I was in my mother’s living room telling about a short introduction I would give on Saturday to a group of veterans. I suddenly realized I had never written an article about my Navy service. That is a heck of an omission after writing almost 200 articles, many of them about my life. It’s time to fess up. You should know in advance of reading this – it is going to be a very long read, over four thousand words, and this is a brief version.
First things first. My decision to join the Navy had several influences. This was when we had the draft in place, so many joined a branch of service of their choosing rather than wait for the army to call them up. That may have had some influence; however, I had been enamored by the Navy before Vietnam was a thing. In my early teens, I used to stare at my uncle’s photo of his shipmates in dress uniforms lined up in front of their ship. I admired my uncle and thought he was very cool, so I wanted to be like him. Another factor was my fascination with ships and the sea. Reading sea stories and seeing photos drew me in like a moth to a flame.
Enter the war in Vietnam and my coming of age to think about military service. An incident happened when I was a senior in high school. Two sailors in dress blues were walking down the hall of our school, and a flock of girls was in tow. If you have never seen a sailor in a dress blue uniform, you have missed a beautiful sight. Well, that decided it. I told my dad that I wanted him to sign for me to join the Navy after graduation.
No, no, no, no. My dad wanted each of his boys to go to college, get an education, and a job with good pay, benefits, and retirement pay. My dad hated farming and knew there was no future in it. In the intervening year until I turned 18, I became a college dropout, a trade school dropout, then left home (snuck out), moved to Texas, and bummed around until I turned 18, even waiting a few months actually to see a recruiter.
After I signed up at the recruiter’s office, they said there was a three-month waiting list to be activated. I finally arrived at San Diego for boot camp in July 1966. I had thirteen weeks of making beds, scrubbing uniforms, marching, running, classes, trying to drown us, and a lot of other stuff I don’t even remember. I did get assigned to the color guard, so I must have done something right. Some recruits did get in trouble and spent all day with a kid’s bucket and shovel, digging then filling holes and running back and forth in the heat. Naturally, the drill instructors marched us past them daily to let us know the penalty for screwing up. On the last day, I went to sick call with what I thought was a cold, and I was sent back to graduate. When I got off the plane in Oklahoma City, my parents took me to the Watonga Hospital. The next day I was told by the doctor that I had a lung infection, and if I had been a day later, I would have died. Great start to my leave; I spent most of it in the hospital.
My first duty station was an aircraft carrier commissioned in 1942, the Ticonderoga. (Photo of a similar carrier at the bottom of the page) At the time, the Navy used the buddy system. I was assigned to buddy with someone that had been aboard some months longer than me to show me the ropes. He was a street criminal from the streets of Boston. We immediately had a language problem. He spoke street Boston, and I spoke Western Oklahoma. He spoke really fast, waving his arms around and with a dialect that sounded like Gaelic. From his point of view, I probably sounded like a 78 rpm record played at 45 rpm. Oddly enough, over time, we became fast friends. I don’t know what he got from me, but he introduced me to rare roast beef on rye and cheesecake from a Jewish deli.
We watched 75-cent all-night movies, roamed Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, and ate food I had never had in my life. We also did body surfing after sneaking into North Island Beach in the freezing water. Just before our ship finished a refit, I had one more embarrassing incident I want to relate. At the rear of an Aircraft Carrier is a curved deck with a pipe railing around it. I was leaning against the railing with my hands in my pockets when an older man in a khaki uniform approached with a couple of marines following. He came right up to me and asked me if I was tired. I said, “No.” He said, “How about you stand up straight.”So I did. He then said, “Are you cold?”. I said, “No.” He said, “Okay, take your hands out of your pockets .” I did and began to wonder what was going on as he turned and walked on with the marines following. Now at this point, especially if you have been in the military, you are asking yourself, “Can he really have been that stupid?” This is absolutely a true account, and yes, I was that stupid. I did take no end of hazing about that from the others on the deck at that time. That was the Captain of the aircraft carrier, someone just below God in authority. I am sure he told that story the rest of his life, laughing until his sides ached.
At some point before our ship left for the Tonkin Gulf, I had appendicitis. I had an operation at Balboa Navel Hospital. I only tell this because of what happened the next morning after the procedure. I woke up to see six doctors standing over me. One removed the dressing to show the others the incision. They started making fun of the doctor that operated, saying something about how big the incision was. They were really having fun ribbing him. Then I found out it was his first operation, that the usual incision was just a couple of inches, and that his was six inches long. I don’t remember it bothering me, but I imagine he got all kinds of grief over that. It was six inches, and I still have the scar to prove it.
