94. Anchors Up! Onward to Subic Bay

Easy targets required a strategic move …

Our ship, along with several others were instructed to relocate immediately.  In the first place we were never in a favorable location along the Vietnamese coastline but there we were, sitting ducks just waiting to get blown out of the water.  With this sudden (?) urgency our ships made haste!  

Traveling over 1000 nautical miles and 4+ days later, we arrive at Subic Bay, an American Naval base in the Philippines.  Our ship would remain here for a few weeks; we were still loaded with the greater percentage of Napalm cargo.  

While docked here, my normal work routine continued and so did the shore visits.  I remember the first time out.  For a day trip into Manila, a bunch of us would gather to take an air-conditioned bus ride into the city.  Feeling excitement once more for a place I’d never been, I took a seat on the bus and for the most part, would quietly gaze out the window.  I looked back only for a moment to see my ship get left behind.

I admired the coconut trees (reminder of home) situated in the back and forefront of passing scenery along open spaces.  There were plenty of farm lands most of which were being toiled by beasts of burden & human labor alike.  

We passed a little village or three and the roads shaped up nicely.  Manila, she formed  gradually in the near distance.  In eager focus on what lay ahead, I noticed tall buildings rising as we drew near and before I knew it, we’d arrived.

There were these brightly painted bus-like modes of transportation driving all over the place and I tell ya, what a site to see!  At the very moment of my wonderment, I overheard someone on our bus say to another curious passenger, “…these are called Jeepney.”  Besides being colorful, there were balloons, flowerpots and toys on sticks hanging off the sides and well, so much more including people!

We get off somewhere in what felt like the middle of town and began walking around.  It didn’t take long at all to feel a bit weary in this heat.  We had been cruising in and out of shops and eventually our only focus became search for the nearest bar and frankly, that wasn’t hard to do.

I was all but soaking wet and yes, it was definitely time to have an ice cold beer.  Truth be told, one didn’t even have to walk anywhere, simply being outside was enough to do the trick!  We’d leave one bar to go into another couple of shops only to make our way to the next bar along an unplanned route.  It was just hot and I was constantly thirsty for the next cold beer.

Something else I can clearly recall is just how nice the people seemed to be.  I mean they had a relaxed feeling about them and a smile was received from nearly everyone I made eye contact with.

One week later we had to return to one of the Vietnamese ‘parking lots’ as our cargo was once again needed.

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90. Next Stop, Sài Gòn

After pulling up anchor, the Trans Western skirts Vietnamese coastline along the route towards Sài Gòn harbor and as before, we stayed away from the actual shoreline. Remember our cargo was not allowing us a near-to-the-shore ‘parking’ spot.

That first night we all stayed on board, no one left our boat.  However, the next day most of us were more than ready to get off the ship and explore this new frontier.  

Sài Gòn was a city larger than Quy Nhơn.  Streets, buildings, shops and hotels were bigger.  Some of the bars and cafés were of equal stature for the most part, perhaps with a little more flair and variety.

And hard to miss were the tanks and jeeps everywhere; a constant reminder that I was still in the middle of a war zone.  American soldiers strapped with weapons were always visible. 

Occasionally we were stopped and asked for our identification.  We carried ID cards of the Merchant Marines (seaman). Let me tell you it was a bit intimidating being questioned by a guy with a loaded gun somewhat pointing at your persons, even if they are our own soldiers, which they were.

There were people walking around all over the city and some drove from here to there in their cars.  A good percentage of these people were dressed in western-world clothing, my guess is that I was seeing the French influence from when France occupied Việt Nam.  

Although the hotels, automobiles and restaurants were modern, I couldn’t help but notice the simple folk who stuck to their culture in everything they did, from the clothing they wore to the way some kept shop and definitely down to the street food preparation.

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86. Qui Nhơn Harbor

It was the 12th day and after many nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean, I’ve faced every day as a new adventure, which had up till now been spent in daily routine.  

I remember the announcement of land being spotted, blaring through the overhead speakers and my preconceptions seeping deeper into my veins, now even more than during the journey in this direction.  

We approach the 12 mile neutral zone, skirting Việt Nam and the war region.  I overheard, “Anything goes!”  Well that sounded a lot like the voice of experience talking: not comforting, yet exciting.

Entering this boundary I’m seeing lots of ships anchored off the Qui Nhơn Harbor shoreline.  Not one was docked at land and I already knew our ship would never go to shore either.  Once we received our ‘parking’ location anchor was dropped.

As our ship was one of the napalm carriers, there would be about a dozen Marine (the naval infantry) assigned to protect the cargo, us and of course the ship itself.  A couple of hours had passed before our assigned ‘on board’ armed guards arrived.  They’d stay with us now for as long as our ship was here in this ‘parking lot’.  

The Marines would rotate in 3 shifts throughout the course of day and night.  Naturally it was our responsibility to feed these guys.  They would eat in the main dining room so they didn’t fall under my care.  Remember I was assigned to my ship’s officers only.

As supplies were needed the Marines would come out to us in their boats and get what they needed at any given time; think floating super-store!

And as far as personal weapons already on our ship and to my knowledge, no one was armed save for our Skipper.  In retrospect I’m thinking perhaps the 1st Officers may have had guns as well, I should think.  It made sense if they did but at the time I did not bother to think about it.  

As the crew and I were engaged in our duties later that afternoon, the ship’s Captain came down into the dining room to brief us of our disposition.  Remember there are no more than 30 of us on this entire ship and so the gathering was intimate.

The Skipper said to us, “Now you’re entitled to the combat zone paycheck.  During our time here, if the Việt Cộng takes a shot at any of us, we’ll have it made,” he said with a smirk I couldn’t forget and finished that statement with, “…if we should survive.”  I took a moment or three to let that statement sink in.

There had been no conversation with any family since leaving California and the thought of what the Skipper just said was resting bittersweet on my heart.  While thinking big bucks for my family, I really wasn’t looking forward to taking a bullet!

Looking into his eyes I felt our Skipper must’ve lived this scenario many times already.  “Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Be sensible men, this is a different world. Always look over your shoulder … watch your ass!  I’m telling you, there’s no trusting anybody!”

He looked at all of us carefully and continued, “In your off time you are free to go ashore but you’d be wise to follow protocol.  Should you go into town and act stupid, like disobeying local law and obviously our own civilized sense of behavior, you’ve then made the decision to take your safety into your own hands and you are no longer protected under these United States War Zone Rules.  In other words, your ass is null and void!”

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