Happy New Year! Perhaps this ninth edition of Fellow Book Benders will aid in the appreciation of how fortunate we truly are. This is a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco, the Russian River and beyond. Can you spy a glimmer of your yesteryear from these tales? Hold on tight for a slippery ride down memory lane.
True Stories of Vietnam War(or so I've been told):
I enlisted in the Navy in 1964 to have three squares/day rather than get drafted and roll around in the jungle. But my master plan didn't go as intended. During the crisis following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, I was an E3 aboard the class destroyer USS Samuel N. Moore. She provided gunfire support, operated as a plane guard in the South China Sea, and fired on targets in the Mekong Delta. Later, as part of Operation Sea Dragon, we patrolled off North Vietnam.
Life was good. I was the guy who acted as the "bank". Need a loan for shore leave? Better call Al. And then 1966 came around and I found myself on a patrol vessel (PVR) as a gunner's mate cruising the friggin' Mekong River. I wasn't suppose to be there. I should've been in my cozy bunk back on the Samuel N. Moore digesting Playboy, waiting for chow-call.
On one of our clandestine missions, we were hauling Rangers up beyond the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Nobody knew they were there and nobody was suppose to. They stuck to themselves and were all business. I was manning the 40mm machine gun on the bow. Everything went by the book until the return trip. After we dropped off the Rangers, we stopped at one of our favorite pot fields for a little Thai weed. Credence was blasting from the loudspeakers. That's when all hell broke loose.
The Mekong turned black, quivering. The ripples went on forever, or so it seemed. When the PVR motored into the slimy darkness, someone yelled "snakes". Thousands of the Red-belied Black Snake were spawning, a very venomous sea serpent. For fun, we tossed a couple of percussion grenades into the water. The nasty vermin rained down on us. I got out my service revolver and started blasting away.
By the time we arrived back at our repair vessel, the PVR was f..... up beyond all repair (FUBAR). While my captain was trying to explain the details of our fictitious fire-fight to a superior, the PVR floated away. Someone had forgotten to tie off the darn thing.
When I was honorably discharged, I arrived back at the San Francisco Airport and dismounted from the plane, dressed in full uniform carrying my seabag. Protestors lined the lobby with signs that read BABYKILLERS and such. A couple of longhairs approached and spat on me in front of my parents. The bastards were wrestled to the ground and arrested. I didn't know what to expect when I got home, but it wasn't that.
I was an assistant engineer in training aboard a P2V during the Vietnam War. The P2V was a maritime patrol as well as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft (ASW). We were based at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. During the six months of our deployment, the squadron was highly decorated, flying a record 690 missions for approximately 5800 hours in the combat zone.
One day we were on our usual route patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin about two hundred miles offshore. Without warning, a 16th century sailboat showed itself. We took snapshots and rolled back around for another look-see, but it wasn't there. The vessel had vanished amidst calm seas. No explanation. When we returned to base and showed our superiors the photos, they accused us of trying to pull off a practical joke and dismissed the whole thing.
On another occasion, our P2V was cruising at about 200 feet. The skies were clear with little turbulence until we hit this wall of water that appeared out of nowhere. It was like entering zero gravity. The plane dropped like a rock. Guys, who weren't strapped in, found themselves on the ceiling. The pressure was so great that I remembered seeing the ribs through the skin of the plane. We leveled out just above the waterline. Too close for comfort.
I fell in love, quit law school in San Francisco and thumbed around USA/Canada. Summer of '69, we missed Woodstock by two weeks. November, received draft notice. I'm 23, the lottery was almost in place, never thought I'd get called, no alternate plans. I jumped into the belly of the beast.
At Oakland Army Induction Center, they grabbed me and nine other college grads for the United States Marines (10% of Marines were drafted). At Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, I declared that I cannot in good conscience carry a rifle as I will not kill. They sent me to a Navy shrink with "Crazy" scrawled across cover of my records. Chaplain was impressed, ran my file all the way up the chain of command to the Base Commander, a good man. He heard me out, even mentioned the My Lai Massacre. Pacing, he said he could throw me in jail, kick me out, or send me back to my platoon with no rifle. Since I was doing everything else right, he ordered me back without a weapon "to hopefully counteract some of the senseless violence" in the Marines.
At the platoon level, the drill instructors freaked. Tried to humiliate me in front of other privates. I was paraded around in my boxer shorts as "a lily-livered hippie from Frisco who doesn't wanna kill"! Kicked out of a couple of platoons. Taken into empty Quonset huts, berated and threatened. Forced to do endless squat thrusts in heavy gear in big pools of sweat. Mud shoveled into my footlocker. Hung upside down by my feet from a double bunk, kicked and punched.
Some other privates grumbled. I told them I respected their decisions, but I had to abide by my own conscience. I loved those young men. I won them over and while they cleaned their rifles, I used a bullhorn to drill them on Marine Corps history and first aid for written tests. My platoon got top honors, earning grudging respect from the DI's. Couldn't apply for C.O. since it was based on religious training and belief, and Catholics believed in a "just" war. I made my stand on humanitarian grounds. We were all brothers and no bureaucrat/politician was gonna tell me to go kill someone. They bought it.
I served my two years in a squadron office at a helicopter base in North Carolina. I achieved the lowest error rate at my job level of any Marine Corps station on the East Coast. I was honorably discharged as a corporal.
I was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army (SVA) also known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Our three children lived with my wife and me. Prior to the war, I had a successful law career and was able to stash away some money. But 1,400,000 casualties later, Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese. Personally, everything was lost.
The SVA was dissolved. While some high-ranking officers were able to flee the country to the U.S. and elsewhere, most officers like myself were sent to "reeducation" camps. I was separated from my wife and kids who were transported by the communists to different destinations.
In the jungle I helped clear the land for future farms of the new unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I was given no food or water, which I had to provide for myself. Many of my co-workers never survived.
One night I escaped and made my way back to my old house in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where I dug out money and jewelry hidden in the walls. I bribed officials and guards during my travels to the port of Ha Tien where I boarded a boat for Indonesia. A patrol ship, however, intervened and arrested me.
Once again I found myself in the jungle where I discovered one of my sons. Reunited, we soon fled west toward Cambodia. At the border, my son was shot. He begged me to continue without him.
P.S. I eventually made my way to France and then to San Francisco where I taught at Mission High School. Through my contacts, I was able in 1985 to bring my wife and three children to the States.
I want to thank the individuals who volunteered their experiences during the time of the Vietnam War.
Perhaps you have a story of your own you would like to share with Fellow Book Benders. Go to www.johnmccarty.org and click on "Contact" and tell all. The taller the tale, the more majestic.
Ifyou have enjoyed reading one of my novels, a short review with Amazon http://www.amazon.com would be appreciated. As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."
In February, we will revisit the Russian River during the late sixties. Stay tuned. For more information on my novels as well as Don't Stop the Music (to be released in May, 2017), you can go to http://www.johnmccarty.org.