Thursday, April 19, 2012

On this page I have told the story of an event, which took place on the South China Sea, in April of 1975. I have tried to give you the reader a look into those times as they came about for the 52 Marines who had been assigned as security for civilian shipping. Our presences there was the result of civilian shipping having picked up refugees from the high seas and then being faced with crimes that were carried out by the refugees themselves against the ship, the crews and other refugees. A sample of what the ship encountered can be view in the picture below, with the news report published in :Time Magazine” – April 14, 1975.

Caption below picture -

SOUTH VIETNAM MARINES THRONG PIONEER COMMANDER AS IT DOCKS IN CAM RANH BAY AFTER TRIP FROM DANANG.



South Vietnamese Marines "the humiliated remnants of a routed army" throng Pioneer Commander (page 10-11 - "TIME MAGAZINE" - APRIL 14, 1975)


I hope the pictures open quickly for you, I do know how annoying it becomes waiting for a picture, that when it opens was not worth the wait.

Acting more like strutting conguerors than the humiliated remnants of a routed army.
(one of the reasons that the U.S. Marines were assigned to the ships to protect the passengers and the crews.)




Just before the Communists took Danang, there was looting, pillaging, murder and madness. In their panic to get away, soldiers elbowed past women and children to board the planes and boats that managed to evacuate 90,000 people from Danang in the hours before the city fell to the Communists. In some cases civilian refugees were killed by troops stampeding away from the enemy. "True enough," said one Army tactician, "the Vietnamese soldiers fight with their families along, but they even deserted their families to fight their way aboard a plane or a boat." On board the American ship Pioneer Commander, sent to Danang to take refugees to Cam Ranh, 300 miles to the south, passengers were shot or pushed overboard by soldiers trying to make room for themselves. .... 


So I guess you can view the above comment or line, as my disclaimer for being imposed upon. Besides I thought the pictures would fit nicely on this page and give some color to the verbally dull written history of my life.
 
So I guess you can view the above comment or line, as my disclaimer for being imposed upon. Besides I thought the pictures would fit nicely on this page and give some color to the verbally dull written history of my life. 

At Subic Bay waiting for our transportation.
At 12:30 hours on 24 April 1975, a Marine Security Team of 52 Marines drawn from the ranks of the 7th Communications Battalion, and designated as India Detachment. India Detachment departed the USS Dubuque aboard Mike boat 868 - destination - our assignment the SS Pioneer Commander.


Our assignment, was a simple task, protect the crew of the ship from harm and provide a safe refuge for those refugees who reach us at sea or were brought to us by other military transportation.


Our assignment, was a simple task, protect the crew of the ship from harm and provide a safe refuge for those refugees who reach us at sea or were brought to us by other military transportation.
      On a mike riding over to the SS Pioneer Commander the 
assigned ship for India Detachment

After all the conveniences were constructed that we were able to do with the limited amount of equipment and supplies we had but with an abundant amount of energy, we turned our interest to training and cleaning the ship for any potential weapons. Classes were held on Ship Security, Refugee Processing, Crowd control with Water Hoses, Nightsticks, and Field Sanitation/First Aid; along with carrying out our daily physical fitness programs.

Fire teams (four man groups) practiced the use of Vietnamese phrases daily along with small discussion groups on the Vietnamese people (customs and habits)

On the 27th of April 1975, after a day of normal training and work, at approximately 22:00 hours, two (2) mike boats came along side to deliver food and cleaning equipment for the refugees. India Detachment Marines unloaded and staged the food and equipment in hold #5, which was just aft of the superstructure. The last of the supplies were unloaded and stored at 00:30 hours, and at which time the troops were secured for the rest of the night. The next day, the 28th of April 1975, during the morning the supplies that were delivered the night before were inventoried and organized on pallets for easy access and to see what we had to work with in the way of a menu and cleaning equipment (the inventory was necessary since none had been provided by the Navy). 


