From The Pen of the Captain’s Kid: Vietnam Part II
About a decade after that lifeguard reunion, I attended my 50th high school reunion in St. Louis. I looked forward to seeing fellow students after five decades during which our lives had taken us in different directions and to distant locales. Many from my 1962 Principia high school class (the same prep-school where Captain Craig taught and coached for 40 years) would go on to Principia College as part of the college class of 1966. In many ways we were the Vietnam generation, and our 50th high school reunion in 2011 coincided with the 50th anniversary of the escalation of the Vietnam War. [In January, 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pledged support for “wars of national liberation” throughout the world. His pronouncement encouraged Ho Chi Minh and the communists in North Vietnam to escalate their armed struggle to unify Vietnam and bring South Vietnam under communist control.]
A half century later, in 2011, a friend of mine from Tacoma, Washington, and a fellow Navy vet whom I had known in both high school and college, emailed me and asked it I were going to the 50th high school reunion. The classes of 1961 and 1962 were celebrating their 50th reunion together in September, 2011. I said I would be there. “You realize, I am sure,” he said, “that many of us were drafted or joined the military soon after graduation; let’s get together one evening at the reunion and share ’sea stories’—find out what we all did in the service.” I suspected his duty and military experiences had been more exciting than mine: I had been paymaster and food service officer for 3,000 men on an aircraft carrier; he had served as an EOD officer [explosive ordinance disposal], responsible for de-fusing unexploded bombs.
So at the high school reunion, a handful of vets gathered in St. Louis, exchanged stories, and caught up on events of our lives since high school and since Vietnam. In talking about the war, we discovered that many of us had experienced remarkable and serendipitous encounters with former classmates in the Mekong Delta, or on an aircraft carrier, or on a South Vietnam military base. It was remarkable, because the student population of our undergraduate co-ed college was about 600 [only half were male) and any given graduation class had approximately 75 men. This student body was miniscule by any standard. Yet, in the 1960s, a large proportion of this small student group joined the military in response to the country’s call to duty during the Vietnam War, and against all odds they repeatedly crossed paths in Saigon or in the Mekong, at Da Nang or in the Tonkin Gulf.
At the 2011 high school reunion, encouraged by even the small sampling of recalled experiences shared that night, it was proposed that we investigate the possibility of putting together a book of memoirs of Vietnam vets. I was the only one attending that evening’s gathering of vets who had any experience publishing books, so I was asked to serve as editor of the planned volume and to manage the project. As we departed from St. Louis that weekend in 2011, my Navy buddy and I agreed that we would both spread the word about the planned book of memoirs, invite submissions from ex-military we knew, and then see what we got.
The first email I received arrived from Berlin, Germany. The correspondent had heard about the proposed book and wrote: “I graduated from Principia (but earlier than the 1960s), I was never in the military, and I am a woman.” So why is she writing me? I thought to myself. As I read further, she let the other proverbial shoe drop: “I am (and I was then) an international journalist, I was stationed in 1970 in Saigon, and I got captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia…do you want my story?” I immediately wrote to my fellow Navy vet in Washington State: “Steve, we’ve got your story, and we’ve got my story, and we have one helluva third story; the book is underway.” In the end we published some fifty accounts from thirty-four veterans. A few submitted poems or framed their “sea stories” in short-story form with the author as one of the characters, but most were plainspoken personal memoirs—Vietnam vets looking back from fifty years and documenting their military experiences from the 1960s. The resulting 2018 book is entitled, Red Rivers in a Yellow Field: Memoirs of the Vietnam Era.
Although noteworthy, it is almost beside the point that all thirty-four authors came from the same small school in the Mid West. I’ve described this collective 1960s Vietnam experience as a slice of the American experience. It is also significant that the vast majority of the authors were not career military. Most of the vets simply signed up in response to the call, as a temporary disruption to their planned civilian careers and lives. Of the thirty-four, only four became career military: a captain in the Navy, a captain in the Air Force, and from the Army two brothers who retired from the service, one at the rank of command sergeant major (senior enlisted rank), and the other a two-star general. The Red Rivers memoirists were draftees, enlisted volunteers, or commissioned junior officers representing the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as a National Guardsman who was also sent to Vietnam.
