Our War and Welcome to It
The Vietnam War — our war — always loomed just beyond the mountains. To serve or not to serve? Our choice — or pure chance in the draft lottery — still marks us. Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War” once again reminded us of those who lived and those who were lost, on both sides. For our reunion website we reached out to a few of our classmates who served during the war. The arrival of “Long & Winding Roads” alerted us to many more (and to a conscientious objector as well). Other contributions are welcome. Or use the comment box below. — John Stickney, 1-Y
When I say I was in the Vietnam War, I always have the sense that I’m lying, and I feel guilty about how easy I had it.
Given the significant impact that the Vietnam War had on Williams, the Williams community and each of us individually — not to mention all Americans, the Vietnamese and the world at large — it seems appropriate to me for us to reflect on that impact 50 years later, to see what we have learned and what we have to offer in the way of guidance for the future.
Theoretically, I enlisted. My draft status was 1-A, and I was clearly going to be drafted into the Army or even the Marines through my draft board in Minneapolis. I would almost certainly have ended up in Vietnam. It never crossed my mind to move to Canada or go to prison. At this point I really can’t say why I didn’t pursue any of the other ways to avoid military service. I’m quite sure that it was some combination of fear of my father’s reaction and a sense of obligation to my country.
I attended the Navy’s officer candidate school in Newport, R.I. Then I was sent to navigation school in San Diego before being assigned as a navigator on the USS Mt. Katmai, an ammunition ship that rearmed combat ships and aircraft carriers off the coast of Vietnam
I have very mixed feelings about my experience. I served in a combat zone in what some would say were dangerous circumstances, and in a way I’m proud of my service. That is to say I did a good job at what I was assigned to do. After all, we didn’t run aground, enter hostile waters by mistake or hit another ship; we were always able to tell the aircraft carriers where they were; and when we returned to the U.S. — a 12-day trip — we were within 10 minutes of our forecasted time of arrival.
As a young officer, I was given a lot of responsibility even though I lacked any particular skills. At Williams I was an American Civilization major, but I did take meteorology and navigation. In the Navy I managed a budget, handled confidential information and worked with sailors who were mostly older than I was, and with far more experience — all of which provided me with lots of learning opportunities that were useful throughout my later career.
In addition, my horizons expanded. I was a kid from Minnesota, and even though I had visited Europe and been an exchange student to Japan for a summer, my Navy experience opened my eyes and mind in many wonderful ways.
On the negative side, even though I was in the combat zone and intellectually understood the horrors of war, I didn’t experience them firsthand and feel completely inadequate to describe them or speak for anybody who did. When I say I was in the Vietnam War, I always have the sense that I’m lying, and I feel guilty about how easy I had it.
I also have never completely reconciled my complicity in the murder and maiming of so many of my fellow human beings and in the destruction of so many lives and a country. As we know even more clearly today, U.S. leaders chose to continue the carnage for self-serving political reasons and to hide their duplicity from the American people and the world. While I was doing what my country said I should do, I had a hand in that carnage reaped upon the Vietnamese, the Americans and the world.
We can’t change this history, but we can reflect on it to understand what happened to bring about this senseless war. What responsibility did institutions like Williams, The New York Times and others have? What responsibility did each of us individually have? Have we learned from our mistakes? Sadly, I don’t think that the people and institutions of the United States learned anything. And we continue to be complicit in our senseless wars. The Iraq War is a prime example.
We lived through an era that should go down in infamy in U.S. history. What can we teach today’s and tomorrow’s leaders, and how can we do so?
I sought transfer to a vessel where I could experience actually driving a ship. Stupid me! I didn’t realize that what I had actually done was buy a ticket to Vietnam.
Like a number of others in our class, early in 1968 I began to think of alternatives to waiting to be drafted. I drove to the Naval recruiting office in Pittsfield and took the test for entry into U.S. Navy Officers Candidate School in Newport, R.I. One thing led to another, and by December 1968 I was a newly minted ensign. My first duty assignment was a cruiser/flagship in Norfolk, Va. It wasn’t what I was looking for, and so I sought transfer to a vessel where I could experience actually driving a ship. Stupid me! I didn’t realize that what I had actually done was buy a ticket to Vietnam.
