HMAS Melbourne (R 21) and USS Frank E Evans (DD 754) in the early morning hours of June 3, 1969. (Frank E. Evans Association
Evans’ forward half, which held ten officers and 101 enlisted crewmen at the moment of impact, remained with a heavy list to starboard while drifting past Melbourne’s port side, while the aft end began to right itself while drifting along the carrier’s starboard side. Lieutenant Commander George McMichael, Evans’ XO, was thrown violently from his bed and was able to escape his stateroom. “The first thing that caught my eye and I think–well, it captured my attention and I couldn’t look away for a matter of several seconds–was the sight of the mast lying flat in the water. The mast appeared to be intact and I just looked at it and said, ‘Oh, my God’”

Without thinking, Melbourne’s diving officer, Lieutenant Robert Burns, jumped from the flight deck some 45 feet above into the black water and swam over 200 yards to save three Evans survivors. Leading Seaman Peter John Varley coxswained Melbourne’s port side cutter while members of his boat crew also dived into the water, ultimately bringing 29 Evans survivors back to the carrier. Overhead, two of Melbourne’s Westland Wessex helicopters still in their anti-submarine warfare configuration used their landing lights to look for Sailors who had been thrown overboard while others equipped with rescue winches were being rushed to the flight deck.  As they took off, “Some aircrew were still wearing their pyjamas[sic] under flying overalls,” wrote a reporter for the Royal Australian Navy News.


Decisions made by Evans’ OOD and JOOD over the last hour had played themselves out to a calamitous conclusion. Manning the helm during that time was Seaman Robert Petty, standing as Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch (BMOW). He had complied with every order he had been given at the wheel and had even jumped into action during the last seconds before impact when the lee helmsman failed to react to Ramsey’s last order to place the engines into full reverse. Upon impact, the 19 year-old had been thrown starboard through the air off the bridge into the sea.

Petty smashed his head against floating debris when he landed. When he regained his senses, he thought he heard a voice. The voice said, “The hatch. There. Go.” Petty mustered the strength to clamber up upon the overturned side of Evans’ forward section, un-dogging a hatch that led down to the messdeck and pulling it upward while a group of frightened Sailors who and been in their racks below only moments before pushed upward. Sixteen disoriented and injured Sailors emerged.

For those still down below in the capsizing forward section, the overhead and decks (the celling and floors) were now the bulkheads (walls), the lights were out and the compartments were rapidly filling up with water. Chief Hospital Corpsman Charles Cannington had the presence of mind to retrieve his penlight from his locker and give it to the first man out of the chief petty officer berthing. Six men made it out and to safety using that penlight, but its owner did not.

One of the chiefs to make it out was Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Reilly, Evans’ master-at-arms. Although he was alive, his thoughts quickly flew towards another Lawrence Reilly—his son. Many fathers among the crew understandably thought of their children at home, but Chief Reilly and his son shared the same home: USS Frank E. Evans. The younger Reilly had joined the Navy only two years before and served as a Boiler Tender 3rd Class in the destroyer’s Engineering Division.

The forward section continued to capsize, as men scrambled out through steel hatches that had now to be pushed upwards instead of outwards, and at 03:18, just under 90 seconds after the collision, the bow section sank so suddenly that the last few men to make it clear were sucked back under the water.

By the time Senior Chief Reilly made it to Melbourne’s flight deck where survivors from Evans’ forward section were gathering, he knew the aft section of his ship had been lashed to the starboard side of the carrier to give every surviving Sailor aboard the chance to escape before it too sank. His son’s berthing area was in that section, and for a moment, he felt a hint of relief. That is, until a fellow chief broke the news that the night before, the watchbill had changed and that his son had been on watch in the forward engineering spaces below the Combat Information Center. It was exactly where Melbourne’s bow had smashed into Evans and broken her in two.

Boiler Technician 3rd Class Reilly, along with 72 other shipmates in the forward section of the Frank E. Evans, were on their way to a final resting place 1,100 fathoms below.

