Service Reflections: Veteran recalls serving as a Seabee in Vietnam
Service Reflections: Veteran recalls serving as a Seabee in Vietnam
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EO2 Perry Betts
Status: U.S. Navy Retired
Service Years: 1967-1970
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Navy.
For those reading my posts: It was never my intent for anyone to read my postings. They were born from my need to ramble based on one of my counselors at the Vet center, reminding me that if we tell the story enough times, the emotions leave us. Similarly, a computer, the memory will still be in the brain with all its vividness but in the hard drive, not working from the RAM!
The Covid-19 about the same time as my counselor left and moved closer to their home, and the Vet Center closing TWS gave me an outlet. Keep in mind these are not necessarily in any order, and I'm a nobody from a small family who grew up milking cows on a farm surrounded by Amish and Mennonites. So I guess isolation from youth taught me self-reliance.
While not always agreeing with my dad, I admired him. His name was Theron John Betts. He was named after an uncle who died in WWI. This uncle enlisted with the Canadian forces then transferred to the US Army. He was a volunteer!
My dad, who was 24 when Pearl Harbor had been attacked, was married with two children and had a job essential to the war effort. He wrote letters and worked towards being allowed to serve. Finally, in 1944, he got permission to enlist. He chose the Marine Corps. The recruiter told him, "Okay, we will take you, but you will never leave this country, and if you do, you will never see combat.
Dad was one of the Marines who survived Iwo Jima; when the war ended, the 3rd Marine Division went on to Nakaski. Dad spent 37 days on Iwo Jima, and he was also a part of the retaking of Guam. While dad was serving in the Pacific, his younger brother was in Europe. My father-in-law was Louis Gene Becraft, and his younger brother was serving in Africa while he served in the Aleutian Islands, then he moved to Europe. Along the way, he was awarded a Purple Heart. I have some great stories of both of these men and how they influenced my life.
He was also a volunteer, so it was normal for me to volunteer. All Seabees during Vietnam were volunteers. Only 28,000 during the length of Vietnam served when 2.7 Million men served boot son the ground in Vietnam. Most of us were required to serve two tours. Some, such as myself, did three tours. My 20th, 21st, and 22nd birthdays took place in Vietnam. My 20th birthday saw6 Seabees KIA or wounded. My 21st birthday saw just 2 Seabees KIA. My 22nd birthday saw none. I later learned I was a natural volunteer, just like my dad. Dad was named after his uncle Theron (he volunteered in WWI for Canada then transferred when the US joined the war). Dad's uncle was killed in France. A more distant relative died in a Confederate POW camp again as a volunteer. A distant relative on my mom's side fought in the Indian Wars in the west.
I was 16 and milking the cows on the family farm one evening, and my dad came and asked me if I was going to join the Marine Corps. Dad served in WWII as a Marine and survived Iwo Jima. I answered, yes. After a long pause, he said, "Son, I taught you how to shoot. I know you want to serve your country. I would advise that you look at what is available and pick something that will give you an occupation that will help you feed the family you will have someday! After that, I kept looking and finally found out about the Seabees.
My decision was not to join the Navy, but I wanted to be a Seabee, so you had to enlist in the Navy first. After watching the PBS series on Vietnam, a young Marine told the story that he was always on the bench in high school sports. He said in Vietnam; he realized he was on the varsity. I also never made anything more than a reserve team. But I realized serving in Vietnam; I was then on the varsity, in part, because of my dad. Graduating high school, I went to work at the road paving company where he was superintendent of operations. I was driving a dump truck loaded with asphalt, and being the lowest-ranked person, was the last loaded. As I pulled up to the paving site, everyone was sitting and waiting.
It seemed the paving operator had not shown up. Dad came over to the truck and told me to follow him. As we walked towards the paver, I asked dad what did he want me to do? He said you're going to run the paver today! I said I don't know-how. Dad stopped, turned to me, and said: "No one here knows how either, but you have a talent that others don't. I know you are the only person here who can do this job." So you see, my expertise and willingness to serve my country put me on the varsity. I also knew why dad pointed me in the direction I set upon.
About Dr. Harry Jackson. Harry never told anyone he had a doctorate because he was just an average guy. The doctorate was in Divinity, and Harry was a believer in Christ. He was an orphan and the finest man I have ever known, besides my dad. Harry saved my life as he saved others at the Chattanooga Vet Center. It was Harry who encouraged each of us in his group to start a claim for PTSD. When the shooting took place at Fort Hood, Harry was asked to go and counsel the survivors.
After I moved to Florida, Harry was diagnosed with Parkinson's and passed a couple of years later. He was never receiving any VA disability financial help. Harry had been awarded a Bronze Star with "V" Device. He never told anyone, I found out in his obituary. Harry taught me how to fight an enemy I could not see.
In the early 2000s, my mind started to shift, change, get weird. I was struggling every day. The economy had changed, and my field of employment was changing very fast to a point where it just did not exist.
At this time, I started thinking and then saying idiotic things. One day I said something out loud that caused Shirley to say, you need help. What I said came quickly from my lips, but when my ears heard it, I was shocked. To prevent this thing from taking place, I sold or gave ALL my firearms anyway. My thought is, don't let a bad day be the excuse for real stupidity.
Shirley told me to go to the VA in Chattanooga. I did not know they had the Vet Centers or any mental health services. After the information input, the VA lady told me to go to another office and see the women there. I handed my DD-214 to her, and we spoke for a couple of moments. She asked me to go across the street to a building named Vet Center and give them my DD-214. I asked what they did, and she said they talk to you. I said I don't need to talk! She leaned forward, moving her face just inches from me, and informed me that my records showed her I did three tours in Vietnam, and then she asked, "You don't think you need to talk about it? That is the definition of insanity" I loved it and laughed as I went across the street. They gave me Harry Jackson! And my life started to change.
I look back now and realize the importance of Harry Jackson, the Chattanooga Vet Center counselor; he helped me understand WHEN I finally started to listen. One day in the group, Harry had set up one of the 12 men asked, "Why did this happen to us late in life?" Harry did not hesitate to answer. His answer was something similar to, "all of you came home; you either got a job or went back to your job; you either got married or started getting close to your girlfriend. You put stuff behind you because that's what you do, you move forward! You spent the next several decades raising your children and working. Time passed. Your children grew and moved away, you started to slow down, or the economy changed, and forcing itself back to the front, was your past!" As I refer to it as a whack a mole game. With more moles or fewer hammers, confusion messes up the game.
