By Lara Godbille, Director, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command
In the aftermath of the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords of 1954 determined the destiny of French Indochina after eight years of war between French forces and the Viet Minh, which sought Vietnamese independence. The accords resulted in the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel north, with Ho Chi Minh’s communist Viet Minh in control of the north and the French and American-backed State of Vietnam in the south. The agreements permitted a 300-day period of grace, ending on May 18, 1955, in which people could move freely between the two sections of Vietnam before the border was sealed. The partition was intended to be temporary, pending elections in 1956 to reunify the country under a national government. Between 600,000 and one million northerners moved south, while between 14,000 and 45,000 civilians and approximately 100,000 Viet Minh fighters moved to the north.
Operation Passage to Freedom was the term used by the U.S. Navy to describe its transportation of 310,000 Vietnamese civilians, soldiers and non-Vietnamese members of the French Army from communist North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) to South Vietnam (the State of Vietnam) in 1954 and 1955. The United States formed an evacuation unit, Task Force 90 (TF-90), with the mission of providing transportation from Haiphong to Saigon to more than 200,000 refugees.
Some of the personnel of TF-90 included a detachment of Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB) 1. These Seabees’ “designated mission,” stated the official report, “was to install and operate…pontoon piers on the Do San Peninsula (approximately 15 miles south of Haiphong).” The purpose of the piers was to provide additional docking spaces to accommodate the transportation of refugees. The Seabees arrived in Haiphong on August 22, 1954, ready to complete their mission, but were stopped by French officials.
Under the Geneva Accords, the addition of any troop reinforcements or military personnel was prohibited. The French viewed the Seabees’ pier construction as an onshore activity by a foreign military unit which was banned, and effectively stopped the construction by not allowing the Seabees to unload their building materials on the beach. Under direction from U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) overseeing the operation, ACB 1 Seabees immediately began construction of a 15,000-person capacity refugee camp near Haiphong. After working on the camp for just one day, the Seabees were again recalled to their ship due to objections about landing of foreign military personnel and equipment in Vietnam.
Due to the significant number of people moving through the port at Haiphong during Operation Passage to Freedom, there was an obvious need for refugee camps in the area. The local French forces, however, lacked heavy equipment needed for the immense clearing operations. Despite being directed not to do so by the French, on August 31, 1954, the Seabees sneaked ashore with two heavy bulldozers. In an effort to remain incognito, the Seabees removed all military identification from their equipment and from their uniforms; to the casual observer, they looked like civilian construction workers rather U.S. military personnel. Under this ruse, the ‘Bees completed all the necessary site work for the refugee camp within five days and returned to their ship undetected. ACB 1 repeated this performance again the next week when the Seabees cleared more area to allow expansion of the already overpopulated refugee camp.