Vientam War Interview Transcription - Dick Heimovics
ORAL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTION
THE VIETNAM WAR
What memories of WWII do you have?
I vaguely remember when the war was over, because we had a big party. I remember people being quite happy and joyful and there was dancing in the living room, in the home where we lived. We were living with Grandma and Grandpa Peterson in Kansas City, Kansas. At that time I was four years old. That is the only very big memory I have.
What relatives were involved in the war?
My dad had two brothers, all of them would have been in their thirties, dad would of been in his late thirties, George would have been about forty I suspect, and consequently none of them served in the war neither did any of the husbands of any of dad's sisters, since grandma Margaret had no brothers, of course no one on that side of the family was in the war but they all had served in war related industry, in various capacities.
Dad tells a story, your grandfather tells a story of being involved in designing big rubber, huge rubber devices to put wheat in which would be dropped from boats and floated in on a shore at the time of the invasions, apparently these were quite large and I don't even know how widely they were used. My dad's job was to help design that way of delivering large amounts of wheat an easy sort of way. I'm sure that being in the food industry that would have been considered a war related job and cause a deferment, for someone. I think the restriction, criterion was over thirty five without children and over thirty with, I don't quite remember but if you were in the thirties and had kids there was very little chance that you would go to war. Uncle George, dad's brother was employed with ARMCO Steel, I believe no, INLAND Steel, steel manufacturing. Burt I don't really remember. Clarence talks about being involved with design of a couple air bases around town, I think he was directly involved with Whiteman Airforce Base of course some other military facilities in the Kansas City area.
How did you decide to go to Dartmouth? Why?
I suppose it was because my brother went to KU, or at least the idea of going away sounded quite adventuresome to me and I had no idea , well I think I remember why I picked Dartmouth, going to an Eastern school was particularly special and unique, I went to a number of posted recruitment settings and was very impressed with a couple of guys I spoke to, who came from Dartmouth who were graduates of Dartmouth. So I proceeded with an application to Dartmouth and then to KU and it was clear to me that if I planned to go to Dartmouth, I needed to receive a scholarship because it was too expensive. I received a scholarship from the college but it was not sufficient to cover the extra costs however I also applied for, that was a college scholarship, by Dartmouth College, there was also offered a Dartmouth, I mean a Naval ROTC, which at that time, provided full tuition and books and a monthly retainer, which was enough, to cover most costs, consequently, Dartmouth ended up costing my parents less than KU did. I had never seen the campus, I could only read about it but it sounded exciting and it was quite an adventurous idea.
There was some long debate in my mind about whether I should take the naval ROTC scholarship at that time there was a draft and when you were seventeen or eighteen if you were not thinking about where you'd fill your military obligation you really weren't planning very carefully. So I suspect the person who was most influential in encouraging me to take the naval scholarship , to commit myself to becoming a navy officer was Uncle George who took my aside and told me how valuable he thought four years of officer experience was and that as an executive in a company which he was he would not hesitate hiring someone who had had that kind of experience. I closed my eyes and jumped in accepted the NROTC scholarship.
So at the time there was no idea of Vietnam, how did you feel once you ended up there?
The decision to accept the NROTC scholarship would have occurred in the spring of '59 and certainly there was no hint at all that Vietnam would become a major proving ground for many young men in the sixties. I had no idea beyond college about what I would be doing it was really very hard for me at the time I made the choice; you can imagine what the Naval ROTC was. By the time I got to college however the ROTC forces which were not that easy in fact the navy officers who taught them took great pride in trying to be more rigorous than the Dartmouth faculty which really made them quit demanding faculty. I had to take ROTC courses as an overload, so the dual effect of taking ROTC courses which really were not that interesting, studying navy boilers hardly matched studying English literature of the 19th century and the extra load that I carried didn't sit very well with me. The summer cruises were fun, but there was no thought at all about what I would do as a naval officer or even any hint that there would be a war to fight or be involved with the Vietnam War.
When I was a senior, well let me back up, I did everything I could to stay out of ROTC drill, which was also an extra requirement where we had to march with rifles it was not much fun, so I conveniently found ways to not have to march with the rifle , the easiest solution to play rugby. Because rugby practices were in conflict with and anyone who was out for a sport and the sports practices were in conflict with the drills one could play the sport and not have bit drill. I wasn't very military some of the students there were and pretty gung ho about careers or thinking about their future as officers. The last thing on my mind, I hadn't considered what the implications would be.
By the time I was a senior, the fall of 1962, we were invited to meet with the commanding officer of the ROTC unit who I had not met or even seen , I don't think in four years he had a pretty cushy job I suspect. SI had to meet with him to discuss my future as a naval officer and to indicate to him the choices that I would like for service. I had a good friend who was also a ROTC, Luke Edgar or Jeff Lapig I don't remember. Who was faced with the same scheduled meeting , we I recall were sitting in the fraternity house discussing this issue trying to imagine what it would be like serving on either coast and we weren't really, we weren't able to find any reason to go to the Mediterranean or rather go to the Pacific which sounded like great exciting adventurous things to do there was a pause in our discussion and I remember someone else coming up with a copy of the New York Times and in the back pages of the New York Times there was an article about the Cuban missile crisis. So I'm sure that there were articles on the front page but this particular article was an analysis of the potential threat of the missiles that the Russians decided to place in Cuba and there were concentric circles drawn from Havana to show the range of the missiles if one were fired, and all the kinds of missiles the Russians had at the time , the largest rocket that they had was powerful enough to land the missile, the concentric circle included the central part of Vermont and New Hampshire and I remember this guy jokingly saying well you guys don't want to fight a war in the Caribbean do you? Why don't you go out to the west coast… I remember joking with my friend well lets go to San Francisco.
