I was living in St. Louis County, Missouri when I received my draft notice back in late 1966. In order to avoid going to Vietnam, I joined the Navy, having been assured by the recruiter that there were no Navy personnel in Vietnam. As this was exactly what I wanted to hear, presented by a well trained liar in a uniform, and encouraged by my WW2 Navy veteran father, I signed up.
After training in California and a brief return home, I believed I was going to Japan for an incredible year on a minesweeper and access to all the “Jap women” the friendly and convincing recruiter had promised. Curiously, I landed at an inland Air Force base and after a few days boarded a military transport, not to Japan’s coast, but to Saigon.
I was assigned to the mighty USS Hickman County, LST 825. This floating outhouse had been slammed together quickly by rookies who hadn’t any shipyard experience and began it’s service in 1944. The coxswain (and fellow pot smoker) at the time of my arrival was heading home in a few weeks. We convinced the Captain (Austin Lett III, who was just a few years older than myself) that I’d been raised around boats and would be the perfect replacement in charge of the two LCVP‘s that hung from davits on either side of the ship. Having never operated any boat in actuality, a number of frightening trips lay ahead, but puttering around in my boats, beat the hell out of the constant scraping and painting in blistering heat that my shipmates faced. Here’s a WWII training video about LST’s.
Many of my responsibilities as coxswain involved transporting my shipmates to and from “liberty” at various towns and small villages along the rivers we sailed. These were often miles from where the ship was beached. The trip there was pleasant enough, but the return was at night and most of my mates were drunk and disorderly. Searching for the very drunk stragglers before the return trip was a regular event.
In places, the rivers were quite narrow with the
shoreline within throwing distance. The dense foliage put anyone on shore, with even the most rudimentary rifle, within easy range. I did wear a helmet and flak jacket when at my battle station (Mount 51, a 50 cal. machine gun, also from WWII) but decided the probability of heat stroke was far greater than being shot. In it’s infinite wisdom, the oxymoronic “military intelligence”, decided to defoliate the river banks back about a few hundred yards to deny any snipers their cover. Ironically, this distance allowed the installation of rocket launchers with far greater range (and destructive power) than a rifle. Two of our sister ships were heavily damaged as a result. The defoliant was Agent Orange, which we regularly transported both above and below deck.
We never carried any tanks on our Landing Ship Tanks, but did transport some vehicles. But most of our cargo was a wide variety of items, supplying the bases scattered up and down the rivers. This included arms, munitions, fuel, food and other basics. But there were often treasured goods aboard. Beer, bone china, various electronics, uniforms other than Navy issue, combat boots and knives were amongst the most popular. These brought out our Inner Pirate and we regularly looted these items for both personal use and for barter with the locals.
We also carried small groups of Special Forces and dropped them off at remote locations, normally far up river. They generally kept to themselves and were understandably intense. As most of them were also regular pot smokers, we had some kinship and I was able to use our copious supply of high test can sa to help them prepare for their mission. I hadn’t intentionally volunteered to serve in a war zone, most of them had. Although my adventures as coxswain involved some scary moments, it was hard to imagine what was required of these poor bastards. On one occasion I’d been staring at a string of what appeared to be prunes hanging around the neck of a guy younger than myself, joint dangling from his lips, and told they were trophy ears and badges of honour amongst this group of mind fucked men. It could have been this kid’s father. It’s hard to imagine that these men (most of them boys not long before) would ever be able to return to a civilized society.
Our Captain, Austin Lett III was one of, if not the, youngest commissioned officer serving at the time. The story was that he was given command of the mighty Hickman County through family ties and pressure. He was not only young, but wild and not one for regulations and formalities. As a result, many of us wore uniforms that we’d compiled from the booty we’d liberated. Here I am (on the left) with my comrade wearing the official dress.
Mike and I took our liberties together and chose not to frequent the hooker laden “bars” that littered even the smallest of villages. We were often in Saigon to load and our liberties always involved hiring one of the motorcycles with a bench seat in the front (can’t remember what they’re called) to take us to our destination. The drivers all knew the rudimentary English. Everything was #1! We were #1. The girls he knew about were #1. His favourite bar was #1 and he knew where to get #1 cần sa for our smoking pleasure. The #1 barter item was Hennessy cognac, which we could buy for a couple of dollars at any base exchange. We’d learned that by smearing a little cold cream on our ration cards, the check marks could be rubbed off for subsequent purchases.
Mike and I weren’t interested in the bars and brothels. After a quick stop at the #1 weed vendor, we’d fill the bowls of our pipes (fuck rolling joints), light up and tell our driver to head for Grant’s Tomb. As knowledgeable as he may have been, the same puzzled look and shrug of the shoulders would always be the response. “Grant’s tomb”, we’d shout over the noise from his smoking beast, pointing in a random direction. As this would invariably take us out of the sanctioned travel zone, there was often some reluctance to overcome, but nothing a few dollars couldn’t accomplish. Our journeys took us into parts of the city that few GIs had ever seen, but we felt confident that our driver would eventually be able to return us to our ship. Notice the spiffy combat boots I’m wearing.