After all the conveniences were constructed that we were able to do with the limited amount of equipment and supplies we had but with an abundant amount of energy, we turned our interest to training and cleaning the ship for any potential weapons. Classes were held on Ship Security, Refugee Processing, Crowd control with Water Hoses, Nightsticks, and Field Sanitation/First Aid; along with carrying out our daily physical fitness programs. Fire teams (four man groups) practiced the use of Vietnamese phrases daily along with small discussion groups on the Vietnamese people (customs and habits)

On the 27th of April 1975, after a day of normal training and work, at approximately 22:00 hours, two (2) mike boats came along side to deliver food and cleaning equipment for the refugees. India Detachment Marines unloaded and staged the food and equipment in hold #5, which was just aft of the superstructure. The last of the supplies were unloaded and stored at 00:30 hours, and at which time the troops were secured for the rest of the night. The next day, the 28th of April 1975, during the morning the supplies that were delivered the night before were inventoried and organized on pallets for easy access and to see what we had to work with in the way of a menu and cleaning equipment (the inventory was necessary since none had been provided by the Navy). 


On the 27th of April 1975, after a day of normal training and work, at approximately 22:00 hours, two (2) mike boats came along side to deliver food and cleaning equipment for the refugees. India Detachment Marines unloaded and staged the food and equipment in hold #5, which was just aft of the superstructure. The last of the supplies were unloaded and stored at 00:30 hours, and at which time the troops were secured for the rest of the night. The next day, the 28th of April 1975, during the morning the supplies that were delivered the night before were inventoried and organized on pallets for easy access and to see what we had to work with in the way of a menu and cleaning equipment (the inventory was necessary since none had been provided by the Navy). 

On the 27th of April 1975, after a day of normal training and work, at approximately 22:00 hours, two (2) mike boats came along side to deliver food and cleaning equipment for the refugees. India Detachment Marines unloaded and staged the food and equipment in hold #5, which was just aft of the superstructure. The last of the supplies were unloaded and stored at 00:30 hours, and at which time the troops were secured for the rest of the night. The next day, the 28th of April 1975, during the morning the supplies that were delivered the night before were inventoried and organized on pallets for easy access and to see what we had to work with in the way of a menu and cleaning equipment (the inventory was necessary since none had been provided by the Navy). 

Refugee boats swarming to the side of
the SS Pioneer Commander

The work on the ladder and platform was a demanding one, the Marines that were on duty in these positions displayed a stubborn devotion to duty that it took an order for them to be replaced by someone that had rested. Drinking water and salt tablets were distributed to the men while they were in position.

At 04:00 hours, which was then the 30th of April, the Navy delivered there last two (2) mike boats with refugees, and then departed the platform area. The refugees on the fishing boats again mobbed the platform area as soon as the Navy had departed the area. The Marines were pulled back onto the accommodation ladder to handle the people that reached the ladder, plus they were far to tired to fight off another mad rush by the refugees.

At 04:30 hours, the interpreters talked and pleaded with the people not to panic or hurt each other trying to get aboard the ship since there was room for all of them, but the plea was ignored.

The ladder was ordered up with the Marines on it, and at that time the refugees started to pay attention to the interpreters. The refugees were informed that we would leave them if they did not become orderly, quiet and with as little confusion as possible start to board the ship. It seemed at times like this that a village elder or a priest would take charge and start controlling the crowds.

At 04:00 hours, which was then the 30th of April, the Navy delivered there last two (2) mike boats with refugees, and then departed the platform area. The refugees on the fishing boats again mobbed the platform area as soon as the Navy had departed the area. The Marines were pulled back onto the accommodation ladder to handle the people that reached the ladder, plus they were far to tired to fight off another mad rush by the refugees.
At 04:30 hours, the interpreters talked and pleaded with the people not to panic or hurt each other trying to get aboard the ship since there was room for all of them, but the plea was ignored.

The ladder was ordered up with the Marines on it, and at that time the refugees started to pay attention to the interpreters. The refugees were informed that we would leave them if they did not become orderly, quiet and with as little confusion as possible start to board the ship. It seemed at times like this that a village elder or a priest would take charge and start controlling the crowds.


At 04:30 hours, the interpreters talked and pleaded with the people not to panic or hurt each other trying to get aboard the ship since there was room for all of them, but the plea was ignored.

The sea area was crowded with abandoned fishing boats, some were burning, others were dead in the water, with still others circling with their helms tied down and motors running creating a hazard to shipping.
The sea area was crowded with abandoned fishing boats, some were burning, others were dead in the water, with still others circling with their helms tied down and motors running creating a hazard to shipping.



