On Active Duty in the U.S. Navy: Toward War in Vietnam and Afterwards
March 18, 2011
It was Saturday morning, January 28, 2011. The telephone rang and as usual, Jeanne answered it. She had been piecing a quilt in the lower level of their modest, two-story home in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Jack, as he often did during these retirement years, was lingering at the breakfast table reading the morning’s New York Times. Suddenly, Jeanne appeared at his side—an unusual response to a telephone call, which most often was for her. If not, normally she would simply call upstairs to say: “the call is for you.” This time she handed him the remote handset, whispering excitedly: “It’s Paul Jacobs.”A slight chill went down his spine as he collected his thoughts, grasped the handset, and glanced in the small window at the large digital words: “Paul Jacobs.”
A series of sensations came over him. Recently, he had begun wondering if his memory had started playing tricks, as though the accretion of experiences that made him who he was, events documented in the filing cabinet beside his desk (and on his computer’s hard drive), were a dream. Jack had heard nothing from Paul Jacobs, his former commanding officer on the USS Meadowlark (MSC 196), since he, Jack, had departed that vessel, a coastal minesweeper in Cuba on August 2, 1965—forty-six years earlier.
The weather that day in tropical Guantanamo—known even then to the sailors as “Gitmo”—he recalled, had been hot and humid. He, Lieutenant Junior Grade Jack Grantham, had put on his khaki, open-collared, cotton short-sleeved, summer utility uniform, packed his full-sized, olive-drab-canvas duffel, said goodbye to his fellow crew members, saluted the petty officer of the watch, and carrying the duffel on his shoulder, had crossed over the brow to the pier. As he approached the taxi waiting for him, he glanced back at the wooden superstructure displaying proudly the navy’s white battle efficiency “E” with three hash marks for overall excellence four years in a row. Meadowlark, these markings signified, was the best coastal minesweeper in the Atlantic Fleet—an award it had won four years in a row. [CO, USS Meadowlark to LTJG William B. Pickett, 26 August 1965]
A member of the U.S. Navy’s smallest class—Meadowlark was relatively new when Jack had reported aboard two years earlier, in May, 1963. A product of Broward Marine, a yacht-builder (the ship had mahogany cabinets and bunks in officers’ quarters, all painted battleship grey until Captain Jacobs had the paint removed and the dark red, finely grained wood varnished) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, it had been commissioned only eight years earlier, in 1955. It measured 144-feet by 28- feet. It had a displacement of 290-tons, a draft of 9-feet, twin 600-hp Packard diesel engines with twin screws and propellers. It could thus turn on a dime or “twist” by moving one screw forward and the other back. Its flank (or top) speed was 14 knots. Built of wood and non-magnetic metals (the anchors were Hadfield steel and the engines aluminum) to avoid setting off a magnetic mine beneath its hull, the ship’s complement was 35 enlisted and 4 officers.
Until his departure that hot day in August 1965 this compact domain had been the location and focus of all Jack’s activities. He ate his meals in its officers’ ward room—a six-by-eight-foot space, lined with cabinets and a bookshelf containing a small television set but with a large fixed table in the center. He slept in the upper bunk of the small berthing compartment on the port side amidships on the main deck aft of the wardroom.
The U.S. Navy during these years brought the young males who became its line officers face-to-face with the almost incomprehensible possibility of war in the nuclear age—and, with it, a crash course in adulthood. Since moving aboard, Ensign Grantham had been immersed in the arts of teamwork, management, military law, leadership, seamanship, and the carrying out and giving of orders. He had quickly mastered the skills of river and coastal navigation, radio and signal communication, and ship handling. As he glanced back at this miniature universe that had been his home, Jack—now with twenty-seven months of experience—sensed that he was more relaxed and confident. He even indulged in a brief moment of smug satisfaction.
Arriving on the landing pad where a Sikorsky H-19 helicopter was loading men and supplies, Jack showed his orders to the pilot, who motioned him into the open cargo/passenger hatch below the cockpit. He strapped himself into the web seat, and as the chopper lifted off, peered through the open hatch–gushing wind from the large rotor above rising to hurricane force and loudness—and could see Meadowlark and assorted harbor tugs as they grew smaller below. The noisy machine carried him across the entrance to Guantanamo Bay to the naval air station and landing field on the other side.
Within the hour, he was strapped into yet another seat—this one nylon web lining the fuselage–as the four whining turboprop engines of a Navy C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft took it to cruising altitude above the Windward Passage. It rounded the eastern shore of Cuba, banked steeply to the left and, continuing its accelerating ascent through the wafting white clouds, headed northeast, past the Florida peninsula toward the Virginia coast. Jack’s thoughts turned to the orders folded in his pocket. He was to be assistant officer in charge of a mobile transfer and training team being formed to prepare a ship for transfer to one of the navies of Southeast Asia. His new command was the U.S. foreign military assistance program’s east coast headquarters, Fleet Training Center, Norfolk.
Effusive and good humored as ever, Paul Jacobs replied to Jack’s exclamation: “Paul Jacobs! Is it really you?” Jacobs answered: “Yes, it is. How are you?” And before, Jack could respond, his former commanding officer, in the same warm, steady, booming voice of forty-six years ago, said: “I never again had as difficult a navigational challenge as when we had to traverse the six miles through seven course changes up the Cooper River from its mouth at Charleston harbor to the piers at Mine Force Atlantic Fleet.”
In early January 1964, then-Lieutenant Paul Jacobs had relieved LT. Alexander A. Martella, Jr. (a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who, after six years at sea and an ultimatum from his wife, had decided to resign from the navy) as Meadowlark’s commanding officer. His first task, which began at that moment, was to learn about his ship and its crew. His teachers were, by necessity, his new officers. LTJG John Heath, a dark-haired, medium-height chain smoker, was the executive officer. He was married and a Navy ROTC graduate from Iowa State University whose father owned a meat packing plant in Iowa. Ensign Ed Blackwell, the engineering officer, was a tall handsome, blonde bachelor who enjoyed partying during his off-duty hours. He had an ironic and crude sense of humor. An OCS graduate with a degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, as a graduation present from his father he had received enough shares of IBM stock that he could live on their dividends. His navy paychecks were for booze and other amenities.
Ensign Grantham, for his part, was first lieutenant and mine countermeasures officer, tall (6’4”), brown hair, and also a bachelor OCS graduate. His college a degree was from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. In contrast to his colleague, Blackwell, however, he was so deeply in debt from college and car loans, insurance payments, and a naval uniform pay advance that he could not afford gasoline (this despite that fact that it was selling for “.35 a gallon) for his car–a sky blue, 1962, rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair which he therefore kept parked at the head of the pier.
These three young officers, already having been aboard Meadowlark for seven months by that time, had established a rapport and working relationship with the crew of experienced petty officers, mainly, all from blue-collar families, none of whom had gone to college, but all of whom had demonstrated by qualifying for their rating their expertise in their specialties. A few were married, but most were not. They enjoyed navy life–its adventure, liberty ports, economic security, and life on this coastal minesweeper. Their leaders were two superb first-class petty officers—an engine man and a boatswains’ mate–both of whom had served in World War II. (Indeed, the latter had survived having his destroyer sunk by a kamikaze during the battle of Okinawa.) Neither saw anything wrong, if the situation warranted, with working down below or on deck alongside their men.
Ship handling was the skill that all line officers, if they were to have a career in the navy, had, at some point, to master. The ultimate, unforgettable message of the anecdotes used by the officers and chief petty officers who taught courses in officer naval indoctrination was that running the ship aground would both ruin your day and wreck your career. Even demonstrated awkwardness in this essential skill would mean poor, possibly fatal marks on one’s annual officer fitness report.
The Cooper River was notorious for swift and shifting currents associated with its six-foot tide interval. Indeed, the brackish water, depending on the time of day, could be moving perpendicular to the navy piers–either inland or seaward—at eight knots. Landing dockside without mishap, unless done precisely at high or low tide, meant estimating correctly the combined effects of wind and this current on one’s assigned place at the pier. Jack’s job description as first lieutenant (i.e. deck officer in charge of the sailors who handled lines, maintained the ship’s hull, and operated the mine sweeping equipment), made him “sea detail conning officer.” Fortunately, by January 1964 when Paul Jacobs took command, Jack had both qualified as conning officer and gained some proficiency at it. So when it fell upon him to teach the anatomy of the Cooper River to the new CO the burden was slightly less.