Little did we know that everybody who applied for the west coast ended in SF, and little did we know the odds were very slim that either one of us would land an assignment on a ship in San Francisco, because there were very few at that time. Anyway, we decided we would go to San Francisco and I think we both decided to become Destroyer sailors because it sounded like the real navy. So that is how the decision was made to go to the west coast. I was assigned to a Destroyer in Long Beach; Luke I think was assigned in on in San Diego. So we arrived in our various assignments sometime perhaps in June of '63. Only then was there a glimmer of a problem in Vietnam. So the original question what did it feel like then to discover that I was headed towards a war in Vietnam? I believe it must have been in very late 1963 I would guess I had been on board ship for all of a month or two and had been going to some schools that we learned that the ship was going to deploy for WestPac, the Western Pacific, that sounded really interesting to me and the I think the schedule was for us to leave sometime in the Spring of '64, by the time we left it became clear that the problems in Vietnam were bigger than we had ever even imagined back in the fall of '62 and sure enough our ship was going to head to the western pacific and be involved in some aspect of the sevenths fleet action in the western Pacific. We had no idea what that meant we were told at that time we could find ourselves as far west as the Indian Ocean or as far east as the eastern part of the South China Sea. There was only when we arrived in the Western Pacific that we received our assignments for our duties with the Pacific Fleet.
What exactly was your involvement in 64-6?
So this is now in the summer of ‘64. Our first assignment was to proceed to the Philippines where we were equipped with large machine guns the Destroyers rarely carried machine guns because they were very small weapons but we learned the reason for doing this as there was the possibility that we might encounter small boats at very close range and the addition of these machine guns might be helpful. We didn't know what that meant; we had no assignment, we perhaps the captain had some idea where we were going. We immediately shipped off from the Pacific Bay in the Philippines to an area off the Chinese Coast a few years before there had been a major incident that had occurred as the Red Chinese this time the cultural revolution was at its full flourish the Chinese had claimed that the international boundaries far exceeded the normal 12 mile limit, I think that was the international legal definition of where the legal boundaries of a nation were drawn, I believe that is right. Twelve miles from the actual land base so that is there are islands that fell within 12 miles they could be claimed by the country, whose coast line is considered is considered the main shore line, if I remember right the Red Chinese said were going to claim a 25 mile limit which included two or three or more islands off the Chinese coasts, very near Taiwan at that time Formosa. Formosa of course was where the nationalist Chinese had escaped shortly after Mao Tse Tung came into power after their war. The nationalist army, the republican army had escaped and established a political unit on the island of Taiwan and the Chinese in flexing their muscle decided that they would claim KIMOI and MATSU, are the name of the two islands, I believe that was in 1960/1.
Anyway the American navy said you won't do that there was a show of force. American s had been involved in helping the Taiwanese, the island of Formosa hold claim to these islands I can't remember the full history of the nature of this conflict but we were assigned to go to an area where we were close to these two islands and really quite funny, our job was to head out to sea just beyond the 25 mile limit turn around and head straight to mainland China as fast as he ship could go and once we passed the 25 mile limit the Chinese would turn on their fire control radar which of course had been connected to guns which most likely could sink a navy Destroyer. Our job was to run as fast as we could from there 25 mile limit to the 12 mile limit, not exceeding the 12 mile limit, not creating an incursion within the 12 mile limit, our job was to track the Chinese radar because also in Subic Bay they had special electronic counter measure equipment which could more accurately identify where Chinese radar was. So that in the event there was a war, we would know where the radars were and we could easily, we could track them track us. Basically we played chicken with them however I am sure the American policy makers felt secure that the Chinese would not go to war over a single Destroyer we were the only Destroyer there engaging this kind of craziness.
Is this on the Isabell?
This was a Destroyer called the Arnold J Isbell, designated DD469, it was name named for a WWII fighter pilot that was downed I believe in the battle of the Falcons, this was a ship that had been built too late to be involved in WWII, I think it may have been delivered in '45/"46. Sometime in the early sixties it had been frammed ,was the term I can't remember what the acronym was, it was completely rebuilt with much more modern anti-submarine warfare weaponry and detection, with special kind of rocket fired missiles called Asrock which by the way could be tipped with nuclear weapons so this former WWII Destroyer now became an arm of the nuclear age it was principally designed to do two things one to plane guard with US carriers, secondly to provide anti-submarine warfare protection for the carrier and thirdly to use the five inch guns to fire shells at whatever target was in range with the guns. Anyway, after we finished our responsibilities.
So there was no response from the Chinese?
