Early 1966, We arrive at Vietnam…Part 1
Finally, on January 1st, 1966, around noon, we arrive at Da Nang Harbor. This is a world class harbor. The opening to the sea is 4 miles wide, on either side of the opening are hills 400 to 500 feet high, the harbor itself is teardrop shaped…perfect as a safe harbor during a storm. The city is built on nice flat land that gently raises from the coast to the interior. Impressive. But the most amazing thing is the color. The skies were blue with a few white fluffy clouds drifting by. What amazed me and kept me riveted to the railing was NOT the city, but the jungle. It went right down to the water line nearly everywhere you looked. And the color, brilliant green like I’d never seen before. I grew up in the Northwest and the desert area east of the coastal mountains so I suppose seeing jungle green for the first time is what impressed me the most but now after 41 years I can still say that I’ve never seen such an brilliant green color, before or since with the exception of a place in the Yucatan, and that was a man created garden. And, perhaps, for the jade green of rare Chinese sculptures. Seeing that color in the jungle made it easy to understand why Vietnamese people and others are so enamored of jade, they saw that color all around them, held in the translucent softness of polished jade stones.
As we arrived at the entrance of the harbor, several PT boats roared out to meet us…at the time I thought it was just SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) but later I found out that they were there to protect us from shelling from the shore. Being just a mile from Da Nang meant I could get a good look at the city and the surrounding area. So I spent hours looking out over the railing at the city and countryside. There were a couple other ships in the harbor but we had plenty of room. We were anchored in around 100′ of water and about three miles from the entrance, and as I said about a mile from Da Nang proper. If I remember correctly, the population of Da Nang was 200,000 or so at that time. Check out this map.
Part of my duties was that I helped with all the radio traffic from the shore to the captain. Since I was a signalman, I was stationed on the bridge with the captain, navigator, gunnery and radar officers and the secret transmissions were coming in hot and heavy so I’d be running back and forth to the radio room to deliver and collect messages of a military nature. I loved being up on the bridge so much that even when I was off duty, that’s where you could find me. The captain really liked how I made coffee when I’d worked down on the mess decks and after I became a signalman he use to ask me if I’d go down and brew him a pot occasionally. Even though he had his own Filipino cook.
I’d been granted a secret clearance when I applied as a signalman just so I could do message delivery. (As an aside, when my application for ‘secret’ clearance was made, the FBI went out and visited my parents in Walla Walla! Just to make sure I was who I said I was. Two guys in black suits with black ties and sunglasses. Then they did it again when the ship applied for my ‘Top Secret’ clearance). Up on the bridge, I didn’t read many of the messages that I carried but sometimes my curiosity got the better of me and I’d glance at them from time to time but they were all standard military stuff of not much import. Then a couple times the captain would have me stand there while he composed a reply out loud so all the bridge officers would know what his reply was, then they would discuss, I’d write it down, they would go over it again, then I’d run it down to the radio room. Pretty cool. Later, I even got to be involved with ‘Top Secret’ messages. I got to help decipher occasionally, after my ‘top secret’ clearance came through (bumped up from the ‘secret’ clearance). They would come in all cryptic like. Just a bunch of numbers. The captain would have an officer on the bridge grab the code book, first series of numbers would give you a page number in the book, then that would give you the secret code breaking letters for that day and time. Then a junior officer would break the code, and I would write it down. Usually, that took such a long time that the Navy would occasionally skip the codes so as to get the order to a ship quickly by using plain English. But many were coded and it didn’t take the junior officers long to get the hang of it and decipher a message in a minute or two. So here we would all be on the bridge, usually standing around deciphering a top secret message…and almost all of them were about the flight of aircraft over the harbor or intelligence about potential sabotage. This was serious stuff overall but mostly tame. It didn’t take long to get into an adult mode with a ‘I’m in a war zone, don’t screw up’ attitude.
We hung tight for several days getting use to our ‘war time’ routines, and for several days while we were learning our new duties and got our training on how to act in a war zone, no one was allowed ashore except officers and petty officers. Some things we learned were; don’t fuck with the army or marines that were in town for R&R or they just might kill you, yes there are women of pleasure in town but not every women you see or meet was to be accosted by some horny sailor, there are some strange STD’s in Nam so wear your condom or better yet abstain, the ‘cong’ was in town so don’t put yourself in a position of being alone on a dark street, the water running down the street was likely to be sewage, be polite to the natives, if something happens don’t go to the police but go to the MP’s instead since the police might just kill whoever had offended you or might throw YOU into jail, etc., etc. Scary stuff.
