A Career That Began in Vietnam
Profilers: Mohammed AlDahash, Andrea Christian, Rachel Steinberg
PREPARING FOR SERVICE
Us: How did you decide to join the Reserves? What stage in life were you at?
John: After graduating from high school, it was my dad’s idea that he didn’t feel that his kids
were mature enough to go on to a four-year school, so we went to school at Pasadena City
College. I got a summer job with the city of Pasadena, so I continued to work part-time while
I was in school, and I started taking classes at UCLA through their extension program. And
then I felt the draft breathing down my neck, so I asked some people who I was working with
at City Hall what they recommended. One of them was a commander in the Navy Reserves,
and he suggested I join the Navy Reserves. So I signed up, swore in, to serve my country,
and bought myself a year’s extension while I continued going to school. But about ten months
into that was when they canceled all student deferments for all reservists…so they said, “Okay,
you’re all going on active duty. We’ll send you to Class A school – what school do you want to
go to?” I said “Engineering Aid.” They said, “Sorry, that’s closed, can’t let you do that. What’s
your second choice?” I said “Engineering Aid” – I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I argued
for me and another friend of mine that I was in the Reserves with, and we both got into that
Engineering Aid school.
So I got to the class late…a lot of engineering, a lot of drafting, a lot of surveying, and soils –
basic engineering stuff, very valuable for me throughout my career. After graduating from the
Class A school, we were given a week’s leave, and then we reported to Little Creek, Virginia,
for three types of training. We had a classroom teaching on the history of Vietnam, the history
of the counter-insurgency, communist theory…that kind of background of what to expect in the
Vietnamese culture. We also had intensive training in small arms, such that we were trained in
every weapon we might come across that’s able to be hand-carried.
After that, we did what was called SERE training – which stood for survival, evasion, resistment,
and escape. They basically put us into elements of 9 men in a unit. They gave us one rabbit,
two potatoes, and I forget what else…not much food. We had to start off before they sent
us out into the swamp – this was in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They sent us off
through the swamp, and during the three or four days in the swamp, we had to do survival and
concealment shelters as individuals, as well as in a unit. They gave us a head start, and they
had special forces chasing us through the swamp. We had code words and what we were
supposed to do…We did steal a few farmers’ corn while we were there, and caught some wild
turtles and had turtle soup. So finally they stopped, and they said, “Okay, you guys have made
your last check-point, you’ve done good, you evaded everything.” They put us in a truck, and
gave us one can of C-rations for all nine of us, and I’m not sure we were able to finish it.
Then they stormed the truck and “captured” us to put us into a simulated prisoner-of-war camp.
That was interesting. One of the first things they did with you when they brought you in – how
they decided, I don’t know – was they were either going to treat you psychologically or treat
you physically, to try and get out of you what they wanted. Well, my hair was a little long, and
I hadn’t had a haircut, so they were calling me a “gay from Hollywood”. They’d throw me over
the head by my hair, and just harass me…they were just trying to stress you out in a lot of ways.
When we begged for food, one time they threw us an ammo box. We opened it up, and it had
a copperhead snake – a poisonous snake – in it. Just different things they did for a couple of
days…When we finished with that exercise, let me tell you, we did not want to go through that
training again. We were ready – to get on with it.
CITY LIFE IN DA NANG, VIETNAM
Us: How can you describe some of your daily experiences down in Vietnam?
John: Normal activity was just work, normally eight to six, and then back to the camp for
dinner (and breakfast before), so they were ten-twelve hour days, generally. We had Sunday
afternoons off, when we typically would go down to China Beach or do other things. I worked
at drafting and design work, or did preparation of charts for the admiral to use, and briefing of
General Westmoreland or any of the visiting brass from Congress.
After we no longer berthed on the ship in the harbor – on the APA’s – and we were at camp
Tien Sha, we would usually just grab a bus down to the ferry landing, catch a little ferry across
the river, and then walk a couple of blocks to our office at 56 Doc Lap Street…and it was a hub
of activity. There was a local market, a theater next door, and lots of people going up and down
Being Navy guys, we were able to work out a good exchange rate where we could swap a case
of steaks for a case of booze with the army; yet in the navy, we could swap a bottle of booze
for a case of steaks. So once we did this, we always had booze and steaks. So if we wanted
to have a party in our compound in town, periodically, we’d start grilling steaks and have the
drinks. This is, again, after 6 o’clock, and with permission, when we were allowed to stay there
a little later… but…it takes the edge off.
On a few occasions, we would pick up food on the street at little places near where our office
was. And I liked to experiment. Obviously growing up in Southern California, you like food
that’s got a little spice…So I tried different things. One I didn’t know until after, was when I
tasted a little fried rice, wound up it was dog fried rice – I did not know before it…but it tasted
okay. They also have a sauce they make from decaying fish, called “nuoc mam”, and the solids
I believe were called “nuoc minh” or something. But they were used to flavor food and put on
rice, and that adds something that’s a little different.
One of the things that we did while we were there was they did a track meet in Da Nang for the
different units that were around that area. I had run track in high school, so I competed for that,
and I did a high jump. I cleared the bar – must have been six feet or something like that. And
as I’m about to get up, this guy standing next to the pit says “Nice jump son.” I look up, and –
“Yes, sir!” – it was General Westmoreland. So that was an interesting experience.
Another atypical experience, I think, was one time, one of the chaplains for the Navy that was in
Da Nang asked to meet with me. We went up on the top of Monkey Mountain up above Camp
Tien Sha. This was on a Sunday…He was chatting about things, and wanted to get to know me,
because he had seen on my card that I had registered as an Episcopalian, so he wanted to find
another Episcopalian. I developed a friendship with him, and several times I’d go out and assist
him in serving communion to the troops outside of downtown Da Nang. You don’t normally
think of religious service in a war zone, but that’s a memory…it’s an important memory.
