Cmdr. Jonathan Malay is one of the most respected people in the aerospace and meteorology community. A naval oceanographer and meteorologist who became a specialist in space programs, he’s helped to advance NASA’s and NOAA’s space exploration and research programs through his work at Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin. He’s also served as the president of both the American Astronautical Society and the American Meteorological Society and co-authored the National Geographic Encyclopedia of Space. All this lay ahead of Malay in 1974, when as a newly minted Navy ensign who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1973 and spent a year at the Naval Postgraduate School, he was assigned to the USS Benjamin Stoddert (named for the first Secretary of the Navy), a guided-missile armed destroyer in the Pacific Fleet. On his first tour of duty on the Stoddert, the last U.S. Navy vessel to leave South Vietnamese waters after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Malay was an eyewitness to history and a participant in a heroic rescue of 158 refugees. In his new book, War in Our Wake, Malay describes the dramatic days surrounding the end of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, the subject of this interview.
How did you become an oceanographer?
I grew up on the north shore of Massachusetts so the ocean was a big part of my life growing up. When I headed off to the Naval Academy, I was pleased that I could major in oceanography. And I was very lucky to be accepted into a graduate program in meteorology the Navy has at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California. So I was cross trained in the ocean and atmospheric sciences. But instead of going into those fields right away, I had my first tour of duty on the guided missile destroyer the USS Benjamin Stoddert. It was only at the end of that duty that I became a specialist in the environmental sciences.
What happened when you reached Vietnamese waters in early April?
We had been operating in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean since November 1974, and in the early months of 1975 we still didn’t know what would happen, other than we knew that South Vietnam’s fall was imminent. As we arrived in South Vietnam’s coastal waters in early April, we steamed slowly towards our assigned patrolling location off of Vung Tau, which is a resort town near the mouth of the Saigon River. There, we saw a body floating by, which was quite a shock. It turns out it was the body of United States Air Force Staff Sgt. Donald Dionne, who had fallen from the sky from a C-5A Galaxy plane. The huge transport plane was part of “Operation Baby Lift,” the effort to get orphans safely out of South Vietnam. The aircraft had suffered a catastrophic hydraulics failure when the cargo hatch blew open, and this poor young man fell to the sea. We discovered and recovered his body three days after the accident [April 4, 1975]. So the very first experience of Vietnam for some of us was to find the body of a serviceman, which was very sad. He was one of the very last casualties of the Vietnam war. Other crew members, including Air Force nurse Capt. Mary Klinker, and some of the children died when the airplane crashed trying to get back to Tan Son Nhut Air Base. So our very first experience in Vietnam was with death and that certainly is not something we ever would have expected.
How many enlisted men were on your ship and could you describe their backgrounds?
Our crew was nominally 350, but I think we were below that complement. We had about 30 officers which included two warrant officers, Among the enlisted crew was a cadre of about 30 chief petty officers. Everyone else was an enlisted sailor from E-1 up to E-6. These young men – and they were all men back in those days – came from all over the country. We even had a sailor from Podunk, Iowa. We always used the term Podunk as the quintessential name for any small town in America. It was a mixture of races, ethnic backgrounds, and were great people who were all volunteers. The Navy never had a draft in that era, and these young men had all signed up for whatever their motivation. I’m sure for some of them their motivation was to avoid being drafted, but that didn’t matter. They were out there to serve and they served very well.
Tell me about your commanding officers Ed Siegrist and Pete Hekman.
When I reported aboard my CO was Cmdr. Ed Siegrist, and we referred to him verbally as captain. He was my CO until just before we sailed to Vietnam. He turned over command to Cmdr. Peter Hekman in Subic Bay in March. These were two absolutely great naval officers. I would call Ed Siegrist a father figure and I would call Pete Hekman the best boss I ever had. Ed passed away several years ago. Pete retired several years ago to San Diego and he is still vibrant and healthy.
After you arrived in South Vietnamese waters, you had a mission that involved a South Vietnamese patrol vessel. Can you tell me about that?
On the day before the final evacuation, with the helicopters lifting off from Saigon all day of April 29 and through the night until the morning of the 30th, we were sent off around the southern tip of South Vietnam and sailed to an island called Phu Quoc, which was very near the Cambodian border. We were assigned to proceed to that location with the USS Dubuque, a large amphibious ship. After we had been with the Dubuque all day on the April 30 and May 1, we were detached on the 2nd, and we thought we would simply sail directly to our next stop, which was supposed to be Subic Bay in the Philippines and then continue on our way home to an overhaul in Pearl Harbor. That evening, though, we were directed to investigate a “May Day” that came from a South Vietnamese gunboat that was in the Gulf of Siam not too far from where we were.