On one trip into the dark bowels of Saigon to buy some #1 weed, our driver brought us to an opium den where we were greeted by an angry proprietor barking at us without the normally pleasant sounding, sing song language we enjoyed hearing. A few of the zombies sprawled on cots in the darkness looked up at us with heavy eyelids. After things calmed down a bit, we were directed to an empty cot where an attendant was ready to hold one of the pipes for us while we took a journey to dreamland. Although Mike an I were normally pretty cool hanging with the locals, this seemed a little too risky. The looks we were getting weren’t particularly welcoming, so we opted not to nod out in their presence and instead, to buy some to go and continued our never ending trip to Grant’s Tomb. Once back on board, we’d understand why you smoke opium laying down and the true meaning of convulsive coughing.
The rivers were free fire zones at night, patrolled by special forces psychos who hunkered down, drifting in small open boats with multiple high powered outboards, waiting to shoot anything that moved. On my first encounter with them, they appeared out of the darkness yelling for a password or code that I was not told about, after attempting to signal me with a series of flashlight blinks that I couldn’t have replied to even if I did have a flashlight. Thanks to the recognition provided by my rowdy crew members, we were not slaughtered, but warned that we would be the next time we failed to identify ourselves. Regardless of the warning and my repeated requests, all future excursions were also made without codes, flashlights, or radio. Military efficiency at it’s finest combined with our Captain’s non-traditional approach to command.
Although my shipmates could hunker down out of sight, I was required to stand at the helm with the wheel extended to be able to see over the bow door. Although I wasn’t wearing the traditional white hat, aka target, I still felt very vulnerable. Getting a little stoned before shoving off helped to settle my nerves.
My LCVP’s were as shoddily built for WWII as well and often suffered mechanical problems. They were not as disgusting as the Hickman County though. The head (that’s bathroom to you, landlubber) was regularly flooded by backed up sewage that lazily sloshed bits of turds, toilet paper and filthy water to and fro. The “shower” was equally disgusting and without hot water.
Both the laundry and cooking duties were assigned to the only black men on board, and as fellow pot smokers, I was treated somewhat better than my non-stoned mates. However, their supplies were limited. We had rabbit from Australia at least four days a week, covered in various sauces and gravies scraped out of their olive drab cans. Our beverage was almost always “bug juice”, a brightly coloured, lukewarm Kool-Aid like swill without any sweetener and made with the “water” from the on-board tanks.
We enjoyed many nights with our ship mates of colour, secured by a watertight hatch inside the gaudily decorated laundry. We had a tape recorder and only one tape to play. Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles. Although their heads would bob in sync, they would listen without much enthusiasm until it was their turn to replace our well used tape with the Four Tops. They had developed an impressive routine that included some awesome, synchronized dance moves, hand clapping, finger snapping, and unlike we white boys, they would sing along in near perfect harmony.
One day the Captain announced that he had secured milk for our evening mess. A tall glass of cold milk is still my favourite drink. I spent the afternoon re-doing the fancy rope work on the LCVP’s wheel, literally drooling about what was to come. I was going to stir mine vigorously to make some foam on top before pouring it down my gullet and re-filling my cup, over and over again. Rushing into the cramped quarters of the mess I was confronted with some familiar looking olive drab gallon cans. They were full of sterilized milk, possibly left over from WWII, or the Korean War at best. They were warm. I didn’t remember what baby puke tasted like, but this was probably worse. I had some bug juice instead…. bright green this time. Massive disappointment would be a gross understatement.
The “food” onboard was so disgusting, that one of our favourite items to liberate were “C rations”, which were common cargo.
Had I not been suckered in by that lying sack of shit, I may have moved to Canada in 1966, instead of 1970, which had been at the top of my list. Just below “move to Canada” were a few other alternatives including; refuse induction and go to prison, be granted a Conscientious Objector status (yeah right!), pretend to be homosexual, hold a bar of soap under my arm to cause high blood pressure, appeal my college’s academic suspension (I had a great time in my first year, but attended only a handful of classes) or go and “have an adventure while “defending my country””.
In retrospect, the Universe had provided a shocking smack on the head that permanently changed both my world view and future life choices. After less than a year serving on a floating outhouse that should not have survived WW2, I was given a General Discharge
under Honourable Conditions after being busted, along with a dozen of my shipmates, for smoking weed (in a war zone). I suppose this was to send a message to the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of us that regularly used drugs and alcohol to blur our situations at the time.
I believe Mike and I were the trigger for an investigation that eventually led to our “punishment”. We were in open water on our way to Taiwan. Unlike the muddy water we’d been sailing, the ocean was turquoise blue with whitecaps on some substantial waves. There were flying fish and some sort of dolphins, both of which could easily keep up to the exhausted, out of mothballs LST 825. This is what I’d pictured when I enrolled…. out on the open sea….. anchors aweigh my boys, anchors aweigh
There was a hatch under the front gun turret that led to a ladder down inside the huge bow doors. As the bow plunged into a wave, a column of water and air would rush up to just a few feet from where we were perched, then all the way down as we crested the wave. We split a bowl and watched this spectacle in wonderment after deciding it wouldn’t completely fill to become our rusting sarcophagus. After some time had passed (it was hard to tell how long after the second bowl was offered ceremoniously to Poseidon), we were rattled by a series of deafening, explosive sounds. BOOM!! BOOM!! BOOM!!… one after another.