No, not except for the radar coming on. It was fun. It seemed like an adventurous game at the time also I thought it was kind of silly to play this kind of game, testing the will or trying to play a very serious game with much at stake in case someone was reading the intentions of the other party incorrectly. But we were there for three or four months we went into Koa Shung once and Taiwan and interesting trip into that country but when we left Kao Shung, we left immediately to Vietnam and by this time it was late July of '64. It was at this point the ship I was on was involved in a very interesting and historically important event.
Up until August of 1964, American military policy precluded involvement, precluded bombing of North Vietnam, this was a rapid buildup of American forces principally in South Vietnam but the American s had chosen had not chosen to attack the North Vietnamese in fact I think if I recall our country was saying, Johnson was saying that we are to defend the South Vietnamese, not necessarily to be a military force in North Vietnam. This is a time when we were beginning a very massive buildup of troops in the south I don't remember how many at the time; it was growing by leaps and bounds.
What did I think about becoming involved in a war at this time? There was certainly by this time, there was no serious anti-war resistance movement, in fact most everyone believed we were, most folks were supportive or really unaware of what was going on in Vietnam, supported the idea that we were protecting the Indochinese peninsula from the aggression of the communist threat which included China.
History has shown that, at least I became aware many years later that the Vietnamese were as fearful of the Chinese as they were of the French who had been in Vietnam before the Americans because of the long history in that part of Asia was progressive movements by the Chinese, both politically and economically in that part of Indochina. We were lead to believe, that by helping the South Vietnamese we were preventing a domino effect, was the term I think was used, with the notion being that if one part of that peninsula were to fall, other parts, Cambodia, Laos perhaps Malaysia or Indonesia might fall to the great red.
The war was building up and we were sent on what we were told by our commanding officer a top secret mission but he couldn't tell us what that information was. We joined three other Destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy were two of the four Destroyers and the Isbell and the Edson were the other two. Our job, we found out later, was to provide escort for the landing of South Vietnamese troops commandos, who were landing in North Vietnam they were being transported by small boats, small high speed boats and the American Destroyers were sent as cover to defend them against the possible counter attack by North Vietnamese PT boats.
As we all know, an argument was made the Turner Joy and the Maddox were actually attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats and the Maddox and Turner Joy fired back. We were about 25 miles or so from the Maddox and the Turner Joy, south of where they were, protecting the lower plank of these PT boats. The action taken or the alleged action taken by the North Vietnamese was the basis upon which Johnson then argued in Congress that we should engage in bombing attacks in North Vietnam. It was argued that since the North Vietnamese had attacked our naval Destroyers, then we should have the right to retaliate by bombing the North Vietnamese. When this argument was made, nothing was disclosed about this clandestine attempt to land South Vietnamese commandos on North Vietnam one would probably consider hostile and aggressive act.
Later in fact I think by '67 the anti-Vietnamese movement used this incident as a way of arguing that there had been faulty or inappropriate basis upon which the decision to bomb North Vietnam had been made. I think by that time it had been discovered and determined that these Destroyers were actually covering a South Vietnamese hostile intrusion into North Vietnam and by that time serious questions were raised about whether or not there had actually been a counter attack by North Vietnamese PT boats.
I suppose if you read a history books, and there have been many history books written, many argue that there was never a PT boat attack.
I think the mystery isn't, I'm not sure how much of what I share with you has been documented, and probably most of it has. Before we went over, before we were involved in the covering of these PT boats, we had been advised, the officers who had responsibilities in the combat information center whose responsibilities were to run the ship and all aspects of whatever its mission was we had been informed that there was a particular kind of radar anomaly in that part of the Gulf of Tonkin. This anomaly was a false radar signal which would look very much like a high speed boat and there was no clear explanation of why this anomaly occurred but many thought it was most likely a kind of water fowl, a flock of birds that habituated the Gulf of Tonkin. This particular anomaly that would show up on the radar screens, this anomaly would appear on the radar screen as fairly rapid moving target that would then suddenly disappear. It might be on the radar screen for a short period of time, tracking it for two or three minutes then to find that it was no longer there. We were cautioned to be on the lookout for these skunks we called them, a skunk is a sort of unidentifiable object on the radar screen, and sure enough, I remember when I was in the combat information center seeing any number of these, we all did, we were all quite dismayed by what these were, at some point we might understand that we were beginning to get a little bit edgy about what all this Vietnam stuff was about. There was a very good likelihood that what the Maddox and the Turner Joy saw was one of these radar anomalies.
I think that is probably very likely. I wish I knew more about the specific history and what has been written about this but I do remember after we had finished this tour of duty, we were enroute home, and we were in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and I had a friend Tom Generous, a guy I had met in the summer cruise I had taken in college who had gone to Brown. Tom was the gunnery officer on the Maddox, and the Maddox happened to be in port the same time we were. I was really quite interested in his story about the attack by the North Vietnamese PT boats. Of course by this time there had not yet been the controversy about whether or not here had been an attack, which just all assumed that there had been, and I remember Tom saying that it was dark and it was cloudy there were no lights no one could see anything and he thought it was just as likely that the Turner Joy had fired on the Maddox because there had been a couple places on the ship that had incurred some damage from the fire of a small caliber weapon and that is very likely because in war lots of crazy things happen and people get frightened and become very trigger happy. Tom thought at the time that the actual damage done to the Maddox had been done by the Turner Joy, which would lend support to the notion that perhaps they were engaging in a radar anomaly rather than North Vietnamese PT boats.