Harry taught the Anger Diamond because anger started and got stronger daily. However, the anger was with yourself, NOT towards others; they just were witnesses. The Anger Diamond has 4 points Frustration, FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real), Hurt, and Sense of Hopelessness.
Each day will bring the attacks: Flight or Fight!
This was the most important thing to learn. Once you realize this: Take time to evaluate the attack quickly. My usual reaction is to fight. It is instantaneous! But Harry's patient teaching brought to the following. We moved to Lake Wales, so I had my 1st appt. At Lakeland, VA. The nurse gave me hell for being late. We argued, and I won. Not because of my fighting but pointing to the letter they sent, did NOT say arrive 30 min, before the appt. The normal time in Chattanooga was 15 minutes.
Then the doctor questioned my medication. I replied it was all prescribed by my primary in Chattanooga. She asked why I had never been to see the psychiatrist. I said I went to the Vet Center instead! She called me a liar. Three Times. I quit talking when she started, and I thought of Harry and pictured him doing the diagram on the board. I realized I was frustrated because I was dealing with an idiot. And sat peacefully! In her frustration, she never completed the check-up but referred me to see a psychiatrist.
I did fire that doctor and two more later. I was always keeping appts. I showed up, and as the doctor was explaining, we had an hour to discuss things. I said, let me tell you why she sent me here. I explained the above, mentioning the Anger Diamond telling her about the frustration of dealing with an idiot. She stifled a laugh and told me I never had to come back to mental health because you are using the tools you were taught. She then added that to my permanent file.
Harry explained to the group why we did have PTSD, and in my case, when I first met him, he asked a lot of questions about family. One question was key (unbeknownst to me). What was my relationship with my father? My answer was I admired him and always wanted to be like him. It turns out that told him it was not a personality issue. But PTSD!
The MCB-5 Dong Ha deployment from Nov.1967 till Aug.1968 was coming to an end. We were given our flight dates and upcoming leave times. The early flight had up to 30 days' leave after arriving back in California. Mine was 26 days until I was to check back in Port Hueneme, the west coast Seabee base. We loaded on either C-123 or C-130's for the flight to Da Nang, often referred to as Rocket City, for obvious reasons.
Once we landed at Da Nang, airstrip man hauls carried us to a Seabee camp near Freedom Hill. Our flight home was scheduled later that night, so we did what Seabees are good at doing; we drank beer, a lot of beer. Camp Barnes at Dong Ha in northern I Corp was an unfriendly place. Rocket attacks every day, C-Rations daily for those of us out on the road. Route #9, running from Dong Ha south and east to Khe Sanh, was a hostile place. I found out later that 40% of all casualties came from I Corp. The NVA did not like us close to their country. The PBS video series pointed to I Corp and toxic issues, and that is why it was given to the Marines. Keeping in mind wherever Marines are, you will find Seabees.
We had a commotion at the EM Club at Camp Hoover. We overwhelmed the home base Seabees because of our thirst. After closing, they loaded the drunks back on the man hauls, and we headed for the airstrip. It was dark there when we arrived in Dong Ha. Many others did as I did; we dropped onto the runway matting and slept. Sometime later, they roused us to load on the C-141 to fly home. The plane landed in Okinawa for fuel. I went inside the terminal and saw my first flush toilet for a long time.
They flew the northern route home, landing at an Air Force base in Anchorage, Alaska; they did not allow us off at the terminal. We were hungover in our dirty clothes. Mine was so filthy that when we arrived, the Master At Arms at the exchange did not want me to go in. He said, go back and change. Did I answer back to Vietnam? He asked what unit, I said MCB-5. He said, okay, we were told you guys would becoming in today.
I digress; our plane landed at Pt. Magu Naval Air Station; they had organized the band from Port Hueneme and rolled out a red carpet. The band was playing Anchors Away, and my 1stdeployment was complete. Unlike most other veterans who would return home alone facing protesters and called names by the wonderful pieces of shit called Americans, we had a Red Carpet band playing. The next time I came home would be the assholes!
In retrospect, the country's struggle with us coming home was difficult, especially for our wives. My wife started going back to college and faced tough times when some vicious people found out she was married to a guy serving in Vietnam. But if this had to happen to a generation of Americans, I'm glad it was me, not my children or grandchildren!
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
I enlisted to serve my country. As the end of my mandatory 2nd tour (Seabees in MCB's were required to serve two 9-10 deployments in Vietnam) was coming to a close, I realized that my 4-year enlistment was going to have me either in the states or abroad. After a year away, I would more than likely be headed back to Vietnam. Since I had already experienced the undesirable return, I elected to stay and get it over with.
Unknown at the time was the political climate in the USA. Later, even after we had the enemy beat after the 1968 Tet, I realized Walter Cronkite was poisoning the minds of the American people.
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian, and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
As a Seabee, I experienced rocket attacks, ambushes, mortar attacks, and, last but not least, the joy of being point man way too often. While Seabees were considered support troops as an Equipment Operator (EO). I spent every day outside the wire, either working on the road such as Rte. 9 out of Dong Ha, placing culverts, working on side ramps on bridges. We were hauling cargo over the Hai Van Pass to Phu Loc and hauling equipment to other work areas for construction. Keep in mind that with so few Seabees, we did not have the luxury of convoys. It was usually you and the road, sometimes a shotgun rider. But every now and then, things changed.
In 1969 I was driving a lowboy with equipment along with trucks from MCB-5 and two other Seabee battalions near Da Nang. I do not remember where we went or how many trucks, but it was an organized and heavily guarded run that day. We had a lot of security and drove a long way out of the Da Nang area. Suppose you can imagine all the dust, which made it difficult to see the truck in front of you. We arrived at a small compound and unloaded all the equipment, and the empty trucks staged outside the gate.