Captain Jacobs—Jack and his fellow officers, were pleased to discover—radiated the “all-Nav,” can-do spirit of an officer for whom nothing was impossible. A native of Maine and graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, Jacobs, at age 30, could have been mistaken for a New England lobster man, the captain of a super tanker, or a harbor pilot. He was a tall (6’2”), large-boned, well-built individual with balding head and almost perpetually smiling eyes that were set high on a long, chubby face. Hearty and possessed of an almost childlike enthusiasm, he was perpetually ready, in his clipped Maine accent, with an encouraging quip and talked as easily with the enlisted men as he did his officers, though he used the chain of command for official business. He insisted that everyone meet the highest standards of performance and, in turn, rewarded them with well-chosen liberty ports. In sum, he carried out the commanding officer’s most important duty–the morale and readiness of the crew–almost effortlessly. A fast learner, he quickly gained their confidence.
In these months after the Cuban missile crisis and before the onset of major U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, the commander of mine force Atlantic Fleet trained his personnel in their mission—with equipment designed for the purpose to locate, destroy, or otherwise render harmless both contact and influence (acoustically or magnetically activated) explosive devices placed underwater by an enemy to “break the back” of large allied naval vessels or merchantmen. It also trained them to protect themselves and their ships in the event of nuclear war. The fleet’s equivalent of the “duck and cover” survival exercise taught to school children across the nation in these days was the tactic of turning the vessel toward the flash of light and accompanying shock wave—the “base surge”—of a nuclear “water burst.” Then, supposedly, after riding out the man-made tsunami, they were to exit the radioactive fallout at flank speed on a course at right angles to the direction of the wind while the ship’s company carried out decontamination wash-down procedures.
Training included gunnery, target practice with the twin mounted, twenty-millimeter anti-aircraft (and mine disposal) cannon and the ship’s allotment of small arms—four .30 caliber M-1 rifles; two .45 caliber Thompson submachine guns; a .30 caliber Browning Automatic Rifle [BAR]; several .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols; and a box of fragmentation grenades). These weapons, besides mine disposal, were for ship’s protection and use by the boarding party (board-and-search team) if the ship were assigned patrol duty. The twenty-millimeter cannons, with their large, spring-loaded cylindrical magazines, fired a projectile that exploded upon impact, leaving a crater on the target the size of a large grapefruit. They had an effective range of over a mile and were excellent–when loaded with tracer bullets and fired on full automatic by the gunner strapped into their shoulder harness and using hand-lever triggers–for decimating with floating targets: 50-gallon oil drums containing a quart or so of gasoline to simulate a floating mine.
As for the small arms, the BAR’s long barrel and ability to unleash a clip of .30 caliber bullets in aimed fire on full automatic for over a thousand yards was the most impressive. Its weight, however, made it more cumbersome. The Thompsons—the so-called “Tommy guns” in Pacific-War movies, despite their light weight and ubiquity—were less exciting in real life. Designed to be fired on fully automatic, their long magazines carried only .45- caliber hand-gun bullets, limiting their effective range to no more than fifty or sixty feet. Indeed, their bullets during practice on the fantail seemed almost to arch from the gun’s muzzle into the water.
Training for the officers included maneuvering in formation, the assumption being that they all would ultimately be stationed on and thus need to know the fundamentals of controlling a destroyer, the navy’s most numerous type of vessel. But the ship’s mission, mine sweeping, involved both officers and enlisted. The deck crew attached floats (pigs) to multi-plane water kites (otters) strung astern from both sides of the hull on cables from wenches on the fantail. Onto these cables (known as “wires” in naval terminology) the mine countermeasures crew attached cutters designed to snag and sever by explosive charge or friction the mooring wires of contact mines. When the detached mine floated to the surface, the ship’s gunner would detonate or sink it, so theory went, with 20 mm. cannon or rifle fire. Since acoustic and magnetically-triggered, influence mines were also a threat, training also included practice deploying an electrical cable a hundred yards astern with either electrodes or vibrating hammer attached to simulate, respectively, the magnetic or sound signature of a large vessel well astern of the minesweeper. That, supposedly, is where the influence mines would explode.
By this time in the Cold-War mine warfare-mine countermeasures arms race, some, if not all, of this doctrine was problematic. Indeed, Jack had learned in mine countermeasures school that mine technology—at least the American—was probably well ahead of counter-measures technology and that any self-respecting enemy minefield planner no doubt would salt his mine field with explosive devices anchored to take out shallow-draft minesweepers as well as “heavy” vessels. The ship’s open bridge, interestingly, was protected by a plexiglass windshield in a wood frame covered by an open-backed canvas awning where the conning officer stood next to his gyro and magnetic compasses and voice tube connected to the helmsman and engine man in the pilot house directly beneath the deck on which he stood. The reason for the canvas overhead on minesweepers, prudently but not very comfortingly, was so the conning officer and other members of the bridge party—quartermaster and signalman—would not suffer fractured skulls or broken necks by hitting the overhead if a mine went off under the ship’s hull.
By May 1963, the month Jack had reported aboard, Meadowlark had had five commanding officers and had participated in maneuvers with the Canadian navy down the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico. It had been through the Panama Canal on an inspection trip to the Canal Zone. During the Bay of Pigs Crisis in April 1961 it had guarded the approaches to Swan Island where the Central Intelligence Agency installed its secret radio transmitters to support the Cubans who it expected to rise up against Castro.
For the previous two months, beginning with Ensign Grantham’s arrival in Charleston, Jack had lived at the naval station bachelor officers quarters while attending the Mine Countermeasures Officer Course at the Naval Mine Warfare School across the street from the offices of the Commander Mine Forces Atlantic Fleet (the entire base, including the, destroyer and submarine piers, shipyard and supply center some five miles north of these facilities, was closed in 1996). Every so often, as he looked out the window toward the river, he would notice the black, shark-shaped hull and winged conning tower of a fleet ballistic missile submarine slipping silently and ominously under their nuclear power up river beyond the shipyard to the Naval Weapons Depot to obtain its load of nuclear-tipped missiles in preparation for heading out on its three-months’ patrol on its mission to maintain the nuclear balance of terror.
Since Meadowlark had a complement of only four officers, each one—except for the CO (his only specified duties were the ship’s mission and the morale of the crew)—had a handful of collateral duties, each of which, had they been stationed on a destroyer, would have been a full-time job. In addition to first lieutenant, Jack’s including mine countermeasures, supply, gunnery, and commissary. By the summer of 1965 when he departed from the ship, his duties, Captain Jacobs had shifted his duties (as part of a junior officer’s training for the professional goal of command at sea) to operations, communications, electronics, and registered publications custodian.
Meadowlark’s deployments after many day-long training cruises and readiness inspections in the waters off the coast of Charleston were, after Ensign Grantham joined the ship’s crew, south along the Atlantic coast. One week-long deployment with Canadian minesweepers to Ft. Lauderdale allowed the ship to provide services to a mine defense equipment laboratory. This meant liberty for off-duty crew members each evening in the nation’s most popular beach resort. In early February 1964, after a month after Paul Jacobs took command and following services testing equipment at the naval ordnance station at Panama City, Florida, the entire division of coastal minesweepers—Meadowlark, Parrot, Bluebird, and Kingbird—steamed up the lower Mississippi River and docked in downtown New Orleans just in time for the opening days of Mardi Gras. It was here that Jack learned about partying among jazz joints, striptease dancers, Pete Fountain’s Dixieland music, and Pat O’Brien’s toxic “Hurricane” cocktails in their gigantic glass goblets that revelers carried from club to club down Bourbon Street.
Jack enjoyed the revelry but soon found it—curiously, in the midst of the furious gaiety—a lonely time. He drifted away from the French Quarter and Bourbon Street—where he saw several revelers walking down the street with Hurricanes in their hands dressed in nothing but seaweed—and then took the streetcar west to Tulane University. The students and professors strolling amongst the stately trees draped with Spanish moss evoked memories just sixteen months earlier Northfield, Minnesota, though with snow replacing the Spanish moss. (It was during this brief interlude that he decided to propose to Jeanne, whom he married in August.) In late 1964 and the first half of 1965 Meadowlark participated in mock amphibious landings with the fleet marines at Vieques Island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. The crew had liberty, in San Juan, and later further south and east, in St. Croix and St. Thomas, American Virgin Islands.