Us: How did you feel about the media portrayals of what was going on in Vietnam?
John: The Vietnam war was the first of what I’d call a “living room war”, where video images
are actually brought into your nightly news cast. It didn’t happen in Korea, it didn’t happen in
WWII, or any other military incursion because it was new technology at that time. My folks sent
me clippings in almost every letter they sent, typically from the Los Angeles Times. From my
reading of those and even sharing them with fellows in the same area with me, we could not
understand what stories they were trying to tell, because we didn’t see any semblance of reality.
It was as if they were writing stories – writing fiction – at a bar in Saigon, and were nowhere
near Da Nang, because there were things they were reporting as going on that none of us had
ever heard about, even things in the city. So we wondered, what was the portrayal of the war
that was being presented through the media?
Us: How did you feel when you left Vietnam? Can you tell us about your experience then?
John: That was a very different experience. We took off from Da Nang on a stretch DC8 with no
intermediate cabins, so it was just one long plane, 6 seats wide. When we wheeled up off the
airbase in Da Nang, there was a slight cheer. When we cleared the coast, there was a slightly
louder cheer. I don’t think there was another sound until we touched down in Norton Air Force
Base in San Bernardino. That was a strange flight, having going for so many hours. I think it
was 13, 14, or 15 hours, non-stop; and then nobody saying anything…Except when we landed,
when we got off, we all debarked based on rank; I’m a petty officer so I’m one of the last ones
off the plane. One of the first things I did was just knelt down and kissed the ground – I’m glad
to be home.
ADJUSTING BACK TO HOME LIFE
Us: Was it hard for you to transition zofran into life back at home?
John: Not difficult… though some aspects might have been a little more challenging. I got home
in September of ’67, and then went back to work part-time for the Pasadena Water department
And knowing you’re leaving one part of your life that you’ve spent (for most of us) 13 months,
and getting back to the life you knew when you grew up…The strange thing is when you’re
going to live in a different culture in a different country, you expect your culture shock to be
when you go to that country. But you get so acclimated in whatever that is, like in Da Nang in
Vietnam, that the greater culture shock is when you come home. That’s what you don’t prepare
yourself for, because you really think you remember the way life was. But you’re not the same,
and you don’t view it the same, and you’ve got to watch saying the same words to your family
around the table versus what you would say in a mess hall.
Us: Can you explain how people’s reactions were when you did come home?
John: I can’t say I was welcomed. I can say I was sworn at, cussed at, spat upon – because
people so hated the war. I did not feel like a popular American…
On Good Friday the following spring, the church I grew up in, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena,
had a Good Friday service. So I took a break from work, and walked across the street to
celebrate Good Friday. Our minister at that time, who was very much anti-war, in his sermon
was asking all of us to donate our blood to North Vietnam…and I felt that I had heard and seen
enough of that impacting people, that I said this isn’t where I want to stay – and I got up and left.
It’s not like it is today – when most Americans see troops in the airport, many of us will go over
and out of our way to say, “Thank you for your service”. It wasn’t that way in the sixties at all.
While we were doing what we had been asked to do by our government, it wasn’t appreciated
by the American people – or by very few.
I had a tie that my wife had given me quite a few years ago. It was black, and it had regimental
stripes. But one of the stripes was the Vietnam campaign medal, and the other was the
Vietnamese service medal, and it alternated those stripes. So anytime I went to Washington
and called on the Halls of Congress, I would always wear that tie because I was very proud
of my service on behalf of my country. I wore that tie one time when I was at one of my
professional associations, and there was a conference in Washington D.C., and there was a
reception one evening. There were probably thirty to fifty people in the room, and there was
only one person that recognized the significance of what that tie stood for. He recognized it,
and he said, “Welcome home.” This was 40 years after I had come back from Vietnam, and it
was the first time that anybody had said, “Welcome home.” I so appreciated that, that when that
gentleman retired last year—he was the executive director of our organization—I gave him my
Us: Do you have any regrets from the Vietnam War? Would you serve again?
John: Absolutely. Aside from serving my county, I’d say that period was one of the most
valuable learning experiences for me as an individual. It helped me to grow up…to the extent
that I’ve grown up so far.
Us: Can you tell me how your experiences in Vietnam helped you in your career in the field?
John: Fortunately, one of the projects I was involved with while I was there was working on the
design of an aerated lagoon system, a wastewater treatment plant for Camp Tien Sha. And
I had always felt I wanted to be a civil engineer, working in water and the environment – so I
still do the same thing today, I do water and wastewater. It’s made me more comfortable in my career with traveling internationally, working internationally – going into 3rd world countries
and helping improve their quality of life. If there’s nothing else I have to look back on in my
career, it’s the feeling that I’ve been able to help contribute to improving the quality of life for
literally hundreds of millions of people on this planet. And a lot of that is in 3rd world developing
countries – a lot in Asia – and Vietnam was kind of the beginning of that.
Us: Would you go back to Vietnam to see your work over there?
John: In a heartbeat. It’s a little harder for me to get my wife to want to go to 3rd world countries.
But I know there is a cruise in southeast Asia that I’ve seen, and sometime I want to do that, as
long as one of its ports to call is Da Nang…So I can walk around and see if I can remember 56
Doc Lap Street, 7 Yen Bai, 151 Doc Lap, where the USO was, the White Elephant…my haunts.
Go up to Camp Tien Sha and go to China Beach, and see what’s it like today, 40 years later…
45 years later!