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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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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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.