I arrived there at the beginning of August 1970 as a lieutenant junior grade. Landing in Saigon, I learned that my orders had been changed from my original assignment: Now I would be second-in-command with a unit of the U.S. Naval Advisory Group that worked with a Vietnamese Navy “flotilla” of about 16 patrol boats — including 12 former U.S. Navy Swift Boats — that in recent months had been transferred to the Vietnamese. (“Vietnamization” of the war was the prime U.S. strategy then.)
Never having laid eyes on a Swift Boat, or received the Vietnamese language training generally given to members of the Naval Advisory Group, I was hugely under-qualified for the position. Thank you (again), U. S. Navy.
Our unit was stationed near Danang in the 1st Coastal Zone (“I Corps” in Army/Marine lingo). The Vietnamese naval flotilla was responsible for patrolling the coast from the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] to about 50 miles south of Danang as well as the Cua Dai River in the vicinity of Hoi An — today a favorite tourist spot that back then had a few unfriendly elements in the area. The mission was to halt the movement of supplies both within the region and externally from North Vietnam to the South.
I doubt whether illicit supplies were moving along the coast in much quantity, but, in any case, our unit found none. My job wasn’t to ride a boat on patrol — about 35 petty officers did that regularly — but I sometimes joined them, particularly early in my tour.
Countless sampans and junks were out in the ocean and exiting and entering the rivers and harbors. Boarding and searching any meaningful percentage of them would have required aggressive efforts on the part of the Vietnamese. But they weren’t especially interested in doing that. The overriding philosophy was that it had been a long war and promised to be much longer still. It wasn’t going to be any shorter if you got yourself killed. I understood and sympathized with that sentiment to a degree, but it foreshadowed what would happen several years later.
Our base near Danang was at an old French installation named Camp Tien Sha. It was fairly comfortable. I discovered that sometime earlier in the war, someone had constructed a reasonable facsimile of a squash court in an old building. I sent home for my racquet and played quite a bit. The plywood walls of the court had a lot of spring, which, when coupled with the heat, caused some pretty wild ricochets. The Vietnamese naval base where we worked was a couple of miles down the road on the beach in Danang Harbor.
After the first few weeks and one or two patrols, I learned that the risks were pretty minimal. The Vietnamese simply weren’t looking for trouble. I can’t say that we accomplished anything that had much of an effect on the war. But from my standpoint, the year was quite edifying in several ways. As an advisor, I had a jeep at my disposal and a lot of latitude to move around up and down the coast, and so I took a number of trips to Hue and other places. Also, a colleague at our base had majored in Vietnamese at Yale and spoke it fluently, and so he was a particularly valuable travel companion.
I worked on a daily basis with several of the staff officers of my Vietnamese unit. I enjoyed the close interaction with them and dined regularly on Vietnamese food of all kinds — fish, rice and the ubiquitous and flavorful nuoc mam sauce while we were on patrol; and home-made dishes in my counterparts’ homes on the base.
My all-time least favorite dish was jellyfish soup (only identified as such halfway through the bowl, accompanied by giggles from my hosts). I also tasted fine cuisine in restaurants in Danang, which was off-limits to Americans other than advisors accompanied by Vietnamese. The experience was my first in-depth exposure to another culture (I had never even been to Europe at the time).
Over the course of my year, the size of my advisory unit steadily dwindled as the U.S. slowly exited Vietnam in anticipation of the 1972 presidential election. From a high of about 40 people, we were down to about a half-dozen when I left in August 1971. I abhorred what I perceived as the political and manipulative aspects of that timing.
We were aware of all the war protests and the controversy over our involvement in the war but, we were really concentrating on doing our jobs and trying to help our boys on shore and the pilots who were flying their missions off the carriers.
Following our graduation, after attending Dobby and Jane West’s wonderful Minnesota wedding in Minneapolis, I headed off to Newport, R.I., to the Navy’s officer candidate school.
I applied there because I figured I’d probably end up in the military after graduation and I didn’t want to try to play the deferral game that so many others were playing. I knew a bit about the Navy because I had two uncles who were career Navy men, one of whom, Philip Beshany, achieved the rank of vice admiral.
