Experiences of a United States Naval Officer in Viet Nam
Profilers: Parker Ledoux, Meagan Maloney, Kevin Liu, Jan Santiago
Q: How did you end up in the armed forces? Were you drafted or did you enlist, and why?
I graduated from college at Colgate University in 1970, in June. And that year in January, they initiated the draft lottery system. It was felt that a lottery would be more fair because kids from privileged backgrounds were getting out of going to Vietnam, and the lottery system was designed to try to resolve that problem, so that the burden of the war would be spread across all economic groups. My number in January of 1970 was 187, and no one had a clue what that meant, certainly not me. Because no one had ever done the lottery before. As it turned out, in June when I graduated, a friend of mine whose number was 176, he got a draft notice. And so, I knew that the same board, where I was in, in New Haven, Connecticut. The draft board, they would be getting to my number before the end of the year; so I ran down and enlisted in the naval reserve. And I did it because I did not want to be drafted, because if you were drafted, it meant you were likely going to be an enlisted man in an infantry unit in Vietnam. Everyone wanted Navy and Coast Guard at that time, because that’s how you would likely avoid going to Vietnam.
Q: At any point did you think about trying to avoid the draft another way?
No, they were not an option for me. I wasn’t gonna desert my country.
Q: What were your parents’ responses to your enlistment?
My dad and my grandfather, who had both been in the military. My grandfather been a doughboy in World War I, and had been machine-gunned and mustard-gassed on the Hindenburg Line, in Belgium. My dad had been a P-47 and P-51 pilot in the Italian Campaign of World War II, with the 8th Air Force. And he was shot down and a prisoner of war in a stalag in Germany, before he was liberated by Patton. So, both of them were very proud that their son and grandson was now an officer in the Navy. My mother, she was somewhat pleased, because she figured, like everybody else did, that as officers in the Navy, you’re going to sleep on clean sheets, and you wouldn’t have to go and be a ground pounder, in an infantry unit in Vietnam.
Q: Did you ever think before you were threaten by the draft that you would join the military?
Never gave it a thought. It was difficult to make the transition from civilian life to military life, because everything had to be precise.
Enlisting in the Navy
Q: You said served in the Navy, what company or battalion, and how long did you actually serve overseas?
When I ended up as an enlisted man in the reserves, there was a thing called the Two by Six Program. You had to do two years active over a six-year period, and the other four years were what they called the Ready Reserve. The Ready Reserve, you had drill, at either one night a week or one week a month, depending upon what kind of unit you were in. I did not want to go into the military as an enlisted man, because I knew that being an officer was far better and a more productive way to serve your time. So, I applied at OCS, Officer Candidate School, both in the Coastguard and the Navy. And it was lucky that I had enlisted in the reserves, because two weeks later, I did get a draft notice. But because I was already in, the Army couldn’t get me. January, or February, I can’t remember which. I remember it was Friday the 13th, I reported at Officer Candidate School, in Newport, Rhode Island. That was a twenty week program, and when you graduate, you got your commission as an officer. So I graduated USN, and then, because you graduated high, you were guaranteed your dream sheet. And your dream sheet was what you fill out, where you wanted to be stationed, what specialty you wanted, and what type of ship. And I had filled out that I wanted to be the diving officer on a new construction ship, homeported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And I got orders to the USS Brunswick, which was under construction in Lowestoft, England. I was going to be going over after diving school and weapons school. I would go to England, and I would be in the pre-commissioning crew which would write the manuals and the instructions and the crew organizational charts for a new ship.
Q: And I know you ended up being a Navy SEAL, was this training for that?
No. In fact SEALs came to officer candidate school. Various specialties came to officer candidate school and did a little presentation to see if these officer candidates were interested in those naval specialties, like engineering, the civil engineering corps, or seal team, or dive school. Those kind of warfare specialties, nuclear power school. They would come and give a presentation to see what officer candidates were interested in. And SEAL team came and did a little video and then set up a little table down in the auditorium. And of the 2,500 officer candidates that saw that presentation, not one went down to sign up, because nobody wanted to go to Vietnam at that point in time, nobody in their right mind.
Q: So let’s transition to your first days in service after you have finished your diving school, and everything like that. Did you end up in England, like they told you you would?
Q: What happened?