Three of those shipmates were also brothers: Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Gary Sage, Radarman 3rd Class Kelly Sage, and Seaman Apprentice Kelly Sage, who had all grown up on the same farm in Niobrara, Nebraska. Also among the victims was Yeoman 3rd Class James R. Cmeyla, who was born in Norfolk, Virginia, when his father Richard was stationed there. Another American Sailor lost in the forward section that morning was Radioman 2nd Class Christopher J. Carlson, who had been born 23 years before in Queensland, Australia.

Only one dead Sailor was found in the water, Seaman Apprentice Kenneth Glines, who had been standing watch as the port bridge wing lookout.
On the morning of June 3, 1969, SH-3 helicopters from USS Kearsarge (CVS 33) perform search and rescue operations over the stern section of USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) as USS Everett F. Larson (DD 830) stands by to offer assistance.  A British Commonwealth frigate, probably HMS Cleopatra (F.28) can be seen just behind Evans' remains, which were towed to Naval Station Subic bay, Philippines.  After her decommissioning there on July 1, 1969, the destroyer's remains were sunk that October. (Naval History and Heritage Command image NH 98649


The last major incident between a screening vessel and a carrier occurred between the carrier John F. Kennedy (CV 67) and the cruiser Belknap (CG 26) on November 22, 1975, which killed eight Sailors and injured 48. Most of Belknap’s aluminum superstructure melted in the ensuing fire, and the damage was so extensive, the cruiser was decommissioned the following month. She was finally recommissioned in May 1980, after a four-year rebuild.

Although such incidents have thankfully not occurred since then, a number of other American naval vessels, including submarines, have been involved in collisions, many of them with merchant vessels. One such incident happened to USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) on August 29, 1988, just as she was returning to Naval Station Norfolk from a routine and safe six-month deployment.  Merchant vessels such as bulk cargo vessels and oil tankers have not only proliferated in number but grown much larger during the last half-century, jamming the world’s strategic chokepoints and making navigation and watchstanding arguably more treacherous today than at any time other than wartime.

On August 12, 2012, USS Porter (DDG 78) collided with Japanese-owned oil tanker MV Otowasan in the Strait of Hormuz, ripping a 10 by 10-foot gash in the main deck and superstructure that ultimately cost $50 million to repair. Five years later and nine weeks apart, twin disasters involving the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and John S. McCain (DDG 56) killed a total of 17 Sailors in the Western Pacific, grabbing the world’s headlines and depicting the U.S. Navy as being in crisis.

While combat has sporadically afforded historians some of the most dramatic chapters of the Navy’s long story, preparing for combat has also provided perilous passages. Common to them both has been the valor, bravery, and service before self practiced by the Sailors when faced with peril upon the sea. It is with this in mind that we remember the 74 lost in the collision between HMAS Melbourne and USS Frank E. Evans, as well as the American and Australian compatriots who swiftly came to the aid of those who survived.

The USS Frank E. Evans Association maintains a detailed listing of the crew members who were lost that morning 51 years ago.   There is also a tribute video segment to the lost Sailors on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum YouTube Channel.  

For decades after the accident, a training film about the Evans-Melbourne collision called I Relieve You, Sir was required watching for young surface warfare officers. 

For more on this tragic incident and its aftermath:

Unsinkable Sailors: The Fall and Rise of the Last Crew of USS Frank E. Evans by Paul Sherbo. Niceville, Florida: Patriot Media, 2007.

