93. Children Shouldn’t Play With Hand Grenades

In bewildering fascination, Saigon, formerly the capital of French Indochina, held me captive for about a week.  The rich blend of people, some in fancy western threads and others staying true to their native attire, were walking about in a fairly normal city scene.  

Some were shuttled around in decent cars and yes, there were clunkers to be seen as well.  Others took cyclos without a second thought and there were quite a few people going about on bicycles.  Then of course there were the troops going from here to there on foot and in military transport.

The smells coming from restaurants, fresh food vendors and street-food stalls were definitely interesting and I found some delicious too.

While sitting in a local bar on yet another sweltering hot evening, engaged in the usual sipping of ice cold beer, I was startled by what I was certain to be the sound of an explosion.  A little shaken to be sure but more so curious, I walked over to the open doorway and peered out.  A couple of more distant bangs followed.

The scene outside was that of the city’s people going about their daily routines, intermixed with our G.I.s and some foreign visitors … and children playing around the streets.  I then heard a siren in the distance.

Seeing nothing out of the ordinary I returned to my table, not really sure what to think or how to react.  I say this because most everyone else in the bar seemed relatively calm about the boom and bangs.   

Timing such as it was, these bangs became the discussion at our table.  My friends and I were told by a couple of Marines standing at the bar, to be aware of the children and youthful people here; perhaps an occasional grandparent too.  They must’ve sensed my concern.  

There have been occasions wherein children pretending to play ball outside, were actually culprits of (most likely forced) no good actions.  They were usually near an establishment where a good number of G.I.s were to be found.  A ‘ball’ would roll inside.  

Now either someone will pick it up and roll it back outside or it was ignored but sometimes, before one could realize it, kaboom!  Not only the visually dense population of American and Allied troops but the average citizen of South Việt Nam, all were targets in this damned war.  

And as was the wartime usual, you couldn’t really trust anyone.  Decidedly we were unable to distinguish the difference between North and South Vietnamese citizens; who had the grenade … or worse?

As if on cue, a ball rolled in through the open doorway and right then and there, my heart stopped beating.  I was sure of it because I don’t remember taking another single breath!

After what seemed like forever but only a moment or two later, a youthful lad came in after it and took it back out straight away.  Clearly I’m still here to say, that wasn’t a hand-grenade, or for that matter any other exploding device that evening.

Towards the end of our Việt Nam stopover I wanted to stay back in the city for an overnight.  Though I knew I’d have to rise before the morning sun to get back to the ship via the 5a boat at shore, I will admit I chose to engage a female companion and so retained a hotel room.  

It was after only a few minutes of being in this room (probably for the best) when the moment about to be, was disturbed.  There was sudden (again with the heart-stopping) and loud non-stop banging.  I instantly opened the door to see guns staring me down.  

There were 4 that I could see and two of them were pushing their way into my room; these gunslingers didn’t wait for an invitation to enter.  They briefly looked around.  I definitely wasn’t going to argue or question these 2 Vietnamese (n or s? don’t know) soldiers with -credit to my imagination- itchy trigger-fingers on those cold & scary (what looked like) AK-47s, surely loaded and ready to shoot!

No English was spoken and they left shortly after arrival, taking the girl with them.  The only conclusion I arrived at was the girl must’ve been North Vietnamese, posing as a South Vietnamese family girl.  Or was it the other way around?

Okay I’d finally had enough of my own shenanigans; no more shore time for this boy, I would stay in the ship for our remainder of this Việt Nam stopover.

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84. What A Way To See The Golden Gate!

In service as a naval auxiliary we were preparing to deliver necessary materials to the troops already present in Vietnam.  

The better part of the days and nights had been full with loading of supplies including the earlier mentioned jelly bombs.  With the end of the week arriving way too soon for me, the time had come to hit the open sea.

Early Saturday morning the Pilot (Harbormaster) has boarded the ship.  The dock workers have left the ship and it’s now 90% in our control.  It’ll become 100% once the Harbormaster has left us to the open sea.  He will guide the ship out from the docks towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

I said my prayers; ‘You Lord are the only one to protect us and help us come back safe to our families and homes … if it is Your will.’   The fear of the unknown did rise up in me, it was more real now that the knots of the ropes which kept us at the docks had been released.

I went back in to serve breakfast to my lot (the officers).  A tray of coffee and pastries was taken up to the Bridge for the Pilot also.  As I recall it took about half a day going through the narrow passages, simply having to go at a crawl as we’re not yet out in the open sea.  Then it happened.

I was back out on deck now when the engines were cut.  I looked out around the ship at the waters below and saw the little Pilot’s boat with all his rubber tires secured completely around; bumper boats!

It was time for the Harbormaster to leave us to our own devices.  We weren’t yet at the Golden Gate but I could easily see it in the distance.  The rope ladder was rolled back up seconds after he touched floor on his little boat.  I keep saying little in contrast to our gigantic ship.

The rumble and vibration of the engines firing back up to full throttle was thrilling I openly admit.  We’re headed into the open sea.  There’s already no turning back; we had several jobs to do and we’d do them to the best of our potential.  

I found myself momentarily concerned with the ship’s smokestacks being able to clear the bridge.  I knew in my mind of course they wouldn’t attempt this without a thousand successful experiences.  Still, child-like I wondered. C - Golden Gate sideview b&w

And looking in the direction of the Golden Gate, the beauty of this moment overrode my looming thoughts of danger which we would soon be facing, point in fact I didn’t fully understand what in actuality it was going to be.  I was truly in this moment.  

Most of us were out on deck taking in this last peaceful mental picture for a memoir of home; it was so beautiful to me.  

Everything appeared toy-like as the cars passed one another on the bridge.  We’d already passed Sausalito at the changing of the Harbormaster’s guidance and now the homes up on the hillsides were as though a giant’s child placed his Monopoly toy houses along them.

As we were passing underneath the bridge another ship was coming into the Bay; an interesting sight by its own rights.  We all turned now to look back upon the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge as he was quickly becoming a view in the past.  

Our ship was now dashing upon the open sea.  Into the sunset we were headed.  Oh!  It was time to get back to work … had to serve the officers their lunch.

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a little extra information from: http://www.usmm.org/vietnam.html

The Military Sea Transportation Service had the job of bringing war supplies to Vietnam– 10,000 miles from the Pacific coast.  MSTS had four separate customers to serve: the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.  MSTS ships were staffed by “civilian” crews, but carried 95% of the supplies used by our Armed Forces in Vietnam including bombs and ammunition into combat zones under fire.

MSTS took about 100 Victory ships out of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (mothball fleet), repaired them, and assigned them to private companies for operation to carry ammunition across the Pacific.  MSTS carried guns, tanks, trucks, trains, riverboats, barges, helicopters, bombers, fighters, reconnaissance planes, food, fuel, and medical supplies.  By 1965 MSTS had 300 freighters and tankers supplying Vietnam, with an average of 75 ships and over 3,000 merchant mariners in Vietnamese ports at any time.