It was about this time that the ship received orders to its first non-training duty: the “Windward Passage Patrol” between the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. The mission was to track on radar and with binoculars visually scan all Soviet-bloc ships traveling in and out of the port of Santiago, Cuba, and send the information, encrypted, by radio to the Pentagon. This was one of several means by which the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Johnson administration monitored whether the Soviets were keeping their agreement to withdraw their intermediate range missiles from Castro’s island nation. Meadowlark watch officers wrote down the names, deck cargoes, and load in the water of all such ships—whether cargo or tanker. They then gave the information to Jack to encrypt using the ship’s keyboard machine. He, in turn, gave it to the ship’s radioman who sent it by Morse code to Washington, D.C. This work, with some five or six ships passing each day, went on twenty-four hours a day, a week at a time. None of the scanned vessels, it turned out, was carrying banned cargo.
It was hot, boring work in which the only diversion, besides sunbathing on deck, was the unsporting practice of baiting sharks with scraps from the galley on grapnel hooks attached to half-inch nylon line. The crew then cranked them aboard for everyone to see using the minesweep winch. Every so often, too, the crew was able to enjoy the contents of care capsules containing such tidbits as candy and copies of Playboy dropped beside the ship by the crews of P-2 Orion, two-engine turboprop patrol planes that roared over the ship at masthead level at unscheduled intervals.
On a few of the “off-duty” weeks, to the crew’s considerable glee, Jacobs wangled orders from his superiors to take Meadowlark for “R&R” (rest and recreation) on the beaches of Montego Bay, Jamaica. The former British sugar plantation town, now popular resort, was only 90 miles to the south of Guantanamo. It provided relaxation, sailing on Sunfish fiberglass sloops, and parties of Limbo and the Ska dancing to such steel-band calypso tunes as “Yellow Bird” and “Day-oh” with vacationing airline stewardesses (as they were known in those days), and, of course, plenty of tropical “rum goodies” and Red Stripe beer.
In retrospect, it was while serving on the Meadowlark that Jack experienced the sensory, almost sensual, extremes of euphoria and misery—physically, the worst and best moments—of his life. The most miserable was one night as conning officer while steaming in a winter gale with four other ships in formation. Twenty-foot, breaking swells tossed the Meadowlark, seemingly as on an elevator or a leaf in the wind. He was nauseated, wet, cold and responsible more than anyone else for the safety of ship and crew. His most pleasant moment, in contrast, was also at night on the bridge, but this time with a clear, star-filled, tropical sky in transit from Guantanamo to Montego Bay, the sea a mirror calm, the ship’s movement as it knifed the surface (and the tropical air) at a smooth fourteen knots creating a soft, cool breeze; its hull cutting a “V” of widening foam in the moonlight.
Duty for U.S. mine-sweep sailors in the post-missile-crisis South Atlantic and Caribbean, while at times both hazardous and difficult, more often was safe and enjoyable. In the summer of 1963, superpower tensions had begun to lessen as Kennedy and Khrushchev each seemed to have peered into the precipice and begun seeking ways of avoiding another. They installed the “hotline,” a teletype link between the Kremlin and the White House, to facilitate future crisis communication. The two leaders signed the atmospheric test ban treaty, completing one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s initiatives and moving the U.S. and the Soviet Union further from the brink.
But tensions remained. The Soviet military leadership resolved never again to be caught in such a position of strategic weakness and, to expand their global reach, embarked on a “blue-water navy” building program. And, of course, President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 precluded complacency. Jack found out that horrific news on his car radio while on a trip to the naval supply center in Charleston. Breaking down in tears and unable to drive, he pulled off the road for a while. In the weeks that followed, his feeling of helplessness at this turn of events immersed him in his work. The following August, in far off Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident involved U.S. destroyers Maddox and, supposedly, Turner Joy, being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. An almost unanimous Congressional resolution enabled Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to increase U.S. commitment to the South to protect U.S. military and their allies in Southeast Asia and prevent the fall of South Vietnam to communism.
The navy, accordingly, stepped up efforts to retain junior officers. Jack, as a qualified conning officer, found himself with unexpected opportunities. Captain Jacobs rated him outstanding on his annual fitness report and encouraged him to “augment,” to apply for a commission in the regular navy. He wrote a letter of commendation for his “determination and will to win as a team member” that “significantly contributed to and materially assisted” the ship in winning the Battle Efficiency “E” for the fourth consecutive year. [CO, USS Meadowlark to LTJG Jack Grantham, 26 August 1965] Since LTJG John Heath, the current executive officer, was preparing to depart for civilian life and business school, this new billet would be available quite soon. Jacobs wrote in Jack’s fitness report that “LTJG Grantham is qualified in all respects to be Executive Officer of an MSC/MSO, and is therefore strongly recommended for promotion when due.” [P. H. Jacobs endorsement item #21 to Fitness Report, 26 August 1965]
Another option, promising even greater career possibilities, appeared about this same time. An all-navy communiqué arrived by radio bulletin from the Chief of Naval Operations. It sought junior officers, Lieutenant Junior Grade or above with qualifications as “officer of the deck in formation (OOD-F)” to become commanders of newly-forming swift-boat patrol squadrons on the Mekong River. All Jack needed to do was reply to the message and within weeks could have found himself with orders to combat duty and, possibly, medals—a sure beginning, no doubt, to a successful naval career.
Jack’s decision to neither accept Jacobs’ invitation nor volunteer for swift boats was, in retrospect, an important “Y” in his life’s path. Could he, in the summer of 1965, even claim to be a military veteran? While trained to kill (and offer his life) to protect his nation and its interests and committed by oath to do so, he never saw combat. (The closest he came to a Soviet “enemy” was one otherwise quiet afternoon in the Windward Passage when the towing harness from a Russian tanker to a Soviet electronic surveillance trawler, a so-called ELINT [electronic intelligence gathering] vessel that had been snooping off the entrance to Guantanamo Bay, broke. No more than two thousand yards away from Meadowlark, and the hapless ELINT ship soon drifted to dead in the water. The accompanying display of awkwardness and, in response, Captain Jacobs’ signal flag offering to assist brought no response from the hapless Cold-War enemy. After working for an hour or so, they were able to renew the tow go on their way.)
Was his decision, Jack sometimes wondered, a putting of personal safety and comfort (cowardice? or indolence?) ahead of country? It did not seem so at the time. As early as his senior year at Carleton he had begun inquiring about whether he might be able to go to graduate school for a Ph.D. in history and a career in college teaching. His excursion through Western Europe in the summer of 1962 and, during his thirty-one months in the navy, his program of reading both had reinforced this choice. He had been reading American military and diplomatic history and the history of the Western Civilization. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian Wars, Herbert Muller’s, The Uses of the Past; Lewis Mumford’s The City In History; Winston Churchill’s, The History of the English-Speaking People and his World War II books; Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two Ocean War and John Paul Jones were some that he carried with him or borrowed from the ship’s library (a single shelf of hardback books in the ship’s wardroom).
During his hours at sea there were plenty of occasions to ponder life’s purpose. One afternoon as conning officer he was keeping Meadowlark in position off the port quarter of the division’s flagship as the ships steamed in heavy seas off the coast of Florida toward Charleston. “How important is this activity in the larger sense? Was it the best use of one’s time? Would he feel fulfilled in twenty years? The underlying causes of the Cold-War were noble: one-party dictatorships versus constitutional liberty. Still, even without combat the world situation was now, in the nuclear age, incredibly dangerous and expensive. The armed forces on both sides, it occurred to him, simultaneously protected and provoked and thus perpetuated, threats. Would not more constructive work seek ways to end the madness? And it seemed to him without question that the navy (and other branches of the military), while necessary for defense and deterrence, also had a vested interest in (and careers based on) the existence of such threats.
Education, with all its inefficiencies and failures, somehow seemed a better undertaking, perhaps even the only hope. If people on both sides of the ideological and power divide learned more about the other, would not this increased familiarity and awareness of common concerns—as John F. Kennedy put it in his 1963 address at American University “that we inhabit the same planet, breathe the same air, and cherish our children’s future”–diminish the fear? The U.S. and the Soviet Union, after all, had been allies during World War II–a war in which the latter had borne much the greater burden of defeating Hitler’s Germany. It was with such soul searching that Jack continued toward his goal of becoming a teacher. (A few months later, his Carleton College roommate, Bill Johnson, having returned to civilian life from active duty as an officer on a destroyer in the Pacific asked Jack if he would like to join with him to start a business in Chicago as an inventors’ representative. Jack thanked him for the offer but said he knew if he did not pursue graduate school now, he might never do it and did not want to take the risk of regretting it later.) The immediate consequence of his decision, was Jack’s transfer off the Meadowlark and–before his separation from active duty the following August–a fascinating new experience.
The C-130 taking Jack from Guantanamo Bay landed at the sprawling U.S. Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia on August 3, 1965. Jack’s orders allowed a week’s leave before reporting to his new duty station. He traveled to Charleston, S.C. for a few days with Jeanne and, after flying to Boston, reported to the commander, First Naval District at his headquarters in a large multistory industrial building on the south side of entrance to Boston harbor and across from Logan Airport. He then, traveling by naval vehicle to the Navy Yard, began assembling the nine first- and second-class petty officers that would make up the transfer team. Boston Navy Yard is located at the intersection of the harbor entrance and Charles River Basin between the North End and East Boston. The shipyard commander assigned him an assortment of desks and filing cabinets in an open space on an upper floor one of the large factory buildings near the permanent berth of the historic USS Constitution—“Old Ironsides,” the world’s oldest commissioned warship (a 2200-ton, 204-foot, three-mast, 44-gun, frigate build in 1797). There Jack began gathering supplies to outfit a brand new coastal minesweeper, which still had not arrived from its builder’s shipyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. In the months ahead, the team’s mission was to oversee acceptance trials and preparations of the ship for commissioning in the U.S. Navy, take it down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Maine coast to Boston, work with the foreign crew to complete outfitting, transfer ownership to the government of Thailand, and then move aboard and train the Thai crew.
As Jack and his men assembled at the navy yard neither the transfer team’s commanding officer nor the foreign crew had arrived. (The former, Jack soon discovered, would be Lieutenant Ed Janis, a navy “mustang”—an officer nearing retirement who, with neither a college degree nor formal officer’s indoctrination via ROTC or OCS, had risen from the enlisted ranks and now, in his mid-fifties, held a final rank of Lieutenant and qualifications for command at sea.) For the time being, therefore, Jack was in charge. He turned to the tasks of establishing working files, keeping a log, reading handbooks about the history and culture of Thailand, and establishing contacts with the supply center and shipyard. He made certain that his petty officers had comfortable quarters, knew where to pick up their paychecks, and had identified their counterparts (the individuals with whom they would need to work) in the supply center.
To assist with his tasks (which included weekly reports to the Chief of Naval Operations, with copies produced in the purple ink of a ditto machine and mailed to twenty-seven other commands, including the commanders-in-chief of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, that would have responsibility for the ship as it passed through their jurisdiction on its way to Thailand the following winter) the team’s yeoman third class served Jack as both secretary and driver. And since this was a temporary duty station, away from Jack’s family residence in South Carolina, he now received, in addition to his salary and dependent’s allowance, a per diem payment of $16–ostensibly for food and a place to sleep. All told, LTJG Jack Grantham, at the age 25 had the navy perquisites—car, driver, messenger, and personal assistant–of a four striper (a navy captain) and benefits that effectively doubled his monthly paycheck.
And he, as the only officer on hand to assist with a new, yet-to-be-commissioned naval vessel, as necessary and appropriate, reported directly to the two rear admirals—the commandant, First Naval District and the commander, Boston Naval Shipyard—who knew they were accountable for the success of his mission while it was in their jurisdiction. He knew he could call upon, and expect quick execution from, personnel at the shipyard and its supply center because they knew he knew that—despite his youth and relatively junior rank—he was an experienced line officer with a job to do. As civilian employees, their job was to make certain he was satisfied.
That spring and summer, in the midst of the radio and newspapers reports of race riots and extensive fires in the Watts district of Los Angeles, Jack had time to explore the serene attractions of the Boston area, the picturesque harbor at Marblehead, Cape Cod’s beaches, and historic Concord and Lexington. He learned to use the Boston subway system: the “mighty” MTA immortalized a few years earlier in the Kingston Trio’s song, “Poor Old Charlie.” He explored Chinatown and visited Harvard University in Cambridge (stopping by the history department offices to talk with one of the faculty about the qualifications needed for admission to their graduate school—no chance, he discovered, without an undergraduate major and a grade-point average of “A”). He toured Faneuil Hall and ate at Durgin-Park family-style restaurant in Quincy Market. He visited a few local pubs, took in an afternoon rehearsal of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and attended an evening concert by folk singer, Judy Collins who was about this time recorded “Turn,Turn, Turn,” with its author, folk legend, Pete Seeger. He wandered through the streets with large, ornate Victorian residences on Telegraph Hill. They caused him to ponder who their owners had been (and were now) that they could afford such a life style. The district seemed to go on for blocks. He also visited Old North Church, from where in April, 1775 Paul Revere ordered a signal of two lanterns indicating the British were coming by sea, igniting the American revolution.
After renting an upstairs room in an old brownstone in the Back Bay for a few weeks, Jack moved his belongings to a Spartan sleeping room with bed, lamp, straight chair, and desk at the Charlestown YMCA. It was a gritty, noisy, working-class intersection shaded even during the day by the elevated railway tracks and station where cars, delivery trucks, and buses competed for space. But it was just few-blocks beyond the Bunker Hill Revolutionary War battlefield memorial to the Navy Yard and cost—he could hardly believe it—$0.75 a night. By eating modestly, he was able to save something like $12 of his per diem—a nice addition, he calculated, to his anticipated G.I.-bill money for graduate school.
His peaceful interlude lasted about two weeks before his work increased in tempo and Lt. Janis reported for duty. Jack was relieved to find him easy-going and friendly. They quickly established a rapport. Their division of labor was quite simple. Jack, as the executive officer, would handle everything. Ed, though in charge and thus accountable to the chain of command, would appear for a few hours each morning to keep up with progress and take care of anything that his attention or signature. Otherwise, he told Jack, he didn’t need to be bothered until it was time to take the ship to sea.
The fourth week in August—as U.S. ground troops and sailors arrived, in effect taking over the fighting from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam against the Vietcong and their sponsors in the North—Jack, Ed, and the rest of the team flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and drove a rented car the forty-four miles north to Sturgeon Bay, the location of Peterson Builders. They inspected the newly-built coastal minesweeper and observed as navy “Insurv” inspectors put the ship’s engines, radios, radar, and sonar rigorous tests. The trials complete, Lt. Janis, the enlisted team members, and two shipyard personnel, moved aboard the ship for the journey down the St. Lawrence Seaway. Jack flew to Minneapolis for a weekend with his parents-in-law in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and returned to Boston by air in time for the Thai navy crew’s arrival at Logan Airport the following Monday.
Jack soon found himself having the most interesting, enjoyable, and, in many ways, most fulfilling time of his life. Peterson officially delivered the new minesweeper on September 17, 1965. (http://shipbuildinghistory.com/history/shipyards/2large/inactive/peterson.htm) From that moment on, Jack was at the epicenter of a series of deadlines that required simultaneous coordination with the Thai officers, the staff at the shipyard, the First Naval District, his petty officers, and the Pentagon. They involved personnel, supply, ordinance, electronics, machinery, and training schedules; and required both naval expertise and sensitivity to the foreign culture, including ironing out the inevitable misunderstandings. (The most memorable flap occurred when U.S. Customs officers walked on board the ship after its transfer to Thai sovereignty and put an American customs’ seal on the cases of duty-free liquor its officers had purchased. The accompanying unhappiness of Lt. Bhichaikul, the Thai commanding officer, caused Jack, finding no satisfaction at lower levels, to request a meeting with the shipyard commander. The admiral listened carefully and then, while Jack was still in his office, picked up the phone, called his counterpart in the U.S. Customs Bureau, and put the matter to rest.)
By the end of the year, the United States government had transferred the vessel–now named Don Chedi (MSC 313) for a 9th century monument in Thailand in front of a pagoda marking a battle between the Thai king and a Burmese king both on elephant back–to the Thai navy in a formal, full-dress dockside ceremony attended by the Thai ambassador, the commanders of the shipyard and first naval district, and the wives of attending dignitaries including Jack’s wife, Jeanne. Jack wore full dress white uniform with officer’s belt and sword, which Jeanne brought with her when she flew up for the occasion from Charleston. Jeanne wore a white dress, hat, and gloves.
