Chapter Five

It’s impossible for me to remember in chronological order the events I experienced during my 7 months in Da Nang, so I’m just going to hop-skip around for the rest of the Da Nang part of this. I’ll throw in relevant photos when I can.

In addition to my regular jobs at Cold Storage, I also picked up a sub-job, thanks to my farming days. While I was in high school I worked part time for a farmer near my home. I started down there when I was 13, working evenings and Saturdays during the school year, and Monday through Saturday during the summer. I stayed with that job until I graduated and hired in with General Motors as an hourly employee. Naturally, I picked up quite a bit of experience operating fairly heavy equipment. Somehow the Navy found out and I was offered special training while in Da Nang. After just a few hours of instruction at the Deep Water Piers, I was licensed to operate the following forklift trucks. First, the Trojan

This beast was capable of lifting 20,000 lbs. Although common in front end loaders now, its’ “bend in the middle” steering system was very hard to get used to back then. I was trained and licensed on it, but never drove one beyond my training time until months later, down in Nha Be, for an emergency situation. I’ll write more on that later in the Nha Be section. Next, my all time favorite forklift, the RT:

The RT or Rough Terrain forklift was the answer to many prayers in Viet Nam. It was capable of lifting up to 10,000 lbs. and could operate on almost any terrain. It had selectable 2 wheel drive (to the front or back axle) or full 4 wheel drive. It could be steered by the front wheels, the back wheels, or all 4 wheels. You could have the 4 wheels turn together for the tightest turns imaginable, or you could lock them in such a way as to allow you to move sideways. The forks would extend and retract as well as go up and down. They would “tip” and shift sideways, too. And last but not least (my favorite part), you could even bank the whole forklift into a turn, just like an aircraft. My job was to use ours as needed when moving boxes to the reefer boxes or whatever. The problem was that I loved these silly things so much that they had a hard time getting me off “mine”.

Several of the guys who worked at Cold Storage were licensed for the RT, but I ended up being the only regular driver.

Below is the USO at the Freedom Hill facility. Freedom Hill had a Navy Exchange (like Wal-Mart), the USO, and other things, but its real claim to fame was that this is where Bob Hope and his USO team gave their shows. Mr. Hope did do a show while I was in Da Nang, but I was unable to actually attend and had to watch it on TV. There wasn’t enough room for everyone in the area, so each division was given a quota and we had to draw for the tickets. I think Cold Storage was allowed to send 2 people. Naturally the guys out in the bush got priority.

Several years ago there was a TV series called “China Beach”. It was based on an actual place, China Beach near Da Nang. The show was set in the early stages of the war and was quite gritty but things had changed a bit by the time I got over there. The China Beach I knew had the biggest Navy Exchange in the area, a beautiful beach (naturally) and was an “in-country” R&R center. R&R stood for Rest and Relaxation. Personal assigned to Viet Nam were allowed two R&R’s during their tour. One was a 3 day “in-country” R&R, the other was an “out-country” R&R and could run up to 7 days. They were designed mainly for the guys out in the bush (but everyone could take them) - a chance to get away from the constant tension of combat and unwind a bit. Below is a shot of the China Beach of my time:

The problem with the out-country R&R’s was that you had to be able to pay for them. The married guys who took one usually went to Hawaii to meet their spouses. The single guys with lots of money usually went to Australia. And the single guys who were after action of a different nature usually went to places like Thailand. I’m not going to get into that. I never had enough money for an out-country R&R, but I did take an in-country one. I could have stayed at China Beach but since I lived in a good, clean barracks, I just stayed there and enjoyed the time off. Cold Storage Division also had a party on the beach at least once and I attended an hour or so of that, until the drinking got too heavy. Swimming, no matter how tempting, was not an option (unless you were crazy) due to the sharks and jellyfish, but the unlimited grilled hamburgers and free cold Coke were great!

The main roads in the Da Nang area were usually paved but often pretty rough.

Notice the gas station on the right in the photo below. The pump is inside for protection:

The side streets were a totally different matter:

While the city of Da Nang was actually quite small, the area around had grown at an astounding rate, due to refugees coming down from north of the DMZ. There were established refugee compounds that didn’t look too bad, but there were also “homes” which were clearly constructed out of scrap material. Something else that took getting used to; the nearest ditch also served as the bathroom - for both sexes.

In the rainy season, some of the homes were partially under water.

The Chapel at Camp Tien Sha was very nice, both inside and outside. Identical services were held every Sunday (morning and evening) so that both shifts could attend. Naval regulations stated that all sailors were to be allowed to attend church services if they wished to, even if they were not off work on a Sunday. Unfortunately, over the years some sailors at the Supply Depot had abused that right by going to the EM Club instead of to church and so getting a couple hours off to go to a service on Sunday morning often proved to be a daunting task. I went around and around with my direct supervisor many Sundays but finally gave in (on the advice of a guy who was clearly wiser and a better Christian then I was) and started attending the evening services. I will say that I have never felt the Lord’s presence, either before or after Da Nang, in any church as strongly as I did that one. You just knew God was there the moment you walked into the door.

Considering how much mail and how many packages I got, I must have been something of a legend at this place:

You had to pay to send a package home, but normal mail was free. I had a lot of fun coming up with things to put on my envelopes where the stamp would normally go.

My evenings were usually tied up writing letters, as mentioned earlier, but on my day off, once in a while I’d try to work in a movie. Our theater was just a short walk from our barracks and it seems like it was free, but if not, a movie was no more then $0.25.

