United States Merchant Marine: Donald J. Sheetz
Profilers: Colby Bergstad, Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Caitlin Sheetz, Liz Wang
Caitlin: Thank you so much for meeting us today. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and what your plans were like before the Vietnam War? [0.09]
Donald: Absolutely. My name is Donald Sheetz, as you probably know, I was born back in the forties during the Second World War. I’ve got seven brothers and sisters, two granddaughters, two sons, and two fantastic daughters-in-law. When I graduated high school I went to one of the five Federal academies. I went to the United States Merchant Marine Academy and graduated from there in 1966, and immediately, and I say immediately like two days later I was on board a ship heading towards Vietnam. Second, I think it was the second of June. I joined that ship 1966, and stayed aboard that ship for seven and a half months, it was supposed to be a two-month trip. In the meantime, my girlfriend, who is now my wife, sent me a Dear John Letter to break up with me. Anyway, I boarded the ship as a third officer. When I graduated from King’s Point, I had a bachelor of science degree, a license to sail in the merchant marine as a third officer, and a naval commission as an incident in the Naval Reserve. Sailing and aboard a merchant ship satisfied all my requirements for my naval commission.
Caitlin: Why did you take the job in Vietnam? [1.35]
Donald: I took a job, period. It was not necessarily going to Vietnam, it was on board a ship the day after I graduated, went down to the Union, signed up with the Union, went in for a job, and there was a job opening on this particular vessel. A classmate of mine and I were in the Union Hall. We signed up for the same ship at the same time. So we flew out from essentially New York, out to the west coast to pick up the ship, and Port Hueneme, which is north of San Pedro, north of Los Angeles, and over the course of the next couple of days we either load a cargo or did whatever we needed to do in order to sail westward. We did wind up in Vietnam a few weeks later, after hitting a number of other ports – Los Angeles port, Port Hueneme, San Pedro, Honolulu, Manila. And then, in Manila, we waited there for, I guess, a couple of days, and then they sent us off to Vietnam. We arrived in Da Nang which is in the north part of Vietnam on the seventeenth of July. So just about a month and a half after I graduated.
Now I don’t know whether you know it, but King’s Point is one of the five Federal Academies: Annapolis, West Point, Air Force Academy, Coast Guard Academy, and King’s Point are the five Federal Academies. And this is the one that produces merchant officers, Merchant Marine Officers.
Anyway we get to Vietnam, unload the cargo, we were there for awhile, went back and fourth to a number of different places. Sailed even further west, went up to northwest Europe to collect more supplies for Vietnam, went back to Vietnam and arrived back there late Novemeber. So it was all the way through the Suez Canal up to Northwest Europe loading stuff out of Rota, Spain and in Northwest Europe itself in Germany and then bringing material: Napalm, guns, bombs, uniforms, beer. That’s the stuff I remember. Everything, whatever you need to fight a war was on the ships that we carried. The first trip on the Honolulu Victory in fact, we did carry helicopters a couple of them onboard with the personnel that were going to be operating the helicopters back to Vietnam itself. Spent a couple of days, a couple more days I should say in Vietnam that time, not only went to Cam Ranh Bay on the fifth of December, but we went down to Saigon. A few days later we were down there on the fourteenth or fifteenth of that month.
I have been to Vietnam a number of times since, from then until 1970 when I came ashore essentially. I was back to Vietnam four or five other ships raising my license in the meantime from third mate to second mate to chief mate. Chief mate is the number two guy onboard the ship. And again, all the time that we were going to Vietnam, or waiting outside of Vietnam, or waiting in Subic Bay or Manila Harbor or places like that, over the course of the years I did as I said I raised my license to Cheif Mate and the last vessel I was on in Vietnam was as Cheif officer on board the ship
Caitlin: What had you heard about the war before going? [4.59]
Donald: To be honest, not much. I mean we knew that the French were out in the fifties and that the U.S. was in there in later in the fifties. We actually didn’t, the U.S. actually didn’t bring fighting personnel in there until 1965 I believe it was. They had other advisors in there before that, from years before that, but we didn’t hear too much. I mean there was always propaganda on the news. Oh certainly later on the sixties, the late sixties, early seventies, you always heard about body count, and how we’re beating them up, how they’re beating us up, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and North Vietnam and stuff like that. But at the time that I took a ship, and ultimately wound up in Vietnam, and then wound up there many, many times later, we didn’t hear too much. Certainly in the early days. Later on, and you’ve probably seen the movie Good Morning Vietnam, that’s a good propaganda movie. We did listen to the radio, we listened to those guys in Vietnam when we were there. We listened to the guy that I think it was Robin Williams played. And heard all these tremendous things about how well we’re doing over there where we’re actually getting our butt kicked over there in some cases. So again, before going to Vietnam, I didn’t hear much.