The Marines fed the refugee children milk and graham crackers from 08:00 to 10:00 hours on 30 April, while the adults under the supervision of the Marines were organized, establishing living areas and areas of responsibilities, family sizes for food 
The Marines fed the refugee children milk and graham crackers from 08:00 to 10:00 hours on 30 April, while the adults under the supervision of the Marines were organized, establishing living areas and areas of responsibilities, family sizes for food 
Water points consisting of 55-gallon drums were located near each cargo hole, hole #2 and hole #3. Ladders were made so the water was kept as clean as possible, plus in most of the areas a Vietnamese was placed in charge of the water to stop mothers from washing their kids in it.

At the hold area where we dropped anchor and waited instructions for the departure of the convoy, the Navy delivered approximately 200 more evacuees from the Greenville Victory, which we took aboard. Again at 19:30 hours on the 1st of May, we were ordered to take on approximately 450 more people from the fishing boats in the area, we complete this at 23:00 hours.

Water points consisting of 55-gallon drums were located near each cargo hole, hole #2 and hole #3. Ladles were made so the water was kept as clean as possible, plus in most of the areas a Vietnamese was placed in charge of the water to stop mothers from washing their kids in it.

At the hold area where we dropped anchor and waited instructions for the departure of the convoy, the Navy delivered approximately 200 more evacuees from the Greenville Victory, which we took aboard. Again at 19:30 hours on the 1st of May, we were ordered to take on approximately 450 more people from the fishing boats in the area, we complete this at 23:00 hours.


At the hold area where we dropped anchor and waited instructions for the departure of the convoy, the Navy delivered approximately 200 more evacuees from the Greenville Victory, which we took aboard. Again at 19:30 hours on the 1st of May, we were ordered to take on approximately 450 more people from the fishing boats in the area, we complete this at 23:00 hours.


At the hold area where we dropped anchor and waited instructions for the departure of the convoy, the Navy delivered approximately 200 more evacuees from the Greenville Victory, which we took aboard. Again at 19:30 hours on the 1st of May, we were ordered to take on approximately 450 more people from the fishing boats in the area, we complete this at 23:00 hours.



At 13:00 hours the ship was relocated to a commercial dock and the Marines disembarked and were transported by bus to the Marine Barracks at the Navy MAG. India Detachment stayed at the barracks until 06:30 hours on 10 May 1975, when they boarded a bus for Anderson Field, Guam, for further transportation to Okinawa, JP.

At 13:00 hours the ship was relocated to a commercial dock and the Marines disembarked and were transported by bus to the Marine Barracks at the Navy MAG. India Detachment stayed at the barracks until 06:30 hours on 10 May 1975, when they boarded a bus for Anderson Field, Guam, for further transportation to Okinawa, JP.


                   Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon!

My unit, India Detachment, we had flown in from Okinawa to Subic Bay, PI where we were waiting for our transportation, USS Dubuque, which would take us to the South China Sea area adjacent to Saigon. We spent a couple of days aboard the Dubuque before we got our assignment, which turned out to be the SS Pioneer Commander, the ship that is pictured above in the news article.

Once the assignment was issued we boarded Mike boat 868 ; we left USS Dubuque and came along side the Commander at 13:00 hours and we had all Marines and equipment aboard by 13:50 hours; at which time the mike boat departed on it return trip back to the USS Dubuque. Billeting for the detachment, enlisted and officers were assigned to the outside on the walkways around the upper level, third level up called the O-3 level. Overhead of the aft area (rear) of the O-3 level canvas was rigged to protect the troops from the weather. There were also three (3) cabins that were made available by the captain of the ship for the officers and four of the Staff NCO's, the cabins would also be available to the troops as a head and shower facilities (bathrooms).

After our initial contact with the ship and it’s crew, we busied ourselves in getting settled in and becoming acquainted with the ship itself. We established a daily schedule as part of our providing security for the ship and its crew, as well as our taking the necessary steps to be prepared for the refugees when they arrived. We maintained a rotating security patrols around the ship's open areas, while those not on patrol were assigned other duties in preparation for the arrival of an unknown number of refugees. 

Work projects were assigned to teams of Marines, building walkways down into the cargo holes of the ship, along with constructing suitable bathroom facilities fore and aft for the refugees to use.