These were ordinary individuals often tasked to perform extraordinary duties. A college football star from Texas earned his bachelor degree at Principia College in 1966, joined the Marines, was sent to Vietnam for thirteen months where he flew CH-46 helicopters at Da Nang and Phu Bai, came home with 37 Air Medals with Combat V, and then opened a Taco Bell and settled back to civilian life. A six–foot-six basketball player from St. Louis served “in country” Vietnam as a swift boat operator spending half the year in the Mekong Delta and the other half in the even more dangerous Ca Mau Peninsula; in Red Rivers he documents his year as a swiftee, beating the odds,and coming home. He would later make his fortune as a highly successful businessman, returning to Vietnam on business on numerous occasions, and since the war he has actively supported cleft palate charities bringing healing to Vietnam children.
Red Rivers contributors include an enlisted photographer’s mate on an aircraft carrier who had struggled with conscience about joining the military at all. Individual memoirs are recorded by Army platoon leaders, an army artist, a chaplain, and a gunner’s mate stationed near the demilitarized zone. Another account is penned by a Navy pilot who was on the same Alpha Strike as John McCain when the latter got shot down. A submariner whose submarine was the closest Navy vessel to the USS Pueblo when the spy ship was captured by North Koreans in 1968 recalls the day his sub sped to the Sea of Japan location where the international incident was taking place: Pueblo’s captain and crew were held captive for a year, and the ship is still in North Korea, by the way. A lighter account of military life describes a classic “Mr. Roberts” scenario in which a young Navy officer was asked to remodel the mess decks of an active Essex-class aircraft carrier and proceeded to paint the largest compartment tangerine and another dining space “butterscotch.” He then converted a mess deck space located just above an ordinance hold into a French bistro (simulating a sidewalk café with portable wishing well and Tiffany-styled chandeliers) into which he piped in music recorded by Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. And finally, the Navy lieutenant junior grade transformed another area of the aircraft carrier’s mess decks into a Western-themed, corral-posted eating hall, this time with piped-in music by Willie Nelson. The mess decks’ PA system was only occasionally interrupted by announcements from the ship’s captain such as “General Quarters! General Quarters! All men, man your battle stations…” an order sure to break the spell of “La Vie En Rose.”
That U.S. Navy junior officer and “interior decorator for a warship” was yours truly, and because my old ship is now a national historic landmark permanently docked at the 46th Street pier in New York, some of my handiwork can be observed today. The Butterscotch Room and Western Room have been reinstated by curators at the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum in New York, where visitors can tour the mess decks and activate kiosks that tell the story of Craig’s Klinger-esque mess decks remodeling in 1968.
So Vietnam means different things to different people, but for the generation coming to maturity in the 1960s, Vietnam became an all too real part of our lives. The book of Vietnam era memoirs was published in 2018 and as mentioned is entitled Red Rivers in a Yellow Field, a title that is purposefully symbolic: it references the South Vietnam flag as well as the Vietnam Service medal and ribbon awarded to all who served in Vietnam. The flag, and the service ribbon, display three red stripes on a yellow background. The red bars reference the three Vietnams (the unifying blood flowing through northern, central, and southern Vietnam) and also symbolize the three major (longest) rivers of Vietnam (the Mekong, the Song Hong or Red River, and the Song Da or Black River (a tributary of the Red). Today’s communist Vietnamese flag is a yellow star on a red field. Whether red rivers refers to blood, communism, or (as the color itself is said to symbolize) passion, violence, or courage—the underlying sub-text of the phrase “red rivers in a yellow field” quintessentially references the effort of the South Vietnamese to maintain sovereignty and nationhood. Today, the former South Vietnam flag with its red stripes on a yellow field is known as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag.
Even as that former lifeguard told my father “you got me through Vietnam,” I had no thought of compiling a book about Vietnam vets or even recounting my own experience during the Vietnam era. In the larger sense of the word, that “class” of high school and college boys of the 1960s, some of whom became members of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, now share a comradery and brotherhood of the deepest significance. What that brotherhood means to me, I tried to convey in the opening essay of Red Rivers entitled ‘The Wall,” a recollection of my personal experience at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC when I was in search of the inscribed name of a college friend who, unlike that lifeguard at the OCBP reunion, did not come home.