Finally, all the trucks were unloaded, and we headed back. I was very near the back of the line, and as I was passing the gate, I saw a Marine waiting for a ride. I could tell he was a sniper because of the rifle he was carrying. I stopped, and he hopped in. In that couple of minutes, every truck went by me, making me the last truck.
While we had a lot of security going out, most stayed at the camp with only a couple of lead jeeps. Now the convoy is supposed to maintain the speed of the last vehicle. Meaning the guy in front of you is supposed to match the speed so that the person behind can keep up. Unfortunately, an asshole was in front of me and never slowed down. Okay, the big deal when arriving at the camp, I found I had two flats on the trailer. They were on separate axles. Yes, I had only ONE spare. The problem was I could not change either because if I lost another on the same axle, I would have TWO flats pushing through the heavy dust, similar to pulling a plow. Try as I might, I could not keep up being in 5th gear high, and I brought it down to 4th gear high. I switched back and forth repeatedly, always losing ground.
Finally, there was no dust in the air. We came to a crossroads I could only guess. Remember going out was in highly dusty conditions. So I could never see anything. It was getting dark. The Marine next to me noticed my difficulty and asked what the matter was; once I explained the flats, he understood and added, well, thanks for picking me up. He was headed to Freedom Hill R&R for three days. We laughed at the predicament with me, noting well you may be busy tonight if we get stranded. Well, apparently, the God I did not know then guided us back to Da Nang, and I dropped the Marine off at Freedom Hill.
That reminds me of a time in 1968 on a Sunday evening, and a Seabee finds me drinking beer and asks me to follow him to the tire shop where two Marines were standing next to a jeep with a flat tire. They needed to get back to Vandegrift before it got too dark. They offered to barter since Seabees were known as bartering champs! I declined and realized these guys had to drive past where I was going to be working the next day. I fixed the tire and wished them good luck.
Helping people is always a good thing when you know what you are doing, and they do not.
This was 1969, and while we did lose two men on my birthday, the unit lost six men KIA at Phu Loc. Phu Loc was an outpost with a rock crusher over the Hai Van Pass, where most of the 2ndplatoon and a large portion of 3 platoons were sent at the outset of the deployment. Since I had been in the 2nd platoon previously, almost all my friends were in Phu Loc. The men were killed when the NVA attempted to overrun the base and were repelled by the accurate mortar fire. As a parting gift, they zeroed in on the mortar team and killed them all.
Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.
Given the total length of time I served in Vietnam, various things come to mind; few are pleasant! A couple of days after arriving at Dong Ha, I was placed as security for the road crew on Rte. 9. Being totally "green," I could only imagine what to expect riding in a 6x6 heading down the road. Tet was still causing issues, and our normal road work had been suspended for a couple of days. The Seabees on that road crew were expected to daily run the road to Camp Carroll and back to fix/add bridges, place culverts with diversion paths around ALL bridges, and widen the road. Since the old French-built road was 10-12 wide only one vehicle could run at one time. We would pick a place (it changed daily for security), a D8 would carve one half of the road, and scrappers would bring fill from other areas with hills. We picked hilly areas with switchbacks or hairpin curves. We would first push the brush back then remove the hill and make a straight path, thereby ending ambushes at that spot.
Since I was an E2 at the time, the Platoon Chief did not know of my equipment skills; once he found my skill level, I was placed on a scraper. The Tet Offensive had made things change on many things. The Marines had more priorities, so "sweeping" the road was delayed daily. It was decided that the Seabees would sweep the road, meaning we headed out first each day. EVERY day a Marine convoy would leave Dong Ha for Camp Carroll with ammunition, men, 155MM, and 175MM barrels. (Understand this fact: The 1st vehicle or equipment to go first was the worst part daily. WE did not go at night, so the VC/NVA could plant whatever they wished in the roadway. While ALL the Seabees where volunteers, few would take the "point" position. I took point more than others NOT because I was looking to die but because others refused, and someone had to do it daily!) They had the priority for that run.
On a day before my joining the crew, the Seabees were cited by the Marine General for breaking up an ambush on the daily convoy. With our removing the likely places for ambushes, the frequency lowered. However, mortar fire was always available. One day, I was heading to the fill with a load of dirt when the convoy was crossing the bridge, never the fill spot when mortar rounds were falling around the bridge since I was amid the convoy, I kept heading towards the firing. It was harrowing, but it was what I was trained for. Each day brought its own joy!
During the 1968 tour, we experienced daily rocket attacks or nightly. The mind plays tricks when you are on the perimeter staring at the wire a few feet away in total darkness. If you can imagine a time at night when it was absolutely dark and hoping to see. In your camp at night, you needed to know the layout of holes and cover the direction and how far, because of the lack of light. One time after a particularly long stretch of tension on the road and wanting hot chow, I sat in the chow hall eating, and incoming started; most everyone got up, and lest I sat there and finished my meal, and it was good.
The previous day to this experience, the road crew spent the night at a small outpost on Rte. 9 do to a scraper breaking down, AND the ASP (Ammunition Supply Point) next to our camp was destroyed. Similar experience the next year in Da Nang. We had slept on the ground and had a hasty meal in the dark and a very small tent.
1968 was a lot like the above. 1969 was totally different but had its own issues. In time I will fill in 1969 then move on to 1970. In mid-September 1969, Tom Horn, Harold Browning, and Me had come to the end of the road with MCB-5. The flight lists were out, and the three of us had extended for another six months, which at the time was the minimum length of time for an extension. Of course, within two weeks of our signatures, the early outs were for as little as two weeks, I think. Yes, that was our master plan. Each of us had enlisted for four years. On the plane ride into Dong Ha plus the point, man-days told me I wanted out of the Navy.
I was never placed on report or reprimanded in any way. I did my job, as did Harold and Tom. They took us across Da Nang to NSA (Naval Support Activity). We checked Tom was staying in Da Nang and later informed me it was the best duty he ever had. Basically, he was a chauffeur transporting people all over Da Nang. Harold, I lucked out, and we got to ride in a truck back over Hai Van Pass to Phu Bai. The unit was NSA/Phu Bai. Always good to be back in northern I Corp, right.