Why, my previously serene mind asked, would someone be pounding the deck above us with a sledgehammer? To find the answer, I climbed up several rungs and slowly lifted the unsecured hatch. The roar of the 40 mm anti-aircraft gun in the turret just overhead made it obvious that while we were enjoying a special aspect of our first sea voyage, General Quarters had been sounded. I only had to slink about 50 feet to Mount 51, my battle station, but Mike was the Captain’s driver/flunky and had to make the long walk down the entire deck and up to the wheelhouse to join him and a few other officers. Nothing was said, or done, at the time, but I’ll guess the new “radarman” was taken on board as soon as we docked.
In reality, our new crew mate was a military investigator posing as a radarman. One day while relaxing suspended on the davit, the “radarman” appeared and told me to report to the mess immediately. Along the way, he told me not to talk to anyone and when we arrived I was seated apart from a few of my other smoking buddies who were all silent and sitting in separate locations.
One by one, we were escorted to the Captain’s quarters for an interrogation that included the presentation of evidence in the form of 8×10 photos of us passing the pipe. Many were taken with night vision cameras. Some were weirdly grainy, but in others I was clearly visible. Believing it was foolish to deny the damning stack of photos and knowing that a huge proportion of our “fighting men” were also smoking weed, I admitted that, yes, that’s exactly what I was doing, but chose not to confirm the same for my shipmates.
I was sternly informed that my punishment would be anything from a “Captain’s Mast” to execution (for drug use in a war zone). I thought a death sentence was unlikely, but imprisonment very possible. Visions of some psycho Marine with a chip on his diminutive shoulder, screaming obscenities while submerging my head in a filthy toilet flashed through my mind, amongst other equally horrific possibilities. Late in the day, 13 of us were whisked away to the Annapolis Hotel, the arrival and departure point for all naval forces in Saigon.
My naval career began July 13, 1967 and ended on June 25, 1968 for a total of 11 months and 13 days (including training for at least a month… far short of the 4 year commitment I’d made. According to the faded copy of my naval records, I was discharged under “BUPERS MANUAL, ART. C-10311-284- UNFITNESS. But hey, my “character of service” says HONORABLE. Plus I earned the NATIONAL DEFENSE SERVICE MEDAL!!
Incredibly, thanks to the oxymoron of “military intelligence”, we were all sent to Treasure Island, a naval installation on the fabled San Francisco bay, for our eventual discharges from service. At that time, LSD, due to it’s rapidly evolving formulations, that kept it one step ahead of the law, was being openly sold by sidewalk vendors. Our access to the store (or whatever they call them) on the base elevated us to the level of Barter Kings. With black silk scarves, denim and white cotton bellbottoms and denim shirts purchased for next to nothing, we were able to negotiate some remarkable transactions that also included peyote, hashish and other mind altering substances, in addition to our favourite, Owsley Stanley‘s White Lightening.
What an awesome sendoff…. thanks USN!! Hit it again, boys with a little more oomph this time! Wow, to have a connection to JFK, Daddy Bush, Nixon and others might make me proud if it weren’t for the fact my service and that “war” had nothing to do with protecting my country.
I’m seldom thanked for “my service”. I’ve lived in Canada since 1970 and have met a few American war vets also living here (all but one from the subsequent, non-stop wars), but we’re not friends and shared little to no time swapping war stories. We had all left that mental carnage at the border. Canada had little to do with that particular “conflict”.
For any young folks and non-Americans reading this, here’s the final total for the illegal, immoral and shameful Vietnam War…. “The cost of the war was staggering: 1.7 million dead, three million wounded and maimed, and 13 million refugees. The US dropped 7 million tons of bombs, 75 million litres of jungle-defoliating herbicide and lost 10,000 helicopters and warplanes. Some 56,000 US soldiers were killed and another 303,000 were wounded. The direct cost of the war was $140 billion; indirect costs are estimated at $900 billion.” Source
To cap off the above, there was no victory. The capital of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam is Hanoi. All the loss of life above was for nothing other than profits for the military/industrial complex that Eisenhower exposed after WW2. Veterans of the subsequent wars, including the dozen+ that are raging today are neither in defence of their country, or “freedom and democracy”. They were dispensable meat, ground up and consumed in the business of war.
I don’t thank veterans for their service. Those who’ve been exposed to war seldom feel proud of their service. Suicides rates for war vets are substantially higher than the general population, and the effects of PTSD are rampant amongst them.
Give them a hug if you must, but don’t thank them for their service. You’ll be doing them a disservice. Understand they may not want to talk about their experiences honestly either. Some may provide a cover of false bravado and pride, but in most cases it’s to cover their guilt and shame. The greatest service you could provide is to understand and disseminate the ugly truth about today’s wars and discourage everyone you know and love to do their best to bring them to an end.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”. Martin Luther King, Jr.