But the long short of it is that there was this incursion by the South Vietnamese Navy into North Vietnam. The South Vietnamese at that point had claimed they never did attack North Vietnam, if this had been made public it would have been clear that the South Vietnamese were being aggressive, they were arguing they were being defensive, we were supporting them in the defense and Johnson used this incident as the basis to create the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, in I think August 4, 1964.
On the way over, on this cruise and a few months into the WestPac cruise when we really realized we were no longer just sailors on a Destroyer happy go lucky men cruising in the western Pacific, it was a great adventure but may actually be involved in war; I actually had some thoughts about how grand this was.
I remember many people talking about WWII when I was young and I remember wondering at the time what would I say to my kids or my grandchildren about the Vietnam War and I was thinking it might be a proud sort of moment. Little did I know that as you asked this question now, the history of that whole strange time in American history causes much different kind of storytelling than I suspect. that those who came back from WWII might have told their children or their grandchildren.
The Isbell besides these two missions, was also engaged in some shore bombardment this is the use of the fairly large guns on the ship, they are five inch guns on Destroyers of course battleships have 16 inch guns if that gives to you some idea of how much more powerful the big guns were. But these small guns could be fired from ranges of 8-10 miles into the Vietnamese jungle and we did that often saw palm trees blown up we were told by spotters on shore that two had in some cases destroyed the ammunition depots or different North Vietnamese, Viet Cong staging areas that could be more safely reached by US Navy guns than by army guns or by some other means of destruction. We were really pretty immune to counter attack, 10 or 12 miles off shore. The Viet Cong had no weapons at all that could reach out that far that they could carry down in to the jungle so we were pretty well free to fire guns up and down the coast of Vietnam and so Isbell engaged in those kind of activities they also very much involved with what we call plane guarding this was a role the Destroyers all played, two Destroyers were then assigned to each carrier, one in front and one in back, with the responsibility to plane guard which meant that basically to be available in event an aircraft were to crash, land or be shot down, the Destroyer would be available to pick the pilots up out of the Gulf.
We returned from the western Pacific, I had by that time indicated my decision for a second tour of a four year commitment to two year tours at that point, I had no desire what so ever to make the Navy a career, it also meant leaving the Isbell to some other ship, I kind of liked the Destroyer, it was fun it really is the backbone of the Navy, the Destroyer sailors are out on the sea bouncing around doing multiple things unlike a carrier, if you were an officer on a carrier not flying you are on like a big huge floating monstrous ship which carries aircraft and launches them, the Destroyers had multiple duties. ASW work, anti-submarine warfare work was really quite fascinating and there were time when we would identify a Russian submarine, the Russian submarines were in the Gulf at that time and we would be sent to track the Russian submarine, once the Russian submarine was found there were American Destroyers that knew they were there would head back to the Russian coast all the way back to --------.
In fact one time I believe, yes, at the end of this tour we followed a Russian submarine for almost 700 or 800 miles, they trying to elude us and we trying our best to keep track of this submarine, the submarine is under the water, most likely it must have been a nuclear submarine, so it was a real cat and mouse game each of the two crews testing its ability to outfox the other so that was a real fun chase. I remember we were all quite proud we were able to follow the sub all the way back, and we got kudos from the fleet commander for being so good at ant-submarine warfare. Anyway we headed back, and I at that time decided to serve on a second Destroyer. By the time I got back, we had the wonderful opportunity to go to San Francisco finally for a three month repair, in the San Francisco shipyard, so I finally go to San Francisco, we had three wonderful months ther,e all the people in the shipyard repaired our ship we had a lot of free time to ourselves to really enjoy San Francisco. I went to a few schools, got my new assignment which was to another Destroyer, this time a brand new modern freshly launched guided missile destroyer the Linde McCormick DDG, this time designated destroyer G for guided missile, DDG8, so this was the 8th ship of this class whereas the 469 will tell you how many other destroyers of that class, that kind that had been launched before the Isbell had been launched. So the DDG8 was a brand spanking new Destroyer, before being assigned there I was sent to a very extensive four or five month, I think it was six months engineering officer’s school to prepare me to become a chief engineer of the Navy Destroyer. So anyway I was assigned to the Linde McCormick, shortly thereafter the Linde McCormick headed out for its tour of duty in West Pac.
Meg I'm holding now the saga of events that made a success of the the third deployment of the Linde McCormick to West Pac, in front a message from John A McCook, the captain of the Linde McCormick here is a picture of it, you can see the DDG8, a much more modern Destroyer more sophisticated radar which was used to both provide guidance for the missile system, back here is the missile system, this ship also had the ASROCK, anti-submarine, this would fire missile thousands of yards out to a Destroyer to destroyer submarine and on tipped with a nuclear weapon, meant you didn't need to get close. The ship also had more modern five inch guns than the old guns that were on the Isbell so it was a real fighting machine.