After sea trials off Cape Cod, Don Chedi, with Jack, Ed, and the transfer team aboard accompanying the Thai crew whom they were training, exited Boston harbor and then turned south through the Cape Cod Canal. There was a scare when Lt. Bhichaikul defied Jack and Ed’s advice to drop anchor and wait for the fog to lift and, relying solely on the ship’s new Decca radar to keep him in the shipping channel and off the many submerged rocks of Buzzard’s Bay, proceeded on toward Long Island Sound and New York City. Fortunately, Don Chedi continued without incident via the East River to a dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The American and Thai crews had a day “on the town” in New York City and an afternoon at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. The ship, two days later, traversed New York Harbor past the statue of Liberty down the Jersey and Cape May coast to U.S. Naval Base, Norfolk. There it received more equipment and steamed on to Charleston, South Carolina for minesweeping training at Mine Force Atlantic Fleet in Jack’s familiar waters.
At the end of January 1966, all training completed, Jack’s team disembarked and waved farewell, as Don Chedi got underway for the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and its trans-Pacific journey to Bangkok. Admiral H. J. Kossler, Commander Mine Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet, in filling out the officer fitness report said “that due largely to his [Jack’s] personal efforts, all material shortages of the Thailand ship were obtained expeditiously.” “He is an outstanding young naval officer.” He recommended him for promotion. [Lt. William B. Pickett, Fitness Report, 21 February 1966 by RADM, H.J. Kossler.]
For Jack, those few months were satisfactory, indeed. But it was much too late by this time to be admitted to the 1965-66 academic year of graduate school. So when the commanding officer of the fleet training center asked if he would like another assignment, he said, “yes” and arranged to extend his active duty contract—its three-years would have been satisfied in March—until the following August.
On February 1, 1966, Jack descended the steps of the drop-down tail ramp of a Delta Airlines 727 onto an ice covered runway at Norfolk, Virginia. A six-inch snowfall had brought the city at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay to a standstill; and his airliner had been unable to approach its gate. The passengers therefore had to traverse treacherous ice to the terminal building on their own. His team this time, he had found out, would be transferring a World-War II anti-submarine patrol and rescue ship, the ex-USS Brattleboro (PCER 852), to the navy of South Vietnam. Jack was reporting for two months of duty in the office of the Fleet Training Center, including a two-week Fleet Operational Intelligence Officer’s Course, until the Brattleboro was ready for the transfer team. The intelligence officer’s course, its materials highly classified, included the view of the Office of Naval Intelligence that the war in Vietnam would be no large undertaking because of naval air power. Carrier-based reconnaissance aircraft flying over the jungle, they said, were now able to penetrate the dense foliage with infrared cameras sufficiently to see the telephone wires strung by the Vietcong. Where they converged was an enemy command center. As bombing systematically eliminated these hubs, the Vietcong would find they had no commanders left and no place to hide.
Not long after Jack completed the course, the team’s officer in charge, Lt. John Sharp—another mustang qualified for command at sea—reported for duty. A short, stocky Irishman with thinning red hair, a hard-bitten, ruddy countenance, and beer belly, Sharp offered to drive them in his car—a sleek yellow Oldsmobile coupe—to the ship. They arrived at the Sun Shipyard Corporation in Chester, Pennsylvania, some nine miles downstream on the Delaware River from Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on April 11. (The ex-USS Brattleboro would receive its Vietnamese name, Ngoc Hoi, during a transfer ceremony scheduled for early June at the Philadelphia naval base.)
Also known simply as “Sun Ship,” their duty station, owned by Sun Oil Company (and therefore by the Pew family), was the largest shipbuilding and dry-dock facility on the Delaware. Its office was a corrugated-steel building nestled on the river bank amidst large multi-story scaffolds supporting the keels of two large freighters under construction for the Grace Shipping Company—workmen with welding torches and rivet guns were scrambling all over them on shifts around the clock. Moored adjacent to the shipyard were two gigantic, barge-like structures that, upon inspection from downstream, one could see were floating dry docks. Each one was large enough to hold a massive oil tanker. Further down the roadway, finally—in the shadow of these behemoths—was a small dry dock that contained the object of Jack and John’s mission, PCE(R) (Patrol Craft Escort Rescue) 852, ex-USS Brattleboro.
Despite its diminutive and somewhat weather-beaten appearance, this small ship was a much-decorated veteran of the final years of World War II. Built as an anti-submarine convoy escort and downed-flyer-rescue vessel at the Pullman Standard Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago in the spring of 1944, it was 184.5 feet long, 33 feet wide, with a displacement of 914 tons. Its armament included one three-inch fifty caliber (75 millimeter) deck cannon, two 40 mm and four 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, and hedgehog anti-submarine rockets. It could travel at 15 knots and had an operating range of 6,600 miles. Its complement was 85 officers and men. Designed also as a floating field hospital, it contained an emergency operating room. It could go in close to shore after a battle and pick up wounded troops or, on convoy duty, rescue downed airmen and sailors wounded in bombing and kamikaze attacks.
The PCER 852’s first wartime mission had come in early July 1944 when she carried 26 German prisoners of war from Bermuda to Norfolk. These POW’s had been rescued during capture by an American carrier task force in the south Atlantic of the German U-boat, U-505 (now on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago). PCER 852 then sailed via the Panama Canal to the Pacific where she participated in the epic American invasions against Japanese occupation forces in the Philippines (Leyte and Lingayen) and on Okinawa. In these actions she rescued some 1,300 wounded sailors and earned her commanding officer, Lt. Henry J. Irwin, the Navy Cross. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/b9/brattleboro.htm/ http://www.usspcer852.org/
The two mobile transfer team officers, Sharp and Grantham, climbed the steps to the offices at “Sun Ship,” walked in, and introduced themselves to the company’s liaison with the Navy, an amiable young engineer by the name of Bob Cuny. Within an hour or so, Cuny had provided the two officers with office space for their crew and a review of progress on the ship. It included a list of problem areas, alterations to the original work orders, and a schedule of anticipated completion. John, who had worked at Sun Ship during previous assignments, then took Jack to a nearby shipyard workingman’s watering hole and eating establishment for a juicy (greasy) Philly cheese-steak sandwich and draft beer.
Jack’s introduction to the local scene continued after their relaxing meal, as they walked up the street another block to a house where John introduced Jack to yet another acquaintance. “Ma” Luchesko was a Ukrainian woman in her late 60s. She owned a well-worn, turn-of-the-century, red-brick row house with veranda porch. It was located several feet up a short flight of stairs from the busy tree-lined street through downtown Chester. John knew that she—a smiling, buxom, wrinkled lady in her late sixties, her gray hair drawn back in a bun—offered delicious bacon-and-egg breakfasts and, occasionally as a special treat, Ukrainian meat-filled dumplings, pierogis. She was especially happy to rent to naval officers who were willing to take the linoleum-floored-but-freshly-scrubbed upstairs back bedroom and bath on a weekly or monthly basis. Her price, which the two officers (who would split it) immediately accepted, was $30 a week.
The following weekend John and Jack drove back to Norfolk. Jack spent a few days helping Jeanne, who had driven up from Charleston ahead of the moving van, move in to their new apartment, part of a newly-built private complex outside the main gate of the amphibious base several miles due east of the main naval base and air station at Little Creek, Virginia. The war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly worrisome as television footage of each previous day’s combat appeared on the evening news. The public was becoming restless. More urban ghettos were going up in flames as the promises of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs seemed increasingly unobtainable.
For Jack and John the news was a backdrop for immediate, though related, concerns. These included the arrival in Philadelphia of the South Vietnamese officers and crew and, a few weeks later, the movement of the newly-refitted ex-USS Brattleboro from Sun Ship to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Jack, as one might expect, had made friends with several of the Thai officers on Don Chedi and found that they were enjoying their time in the U.S. But when quizzed about the war being fought in neighboring South Vietnam to resist take-over by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, they told Jack, with sardonic humor, that as far as they were concerned the war was an American, not a Thai affair. It had to do, less with the security of Thailand, they insisted, than with American fears of communism. They were happy to travel to the United States, receive a new ship—which they packed with cases of cigarettes and boxes of newly-purchased television sets—and return to Thailand. And they were happy to enjoy and, as necessary, to work with their generous American friends.
The officers of the country most affected by the burgeoning American involvement, The Republic of Vietnam, however, did not, Jack discovered, have this mercenary attitude. The Vietnamese officers had a different sense of purpose and urgency. (Jack wondered if the different attitude stemmed, in a deeper sense, from the fact that Vietnam, unlike Thailand, fell under Japanese sovereignty during World War II. Or, more immediately and personally, perhaps it came from their realization of the vulnerability of their way of life—whether Catholic or Buddhist—to Vietcong terror and totalitarian rule.)
