Early 1966, Shipboard in Vietnam…Part 5
By now I was use to hanging around Da Nang and often went over for a couple hours of R&R on the spur of the moment. Most of my friends were still staying on board unless they could go over in a large group so I nearly always went alone. I preferred either going alone or with 2-3 other guys. No large groups for me. One day I went over alone to visit my favorite bar. They had American beer and there wasn’t to much going on when I went there, early afternoon, so I would be left alone most of the time. I liked that. The weather was always nice and warm, and so were the people. On the way to the bar I could wander around a little since the area was pro American and there was little to worry about from the citizens. Usually. So I’m sitting at a table and have a view of the street and the buildings nearby. The architecture is French Colonial so it’s quite interesting and the passersby and nearby businesses a curiosity. The owners of the bar knew me by now so always had a friendly hello when I came in. It’s always nice to visit a bar where they know your name. Anyway, I’m sitting there watching the street when the owner runs out from behind the bar and starts closing the hinged covers for the openings that faced the street, while yelling at me in pigeon English to get behind the bar. I figure he knows something is up so I quickly wander back behind the bar. The mama-san is already back there and gibbering something in Vietnamese that seems anxious. The bar is made of some oak type wood and quite stoutly made so I feel safe behind it. Before he’s finished closing the covers & while I’m still standing, this young man, probably 17 or 18 comes barreling down the street on a Vespa scooter. He’s just removing a satchel from off his back and gives it one swing over his head and as he passes the bar he flips the satchel into the window of a building across the street from us. There is a 3 foot cord around his wrist that pulls out of the satchel and stays with him as he sped off. We all duck. Then…nothing.
The military police and then the local cops all arrive a few minutes later. By then we’ve all decided it’s a dud because the marines that were there and familiar with that type of thing told us it would have gone off in just 5 seconds or so if it weren’t. Twenty minutes later and the satchel has been picked up, dropped into a explosives barrel and carted off. Just another exciting day in Da Nang. After that I was always very wary of kids on Vespas, especially if they wore satchels on their back, and there were thousands of them there. You never know who’s trying to kill you. I’ve often wondered how the bar owner knew the attack was coming…phone call? Or did he know the time of the attack and missed getting ready for it by a few seconds? Or was the bomber a little early? So I was a little wary of him and his family from then on too.
When I got back to the states and starting seeing news reports from Vietnam unfiltered by the military, I found that hundreds of those satchel charges were thrown in Viet Nam. Mostly over the next few years, many in Da Nang. The target was usually US servicemen but the building across the street from where I had been was a local government building. A minor one at that. Post office or police station or something. I’m pleased I didn’t have to dodge body parts after an explosion.
We didn’t stay long in Viet Nam, our stay was only 3 months, Jan. 1st to April 1st, and that includes 16 days when we went back to Subic Bay to pick up more material and Marines. We left Da Nang Harbor on 1st April 1966.
We’d offloaded tons of gear for the Marines from our well deck, and all the storage lockers our type of ship had. Tons of ammo as well. And of course, we hauled the Marines themselves. None of us really got to close to those Marines, they tended to stay together and didn’t really reach out to any of us sailors. Can’t say that I blame them, they were heading in-country to fight a ‘police action’ as it was still being called at the time. Some of them would be killed, and many of them would be exposed to horrors they’re probably still dealing with. But, though I knew about what could happen to them, I was 17-18 and felt invincible, just like those young marines did.
So, all in all, I didn’t get any closer to action then around 1,000 yards when those PT boats use to roar by the ship and blast away at the hillside. Unless you count the kid on the Vespa who threw a satchel charge bomb into a building across the street from me, 25 feet away, which turned out to be a dud. Or the time we heard 2-3 bullets whizzing past us while we were working on detail. We all dodged downward, and after 5-6 minutes, decided it must have been something else that made those noises because we didn’t hear any more, and there was no return fire anywhere.
I will mention how friendly the Vietnamese people were. Even with a war going on and us American’s bombing and polluting their land and water, even Da Nang harbor had tons of Agent Orange spilled or poured into it, they still seemed to be happy we were there. I guess most of them knew what was coming if the Cong won the war, and wanted the little freedoms they had acquired in the previous few years since the French had left. There was a time it was called ‘French Indo-China’. When I was there, for those few months, I got a sense from the locals that even though their leaders were corrupt and heading toward despotism, they were still far superior to communism and the terrorism that would bring. When the North finally won the war years later, nearly everyone in the South could be called a ‘collaborator’, because nearly everyone was. So you could be sent to ‘re-education’ camps for years, while a petty official stole all your property. So I have a soft spot in my heart for the Vietnamese that I knew from those days, and look forward to one day going back as a tourist.