We also had USO groups come in now and then to do a show. Most of them were 2nd. or 3rd. rate, but you had to give them a lot of respect just for being there.

The Camp Tien Sha library was pretty impressive, considering we were in a war zone. I only visited it once or twice but I guess that was because I had so many letters to write:

Directly behind my barracks was a chopper pad and behind that was Monkey Mountain. The mountain was off limits and a bad place to be – a Marine was killed up there one night while I was living at Camp Tien Sha. I always wondered at the wisdom of locating a berthing base at the foot of a mountain like that, but “ours was not to wonder”. The choppers were fun to watch at first, but after a while you really got tired of the noise and dust, which always seemed to come at the wrong time (like when I was making an audio tape to Linda).

Now and then Cold Storage division had a small party at Camp Tien Sha. It usually didn’t amount to much, just a few hours to relax and unwind. Once again, however, the grilled burgers and cold pop was a welcome sight (and taste).

At quitting time, the Vietnamese laborers would head out to one of the gates to catch a ride home, wherever that might be. All of the laborers had to have ID cards, which they turned in to our office when they arrived for work. If you were assigned a team, you were given the respective ID cards and then you would go to the workers break area and gather your people. At the end of the day you turned the cards back in to the office and the laborers picked them up so they could go home – they could not leave the base without those cards. Guess who screwed up? One time (and ONLY one time) I forgot to turn the ID cards back in. I was back at Camp Tien Sha when one of our duty guys found me and told me there were a several very unhappy workers who wanted to go home, but couldn’t because I had their cards. Oops. I think they eventually forgave me, but I did get dirty looks for the next few days – and they always checked to make sure I turned in their cards for the next week or two. Below, the workers heading home at the end of a long day.

Almost forgot this one (below), the barracks at Camp Tien Sha – sort of. They were fairly new, had two decks (floors) and a small room at the end with card tables, etc. The sides were just slats with screen behind them on the inside. They were fine most of the time but nasty when the wind was strong enough to blow rain right through. This shot was taken from the end of my barracks closest to the chopper pad. The barracks you see here, across the street, were exactly like mine.

There was one other “event” which occurred while I was in Da Nang that didn’t seem like much at the time but would have a lasting impact on the rest of my time in the Navy. The lowest pay grade in the Navy (as with most of the military services) was an E1. Upon completion of boot camp, I was advanced to the E2 level. After that it gets to be a little confusing, and being unable to remember all the details doesn’t help. Whatever the case, when I arrived in Da Nang I was a certified Storekeeper, even though I had not attained the E4 level, because I had graduated from Storekeeper School.. Somewhere along the line, shortly after my arrival in country; I was promoted to the E3 level, which I think was automatic. After a few months in Da Nang I heard rumors that the Navy was giving out “field promotions” (not the Navy term but I can’t remember what they were really called). I checked with our personal office and they confirmed that was true, so I filled out the necessary application paperwork, got all the signatures I needed, etc., and submitted it. A few months after that, the normal advancement tests were given. Advancement tests were given twice a year, if you wanted a promotion, you had to take and pass one of those for your specific skill. However, since I had already graduated from Storekeeper School, I was not supposed to have to take that test (it was actually our final exam at the school), so I didn’t take it. Weeks later I started wondering why I had not heard anything about my field promotion. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but eventually I went over and checked on it. They had “lost” my paperwork. I resubmitted the paperwork, but had left Da Nang before anything could be done and I never heard about it again. If the paperwork had not been lost, I’d have left Viet Nam as an E4 and most likely spent my last year or so in the Navy as an E5 – which would have made it a bit easier to support my wife. But that’s the Navy – and they wonder why people choose not to reenlist.

April of 1970 arrived and with it, rumors, rumors and more rumors. The United States had decided to start pulling out of Viet Nam and the process had begun, but in Da Nang we just said “Ya, right. We’ll see”. We did see! Before anyone had time to digest it all, what was supposed to happen happened! An announcement went out that Da Nang was going to start turning operations over to the Vietnamese military NOW – and the process started, just that quick. The brass decided that anyone with less then 3 months to go on their 1 year tour in Nam would go home as soon as they could be released. Unfortunately, I still had 5 months to go, so I got orders to report to Saigon for duty. Major bummer, but that’s the military. The whole thing went down so fast that it made my head spin – one moment I’m doing my job as usual, the next moment I’m handed my orders and told to catch a flight to Saigon.

The commanding officer of Cold Storage did get in one last jab. In my final fitness report, he noted that I got along better with the Vietnamese people I worked with then I did with my own people. He considered that to be a negative statement. In light of all the drinking and drunkenness, and the blatant ethnic prejudice against the Vietnamese people that was considered “normal” in our division, etc., I considered it an honor to be spoken of that way.

Based on letters I wrote to Linda (my wife to be), I boarded my flight to Saigon in the early morning hours of April 25th. 1970. No fancy commercial jet this time.

I don’t know enough about military aircraft to know for sure what this thing was, but I do know it wasn’t designed for comfort. It was very loud and all the way down we kept wondering if we would be required to put on chutes and bail out. The following photo was taken during the flight, in natural light conditions, hand held. In other words, I did the best I could with what I had to work with:

So after 7 months in Da Nang I was on my way again. I knew where I was going but I had no idea what I would be doing there or if it was someplace I wanted to be.

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