The McCormick headed off to WestPac the seventh fleet on the first of March and returned in late August of 1966. Before we talk about the Linde McCormick, one recollection I'll share - I think it speaks for much of where we were as a country and where the country was in '64. I remember sometime during the WestPac cruise of the Isbell a group of officers and I were discussing what in the world this was, this Vietnam WAR that we were engaging in because we had very little information provided to us about the history of that part of the world we were all quite naive. I and another officer volunteered a plan, which we took the captain to provide educational experiences for the crew. I was a history major and kind of enjoyed the study of history and I can't remember what my buddy's background was. We were at absolutely a loss finding any material to tell us anything about Vietnam, there were libraries, there were small ones on our ship, and the carrier had a much bigger library, and our request to the carrier to send over to us any books on the history of the Western Pacific, it resulted in very little.
I think we finally found one book that had been written sometime in the late forties which only took the end of Chinese peninsula through the late stages of the French occupation/ colonization of that part of the world. It was already a very thin book, with very little in it, but I do remember getting away for a movie that had been made by the defense department, for use by military forces which tried to provide a history of that area. It was very much like a piece of propaganda, I didn't realize fully at the time how much it was. But the image that stands out that I'll never forget was a cartoon picture of a Chinese bear, this Chinese bear in this cartoon in the very beginning of this piece of a short film reached down and gobbled up with his claws Indochina and ate it, I remember when we reviewed this film, just on the floor in stitches realizing that it was hardly an adequate way of explaining or providing some sort of historical background for why we were in Vietnam.
In short we were really unable to do anything for ourselves to help our shipmates understand why in the world we were going to war. It was at that point I suspected for the first time I began to have serious questions myself about what this was all about. What disappointed me, and I suspect I may have had even stronger feelings than that, was that we were going blindly into battle with no clear idea provided to us sailors, not necessarily putting ourselves in harm’s way, because we were pretty safe out there on the ocean, but many other young men were going into battle many of whom never returned with no clear notion of why we were there except to provide a response to regressive actions of the communist world and the intent of the communist to take over all of Southeast Asia.
Little did we know at the time that this was occurring the relationships between Russia and China were severely strained, the aggressive political interests of China at that time represented by the cultural revolution and Mao Tse Tung's rabid nationalism was much a threat to the Vietnamese as it was to the Russians. It was during that time that there were incursions along the border of Russia and China and great strain between those two countries. That did not mean however that the North Vietnamese were not equipped by and provided substantial munitions from both China and Russia. There was clearly a Russian presence in the Gulf of Tonkin and there was always a Russian troller assigned to stay as close as it could to each of the carrier task forces the gulf was small enough that a carrier, in order to launch its ships, would have to take a long run into the wind which may for an hour cover 50-60 miles by the time it had finished launching its ships and get turned around again and they could only go in one direction where the wind was blowing from. The trollers, of course, could not keep up with the carrier but they knew full well that the carrier would have to turn around and come back to where they were, and they would wander over and find themselves usually as close to the carrier as they could get. No question that they were there with high sophisticated electronic gear disguised as a troller either able to see visually when aircraft were launched or be able to determine electronically when aircraft were launched, and provide the North Vietnamese by this time, full warning of when and how many ships or how many planes had been launched and that they would be heading north to Vietnam. Of course, they couldn't tell exactly where but by that time most of those planes were heading into the Hai Phong area, the capital of North Vietnam, to destroy various electrical generating dams and industrial facilities of the North Vietnamese. I remember, look at this yearbook it'll tell you a lot more, a couple things I can remember about the Linde McCormick, one of the things that was very interesting, by this time there was something called a Tom Cat. Tom Cat was a position about 50 miles off Hanoi reserved for one of these guided missile Destroyers. The map doesn't show it very well but this is the Gulf of Tonkin here, and a guided missile Destroyer would be assigned to the Tom Cat position, minutes away from Hanoi by air. A mig jet could fly 800 miles an hour, the Tom Cat would sit at this position, it was a matter of just holding a 2 or 3 knot course and cruising the square for days using the electronic capabilities of the Destroyer to provide a beacon for returning aircraft to align themselves for return to the carrier. Also, the Tom Cat was among, if not the first to know if the aircraft was in danger we had very sophisticated radar and electronic equipment and also we had we were told these guided missile capabilities that could protect us if we were able to see it a mig aircraft soon enough to launch a missile we were told we had maybe a minute and a half to figure this out there was little doubt in my mind that if the North Vietnamese had been able to launch aircraft strikes on Tom Cat they would have but they weren't able to because these Destroyers were very vulnerable. I suspect he reason they didn't was not because they couldn't militarily it was most likely they couldn't because of political reasons had they attacked an American Destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin , and it is most likely that the ante would have been upped even more substantially in the North Vietnamese could have been realistic in their concern about the use of nuclear weapons we have got to remember that in the Korean War, Mc Arthur had clearly proposed the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese and it was that reason MacArthur was withdrawn from this position of leadership of American forces in Korea. So I suspect that piece of political military history is???? As I headed on the Isbell as part of the engineering leadership Lieutenant J.K. Wilson was the chief engineer I was the second in command of the engineering department which gave me responsibilities for damage control and also in main propulsion equipment. I did enjoy working in the bowels of the ship it was kind of fun and interesting to see how this great machine could be kept afloat and kept running without the engineering crew the ship just doesn't function, they provide every source possible to keep the ship afloat there were the B gangs and the boiler technicians and the M gangs those were the folks who composed of the machinists mates who operated the ships main engines and then there was the DC gang these are what we called the super snipes these are the people who kept the lights burning and the refrigerators reefing and lays turning to create parts for the equipment if it was broken the R gang of the super snipes would fix it. That meant air-conditioners that meant light bulbs it meant everything that keeps a ship running so that was my job.
