S) – Leaving Viet Nam, Spring '66

The last week or two we spent in Da Nang harbor we were the Harbor Master. That’s the Navy ship that has command of the harbor, sending axillary ships to their anchor positions and running landing craft patrols around the harbor.  As a signalman, I did get to communicate with many of them as they entered and exited the harbor, but not very often. Mostly, my watches were rather quiet. But you never know in a war zone so I tried to pay attention. Every once in a while the Captain would impose on me to go down to the mess decks and make him a pot of coffee. His Philippine (we called them Philippino) mess master was NOT a master of coffee, in fact none of the stewards were. Nor were the average seaman that had mess duty in the sailors mess.

The captain gave me a cup once, to give me an idea of how bad it was, and it would curl your hair. Really bad. And as an apology for having me make him coffee once in a while, he’d actually talk to me, show me Captain stuff on the bridge, and let me leave early or arrive late. I never complained. The pot I made it in was down in the mess hall so I’d make 10 gallons at a time, since that’s the smallest pot they had down there. I’d have taken a couple thermoses down with me so just after it finished perking, I’d take enough back up to the bridge for the entire bridge crew. They loved my coffee up there. The secret was to follow the perking instructions about the amount of coffee to use that were embossed right into the metal of the pot. Then I’d add another large scoop, and it’d be a great pot of coffee. Soon as I’d finish, and get the thermoses filled for the bridge, there’d be a line of CPO’s, PO’s, and seaman behind me who knew my coffee was great and wanted some before it disappeared. Couldn’t wander off to do something because (and this happened a couple times, at least until I’d learned not to wander off), there would be an empty pot when I got back.  And when someone would see me making a pot, the news would flash all over the ship. People would come from all over for a good cup. That was kind of cool.

The way it worked up above was that the officers had their own mess, with all Philippino stewards, that’s just the way it was in ’66. The Captain had his own steward & small kitchen, the XO (Executive Officer) had his own steward but he used the officers mess, and all the other officers just used the officers mess, with the attendant stewards. There were probably 8 Philippino stewards assigned up there and they did everything for the officers. Wash (we had modern washers and driers down below, big, but modern), iron, and fold their uniforms; clean their quarters; clean the common areas; and cook. Not a bad life for the officers. Because they had it so good, I actually did some checking about how hard it would be for me to get into OCS (Officers Candidate School). I got several recommendations from the bridge officers, including one from the Captain. I did seriously consider it, and filled out the application and submitted it before we left Viet Nam. Months later I got a letter that said that they would take me, but I also had to re-up (reenlist) for six years. Hmm. I should have done that for the free bachelors degree it would have brought me, but remember I’d failed the Electronics program because I couldn’t concentrate on just that, what with being a teenager and all, plus I was afraid OCS would be too fast for me, so I opted out. Yes, I could be dumb.

The final week in Da Nang, I wandered back to my haunts and said goodbye without actually saying it, since our departure was Top Secret, but I did discover that the bartenders and barmaids already knew. They seemed to know before we on the ship knew, since one of them said something about us leaving 2-3 weeks before. So much for secrecy. The Cong were not above mining the harbor exit the night before we left, but remember that story I told you about that huge PT boat attack on the North hillside? We left just a couple weeks after that so the Cong were probably still working on getting a presence back up on that hill. The US also sent some Marines up there to clean up around three days before we left.

Anyway, April 1st, 1966, probably just at dusk, we headed back out into the South China Sea, making our way back to the states. And eventually, right into another Typhoon a few nights later. This one was officially recorded as beginning April 4th and lasting until April 15th, with sustained winds of 100mph, named ‘Hester’. At least this is the one I think hit us, but it’s not very strong and the one we hit really did some major damage to the ship. We were heading for the Philippians to refuel (you wouldn’t want to refuel in Viet Nam since they needed the fuel over there for the war effort).

But before we were hit by another typhoon, the weather was pristine, the sea emerald green, and the sailing smooth. So since we hadn’t been allowed to swim in the sea on the way over to Nam for very long, because of the sharks, the Captain stopped the ship and this time, I did make it into the South China Sea to swim, and no sharks bothered to sniff us out. After around 3 hours, and everyone that wanted to swim had their fun in shifts, off we went, to Subic Bay, the Philippines. Like I said before, it could take us as little as 2.5 days (62 hours) to get there but often the Captain had orders to arrive at a certain time. It seems more like it took 3.5 days on this trip. That would have put us right in the path of the typhoon so I don’t think we did much there except refuel. This was to be my 3rd typhoon at sea, so I was looking forward to it. I loved foul weather at sea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *