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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82. Sorry, Say Again … This Ship Is Headed Where?

The next afternoon when Morris returned from work, we shared a lite meal and then he drove me the just over 30 miles east towards Concord -to the USCNWS to be exact.  

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It was near dark by the time we arrived at the gate of this high security dock.  We looked curiously at the sign reading Concord Naval Weapons Station but really I didn’t think too much about it at that moment.  

I felt privileged to utilize for the 1st time my security clearance card which got us both into the facility.  We were instructed on where to park the car and told to walk over to the one and only ship at the dock.  It was the Trans Western ship to which I was assigned.  Again my identification was checked.

Morris was still carrying my suitcase for me and was allowed to walk onto the ship as well.  It was the Chief Steward who I was instructed to look for, one deck up.  He would be the one to give me further instructions which of course would include more paperwork.  

We found him soon enough.  He was friendly and didn’t seem to mind stopping his routine to break and usher me through the steps.  He mentioned I would meet up with the ship’s skipper tomorrow.

Morris’ curiosity has his eyes roaming our surroundings and he’s still standing beside me when the CS asks me this, “Do you know where we are headed to?”  

Actually no, I didn’t and said as much.  Immediately I also added my intentions which of course were to head to Fiji.  Yes Fiji and well, the CS laughed at this.  

Not understanding his laugh I cracked a little smile too; he saw this on my face.  He replied, “Did you happen to see what’s being loaded on to this ship?”  I answered him telling him I did notice the cranes loading the ship but I really had no idea what the payload consisted of.

“I’m afraid we’re headed in an entirely different direction.  Those are napalm bombs man, we’re headed to Vietnam!”  I was struck with disbelief and definitely in shock.  “It’s too late Blue, you already signed the papers back at the Seafarers’ Union.  Sorry to tell you this,” the CS shook his head, “..the rest of the paperwork to be signed, you’ll do with the skipper tomorrow.”

It’s true, I did sign the papers yesterday and now I would have to comply.   It was time for Morris to leave me, he was speechless until he found his voice and then, he assured me he’d get ahold of Diana and give her the news.  

There was nothing I could do, nothing.  I knew I wasn’t going back to Los Angeles till I didn’t know when.  I was headed into a terrible war zone.

When isn’t war terrible?  

I was absolutely floored, Morris was gone and now I’d have to shift gears in my thoughts and behavior, my attitude.  I had to get used to the idea of this radical change in my life.  It was a definite change that would affect my entire family, only I had no idea exactly how.

The Chief Steward, I’ll name him Phil, quickly picked up the pieces of a shell-shocked young man in front of him and took me to show the cabin I’d occupy; I would be sharing it with one other young fellow.  

Along the way we stopped to grab the linens necessary for me in my new home for however long it would be.  I would leave my suitcase there and then we’d tour the ship.

There was much to show me and soon enough (not that I really forgot my earlier surprise.  No, no!)  I was in grateful-to-be-employed mode and absorbing all the information which I knew would be useful to do the best in my job.  

Phil told me I wouldn’t be working in the main dining room.  Instead I was assigned to the captain himself.  I was to attend the skipper and at meal time, the officers of the ship were part of my space.  He showed me everything there was to see on this ship, offering tips and advice to be as comfortable as possible.  

“Anything you feel like eating, you just let the chef know,” he offered.  He also told me I was welcome to come into the kitchen and grab a snack or anything I needed in a moment, permission already granted.

Phil asked me if I wanted some dinner and honestly I was lacking an appetite.  I wonder why.  I had a cup of coffee and retired to my room.  I unpacked my things into the dresser/closet thing beside my bed.  

While there was a bed next the window I chose the one beside the door.  I made my bed, washed up and fell asleep, knowing I’d be sharing my rude awakening with my wife tomorrow.

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Concord Naval Weapons Station –  located in north-­central California about 70 miles southwest of the capital of Sacramento, in Contra Costa County. 

napalm bombs – often referred to as the  jellybomb; there’s a website called GlobalSecurity.org which gives the lethal, grim description of this weapon saying napalm can have a gel-like consistency, which would cause it to stick to the designated targets.

Photo credit:  I took this photo 12th of May, 2019 when passing through on the way to Reno, Nevada from San Francisco.