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Saigon Kids Stories: Farewell my Love

by H. Clark (St. Paul School, Saigon)

Once in a while, you hear in the news a story of a hero who has accomplished something extraordinary. I believe there are many other heroes living among us of whom we never hear about.

H. Clark on South Vietnam beach with ships in the background. H. Clark Collection. Circa early 1970's.

H. Clark on South Vietnam beach with ships in the background. H. Clark Collection. Circa early 1970’s. Click on Image to view Full Size.

There was an extremely intelligent kind man with great integrity: my mentor, whom I truly admire. He was born in England. As a young lad, he immigrated to the U.S. with his parents on a ship. He was a career military officer who served both in the Merchant Marine and the United States Navy during three wars: WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He loved his family and his country unconditionally. To me, he was an unsung hero whose family name I will proudly carry until the end of my time. He was my father-in-law.

From 1932 to 1940, he was an officer in the Merchant Marine on cargo vessels serving the U.S. East Coast to West and South African ports. From 1940 to 1963, he was an officer in the United States Navy who had numerous shipboard and land based assignments. During World War II, he was the commanding officer of a supply vessel serving the U.S. East Coast and various ports in Europe. Later he served as a commanding officer of a supply vessel serving the U.S. West Coast to various Asian ports until the war ended.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Haven (AH-12) anchored in Inchon harbor, Korea, 14 June 1953.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Haven (AH-12) anchored in Inchon harbor, Korea, 14 June 1953.

The last vessel he commanded was the U.S.S. Haven, a naval hospital ship, from 1952 to 1954. During this period, the Haven was sent to Korea to provide medical care to American soldiers fighting in the Korean War.

When I was 3 years-old, in 1954, a big battle took place at a town that changed Vietnam’s history forever: Dien Bien Phu. Dien Bien Phu is the capital city of Dien Bien Province, located in the far northwestern area of Vietnam near the Laos border. It was here that the French military base fell to Vietminh troops on May 7, 1954 and surrendered.

Dien Bien Phu may be considered as one of the greatest battles of the 20th century. It was also a defining moment in the history of Southeast Asia, and yet it received rarely more than a passing mention in most history texts. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 marked the end of French influence in Indochina. By the end of the decade, the United States was to become the prominent foreign power in Vietnam.

In my history books at school, much has been written about France’s downfall in the eight-year war in Indochina, but none about a very important detail that it ended with its injured being returned in an American naval hospital ship. My father-in-law was the commanding officer of that American naval hospital ship, the U.S.S. Haven.

It was not until 1975, after I arrived in the United States, he told me about that interesting piece of history that occurred some 21 years earlier. I must admit that at the time I was too drained from hearing war stories, so subconsciously my selective brain was taken over. I was overwhelmed with the complicated details, so I didn’t ask questions or give it much thought. He rarely talked about work at home, and after all, I had just arrived in the U.S. from RVN and was behind the learning curve. Adjusting to a new life in the states, plus family and work matters made the years just fly by.

After having worked at a shipping transportation company for 23 years, 10 of which I spent in the vessel operations department, I started to look at things differently and really appreciate the story that my father-in-law had shared with me. He told me that he had met with a French general in Saigon, and that the injured French soldiers needed to be transported back to France during the late hours of the night… Hmmm..! I now realized what that meant. I also started to really think about what the ship’s crew must have gone through during that particular voyage.

Speaking from my experience of the commercial sea-going ships that I have worked with at the Oakland, CA port, they are gigantic! Standing next to one would make me seem minuscule. When the ship is in port, you hear the clashing noise of metal-to-metal, and the sound of the crane when grabbing hold of the 40-45 foot sea containers on and off the ship and dropping them onto the waiting chassis on the dock was constant and thunderous, almost deafening. Each week for the 10 years of working there, I saw one ship arriving and departing the dock (with tug boats assisting it) of the marine building to the Far East through my office window, which was right next to the dock.

I am just scratching the surface only for the purpose of this writing, as there are many other important areas of operations on the ship that are far more complicated than I can describe. My department was in charge of fulfilling what each ship had requisitioned to last it for a one-month, round-trip voyage at sea to the Far East. My memory is a bit fuzzy now as it has been 20 years since I left the company. For example, we supplied the ships with food, engine parts, ship parts, and oil, and we also provided for the repair crew, and ship’s personnel. The list went on and on. All of the ship’s movements are recorded as a normal procedure. To the extent that the forward, mid, and after drafts when docked at a port of call were also recorded. Each day the radio/teletype room would echo the noisy sounds of the telex machine, sending and receiving messages about the ship.