Jack soon developed a friendship with the Vietnamese commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Nguyen Ba Trang, in civilian life a gregarious and capable young Saigon high school teacher. With his quick smile and command of both French and English, Trang quickly adapted to his new surroundings, including after-hours and weekend tours with Jack of American historical sites such as Valley Forge, Independence Hall (and the Liberty Bell), and, interestingly, the U.S. naval vessel that had been at the center of the epic events that created the U.S. Asian empire at the turn of the previous century. USS Olympia, Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the battle of Manila Bay, was now a museum located at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware.
Conversations over tasty dinners at Bookbinders’ Restaurant, the oldest seafood dining spot in Philadelphia, persuaded Jack that Trang was a patriot, anxious to bring about an independent, non-communist Vietnam, and grateful for American assistance. He and his fellow officers were quick learners despite their lack of much English. They found in the American culture they saw displayed in the sedate tree-lined residential neighborhoods, monumental museums—despite districts of dilapidated row houses and low-income housing of Philadelphia–a world strikingly different from theirs. Even the least affluent American, it seemed to them, could take for granted continuous electricity, hot water, sewage, and public transportation—along with telephones, televisions, central heating—in their living quarters. The Vietnamese crew, many of them from rural areas, after moving aboard, made the ship into a comfortable and familiar dwelling. They caught various kinds of fish and eels off the fantail in the muddy Delaware, cleaned and dried them on lines strung on the deck, and with an array of pickles and spices, cooked delicious meals to share with their American instructors.
The transfer, on July 11, 1966, like the one in Boston the previous year to Thailand, was a full-dress affair with admirals and a bevy of military attache’s and their wives in attendance. The base commander honored the occasion with a banquet for the South Vietnamese officers, ambassador, and visiting dignitaries and spouses at the shipyard officers club. The ship, now christened the Ngoc Hoi (HQ 12)—with Jack, John, and their team of petty officers aboar—soon finished sea trials and departed for U.S. Naval Base, Norfolk for training exercises. It was there, with the Ngoc Hoi docked at Little Creek, that LCDR Trang spent his last evening with Jack, at dinner prepared by Jeanne at the Grantham apartment. They drank toasts to friendship; and after dinner, Jack and Jeanne took him back to the ship, took his picture, shook hands, and waved good-bye.
In the weeks that followed, as the Ngoc Hoi completed its shakedown cruise and headed south for Cuba, the Panama Canal, and transit to the Pacific—its theater of operations once again–and its new permanent duty station, Jack finished his “out processing” and separation from active navy duty. His commanding officer at Fleet Training Center commended him on his “ingenuity and industry to ensure that timely solutions were found for all the myriad problems that arise during activation and transfer of a ship to a foreign crew and [his] tact and persistence to train the foreign crew to operate and maintain the ship.” [LTJG Grantham Fitness Report, 25 August 1966] Jack and Jeanne took a belated honeymoon vacation in Jamaica; and then, visiting friends and relatives along the way, drove to the Hoosier state, so Jack could enter graduate school at Indiana University.
It was there that he was reminded once again of obstacles in the way of his goal—namely, that he had not majored in history and had earned only a “C+” grade point average in college. This big-ten university’s history department (which, it turned out, was on its way to becoming one of the premier history graduate programs in the nation) was willing to admit him as a special non-degree student but perhaps mainly because he was a native Hoosier, a navy veteran, and—he later discovered—because a family friend from Crawfordsville, Richard Ristine, was now lieutenant governor. When Jack did not hear back from his application to Indiana, his father, unbeknownst to Jack, wrote Ristine, who in turn contacted the university’s president, Herman Wells, to complain. The history department secretaries quickly uncovered the application, which they apparently had misplaced, and Jack received a cordial letter of acceptance.
Jack also benefited from timing. History graduate programs were expanding to meet what seemed to be a growing and endless demand for teachers and professors, especially for programs funded by the National Defense Education Act. The history department’s contract with Jack—an agreement worked out by the department’s director of graduate studies—was for Jack to earn a “B+” or better grade average with a full graduate-level load (12 hours) of classes in his first semester. If he did so, the department would admit him as a full-time graduate student. Opportunity now in hand, Jack was determined to qualify. Jack earned his MA in history in 1968; completed his course work and passed his qualifying examinations in 1972; and, two years later, after defending his dissertation—a biography of former U.S. Senator from Indiana, Homer E. Capehart—was awarded the Ph.D. in history. By that time he was an assistant professor of history at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Terre Haute, Indiana, a tenure-track position he had accepted in 1972.
He would fulfill the last two of his six years’ obligation in the active and ready naval reserve by attending monthly drills in Bloomington. After his promotion to Lieutenant, he completed two, two-week summer tours on active duty. The first, in 1967, he served in Milwaukee on the reserve patrol ship USS Portage; and the second, in 1968, he spent writing World-War-II ships histories for the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships at the Department of Naval History in Washington, D.C. Busy with the challenges and deadlines of graduate school and, after that, his new career, he lost all contact with his active-duty comrades, the individuals with whom he had served on the Meadowlark, including Captain Paul Jacobs; the Thai officers of the Don Chedi; and Captain Trang of the Ngoc Hoi. Secretary of the Navy, J. William Middendorft, II, signed Jack’s certificate of honorable discharge from the armed forces on April 28, 1975 but discovering they no longer had a mailing address, the Bureau of Personnel simply filed it in his service record. [Discharge certificate, Lt. Jack Grantham, April 28, 1975 personnel files.]
In moments of quiet reflection and sometimes in his dreams in the years that followed, Jack’s thoughts would drift back to those days. These thoughts occurred especially at the time of the fall of Saigon. What had happened, he wondered, to Trang—the gentle, amiable, and earnest school teacher who desired to keep his country free? He had good reason to fear that in the nine years after their farewell, things had not gone smoothly. The Ngoc Hoi, he assumed—having heard nothing else—had made it to Saigon and joined other former U.S. patrol ships and destroyer escorts that made up the RVN navy in interdicting North Vietnamese infiltration and movement of weapons along the South China Sea coast and Mekong delta. Jack had been in his second year of graduate school when U.S. involvement reached its climax in 1968. The Tet offensive, a coordinated North Vietnamese and Vietcong offensive throughout the South, marked the turn of the American media and public against the war and, after the presidential elections of 1968, the beginning of American deescalation and troop withdrawal. By the time the armistice agreement of 1973 allowed withdrawal of all American combat forces in exchange for release of American prisoners of war, Jack had become assistant professor of history at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. After Congress cut all assistance funds, the Republic of Vietnam fell to a conventional armored assault from the North on April 29, 1975 (the day after Jack’s honorable discharge).
LCDR Trang’s uncertain fate remained part of Jack’s awareness in the decade that followed as he taught U.S. diplomatic and military history. He even had several Vietnamese students—young men who had fled their country (some two million so-called “boat people” in all) and found a new life in the United States—in his classes. Jack knew that over a hundred and fifty thousand South Vietnamese officers and intellectuals were sent to brutal North Vietnamese “re-education camps.” Some did not survive.
Descriptive footnote: Jack had occasion to visit Bangkok in the spring of 1990 during a vacation from teaching on U.S. military bases in South Korea and was able to find out that the Thai commanding officer to whom he had transferred the Don Chedi, Krayim Bhichaikul, by then a very senior officer, was commander of the large naval base outside of the city.
It would not be for forty-five years that Jack, then a retired professor and living in Minnesota, had occasion to relive his memories of LCDR Trang, the Ngoc Hoi, as well as Captain Jacobs and USS Meadowlark. One morning in early September 2010 while listening to National Public Radio while on a trip to the local grocery Jack suddenly heard the words: “The men of the USS Kirk were trained as warriors, not as caregivers. So they didn’t think of what they did more than three decades ago as significant. But their rescue of 20,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese refugees, in the last days of the Vietnam War, is now being recognized as one of the most important humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. Navy.” The story was entitled: “After Thirty-five Years Unlikely Navy Caregivers Receive Recognition.” The officers and crew of U.S. Seventh Fleet escort destroyer, the USS Kirk (FF 1087), it turned out, had led this unexpected mission that occurred when the Saigon government fell in April 1975.
This mission in the South China Sea off Vung Tau, South Vietnam had never reached the national media, the navy itself, apparently—in the aftermath of the ill-fated U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia—even omitted it from some of their reports. The armed forces, although a permanent part of the nation’s Cold-War fabric, continued in their traditionally ambivalent relationship with the American people. Revered in times of threats from abroad and national emergencies, in times of peace and accompanying complacency they disliked its capacity for coercion, large costs, inefficiencies, and the military-industrial-complex pointed out by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address. The latter contradicted the nation’s self-image as both a creature of the people and protector of their values.