Then we had to unload the Marines that were aboard, with all their equipment. That procedure took several days. Remember that we were a floating dock so our well deck was filled with amphibious equipment. Finally the captain started to allow small groups of us to go ashore. As I said there were lots of rules designed to scare us so I didn’t go ashore for a while as I waited until I heard stories from the guys that did, mostly they turned out to be tame. So, I signed up for shore leave about 5 days after we got to Da Nang. Meanwhile…
About that time the Navy let us know that they had some ‘intelligence’ that there might be a plot against the ship and that a psychic back in the US had had a dream in which the command ship in the harbor would be sunk. We weren’t the Harbor Master ship then and the psychic thought the plot, which involved an explosion and sinking of the ship, would be directed at the harbor master ship. This was a time when the president had been consulting with psychics about the war and such so we didn’t think, given the times, that it was too unusual, even if a little dumb. There were a couple Senators involved with the whole thing so we were told that we might be in store for a ‘regal’ visit by the psychic and and entourage including a senator or congressmen or two. Because of that, the Navy was greasing the skids for the trip but was remaining neutral about it, other then asking the captain to be on the look out. And since I was up on the bridge allot, I heard him laughing about it all. This wasn’t very exciting of course, but I do remember it for a reason, for what happened a month later could possibly relate to what the psychic may have dreamed.
Since the ban on shore leave had been lifted, and we’d all received the scary training, there were small groups that were going ashore. But far fewer then you might imagine. When my permission for shore leave came up, I scampered down to the landing craft and climbed aboard and found myself the only sailor going ashore. Wow. I’d expected 20, 30 guys to be going. But nope, I was the only sailor. There were 3 or 4 marines but we didn’t usually associate. So we motored over to the harbor and boat crew dropped me off, alone as the marines were heading to a meeting. I’d spent the time talking to them and the boat crew about going ashore and asked a bunch of questions about what to watch out for or where to go. The boat crew had been ashore allot so they filled in some gaps in my limited understanding of Da Nang.
Landing dockside, the dock is a typical military installation remote from the civilian docks. There were huge piles of military supplies and equipment all over the place. After I debarked the boat, and started walking down the dock toward town, an old fashioned jeep drove by with an army guy driving and I stuck out my thumb. Surprisingly he pulled over and offered me a ride to town. A couple minutes later he picks up a couple army privates. When we get to the gates that separate the military docks from the city, we all show our ID’s and head off into town. Just then a short woman, or so I thought, waved us over, engaged us in conversation, eventually asking for money. The two privates start with the ‘how much for a blow job’ etc. and the driver, a staff sargent, shoo’ed her away, turned around to the guys and told them that they had been been talking to a 12 year old girl and that they could be shot if caught with her. She sure didn’t look or act 12 to me, and those big boobs didn’t help her look like a girl either, but the guy seemed to know what he was talking about…
Off we headed into town until the driver dropped me off in what he described as the part of Da Nang where the Navy hung out. And there was the open sewer, just a channel about 12″ deep that ran along side the street with liquid and chunks of feces. It was mostly covered with plywood that the Americans brought with them, but not everywhere. Of course, someone aboard the ship got drunk a few days later and fell in the damn thing…it wasn’t me.
It was around 2 in the afternoon and the place was busy with hundreds of street vendors serving thousands of customers. I spent a couple hours just moving from one shop to the next looking at everything they were selling. I also used the time to orient myself to the town layout. Didn’t want to get lost in a town that was filled with Viet Cong fighters ready to kill any American. There were literally hundreds of American items for sale and thousands of Chinese items too. I remember how interesting the buildings were. They had a French flavor, and the number of Viet girls I saw with European features reinforced that French connection. Many beautiful girls. In gorgeous silk brocade dresses buttoned well up the neck with a slit from the ground up the side to the thigh just wandering the streets shopping for dinner. Just one of many reasons why I’d like to go back and visit. It is a beautiful town, picturesque, unique, exotic and several other adjectives. But mostly low slung. Not to many buildings over 5-6 stories when I was there. Lots of climbing plants hanging all over the buildings and off of the wrought iron balconies. Meanwhile, lots of strange looks from people on the street or from windows…didn’t know what that was about. The military had been there for quite a while so it wasn’t that new to them, but it kind of weirded me out so I ducked into a bar that catered to the military. Perhaps it was that they hadn’t seen many sailors in dress whites.