The ship that my father-in-law had commanded, the U.S.S. Haven, was a 700-bed hospital ship. A ship of that size to me is like a floating city. Having many departments such as masters, mates, engineers, doctors, dentists, nurses, radio, stewards, and payroll department, etc., working together seamlessly is amazing! The ship’s crew operates according to its marching orders and proper instructions to the letter so to speak. It’s not possible for any ship to just casually show up and conveniently proceed into a port whether in country or overseas, at any given time and fashion. Normal procedure, even for a commercial cargo ship, requires a tugboat and a local pilot officer to guide the ship in and out each port according to each local port rules. I can envision that the activities of this ship were much more hectic than the ships I supplied. Instead of handling cargo containers, she loaded and off-loaded patients. The ship’s crew endured a terrible ordeal during its last around-the-world voyage at sea through many ports and many countries.

While in Korea, the Haven had just served four tours away from the states, anchoring off Incheon as required by the Geneva Convention in a war zone. On September 1, 1954, just as she was set to return home, she was ordered to divert to Yokosuka, Japan and to continue on to Saigon, French Indochina, and beyond. The Haven was to provide emergency medical care for injured French soldiers who had been evacuated from ?i?n Biên Ph?.

From Saigon, she was to transport some wounded to Oran, Algeria, and then proceed to Marseilles, France to off-load the rest of the wounded French Legionnaires officers and French Army. In addition, the Haven needed to further prepare to off-load all wounded onboard in Yokosuka, Japan, and then load supplies for a longer trip home.

The ship had left Long Beach, California on January 4, 1954 after having handled over 50,000 patients, Americans, enemy and Allied Forces. The Haven was to pick up 700 wounded in ?i?n Biên Ph?.

On September 1, 1954, the Haven left Pier 2, Yokosuka Naval Station. It started an extremely grueling trip to Saigon, and then began its long trip home, sailing through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean, and finally, Long Beach, CA. To make it even more challenging, the Haven had to operate with a reduced medical staff, because more than half of the reservist doctors and regular officers had already been released from the ship earlier. The ship’s skeleton staff was reduced to approximately 700.

On September 9, 1954 the ship docked at Saigon. She received more patients than previously reported: 721 instead of 700. She also picked up a couple French medical doctors, so the headcount was now in exceed of 1,421 as a result. Many documents were required to be signed through a tedious process. The crew was very anxious to get going, as their families had been waiting for their return a long time before this. During the voyage, the patients behaved ungratefully and very disturbingly, to the point nurses were not to enter certain areas unless escorted by armed guards, making it difficult to provide care for them. All of this taken into account, while considering the ship’s mission, one of mercy and compassion, was beyond unbelievable!

The Haven arrived at Mers El Kebir, in Oran, Algeria on October 2, 1954 to disembark the first group of wounded soldiers. On October 4, 1954, she reached Marseilles, France, ending their care of all other patients embarked in Saigon. She continued on sailing for over 30,000 nautical miles, completing her round-the-world voyage via the Panama Canal and arrived Long Beach on November 1, 1954.

Home at last!

SS Green Wave

SS Green Wave

Two decades and a year later, in 1975, at Newport in Saigon, with a twist of fate, I stepped aboard one of the ships I didn’t know was under my future father-in-law’s jurisdiction, the SS Green Wave.

Right after work of that fateful day, with mixed emotions I had made a split decision to leave my homeland, my family, facing the possibility I might never have a chance to return to see both ever again. I felt a great sense of loss. There were no cell phones to use during that time. I had $80 USD, of which I gave $60 away to the needy along the way (in California), so I had $20 left in my pocket to chase the “American Dream.” The person I was most worried about my mother. After my dad died, my family was struggling terribly.

During this time, my father-in-law was approaching his retirement and was working for the Military Sealift Command. He was in charge of all the ships sailing to and from the port Oakland, CA in the Pacific Rim. He received a long list of manifest sent by SS Green Wave, informing him “it carried hundreds of Vietnamese refugees and was headed for the Philippines.”

At the time, nobody, including him, knew that the ship’s captain was looking for someone who can help with typing and I had stepped forward to volunteer. He put me in charge of typing the passengers’ manifest. Dealing with such a list of hundreds of Vietnamese names would have been very time-consuming and a daunting task for the ship’s chief mate. By giving me the task, it relieved him to tend to other emergencies as the ship was preparing to leave the Saigon port in a covert operation.

Not knowing who might be the recipient or where the manifest was sent to, I ventured to type my name to be # 1, on the very first row! I figured why not? After all, I was sitting in the captain’s chair in his ship’s office, the highest ranking office of the ship. What was I worried about? With the list in my hand in front of me and an electric typewriter, I was going to town. I was in the driver’s seat now!

