Chapter Four

There were many things to get used to at my new duty station, but the greatest was the step backwards in time. I had been glad to get out of high school and into the “adult” world when I graduated and started work with General Motors, the “do as I do or pay the price” thing in school didn’t sit too well with me and I managed to become the target of every bully around. In the auto plant, you were an adult regardless of your age and they treated you as such. Going into the Navy was pretty much the same - until Da Nang. It was like I was back in high school again; if you didn’t think and act like the rest of the guys, it was as if you had a sickness. I’m getting ahead of myself again but as an example, I quickly discovered that the accepted state of being was to be either drunk, getting drunk or hung over. If you weren’t one of those three, you were treated like something was wrong with you. And since I don’t drink, I really paid the price. At one point a group of my (drunk) co-workers dragged me the length of our barracks in my underwear (they pulled me out of bed just before “lights out”), they decided I was going to go drink with them or else. Fortunately, since they were VERY drunk, they forgot what they were up to before they got me outside.

Another example involved one of the guys (who also happened to be from Michigan) I went over to Viet Nam with. I first meant “John” (not his real name) in boot camp and since he was also assigned to Storekeeper School in Newport, I got to know him better there. At Da Nang he was separated from the rest of us and was assigned to different division at the Supply Depot. Those of us who had been with him knew that “John” was a bit different but he was a great guy and could do the job he was trained to do as well as any of us - and we quickly learned to overlook his idiosyncrasies (John could make an entire set of railroad cars out of simple poster board material just by folding, cutting and pasting sections together – he was truly an artist). A few weeks after beginning his job at the Supply Depot, John went missing. In a “closed” situation like Da Nang was at that time, a missing person was cause for great alarm; it usually meant that parson had gone AWOL (Absent With Out Leave) and/or had been killed. A day later we heard that John had been found in a chopper that was parked at a small chopper pad at the other end of the Supply Depot. John insisted that he wanted to go home and we were told it took 6 Marines to get him out of that chopper. So he went home. We eventually learned that John had cracked as a result of the constant harassment he had received from the co-workers of his division. John wouldn’t do as they did, so they tormented him constantly - and without the support the rest of us who knew him better could have given him, he went over the edge. I got a letter from John a few months later; he was out of the Navy, back in Michigan and doing just fine. He probably never belonged in the military to begin with, but I think he could have handled it if not for the childishness of the guys in Da Nang.

We worked 10 Section Duty at Cold Storage, which means we worked nine days straight, then had one day off. We didn’t have to stand any perimeter watches, as the supply depot and Camp Tien Sha had it’s own security forces. In fact, we weren’t even allowed to carry weapons (although most of us managed to acquire a large hunting type knife sooner or later – we had to have those to open cardboard boxes, or so we claimed). The only exception was during the Tet period, when they asked for volunteers to help augment the security force. Needless to say, I did NOT volunteer for that. On your “off” day, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted, but stuff that had to be done (like getting a haircut at the Korean ran barber shop) took up much of the day. There were busses running regularly between the various bases (see the map) and you were free to ride the bus or hitchhike to the Navy Exchange (it’s like Wal-Mart) at Freedom Hill or China Beach if you wanted to. Camp Tien Sha also had an exchange, but it was very small and stocked only basic items. The Enlisted Men’s Club at the Air Force base was also a popular spot but I never went there.

Below, hitching a ride to work. Note the typical roadside attractions and the traffic. Da Nang was dry and sandy for the most part (except during the worst of the rainy season), nothing like the rice paddy topography generally associated with Viet Nam.

On a regular workday, I would get assigned one of two jobs, as follows:

Job #1 was that of “Checker”. Performing that job meant getting assigned to one of the outside supply people who had come to the base to get supplies for their people/base. You would be given a list of what they needed, how much they needed (boxes of food) and what reefer box it was stored in. You also carried a HUGE ring of keys, to access the boxes. By the way, a reefer box was a large, walk-in type freezer; made of prefabricated sections that could be assembled to make refrigerated boxes of various sizes. We had a couple dozen “banks” of those reefer boxes, several hundred boxes in all.

