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!”