No one dared to question the young Saigon kid, not even a mouse! Things seemed to happen rather smoothly around me as the ship quietly left Saigon into the night. What did I know? I feared there might be gun shots chasing after us, but none of that happened. I patted myself on the back and wore a little smile. “I have contributed in the *big scheme of things*.” This took my mind off of worrying about my family for a brief moment.

I remember hearing hands clapping as the ship sailed past the last buoy of the Mekong river into international waters. As for me, it was a surreal moment and the strangest feeling. A feeling of sadness came over me, having to let go of your homeland, especially as a kid, goes beyond description. I let go of Saigon. It was my home sweet home; my youth belonged there! I left everything I ever knew! “Farewell my love, my pain!”

The Green Wave kept me safe and brought me to Grande Island in the Philippines in a week’s time on April 30, 1975. My heart sank when I heard that Saigon fell. I had thoughts dancing in my head about Vietnam. “It’s over! It was not my choice for you, but it released you from the sufferings and wars, and most of all, may you find peace!” I felt sick that I couldn’t eat for a few days. From the Philippines, I was flown to Wake Island en route to the United States via Honolulu. At long last, I arrived at the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California, and then Camp Pendleton in May 15, 1975. My father-in-law’s family took me into their home with open arms.

Presidio San Francisco National Cemetery

Presidio San Francisco National Cemetery

My father-in-law died in 1988. He was buried at the Presidio, San Francisco National Cemetery, a breathtaking final resting place for military veterans and their families (my mother-in-law was also buried there next to him a few years later). The cemetery rests on a slope overlooking the San Francisco Bay, framed by Monterey Cypress and other majestic trees.

In 1989, my daughter was born (his only grandchild). Three months later my mother was allowed to leave Saigon. I was finally reunited with my mom 14 years after I left. So the saying “…something’s lost but something’s gained…” is really true!

In my mind’s eyes, during his working life my father-in-law took great care to seeing many people back safely to their homeland, in both the U.S. and overseas. He would say it was his job. As for me, he took especially good care of a total stranger, and he regarded me as if I was his own daughter. This speaks volumes about the man he was. Thanks to him, the American Dream I chased and left my homeland for became a reality, I was blessed with much more than I could have ever imagined at the time I set foot onto the Green Wave as a young kid from Saigon.

The journey aboard the Green Wave, traveling through the Philippines, Wake Island, to Camp Pendleton in California was the best choice I’ve made in my lifetime.

24 comments to Saigon Kids Stories: Farewell my Love

  • Huong – Great story. Thanks for contributing and sharing. 🙂

    Bob

    • H. Clark

      Hi Bob,

      Thank you very much for your kind words. 🙂

      Huong

    • H. Clark

      Hey Bob, You’re awesome. You’ve found the U.S.S. Haven! Bless your heart.

      🙂

      Huong

    • H. Clark

      Bob,

      … You’ve found the SS Green Wave, too!! You are way too cool, you know that I’ve searched and searched for it, but couldn’t find it! I sure didn’t see the picture inserted, only after I’ve pressed the submit button!

      And that’s not all, I’m surprised me one more time for you’ve found the cemetery! It’s really amazing that you must choose this one photograph that brought tears to my eyes. Isn’t it a fantastic view of the San Francisco Bay? Would you believe it, if I tell you that behind that cute lone tree, standing in the middle, on the other side of the street, is where my in laws are buried? I must declare you have extra sensory perception. There is only one awesome Bob! 🙂

      Thank you so much for all you have done!

      Huong

      • Huong – The SS Green Wave was originally a U.S. Navy ship that went by a couple different names. The Navy sold it in 1967 and it was put into commercial service and the name changed to SS Green Wave. Hence, there are a lot of photos when it was a Navy ship, but very few as the Green Wave. It was taken out of service in 1980. It was built during WWII by Henry Kaiser.

        Yes, I found a lot of pictures of the cemetery, but I kept coming back to this one. It kept saying to me, “I’m the one” – 🙂 Yes, it is a lovely place. I visited it once while on a trip from Hawaii to San Francisco in 1969.

        Bob

        • H. Clark

          Bob,

          The mystery of the SS Green Wave has now been solved,thanks to you. It’s such a sad thing that a ship had to be taken out of service after many years of serving mankind!

          I guess you’ve also seen some pictures of the cemetery taken with the fog. On the day of my father-in-law’s funeral, it was misty and foggy, making it more dramatic, but the family members were all there and stood together!

          You were there in 1969? Where have all the years gone?

