His first hint of the scope of the humanitarian crisis was the long lines of South Vietnamese refugees waiting to board transport planes bound for relative safety on Guam.
Air Force Capt. Richard Mullery had noticed the desperate men, women and children on May 5, 1975 after his crew landed at the Cubi Point Naval Air Station on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
The South Middleton Township man was a navigator onboard an HC-130 of the 31st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron assigned to Clark Air Force Base in the northern part of the island.
Intelligence reports mentioned how atrocities were being committed on prisoners-of-war by the North Vietnamese Army as it overran the South. The rapid advance of the enemy was causing widespread panic.
“They would shoot down soldiers in the streets whether they were surrendering or not,” recalled Mullery, a retired colonel. “They would put prisoners in a group and toss hand grenades in the middle of them.”
Soldiers and civilians alike were in jeopardy. A mass exodus was underway. As Saigon fell, helicopters flew out of the capital carrying survivors to U.S. Navy carriers stationed off the coast.
But Mullery was on a different kind of mission. His crew flew from Clark to Cubi to pick up a cargo of emergency medical supplies to air-drop into the South China Sea in close proximity to the USS Kirk.
The Navy escort was tasked with shepherding a flotilla of refugee ships from the coast of South Vietnam to Subic Bay, Philippines, through a 1,000-mile expanse of the Pacific Ocean known for its stormy weather.
“We knew they were bailing out on anything that floated,” Mullery said of the refugees. The flotilla included old and worn-out freighters, fishing vessels and pleasure boats, along with what remained of the South Vietnamese Navy.
The formation could only sail as fast as its slowest ship, which meant a slow crawl of about five knots. The Kirk had an engineering team assigned to handle any mechanical problems and to keep the ships running as long as possible.
There was only one medical professional available for a flotilla carrying 30,000 refugees. That person was a Navy corpsman on the Kirk who visited each ship to assess the condition of the survivors.
What the corpsman found was a wide range of medical issues including several women who were far along in their pregnancies. There were so many expectant mothers, the crew of the Kirk converted an entire section of the ship into a maternity ward.
The flotilla had set sail on April 28, 1975. By May 4, the situation had reached a crisis point where medical supplies were running out. The ship asked for help along a chain of command that ended with Mullery and his crew getting the assignment to air-drop supplies.
They loaded their plane with two 55-gallon drums packed to the brim with 600 pounds of medical supplies – everything from vaccines to bandages to diapers. The Kirk and the flotilla were about 300 miles out when the HC-130 took flight on its relief mission.
Mullery manned the airborne radar that picked up the formation at a range of 30 miles. “We came down from 25,000 feet,” he recalled. “The lower we got, the more I saw how the vessels were spread out. They were scattered for miles and miles. The decks were just crammed full of people literally shoulder to shoulder.”
The air drop went off without a hitch, and the Kirk sent out a motor boat to pick up the supplies. But there was another problem for the refugee flotilla. The Filipino leader Marcos had refused to allow the South Vietnamese warships to enter the territorial waters of the Philippines because the North Vietnamese had claimed ownership over the naval vessels.
Diplomacy kicked in and it was determined the warships were originally U.S. Navy vessels on loan to the government of South Vietnam. The solution was to reflag the ships American so they could enter Filipino waters.
Many years later, Mullery had the opportunity to meet the captain of the USS Kirk after a book was written and a documentary was made detailing the journey across the South China Sea. Fortunately for the refugees, the weather was calm and only one ship was lost on the trip. That ship was sunk by gunfire after its engines failed, and all of its passengers were evacuated to other vessels.
“It was the Navy guys that were doing the heavy lifting,” Mullery said. “We helped the Navy. The real story is the USS Kirk. I can’t say enough about those guys. I’ve never seen anything of that magnitude.”
A native of Yonkers, New York, Mullery entered the Air Force in 1970 and trained as a navigator. He had one assignment stateside before transferring to the 31st squadron in early 1973.
His deployment started shortly after the Treaty of Paris was signed ending U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Many of the POWs in the custody of North Vietnam were returned and the U.S. military was transitioning from the war in Vietnam back to the Cold War.
“We were in the process of pulling troops and equipment out,” said Mullery, adding that while he flew over Vietnam, he never landed in the country. “I was more involved in the draw down and the after-effects.”
Though his unit operated mostly out of Clark Air Force Base, occasionally it was staged out of Korat, Thailand, in support of a sister aerospace rescue and recovery squadron. Mullery flew on about two dozen combat support missions in which his plane was assigned to fly an orbit around a section of ocean in the outgoing flight path of U.S. fighters redeploying out of Vietnam.
Called “duck butt” missions, the objective of these flights was to track the fighters on radar, rescue downed pilots if necessary and to help coordinate command and control with bases on land. One time, an Air Force fighter plane developed a fuel leak that prompted its pilot to radio for help. Mullery and his crew provided the pilot with navigational vectors to shorten his flight path to the Philippines.
“He landed safely but he was sucking fumes,” Mullery said.