                                               


At 13:30 hours on 29 April 1975, the code word 'DECKHOUSE' was received over our radio broadcast net. Deckhouse was the code word for us to depart our staging and waiting area/position and proceed to the refugee pick up point, located just off the coast of Vietnam. Upon our arrival at our new anchorage off the coast of Vietnam, the Navy floated a platform/barge/causeway over to our ship to be used for an easy access to the accommodation ladder. The platform was secured in position by 17:45 hours and it looked as if we were just about ready for business.

                                                                                                               
The detachment had been divided into sections for what we might be facing. Section One was assigned as Processing and Section Two was given the job of Ship Security; at 18:00 hours both sections were posted. At 18:15 hours, we began receiving evacuees from the embassy in Saigon, which were ferried over to us by the Navy. With mike boats tied up to the platform the handling of the evacuees was an orderly operation.

While we were handling the refugees brought to us by the first two (2) mike boats, the sea around us became active with the arrival of fishing boats. Each boat seemed to hold from 50 to 150 men, women and children. Everything was going smoothly from the platform until the mike boats pulled away at approximately 22:00 hours. The departure of the mike boats left the platform open on three sides to the open sea. The population on the platform went from seven Marines and myself in a matter of minutes to 200, 500, to 1000 refugees; they were jumping on and off boats, passing kids and household effects until the platform was packed with humanity. With the mad scramble made by the refugees the seven Marines and myself were driven back until we were pressed in around the base of the accommodation ladder on the platform.

It was impossible to process the air evacuees, which the Navy had given priority concern for. In a last ditch effort to calm things down, we had the accommodation ladder raised so nobody could get aboard the ship, the seven Marines and myself remained pinned to the side of the ship by the sheer mass of human bodies.


We were able to slowly clear the platform of refugees, moving them back to their boats; once this was done we were able to bring more Marines down onto the platform to keep the fishing boats away. We utilized our own ITT Personnel (interpreter - translator team) to explain in Vietnamese to a Priest we had found amongst the refugees, requesting that he explain that we could not take them onboard unless they became orderly.

At approximately 06:00 hours, with the Marines having been working all through the night, it was determined that our ship had reached it comfortable capacity. So at 06:30 hours seven (7) fishing boats were directed to other shipping anchored in the area.

After the last of the refugees were on board at 06:30 hours on the 30th of April 1975, and the platform was back into the hands of the Navy, who were floating it away from our ship. The SS Pioneer Commander got underway and headed for a holding area to form a convoy. 

The Marines fed the refugee children milk and graham crackers from 08:00 to 10:00 hours on 30 April, while the adults under the supervision of the Marines were organized, establishing living areas and areas of responsibilities, family sizes for food list, and cleaning areas. To assist the Marine Detachment for a smooth operation of handling the refugees, three (3) Vietnamese doctors were found and were willing to help the Navy Corpsman in the Hospital/Sickbay area. Seven (7) cooks were also found and willing to assist in the preparation of the food for the refugees, with the first hot meal being served to the refugees at 15:00 hours on 30 April 1975. The ITT Marines supervised the food preparation and distribution. Meals were served twice a day once at 09:00 hours and again at 16:00 hours. The Commander’s Engineer Crew and the Marines of India Detachment kept water distribution points filled.

Meals were served twice a day once at 09:00 hours and again at 16:00 hours. The Commander’s Engineer Crew and the Marines of India Detachment kept water distribution points filled.

Around 10:30 hours watches for the Marines and the off duty troops were to ordered to their sleeping areas for some much needed sleep.

At 23:15 hours on the 1st of May 1975, the Navy came aboard to inspect the ship for sanitary conditions and the ship was approved for a 2 to 5 day period. The Navy also took off one seriously ill individual and another who had broken his leg. We were medically resupplied at midnight. We pulled up anchor at 02:30 hours on the 2nd of May 1975, accompanied by the Challenger and Contender; we sailed for Subic Bay making 21 knots. 

At Subic Bay we were again medically resupplied by helicopter when our destination was changed from Subic Bay to Guam. No major problems were encountered during the trip from the pick-up point to Guam. The ships population experienced births, deaths, family arguments and cleaning problems like that of any city having 6,000 people. All problems were handled as they came up, using the ITT Marines and the Vietnamese Area Leaders. The Marines acted as the police force in a low profile status and using them in situations that demonstrated to the people that we were there to help them.