If you were lucky (if it was raining), the driver would let you ride inside his truck as you moved from box to box. If he was a jerk, you had to ride on the running board. You directed him to the reefer box he needed to go to, unlocked the box and then counted out the boxes of food to him, based on what his sheet said. Sometimes you would help him load the boxes but sometimes not; it just depended on how many of his own people he had brought with him (and if he made you ride on the running board). Marines like to work, so:

When he had all his required boxes of food, you took his paperwork back to the office and turned it in, then picked up your next driver. Some days were non-stop but other day’s business could be pretty slow. Between drivers, you waited in a “lounge” (that is really stretching it), complete with a pool table (which appeared to have taken several rocket hits), an air conditioner (which only worked about 50%) and a couple tables to play cards on, or in my case, write letters home on. Here’s our lounge (a little blurry, sorry), complete with a few guys waiting for their next job:

Job #2 was that of Team Leader. Basically you were assigned a group of Vietnamese laborers (2 to 8 or 10 but usually 3) and given a task to perform. That task, normally, was to unload the trucks coming in from the Deep Water Pier and store their boxes of food in a reefer box. Whether I helped or stayed a supervisor depended on how many guys (and women) I was assigned, how fast the trucks were coming in and whether the team wanted help. Many of the laborers preferred to do the work themselves because they had years of experience and we usually had less then one year in country. The "fog" in the photo below is due to the hot, humid air from outside coming into the reefer box.

Another task was consolidation – we often ended up with reefer boxes with just a couple boxes of food in them, so we would consolidate those boxes with other reefer boxes of the same food. That was usually a “slow day” task.

Sometimes there were messes to deal with. Boxes of fruit (apples, oranges, etc.) were very soft and easily damaged and after a reefer box had been in use for a week or two, this (below) is often how it ended up looking. The damaged boxes had to be sorted and their contents salvaged, if possible.

We had our own reefer box where we could put stuff that couldn’t be issued due to partially full or damaged containers. We had everything in there you could imagine, from grapes and apples to luncheon meat. And now and then a box of hamburgers and/or steaks got damaged (mysteriously) and ended up in our reefer box, too. We traded with some of the other divisions at the supply depot for stuff like bread, butter, ketchup and mustard, etc., to use to make sandwiches. The night shift grilled regularly but because of all the big shots (officers) hanging around, we didn’t get to do that on the day shift. In terms of eating healthy, that 7 months in Da Nang was probably my high point – I was constantly snacking on bunches of grapes, etc.

Now and then the teams got in a little fun. Us newer guys who didn’t know about her were pretty stunned when this mamasan (the nickname for all the female laborers) started juggling oranges like a pro.

On a couple occasions (like right before Tet) I was given a team and tasked with filling sandbags. That was at least partially a “make work” job and both my team and I usually made it less work and more relaxation because the “fill sand bags” site was away from the officers prying eyes.

It wasn’t always fun and games, however. In one instance, a team that was working on a reefer box consolidation project was riding on the back of our large truck, along with boxes of food they were moving. Our driver accidentally turned in front of another truck, which was on the main road that ran through the supply depot. Our truck got broadsided and the team and cargo were thrown out.

One of the team members (laying on the ground with his knee showing) was seriously injured and was hospitalized. A couple others had minor injuries and were treated on scene. There was mutual responsibility for this accident (the other truck had been speeding), so neither driver was totally at fault. I don’t remember if either was punished.

Another common occurrence was Sea Land vans tipping over. Some of the blacktopped areas between the reefer banks had tricky hills at one end and if you turned just right with a semi truck and trailer (especially with the front stand still extended), this was the result:

Our working days were pretty routine – arrive at Cold Storage, find out what your job was for that day, and then go to work. The supply depot was relatively secure during daylight hours, so we didn’t worry about that too much except during Tet. The night shift had to be a lot more careful because it was a large base and although the parameter was patrolled and guarded, we all knew the VC could get on base if they wanted to bad enough.

I’ve mentioned Tet several times so perhaps now is a good time to sidetrack a bit and explain it for those who don’t remember it. During the Tet Offensive (January 30th. to September 23, 1968) the VC and NVA (Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army) surprised our forces in Viet Nam with some nasty and unexpected attacks – we had no idea they could coordinate attacks across the entire country like that. In the end they failed to achieve their objective, but they caught us so flat footed that our military put forth a special effort every year after that to make sure it didn’t happen again. For more on that, visit your local library or use an Internet search engine. The days at the end of January and the first part of February were considered to be the most critical and most bases added extra security during that time period.

Now back to our daily grind. A typical shift ran from 9 to 11 hours, depending on how busy we were. Around noon the Roach Coach would show up with lunch. It wasn’t always the greatest, but I’m positive it was better then what many of the guys out in the bush received.