I was also involved as all officers are on destroyers on the bridge running the ship doing ASW, officer of the deck which meant having command of the ship for the 3 or 4 hour watches the work of the McCormick was very demanding by this time, 1966, the war is fully on and we were standing watches that kept us in duty 12-15 hours a day with maybe 5 or 6 hours of sleep at some times for months it seemed.
Back to the time between the Isbell and the McCormick that would have been, early 1965, I remember being in San Francisco when the Isbell was in the shipyard, hearing on the radio someone on a talk show raising serious questions of our involvement in Vietnam and I had no idea that could be happening it was really quite a shock and quite a disappointment there were glimmers of the that if you read Time magazine, but by late '64 and '65 there were no serious objections to our involvement in Vietnam, that was the first of the glimmer of the anti-war movement that I remember by the time we left for Vietnam we had little access to any of that kind of information. We were fighting a war and we had no contact with the anti-war movement and thought very little about that it was no until the McCormick returned in the late '66 that it became clear that there was a very strong anti-war movement.
In my case by that time I could see the end of the tunnel and knew that by May of June of 1967 I would be out, that was all I could think about by that time I was pretty well done in by the Navy. There were many good things about the experience, but there were also things that were not necessarily things that I would like to define my life around, the idea of providing or being involved in defending my country or serving clearly was not an issue for me when I joined the Navy, by the time I left I guess my overall feeling was that I'd done my tour of duty these issues surrounding Vietnam were really somebody else’s at this point I just wanted to get on with my life, so at that point I was trying to make up my mind about graduate school. I had long wanted to go to Europe and had made plans then in early '67 to join Joni in Europe, and by that time she had returned from South America, I think finished most of her degree at KU I think she had a semester, so that was all I could think about and I wanted to get as far away from Vietnam as I could. I didn't have any desire at all to get involved in the peace movement or the anti-war movement. I was only in a cursory way aware of all that because I purposely did not involve myself. I suppose it was a way to keep my sanity about that whole experience to just mark my point in time as having been willing to with no ambiguous feelings to serve my country, but now in retrospect, to think about that time - I realize that the complexities of that whole period, and what a strain it placed on that political structure societal structure of our country. I had little part of that time from '67 on through the '70's. By the time I came back from Europe my objective was clear and unambiguous, that I needed to get on with my life and my career, and that meant graduate school, and that was where my focus was. I suppose by that time now we are talking about the late '60's - '68 or '69 because I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I was wholly aware of the anti-war movement.
It was also a very confusing time in American history with the assassinations of King and Kennedy. I just kept my nose to the grindstone to the books I was now 26, 27 years old, I needed to get my life going and a career identified and that was where my focus was.
Who close to you did you lose in Vietnam? What was your experience with death in Vietnam? Did you ever fear your life?
I never ever felt at any time that I was in a position where my own life was at risk, but I wonder whether or not unless you are facing bullets flying over your head that you think about that. I suspect most soldiers believe before the battle starts you are invulnerable and nothing is going to happen to them. So I guess I am saying we were at risk but we were certainly not at risk as were troops on the ground or in some cases officers that I knew, friend s of mine who for their second tour volunteered for the small boats, I can't remember what they were called. These were no PT boats but they were small boats to cruise the rivers of Vietnam. This was a wonderful opportunity we were told as Lieutenant junior grades to have command of our own ship at the tender age of 23 or 24 and I had many friends who thought that would be kind of exciting, but they clearly had no idea what they were getting into because not very many of them lived to come home and tell their children these stories about Vietnam. There was a moment, and I remember thinking about how exciting it would be to be a commanding officer of my own small ship. These ships would cruise up and down the rivers and the delta doing various missions. I'm sort of glad I didn't, I did have a good friend of mine that I had met in the Navy who was killed on one of these boats.
The other thing that I can say, the McCormick was a much more sophisticated ship than the Isbell and it had anti-warfare capabilities because of its missiles. Consequently officers on the Isbell were involved with air control responsibilities although I was not qualified to handle an aircraft, although we had officers and crew who could do that as air control officers. We were involved in keeping track of where aircraft were and what was happening to them. By that time the US was involved with the war in Vietnam, so daily there would be reports often, in the case where two or three American aircraft would be shot down and we would know about that because we were also serving in the part of the ship, the radio shock it was called where top secret messages were processed - there always had to be an officer on watch ready to take a top secret message and to be qualified and cleared to do top secret decoding which was a very complicated process of decoding the information and recoding it so people could understand it. Most of the decoding resulted in words that were indistinguishable because they were Vietnamese and sometimes we weren't certain whether our decoding was correct because some strange word would be decoded and it wouldn't even seem like a Vietnamese word and that often befuddled us. Each watch there would most often be the name of an American pilot who had been shot down, in some often killed or missing and they would list them by name and the ship they were off of, so it had being going on for many months.
