Tran Hung Dao Trip POW Inquiries
"Thunder" USS Newport News CA-148 off North Vietnam October 1967 / image adapted from photo by John Glass  
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USS Newport News CA-148 off North Vietnam
( image from photo by John Glass October 1967 )

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POW Inquiries

About midday on October 22, 1967, the USS Newport News CA-148 conducted a firing mission from a location near the island Hon Mat.  After securing from GQ, she steamed rather directly to a location south of Hon Mat and began search operations.  Seven Vietnamese were rescued from the water and taken aboard as prisoners.  The ship then began steaming to the south.  On the morning of October 23, 1967, she arrived in Danang Harbor and offloaded the prisoners.  That much information, including specific times and some specific navigation data, is recorded in the ship's deck logs.

Fire mission data (CONGA) places targets for the midday firing on or near Hon Mat, which would be consistent with counter battery suppression to make a search and rescue operation safer.

However,  a deployment report  (that I didn't obtain until April 2004),  indicates that the firing mission was already planned and was unrelated to the POW capture per se,  expect that search and rescue began immediately after completing the mission.

My own memory adds little to that account.  I remember seeing them as they were brought from sick bay, where they received initial medical treatment, to the brig, which was adjacent to my berthing compartment.  They wore little more than white underwear or shorts and at least one was carried on a stretcher.   There was nothing to identify them as combatants or not.  They just looked frightened and injured.

With less assurance and specificity, I recall hearing that they claimed to be non-military fishermen, that their injuries were the result of both their boats being destroyed by gunfire and of subsequent shark attack, and that we turned them over to South Vietnamese authorities in Danang.

Recently, other shipmates have added recollections that their ships had extensive radio antennas that resulted in them be identified as military WBLCs (Water Borne Logistics Craft) instead of fishing boats and that the boats were destroyed the evening before but rescue operations were delayed until the next day for reasons of safety.  (That last item may be disputed by other shipmates.)

Why Inquire?

One shipmate has a photograph and another document that he would like to return to the POW, if he survived, or to his family, if they can be identified.  Another shipmate is concerned about whether they were indeed combatants and whether their rescue was as timely as it should have been.  He would like to uncover as much fact as possible and write an accurate history.

Personally, I have no judgments about what happened, beyond whatever is recorded..  I have no such specific motivation for identifying the POWs nor for uncovering what actually happened.  My own view is that those POWs, combatants or not, and their families were among the many who suffered in the war and I simply wish that all who suffered be at peace now.  When I visited the temple in Cho Lon dedicated to Thien Hau, the goddess that protects those who go to the sea, I burned a large sandalwood coil for all who went to sea in the war:  our shipmates, the POWs, and all others.  In the Vietnamese way, I burned seven sticks of incense - one for each POW - on Cua Lo beach in the north and asked their spirits to be at peace and for peace for all who suffered in the war: killed, captured, maimed, wounded, widowed, orphaned, or simply troubled by their experiences.

If helping to identify and locate the POWs would help bring resolution and peace to shipmates, to the POWs, or to their loved ones then I'd like to offer that help.  For that reason, I undertook to make inquiries when near that site.  Specifically, we planned to visit Vinh and Cua Lo beach, which are both near Hon Mat island.

The Inquiries

I really had little to work with, only dates, approximate location, and the number of POWs but no names or other identifying details. However, we got lucky. Our guide has uniquely knowledgable family in the area. Many of their neighbors and contacts were dispersed for Tet, so their ability to inquire was limited at the time but they may discover something later.

She has an aunt that lives in a fishing village just south of Vinh, directly ashore from where I'd estimate the capture took place. The village is still untouched by tourism and development. She thinks that if a large group of fishermen were suddenly taken missing or captured, the local villagers may still recall the stories.

She has an uncle-in-law who was a deputy commander of the radar defenses.  From the description of personnel duties more than military operations, I'd take deputy commander to be much like our executive officer (XO) role.  He said that the likely fate of the POWs depended largely on two factors: to whom they were turned over and whether they were actually military or were local fishermen.  If they were fishermen then they would have had little knowledge of military value and, if turned over to Americans in Danang, he thought they had a good chance of surviving captivity.  "Americans were more precise and careful about such things." is the description that I recall.  At the other extreme, if they were military then they would have had a great deal of knowledge about material locations and movement, coastal defenses, etc. and, if they were turned over to the South Vietnamese, then they would surely have been tortured until they gave up the information and then would have been killed. That judgment seemed quite unequivocal.

Another relative - a cousin, I think - in the area used to work for the local government and still knows people who might have legitimate access to census roles, etc.  Since we do have a precise date, there's a chance that the records will show an identifiable group of men lost or missing on that day.

The presumptions are:  If they were fishermen, not military, then they would have been local and either local stories or records should identify them.   If neither source identifies them, then they were probably military and - if my memory of them being turned over to South Vietnamese authorities is correct - then they probably did not survive.

One more family connection. On our last day there, we had dinner in our guide's home.  (See the last paragraph in Overview)  After some discussion about how "the souls of the departed" had been with us on our trip, the old uncle turned to his grandnephew and announced, with the unmistakable authority of a Confucian elder, that the two of them - uncle and grandnephew - had a duty:  when they next visited family, they would inquire about the POWs.

During our visit, Patti and I developed a great deal of respect and affection for these individuals.  I consider them to be friends, I believe their commitment to the investigation is genuine, and I think that they are uniquely positioned to identify the POWs, if it can be done at all with the limited information we have.

We'll see in time what comes of it.  I'll keep you posted.

Carl W. Cole
James Island SC
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