At quitting time the on-duty guys would stay until the night shift arrived, the rest of us headed back to Camp Tien Sha. After a quick and much needed shower, it was off to the mess hall - if you didn’t mind the lines. In the following photo, the mess hall is way down the street, the last big roof you can see on the left side. But the food was always top notch, easily the best I had during my entire time in the Navy - and totally free. You had to get your own food, but once you had it and were seated, Vietnamese waitresses would bring you anything else you needed, like more milk, coffee, etc. They also cleaned up the tables afterwards.

Next is a scene from inside the mess hall, when the Thanksgiving meal was served. How about that, tablecloths, even!

For those like me who hated standing in a long line, there were a few alternatives. If you had money, you could always eat at the EM Club (Enlisted Man’s Club), which I never did. Next alternative, and my favorite, was to get a shrimp dinner at Snoopy’s. Snoopy’s was a snack bar operated by the Chief Petty Officers (highest grades in the enlisted ranks) and staffed by Vietnamese. They offered the usual hamburgers, BLT’s etc, but the shrimp dinner was my favorite.

And I wasn’t the only one who loved their shrimp.

If I remember correctly, the big guy with the hat dumped the ketchup tray just after I shot this. Nobody said anything, though. His nickname was “Bear” - he was the size of one and had the temper to go with it when he was drunk (he is one of the ones who dragged me down the barracks when I wouldn’t go drinking with him). I noticed something else in this photo after I scanned it for this page – I wonder how many guys developed skin cancer after their service in Nam. The guy at the lower right has some nasty looking stuff on his back.

The last alternative was food from home. During my entire time in Viet Nam I had a pretty good private supply line coming from the states, thanks to my wife-to-be, her mother and my mother. Many of the ladies from my church also contributed. In Da Nang it was mostly boxes of homemade cookies but now and then some canned goods got to me, too, so it was possible to make a fairly good meal out of just what I had stashed in my locker at the barracks. I actually had two lockers, which I wasn’t supposed to have. I can’t remember how I got the second one but I would buy pop by the case, then resell it to the guys in the barracks when they wanted some after hours. It was warm but they didn’t seem to mind. Since I sold it to them at cost, no one made any complaints about me having that extra locker.

After supper, most of the guys headed over to the EM Club to get drunk. Since I didn’t drink, that was my “write home” time. I was engaged to be married as soon as my tour in Viet Nam was over, so my bride-to-be got top priority, I wrote her a letter almost every day I was over there. I also made an audio tape (cassette) for her on my off day. There was a two-week turnaround time with the mail, so coordinating the details of our upcoming wedding really got interesting!

In addition to all that, I also wrote to my parents almost every day (at first, anyway) and to a number of other relatives and people from church when I received mail from them. I was constantly razzed because I spent most of my free time writing letters, but I was also razzed because of all the mail I got. The guys never could seem to understand that in order to get mail, you had to send mail.

We often herd the phrase “the night belongs to Charlie” and that was very true. Charlie was just another slang name for the bad guys, it didn’t matter whether they were VC or NVA, they were still “Charlie”. As soon as it got dark the Red Alerts began. A Red Alert siren meant that radar had detected an inbound rocket(s) and you had better head for the nearest bunker. The rocket attacks were very unpredictable, they might come several times a night (we had 7 one night – didn’t get much sleep), once a night, or not for weeks. During one especially wet part of the rainy season, we went almost two weeks without an attack – I guess even Charlie didn’t like to go out in the rain. I learned years later that Charlie’s main target was the Air Force Base at Da Nang, since that was where the aircraft were and they were what hurt Charlie the most. And normally all we heard at Camp Tien Sha was a “boom” in the distance when they hit. However, there were exceptions. One story, which may or may not be true, involved a rocket that hit one of the barracks in Tien Sha. The story went that the only person killed was an officer who stopped to put on his pants – he didn’t want to be undignified. Sounds a bit questionable to me, but anything was possible over there.

I know the next story is true, because it involved me. We got into a phase where we were getting Red Alerts every night at exactly 11:00 pm. That was a bummer because you would have just got to sleep at that point, and we really needed our sleep. During a Red Alert, I always went down to the bunker (unlike some who often slept through them), but no one ever actually went into our bunker because of what critters might be living in there – we just stood by the door. On the night in question, I did sit up on the edge of my bunk but after having been through this for weeks, at exactly the same time every night, I was seriously thinking about not going on down for the first time. And then it happened. What I heard was NOT a boom in the distance but an actual explosion, very close by. My bunk was only about 6 inches off the floor, but I made an incredible effort to crawl under it! That was my first time to be really, truly scared in Nam! My resolve to always go down to the bunker was renewed.

