Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chasing the Ship to Vietnam

Something has prompted me to remember the time when I found myself chasing my ship, the USS St. Francis River (LFR-525), to Vietnam although why I was separated from my ship is not clear to me. It did not occur on our last cruise to Vietnam, between October 1969 and February 1970. I distinctly remember leaving Yokosuka, Japan on the ship for that cruise, staying on it the entire period and returning with the ship to Yokosuka. For one thing, that was the trip where the ship experienced that scary Taiwan Straits stormy wave incident and leaked from Taiwan to Japan and it was also on our return to our home port that I received news that my brother, Durward, had been killed in an automobile accident. I received that news while we were still several days from Yokosuka and I had to wait until our arrival before I could go home, so I missed Durward's funeral. So, I must have been separated from the ship on our second-to-last cruise to Vietnam and had to chase it down to rejoin the crew. The only reason that I can think of for that to have happened is that I stayed behind when it left Yokosuka because of the birth and death of our first child, Martha Pamela in May of 1969. The Navy is tough on families. Had little Martha survived birth, I would have left with the ship and, of course, left my wife with all of the responsibilities and care of Martha. As it was, staying home that short week or so in our time of grief probably wasn't long enough. Whether I liked it or not, duty called.

I recall flying from Yokota Air Base, about 20 miles south-west of Tokyo, to Clark Air Base, Philippines, and at Clark I caught a bus for Subic Bay. Clark is located nine miles from Mt. Pinatubo, the volcano that erupted in 1991 and buried the air base under six feet of pyroclastic ash, and it destroyed Subic Bay too for that matter, and caused the United States to evacuate its Armed Forces from the Philippines never to return. Over my entire Navy career I flew into Clark Air Base a number of times for one reason or another; catching a ship, attending a conference or coordinating one or another logistics operation. But, I believe on this trip that it was my first time transiting through Clark. It was a hot, humid, dusty and sweaty place to visit, as I recall, with never a cool night that might lend some relief against the heat. If I had to stay overnight, and that happened, then I could plan on at least a two-shower day, one in the morning and one before bedtime. The bus trip to Subic was just as hot and sweaty, but the scenery was always interesting.

The Philippines never seemed to modernize during all of the years that I visited there. The roads were terrible by our standards, just barely two lanes at most, unpaved in some areas and sometimes our bus drove on the shoulder or in the ditch along the road to get around some obstruction. It was for that reason that the bus trip from Clark to Subic could take between three and six hours, depending on the traffic. And, the traffic jams weren't usually caused by too many automobiles, although there were too many for the undeveloped or poorly planned roads, but rather by Water Buffalo free and untethered and blocking the very narrow road or very slow carts pulled by Water Buffalo. You could say that a farmer who owned one or more Water Buffalo was middle-class in the Philippines. The rich and the taxi-jeepney driver owned vehicles, and they were continuously honking their horns when trapped behind a Water Buffalo. So, while we inched along behind a buffalo, we couldn't hear ourselves think because of all of the horns blaring, including the bus horn. Once, one of our passengers, a big sailor, got fed up with all of the noise, he walked to the front of the bus and told the driver that if he honked "that damn horn one more time, I'll throw your ass off this bus and drive it myself." The driver stopped honking the horn. Everyone cheered. I don't recall if that May 1969 bus ride was slower or faster than usual. If it was quicker, then it was the rare one.

Being in "transit" was not the best experience a sailor can endure. It meant that you had no home and not a very clear path to get there. Typically, I checked in to the transit office in Subic, showed them my travel orders, and waited for them to locate my ship in order to decide how I was going to catch it. And, since the location of my ship would have been secret, that usually meant that the Navy's response to the clerks in the transit office would be a short, concise "operating off of the Vietnam coast," or maybe just "Vietnam." Where, exactly, would not be divulged to me or the clerks. I don't know why they bothered trying to locate my ship, wasting my time. I could have told them the country where it was operating. It always operated along the Vietnam coast. But, the bureaucracy wouldn't allow that. I had to wait for the "official word," which generally took several days. So, my route to my ship would be determined based on the need to get me to a very large geographical area in the world. It's like saying that if I had to go to New York City, well then just drop me anywhere in China and then go from there. I had to hang around a few days in the "transit quarters," which meant that they would dream up something to "keep me busy." I recall that I was a second-class by that time, sort of a supervisor-worker level, if there was anyone to supervise, so I always hoped in these situations to be assigned to supervise some kind of work detail instead of mopping the floor or some other menial task myself. Invariably, work details in transit quarters involved cleaning something. The Navy was always cleaning something. I don't recall that trip being any different. I know I didn't enjoy myself.