We were basically a maintenance unit. We fixed the runway matting when it got hot. It expanded, so we removed three cross runs of the aluminum matting and replaced it with two after stretching it closer with a front end loader and a forklift. On one occasion, it was decided to pick up and replace about half of the matting. That was, of course, one of the hottest and most physically exhausting days. We found that if two guys worked together, they understood each other's tendency, and then it went smooth but exhausting.
It was decided I was the crane operator because I knew how to start the crane and make it work. Remember, when my dad said, son, if you can start it, you can make it operate. It turns out it was a good job except for the days the driver and I had to take our mobile crane to the water pumping station on the Perfume River. There two routes either head to Camp Eagle, pass through it, and travel a few miles to the station. OR head north to the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hue, turn left and follow a narrow dirt road lined with trees that would sweep the vehicle. One was safer; one was faster; the dirt road was faster. Of course, we did not get paid by the hour, but there was zero traffic, and that made us prefer that route.
The mobile crane was a P&H 25 ton military rated crane actually rated at 32 ton by P&H with a 50 ft. Boom. It was extremely noisy, and when we traveled, it always had to be transported with the boom following. I was never trained for any crane. It was just because they needed an operator, and I hopped on it, started it, and went to work. The water pumping station was built with about six men attending the pumps and security if you could call it that. They had a concertina wire around the building, but there wasn't any distance. The men slept top level, and the extremely noisy pumped powered by large diesel below.
It pumped water to Camp Eagle and to MACV in Hue. Or anyone who could tap its flow of river water from the very clean and fresh Perfume River. Hopefully, you can understand sarcasm! Besides the stupid run to the pumping station taking the road/path, Phu Bai was easy compared to previous tours. During these Phu Bai months, I was scheduled for transportation to drive the Vietnamese women back to downtown after they got off work. There were 8-10 who performed many of the tasks that Seabees performed on my previous tours. Laundry and cleaning, etc. On the schedule was me as the driver and another man as the shotgun. Another Seabee asked me to switch with him as he was scheduled in the radio shack. Having very little desire to leave camp in the dark to drive to Hue then return, I answered affirmatively.
My theory was, ALWAYS do the watch you are scheduled unless someone wants the more dangerous option. During their run, they were ambushed close to Hue, which caused communication problems since the farther they were from us, the truck's radio was sketchy. The report upset the radio operator. I was the runner. He kind of lost it mentally and became erratic and unable to think. I asked him to go get the Officer of the Day, and I took the radio. I called the water pumping station since they had a tower and asked them to relay.
When the OD arrived, I summed up one civilian dead, one Seabee wounded, and they were going to spend the night at the MACV compound and return in the morning. OD affirmed everything was okay. The next day they returned the guy who wanted to go. He did so because he fancied one of the young Vietnamese girls. He had the girl sitting between them. The ambush consisted of one round from an AK fired from the side on the ground upward, passing through the side of the cab burning the skin on his neck, and blowing the girls head apart.
Since the truck had set all night and the sun was miserable, it was decided to survey the truck. Meaning, destroy the truck and ship its carcass to Da Nang. This timeframe in my life allowed me to experience the fullness of a monsoon season. We had over 73 inches of rain in 30 days. Mud was everywhere, lots of mud. The transport yard was a pond with every vehicle circling. Making you think you get to a vehicle without swimming. Not exaggerating, but the mud was waist-deep in the pond. Of course, they sent us to FNG's, and we told them they were expected to walk through it AND buy the first round at the small EM Club. That place got me hooked on drinking Black Label Jack Daniels, a habit that lasted for a few years.
Nearing the end of my Phu Bai time while waiting in the dispatch shack, two of the Seabees drove in with a large refrigerator on the truck and mentioned someone had foolishly parked their truck and walked away, leaving the fridge unguarded. Wanting to live up to Seabee tradition, the 5 to 6 of us decided to place it in the tool shed next to the dispatch shack. We removed the frame around the door, and with the muscle, we got it in place, the door back on, and the tools setting outside. Realizing we locked the door so it would not go missing as it had in the past.
The next day a jeep with two men from CID drove in and asked me (because I was standing by the dispatch shack) had I seen a fridge. They had been told that the Seabees were the first place to check. I gave a negative answer. One asked me what was in the shed. I answered hand tools and asked if they would like to look at the key. I offered to get the key. One said to the other no, it would not fit in the door and got back in the jeep and drove away. They apparently did not recognize or ask why are all the hand tools were setting in the dispatch shack!
As the time for Harold and me was coming close, Harold found me one day very upset and wanted me to see the flight list posting. The flight list had us listed for March 27th for Harold and March 29th for me. We walked into the office, and the 2nd Class Yeoman said there was nothing he could do about the situation. My answer was not rehearsed, just deliberate. I said that's okay; we signed a contract enforceable by law for six months ending on March 1st, 1970.
On that day, we will inform JAG, and they can ask you why you kept two civilians in a war zone. The next day we were both on the March 1st flight. My separation was three days later. I purchased civilian clothes to fly home in since it was highly recommended. I was paying full fare, no military discount. I went home to my wife and 18-month-old daughter, who did not know me. But I was home. My 20, 21, and 22nd birthdays were all coming in Vietnam. The 1968 Tet, highway #9 work daily, the destruction of Camp Hoover from ASP-1. I thought it was all behind me.
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of, and why? Which was your least favorite?
Fondest: Coming home to my wife.
Least: Point man in Vietnam.
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect on to this day.
PTSD has changed my brain as I age. Long term memory is strong and vivid. With the training from the Vet Center, I continue to cope!
When I finally got home, I drank a lot daily. It was not uncommon for me to drink a six-pack or more nightly; a case was better. One morning when I was getting ready for work (work started at 6 AM), I wanted a beer very badly. While driving to work, I told myself the following. "Perry, you have a job to feed and house your family; you have a wife, a young daughter, and a baby on the way!" My answer was I stopped drinking for several years. After several years I had one beer. It was good. However, I limit myself to only two bottles a day. Sometimes NONE!
