Operation Passage to Freedom: The United States Navy in Vietnam, 1954-1955

by Ronald B. Frankum Jr. Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 2007, hardcover $40.

The July 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the Indochina War of 1946-1954 provided for the temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. National elections to reunify the country were to occur in 1956. In the meantime, all Vietnamese were allowed 300 days in which to relocate within the country. While about 14,000 elected to relocate in the North, 667,245 left the North and settled in the South. The vast majority of these came from the Red River Delta area, where there were a large number of Catholics. The United States government, seeing a considerable propaganda advantage to be gained in assisting the flight of people from Communist rule, committed units of the U.S. Navy to what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom. The infusion of a large number of his co-religionist Roman Catholics was of immense assistance to South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in helping him to stabilize his government in the tumultuous first years of the Republic of Vietnam.

This sealift is covered in other works, notably the official U.S. Navy history by Edwin Hooper, Dean Allard, and Oscar Fitzgerald, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, Vol. I: The Setting of the Stage to 1959 (1976). The present book, however, is the first monograph on the subject. Author Ronald Frankum Jr., former associate director of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, is now professor of history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. This is his fourth book on the Vietnam War. It is based on extensive archival research along with some 40 interviews with U.S. participants.

United States and French propaganda heightened the exodus, suggesting that the Communist government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) would persecute the Catholics for their religious beliefs. At the same time Communist propaganda claimed that Vietnamese who went aboard the American ships would be murdered at sea.

Operation Passage to Freedom was carried out by the men and ships of Task Force 90, Amphibious Group One, directed by Rear Adm. Lorenzo S. Sabin. The refugees gathered at the port of Haiphong, then finally on the Do Son Peninsula, from there to be transported to South Vietnamese ports, including Saigon. The 300-day operation was part of a wider effort by France and the United States to evacuate French military and civilian personnel as well as Vietnamese. The French evacuated nearly as many Vietnamese civilians: 172,783 by air and 101,239 by sea; the American sea lift took off 292,002, while another 41,328 Vietnamese civilians were self-evacuated. A total of 58,893 Vietnamese military personnel were also moved south. In addition, the evacuation brought off 95,517 French military personnel (2,978 in U.S. ships) and 38,024 French civilians (all in French aircraft or ships). The last U.S. ship left the tip of the Do Son Peninsula on May 16, 1955. By that date the total number of the Vietnamese and French civilians and military personnel transported by sea and air stood at 800,786.

As Frankum makes clear, U.S. assistance reached well beyond the mere passage of the refugees south. It included activities by the United States Overseas Mission (USOM) ashore in the North, as well as emergency food, medical care, clothing and shelter at reception centers in the South. U.S. government and nongovernment organizations also assisted in resettlement of the refugees.

The U.S. press lauded American participation, particularly the activities of Navy doctor Thomas Dooley, who was later decorated by Diem for his work among the refugees. Although by no means proven, Frankum asserts that this large U.S. humanitarian sealift established a “moral obligation” on the part of the United States to ensure that the refugees could live in a democratic society, deepened America’s commitment to nation-building in South Vietnam and led to the subsequent massive U.S. commitment there.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.