          Huong

          🙂

          • Huong … Yes, I was there in 1969 – LOL. When I finish my story about how I got to Woodstock you can read about my adventures in San Francisco – LOL. Where have all the years gone, you ask? Dang if I know. But, you know what they say about the 60’s — “If you remember them, you weren’t there” … HA HA HA – 🙂 That’s why it is so hard to write about them, because I was there … so don’t remember them – LOL.

            Bob

            • H. Clark

              Bob,

              I remember a wise old man once said: “…you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do?”

              “… So throw off the bowlines…”

              You remember more than you know it, so like sitting on pins and needles, I’ll wait to read your story “how I got to Woodstock.”

              LOL 🙂

              Huong

    • H. Clark

      Hi Cousin Frank,

      Welcome back! I was telling Bob that you gave me the inspiration to write this story as you thought our families might be related. 🙂

      Hope you have enjoyed reading it.

      Huong

  • Kevin L. Wells

    I think a new talent has arrived!

    Huong,, I know there is more in your mind so please, continue.

    KLW

    • H. Clark

      Hi Kevin,

      Thank you for your kind words. I truly admire your stories and exceptional writing skills.

      You are right, I have more in my mind, but I am really a lousy writer in my entire life and will need some help 🙂 I would like to write next about ‘my venture at sea,’ but am having a real hard time how to start and give it a go…

      Huong

      • Huong – Don’t sell yourself short. Your writing skills are right up there with Kevin’s!! – 🙂

        The first sentence is always the hardest to write. Here is one of the methods I use when I’m stuck getting going. Open NotePad on my computer. Type *anything* that comes into my mind about the story I want to write. When I run out of stuff to type. I save the file to my Desk Top. Then as more things come to mind, I just add them to the *draft* … after several days (sometimes weeks – lol – ) the story comes together. Once I’ve completed the entire story, I do a final edit. Then I don’t look at it for 3 days. After 3 days I read it and do the final, final edit. Done! – 🙂

        Bob

      • Kevin L. Wells

        Huong,

        Your most certainly NOT a lousy writer!

        I teach exclusively online courses (management) and I know bad writing when I see it (which is every day) and I assure you that a class with 10 with writers of your caliber would be my idea of an easy life.

        Bob, writing as Admin on June 22, outlines more or less the process I use. Some of my notes start with only a file name (Currently, there are blank documents with the following names: The Russian and the Calculator, The Elephant. There is one with a Web address only: Sarawak)

        I also have some in process that have been going on for a while because I am not sure that the readers are interested in my observations on male-female language differences and other adventures through life.

        Someone told me that the best things about writing is TO HAVE WRITTEN!

        Give it a go, I know it can be time consuming and intense, but there are worse ways to spend time, and you have quite a legacy to pass on to your descendents!

        My advice is to avoid the pursuit of absolute perfection. Several of mine have words omissions, errors in reference and other defects nobody seems to notice.

        I seem to get forgiveness for these errors and I am sure you will too.

        KLW

        • Kevin – You want to trade screen shots of our Desk Tops to see who has the most stories *in progress*? – LOL – 🙂

          Huong, a wise old man once told me that the purpose of *communication* (verbal or written) was to convey the *thoughts* in my brain to the brain of other people. And, that it didn’t matter what words or grammar I used, as long as, my *thoughts* where conveyed to the other person(s) with language the other person(s) could comprehend with their brain.

          Bob

        • H. Clark

          Kevin and Bob,

          Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. I find your advices and rules in writing most practical and inspiring at the same time. They came at the right time when I need them most, so I’ll put them into good use in my next story as for good practice. 🙂 For me, it’s a learning process. I really appreciate it.

          Currently, I have two stories in the works that I have tasked myself with:

          “Venture at Sea” is blank 🙂 Have some good stories, but it’s still blank. I typed the title big and bold and printed the page out as a reminder.

          Culture Shock in Saigon (from my own experience) has only one paragraph written.

          It’s funny how this “Farewell my Love” story had turned out. Initially, I entitled it “An Unsung Hero,” but as the story developed, I felt strongly emotionally tied to Farewell my Love as my goodbye to Saigon. I still like both titles. I guess it’s a female language difference that Kevin is talking about?

          I hold you both as my teachers and two wise old men. LOL 🙂 Please tell me more.

          • Kevin L. Wells

            Huong,

            Now we have something going here!

            You mentioned culture shock and although I mentioned culture shock in something just sent, I was reminded of the biggest one and a conversation I had with a baker on a train just 4 years ago.

            When you keep reading, I am sure you will have those moments also, so please continue to collect ideas even if it takes some time to complete your thoughts.