The Navy had other ideas. Before I graduated from dive school, within a few weeks, I got a phone call from what they call your detailer, who was an officer in the Pentagon who assigns your specialty. And my specialty was going to be deep sea diving. And he said, “Well, I have bad news. The Brunswick is late in construction, and therefore it is not going to be ready for pre-commissioning crew when you graduate in two weeks. So, your orders are canceled. All I got is Harbor Clearance Unit 1, Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. So on New Year’s Day, in a blinding snow storm, I went to the airport at National Airport in Washington DC, for a flight to San Francisco, on my way to Vietnam.
Q: And what was your job when you got there?
Harbor Clearance Unit had a barge. We would go up the rivers and salvage PBR’s and gunboats and stuff that would be sunk. And we’d go up and salvage them, bring them back to Da Nang, and they’d repair them and put them back into service.
Q: Did you move around from that specific barge?
If we had job, we’d go up the rivers. Vietnam was divided into military regions, and they were Roman Numerals from the demilitarized zone, which was the border with North Vietnam. The first region south of that was Roman numeral number one, which became known as “I core”. And then there was two core, three core, four core as you move south of the country. And I never left I core, I was always at the northernmost part of South Vietnam. Never really went other place, other than between Da Nang and the provincial capital of Hue. And so we went up to Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1972. Because a landing craft with tanks had run aground, and we were going up to pull her off. And when we were going up the river, we were taking small arm and some heavy arm fire from the bank.
Q: And did you stay on the same barge the entire time you were stationed in Vietnam?
No, because then, when that tour was up, I liked Vietnam. I felt like it was the only real job I’d ever had. You know, I’d worked at a factory one summer, I’d been a lifeguard for six summers while I was in high school and college. It was the first real job I’d ever had. I mean it was some pretty heavy stuff for a twenty-two year-old kid, you know. I was in charge, you know the war was going on all around us. And it was exciting. So I asked, I looked to stay, and pretty much all the Americans were getting out, there were only very few units left. But SEAL team had a billet for a diving officer, but I wasn’t SEAL trained. I was already diving trained and demolition trained, but I had no land warfare qualifications, other than 50 caliber, 20 mm, 40 mm, 5 inch gun. I was a pistol marksman, but I had had no other small arms training. And so, I had to go back to Subic, in the Philippines, to Underwater Demolition Team 12 to get land-warfare qualified and come back. And the reason they wanted a diving officer is because SEAL team was doing insertions into North Vietnam, from underwater from the USS Grayback, a diesel submarine. And so they needed experienced diving officers. So I asked them if I could do that, and they said yes and moved me over to SEAL Team in Da Nang and the only insertions we ever did was from the Grayback. And we went up to the Tonkin Gulf to sweep mines, because they needed divers to demolish mines, because that was part of the Paris Peace Accords, that we would clear all the mines that we’d put in the Haiphong Harbor. And so, a big task force of about fifty ships went up to the Tonkin Gulf to clear mines and when that project was finished, the Grass went back to Guam, which was its homeport, and I went with it.
Q: And that was the end?
That was the end of Vietnam for me.
Remembering the War
Q: What was your opinion on Vietnam while you were deployed?
Well you know, I’ve told you. Back in America, where we used to call “the world”, cause we viewed we were no longer in the world, we were some place else. And we’d say, “back in the world”, there’s all these protests, and angst, going on about the war. Once you get there, you don’t even think about that stuff. The important things in a day are, whether you’re gonna make it to the next day, whether you’re gonna get hot food that day, and when you’re going home. You don’t think about the political implications of the war, or anything else. I came home on leave one time, and somebody asked me something like that, “Gee, don’t you think about whether the war is the right thing to do”, and I frankly said, “No, we never give it a second thought”.
But my defining recollection of Vietnam is physical fatigue. I mean, you are working around the clock. I could lay down on the ground, in pouring down rain, and fall asleep in two minutes. You’re so physically exhausted.
Q: So now I wanna talk a little bit about how you feel about the war in retrospect. Overall, would you label it a good or a bad experience, or both?
Personally, it was the best thing that I’ve ever did. Because in life, I was going nowhere. But when I came home from Vietnam, I figured, “man, I gotta get going with life.” I got into law school, became a lawyer and did a lot of things thereafter, that I would not have done if I had not had that experience.
Now, as an event of national strategy, it was a huge mistake. Just a horrible mistake.