The trip to the Gulf of Tonkin was uneventful other than having to learn my job and the ship’s routines. We had fire drills, battle station drills, and 12-hour days. At first, I was assigned to the “vent gang.” A catchall name for an orientation to ships general cleanup and maintenance before being given a permanent assignment. After a short time, I was assigned to steam engine room one. We had two steam engine compartments with two steam turbines in each. (rooms on a naval vessel are called compartments). We had eight oil-fired steam boilers, four per compartment. Steam engine compartments are hot and noisy. Boiler compartments are hotter. Once flight operations began, they ran 24/7, and that old ship had to steam into the wind at flank speed for takeoff and landing of jets. Flank speed was 33 knots or approx 38 mph. When traveling at that speed, that old lady shook like she was having an epileptic fit. This meant constant repairs for leaking pipes, gaskets, and oil leaks. So the 12-hour days at times became 24 and even 36 hours straight. Sometimes it would be more than a month before I would see daylight. There was one time I was on duty for three days straight in the engine room with an occasional short nap on the deck plates in the engine room with my jacket as a pillow, and up to eat and right back down. I was young, so I tolerated my duties in the engine room during this nine-month assignment without a problem. Now I will relate the high points.
I am reminded of an article I wrote called wooden ships and iron men. Shipboard duties, whether in olden times or modern, can be arduous for over 90 percent of the time, which makes the 10% all the sweeter. On the Ticonderoga, I had some extraordinary times; two come to mind immediately. First was the nights I had an hour or two I could or should have been sleeping but would go to the 07 level of the island structure. That would basically be seven stories up in that tall structure in the middle, starboard side of an aircraft carrier. The perfect place to see the takeoff and landing of jets. The flames of the afterburners, the roar of the engine, the release, and the catapulting out into the night. Or the speck as a jet approached for a landing, rapidly getting larger, then suddenly hitting the deck to grab an arresting cable while powering up the engine in case of missing the cable. Hitting the cable and being brought to a halt while the engine powers down with a whine, or missing the cable, hitting the afterburners to take back off, disappearing into the blackness only to come around for another attempt. Watching them being towed to the elevator to be parked below to be readied for another mission, crossing my field of vision, I often saw bullet or shrapnel holes peppering the body of the craft. Even now, writing this down, I can feel the excitement, the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of the power of the engines, the skill of the crews, and the pride in their work. A dance where my partner was the flight operations in progress. Taking a break now to settle down.
Okay, I’m back. The next thing I did at night when I was off was not as dramatic as flight operations, but was as thrilling in a more – I guess I can now see it as more spiritual. When doing flight operations, we were off the coast of North Vietnam doing the bombing, and the station the ship operated at was called the line. When we left the line every month or more to refuel and refit with supplies and munitions, we would travel to Osaka or Yokosuka, Japan, or Subic Bay, Philippines. During the coming or going, weather permitting, I would sit on a catwalk that ran under the flight deck at the bow and extended beyond the ship for a short way. While sitting there, the ship was behind me, and I was sitting over the ocean as we moved forward. If you can imagine riding on a metal mesh magic carpet over the sea, that was how it felt to me. It was, indeed, magical. I could feel myself moving out over the ocean, up into the stars, with joyful emotion welling up inside to the point of almost being painful, as if my body was having a hard time with that intense feeling. In that place, time seemed to have no meaning, and I would have no concern with loss of sleep or anything else when I finally left. These experiences were not new to me. In my teens, I used to sneak out after everyone was asleep and walk the country roads at night, find places in leaves or grass to lay back, and look at the stars. Sometimes be gone for two or more hours. A time of peace and contemplation.
Most of the day-to-day work of shipboard life would bore almost everyone, including me telling it. However, there is one more thing I would like to mention about shipboard life that was dear to my heart. Cooking and eating. We had a Chief Cook named Tarantino. A huge Italian man, I don’t mean fat. It is probably an exaggeration, but my memory is he was 6 foot 6 and 280 lbs or more. He loved his job and took great pride in his meals. Of course, I bragged about him a lot, and he always ensured I was taken care of. You should know I grew up on a poor farm, and we learned to eat the whole hog, as they call it. When others would not eat the bread because it was baked with the weevils in it, I ate theirs and mine as well. Tarantino never saw me return a tray with food on it; you could see he took pride in that. On that nine-month tour of duty, I ate four times a day. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Mid-Rats. Yes, Mid-Rats. It is short for midnight rations. The leftovers from all three daytime meals were laid out buffet style. It was my favorite meal. I have heard horror food stories from other sailors that served in the fleet. Well, they didn’t have my Tarantino! You might think I would have gained a lot of weight with all that food I ate four times a day. No, I lost so much and looked so pale; my mother thought she was seeing a ghost when I came home on leave.