American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War by Louise Esola. Temecula, California: Pennway Books, 2014.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Necessity was the Mother of Lethality (Part 1): RC Can Becomes VC Grenade

From its origins in Columbus, Georgia, in 1934, RC Cola became one of the most popular drinks in America during the Second World War, although most GIs couldn't necessarily lay their hands on one as they fought their way across the globe.  By the time of the Vietnam War a generation later, military logistics has improved to such a point that canned soft drinks and beer provided a welcome reminder of home to those deployed in-country.  All the cans the service members discarded after their use, however, presented an opportunity to those seeking to send the GIs home, one way or another.  Although RC was the first company to distribute sodas in aluminum cans, this soldered-seam steel soda can could be pried open, packed with powder and shrapnel, and re-soldered shut, while the tab top made a convenient place to insert a rudimentary fuse system.  This example from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) is featured in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's exhibit, The 10,000 Day War at Sea, the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975 .  (M.C. Farrington)
By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

Modern war requires immense amounts of resources to wage, from small arms ammunition to capital warships. Like in so many other areas, factories and assembly lines meet these requirements. Most nations possess the capability to manufacture their own consumables, ranging from boots and uniforms to small arms ammunition and field rations. For more complex items such as vehicles, aircraft or small arms, nations either manufacture their own or purchase them for hard currency or other valuables such as oil or the cancellation of debts from foreign nations that possess that capability. A terrorist or insurgent group such as the Viet Cong, however, lacks this advantage. Few nations wish to have headlines reading that they are providing war material to groups operating outside of commonly accepted guidelines on armed conflict splashed all over the news. Condemnation and sanctions are sure to follow. Therefore, in order to meet their needs for war material, such a group must turn to other methods of acquisition. This acquisition in turn takes one of three forms: repurposing of other materials, homemade weaponry or the copying of existing weaponry.
The other side of the RC hand grenade showing the safety pin and lever hanging over the solder seam. (NHHC collection/ M.C. Farrington)

Example 1. The Royal Crown Cola grenade:

One of the hallmarks of contemporary American culture is its intensive focus on materialism and the production of consumer goods from high-end electronics to soda pop. The American service member, no matter where in the world he or she may be, demands access to at least some of the comforts of home. A second hallmark of this culture is the enormous amount of trash that is produced in the process. It is doubtful that a guard would be posted on the base trash heap, thus presenting an opportunity to a canny foe to acquire some of the raw materials of weapons manufacture. Inevitably, the intersection of human ingenuity, the exigencies of war, the desire for comfort goods and easy access to massive amounts of trash would conspire to create one of the infantry’s favorite weapons: the hand grenade.
Viet Cong improvised hand grenade, reverse side. (NHHC Collection/ M.C. Farrington)
Hand grenades are popular amongst the infantry for three reasons: they are easy to use, easy to carry and they are effective weapons in a wide array of tactical situations. Most grenades, for obvious reasons, are mass-produced in factories to standardized designs and capabilities. The Viet Cong, being an insurgent group operating deep in hostile territory, was cut off from the typical supply lines enjoyed by regular soldiers. Making use of what they had and what they could find, Viet Cong weaponsmiths manufactured hand grenades, such as the RC Cola hand grenade displayed in the HRNM's exhibit on the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War, out of the castoffs of their American adversaries. While of dubious reliability, there can be no doubt that this weapon and others like it would be just as effective as the factory-produced models utilized by their American adversaries.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The "Zoo" for Humans during the Vietnam War

ABOVE: In the Ngã Tư Sở section of Hanoi, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam's Cự Lộc facility (outlined in red) the northernmost section of which (in upper-middle surrounding rectangular pool) held American prisoners during the Vietnam War, was known to those detained there as the "Zoo." BELOW: The facility was also known to U.S. intelligence analysts, who had gathered enough information to have a very detailed model made of it.  The model is currently featured as a part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's exhibit, The 10,000 Day War at Sea, the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975 ("Tomlat" via Flickr/ M.C. Farrington)
By Matthew Headrick
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Located in the heart of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s new Vietnam exhibit is a model of a North Vietnamese prison that was given the nickname the “Zoo” by the pilots who were detained there. The windows were bricked. Rooms were padlocked, and there was just enough space for guards and livestock to look inside. We know the model was created by U.S. intelligence analysts, but there are still many questions regarding why the model was built.  