The video on the far left is a Youtube video posted a couple of years back. The audio mentions May the actual date was April 27th, 1969. I imagine the man found and posted it without knowing the date. That was a very long day! Our camp was Camp Hoover, named after a fallen Seabee, and the location was adjacent Ammunition Supply Point #1 (ASP1). While the narrator mentions burning brush and even the always truthful USA news said burning grass, I doubt that fact. Why? Well, the previous year, we were stationed farther north and received incoming a lot, so I knew the sound. And what I first heard was incoming.
Anyway, the explosions lasted about10-12 hrs. The very large explosions you will see would actually lift you off the ground. We were setting in a two-man firing hole with our knees up to our chests. Everything was destroyed, totaling 95% of Camp Hoover. The explosions never stopped; they either got smaller or hellaciously large. I had grabbed my small radio and earpiece, and after some time, tuned in to Armed Forces Radio, they were broadcasting a baseball game not that I cared about baseball but wanted to give my mind a place to flee.
Even now, after 50+ years, it is hard to think about the non-stop continued explosions. At some point, Fargus, my housemate, started to get very, very antsy; he wanted to leave, go, get out. Since I was sitting in the opening, he wanted me to move. I said, where do you think you are going to go? With that, he settled down, and we waited. As darkness was starting, a runner from HQ stopped and mentioned the chow hall and the EM Club was open if somebody wanted to make the run for food or soda. As mentioned, I was sitting next to the opening.
Each hole had enough room for two men to sit shoulder to shoulder and thin pieces of plywood covering our heads. There was a single row of sandbags on top. During the heaviest, a piece of shrapnel came down, brushing my arm and buried in the ground. I grabbed a sandbag from overhead and placed it on whatever. It did not tear my shirt; it was one of those times you feel but not touch. This was what became the greatest day of my life, spiritually. I said I'm going for supplies. As I jumped out of the hole, the most terrible fear I had ever experienced grasped my mind, and I stood motionless for a few seconds.
The combinations of the fear and the realization in the dark should I run and step on something that would blow up or walk and see what there was in the next step. AND the fear BUT then what I later understood was the Holy Spirit in a small still voice said, "You Will Not Be Harmed." And his voice chased the fear from my mind and body. I calmly walked to the chow hall and gathered 2cases of C-Rations. I returned and went from hole to hole and passed them out to our platoon. Fortunately, someone else went to the EM Club and returned with soda. Beer would have been better, but we had something wet, and it made the day a little brighter. I was 21 at the time. I had never gone to church more than once or twice. Later, when I was 41, the Holy Spirit came to me in a motel room in Elyria, Ohio, and introduced himself and brought me into the family of God.
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
I've always been proud of the mettle (courage, spirit, resolution) I had and earned during Vietnam.
I was awarded the Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal for Meritorious Service. The award came unexpectedly in Phu Bai by our Commanding Officer. The letter on the award was signed by Gen. Creighton Abrams, Supreme Commander for all Allied Forces in Vietnam.
During an overcast morning, the chief asked me if I knew how to front. Meaning troops are at attention, and you are to step forward at the right corners. I answered, of course, chief I'm not an IPO. After I enlisted for four years and in boot camp, the Navy offered qualified men (I would have qualified) to enlist for two years and start at E4. So in the mud, we assembled, hoping the monsoon would hold off for a few more minutes. My name was called. I did the square corners in the mud and stood in front of the CO The Ex.O. Read my letter about this award. There was no mention of what I did at what time, so I never really knew.
My thought was since this award had to come from a ranking officer at O-6, meaning a Navy Captain or Marine Colonel, and the time had to be when I was with MCB-5 a few months previous.MCB-5 CO was an O-5, meaning it got passed up the chain of command until a 4 Star general signed it. Also, during Vietnam, this award was almost never given out because of the chain it had to process through. I THINK it was because one day while in MCB-5, I met one of the men from the Security Company. He mentioned that they had been trying a load of fuel oil to spray the perimeter in front of their line. I knew where it was and knew it was at the top of a hell of a hill with multiple switchbacks on a narrow dirt road. I told him I couldn't promise a day or at all but don't be surprised if I show up.
The military is a good example of asking forgiveness instead of permission. So I waited until I had everything covered on my fuel truck rounds at each spot in and around Da Nang. It turns out the fuel truck was a job for F--ups. They asked me to cover for a day. I LOVED IT. Being a self-starter and being left alone because NOBODY wanted to get close to you caring 2,000gallons of diesel and 1,000 gallons of gas. So with empty tanks, I headed to the fuel farm, loaded 3,000 gallons of diesel, and started the high climb. Going up was very slow 1st gear ONLY and very carefully making the hairpins. I pulled up to the bunker, and they all came out and damned near gave me a cheer. They asked how much could they have? I answered all 3,000 gallons. I had a nozzle to spray. I told them they had to spray while I watched the truck PTO and changed tanks.
When completed, I headed down the hill/mountain. It was worse going down, but I made it fueled the truck back up, and never said a word to anyone. The fire that started could be very easily seen, and I never heard a word. Keeping in mind, I could have been written up for it or court-martialed. I imagine the Security Company CO mentioned it to others. This medal is the same as the Navy and Marine Corps Meritorious medal, which is for E-6 and Junior Officers. Mine is for E-1 through E-5. Same wording, BUT any officer can recommend the first one. Remember the process!
There were occasions where equipment and job sites were scattered everywhere. When within the perimeter of Da Nang was one thing to exit and heading solo was another. I learned early that when heading towards the airstrip and going around, it obviously had two different directions right or left, of course. In learning this, I found that one made me pass the mortuary. A combination of the large stacks of coffins plus the very strong smell of embalming fluid told me which way to proceed in the future. Similar to Dong Ha, I made that mistake ONCE!
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
The Combat Action Ribbon is most rewarding to me. Why? I had to see how I would perform under fire. I did not think it would be with the plane landing in Dong Ha. Then I knew I could handle it!
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
Chief Rutherford, he was my first Platoon Chief. He approached me on two occasions. The first was while we were getting ready to fly out for the first Vietnam trip. He asked me if this information was correct. Was I married? I answered, "yes." He told me he was using me to fill a spot at A School in California so that I would spend Christmas with my wife. He said, "finish school, and we will see you next month."