Certainly from 1965 till I got on board the ship and we’re heading over there, I didn’t hear much about it at all. But you can appreciate that during those last years from 1966 to 1970 a lot of stuff’s happening back in the United States. You’ve got the anti-war protestors, you’ve got people fleeing up to Canada to avoid the draft and stuff like that. And so it became rather polarized, and when some of the, a quite a few of the illicit personnel came back from Vietnam they were looked down on. Ya know, people beat them up, talked down to them, people didn’t like them at all and what they were doing. They were working for our country, fighting for our country, and other people kind of dismissed them in more ways than one. So early on, we didn’t hear much at all.
Certainly, well from 1966 on, so, and since we were there a many number of times during those five years or so we heard quite a bit. We heard it from two different directions, we certainly heard it back in the states on the radio, TV, and stuff like that. But then you get over there and you hear armed forces radio and television network and everything is peachy keen. So, somewhere along the line, there’s an inconsistency between what was being reported in the states and what was being reported there on the scene.
Caitlin: How did you feel about those who tried to dodge the war? [7.51]
Donald: Uh, mixed emotions to be honest with you. I understood where they were coming from but at the same time, here I am, I’m an American citizen and I’m saluting the flag, I love my country, and I thought the country was doing the right thing at the time. So I had mixed emotions about it, to be honest with you. Did I ever take it out on them? No, I wouldn’t do that. Did I ever harass the guys who were coming back from Vietnam cause they were serving over there? I wouldn’t do that either.
During the Vietnam War
Elizabeth: Would you mind elaborating on what was your primary duty during the war? [0.05]
Donald: Let me just paint the picture. The Merchant Marine itself is not armed. The vessels that we operate do not have guns on board. Maybe during the Second World War we might have had guns on board. We did not carry guns. In fact, the only thing that we had on board was one pistol for the master. But what we were doing, my position as third mate, was to stand and watch, make sure we didn’t get hit by ships, make sure we were going the right direction, and stuff like that, taking sites of the sun, taking moon lines, taking whatever we needed to do to fix our position on board at all times. I did other things. I wound clocks from time to time, I checked lifeboats out from time to time, but again we, the merchant marine itself, does not carry guns. They don’t fight, they provide. Here in the United States— Merchant marines throughout the world provide 90% of all the stuff that’s brought into the United States or into any other country on board their ships so it’s strictly cargo that we’re carrying. My job again was as third mate and at that time, when I first went aboard the ship, within about seven months I was able to sail temporarily as second mate because they were looking for people.
Within a year and a half or so of the time I got my third mates license and my second mates license, I continued to sail as second mate. Second mate is more in charge in getting the vessel in here from there from the sampling of laying out the course lines and figuring out where we are from time to time taking star-sites at night. We didn’t have the equipment that they do nowadays. We didn’t have GPS. We had an old system called Loran, we had another old system called RDF but those were not particularly good so we depended upon sextants and taking star sites and moon lines and sun lines and stuff like that. As I continued operating on board the ship, I rose my licenses to Chief mate. That’s the number two guy on board. He’s in charge of everything that goes on board the deck of the ship, but we took care of all the cargo coming on board, we took care of the life boats, we took care of dropping or lifting the anchor, we took care of mooring the ship, we took care of painting the ship, scraping the rust off and stuff like that. That was our responsibility on the deck side.
