90. Next Stop, Sài Gòn

After pulling up anchor, the Trans Western skirts the land along the route to reach the harbor of Sài Gòn 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’d get 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 Vietnam.  

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 to the street food preparation.

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88. Cash & Tailors

 

I climbed down a rope leading into the boat which would take us from our ship to the Qui Nhơn Harbor shore.  We didn’t tie up at any dock instead, the boat took us aground into the sand.  The trap/exit door opened up and we’d jump out onto Vietnamese soil.  We walked up the beach and into Qui Nhơn town.   

Being hyped up right from the start, I felt a little scared but it was certainly comforting knowing that I was never alone; we were always in one another’s company …mostly.  And as we walked, carefully at first, thoughts of what the Skipper and some of the Marines had told us, rushed to the forefront of my mind.

Absorbing the street scene crowded with men, women, children, the young and the old, I began to relax;  they were basically just people like me. There was plenty of street cooking which smelled amazing and lots of little shops and bars.  I felt eyes on me.

I’d see them waving in order to attract us into their shops.  Thinking of the families back home, I saw some things which interested me such as handmade trinkets, clothing, jewelry and the like.  

I detoured with a couple of the guys into one of these places, a tailor shop.  The tradesmen were Indians, like myself. Why I found this as a surprise, I do not know.

And perhaps we were obvious as new to the area because almost immediately, we were asked to join them in food and drink.   “Let’s talk, have something to eat and enjoy.”  They actually closed the shop for a couple of hours.

After a shared meal and hearing the stories of where we came from originally, how we found ourselves in this little corner of the world etc., they asked us, “What can we do for you … what would you like to buy?”

From these Indian tailors, I would buy a couple of slacks.  As measurements were being taken I asked,  ‘Aren’t you afraid to be here in this war zone?’  

The shopkeeper reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash from both pockets.  In his fairly decent English he explained, “Of course we’re scared sometimes but this is home.  If we must run suddenly, at least we have our money with us. My wife and kids do same. It’s how we handle.”   I remember thinking to myself just how fascinating living a life this way is.

After a much enjoyed evening in comforting hospitality of the locals, we knew it was getting late.  With the Skipper’s speech still fresh in my mind, it was definitely beach time.

Making my way there I remember looking at the sights along the way and thinking of the fun time ahead tomorrow.  At the shore we were just in time to hear a Marine’s voice blaring through a bullhorn, “Load ‘em up!”

Several of us to include guys from some of the other ships in the harbor, climbed aboard this fairly large boat and off we went.  Each various group would let them know which ship they had to return to. I called off the Trans Western.

Thank goodness for our Marines for in this dark night amongst all the boats anchored offshore, there was no way we ourselves would know which one was ours.  We arrived at our ship and quickly climbed up the rope ladder.

Myself and the other guys headed straight for the mess hall to raid the refrigerator and pantry for a late night snack before turning in.  The chef had tuna salad and fresh breads waiting to be turned into midnight sandwiches.

A full day it was and I was more than ready for some snuggling down in my bed.  That’s the sum of my first day in Vietnam. Not bad at all.

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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.