When we completed our tour on the line and started back to San Diego, I formally requested a transfer to in-country duty in Vietnam. My division officer told me that my chances were almost zero for getting orders for that. He agreed to sign off and submit it for me. Soon after we got back, I got orders for SERE training prior to departure for Da Nang, Vietnam. SERE is an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. It is a week or more, I forget how long – at least a week. I won’t describe the process; you can use your imagination or look it up on Google. Let’s say it was realistic as possible and very intense.
The plane ride to Da Nang was long and tedious, about 12 hours. I remember very little about my arrival until I reached my assigned boat. (Photo of a similar boat at the bottom of the page) As I approached the boat, beached on the sand, I noticed a bunch of holes in the side. I came on board and was met by someone, I don’t remember who. I was too busy looking at all the other holes on the inside. I was informed that these were shrapnel holes and that I was replacing one of the seven wounded crew. I don’t remember being upset by the situation. Hell, I volunteered for Vietnam; why would I be worried now.
This would be a good time for a flashback. You know, one of those things they do in the movies that sometimes they do so much it is irritating. I promise this is probably the one that is appropriate here. When I was growing up, to make a long story short, I was exposed to hell, fire, and damnation preaching in a country church. I rejected much of the bible and refused to believe unless I could be all in.
On the other hand, if they were right, I might be down in hell, burning forever. That’s right, torture, burning, foreeeevvvveeerrrr. As a teen, that was scary in the worst way. Fast forward to the point on board the Ticonderoga and my request for in-country service in Vietnam. I knew I was putting myself in a better chance for a short life than most endeavors. I went out on my catwalk and called out to God and the Devil. I told them this was their time to speak up and let me know what was up. I told them I would give them until I left the catwalk to contact me; otherwise, I would never worry about them again. The firm decision has carried me through life without fear of death. I continued to seek truth, sometimes off and sometimes on, but never fearing what death holds.
As I mentioned, this boat was being patched and re-crewed. The type of boat was a YFU, an acronym for Yard Freight Utility. These were used during WWII as landing craft for tanks and heavy machinery. This boat was YFU-58. The best way of looking at the purpose of these boats as they were used in Vietnam was as river freight trucks. Because they had a shallow draft, they could navigate the shallow rivers to supply army and marine bases further up the rivers than any other boat their size. We often hauled pallets of food, ammunition, building materials, vehicles, sodas, and, most valuable, beer. Of course, personnel also occasionally hitched rides to and from these bases. Our greatest threat was mines in the rivers and rocket attacks while unloading at a base. Evidence of the effectiveness of mines was scattered all up and down the rivers. Even though we were slow as snails while going up and down the rivers, small arms could not pierce our armor plate, and we had tremendous firepower. Hitting a slow-moving boat with a rocket was ineffective and risky – mines were safe because they would be miles away after it was set.
On my first tour on boats, I was operating out of Da Nang for loading and most often the Hue and Cua Viet River** (**our name for it), although we did take a load a time or two to Cam Ranh Bay. Our routine was always to pick up a load at Da Nang, travel up the coast, enter the river, and unload at our destination. Return either with something going back or empty. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At the end of this tour, I requested to return after leave for a second tour. I had to see a psychiatrist before it could be approved. Basically, he questioned me to determine my motive. When I told him that I understood if I came back, I would have so little time left that I would get an early discharge at the end of that tour. Was that my real reason? Looking back, it was a mixed bag. We had a lot of freedom over there to dress as we pleased, no officers to deal with, and a lot more leisure time on our hands. Plus, I enjoyed contact with the Vietnamese and learning about their culture. It didn’t hurt that I would get out early, either. I rarely felt in immediate danger. So, it was a mixed bag.
My second tour was based out of Saigon (Now Ho Chi Minh City); however, we had two exceptions to trucking work. We spent a long time, what seemed like months, anchored at one end of a seal base many miles up the Cua Lou River, which was more of a long canal that went in and out of a vast peninsula. Another YFU was anchored at the other end of the seal base. The seal base was several barges tied together with buildings for housing, etc. We understood our purpose was to guard and protect the seal base. One thing I failed to mention earlier, we not only had 50 caliber and 30 caliber machine guns, but we also had a dual barrel, 20 MM (.787 inch) antiaircraft cannons with high explosive rounds in gun tubs for firepower as well as each had M-16 and a supply of antitank rockets. We were loaded for bear.
One of the fascinating things we also did was regularly beach at a village, Ha Tien, at the mouth of the Khach San River. I was never able to find out why we were there, but we were allowed to spend time in the village. It was war-torn, but apparently, the Viet Cong had left the area quite some time back since clearly none of the damage was recent. I ate at the restaurants, watched the enthusiastic and noisy pool games, french style, shopped in their market, and even went to the theater. The theater was live performances with white face makeup, flamboyant gestures, and action. I loved it even though I couldn’t understand a word. The locals were just as entertained that I was in their theater than the show itself.
