Thursday, October 21, 2021

Navy Aid After the Vietnam War: USS Lynde McCormick in the South China Sea

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

After ten years of fighting and the withdrawal of United States combat forces, in 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. In the aftermath of the conflict, large numbers of the South Vietnamese population attempted to escape the country, many of them by sea.

North Vietnamese forces enter Saigon, 1975 (

In 1979, USS Lynde McCormick (DDG 8) was deployed to the Western Pacific. What began as a routine cruise for the guided missile destroyer quickly became a humanitarian mission when the ship encountered multiple groups of refugees from Vietnam. Boiler Technician Senior Chief Tom Dandes, a crewmember aboard Lynde McCormick at the time, recalled, “People fled Vietnam out of fear of retaliation for supporting the United States during the war.”

USS Lynde McCormick (

Even though the war had been over for four years, large groups of Vietnamese people continued to flee the country. Their goal was to escape Vietnam, make it to international waters, and, if possible, reach the Philippines. The refugees used various types of vessels, most of them far from seaworthy. Many of the boats were overcrowded, resulting in unsanitary conditions as well as shortages of food and water.

From April 15 to April 21, 1979, Lynde McCormick aided refugees adrift at sea. In addition to the dangers of being on the open ocean, various groups of pirates operated in the South China Sea. Senior Chief Dandes remembered, “We saw lots of different kinds of boats that could have been pirates. Unless you saw them [the pirates] committing the act, it was really hard to determine who was who.” In addition to pirates, Lynde McCormick also encountered hostile Vietnamese gunboats, despite U.S. involvement in Vietnam ending four years earlier. Dandes recalled, “At least twice they performed mock attack runs against us and the whole ship went to General Quarters. We were operating in international waters, but I think they just wanted us further away from Vietnam.” When Lynde McCormick encountered its first group of refugees, Dandes noted, “The first boat had between 84 to 86 people in it. They had no food, no water, and the pirates had taken everything from them and left them adrift. They were adrift for at least three to four days.”

Vietnamese refugees found by the Lynde McCormick (Lynde McCormick cruise book)

The crew of Lynde McCormick rendered aid and assistance to the refugees. Dandes recounted, “We were told, if the boat was seaworthy, to give them whatever they needed: fuel, food, water, and a compass heading to get them in the right direction. A lot of them sank their boat on purpose so they could be picked up by us.” He continued, “A large group of people was brought onboard the ship, and then we transferred them to the USS Okinawa (LPH 3). The people were in bad shape.” Okinawa was an amphibious assault ship with a larger sick bay, allowing for more robust medical assistance than Lynde McCormick. Reflecting upon the deployment and his experiences, Dandes said, “I was sickened by what people can do to each other. They were being preyed upon by their own people. When they were onboard the Lynde McCormick, a lot of the crew donated their uniforms to the refugees so they could have clothes.”

Vietnamese refugees aboard Lynde McCormick (Lynde McCormick cruise book)

On June 20, 1982, Lynde McCormick was operating in the South China Sea, off the coast of Vietnam with two other U.S. Navy ships. According to Lynde McCormick’s deck log, an unidentified vessel opened fire on the ships with a machine gun. USS Turner Joy (DD 951) was struck by small arms fire (Turner Joy was one of the vessels involved in the beginning of the Vietnam War in the Gulf of Tonkin, August 1964). Lynde McCormick returned fire with a .50 caliber machine gun, and the unidentified vessel fled the area. This incident appeared in the New York Times on June 23, 1982.

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