Defense Intelligence Agency personnel helped coordinate production of information relating to prisoner of war camps, including overhead reconnaissance, which contributed to the making of this model of Sơn Tây Prison, which was used in planning Operation Kingpin (its second phase was called Operation Ivory Coast) in 1970. (Defense Intelligence Agency)  
One of the more obvious answers is that it might have served the same purpose as a similar model of Sơn Tây camp, which was used to plan a rescue in 1970 that was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1970, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) received information that 61 Americans were being held there. The Special Forces night extraction by helicopter was code-named Operation Kingpin. Two days before the Special Forces mission was to kick off, word was received that the prisoners had been moved. The next day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer received new intel that there was still a 50/50 chance the POWs had not been relocated. So, on November 21, 1970 the mission launched, and after exchanging small arms fire with the enemy, U.S. forces discovered that the original intel they received was correct. The prisoners were gone.
Shortly after the war, ex-POW Mike McGrath annotated this detailed map of Hanoi to show the location of prisons. He did it so he would not forget where the camps were. Out of the estimated 13 prisons and camps used to detain captured personnel during the war, only Cự Lộc (the Zoo), Hỏa Lò (the Hanoi Hilton), the Plantation (used as a model showpiece for foreign visitors and the press), and Alcatraz (where the most difficult-to-control prisoners were held) were close to central Hanoi. (Wikimedia Commons)
What is certain is that the Zoo itself had some very unique features and a very dark history. From September of 1965 through 1972, the Zoo, located near the village of Cự Lộc in North Vietnam, periodically operated as a POW camp. However, its purpose as a prison camp was multi-functional. It was not until September of 1971 that the camp was used as a long-term holding facility for prisoners of war. Its underlining purpose in 1972 was that of a “showplace,” which is why it is so often compared to the “Plantation Camp,” located in Northeast Hanoi. 
North Vietnamese propagandists, via the Eastern bloc press, presented an idealized picture of the Americans in their custody.  This picture was likely taken either at the Plantation or the Zoo camps, within easy reach of Hanoi-based correspondents from Communist and nonaligned nations. (Manhhai via Flickr)  
The Zoo served a similar purpose as the Plantation Camp, thus it has been regarded as that camp's primary replacement. The term “showplace” is an appropriate description of the camp's use. One might compare the prison to something of a staging prop. There were films made there capturing images of prisoners engaged in Christmas activities and even playing sports such as basketball. By the end of 1970, all captives held at the Zoo were transferred to Hỏa Lò. Only two men were held there in 1971. After their short stay at the Zoo, they were transferred to the “Rockpile” POW camp, located just south of Hanoi.
Another North Vietnamese propaganda photograph provided to Western media through Communist intermediaries shows Air Force Maj. David Hatcher and Navy Lt. David Rehmann beholding food "fit for a Vietnamese officer."  (Manhhai via Flickr)
Like some other camps, such as “Briarpatch,” located 33 miles northwest of Hanoi, the Zoo was established to address overcrowding in other prisons, only to later experience overflow itself.  Both the Zoo and Briarpatch opened in the summer of 1965 because Hỏa Lò was overflowing. The Zoo was a deserted French site that had once housed a movie studio and is believed to have been an art colony. 
This is the main (and oldest) part of the compound featuring the pool (which, of course, was not used for recreational swimming during the time Americans were incarcerated there) and the auditorium.  If you look closely, the model makers included air raid shelter entrances, which look like manholes scattered throughout the compound. (M.C. Farrington)   
By February 1966, over 50 captives were being held there. In 1967, the Zoo held approximately 120 prisoners of war. In that same year, it too started to overflow with prisoners of war. So, in October, a section was added known as the “Annex.” As the POW camp grew in size and numbers, so did its reputation as being primitive and brutal.  