"A" School was for basic learners already having experience. It was easy. I was given the top award, and they had a ceremony for our graduation. Some had a family. I didn't even mention it to Shirley because it did not mean anything to me. What it did mean is that NOW Chief Rutherford would know I was excellent on equipment. When we arrived in Dong Ha, I was not filling sandbags!
The 2nd time he asked me one day, "Are you still a CN (Construction Man). I answered, yes. He answered, "Well, I was going to give you a field promotion to Petty Officer 3rd Class, but I can only give you one bump". Again asking, "Why did you not take the test?" I said all the training seemed important. He smiled and shook his head, yes.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
Jimmy Meyer, Fillingame. Harold Brewer, Allen Peters, Lee Shults, Andersen, and Harold Browning. Harold and I did our total time together both at Dong Ha and Phu Bai. Harold Browning and his wife Susan recently visited us in Florida. It was terrific to see Harold!
As you read my information and updates, I need to add the best part. The Lord has always blessed me. You can see it in some of my services. For reasons only known by God, He has blessed my family and me. Nothing I have ever done warrants such favoritism. It starts back on the basis, why I chose the Seabees is in the 1st question. He gave me everything I wanted in life. NO, it was not money (we struggled at several times) or anything that most would think as their desire. He gave me character, loyalty, and common sense. It started with my parents, who were wonderful role models. I did not always understand what they gave me; however, in the last 30-40 years, I have come to learn what is best in life. One of the best parts of God is his allowing us to go through challenging times and hard struggles learning to hang on to his word.
Open question to any veteran reading this? Vietnam was three years of my life and is still an ongoing newsreel in my brain. My 20, 21, and 22nd birthdays in Vietnam. Fewer than half of my relatives or friends have even taken the time to log in to my site. They do not know that I'm notified. They also do not know or, more likely not, care that I'm sharing information they may wish to learn. They care little about me, and some will spend a couple of hours a day on social media each day. All will gladly take my money as others with zero thanks. They will maybe say thanks for your service annually. I write the things I have written for me; if they choose to be ignorant, that's their problem.
Friends, my wife of 53 yrs and I live in a 55+ community with approximately one thousand six hundred homes of all those people; there is only one couple we spend any time with regularly. There is one other couple every month. And that is it! Yes, there are other veterans, and yes, some are Vietnam vets. But if the wife does not like you, it's not going to happen. The couple across the street are nice people, but they spend their time with their church friends. It is okay for me, but my wife has to deal with a lonely life as well. Yes, PTSD leads me to distance myself from people to disdain in general, but even I need some conversation at times. You may think, why are you writing all this, Perry, because nobody will ever read what I'm writing. Because they will never check this site. So venting is good.
My thoughts on people by preference: Groups
- Family and Vietnam veterans ( Why? Because we were all hated for our service to the USA)
- Other veterans.
- Everyone else. See above and my use of the word disdain. Look it up!
I hope it is different for you. I think everyone thinks this was easy! It was daily life or death rockets in camp, ambushes on the road. And they wonder why I'm pensive! Most people would crap their pants on day one try sticking in for three years and see how much fun you are at a party. We thought we were given FREEDOM to the South Vietnamese, BUT congress said (F***you) to the deal they made in 1974. Meaning 58,220 men died for nothing!
Perhaps you have figured out this site is invaluable for me to vent so far it is working better than the monthly Vet Center appointment.
I will continue to make additions, and they will not be in chronological order.
I guess starting at the beginning would be the best or maybe! I was on the last flight to join MCB-5 at Dong Ha. Dong Ha is a combat base and headquarters of the Third Marine Division; it sets at pretty much the intersection of Rte. 1, the north-south highway joining Saigon, and Hanoi (Dong Ha is closer to Hanoi than Saigon). And Rte. 9 that heads west and south towards Khe Sanh. While still at Port Hueneme, CA, my platoon Chief Rutherford had called me aside as we were starting the military training for deployment, asking me if I was married. I answered affirmatively. He told me he was going to send me to A School. As you may know, A School for any rate is the beginner's school. Not knowing that and realizing the Chief had said I would be stateside with the wife, it seemed like an excellent idea for Christmas. Many other MCB-5 people were also in attendance. Once school started, I realized immediately I was overqualified for this level, mainly because I could operate 10-12 pieces of equipment already.
School ended with me being recognized for excellence with the highest marks. Anyway, the 1968 Tet had started, and we loaded on a 707 for the flight. Once we arrived in Da Nang, we transferred in groups to a C130; it was late in the day. We sat on the floor, holding our sea-bags (no rifles) and took off. In case you didn't know, it is very loud inside a C130, I mean deafening. We were flying along, and without any warning, the nose of the plane headed in a dive. I reached out to my right and grabbed something on the side of the plane; the few behind me did not, so I was holding their weight as well.
My thoughts were we had been shot down, but I didn't hear anything. My thoughts were I was going to die before I got there. Then the plane leveled, and the landing gear could be heard lowering. And we touched down! The normal engine noise was even more annoying. The plane made a turn and headed back down the runway. The cargo master with huge headphones stood up and signaled us to stand. He lowered the rear ramp and, at a point, told us to jump into the darkness (yes, the plane was still moving). As my turn arrived, I jumped, holding my sea-bag and thinking roll when you land. When in seconds of jumping, I knew why the plane was not stopping since we were under fire! Explosions lit up the area around us, and it was my first sound of incoming during the next few days. I would learn to know the difference between incoming and outgoing.
As I lay there on the runway matting, I could see others doing the same. The plane picked up speed and was airborne. I heard a voice and looked around and saw an E-6 with a flak jacket and soft cap walking down the line (yes, explosions from rockets were still impacting). He said, get up and get on the man-hall; he pointed back to the next C130 coming into land. Seeing him (while I can not remember his name. I did know who he was) was a good thing for the rest of my time in Vietnam. I was really never afraid of death. Why? Watching his nonchalant manner convinced me that if it were your time, it would happen. Yes, don't do stupid things! But I was young and would do many stupid things for the next three birthdays!
Here is a thought: try to imagine you are in a country that you have only a tentative control of only where you stand during the day and zero control at night. You actually own nothing except your shaving kit, small radio, etc. The first thing to do at the start of the day is to get your equipment ready for the day working on a dirt road that anyone and everyone who hates you has had all night to plant explosives in the road to kill you. Now it is YOUR turn to be the point (meaning the first) to head down the road.
