Early 1966, Shipboard in Vietnam…Part 2
After the death of that one crew member, and the near death of two others, the rest of us had to suffer though the endless safety lectures for days after. Luckily, my position as a signalman up on the bridge got me out of a few of the safety classes as I was needed up on the bridge more then I was needed at the lectures. Plus I had, through a series of unusual events, gone through 3 fire training sessions in San Diego so most senior officers knew I didn’t need more training.
The training in SD consisted of real fire fighting. On the naval base they had this 3 story block building with steel grate floors over a pool of water that they flooded with 1/2″ to 1″ of diesel fuel. They would light the fuel on fire and we trainees would have to work our way into the building putting out the fire. The hose was 3″, the connections were all brass and with the hose filled with water it was heavy and bulky and difficult to handle. Then you were required to wear those heavy fire fighting clothes. Advanced classes had to work their way up the stairs, I got to do that a couple times, scary because your safe exit seems to be down a flight of stairs and the fire is below you, actually there were several safe exits.
We had class work and practices out on the tarmac, of course. Also wore the traditional heavy fabric fire resistant clothes. It was nasty work and on my first trip into the building holding onto the hose, I was the 5th or 6th guy into the building. On my very first trip into a burning building, the first guy drops the hose and ran out, then the second guy, then the third, since fear is contagious. The rest of us, like we were trained to do, moved up the hose taking the places of those chickens. They were all kids of course so they were afraid of being burned to death. Can’t blame them too much. Anyway, now I’m the 3rd guy and I don’t think it’s all that bad. A little hot and uncomfortable but the guy in front did an excellent job and the fan spray coming from the working end of the hose does an excellent job keeping the fire at bay when used correctly so I’m feeling good about my chances of living. We didn’t do that well overall at putting the fire out but we beat it back some, and the trainers let us pull out. Of course it flared back up but it was another teams problem then and the CO laughed about not having to worry about getting the fire lit again, which usually took quite a while to get started. That was my first experience.
The 2nd time I went to the firefighting school, I volunteered to be the first guy into the burning building for the thrill, mainly because I was sooo bored with repeating the training classes…they started at the ungodly hour of 7AM! And firefighting was a thrill and a distraction from sitting in a classroom.
The heat and smoke and smell was almost overwhelming and I could feel the ‘fight or flight’ response tugging at my legs trying to make them head for the nearest exit. Fear wells up in you until you understand why those other guys had bailed but I didn’t want to suffer the teasing that they endured and the screams from the officers or the extra duty they received when they ran so I hung in there and put out my fire. I got it beat down quickly so the whole hose team (there were several teams) got the reward of ‘permission to leave the base early’ that day. That was exciting so I started bugging the CO to let me go in again as lead guy but he was having none of that. So I got to be second while other guys got a chance being first into the building, they needed training too. One other time in, the lead guy dropped the hose and took off so I got to be first again. I think the best thing I learned about firefighting is to work slowly. Hurrying around doesn’t get the fire put out. The second best thing to know is ‘trust your teammates’, if you can’t, get out of there.
The fire fighting training takes two weeks to complete but I don’t remember how many times we got to actually fight the fire in the building…perhaps firefighting over 3 days and 3 fires a day? The fires made tons of dark black smoke into the blue San Diego sky and I remember the townspeople complaining about it in the newspapers.
Then the third time I had the training it wasn’t as exciting, especially since most of it was classroom stuff, so I just held back and let the newbies work the hoses while I took it easy in the back, the officers knew I’d been twice before so no problem.
But I digress…
Several days after the guy died below decks, I was assigned to a work detail at the docks. Several of us went ashore and helped unload some big cargo containers. We had all been issued several ‘C’ ration packs for lunch (the ship had far too much and the mess CPO was hoping we would eat a lot so he’d have room for all the exotic foods available in Da Nang) and during lunch period, I climbed up on a box and started chowing down. Around that time a local wandered over and asked me, using sign launguage, if he could have one of my cans of rations. I didn’t need all I had, and since he looked like he was starving, I handed him a can of spam. I suppose others did the same.
The next day we had a morning muster and the captain first thanked us for being helpful and generous to the locals by sharing our food, then dressed us down for not thinking that the rations we gave people would likely end up in the hands of the ‘cong’. We were told there was a flourishing black market for ‘C’ rations and many Vietnamese would either sell them to give them to the cong. So what we were to do in the future, was to just open the can! Simple. You got to be generous but you didn’t help the enemy. Boy, my face was red as I felt he was talking just to me. He wasn’t of course, but knowing that didn’t help my feelings of betrayal to the marines I’d help bring over here.
On one of those shore duty excursions, at lunch break I was sitting on a shipping box about 4 feet off the ground eating when I heard this weird whistle coupled with a strange pffftttt sound, very close to my head. “That’s odd, I wonder what that was?”, I thought. Then around 10 minutes later, and I had shifted over a couple feet, I heard it again. “Crap, a bullet!”, I exclaimed. Jumping down to the ground, I scanned the area. We seemed to be miles from the jungle so the only place a bullet could come from was suppose to be safe! What the hell! So I dodged around and high tailed it over to an area where the marines and some sailors from the ship were congregated, found my CO and told him about the gunfire. He didn’t really believe me, but some of the marines nearby who had overheard sure started to scope the area out. Especially when I described the sound I’d heard. Then the officers began to confer, Navy and Marine. A few minutes later we sailors were all rounded up and the work detail ended early. Back to the ship we went. The next day we had off for an undisclosed reason, but eventually we went back to work on the dock, and I tended to stay between the shipping boxes, furtively glancing around whenever I went anywhere.
According to the info page for the Oak Hill, the ship was gone from Da Nang Harbor for 16 days from Feb. 24th thru 11 March of 1966 so that would have given us 16 days to run over to PI and back with time to load troops, it’s around 800 miles and we moved at 8 to 13 knots, so 10 & 1/2 days travel and 5 & 1/2 days loading would be easy…and seems correct based on my memories.
This MAY have been the time when we ferried the body of the dead crewman back to PI and celebrated his life with a wake or memorial (which I’m pretty sure I skipped because I couldn’t recall anything about him). I think this might also have been a trip to grab more marines and their equipment for in-country combat. These Marines were coming back after R&R so they were tough, battle hardened, but relaxed after their time off.
Though I’ve tried to be as accurate and truthful as I can in this story, I just cannot recall precise details any longer. But for the most part, after doing much research, I’m fairly confident that although I might not have all the details exactly correct, dates and such, that the majority of my recollections convey the truth.