Since it was so early in the day, there were only 3 navy guys there and I was very happy to see them. I settled in and talked to them a while. The working girls wandered over and introduced themselves and then sat with us while we talked. We bought them drinks and some snacks. The guys were older, wiser lifers (career sailors), both married so there wasn’t any of the sexual talk with the girls that I’d usually hear in a bar. I just played along, more interested in the newness of the town and seeing things then getting laid, though that was always in the back of my mind. If I’d met someone nice, I’d have probably married her I was so horny. Anyway, around this time a group of 5 or so Marines wandered in and the bar staff jumped to attend to them…like they were regulars. Soon, one of them tried to get one of the sailors I was sitting with into a fight over who was better, Marines or Navy. It was obvious that these guys were just in from fighting the Cong. The bar tender, an older Viet guy who spoke broken English, immediately jumped in and hollered at the marine to shut up or get out, he quieted down. I had gotten friendly with one of the girls but she moved over to one of the marines that had just come into the bar and was talking to him. A few minutes later the two sailors I was with left and I was at my table alone. I was wondering what the time was and innocently reached over and lifted the turtle shaped watch that was pinned to her dress. I had been fascinated with the watch since I’d met the girl because I’d never seen a watch like it. I had been sitting with her for a couple hours buying her drinks so it wasn’t unusual for me to lift the watch so I could read the time…I’d done it several times that afternoon and the gal had never objected, so I sort of felt entitled. Big mistake. The marine she was now sitting with felt he had a ‘love’ connection with her and immediately got in my face about touching her. I had been overhearing the talk from their table for a while and knew these guys were actually out there shooting at people and getting shot at so I was pretty certain that when he threatened to kill me if I touched her again, that he was probably capable of doing just that. Luck was with me and I was able to talk my way out of any trouble, and the scolding the guy had gotten an hour before when he tried to pick a fight helped, so he backed off a bit and I was able to get my ass out of there without getting it stomped. Probably as close as I came to getting killed all the time I was in Viet Nam.
I walked out of the bar, I had my bearings now from the directions I’d gotten from the sailors in the bar and walked the 2-3 miles back to the Naval base alone, stopping at shops along the way learning how to barter with the shop keepers here in Nam.
Da Nang is tropical, it’s near the same latitude as Costa Rica but I don’t remember it being uncomfortable in January. I was always wearing my whites (light cotton uniform used in hot climates) when ever I went ashore so that helped.
On one of the trips I made into town, I got a ride in one of those rickshaw type pedicabs with some friends so we went farther afield then we would normally. Very interesting trip, met lots of nice Vietnamese people, sampled some unusual food and beer then headed back to the ship late in the day. As we arrived, there was a commotion on the main deck with lots of medico’s working on a body. Turned out that a super heated steam valve (600 degrees F) had blew below decks and the guy they were working on was the last one out of the compartment. The first guy had mild 1st degree burns, the second guy 2nd or 3rd degree burns, the third guy out 4th degree. The last guy was sort of trapped under the valve and didn’t make it. The medic, one that I had many medical conversations with, had helped pull him out of the compartment after they had shut off the steam, and had opened his chest and was massaging his heart. He was boiled alive and was so well cooked that the meat of his fingers pulled right off the bone. They had struggled to get him up topside, and as he was a dead weight, he was missing lots of pieces and parts of his body. So we wrapped his body in a white sheet, then a body bag, and stuck it in the food freezer I told you about earlier. He was down there next to our food so every time I went to eat meat, I couldn’t help but think about him. And we weren’t immune to gallows humor either. Strange thing about it is that I could NEVER remember who he was. Even though several of my friends said I knew him and even hung out with him. I drew a blank that first day and it never left. I still can’t remember who it was, and I’ve tried to remember many times. Especially the day of the service the Navy held for him. I’d ask people who he was, they would look at me like I was nuts and then explain that I’d known him, even giving examples. But I couldn’t picture him or remember him, even when I saw his picture. Weird. He was a ghost to me the second he died. Sorry, whoever you were.