As it happened, Uncle Phil was our graduation speaker in Newport and he swore me in as a brand-new ensign. I drove out to San Diego to board my destroyer, where I was a division officer. I was fortunate enough to have a senior chief petty officer who was quite capable of keeping our guys in line.
Shortly after I arrived in December 1968, we deployed to Vietnam and joined the fray — providing gunfire support to our troops who were trying to stop the North Vietnamese moving south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Spotters would call for support and give us the coordinates and then adjust them as we started shelling — often at night and sometimes while we were anchored in Danang harbor.
This was our mission for the first couple of months. But it eventually ended because the Navy had a lot of faulty 5-inch gun ammunition that was blowing up prematurely in the gun barrels of the destroyers and injuring or killing crew members. Although that never happened aboard our ship, and although we were sent back to the Philippines a couple of times to replace all our ammunition, we were finally given a different mission.
Our new assignment was to work with our aircraft carriers who were launching and recovering aircraft in the Tonkin Gulf that were performing bombing runs over land — think John McCain.
Whenever the carriers would launch or recover their aircraft, our destroyer would follow just behind the carrier and fish out any pilots who had missed the carrier deck or any crew members who had fallen overboard from the jet blast on deck.
My job was to continue my daytime duties as a division officer and to stand bridge watches throughout day and night since we were in the war zone. The nighttime operations were quite impressive as the aircraft returned from their missions, some having been shot up by ground fire. The string of landing lights from the approaching aircraft would stretch out for miles as the planes would be recovered at a rate of about one every 45 seconds.
We were aware of all the war protests and the controversy over our involvement in the war, but we were really concentrating on doing our jobs and trying to help our boys on shore and the pilots who were flying their missions off the carriers.
It probably wasn’t until we were back home that we understood the depth of the protests and the mistakes in judgment and diplomacy that ripped at our nation. I can’t add anything to what has already been said about the mistakes that our government and military made in Vietnam. It was indeed a tragic period of U.S. history as we all look back on it.
I was also fortunate to have gained another perspective on the Vietnam War when a few years ago my wife Gail and I took a cruise with port stops in Vietnam.
In small groups with good friends we were able to visit Hanoi, Danang, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, which many still call Saigon. I learned that the Vietnamese harbor few, if any bad, feelings toward the Americans.
The Vietnamese are a warm, proud people who want to show Americans what they’ve accomplished since what they call “The American Conflict.” They are much more bitter about the damage that the French and the Chinese have done to them over their long history.
In some of our tours with our little group we were asked if any of us had served in the military during this period. I was the only person in our group who had, and I would somewhat reluctantly raise my hand only to be put at ease by our young guides who would say that they had heard stories of “the conflict” from parents or grandparents who had served.
A postscript: I had a second assignment with the Navy after I returned from Vietnam. I was sent to another ship that had been built in San Diego and was then home-ported outside Norfolk, Va.
The best thing that happened to me in that assignment was that when I was finally discharged from the Navy and left town, I took the admiral’s daughter with me … but that’s a story for another time.
As one of the few Vietnam veterans on the faculty, I’m an informal advisor to the veterans and have taught many of them over the years.
I was another junior officer in the Navy who served as a weapons officer on a destroyer that was part of the war. We were on the gun line off the coast of North and South Vietnam and also guarded the airspace for planes from the aircraft carriers that were launching strikes on both countries.
We also spent time in the Sea of Japan monitoring communications from North Korea, which, two years earlier, in January 1968, had captured the USS Pueblo.
I have no burning desire to rehash the war, which continues to divide Americans of our generation and will do so until we are all dead.
I have the privilege at this point in my life of teaching history at a local community college, where we have a number of young veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the few Vietnam veterans on the faculty, I’m an informal advisor to the veterans and have taught many of them over the years. They appreciate having a professor who isn’t a left-wing ideologue with an anti-military bias, and I appreciate their willingness to share with me their own stories.
One thing is clear — the military hasn’t changed all that much since Vietnam. The biggest difference, of course, is the lack of a draft, which means that all these young veterans are bona fide volunteers, who in some cases have been forced out of the service by cost reductions and would like to go back. Not too many of us felt that way.
The other big difference, as I remind them, is that their service is appreciated, while ours wasn’t. They’re used to hearing the phrase, “Thank you for your service,” while I’m always taken by surprise when I hear it.