Bill Heap was a very close friend of mine in High School, we played football together, Bill was president of the student body at East and I was his campaign manager when he ran for student body president. He’d been involved in my campaign as senior class president and although he was a year behind me. We were just very good friends, Bill had been dating a girl named Sandy, who still maintains contact with me that how close our relationship has been for so many years now. Bill was the son of a TWA executive here in Kansas City and I remember Bill deciding to take an NROTC scholarship to Northwestern. He was interested in becoming a TWA pilot. His thinking, much like me being prior to Vietnam, was I could go into the Navy, learns how to fly, became a Navy pilot, leave the Naval service and start flying for TWA. Little did he know this decision would cost him his life. As Bill's phantom aircraft was launched from a carrier it apparently had engine failure before it could become fully airborne and turtled over, tanked up and went down 600 or 700 yards in front of the aircraft carrier. He was not shot down, but he was killed as his aircraft was being launched for a bombing mission over Vietnam. So my best friend from High School was killed in Vietnam.
I knew classmates at Dartmouth, none of them well, who died in Vietnam. Most of the people I knew were by that time skillfully engaged in avoiding military service because as you probably learned there were ways for people, particularly at that time, by heading off to Canada, or discovering an illness or faulty knee or something that could give them a deferment. Certainly there was also the deferments for people going on to graduate school and those deferments were eliminated I think by '71 or '72, but my generation, most of the people I knew did not go to Vietnam, most of my friends did not serve in Vietnam very few did. That's because I guess I was coming from a fairly well educated group of people, there were a lot of men my age who did serve in Vietnam but not many of my friends. Of course they were all graduates as I was in '63 but most of them had by '64 or '65 seen the handwriting on the wall, had not been drafted, there was not much of a high probability of being drafted but they either went into the National Guard, the National Guard was really a popular way of avoiding the war.
The National Guard meant you had a six month tour and then you would be assigned to the state national Guard unit and that was absolute guarantee that unless there was a major war that you would not be sent bit Vietnam, you would serve your duty here, six months, then you would be in reserves and that would be it. Many went on to graduate school, many went on to graduate school for a long time, they kept going back to graduate school because it provided a deferment so that's how most of those folks kept away from Vietnam. I knew a number of friends at Dartmouth who were in the Naval ROTC, I didn't know many guys who were in the army or the air force ROTC. The fellows from Dartmouth went on to the Marine Corps, many of them were involved very much with Vietnam - in fact there is a guy I know Dave Downy who is almost inert now, he has no use of arms or legs, and he is being fed by a 24 hour a day care. He has been in this condition for about 12-15 years, and he maintains and I think probably in his case, his condition is a result of contamination by Agent Orange, Agent Orange was an antifoliant that was sprayed all over Vietnam and sprayed on Vietnamese and American soldiers. Dave was Marine officer in a platoon. So guys like Dave and a few of the guys in the Navy unit who went Marine Corp, suffered these sorts of tragic ends to their life very early in their lives. Sometime I thought I might look Dave up, because he and I were really pretty good friends in college. But he is long away and I've kind of lost track of where he is.
How did your family feel about Vietnam and your involvement? Were they supportive, worried?
The only person who gave any indication at all was mom. I remember Mom crying when I left and Mom being very worried. But I tried to reassure them that there was not a whole lot of risk in my circumstances, but I can't believe that made a whole lot of difference in her. They were at that time, Mom and Dad were traveling, because Dad was working for the World Bank and they were all over the world, in Nicaragua, South America, Indonesia, and I suspect that by virtue of where they were in the world they were unaware of a lot of things that were going on in Vietnam most particularly, I'm sure they were unaware of the anti-war movement that was developing at that time. I don't think, I don't remember anyone, except Mom being concerned and her concern was never really voiced a whole lot. I came home on leave maybe once a year for a short period of time and it was really wonderful, great to see them all we just enjoyed each other’s company and talked very little about the war.
So you never got involved with the anti-war movement because you shoved it in the back of your mind, you just wanted to forget about it?
It wasn't a case of just wanting to forget about it, as much as, I was in the Gulf of Tonkin mostly during the sixties, that is when the anti-war movement really took off. Later, all I could think about was getting out of the Navy. We were very busy in overhaul of the destroyer and I was working my tail off in doing my job but also trying to figure out my plan for my future, that was in 1967. So I don't think that...My focus was clearly on something else. I did not want to sap my energy. I suspect psychologically as well I did not enjoy my naval experience at that time, and in retrospect, I have maybe a bit more appreciation for what I learned and the value of those experiences, but at that time I just wanted to get out. I didn't want to get out necessarily because there was an anti-war movement, I had committed myself eight years before as a high school senior in 1958, and this was 1967. I'd made the decision at the time, I think based on good judgement a sense of commitment. I would have made that decision again if I were back at that period at that time with that historical context. So by '67 I had said well, look, this thing had not quite turned out the way I had ever expected it to, and neither did anyone else, but I didn't let it labor me, I didn't feel the need to join in and protest the war. I suspect if I had it would have been very difficult for me. It would have been difficult emotionally I would have to deal with the ambiguity and dissonance of those feelings and I didn't have the energy for that. The energy I wanted to direct.
