Service to the Country
Profilers: Kyle Curley, Sungwon Byun, Kasey Owens-Shelton, Wenzhen Gong
Supporting the war effort
Question: What motivated you to join the Navy?
Well, that was an interesting question because, as you can tell by my gray hair, I’ve been around a while. I actually was born in 1940, so about the time WWII was going on which was when I was a young kid, so in my younger years, there was still all this feeling and talk about WWII and all the people who had served in WWII. My father was a bomber pilot in WWII. So I grew up knowing what WWII was about and the feelings that the country had all the citizens and supporting the war effort in winning WWII. As I became a teenager, the Korean War broke out. My father was in the air forces reserves and was recalled to active duty. And so again I was associated with and involved with, being around the air force, and the military.
Also I think there was a feeling at that time that serving in the military was sort of a thing you should do as a citizen of the United States, that we had a wonderful country and that we should give back in some way to service to the country. And so I guess because of my background, because of my Dad being in the air force, I sort of was almost preprogrammed into military service at least at some point in my life. As I went to high school I was kind of on the path of wanting to go into the air force and that was my dream to be an air force pilot. Like my Dad. That didn’t work out because as a young child I had a hearing problem in one ear. And so I was not able to pass the flight physical for the air force. So I was really on track to go to the Air Force academy, had an appointment to go, but couldn’t pass the flight physical. So no Air Force for me. So, plan B, I found out about this thing called the Naval ROTC program, which offered scholarships to leading universities around the country. And for that, you could have four years active duty, plus reserve time after that. So I applied for the Naval ROTC as plan B and was fortunate enough to be selected and picked USC as my number one choice and, as they say, the rest is history.
Now that was back in the late 50s—1950s, and so the world was a bit different then. We were still involved with the aftermath of WWII, Korean War, and now we had the Cold War going on. So there was always this threat of potential war going on here in this country. Not really in your face everyday but it was all lurking back there. We were struggling against communism, and the spread of communism around the globe. Which sort of then leads into where Vietnam went to.
We’re heading to Vietnam
Question: How did you feel the mood was of service members, those that you served with, in the early stages of the war?
So I was, like I said, commissioned in 1962. I served on a carrier. It was a helicopter carrier—a WWII era Essex Class carrier that was converted to carry Marines—Marine ground troops and Marine helicopter squadrons. And so this was a whole new concept, this idea of being able to land—take Marines, and insert them into a battle area, basically behind enemy lines or wherever—very quick reaction kind of thing. This was a very new concept at that time. Before that, basically Marines loaded onto boats and they landed them on a beach somewhere. That was the preferred insertion for amphibious forces. So now we had this new element called vertical envelopment where the helicopters would take people in. So, I was on this ship, we had deployed to the Western Pacific in early 1964 and our home base was Subic Bay in the Philippines and that was our base of operations. We then operated all around the Western Pacific up to Taiwan, Okinawa, went to Hong Kong, to Singapore, all over.
In August of 64, was when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. We were all in Subic Bay in the Philippines. After that attack by the North Vietnamese PT boats on our US navy destroyers, things started escalating from there. Basically, we got the word, we’re getting underway, we’re heading to Vietnam. We didn’t know much about that, and so it was all kind of new news for everybody concerned. In those days, there was not much communication available. We had no televisions on our ship, we had no newspapers on our ship, we had no internet, no computers, so when we sailed over the horizon, we were basically out of touch from what was going on. Except for Naval message traffic which would come over the radio route to the ship. But as far as the people, the crew on the ship, the officers, we really didn’t get much of a sense of what was going on in the early time.