In July 1968, our small road crew working on Rte. 9 was working on a stretch of road in what was referred to as death valley due to its history and was overlooked by hills. The area was a good place for VC/NVA to lob mortars as the convoy crossed a bridge. One of the MRS scrapers dropped into a tunnel and punctured a tire in the very late afternoon. We moved the equipment to a small outpost outside Cam Lo, loaded in the 6x6, and headed back to the downed scraper.
The 2nd Class in charge had us disperse a 100 yds out and take up a perimeter, all 12 of us. Yes, to spend the night! Okay, if you can figure out, we are expendable since, in the dark, we could not contact each other OR set up any defensive fire. I figured during the night; we would all die quietly as we were totally exposed in the open ground.
As the light began to fade, the company Master Chief showed up with a low boy and another lowboy bringing one of the lowboys with the bulldozers from the parking spot at the outpost. The Master Chief organized the dozer pushing the downed scraper with a flat tire side on the empty lowboy, chained it down, and headed very slowly back to the outpost. We loaded back on the 6x6 and followed. We arrived back in the dark, and the small chow hall laid out supper. We were informed they expected a ground assault during the night. No attack took place; thankfully, perhaps the extra bodies we brought turned the attention away from the attack. Another fun day in RVN!
Yesterday my wife and I went to a restaurant at the door. Another older couple was leaving. He was my age wearing a green USMC hat. He noticed my Vietnam veteran hat and asked the question, what year? My answer was 68, 69, & 70. He exclaimed the same as he mentioned the "68 Tet asking where I was? I mentioned I was a Seabee in the I Corps. While this is not the first time this has happened, it always overwhelms me! The look on his face of apparent awe, and he said: "You guys were in the hard shit." In true Marine Corps fashion, he snapped to attention and saluted ME.
You need to understand during my 71 years alive; it seems ONLY combat Vietnam veteran Marines know who we are or what we did. Many have mentioned how their lives were better because of Seabees. Some have said, "You know we always thought of you guys as one of us." Once on a crowded street in Myrtle Beach, another man stopped and asked the same question. It turned out to be the most surprising of all as he said, he was a Marine. I said I was Seabee. His eyes started to water, and he kept telling people walking by that they needed to meet me. I kept looking around, thinking he meant someone else. Some looked at me, but that was not enough, so he turned and hugged me. He went on to say he has always wanted to meet one of us, meaning a Seabee who served in Vietnam. He went on to explain what he had witnessed and how it awed him.
Explaining even under fire, you guys kept working. Another once told me he had three groups of men he admired: tunnel rats, door gunners, and Seabees and not necessarily in that order. Asa Marine, he recounted his wounding when he stepped outside a Seabee built bunker at Con Tien. He asked where they find guys like you. He said as a Marine, he always thought they were tough, but you guys are some tough sons-a-bitches. Some may think that is a derogatory statement, but I assure you it is the highest of compliments.
There have been others. Once, a very good friend of mine reminded me of how I would pass through the gate at Dong Ha in my T-shirt and ball cap. My rifle hanging next to me on my scraper, the Marines guarding the entrance in their flak jacket, helmet, and weapons at the ready were in admiration of the other Seabees and me heading out to work on Rte. 9 daily.
Mostly it has been Marines during the years since Seabees usually worked with the Marine units. It makes sense since Seabees may be in the Navy, but we were attached to a Marine unit. There have been a couple of army recognition times. One occasion, after mentioning I was a Seabee, the man answered, you guys carried a heavy load. Another fellow had a different approach; he said: "hell, you were a target".
To help me understand myself as a Seabee, I never thought I did anything spectacular. Oh yes, I spent three birthdays there over my three tours, and I did my job I was assigned to perform. I have always asked myself what is wrong with me? Why do I have PTSD? Most days, I think I don't, but I realize I feel differently than other people. Yes, I enlisted, yes I wanted to be a Seabee, yes I wanted to experience testing my mettle in combat situations.
I guess it is time to share when things looked like I was screwed up. In the mid-1970s, I was operating heavy equipment. My specialty was operating asphalt plants. My wife was teaching, and at the end of every year, the teachers at her school would have a canoe trip with a cookout at the end. Of course, beer or alcohol was always in the mix as we were proceeding down the river, occasionally paddling mostly just keeping the canoe straight as we talked and drank with the other people. This was a time before I restricted my beer consumption to only two a day. Unlike when I first got home having drinking issues, I had learned to curtail myself and limit to weekends or something like the canoe trip.
After several beers (number unknown), I started to lose my sense of where and what. I remember the day was hot and sunny, I started to look at the banks on both sides of the river, and with the alcohol, my mind started to wonder. The next thing is I began to paddle fast because, in my mind, we were in an ambush killing zone! Shirley initially said nothing, but as my paddling left others way behind, she started to get me to stop or slow down. Eventually, in the mix, my mind returned to reality, and I felt alone, ashamed, and exceedingly stupid. The others caught up and asked what was happening. I kept silent. Shirley told them nothing. This was a time in history when you NEVER told people you served in Vietnam. Shirley did know of one of the teachers who also had served in Vietnam; she did tell him, and he did came and to check on me because I was hiding out in the parking lot. She also called our pastor, who came to see me. I told him I was okay. Thanked him for coming to the house; while I did appreciate the effort, I was not going to talk to anyone. That was several decades in the future!
Fast forward to just before me going to my first VA appointment in the early 2000s. In the years between these incidents, I had stopped drinking for a few years and eventually returned, limiting myself to my two a day if at all. We had moved to Ringgold, Georgia. I was sitting on the back porch on a scolding hot day in the shade and drinking beer. Trees in dense woods ringed our back yard. Another similar incident happened as I looked into the trees slowly. I saw movement (of course, it was my mind). After a few moments, I took hold of my thoughts, and I came back to reality.