In times of natural disasters—such as, most recently, tsunamis and earthquakes—the U.S. Navy’s arrival, usually first on the scene, with supplies and medicine earned it outpourings of good will. (One is reminded of the relief efforts of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier task force off the coast of Indonesia in the 2004, the rescue of thousands of civilians by the U.S. army and air force helicopters after the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011.) And when the American military carries out its missions under international law and with a minimum of casualties, the American people tend to forget past mistakes such as Vietnam in 1965-1975, Lebanon in 1983, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq with resources insufficient to the scope and complexity of the task of preventing prolonged disarray. The above-mentioned ambivalence, it is possible to argue, contributed both to the fall of Saigon as well as to the failure to report or give credit for the humanitarian acts that followed.
As for the Kirk’s mission, however, there was a practical reason for the lack of publicity. Its success required that it be shrouded from public view. Led by the American Defense Attache’s office in Saigon, Kirk’s initial orders were to prevent the South Vietnamese navy from falling into the hands of the communist government whose armed forces had just taken control of Saigon.
The larger story is well known, the heart-rending image of Vietnamese struggling single file up a sagging, fifty-foot extension ladder from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon to a helicopter perched precariously on the top of its utility shed is a standard graphic published in histories of the Vietnam War. It symbolizes perhaps better than anything else the strategic failure. South Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans had received word they might be victims of savage political reprisals, a “blood bath.” Television news footage at the time showed the American aircraft carriers off the coast. South Vietnamese army UH-1 (Huey) helicopters, each packed with soldiers and their families, landing on the carriers Hancock and Midway, and then, with their passengers safe on board, large groups of sailors pushing the aircraft over the side to make room for dozens more waiting to land.
During the three-day period beginning April 29, 1975 U.S. military “Operation Frequent Wind” brought the evacuation of some 50,000 Vietnamese armed forces and civilians. The latter departed on small fishing boats, junks, barges towed by tugs, and leaky freighters as well as helicopters. They included women, children, elderly, sick, crippled, and wounded as well as soldiers, sailors, and embassy personnel. Those tragic events unfolding under the cloudy spring skies remain unforgettable to Americans who are old enough (or who study history). It was a sad, if not humiliating, end to a well-meaning but costly American effort in behalf of people on distant shores. http://www.history.navy.mil/seairland/chap5.htm
The NPR program instantly took Jack back to his memory of RVNS Noc Hoi and Nguyen Ba Trang. Were they, he wondered, among those rescued by the Kirk? No sooner had the question entered Jack’s mind than the NPR announcer identified the Kirk’s commanding officer as “Commander Paul Jacobs.” Catching his breath he sensed almost instantly that this was the very same Paul Jacobs who had been his CO on the Meadowlark. The reporter, Carl Shapiro, went on to explain how Kirk, instead of merely escorting the aircraft carriers and amphibious ships that were taking refugees from the Saigon area as part of Seventh Fleet Amphibious Task Force 76, found itself rescuing a succession of South Vietnamese helicopter pilots and their passengers during what was to become, in the words of the official report, “the world’s largest helicopter evacuation.” [http://www.history.navy.mil/shiphist/b/lcc-19/1975.pdf]
The USS Kirk, (designated a “fast frigate” thus the prefix “FF” before its hull number “1087”) was a much improved version of the type of anti-submarine vessel known in World War II and afterward as a “destroyer escort.” Slightly smaller than a standard destroyer but carrying much of the same armament, Kirk was 435 feet long and 45 feet wide with a displacement of 4,250 tons. It had a crew of 250, could travel at speeds in excess of 27 knots, and was armed with rockets, torpedoes, and an anti-submarine helicopter on a small landing pad behind the main superstructure. It carried a rapid-fire 5” cannon for both anti-aircraft and shore bombardment and a rapid-fire 20 mm. cannon for close-in defense. In the weeks before operation “Frequent Wind” it had been an escort vessel for the evacuation of the anti-communist government in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Some of these fleeing helicopters, mostly UH-1’s, were low on fuel; others were perforated with bullet holes, leaking fuel, and unable to proceed much further. Kirk’s tiny helicopter landing pad was a better place to land, certainly, than the sea. On April 29 and 30, Captain Jacobs ordered the Kirk, to receive 16 such landings, its crew—including in several instances Jacobs himself—pushing the helicopters overboard almost as soon as their occupants had exited.
Near the end of this work, Kirk’s crew saw a huge, two-main-rotor Chinook (CH-7) cargo helicopter come toward them over the horizon. Discovering from Kirk’s frantic air controllers that his aircraft was too large for the landing pad, the South Vietnamese pilot, accepting directions from them, moved his craft to a position ten feet above the Kirk’s fantail—high enough for his rotors to clear the ship’s flight deck and, hopefully, low enough for his passengers to exit. They included a baby girl just eleven months old, a three-year-old boy, a six-year-old boy and their mother. All of them dropped safely into the arms of Kirk‘s crew members. The pilot then moved his hulking craft to a point fifty yards off Kirk’s starboard quarter and few feet above the ocean. He hovered long enough to open the port pilot’s hatch and, after setting the controls to begin rolling the behemoth onto its starboard side, jumped into the sea. As it hit the ocean on the starboard side, the giant rotors shattered and the engines blew up. After waiting for the pieces to stop flying, Kirk crew members jumped into the water and rescued the pilot. During this three-day period at the end of April, a total of 200 Vietnamese refugees and their pilots and two marine AH-1 Cobra pilots either found refuge on Kirk or were rescued by its crew.
This, it turned out, was just the beginning of Kirk’s emergency duties. Operation “Frequent Wind” conducted by U.S. Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force Task Force 76 under the command of Rear Admiral D. B. Whitmire aboard his flagship, USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and now including a human cargo of 50,000 refugees began its 1,000-mile journey eastward to the Philippines. No sooner had Kirk off-loaded its unexpected Vietnamese passengers to another, larger U.S. navy ship and set a course to join the main flotilla, than on of Captain Jacobs’ radioman brought him a message from the admiral. [http://www.history.navy.mil/shiphist/b/lcc-19/1975.pdf ] USS Kirk–with commander destroyer squadron 23, Commodore Donald “Pete” Roan, on board—was to proceed to Blue Ridge, pick up a civilian member of the American Defense Attache’s office in Saigon, and carry out orders in his possession. That civilian, it turned out, was a thirty-year-old former naval officer named Richard L. Armitage.
Thirty years later Armitage would serve as deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell in the first George W. Bush administration. He was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy where he had been a member of both wrestling and football teams. A veteran of three tours with the South Vietnamese river patrol forces, Armitage spoke Vietnamese fluently. He had resigned his commission to protest the Nixon administration’s decision to sign a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese but had remained in Saigon as an adviser with the Defense Attache’s office. Dressed in civilian clothes and with a .45 caliber pistol strapped to his waist, he had arrived on Blue Ridge that day by helicopter. In his possession were orders from the Secretary of Defense. He was to mobilize U.S. naval resources to prevent, if at all possible, the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy—with their crews, weapons, and equipment—from falling into the hands of the North Vietnamese.
Those remnants had taken shelter at Con Son Island due east of the southern tip of Vietnam. Arriving aboard the Kirk, Armitage shook hands and exchanged brief pleasantries with Jacobs and then said: “Head for Con Son!” Jacobs told Armitage he was not accustomed to receiving orders from armed civilians who came aboard his ship in the middle of the night. Armitage responded, with a smile, that he was not accustomed to doing so. Jacobs’ recalled the power-lifter Armitage’s “bone-crushing” grip. [Jacobs’ telephone interview with the author of 2-14-11; “The Lucky Few”]
The largest island in the Con Dao archipelago, Con Son was notorious as the prison operated by Indo-China’s French colonial overlords from the late 19th century until their departure in 1954, and afterwards by the South Vietnamese government. On May 1, 1975 when Kirk—a warship that despite its formidable capacity to destroy hostile submarines had never seen combat—arrived at the island, Captain Jacobs quickly saw that his mission had become enormously more urgent and difficult. All nineteen of the Vietnamese military ships had been gifts of the United States. In addition to these war ships, however, the anchorage contained vessels of all descriptions all of them crowded both on deck and below with frightened, hungry, and in some instances, sick or injured civilian refugees. Jacobs later recalled thinking: “Oh my God. How are we going to pull this off?” [“The Luck Few”]
Within hours, Armitage and the officers and men of the Kirk—with help from the crew of another fast frigate, USS Cook, and five other U.S. naval vessels—had taken control of thirty-two Vietnamese ships. Some of them were broken down and barely able to move. Others were about to sink. Many of the 30,000 Vietnamese seamen and civilians on board had been waiting almost a week for rescue, many of them suffering dehydration, conjunctivitis, and diarrhea. The American seamen, shifting their roles from warriors to care-givers, began distributing food, water, and medical supplies—Kirk’s chief hospital corpsman, Stephen Burwinkel, aided by an interpreter, looking after the sick. Upon request by Burwinkel, Kirk became a hospital ship, providing sick bay facilities for nine pregnant Vietnamese women and baby with pneumonia. After hours of getting ready—Kirk’s machinist mates had to make repairs on bilge pumps and main propulsion and generator engines and its supply petty officers had to distribute fresh water—the make-shift flotilla (with Captain Jacobs on the Kirk and Armitage aboard the Vietnamese flagship in constant radio contact with each other) began its five-nautical-miles-per-hour voyage eastward to the Philippines.