In those days, we carried about forty men aboard a typical Merchant vessel and they were broken up into three or four different departments. One department had a one-man that was a radio operator. Another department was the deck department and that’s what I was mentioning to you now. The third department, and probably the most important, was the engine department. Those are the guys that have to keep the engine running to get us from one place to another. Then the last department, which was also very important, was the catering department, the cooks and the stewards. They kept us fed, and fed pretty well, in fact, in order to go about our duties. We would stand watches, I would stand two four-hour watches a day. Either there was a a second mate or a third mate. Chief mate usually did not stand watches, he was a damon. On board a merchant vessel, you would have two ABs and an ordinary sea-men for each watch and then some day workers like a bosun? and a carpenter and stuff like that. Similar in the engine room, you would have an assistant engineer in charge, and then you would have an oiler and a wiper and maybe on additional person. They you’d have electrical people and stuff like that. So that was our duty on board the ship. Again, in the war itself, we’re providing cargo to Vietnam or taking cargo away, and I’ll get to that later on as we get towards 69, 70, 71. But out purpose at the time was to bring cargo to Vietnam to supply the troops that were there.
Another story, it’s not necessarily a good story. In 1967 I had finished up with the Honolulu Victory, which was my first ship to Vietnam, and I took very little time off and I went back to sea almost immediately. I was on board a ship called the Green Bay. The Green Bay, I did not go to Vietnam on it, I went to Guam. We took a full ship load of bombs for Vietnam, for the B-52s flying out of Guam, to drop on Vietnam. That ship, the Green Bay, was later sunk by the VC in Vietnam in 1971 or 73.
Elizabeth: Where did your ship travel while you were during the Vietnam War? [5.01]
Donald: I’ll give you a run-down of just my first trip. Ok, Los Angeles, Port Hueneme, San Pedro, Honolulu, Manila, Denang, Bangkok, Singapore, Aden, Suez, Barcelona, Rhodes, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Nordenham, Escandon, Turkey, Port Saeed, Subic Bay, Cam Ranh Bay, Saigon, Yokohama, back to San Fransisco. That’s seven and a half months right there. So, twenty-four ports, and I may have missed one or two ports. I don’t think some of the smaller ones I even listed. So twenty-four ports in seven and a half months.
Elizabeth: What was the sentiment about the war from your fellow American and South Vietnamese colleagues? [5.43]
Donald: The only people that we really got to know to talk to were the U.S. personnel that came aboard our ships. And again, they’re looking at things from a different perspective. We are here to discharge cargo, they’re there to fight the war so, we got a chance to talk to them and stuff like that. I can’t tell you that there were any different feelings between the Americans talking the Americans here in Vietnam or in the States. I can’t differentiate any difference in feelings.
Elizabeth: During all of this time that you were on the ship, what were some of the challenges that you faced? [6.22]
Donald: One of the challenges is you’re looking out for ships. You’re looking out for rocks. You’re looking out for— make sure you know where your position is and stuff like that. But in the middle of the night, when there’s nothing on the radar and all of the sudden a red light starts blinking at you which says what ship where bound then blinker light morse code. You’re thinking who is this and where is he coming from. I can’t even see him. There is a submarine that popped up. That was one of the challenges—dealing with submarines and such other vessels that we couldn’t see on the radar stuff like that.
Elizabeth: Do you have any other stories that you’d like to share? [7.08]
Donald: Yes, I got two stories. Once we left Vietnam on that trip and we went to Thailand and then further west, we ultimately went through the Suez Canal. We get to India, we don’t go ashore in India, we don’t even land in India, but we got woken up very early in the morning. Way before our watched and stuff like that. It’s 5:36 o’clock in the morning and it’s been reported that a man went overboard. It comes to pass that in discussions with the crew members that knew him, he was drinking and he decided that he was going to write an article for Readers’ Digest about how he was saved at sea. So he jumped overboard with a life jacket and a knife. He’s going to fight off the sharks, survive with a life jacket on, and the ship was going to turn around, come back and pick him up. Well, he did this about midnight and nobody knew about it until 5:36 o’clock in the morning. So the ship does 15 knots so it’s at six, five and a half hours, 15 knots, 75 miles further on down the road, the winds are force 5 which means they’re choppy, the seas are choppy, there are a lot of white caps, and he could have been pushed off course. And we did what they call a Williamson turn where you turn right back around. You make a hard right, you go over 60 degrees to make a hard left and come back around and you’ll be right back on your course, the reverse course of where you were. So we went back six hours and we’re looking around for this guy. Never found the guy. We had to send a telex off to the Navy who were controlling us, MSTS or MSC, who were controlling us to tell us—we had to tell them we had to take time off to say, shop for this guy, look for this guy. We didn’t hear back from them for three days. Some of the guys on shore never came back and they got new people to replace them. The only one— they left the ship they had to go back home. So, we started out with 100% U.S. personnel on board; we came back with 3 Greeks, a Dutchman, and an Englishman, I think. Which was totally illegal in the United States Merchant Marine at the time but we had to do it in order to sail.
