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My Junior Year Abroad in Vietnam and What I Learned
By Bill Thompson
Fifty years ago, I returned from the "Republic of South Vietnam" after a year in the United States Navy. I left home in Mississippi a naïve all-American southern boy and returned older, stronger perhaps, even a man, but much more enlightened. In short, it was the most educational year of my life.
I ended up in Vietnam via the back door, not the front door. As a freshman in junior college trying to do all those things that college freshmen do, I ended up quitting school during my second semester. The Registrar considered it her obligation to let the draft board know that a dropout was no longer entitled to a college deferment and was rumored to immediately call the local head of the Selective Service while you were submitting withdrawal paperwork. Thus, I joined the Naval Reserve before visiting her office.
After boot camp at Great Lakes, I re-enrolled in college. For the next three semesters, I attended my college classes along with reserve drills, which included classes on seamanship and other esoteric Navy subjects like knot-tying. My two-week Christmas break from school was spent on a destroyer in Charleston harbor in floating drydock. My only time on a ship was mainly spent painting. I still hate painting.
In the Spring of 1968, about a dozen of us received orders for active duty. I requested deferment until I completed college but that was ignored or denied. Most in our group were sent to Charleston, SC for assignment to the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. Two of us were sent to Long Beach, CA, not Long Beach, MI.
The morning after a long flight I woke to the sound of Marines outside the barracks chanting the cadence, "go fight, kill, kill the Cong, kill the Cong!" Oh, shit! Where am I, what is happening? My orders were to Survival School in Norfolk, Virginia. Apparently, I was not going to a ship: no Hawaii, no fun in the sun with the Pacific Fleet. Survival School, or Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE), was for sailors in a war zone.
We had classes for several weeks accompanied by lots of PT. It was an accelerated or refresher boot camp and then some. Our final week we were sent to live off the land in the "jungles" of Virginia at Camp A.P Hill. We were permitted to take one pack of cigarettes and two candy bars, but no other food, provisions, or weapons. We were armed only with the totally inadequate knowledge imparted in the classroom. For a week, we were deprived of sleep and nourishment and sent on forced marches day and night at the direction of "friendly natives" under constant harassment from the "enemy." Both roles were too willingly played by Seals, Marines and/or other special ops forces. These were our instructors who we had specific orders "not to strike no matter what they did to us."
The week ended with our capture and imprisonment in a "mock" prison camp. I could write a book on that last 24 hours, but I will just say that the persons who committed the torture and other atrocities at the infamous Abu Graib prison in Iraq used the same playbook right down to waterboarding that our instructors used during this "training exercise." After our rescue, I was served ham and egg C-rations, which was a wonderful meal.
Upon our arrival at NAS DaNang, we were issued green fatigues to replace our dungarees. Everyone wore the same uniforms "so the snipers could not pick out the officers" although "Camp Tensha is the safest place in all of Vietnam," said the instructor in our brief orientation class. "We did not take any fire during the entire Tet Offensive." Several weeks later, we took fire with casualties.
Initially, I was assigned to the base Master-at-Arms where I stood guard duty at night and did janitorial work and head duty in a Seabee's barracks during the day. Not particularly enamored with this duty, I requested a transfer to a friend's riverboat. If I had to be here, I wanted to do my part and fight. My friend's boat was hit by rocket fire in the DaNang harbor before my transfer came through. He, fortunately, was thrown clear and made it out alive. Since I had two years of college, I requested a transfer to the supply division.
My transfer to supply came through, but it was supply at NSAD Chu Lai, further out in the boonies. Crap! Chu Lai was a relatively secure duty station. We had about 800 sailors on a small peninsula jutting out into the ocean, surrounded by the HQ for 50,000 members of Americal Division, along with both Marine and Air Force bases. I worked 10 to 12-hour shifts in a warehouse issuing supplies to just about every unit stationed in the area. The inside joke was "even the VC's supplies came across our boat ramps." Indeed, the whole economy of the area was dependent on the US military presence.
Notably, at bases in both DaNang and Chu Lai, there were many young Vietnamese men my age who were employed as civilians making pretty good salaries, I presumed, doing many of the same tasks as our servicemen. They were hard workers but there was something wrong. What were they doing working for us instead of fighting in the South Vietnamese Army defending their country? I guess they knew someone or were the sons of important people in the South Vietnamese government.
One afternoon the Chief asked for a volunteer to work the night shift. Although I knew the adage about never volunteering, I quickly stepped forward. While a civilian working at a bank during college, I learned that the bank officers, other VIPs, and those who thought they were important did not work nights. In the military it is pretty much the same; at NSAD Chu Lai only one officer, the OOD, worked the night shift. Night duty was more laid back than the day shift.
We occasionally took rocket fire, but they rarely hit our narrow peninsula. Most rockets missed and landed in the water on one side or the other. Since most attacks were at night, our primary task during an attack was to round up the Vietnamese workers and secure them in a bunker. This served to protect them and us. Safely guarded in the bunker, a VC infiltrator in our ranks would be unable to cause any mischief during the attack.
One night at the enlisted men's club, the Skipper's yeoman let it out that Admiral Zumwalt had issued a directive permitting any sailor leaving Vietnam with less than one year remaining on his enlistment to be released on request. Seems like so many men were joining the Navy to keep from being drafted and they had to make room for the new recruits. That directive was BUPERS Message 16.16.16Z, dated August 16, 1969. It is funny how you remember something like that after 50 years.
With less than a year to go on and orders for the USS Platte just off the coast, I jumped at the chance to sign up. Several hundred sailors lined up at the personnel office the next morning for the details. While going through the chain of command, my lifer senior chief tried his best to talk me out of it. "Sea duty will make you a man and you will learn a lot." My response was that the Navy had already taught me an "awful" lot, but I needed to go back to college. Under the directive, he had no choice but to approve my request.
As my tour was ending, rumor was that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the enemy, had a stroke or heart attack and was near death. The South Vietnamese employees on our base in Chu Lai wore black armbands for a week, after all, he was their national hero! What were we doing there?
My junior year abroad made me a skeptic. I learned to question almost everything, especially politicians who make unproven statements to justify going to war. In the 50 years since, many other young men have been sent off to "war" by presidents of both parties claiming to protect America's rarely defined "national interests." If you can't trust the President and the government about the reasons for war, who can you trust? Today, once again, our president pushes towards war echoing that familiar refrain.
In the Constitution, the People of the United States gave the power to declare war to Congress and only to Congress—not to the President. It is our patriotic duty as citizens to be skeptical when the president and the government try to involve us in tribal wars, civil wars, and oil wars all while claiming it is in our "national interest." The Navy taught me a lot, indeed!
Bill Thompson is an attorney. He recently retired after over 40 years of practice. He resides with his wife in Jackson, Mississippi.