The ship arrived at Guam and started unloading the refugees at 08:00 hours on the 7th of May 1975, with the last refugee being off of the ship at 11:30 hours. It was an orderly operation with no panic or confusion, the Vietnamese were cooperative since they knew they were getting off.

Below is a letter written by a committee of grateful refugees who wanted to acknowledge the effort and sacrifice that was carried out in their behalf by the U.S. Government working through the Marines of India Detachment. I have also included a couple pieces of paper money that was given as souvenirs aboard the SS Pioneer Commander, signed by the givers.


 

                    Left and right side of a letter presented to India Detachment from refugees. 
Below is the transcript of the letter above for easier reading.
May , 1975
To: The Seventh Communication Battalion Marine Corps

From: The refugees from South Vietnam aboard the Pioneer Commander

This is a very modest emblem of our deep appreciation for the act of knighthood as proved by this Battalion in the utmost emergency occasion when a cry for help has been answered to some fortunate Vietnamese refugees from South Vietnam. No words would be enough for us to express our thanks for their bravery, kindness and consideration through a rush period, when one abandoned everything one has built up for years with a very dim forward future!The Marines were always there when we needed them most:- They were there when the VC were maddening in shelling and rocketing. They had flown through danger to get us out.- They were there to hold the babies when their parents were stepping up aboard the rescue ship.- They were there to give out their own tents and food to make some shelter and to provide feeding for the people in desperate need.And most of all, their smile was on their face even though they had been working around the clock.There was no question whatsoever on race discrimination or on superiority complex.They have gone out of their way to help us, this was not only a humanitarian act, but also an expression of love from man to man.We would like very much to have them as our friends as "A friend in need is a friend indeed." And please accept this simple gift as a souvenir from your friends in the most crucial period of friendship.

A couple of keepsakes the gave to me so I would remember them. I don't know 
how I could forget them.