The southernmost section of the Zoo depicted in the immediate foreground of the model, furthest away from the main compound, probably housed guards and other personnel of the People's Army of Vietnam (note the larger number of air raid shelter entrances than in the section used for holding prisoners), while the middle compound beyond the gate (sandwiched between the foreground compound and the older main compound) was most likely the "Annex," added in order to house burgeoning numbers of American prisoners.  It was from here that two of them escaped on May 10, 1969.  Air Force captains Edwin L. Atterberry and John A. Dramesi were recaptured less than a day later.  Atterberry subsequently paid the ultimate price for this act of defiance, dying at the hands of his captors, while Dramesi barely survived the torture and six months in irons that followed his recapture.  (M.C. Farrington
Even though there were camps with more sophisticated techniques of torture, the Zoo was exceptional, with its own unique reputation for mistreatment and cruelty from when it first became operational, to the very end. Visually, the POW camp was quite menacing. The cells were old concrete buildings. The concrete floors served as prisoners' beds. One of the more infamous structures within the compound was an old movie theater turned dark torture chamber known as the “auditorium.” Former prisoners have described it as being nothing but a pitch-black room overwhelmed with rats and smelling of human feces. The North Vietnamese would go on to build a separate cell, strictly dedicated to interrogation and torture.
It is all but certain that this photograph taken in 1967 by Lee Lockwood shows Air Force 1st Lt. Joseph Crecca feeding turkeys near the edge of the pool at the center of the main prisoner compound at the Zoo.  However, as was the case with every other image the North Vietnamese authorities allowed the world to see, looks could be deceiving.  (Manhhai via Flickr)    
The yard was inhabited by farm animals and even included an old swimming pool that was used to house fish. The treatment men received there was as Spartan as the cement walls that surrounded them. POWs were hardly allowed to bathe. Most of the time, they were handed a bucket of water to perform any hygienic routines. Food was very scarce. It was during the years 1967 through 1968 that the camp was recognized by the U.S. Military as more of a torture facility than just a holding camp for prisoners. Unlike other camps, it did not matter how long a prisoner had been there. Everyone was susceptible to this type of harsh treatment. Some of the last POWs to leave Vietnam were assembled at the Zoo.
One of the few successful acts of defiance staged by the American prisoners (which wasn't rewarded with torture) at the Zoo happened on March 29, 1973, almost at the time of their final release. Resisting the stage management of their captors, who had laid out implausible accommodations for the international news media, expecting the Americans to play along, they instead turned their backs to the cameras. Air Force Major William Ellender explained to NBC News reporter Liz Trotta. “We object to having our pictures taken because this isn’t the way we live.” He tried to say more," said Trotta, "but the guards stopped him."  Despite their unwillingness to comply with their captors until the very end, they arrived safely at Clark Air Force Base, Republic of the Philippines, shortly afterward. (Manhhai via Flickr)
The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, which officially ended the war in Vietnam. It was on February 12th of that year when the first American POW was released. It took approximately a year for President Richard Nixon to announce the return of all POWs from Vietnam. One of the most striking artifacts in our gallery is the model of the Zoo.  It is one of many visuals on display at our museum that represents the hardships and struggles faced by POWs in the Vietnam War.
The approximately six foot-long model of the Zoo, known formally as the Cự Lộc (and the Ngã Tư Sở) facility, seen from its "north" corner, is displayed at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum near a life-size diorama showing conditions inside a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. (M.C. Farrington)  