            KLW

            • Kevin – I don’t recall *Culture Shock* … BUT … I DO recall *Shocking Culture* many more times than I should have … LOL

              Bob

            • H. Clark

              Kevin,

              I am not sure if I understood “… in something just sent.”

              Does it mean you’ve just sent in a new story? If so, I look forward to reading it, especially the conversation you had a baker on a train. 🙂

              Thanks, Kevin!

              Huong

    • Kevin – I’ll second that! 🙂

      Bob

  • David Hamilton

    Huong:

    This is an old blog, I don’t know if you still check in. I feel like I am trying to resurrect a ghost.
    40 years ago I was a crew member on the Green Wave. It was my first trip to sea. I was an engine cadet, hence the lowest ranking officer on the ship. If this message gets to you and you want to touch bases, let me know. As a young kid, I couldn’t imagine giving up everything and starting over with nothing but the shirts on your back, Our country has a huge number of success stories of people who have done just that, but your generation and your culture has done wonders and I am proud of the very small part I played in it.

    Dave

    • H. Clark

      Dave,

      Your comment of April 30, 2015 arrived exactly 40 years since the SS Green Wave docked at Grande Island in the Philippines. Where do I start?

      First thing that came to mind is I was caught up in a significant historical moment. My beloved country, in particular, Sai Gon, had fallen! It was April 30, 1975 in Asia, April 29, 1975 in the U.S. The vivid and terrifying memories of this event will always be with me. I had to leave my family without a chance of saying goodbye.

      To reflect on what happened, I vividly remember when I arrived at the Sai Gon New Port after work, I boarded the Green Wave by climbing up a rope ladder. As I first looked up at this gigantic ship, the vertical ladder looked too scarry; however, with mind over matter and youth on my side, I found it so sturdy that I thought I could handle it without any problem. When I almost reached at the very top of the ladder, I was swiftly pulled up by some very strong armed U.S servicemen. It was my very first time aboard a vessel, my first adventure, and my first trip to sea.

      I spent the entire trip up in the navigation room with a co-worker’s family, his pregnant wife who was due at any time and their two young daughters. I only wandered below deck on occasions for food. Along the way from and to the navigation room, I couldn’t help by admired the friendly, smiley faces of some young U.S. servicemen talking and playing games with children. It was also the first time I got to see many families of dolphins dancing above water in the Pacific Ocean. At that time, I wished I had my family with me. My first taste of freedom was bittersweet. The open sea was beautiful!

      I also remember it was evening when the Green Wave arrived at the dock of Grande Island, when I received news that Sai Gon had fallen. All refugees were greeted with great care, the servicemen were busy with setting up tents for everybody, with mattresses and white sheets. I must be very tired by then, because I didn’t remember anything after that. I do remember the very next morning, I was re-acquainted with some young Americans my age who greeted me the evening before. We became friends in no time, as I was one of the very few people who can converse with them in English. While waiting for my transit to Wake Island, I served as an interpreter for the entire week that I was there, because help was much needed to facilitate a constant flow of daily new arrivals to the island.

      Well, those were my memories during my first voyage to sea and after the ship was docked in the Philippines. All that happened seems like just yesterday, in the blink of an eye! As uncertain as it might have seemed, I am blessed with a good life. The United States is now my home, sweet home!

      I would be interested if you would like to share with me some important information such as what you can recall as a cadet on the Green Wave, on that last trip out of Sai Gon New Port, which was your first trip to sea?

      I need to know the name of ship captain, and the ship’s voyage number, if by chance you still remember it?

      Where did the ship sail to from the Philippines? (I heard it sailed for the East Coast of the United States, if you would confirm that).

      Did you have any spare time to go to Sai Gon while the ship was there, or were you limited just in the Sai Gon New Port area?

      And lastly, did you continue with your navy career?

      Only if you could, please share your stories and experiences in Viet Nam, as I think all other Sai Gon Kids of this wonderful website would also be interested.

      Thank you,

      Huong

  • You might enjoy reading a recently published Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen titled “The Sympathizer”

    • H. Clark

      Roy:

      I just wanted to thank you for your kind suggestion last year on reading “The Sympathizer.” I am sorry for this very late response.

      This book won several prizes last year and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!

      I happened to watch the author being interviewed on TV today. He was discussing about the book that took him his entire life doing the research and two years to write it. He was 3 years old in April of 1975 when he came with his parents to the U.S. Viet Thanh Nguyen received his Ph. D in English at UC Berkeley. He is currently a professor at the University of Southern California.

      Now that I’ve had a chance to know about the author as well as his thoughts when writing this book, I am sure I will enjoy reading his point of view about the VN war even more.

      Huong

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