I finally got word that I was to report to an oiler that was leaving Subic Bay for Vietnam. I wasn't told "where" in Vietnam. I checked on-board the oiler in the morning and we were leaving by noon hoping for a quick transit to Vietnam, but oilers refuel other ships and that's the priority, so my trip actually took five days even though where I finally disembarked was only two-days sailing from Subic. The oiler pulled alongside the USS Tom Green County, a Tank Landing Ship (LST), and I walked across a make-shift brow, basically a wide wobbly plank with two ropes to hold on to, to my latest temporary sleeping quarters. I recall having to balance my sea bag on my back while trying desperately not to fall off the plank. I put my sea bag in a bunk room and went to get something to eat, hopefully better food than the oiler had.

"Hey, Clark," someone yelled. I looked up to see my old buddy Ivan "The Terrible Cook" Chute, a Canadian who had served on the St. Francis River until only a few months earlier. He, like most of the sailors who had married a Japanese wife, shuttled between Yokosuka home-ported ships and shore stations just to stay in the area. Chute did more time in Yokosuka than was usual, however. While I transferred between state-side duty and Japan duty, he consistently stayed in the Yokosuka area. A few years later, he would be assigned on the USS Lockwood with me after I returned to Yokosuka from San Diego. On that day, he was behind the serving counter and he gave me an extra-large helping of cherry cobbler. "I fell overboard," he said.

"What!?" I said. "You fell overboard! Are you joking?" or words to that effect.

"No!" he said. "I'll come over in a few minutes and tell you about it." Chute was a Nervous Nelly, about everything. And, behind the counter, I saw that he wasn't relaxed. If he had to stand in one place for any length of time, he stood with feet slightly apart and swayed from side to side with his head weaving from side to side, a nervous habit, like Stevie Wonder does when he sings. He got the name Ivan The Terrible Cook from his St. Francis River meals he served. I should say, "forced to prepare," because it wasn't his choice to serve those terrible cheese sandwiches. That was the XO's idea, the same XO that was still on the St. Francis River and was probably the most hated man on the ship. I've written about him before. The XO thought, that since our storage space was limited and our chances of getting fresh food was limited, given our priority of staying on the gun-line as long as possible with little time for underway replenishments, that he would solve the problem by ordering an extra load of flour, for making buns or loaves of bread, and cheese. Flour came in fifty pound easily stackable bags, put in dry storage, and we had plenty of dry storage space. Cheese came in nicely shaped boxes, also easily stackable, put in chill storage, and we usually had plenty of chill storage space. It was all "logic" to the XO. And, since the XO controlled the menu, those fresh-baked buns and cheese sandwiches were on it about twice a week as the main course. But, the flour sometimes had weevils in it, and Chute baked the bread for the meal, and he was blamed every time someone bit into the bun and it "crunched." We didn't like eating bugs; even cooked bugs. Tony Gigliardo, our other chef, "our Italian Chef," seemed to escape all the criticism because he ate the bread, weevils and all, and he gloated about it. He called anyone who couldn't eat a cooked weevil, or anything else they cooked, "a pansy." Such is Navy life.

Within a minute or two, Chute was sitting down at my table and he began his tale. It went something like this. "I was loitering on the fantail, like we always do. I was by myself. I turned to go inside just after dark, and tripped and flipped right over the rail into the water. I watched the goddamned ship-lights disappear over the horizon." "Holy shit, Chute!" I said, or something like that, "What did you do?" I thought I was gonna' die," he said. "I just kept treading water and floating and prayed that no shark came by. In about an hour, I saw ship-lights coming back toward me. It was the Tom Green. They'd discovered that I wasn't on board and they were back-tracking to find me. I was yelling my goddamned head off."

I'm sure that we said more than that, but I recall that I was dumb-struck, speechless, for the most part, other than an occasional expletive. In all of my time in the Navy, before and after Chute's falling overboard, he was the only one that I knew of that survived falling overboard. Some were never found, and the two that I knew that were found died from drowning. A few years later on the Lockwood, Chute would not go to the fantail without someone accompanying him, usually me. I'm sure he followed that buddy-system on every ship he was on after that.

I don't recall spending the night on the Tom Green. It seems to me that I was called to board a Patrol Boat that same afternoon. So, I dropped by the Mess Decks to say goodbye to Chute, and made my way to the main deck. Tank Landing Ships used in Vietnam were not used to land tanks or other vehicles on shore like they were in World War II and the Korean War. In Vietnam, they were used as "Mother Ships" for the River Patrol Boats, the gun boats that patrolled the Delta River System for Vietcong in the southern area of South Vietnam. John Kerry's Patrol Boat would have been assigned to a Mother Ship like the Tom Green County.

My sea bag was hoisted down to the boat, and I and two other sailors climbed down a troop debarkation webbed-ladder flopping against the side of the ship. It was a five-hour trip to a little Navy outpost near Rach Gia, on the west-coast of the southern tip of Vietnam and the entrance to the Delta on the west, while my ship was operating off the east coast. I've been seasick three times in the Navy, each time caused by extremely rough seas when I simply could not will my equalibyrum to stay focused. Everything was moving; up, down, sideways and all directions at the same time. It was one of the roughest rides I've experienced on the ocean, the heavy seas pounding us into submission. Somewhere in the middle of the trip, I slipped and fell and strained my back and could not, literally, get up to get back into one of the four bunks in the boat. It turned out to be a really bad strain and it made the rest of the trip, and the following month, miserable.