Friday, May 15, 2020

Navy Nurses in Saigon

This apartment building, unremarkable except for the armed guards behind the concrete wall topped with wire grenade screens surrounding it, housed the second U.S. military hospital established in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the first one run by the U.S. Navy.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)    
By Alicia Pullen
HRNM Educator
As the American military presence grew in South Vietnam during the early 1960s, the need for medical support was crucial. In response to this, the Naval Station Hospital in Saigon (also called Station Hospital Saigon) was established on October 1, 1963. The facility treated patients of all nationalities and provided a safe place for people to seek medical support. Navy medical personnel and other staff delivered care to patients and handled the day-to-day tasks of the hospital. Nurses, in particular, served a vital role at the hospital by working long shifts and attending to the wounded. Their experiences were unparalleled, as they grappled with the harsh realities of their environment and the constant threat of terrorism.

The hospital was originally an abandoned “French-hotel apartment.”[1] This building was a five-story structure with plenty of rooms. Renovations required extensive work, such as constructing “wire grenade screens” along the entire perimeter of the property.[2] The first medical staff on-site were responsible for cleaning the interior and exterior. Bedding and equipment where brought in. By winter, the hospital was filled to capacity with “increasing numbers of Navy physicians, dentists, nurses, and hospital corpsmen.”[3] There were also administrative assistants, janitorial staff, and Vietnamese employees. Later, the courtyard was used for supplies, an “emergency room, and operating room,” and a helicopter pad was constructed nearby to facilitate the transport of patients to other treatment facilities.[4] To prevent terrorist attacks, the hospital received full-time security from U.S. military police as well as Vietnamese soldiers and police.

All nurses at the Naval Station Hospital were required to wear white uniforms and caps while on duty. Their daily routine included administering medication, helping to transfer outgoing patients, and providing medical support to doctors. Nurses also had to prevent and treat patients with infectious diseases. Among those diseases included malaria, hepatitis, and amoebiasis. Nurses offered moral support to patients by listening to their stories and sharing their experiences during evening events, such as movie nights at the hospital.[5] Grace Moore, an Army nurse during the Vietnam War, recalled, “we were their emotional support system. We were their mother, their wife, their girlfriend, their sister. You listened a lot, did a lot of hand-holding, comforting.”[6]

Although the hospital was necessary for those living in and around Saigon, violence was prevalent. On one account, Lieutenant Darby Reynolds, a Navy nurse at the hospital recalled a tragic event that put the lives of nurses, including her own, at risk. On Christmas Eve, 1964, a bomb-laden car drove into an underground parking garage near the hospital. After the bomb detonated, many victims were injured and were brought to the hospital for medical treatment. Reynolds, along with four other Navy nurses, were injured. She then recalled going to work after the attack to help a wounded patient with an injured leg. Reynolds’ immediate actions that day demonstrated her commitment to helping patients in any situation and to the best of her ability.  All five of the Navy nurses received the Purple Heart and were the only Navy nurses to be awarded the medal during the Vietnam War.[7]

Capt. Archie Kuntze, Commander, U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA), Saigon, presents Purple Heart medals to (left to right) Lt. Barbara Wooster, Lt. Ruth Mason, and Lt. j.g. Darby Reynolds for wounds sustained during the Christmas Eve 1964 bombing of the Brink Barracks.  A fourth nurse, Lt. Francis Crumpton, was flown earlier to Clark Air Force Base, Philippines, for treatment.  Cmdr. Miles Turley (far right), Kuntze's executive officer, was wounded during a separate attack on New Year's Day 1965, two weeks before this photograph was taken.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The work of Navy nurses in Vietnam and the overwhelming number of patients they helped, speaks to both their skillfulness and compassion. At the Station Hospital, nurses were both efficient and effective in providing emergency care to patients. Their duties and responsibilities during those uncertain times showed the vital role they played in providing medical care and emotional support to the patients they served.

[1] Morin, Aline E. "Navy Hospital in Saigon." The American Journal of Nursing 66, no. 9 (1966): 1977-979. Accessed April 11, 2020. doi:10.2307/3420172.
[2] Herman, Jan K. Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon. The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2010), 1–50.
[3] Ibid., pg. 5
[4] Ibid., pg. 5
[5] Morin, pg.1977, See also, "Factoids—US Naval Station Hospital Saigon." (n.d.)., last modified August 2014,
[6] DiFilippo, Dana. “'Blood Smells the Same,' but for Vietnam Nurses, the War Never Ends.” WHYY News, September 8, 2017.
[7] Herman, pg. 7