I found out the next morning that a rocket had hit in a 55 gal. drum (empties) storage area just a half mile from Tien Sha. It blew most of them to shreds, which explained the huge explosion noise. No one was hurt.

This is a little out of sequence and I’m adding it in “after the fact”, but it’s something I feel I must mention. One of the things that stood out to me in Da Nang was the hatred that most of the guys I worked with showed towards the Vietnamese, especially the laborers who worked at the supply depot. It reminded me a lot of the accounts I had read of racial discrimination in the “Old South” previous to the civil war. The guys seemed to have more respect for the dogs and rats then they had for the Vietnamese, and they made no effort to hide that. Common sense dictated that after having worked with Americans for years, the laborers at the depot must have understood a fair bit of English, even if they didn’t speak it openly, so I’m sure they were aware of how the guys talked about them – right in front of them. I could understand a little of that – most of us were in Viet Nam against our will, either as a result of having been drafted or having to enlist to avoid the draft. And the Vietnamese were a lot different then we were used to, theirs was a totally different culture and way of life (example – we don’t eat dog meat, to them it was a delicacy). But the attitude towards the Vietnamese that I saw in the guys I worked with was totally inexcusable and even as a 19 year old kid, I often felt ashamed to be an American. I can only hope and pray that they realized that not all Americans were like the ones at NSA, Da Nang.

One other thing I probably should do a bit more detail on is the weather. The rainy season was just starting when I arrived in Da Nang, which meant LOTS of rain and high humidity. Although it was hard to deal with at first and was never pleasant, I did get used to it – more then I realized. That became apparent during the height of the rainy season, when a typhoon passed near us. For several nights the temperatures dropped down to almost 70 – and we were freezing! I never thought that I’d see the day when I’d sleep in Navy foul weather gear, but that’s what it took to stay warm. During the day we went around bundled up like Eskimos – at 75 degrees or so. We all felt silly, but we were just so used to the hot, humid weather that cool weather felt more like artic weather. After the rainy season ended, it got much hotter but also much dryer and that was actually easier to take then the humidity.

This chapter is already pretty long, but I want to add one last "story". I discovered that in Viet Nam small firecrackers were easy to acquire and naturally, coming from a state where they were illegal, I took advantage of that. I purchased a pack of them from one of the workers at the Supply Depot and proceeded to drive most of my friends nuts with them. In the process I experimented with using a cigarette as a time-delay fuse. I don't smoke but cigarettes were easy to come by because this was before their link to cancer became known. Anyway, through much trial and error, I worked out a fairly reliable time-delay fuse system. That really came in handy in resolving a problem back at our barracks.

At the end of each floor in our barracks was a small room that was set up with a card table and some chairs. Our barracks were for the lower enlisted ranks, but some of the higher enlisted guys (who had their own barracks), got in the habit of coming over and playing cards well past "Lights Out" in the evenings. And naturally their favorite card game involved slamming their cards down on the table as hard as they could - the harder and noisier they could do that, the better. No problem early in the evening, but VERY annoying when you were trying to sleep. And we couldn't do a thing about it because they outranked us. So one evening (after Lights Out), when I decided I had totally had enough, I rigged one of my time-delay firecrackers and casually passed through the card room, pretending I was going outside to check the weather. While I was sticking my head out the door, with the card players to my right, I used my left hand to place my "surprise" on a ledge just out of sight. Then I headed back to bed (my bunk was down at the other end of the barracks). After waiting for what seemed to be a VERY long time, I finally concluded that the fuse had failed (not too surprising) and chalked it off as a good try. So I rolled over and began trying to get to sleep - hard to do with all the card banging going on. But right about then the firecracker went off. It was a little thing but inside that small card room it must have sounded like an atom bomb (it certainly was plenty loud enough out in the barracks).

The card players came boiling out of that room like they were being attacked by a swarm of bees, screaming and yelling. Once they realized we weren't being rocketed by the VC, they got mad and started trying to find out who had done it - running up and down the barracks, demanding to know who had planted the firecracker. They never found out, but they did raise such a ruckus that the next day their superiors stepped in and ordered them to quit having their noisy, late night card games in our barracks. A couple of the guys from Cold Storage had a pretty good idea who had done it, but they never told - I think they were just thankful to be able to sleep.

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