91. “We’re Americans, Don’t Shoot!”

Day 5:  Sài Gòn.  Two of us, my cabin-mate (I’ll call him Phil) and I are busy sucking down a few ice cold beers in one of the bars and as was becoming the norm, flanked by local femme fatales.  Before we realized how late it was, already we had broken the curfew missing our boat back to the Trans Western.  

Desperate to get outta there we made quick inquiry for a way to return to our ship, to anyone who’d listen.  We needed someone with a boat who’d take us out to the anchored ships, for pay of course.  One Vietnamese man with very little English stepped up to the job.  We three made haste to his boat.  

So now we’re putt-putting through the dark waters under black velvet skies, studded with stars brilliant as diamonds.  I see little twinkling lights of the ships anchored all around the harbor.  

In my mind I’m thinking, how on earth are we gonna find our ship in all of this?  They seem so close to each other from a distance but as we get nearer, they’re all really far apart from one another.

Marines on constant patrol are no doubt hearing the putt-putt of the small gasoline engine of this little man’s smallish boat.  Suddenly there were two spotlights splashing us in harsh white light and our boatman quickly shuts off his motor; he definitely doesn’t want to get his ass shot off in any language, of that I’m sure!

Feeling the panic, Phil thinks quick and takes off his tee shirt.  He stood up and began to wave his white shirt, “Don’t shoot, we’re Americans!” he yelled out in fright.  I didn’t think twice and removing my shirt, I too stood up and did the same. ‘Don’t shoot, Americans, we’re also American!’  

We’re waving our shirts and they’re getting closer; upon reaching us, I’m guessing they relaxed only a small bit, assessing we are most likely harmless.  

They cuss us out. “What the hell are you guys doing out here after curfew …(then pointing the barrel of their guns at the boatman)… with him!?”  ‘We missed our boat outta town and … and we made a desperate decision’, I nervously explained.  

They talked amongst themselves for a moment and then ordered us to climb aboard their boat.  The Vietnamese man was also brought on board.  His little boat was tied up to theirs and after identifying us with our ID cards, we were transported to the Trans Western.  

Boy did we get an ass-chewing and that was just by the Marines who picked us up!  The Skipper had yet to have his go on us.  Upon arrival we had to of course, be re-identified to the guard soldiers on board our ship; up the rope we went.  

The patrolling Marines left with the little man still in their custody; I’m thinking most likely they escorted him back to shore.  This type of scene may have happened to others before us and most probably would occur again in the years to come.  

Phil and I made tracks for the mess hall.  All this excitement made for a great appetite.  A few of the Marine soldiers were down in the galley enjoying some grub.  

We made fresh coffee, tuna fish sandwiches with some crunchy pickles and proceeded to eat as though that would fix anything.  I tell ya, what a night!  To our immediate relief, the Skipper’s ass-chewing was not on tonight’s menu.  

Retiring to our cabin I was on autopilot until my head finally hit my pillow and I was able to think for a moment.  I was filled with gratitude that my butt was not blown to bits by the US Marines!  Or anyone else for that matter.

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89. Quy Nhơn Chicken 🐓

In conversation with Chief Steward the next morning, he liked very much the thought of tailor-made slacks too.  He asked if I wouldn’t mind taking care of the transaction for him.  I offered a smile attached to a ‘No problem chief!’ and so he scribbled his measurements on a slip of paper and handed it to me with a few dollars from his wallet.

It may be only the 2nd time I went ashore but it felt like I’d already done it a hundred times.  Hot and muggy was the forecast for, like the entire time I would be here so naturally there was an ongoing thirst for ice cold beers!  🍻

Upon reaching shore, my first order of business was a detour to the Indian shop delivering CS’s order and measurements.  I was told 36 hours should see all the slacks ready.  

The first establishment we chose to walk into had a few people sitting at the bar, others were seated at tables; the majority of bodies being young Vietnamese girls and music played crisply out of a jukebox up against a side wall.  No sooner we sat down at a table, we were flocked by some of these girls.

