In the spring of ‘66, the destroyer I was assigned to was on its way north in the Tonkin Gulf to man what was called the North SAR station. SAR being Search and Rescue. Back then, we bombed North Vietnam from carriers in the Gulf and from air force bases in Thailand to the west. Our destroyer, and another one, would drive around in a ten-mile square box for the purpose of rescuing an aviator, if perchance his plane sustained damage during a bombing run and he managed to get his plane out over water before ejecting. Back then, we flew a lot of missions against the north every day. Almost every day, a plane would be shot down, but very few pilots made it out over the water to eject. They landed in Nam. Some died, some were captured and became POWs.
North SAR station was at twenty north latitude. As my ship, and the other one, passed nineteen north, we picked up three North Vietnamese PT boats steaming at us at a high rate of speed. The guns on our destroyers could fire fifty-five pound explosive projectiles nine miles and we could pump out sixty rounds a minute. We pointed the guns at those PTs, but the guns did not fire. Planes from the carriers south of us sank the PTs.
There were five of us Marianas Trench dwellers on the ship, and we had two thoughts. One was, “Holy crap. Our first day on North SAR, and we’re attacked by PT boats! This is going to be an exciting five months in the Tonkin Gulf.” The second thing we wondered about was why in Sam Hill didn’t we fire our guns. Why did we need the stupid aviators to sink the boats?
We were dead wrong about the excitement factor. We never again, in the 149 remaining days we spent in the Gulf, got another glimpse of combat. But the pilots, they continued to fly over us on the way to and from Nam on their bombing missions. And it turned out, in the five months we spent there, the helo from our ship rescued one pilot. His was the only plane which made it out over the water before he ejected.
At this time, I also began to get disgusted with the members of my generation who protested the war. The war was immoral they said. From what I read of their behavior, they didn’t practice a morality I recognized. I saw them as juveniles caught up in the excitement of revolting against the establishment. I saw them as more anti-America than anti-war. I didn’t agree with them, and so, I felt I needed to do something about it. I had never intended on serving longer than it took me to pay the government back for the college program I’d signed up for, but the protest changed my mind about that. The other thing was, it didn’t seem like I was contributing much on my destroyer. The aviators were the ones carrying the war.
I applied for flight training.
By the time I got back to the war in 1971, the bombing halt on North Vietnam had been in place for more than two years. Our bombing missions were in South Vietnam and Laos. We called the missions, making toothpicks. We dropped bombs on the jungle probing for trucks and stockpiles of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We seldom blew up anything constituting a worthwhile target. We only blew up trees, turning them into toothpicks. And logged combat missions in a war we weren’t trying to win, but couldn’t figure out how to quit.
I came home, and the American people told me I was the lowest form of life on earth. I was a baby killer. Which I was sure was lower than a Marianas Trench bottom dwelling worm.
The first time I heard a “Thank you for your service” was after the troops came home from Desert Storm. Since then I’ve heard it a lot. Still, I cannot believe those thank yous were, or are, for me. The thank yous are for the Desert Storm-ers, the men and women who won a war, and for the next generation, still fighting to win the next one.
I accept, and acknowledge, those thank yous with a smile, but I accept for them, the nation’s last two generations of servicemen and women.
The end of Part I.