When the boat entered the large bay to Rach Gia in full darkness, after over four hours of pounding seas, the water calmed to a point where I could pull myself up to stand on my feet. "You guys keep your eyes peeled for anything coming at us," the boat's skipper said. All of us knew what he meant. With running lights out and the engine at its quietest speed possible, we drew closer and closer to the shore a mile or so north of Rach Gia. There was nothing around, no village or city and no lights. We did see boat silhouettes, however, and all of them were running dark and we watched them like hawks for any turn toward us. We finally entered a river for several hundred yards, it seemed, and pulled alongside a make-shift pier and debarked and made our way to a quonset hut for the night and sleep, if we could. It was a small base, but large enough for a landing strip. Otherwise, we seemed to be surrounded by jungle on three sides and the river on the other.

I was in a lot of pain, so I got very little sleep. A corpsman assigned to the boat squadron gave me a few painkillers to ease the pain. He was the only one who showed any sympathy at all from the dozen or so swift-boaters there. "Don't pay any attention to them," he said, in response to their laughing "surface-Navy wimp" comments, "they cry like babies when they get a splinter." I've never forgotten that comment. I'm sure that many got more than splinters. Of any Navy fighting in Vietnam, these men were the bravest. The "Swift-Boat" self-image was of a tough, roughneck bunch of swaggering pirates that they made sure they portrayed. Different navies, surface, submarine or river seemed to discriminate against each other as much and as often as they could, but everyone respected the swift-boaters.

I recall that at around 4:00 A.M. we were all rudely awakened and told to evacuate. "Happens all the time," someone said. We had to hustle, in spite of my painful back. In a matter of minutes a C-130 cargo plane landed on the strip in the pitch black night. How the pilot did that I'll never know. Perhaps a guy with a flashlight signaled the beginning of the strip for the pilot to see enough to guess where to touch down. We were shoved into the back of the plane as it rolled to a stop, along with about two-dozen Vietnamese. The plane immediately started taxiing to the end of the strip for take off before we or the cargo and our sea bags were strapped in. And, for a moment, I forgot my back pain. While I didn't know what was going on, things seemed to be urgent. As they closed the bay doors, I could see the swift-boat crews running for the river and their boats, all of them in flak jackets and weapons ready. I heard the jet-assist engines kick in, full throttle, to lift off of the short runway. A C-130 generally needed a long runway, unless it was equipped with jet-assist. One of the Vietnamese, an elderly woman, brought with her several bottles of Nuc Mam, the most pungent cooking and food dipping sauce I've ever smelled or eaten, and as she lost her balance when those jet-assist engines thrust us into the air, she dropped one of the bottles and it broke, splattering the stinky stuff over all of us and our sea bags. So, by that time, with only a day or two of normality, I had sweat through a Philippine bus trip, rode an oiler with bad food, crossed a wobbly plank to the Tom Green and then climbed down a flopping troop ladder, rode nearly five hours in the roughest seas, seasick, sprained my back, had three hours of sleep on painkillers, and now my uniform stunk to high heaven from Nuc Mam. I was ready for this trip to end. Between one and two hours later, we landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base just outside of Saigon. I managed to see a doctor there for more painkillers, spent two nights of exhausted sleep and left on another C-130 cargo plane for Cam Ranh Bay where, I hoped, my ship would soon arrive. I also changed into a clean uniform, but I had to jam that stinky one into my sea bag with the rest of my clean clothes.

Two days later the St. Francis River arrived at Cam Ranh Bay to replenish ammunition, approximately 5,000 rockets and topping off five-inch and 40mm canon ammunition. I reported aboard, paid a visit to our corpsman, and collapsed on my bunk. I unpacked my sea bag several hours later. I was greeted with, "'bout time you got here, Clark. Where have you been?" then a pause and, "What the hell is that smell?" Someone took my clothes to the laundry for cleaning for me, more to get the stink out of our compartment than as a favor to me. Doc Seneca (I know his name because of a comment he left to a previous blog), our corpsman, checked on me for nearly three weeks while I tried to work, but usually stayed in my bunk with my sprained back. It wasn't getting any better. When we arrived at Subic Bay, I was hospitalized for a week where I received supervised physical therapy. I refused, however, to stay in the hospital, even though the doctor wanted me to, when my ship was preparing to depart for Vietnam. I was not going through all of that again.



Dan said...

Fascinating. Don't know how you managed.

Dave Clark said...

Thanks, Dan. We used to say that if a fat guy wanted to lose weight, just go through the Navy's transit system. I've seen guys lose ten to fifteen pounds in only two weeks. I didn't have much to lose, so I did fine. But, it's a good diet program.

tclandis said...

Wow. I got tired and seasick just reading - it must have been really something.
I didn't know about your baby, Martha Pamela. That was a really sad season for you, sorry.
Keep thinking up more great stories, please.