So, after that, as in late August when we were stationed off the coast of South Vietnam, we were the flagship of an amphibious ready group. So, we had a bunch of other ships with us and we were the flagship that had the CO or the captain of that amphibious ready group. And, so we were basically doing circles in the ocean off the coast of South Vietnam, waiting to land Marines. And, I guess I was fortunate in one respect that I was a Supply Corps Officer in the Navy, and so I was responsible for a lot of things to keep the ship going: parts and food and [logistics] —logistics, right. That wasn’t a word then, logistics was hardly a word then. Anyway, so I had the opportunity and the duty to fly into Saigon quite often on one of the helicopters, the ship’s helicopters, to pick up mail, pick up parts and go in there. So, I got to fly over the Mekong delta, where there was a lot of Viet Cong activity going on. Always was wondering, sitting in the passenger area of the Marine helicopters. You know, the only thing between me and the Viet Cong was a thin piece of aluminum. And I was hoping that they didn’t have any ground fire that was gonna reach up that high and come roaring up through the bottom of the helicopter.
So I think, back to the original question: what was the mood/ what did people think. If I recall discussions we had in the officers wardroom about this whole activity, I think it was sort of the feeling that ok, you really pissed us off, you have awakened the sleeping giant, we are going to mass our Navy forces. We were in the South with our amphibious ready group. Up in the North, in an area called Yankee Station, off the coast of North Vietnam, we had all our carrier assets—aircraft carrier assets, and we were ready to start dumping some major hurt on the Viet Cong and so, I think the general feeling was, probably six to nine months, we were going to get in there, pound the crap out of them and it would be over. And you can see, history shows how wrong we were.
Question: What kind of experiences did you have?
In some respects it was somewhat boring, because we had our Marine ground troops on board, they didn’t have anything to do except clean their weapons, workout a lot, we had no workout facilities, ships didn’t have those then. And so they would do a lot of PT (Physical training) on the deck, hanger deck, and up on the flight deck. A lot of running around but it was normal routine, running the ship, just dealing with personnel problems, trying to find out what was going on, so it was not a lot of high level action at that point.
When you returned to the United States, because you said you were there only for a short period of time…
Yeah we were there probably off the coast of Vietnam probably for about five months max. I didn’t say, but we did go land some marines up by Da Nang at some point. So we pulled into Da Nang Harbor and offloaded a bunch of troops and helicopters at Da Nang. Da Nang was a beautiful harbor, almost a sleepy fishing village type of environment. So I had some nice memories of what it looked like at that point, because it was still relatively undeveloped as an American stronghold. In 2011, when my wife and I went to Vietnam, we went through Da Nang again and I couldn’t believe there were golf resorts, high rise condos and all kinds of things; I mean it was just a bustling activity site. In 1964, it was pretty primitive at that point. The other thing was that in that time period, there were approximately 25,000 Americans in country, in Vietnam. And so again, it was mostly advisors. Some units began to show up but our involvement was still on the early side. But as I said, we really had the expectation that six to nine months we were gonna kick some serious butt, drop a lot of bombs, put some hurt on a lot of people, and they were gonna say, “ok, alright, we’ll go away, and we’ll go back to North Vietnam and you guys can take care of things in the south.”
Question: Other experiences that you would like to share?
No, other than the fact when I mentioned that I went back in 2011, we toured both Hanoi area, North Vietnam, we went to Hue, we went to a lot of the places where there were major activities and things that happened during the American War which we learned about. We used to call it the Vietnam War but over there it’s the American War. We learned a lot about Ho Chi Minh. It was interesting to kind of see the other side of what he did for his country. We toured his mausoleum. Strangely enough he had asked when he died, he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered throughout the country North and South. But the leaders at the time said “no we’re gonna build a big mausoleum and let him lie there and be a tourist attraction kind of thing.”
So and the other part of it, after visiting North Vietnam , we went to the Southern part to Ho Chi Minh City which was Saigon and visited the presidential palace. And I guess we learned more about some of the goings on within the government of South Vietnam in the early days and there was lots of hanky panky, things that probably were not on the up and up. People were taking advantage of the situation, we were dumping people and money into there, we had a bunch of advisors and ambassadors. There were just, looking at it from a historical perspective now, it wasn’t all, that great. We were not willy white in our activities with the South Vietnamese government, nor were they with us. And so, it wasn’t like everybody was clean on this whole deal. So that was an interesting perspective fifty years later.