Did you feel disrespect from other people?
Did I feel any disrespect from others having served in Vietnam, very little? I was never; even when I was in graduate school at KU in the late '60s did I experience that. I suppose that is because most folks didn't ask questions about whether I was involved in Vietnam. But in those years KU was burning I think in '68-9, there were fire bombs, the University was closed down a number of times, there were people hurt. These actions coincided with the Kent state massacre and those other desperate events. Now you ask about the civil rights movement. For me that was something else, for many folks the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement were intertwined and folks who were involved in one were also involved in the other. There was often an overlap of people whose interests were shared on those two issues.
Clearly the civil rights movement was something I was very much concerned about and became knowledgeable and read about, tried to fully understand. This was before I went to KU; this was in '67 when I was a graduate student in Missouri, Kansas City, before KU. I became very much involved as many of us were in trying to deal with these issues. I pursued a graduate degree in Public Administration with the intent of working on those issues, from a management perspective. Because urban administration and urban management were interests for me, I spent 2 years working on those programs, working particularly on the model cities program, which was one of the most extensive government attempts to try to effect change, provide new cities for the urban core. That also helps explain where my energies and thinking and feelings were at that time. If I was committed with any kind of passion to anything outside of who I was in my life.
At that time I had not decided on the PhD. In fact that didn't come until '68-9, but rather my interests at that time what I decided to do get involved in urban management, urban issues and I went to work as the second person hired by the man who came from Newark, a guy named Jimmy -----,to run the model cities in Kansas City. He was the first black graduate of Warton - one of the finest business schools at that time at the University of Pennsylvania, he came to Kansas City in '66 to leave the fires of Newark, he said, because he thought there could be some hope that something in cities like Kansas City. So I got involved with him and I worked with him I worked for him. He told me that he hired me and a couple other young white whiz kids because there are no good black young managers available for him, that he could get cheaply. All the good ones would be hired and swept up by people paying much higher salaries. But there were many of us at that time, young white guys in our mid-twenties or thirties who were very much involved in trying to effect change. I guess I was more involved with and interested in trying to some urban problems as I was involved with the civil rights movement. But they often coincided because the work I did was most often done in the black community with black leaders who were very much part of the civil rights movement. For me I separated the anti-war movement from that whole.
Civil Rights, Jim Crowe and JFK?
I kept a journal/log from the late '63 it’s called the platform, it says on the front when you pick up the platform handle it with kid gloves and an open mind, and then a quote from Lawrence Durell, who wrote four books called the Alexandra Quartret, Durell is quite a writer I don't know if you have discovered him yet.
"A diary is the last place to go if you wish to seek the truth about a person; nobody dares to make the final confession of themselves into paper." Any way the first entry is dated the 24, 1963....
24 Nov. 1963
I return this time with info. Shocked filled and emotionally depleted I virtually witnessed (verbally) President Kennedy's murder this afternoon. As Jerry Brown put it- "it's something you just can't get your arms around." I don't know whether to feel fear or hate. I still can't comprehend it.
I will never forget!
I walked into the wardroom and a few of my fellow officers were cuddled around the radio. When they said Kennedy and the gov. had been shot I didn't believe then. The radio reports were coming in- I thought it was a dramatic play or something similar but it took little more than to see the fear doubt and apprehension on everyone's face to know it was true, I sat down and my heart beat rapidly. It is one of those times you know you are alive - you feel everything.
Ten minutes later everyone sat down to eat. I was left out as usual being junior on board waiting my turn- but this time I was glad. I couldn't have eaten. At that time we still did not have official reports of whether Kennedy was dead or alive. Suddenly a report as sharp as the assassins bullet came from the radio speaker: "Pres. Kennedy is dead from a bullet wound in the head." Immediately Lt. Monk lifted his hand unconsciously to his head, stroking his hair and looking rather pathetically into his food. He did not eat either. We sat stunned.
It was still and /unbelievable
I felt flat and deflated and sat in disbelief. The announcer asked for silence and I tried to say something with my head bowed but I was unable to. Quiet filled the wardroom. I was glad when the silence was over.
I sit now, one hour later trying to express my feelings. I can't. I believed Kennedy to be a strong great President. The shock of his death should bring hate but it doesn't. Fear yes-- fear for the potential implications but not this soon, not until the reaction is over, the emotion soothed. I wait....Vice President's wife Mrs. Johnson quoted Mrs. Kennedy as having said while the CC "see, they don't really dislike you in Dallas." Reporters were that the yellow roses given to Mrs. Kennedy at her arrival at the Dallas airport still lie in the back seat of the blood stained car.
The chaplain of the senate stated- "Today the President was cut down like a green cedar tree."
May the murderer be found.
Our flag is at half-mast and I close to go to bed for a while. I feel a little sick. Maybe when I wake up I'll find it all didn't happen.
29 Nov. 1963
The same curve of life has returned. The routine is in effect and we have a new President. A great man is dead. Better words than I could express have already been said. The body has been buried. Remorse, yes, fear- not as before. It is now more a feeling of the continuous flow of life ups and downs. This week the world experienced one of its lowest points. I'm sorry I had to experience it. I wish I could say more. Whatever you do, don't stop for me world.
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