Another flashback is coming up. Starting now. Somewhere in the middle of my second tour, the determination was made that our boat’s bottom was too thin and needed to be replaced. I wasn’t aware of any inspection being done. We just got orders one day that we were being loaded on a ship and sent to Subic Bay, Philippines, to get a new hull. I mean the boat and the entire crew. We were informed it would take a couple of weeks and we would be transported back the way we left. Well, three months later, we were back in Vietnam. Since we weren’t allowed on the boat for three months, you should ask what we did. Okay, thank you for asking. We were assigned a barracks, and our only duty was night watch in the barracks once every eight days. Why eight days? Because there were eight of us. Okay, here we have eight young men having nothing, I repeat, nothing required of them for eight days and seven nights. Olongapo City was within walking distance and across the river bridge. At that time, our money was like gold. You could take a private jitney anywhere in town for ten cents. You could ride a jitney seating 6-8 on a route for a penny. I met a small group of Filipino guys about my age taking karate lessons. They lived in a neighborhood in a residential section of town. So, I joined the karate classes and found a room for rent in a house in their neighborhood owned by a newlywed couple. It was a spotless house but no running water, an icebox for a fridge, and a pump handle outside to get water. Hell, this was just about how I grew up! There was no street in the neighborhood, just a footpath and over a bridge that crossed a small ravine. Taking a bath was in a small hut a few yards from the house with a bucket, a dipper, and a bar of soap. Every Saturday morning was all hands house and floor cleaning, even though we always left our shoes in the entry. Red wax was smeared over the floor after the dusting and other cleanups; then, we were each given a half coconut husk to polish the floor with. Using a foot on the husk, you use a back-and-forth motion to polish one area at a time. I gotta tell you. This house was kept clean all the time. For those scared of lizards, ya might not want to live there. They kept lizards in the house for pest control – nice, and it works.
I was invited to a party one of the guys put on at their house one evening. As we sat around drinking beer and eating a meat dish they had prepared, I noticed them watching me. One of them asked how I liked the food? I said it was delish. He asked if I knew what it was? I told him I had no idea. He said it was dog. I could see every one of them waiting breathlessly for the fur to fly. I calmly said it was excellent; hand me another piece. We all laughed, and the discussion naturally became about food. Well, it was my turn to see if they could stomach what an Oklahoma farm boy had grown up eating. I had to stop at liver and kidney. They didn’t eat any organ meats. I decided calf brains, testicles, tongue, and others would risk ending a good friendship. By the time we had to leave the Philippines, I had solved a physical problem I had all my life with karate lessons. I had, up to that point, been a klutz. I would trip over things, bump into overheads on the ship – just generally clumsy. After those three months of karate training, I was no longer a klutz, and my problem never came back. My time in the Philippines was one of the highlights of my life. I was there when Americans were practically worshiped by most of the population. They loved us, and I loved them back.
It’s about time to start wrapping this up. There are a lot of stories I have told over the years that are not included; however, I have hit the high points. If anyone would like to hear the stories left behind, there are some doozies. You will have to see me in person for that. Some are embarrassing, dangerous, and risky, being bad, R-rated, or just being stupittt. I was young, fearless, and boldly going – well, ya know!
My last story will be about my trip home. After passing through the final gate and entering civilian life, I decided to take a train home. I took a bus to Los Angels and bought a ticket on the Santa Fe Super Chief, a luxury train that ran from Los Angeles to Chicago. As far as I know, this was the last and best luxury train built and in service in the US, and I was determined to experience what was usually reserved for those wealthy customers who could afford it. For me, this was a real splurge, and I loved every minute of it. The seat was huge and spread out, so you could lay them all the way back for sleeping. (a sleeper cabin was beyond my ability to afford) The dining car was fancy, with expensive tablecloths, plates, and silverware. Heck, I could just go on and on. I had never experienced that kind of lavishness and opulence before and since. That was my only taste of what it must be like to live where expense didn’t matter. Not that I envied people that did have that much wealth; my life has never been the pursuit of wealth but the pursuit of knowledge and experiences, always.
That was my service in the US Navy. It was a learning and growing up adventure. What I got from it was a wealth of experience. We often refer to joining the military as serving our country. I got the best end of the deal, no doubt about it. I am very grateful for that chance to enrich my life.
Most of this was written straight through in eight hours. I had so many moments where the emotions ran high putting the words on the page I would have to stop to calm down. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thanks, and please leave a comment if you enjoyed this narrative or have a piece of your own story to add.