I also wrote a poem about this event to help me cope with this period in my life, so I could understand what did take place, it is titled Farewell My Friend, which can be found in my poetry in the file called Loss and Farewell.
Farewell My Friend
    by Ron Wicker
     The mind of man, is a mazy treasure house 
     of accumulated memories, real and imagined, 
     laboriously collected throughout life, 
     on a pathway that fate selected, 
     wherein can be found, some good times, as well as bad; 
     even moments of personal grief and strife.
     It is one such moment from my past,
     from a wealth of remembered times,
     that weighs heavy on my mind;
     it is about a moment of grief,
     that I wish and must speak.
     It is of a simple act, of no importance to anyone,
     but me, that was performed unselfishly,
     for another, when the world was filled
     with pain, and panic was rife,
     hopefully in my telling, this simple tale,
     I will find the peace, that I seek.
     As well it could be, it isn't a story of victories
     or of a warrior's glory, it is one of people,
     and a time when caring, giving, loving
     and healing were in short supply and sorely needed,
     a story of the basic needs of man - his survival
     and the loss of his homeland.
     Therefore, to begin we must journey
     to a remote spot aboard a ship located
     on the South China Sea,
     Sadly before the story can even begin
     it quickly comes to an untimely and unhappy end.
     But we must begin before it can end, and it begun,
     in April of '75, when the Vietnamese people
     and cause to flee from their homes,
     into the sea, blindly and headstrong from the land
     they loved and called home,
     in boats of all shapes and sizes,
     without thought or plan.
     Leaving behind their way of life and history
     to escape from their oppressors,
     that wanted to enslave them,
     by force or by law, making this a perilous journey into the sea,
     they came with dreams and hopes
     for a chance to be free.
     Please understand, it isn't my intentions,
     to ignore or fail to mention
     the human suffering that I saw,
     these individuals were being subjected to,
     in their exodus to the sea;
     individual hardships, heroism and acts of bravery,
     were common to the time,
     rather than, the exception, as I review and recall
     the events, as it plays through my mind.
     But these events were only the background,
     for a more personal loss and plight,
     as the people rushed to the sea,
     in panic and fright.
     Each moment was a slice of time,
     frozen forever in my mind,
     captured fully intact,
     with all emotional feelings
     and sensory influences preserved,
     to be replayed, over and over again
     on the screen behind my eyes,
     filling my every hour with the anguish,
     torment and grief,
     that I shared with a family,
     on a day so long ago and far away.
     And it is my personal feelings of that moment
     in time, of just one insignificant event,
     which I wish to share with you;
     it was an individual struggle to survive,
     of a brave nine year old boy,
     as he fought the fight of his life;
     who in the end couldn't win,
     and se he died at sea
     in the arms of his family.
     A mere child, barely given time to live or plan,
     taken, untried and untested by life,
     his value and worth to mankind, unmeasured,
     for what he could have done or been.
     A small boy, without country or even a flag
     to wrap or cover himself with,
     in the damp night's chill.
     An innocent soul, in a world of unrest,
     not of his making or choosing,
     just another unnamed and faceless
     victim to the time and system.
     He made the biggest sacrifice, giving what he had,
     the only thing he could call his own,
     during this unsettled and troubled time,
     he gave his young life for a dream,
     a dream that his parents pursued,
     for him and them, for a better life,
     and a chance that may never have come again,
     a chance to be truly free, like me.
     the memory of this boy has remained with me,
     since that day, so long ago,
     in the South China Sea,
     as he is with me now, today;
     his young face is so familiar to me,
     that I can only think of him,
     as a friend.
     And as a friend he shared a moment
     of his young life, with me,
     as I in turn, without credit to me,
     as this moment of personal grief
     developed, shared a piece
     of my personal hell with him.
     His mortal remains were place to rest,
     in the ocean deep, buried at sea,
     conducted with reverence and dignity,
     at high noon, under a clear blue sky,
     with a rolling and choppy sea
     beneath our unsteady feet;
     With a brisk breeze blowing a salt sea spray
     covering our faces and eyes,
     hiding the tears that were shed.
     It is this Burial at Sea, that plays for me continually,
     night and day,
     not by a troubled soul, but a remembrance
     of the time he once shared his life with me.
     There can be nothing, my friend, to compare,
     no matter, what you have ever been called on to do,
     before in your short life,
     or where you had to go, to do it,
     such as when you must say that final,
     last farewell to a friend.
     Nor is anything as heart wrenching, affecting
     a person's very soul, to the bottom of his being,
     as when you must grievously lift a burial plank,
     that your friend is lying on,
     to its final downward tilted position,
     that will free the weighed,
     shroud wrapped body of a friend, letting it slide,
     on its last one way physical trip into the clean ocean's deep,
     to sink slowly on the currents, spiraling down,
     to its final resting place, beyond man's recall,
     and his greed, forever gone into the sea.
     Nothing in life is as forlorn, as when you hear,
     that rasping sound of the rough canvas surface,
     of the shroud, sliding along an unsanded plank;
     suddenly breaking free, followed by deafening silence,
     as your friend falls through the endless empty space
     between the plank and the waiting sea,
     then to finally hear, that dismal last watery splash,
     the splash as the body enters its watery lonely grave
     and its final resting place.
     Nothing is so upsetting, as taking that last moment
     of prayer, for your final acknowledgment and goodbye,
     goodbye to a friend and comrade
     who shared your life and a piece of hell.
     Nothing is so final, as removing the blanket we used for a flag,
     from the now empty plank,
     from which your friend's last trip had begun,
     and slowly with grief, making each fold proper and precise,
     securing this token memento for his loved ones,
     family and next of kin.
     Each fold a remembered moment of his last struggle,
     a struggle for life that was in your care,
     and each fold causing a tear to well up and fall unknowingly
     down a cheek already tear stained in grief,
     grief for an innocent soul and a departing friend.
     Nothing, my friend, is as final as the grave,
     and the farewell given to a friend departed,
     who will remain and stay in his resting place
     until the day he is called forth to answer to his God,
     on that final judgment day.
     FAREWELL MY FRIEND !!
©2000 Ron Wicker

2 comments:

  1. I stumbled across this Blog today and was quite surprised to read "our story". I was one of the men of India Detachment. You obviously did a great job noting the events, for me it was all a blur, but your detailed account brought back many memories.
    Sgt Rick Hessler (Cpl at that time).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am Ralph Clarkin. I was CPL Clarkin when we were together as part of Detachment India on board the Pioneer Commander. I hope you remember me. I was the detachment clerk. Your story brings back alot of memories. I am on facebook at Ralph Clarkin. Take care and have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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