Hello, Midway Family! Welcome to Karl’s Korner, a historical blog written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum. Each month, I share a new ship story with you, so be sure to check out the rest of my blogs here.
As we approach the commemorative 45th year of Operation Frequent Wind, I wanted to invite you all to take a look back with me, to the role of the Midway’s sister-in-arms for the evacuation of refugees during the fall of Saigon in April 1975—the USS Hancock.
Introducing the “Hannah”
Although a wide array of warships supported the rescue, including an amphibious helicopter carrier, two aircraft carriers were at the heart of the receiving end of the aerial evacuation, the Midway, and the World War II veteran flattop Hancock.
Known politely as the “Hannah” to her crews, the Hancock was an upgraded version of the Essex class that bore the brunt of the Pacific carrier war when she joined the fight in 1944. A survivor of a kamikaze attack, the Hancock had an eventful combat tour in the final months of the war.
After bringing home servicemen immediately after World War II, the Hancock was decommissioned in 1946, only to emerge again in the midst of the Korean War. To keep pace with aviation technology, Hannah was the first U.S. carrier to deploy with steam catapults in 1954. A career Pacific Fleet carrier, the Hancock called San Diego and Alameda home over the years between her Western Pacific deployments. When aerial combat began over Vietnam in 1965, the Hancock was among the first carriers to launch strikes. In all, Hannah completed seven combat deployments to Southeast Asia before U. S. military involvement in the Vietnam War ended in 1973.
The spring of 1975 promised another routine postwar deployment that would be heavy on training across the expanse of the Pacific. On a cold, overcast March 18th, the Hancock’s highly decorated Captain Frederick Fellowes conned her across the San Francisco Bay and beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. However, across the Pacific, the fighting throughout Indochina was still in full fury with South Vietnam and Cambodia facing the onslaught of renewed communist offensives that were gaining momentum. Just two days into her cruise, the Hancock received orders to take aboard Marine helicopters and troops in Hawaii to stage a possible evacuation. Over a two-day period in Pearl Harbor, some 300 Marine infantry and HMH-463’s sixteen large CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters were brought aboard.
The carrier then made best speed for Subic Bay in the Philippines where she arrived on April 6th. The jets of Air Wing 21 were put ashore at NAS Cubi Point, and Marine CH-46s of HMM-164 and HMM-165, as well as Hueys from HML-367, reported aboard along with an additional 500 Marine infantry. Air Wing personnel were transferred ashore to make room for potential evacuees, as well as to relieve the meal burden aboard. Hancock sailors packed the hangar deck with pallets of humanitarian supplies, including diapers, baby formula, and cots. Days later, Hannah set out into the South China Sea to work up with her new guests and get used to handling only helicopters.
The situation in Cambodia deteriorated rapidly, and in early April, the insurgent Khmer Rouge closed in on the capital city of Phnom Penh. With national collapse imminent, Washington executed Operation Eagle Pull, the aerial evacuation of Americans, third party nationals, and allied personnel who were endangered. On April 12th, the Hancock joined the helicopter carrier Okinawa in the Gulf of Thailand and sent her helicopters to off to the besieged capital. Although Khmer Rouge artillery fire closed off the airport, C-130 flights in the preceding days had whisked away the majority of the anticipated evacuees. Therefore, the helicopter forays were anticlimactic for the Hancock fliers as there were only 287 refugees to be airlifted into Thailand. The swift and successful conclusion of Eagle Pull, though, meant a liberty visit for Hannah’s crew in nearby Singapore.
Ready For Action
However, events were also moving swiftly in South Vietnam, and with the Midway steaming down from Japan with Air Force helicopters aboard, the Hancock was needed to join a growing armada off Vung Tau, near Saigon. Since liberty parties were already ashore, word set out across the city on the second day for all Hancock sailors to return to the ship. Remarkably, every man reported aboard before Hannah cast off and returned to the South China Sea. The Hancock duly arrived with the rest of Task Force 77, awaiting the order from Washington.
Operation Frequent Wind
April 29th marked the start of Operation Frequent Wind. The litany of the actions over the next forty-eight hours aboard the Hancock mirrored those aboard the Midway: the warm up and dispatch of the large helos, the arrangement of a Marine security guard on the flight and hangar decks, the establishment of contraband screening zones, and of boxes to collect confiscated weapons. Hours later, the Marine Sea Stallions returned, packed with desperate soldiers and bewildered civilians of all ages. People were led away from the rotor wash, their belongings set aside for subsequent safety searches. Off went the Marine choppers again.
Later, scores of South Vietnamese helicopters, from the ubiquitous Huey to the large CH-47 Chinooks, appeared from over the horizon, most crammed beyond safety measures with more people. The landings became more haphazard, and before long, it was necessary to pitch many of these fugitive machines over the flight deck to make more room—all in front of live television coverage. One South Vietnamese Chinook approached from over the starboard quarter, an engine on fire, and its door gunner pointing his weapon at the Hancock. Captain Fellowes sounded general quarters, but the damaged helicopter made a safe landing, only to be pushed off the ramp and through the netting to sink into the Hancock’s wake.
A very different helicopter fleet also appeared over the Hannah that day: the blue-and-silver painted Hueys of Air America, the CIA’s semi-secret air arm. Piloted by colorful civilian operatives, these government birds were carefully spotted together on the crowded flight deck under guard with word that absolutely no souvenir hunting was to happen with them. By April 30th, the evacuation ended for the Hancock, with some 2,300 Vietnamese evacuees settling into the cot camp on the hangar deck. In addition to being fed and examined medically, many had to be deloused with a vigorous dose of powder.
While the Midway took pains to transfer her guests to other ships, and then keep a new appointment off Thailand to rescue Vietnamese Air Force jets, Hannah headed east for Subic Bay with her charges. After the evacuees debarked for temporary camps ashore, the menagerie of Saigon’s and the CIA’s aircraft were craned off at NAS Cubi Point. The Marines also took their leave as Air Wing 21 returned. Although the Hancock and her crew once again looked forward to rest and repair, events once again demanded action.
Victorious Khmer Rouge insurgents seized a U.S.-flagged merchant vessel, the S.S. Mayaguez offshore on May 12th and held her crew captive. Washington ordered a rescue mission, and the Hancock set out. Although the Mayaguez was boarded, and a costly helicopter assault eventually led to the crew’s release, the Hancock did not engage. Thus ended a frantic spring for the Hannah and her crew.
Following this, the carrier returned to Alameda on October 20, 1975 and right into her final decommissioning. After two wars and an epic humanitarian mission, it was a noble end to a distinguished career.
Thank you for reading, Midway Family! Hope you and your families are safe and well. Feel free to leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner. Did you know about the USS Hancock’s role in Operation Frequent Wind?
Launch em’… until next time,