In what sounded like their best broken English they’d proposition us to buy drinks for them.  They took our drink requests which would only be beer 🍺 and went up to the bar.  No hard liquor or sodas even were served here.  

It would seem the sodas were reserved for drink in the cafés.  I gotta say, these bars certainly knew how to grab their share of business from the foreign visitors! 🍹 The girl’s drinks we bought for them (later we learned) was simply colored water and each one cost near twice the amount of our beers!  

In our socializing I learned the power of the American dollar in Vietnam;  approximately $5.00 would cover feeding their entire family for a week and the impression we all got was they’d pretty much do anything for these dollars.  

Some girls smoked our cigarettes and others did not but all were quick to light ours for us.  They were skilled in giving a nice little massage here and there, arms, shoulders, neck and/or running their fingers through our hair.

I smiled big when I looked at one of the guys across the table from me … his eyes closed in sheer delight and grinning away as the girl on his lap was massaging his brain!  

The one girl attentive towards me began massaging my head, gently pulling on my hair (which I had lots of it), of course it felt nice. 

The guys and I continued to talk amongst ourselves for the most part as we could tell they weren’t about to leave our company so easily.  It was of little matter to them as they too conversed amongst themselves. 

“Tonight you stay with me and you pay,” one would say to her guy and another would verbally climb over that (sometimes literally) and using as persuasive a voice as possible, “No! You come with me!”  We each heard this approach circulate around our table.

🍻 After a few beers and a considerable amount of dollars later, I noticed it was getting dark.  We all agreed it was time for food. A couple of us made sure to keep an eye on the time, curfew is definite, there was only one boat back and make no mistake, we’d best be on it! 

The girls collected a few dollars from each of us and a couple of them went quickly outside, coming back with some freshly prepared chicken for us to eat.  

It was made in a street kitchen just outside the bar.  Of course they ate with us.  The chicken was flayed open, seasoned, cooked between two racks over an open flame and it was delicious. 🍗

“Now we go home.” they’d say to us, gently tugging at our arms.  “No, no! We’ve got to get back to our ship!” protested a couple of the guys; definitely speaking for all of us in the group. 

We promised them we’d return tomorrow and breaking free at last, we headed as swiftly as possible through the town and down to the beach.  

We remained in the Qui Nhơn harbor for just over a week.  The best description of my daily routine on the ship; same, same.

Every early evening almost immediately following the dinner shift and next morning’s prep, I’d scurry down that rope ladder to catch the boat into town.  

Returning to the same bar as before, these girls who overnight became our friends, were waiting for our return.  

On the fifth day I picked up the slacks; lookin’ good!  After the shopkeeper showed them to me, I paid him and he wrapped them up so nicely, knowing they would have to travel a very long way.  

I asked him to wrap up the Chief Steward’s slacks separately.  I noticed the shop had some postcards amongst their wares so I bought a few;  one for Diana and my kids and some for the family in Fiji.  

Back at the bar which we had made our own for the week, our company had now become more like one on one, no longer flanked by many.  We’d play the jukebox, dance with the girls, eat chicken, socialize, drink beer, and generally let our hair down as it were; wanting only a little bit of fun and relaxation.  

We remained diligent to the curfew at the end of every evening and always managed to wiggle away from our friends just in time.

A couple of days before our ship pulled up anchor, I was able to send out those postcards from our ship’s post office.  By now I was confident that half of my ‘war-zone pay’ salary, the 1st paycheck, was already on its way to my family in Santa Monica, via the pay center in New York.  

You know I felt great that I was providing for my family even while on this other side of the world but I never thought my life would go down a path like this one.  

While I cannot even compare to the soldiers’ lives here in Vietnam at this time, I certainly was learning to understand a small piece of it.

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A coastal town located in central Vietnam, Quy Nhơn wasn’t established as a city until 1986 and it is home in the Bình Định Province. 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Vietnam and the war region. I overheard, “Anything goes!” That sounded like a 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 the 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 to 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 take 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.”

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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