Late in the afternoon this past Memorial Day, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. The weather was muggy and the crowds had thinned out. There were groups of high school classes, some foreign tourists, and families walking by the Wall. As I walked slowly away from the memorial, carrying my baseball cap and still feeling the effects of a summer chest cold, a group of high schoolers passed me by at twice my pace.
I heard a young girl’s voice. “Thank you sir.”
I looked up not knowing to whom she was talking or why. A teenager with her friends was looking back at me. She smiled. And then I realized she had seen the insignia on the cap in my hand. USS Windham County LST 1170 was printed over the ship’s profile.
I didn’t know what to say. I’d never had a stranger say that, let alone a youngster. I felt a little embarrassed, then grateful, and then I felt something more. Her words were more than a courteous greeting – she was affirming something she valued.
One generation passes on its values, which are picked up by the next, in sometimes unexpected ways. From day to day, we don't see that transfer, but it is there. And that’s one reason to keep at this task of people-helping-people, of upholding our cooperative spirit. Because whether we see it tangibly, what we do is being picked up. We do good, they pick up good; we do ill, they pick up ill.
40 Years Ago: Vietnam
After a six-month deployment that began in December 1970, I believe we are heading back to Japan. LSTs have various tasks in the Far East. We carry marines and their equipment from Okinawa to Mt. Fuji; we head south to Subic Bay to join up with Ready Group Alpha or Bravo. At a top speed of seven knots, the flat-bottom LSTs have to leave several days early to be in position when the rest of the Ready Group arrives to patrol the Vietnamese coast.
This time, however, our big assignment is to replace an LST as a support ship for Solid Anchor, a joint Vietnamese/US Navy fort on the Cam Mau peninsula at the tip of Vietnam. At DaNang Harbor, we fill the tank deck with ammunition, 40-gallon barrels of aviation fuel, and other logistical support for the base from the T we relieved. It takes all night. The deck hands who aren’t loading cargo and ammunition patrol the top deck, periodically dropping concussion grenades over the side to prevent sappers (Vietnamese commando units) from attaching mines to the docked ships.
Approximately three days later we are on station, off the East Coast where the Son An Doc River drains into the China Sea. All the water is brown. Defoliation makes the rivers and coastal sea look like a muddy pool.
The LST is the Navy’s most versatile support ship. Designed to facilitate beach landings during WWII, the newer, larger version transports troops, carries supplies, supports flight operations as well as papa boat landings, and, if necessary, provides gunfire support. We used all this versatility in the 90 days or so on station. During hot turnarounds, where the helicopter gunships land, refuel, and take off without shutting down their engines, the fire crew is kneeling at the ready, hoses fully charged. We provide clean water, fuel, and food to crews of Vietnamese patrol boats. We are an emergency hospital and evacuation center if necessary.
But mostly, it’s daily chores and waiting for the chopper from Saigon to bring the mail. As supply officer, I spend two or three days a week on shore. We pay the Seal detachment that is the center of operations, run a ship’s store outlet, cook special meals for the base (turkey on holidays), do laundry, and send in the ship’s barber. We cookout on the flight deck, using fuel drums cut in half as barbeque pits. The captain puts cases of beer in the papa boats tied alongside the LST for “beer calI” so we don’t violate the “no alcohol at sea” rule.
From my bunk, I listen to Bob Hope’s live performance on Armed Forces radio. When I was growing up, my family always watched Hope’s GI holiday specials; it reminded them of their time in Word War II.
Solid Anchor is just like a fort in an old Western movie. Watch towers, a moat around three sides with palisades and barbed wire. The Vietnamese rangers live with their families outside the base while the American Army and Seals, together with their Kit Carson Scouts, live inside the base. The helipad at the far end is the base’s primary lifeline to the outside; although there are regular river patrols, it is the helis that connect us to Saigon and other bases.
This is a quiet period in Vietnam. Depending on the helicopter schedule, I sometimes stay overnight on the base. One of those nights coincides with the Tet New Year. The entire Vietnamese community celebrates with improvised fireworks. They shoot magnesium flares, which are used to light a battlefield during a ground probe so gunships can take off and provide support, into the air. The flares float lazily down, their little parachutes keeping them airborne for up to five minutes. The ship thinks the base is under attack and can’t raise us on the radio but finally surmises that if we needed help, we’d have asked for it.
When “on the beach” I stay in the pilot’s hooch. The pilots are the professional gunslingers. Most have re-upped multiple times for Vietnam in-country tours of duty. They have one job: Get airborne if there is an attack and don’t get caught on the ground. Every pilot and gunner has his own personal blend of weapons, including Israeli Uzi’s, AK 47s, and Czech machine pistols. It’s part of their machismo.
When I stay with them, they give me a Czech submachine gun. They show me how to take off the safety and hang it on the bed frame outside the mosquito netting that covers the bunks. One night there are incoming rounds. The sirens go off, the flares go up, and the helicopters take off. The base is in full alert. I go to a sand-bagged bunker surrounding the hooch and listen as the mortars start firing with their outbound whoomps.
No probes are detected, and the all-clear sounds after 30-60 minutes. I am covered with mosquito bites. The incoming rounds were as close as I got to combat, and the mosquito bites the closest I got to flesh wounds.
Today: The FDR Memorial
My primary reason to visit the Mall this past Memorial Day was to talk with World War II veterans. These are my dad’s generation. At the WWII Memorial there were families and bus loads of tour groups, but none of the older folk of that generation. I told my wife it was probably too late for most of them to still be up.
My wife wanted to visit the FDR Memorial, her favorite Mall monument, before it closed at 20:00. She dropped me off to find parking, and I headed to the visitors shop for a brochure. Inside, a young man saw my hat and said, “Thank you for your service, sir.”
Memorial Day focuses on the past, but it does something more than honor memories. It gives new generations the opportunity to affirm who they want to be. During the Fourth of July we celebrate our forefathers for affirming their independence. Those values of tenacity, perseverance, and success in the face of adversity, of standing apart but standing together are evident in our credit union system today. A younger generation is picking up the call, and I like what I am hearing.