The two parallel columns of sixteen Vietnamese ships were each some five miles long. Six U.S. navy vessels, including Kirk and Cook, provided administrative command support and, as best they could, protection. Other ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet (and a U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft from the Philippines that dropped supplies—which included dressings for wounds, eye ointment, baby formula, and baby diapers—as it flew over), brought supplies, so the flotilla at any one time totaled some forty vessels. Unfortunately, the danger and difficulty for the South Vietnamese—despite having lost their homes, their country, and their pride—did not end upon approaching Philippines waters.
The flotilla was virtually defenseless against hostile supersonic aircraft, but fortunately none appeared. And the sea, also as fortune would have it, while normally rough, was extraordinarily calm during the passage. But as they approached Subic Bay, the flotilla found itself legally unable to proceed. The authoritarian Philippine government of Ferdinand Marcos had been the first to recognize the newly-expanded sovereignty over the South of the Hanoi government. That government now demanded that the refugee fleet return to Vietnam.[“The Lucky Few”]
Armitage and Jacobs, who had been improvising for the past ten days, had no intention of letting this obstacle stop them. After a flurry of messages exchanged with the Pentagon, State Department, and the American embassy in Manila, they put out a request to the Task Force ships for thirty-two American flags. Collecting them from various American ships, Jacobs then sent an officer and enlisted man with a stars and stripes flag to each Vietnamese ship. At the designated time, midday on May 7, 1975, with the South Vietnamese national anthem playing in a solemn ceremony, the troops saluting while each vessel lowered the yellow-with-three-horizontal-orange-stripe flags of South Vietnam for the last time and replaced them with the American stars and stripes. In the words of Captain Kiem Do, deputy chief of staff of the RVN navy, “the ceremony saved our face and our dignity.” [“The Lucky Few”] By this act, having lost sovereignty over its navy—which in 1973 had numbered 42,000 men and 1,400 ships and other water craft—South Vietnam ceased to exist. [http://www.history.navy.mil/wars/vietnam/svietnavy.htm]
The Vietnamese ships—the Americans assured the Philippine government—had only been on loan to the Republic of Vietnam (a story that Jack from personal experience knew was fictitious) and had now been returned. The bow to the niceties of international sovereignty—including the confiscation by the American officers of all weapons being carried by the Vietnamese—was sufficient to allow the flotilla to proceed.
Now made up entirely of American ships, the convoy steamed into the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay on May 7, two days after the arrival of Admiral Whitmire’s flotilla. Kirk’s efficient actions, so precarious at their outset, had resulted in only one casualty. A Vietnamese baby being treated for pneumonia aboard in Captain Jacob’s stateroom died from pulmonary complications. (Jacobs ordered a formal night burial with military honors at sea.) Despite Jacobs good-natured encouragement that they do so, none of the Vietnamese women gave birth during the voyage. But all were warmed by his attention and that of the crew. Indeed, one of the women, who delivered her baby after reaching the hospital in Subic Bay, gave her infant the middle name, “Kirk”—as her gesture of gratitude.
Having trained to destroy if ordered, Jacobs and his men had been able “to save life, not to destroy it.” The crew was doing what came naturally. Their orders said they were to protect, if possible, and escort to safety an allied fleet in mortal danger from enemy aircraft. When they realized their task was much larger than this, their native ingenuity allowed a smooth transition to an undertaking for which they had not trained and were prepared only by their basic decency. In reference to Jacobs and his crew, Armitage later remarked: “What a great cap [this action was] to their career. I envied them. Kirk’s crew [having arrived too late to see combat] were not burdened by the former misadventure in Vietnam.” [The Lucky Few] His role in “Frequent Wind” would be the highlight of his career.
But what about the Ngoc Hoi? Returning home with his groceries, Jack, sat down at his computer keyboard, wrote the name “Paul Jacobs” in his Google search window, and found it listed on the Kirk website. It contained a photograph of him along with an e-mail address and message window. Jack sent a message congratulating his former commanding officer for this much deserved recognition. He told him of his own work preparing the Ngoc Hoi for transfer to the Republic of Vietnam in 1966 and asked Jacobs whether he had met or knew anything about LCDR Trang.
Jacobs’ telephone call on January 28 was his reply. The former commanding officer of USS Kirk recalled Ngoc Hoi but not Trang. However, he arranged to send Jack a digital video disc just released by the Navy Medicine Support Command about the Kirk and “Frequent Wind.” Produced by Jan Herman, the command’s historian, the video documentary was entitled: The Lucky Few: The Story of USS Kirk: Providing Humanitarian and Medical Care at Sea. Using amateur footage taken at the time, it showed Kirk caregivers in action. The video and the Kirk website both contained contact information for Vietnamese officers who, Jack realized, might be able to help find what had happened to LCDR Trang. An endnote in Herman’s on-line story listed RVNS Ngoc Hoi (H12) as one of the rescued vessels and that Captain Jacobs had sent one of his officers, LTJG Scott Olin, and Seaman G.E. Harrison to Ngoc Hoi, as part of the process of establishing American sovereignty over it. As of March 2011, although assisted by a Vietnamese officer who had been aboard another vessel and thinking he might be able to find out about him, Jack still had not located LCDR Nguyen Ba Trang.
Watch “The Lucky Few” via archive.org
Jacobs, for his part, had retired in 1984 with the rank of Captain after twenty-six years of active duty. By that time he had served as commanding officer of three ships—two minesweepers and Kirk—and as director of programs involving naval undersea cable operations, surveillance, mine warfare, and fleet ballistic missile submarines, respectively. He had received the bronze star, four meritorious service medals, and the navy commendation medal. He had been a principal in private companies doing business with the navy and was now president and CEO of Veteran Resources Corporation of Fairfax, Virginia, a consulting firm. [Paul Jacobs business card, 2011]
The USS Kirk was decommissioned in 1993 and sold to the government of Taiwan. Renamed the Fen Yang, hull number 934, it remains in service. The RVNS Ngoc Hoi (HQ12), renamed the BRP Miguel Malvar (PS19), remained on active duty and is listed as the most decorated ship in the Philippine navy. [http://www.kirk1087.org/about/ ] The USS Meadowlark, after serving for many years as a reserve training ship in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, was transferred to the government of Indonesia in 1971 and renamed Pulau Alau (M717). It was sold in 1976. Its fate, according to the private naval history website, Navsource.org—the only known source of information on this question—is listed as “unknown.”
Jack Grantham, now 70, and benefiting from the wonders of 21st century broadband Internet communication technology, had connected to his past and in doing so revisited his life as an active-duty naval officer forty-six years earlier. By doing this he had gained a better understanding of both himself and his nation.
©2014 William B. Pickett. All rights reserved.
2 thoughts on “Minesweep Officer: U.S. Navy in the Vietnam Era”
Enjoyed the prose……. your second book should include a story line about two CIA officers that don’t know each is a member of the Firm.
One is a quiet unpretentious college professor in a small Midwestern community, while the other is a handsome, debonair architect 😁😁😁
Dear James, Do you like them shaken or stirred? I am looking for a handsome, debonaire partner with experience in the deep lakes of the newly-independent nations of central Asia. Let let me know if you can recommend someone from the plains of southcentral Indiana who fits the bill, especially someone who provides sweet chewy candy to their friends at Christmas. Hope you guys are well and safe in this epochal epidemic.