Another story going up the Saigon river. Now, on either side of the Saigon River, they have used Agent orange to decimate, for miles, around all of the vegetation. Where it used to be lush and green, there was nothing so that you would be able to see the bad guys when they were coming. So, we are heading up the river and there is a helicopter gunship coming down the river and, again, this is a U.S. gunship, but I didn’t know that. And, I was scared as you could possibly be. I see this thing coming down and I think we’re going to get raked with machine gun fire and get killed and died and go home in body bags and stuff like that. So it affected us I’ll tell you that. And a lot of the ships that did go up had sandbags in front of the bridge in order to protect them from VC shooting at us and stuff like that. It was scary to be honest with you I can still remember that.
After the Vietnam War
Liz: When did you find out you were going home? What were your feelings at the end of the war? [0.05]
Donald: We saw a beginning of the drop off of the war in 1970. My last ship back, the Halcyon Tiger, on which I was the chief officer, was bringing back material from Vietnam that they no longer needed there, and we saw this happening quite often with vessels returning with more stuff than they actually brought over. From 1971 and later, shipping from our perspective – from my perspective – dropped off. You couldn’t get a job. There are no ships available. In fact, the Halcyon Tiger was laid up, and I call them. I had time off. I had 3 or 4 months off. And I call them 2 or 3 months into that time off, and I said: “Okay, I’m ready to go back to sea.” I called the company I was working for. I said: “All right. I’m ready to go back to sea. Where is my ship?” They said: “Well, we sold the Halcyon Tiger because we have no need for it anymore. The U.S. is not hiring us anymore, and the other ship that we have is out there. It won’t be back for another couple of months.” You could see it in the Union hall when you went in there to look for a ship. There were no ships available. People were piling up up shore. So, I took a night mate job. So, I definitely felt the change in the effort and what was happening probably even before the people in the States did because we saw this shift from bringing cargo in to bringing cargo out.
Liz: What was it like going back to Vietnam after the war? [1.54]
Donald: I got a job working for Chevron, and after a couple of years with Chevron, I became a safety engineer for them, and they were going to send me back to Vietnam because one of our ships was over there, and I actually headed to the airport, and I got to the airport, and they told me to turn around and come back home because nobody is going back into Vietnam.
Liz: What were your feelings at the close of the war? [2.18]
Donald: Well, basically. As I mentioned to you before, from my standpoint. I couldn’t fault. I couldn’t really, you know, yell and scream at the people that fled to Canada to avoid the draft because I knew where they were coming from. I was a little bit disappointed, but it wasn’t to the point where I was gonna yell and scream and kick them and stuff like that. My perspective on the entire war, after the fact though, was that I think we were not in there correctly. I don’t think we should have been in there from day one. We’ve made too many mistakes after that, which kind of suggests that we were wrong doing it then, and we don’t follow history. We don’t pay attention to history because we continue to make the same mistakes.
Liz: Do you have anything else to share about after the war? [3.15]
Donald: After the war? From the perspective of overseeing Vietnam. We’re looking at Vietnam. It is going through my neighborhood today, in fact, and we have a lady here that is a boat person. She’s got her son and grandchildren here, and stuff like that. She came over immediately after the war and settled here in the United States, and I am so glad that we were able to offer the people that work for us over there, and the people that wanted to escape the North Vietnamese, the VC and stuff like that, so glad that we have been able to open our arms to them. I see her every morning. She loves my dog, but they can’t communicate. She doesn’t speak dog, and the dog doesn’t speak Vietnamese.
Reflecting on the Vietnam War
Colby: How often do you think about your time in Vietnam? And when you do think back, what comes to mind? [0.05]
Donald: Oh boy, I think back almost every day to be honest with you. I mean I may skip a week or so but every time I see somebody with a Vietnam hat on or a veterans hat on, I remember my time in Vietnam I really do. And there were so many things that went on there that I, you know we could go on for hours and I could tell you about certain things but I think about it all the time and I think about whether we were right or whether we were wrong and I think about the people that have been able to get out and the people who were not able to get out, but as I say it might not be every day but it is certainly a couple of times a week.