Later, when I had started with Harry Jackson, my counselor at the Chattanooga Vet Center, I mentioned these things leaving out the other times, my mind began to wonder in similarity. Harry said, "Perry think of this it was hot and sunny, it was green around you, and you were drinking alcohol." A couple of months later, we had flown to Indiana to see family, and my wife was shopping in a store; it was July. It was hot and sunny. I had rolled down the rental car windows, sat in the shade at a parking lot. The radio was playing some old 60's music as I sat there, my mind started to move. I caught myself. I started the car, closed the window, changed the music, and stopped the intrusion.
Feeling of stupidity and shame.
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
Since most of my friends were in Phu Loc, I would catch a ride with Lloyd (Doug) Boughton on his daily trips to that location. This was authorized as long as I had all my fuel jobs done. On one occasion, we were carrying pallets of both beer and soda. Seabees used lowboy trailers almost all the time, which worked well if there was equipment that needed to be returned to the Da Nang area. Phu Loc was located over the Hai Van Pass, which was only open for northbound traffic in the AM and changed to southbound around noon. MP's at both ends maintained and patrolled the stretch for stragglers.
To make a one day turn with what I needed to happen, we left early to still make the base of the mountain headed north. On one trip, we attached a spare tire to the back of the tractor. The run to the base is about 40+ miles, and top speed empty is a staggering 35-40 mph! On a good day. On our run down the flat part with rice patties on either side, I caught sight of something in the corner of my eye. It was the spare tire running next to us. I laughed and mentioned to Doug we may need that. We stopped, loaded it back on, and headed out. On the trip, with the pallets and it's the weight, we made the base prior to closing. Very quickly after the switchbacks and hills slowed us to a crawl. About halfway up, Doug locked the brakes and bailed out.
What he saw that I could not was that two Vietnamese had pulled up behind us, jumped on the trailer, and started throwing the cases off. I grabbed my M-16 and kneeled next to the road, knowing they were going to head back down. They made the sharp turn behind us, and that would put them almost directly beneath us at about 100+ yards. Riding shotgun made this my problem. Mentally I calculated the distance realizing the downhill would affect the bullets travel and make them actually climb. I turned to full auto and waited, planning to start firing in front of them and let them drive into a hail of bullets.
Just prior to firing (later realizing it was the Holy Spirit speaking), the words "Over soda." flashed in my mind. I lowered the weapon and stood up. Doug was furious. It pretty much destroyed our friendship as it turns out. Understand in Doug's mind; he was responsible for the load. My job was security. Rarely did Seabees have shotguns riders; there were not enough of us for the luxury. I guess it was similar to the Texas Rangers, where the motto was: "One riot, one ranger." Also, what Doug knew was I was a qualified expert with myM-16 at Camp Pendleton, CA. An expert rifleman in the Seabees was a rarity.
We loaded a couple of the cases we could find and headed north. When we arrived, I found a couple of friends, but we had to load a very large forklift. Its large tires hung over both sides of the trailer with the side skirts out. It was very tall since it had an over the cab lifting frame. It was the biggest forklift the Seabees had. The transmission was out, and it had one speed low. We made the trip back over the mountain stopping at the top to check the chains as always. Remember going up was slow. Coming back down was slower. We knew of one problem from the start several miles out from Da Nang was one of the very few still intact bridges.
Unfortunately, it had a steel structure over the roadway. I got out as Doug moved the truck to the overhead; we needed about 5-6 inches. We both got out since there was no traffic and thought of the options. We were standing next to the Marine bunker on the north end. Marines were stationed there permanently. We thought of letting air out of the tires. But we figured if that was not enough, we would be screwed with no way to replace the air. The only solution was to back up to the side of the road and unload the beast. We flipped a coin as to who drove what. I have never regretted not firing that day. The following story is what happened next.
While it was not a funny incident at the time, I walked in a minefield loading up a piece of equipment as I was driving the truck carrying it across the nearby bridge. The Marine guarding the bridge stopped me and asked me how I knew where the mines were? I asked why didn't you give me a shout out? He answered, hell, man, you looked like you knew what you were doing.
I guess the Lord always intended that I should have legs.
When I arrived in Dong Ha, we were told we were encircled. Tet was happening. Khe Sahn was under siege, which lasted 77 days. It was 4-5 days until we resumed Rte.9 roadwork. Later we were part of Operation Pegasus. About one half of our EO's and CM's (Construction Mechanic) were sent west to a place Ca Lau. Their job was to build an airstrip for C-123's to help move supplies faster to Khe Sanh. While our unit kept Rte.9 open daily. As I type this, I imagine the reader does grasp what may be installed in that task. It was not fun!
What profession did you follow after your military service and what are you doing now?
I worked for 11 years in construction. I got tired of it and bluffed my way into a sales job with ZERO experience.
I kept my mouth shut and asked a lot of questions until I turned into the company's number 1 salesman, year after year.
What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
Initially, upon returning from Vietnam, the veterans were shunned by these organizations.
Years later, a representative for the DAV instructed me on how they could help. I later joined the other organizations to enlarge their footprint. It was the county VSO who helped me the most, so I always recommend the public office to all. It was the American Legion who had me with the VA disability Agent Orange claims.
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
No one can take away my sacrifice for my country. ZERO.
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Navy?
Go to school to advance. Keep your mouth shut even if you want to speak. And always remember that you are not alone. I personally give more respect to a Vietnam veteran than anyone else. Why? Because the world does not know or care to understand what is like to risk daily for a nation of dumb shits who could care less if you lived or died.
In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
TWS has given me a place to post my thoughts. My Vet Center counselor left upon finding a better job, and I have already given up on the groups.
They are full of self-important clowns and assholes. Of the thousands of men I served with OR worked with; you would think I would have friends. Not the case! Over the years, I had searched the internet for men I served with OR worked with; I called and spoke with them, sometimes at length. NOT ONE has ever called back to check on Perry. These last couple of years, I actually kicked a couple out of my life. Why? They treated me like I was some piece of trash that fell off a truck. As I told Dave Snook, who at one time I considered my closest friend, I'm going to give you what you want. That being, you want less of me, so I'm going to give you NONE of me.
I found Tom Horn through TWS, and we have spoken several times since. I last saw Tom in Sept. 1969.
I have passed the TWS info on to others. I hope it will help them as well.
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