Colby: Looking back at your time in Vietnam, would you do anything differently? [0.48]
Donald: No, absolutely not. No, I don’t think I did anything wrong to begin with, the only thing I might do slightly differently is, I might, when I had the opportunity although I didn’t have many opportunities is to spend more time ashore because the people were neat I mean really, I love the people I came in contact with and stuff like that, limited as it was when they came on board the ship to work on board ship, but when I went ashore I mean it was neat I would have spent more time ashore, get some more pho.
Colby: Is there something the United States should have done differently in your opinion? [1.24]
Donald: Yeah, not be there at all but, or be there in a different way or, support them in a different way and admittedly one or two of the administration’s regimes that were over there were not the right regimes to be in power and I think there was one that was assassinated and these guys were not necessarily the good guys any more than the VC were the bad guys you know. So yeah I, had we not gone in the way we did I think it would have been a lot better.
Colby: In your opinion, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? Or were there good guys were there bad guys? [2.05]
Donald: There were a lot of bad guys on both sides to be honest with you. I think we took advantage in many ways I think that the VC certainly took advantage of the people in the area. I think we all have a lot to be sorry about to be honest with ya and can I point to any single person no I can’t but yeah I think, both on the US side and the Vietnamese side I think we screwed up somewhere along the line.
Colby: What were the positive aspects of the war for you? [2.48]
Donald: I made a lot of money. I mean, and that’s very mercenary I have to admit that but it was a good job, the jobs aboard the ship I was active and engaged for those five years except for a few months out when I took vacation and stuff like that. And I increased my skill level certainly aboard the ship learning more and more skills how to drive the ship, stuff like that. So from that standpoint looking at it from a very mercenary standpoint it was, it was good for me I learned a lot of things. I learned self-confidence I learned how to command other people when it was necessary to command other people.
Colby: Is there something you wish you had known before going to Vietnam? [3.34]
Donald: Yeah I would have liked to have known the culture of the people a little bit more before I went there in fact I never really, I’m learning more about them now than I did back then. I would have liked to have gotten ashore I would have liked to have seen the countryside because it’s, from what I can see other than the agent orange burned-out area it’s beautiful country over there it really is and from the people I’ve met over the course of time afterwards they’re great people I would have liked to have time over there spend time over there.
Colby: How did the war impact/change you? And did you notice its impact on others? [4.10]
Donald: Well certainly noticed the impact on others as I mentioned before the guys going up to Canada the guys that came back Viet veterans and, you know I saw only from a distance, the results of drugs and alcohol. I understand there were a lot of drugs in Vietnam the soldiers and marines taking a lot of drugs and drinking a lot of alcohol and stuff like that so that bothered me and I see a lot of these guys nowadays and they’re old and decrepit and still think that they’re you know 18, 19 years old but it affected them appreciably. Did it affect me, no it didn’t but I’m looking at it from an outside observer so that bothers me I guess.
Colby: Do you have any final thoughts about your experience that you would like to share? [5.05]
Donald: Oh I’ll tell you one story. I was talking about to a certain extent about the bad guys there and the bad guys here and stuff like that. Well this one time when I was in there on another ship, I think I was chief mate at the time and we pulled into port and we had a customary beer on board that we had because the army drinks a lot of beer, trust me on that Pabst Blue Ribbon, PBR it’s terrible stuff but in any event, so we’re sitting there alongside the dock and they’ve discharged a couple of containers of military uniforms for the VC, not for the VC but for the Vietnamese soldiers and lo and behold about an hour after the ship gets in and these containers are off and we’ve got a lot more stuff that we need to do over the course the next couple days but it was late in the afternoon. These limousines drive up with these obviously Vietnamese officers in full regalia coming up to look at the uniforms that they’re gonna be getting and that just bothered me it really did I mean this is you know, I don’t know I’m so bothered by it to this day why these two high ranking guys come over to see the uniforms that they’re getting not the guns that they’re getting not the tanks that they’re getting not the stuff that they’re getting to fight the war but the uniforms. So what it doesn’t make any- oh anyway, yeah that bothers me.