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Return to SE Asia, Part I

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Almost exactly 51 years ago, I departed California for South Vietnam.

This week, for the first time since then, I’m going back. In fact, by the time this column is published in the I-T, Dottie and I will have crossed the Pacific, arrived in Ho Chi Ming City (formerly Saigon) and been safely escorted to our very nice, air-conditioned hotel.

Back in November of 1967, the trip took just a little longer.

I was a young ensign aboard the USS Jerome County (LST 848), a relic of World War II, when they it used for amphibious landings. In the mid 1960s, the Navy pulled her out of mothballs and sent her back to war.

Her shallow draft (15-feet aft and four feet forward) and large cargo capacity made her useful for plying the shallow coastal waters, bays and rivers of Vietnam.

More than a thousand LSTs were built in the early 1940s. They were used for landings in both the European theatre and in the Pacific.

My ship departed San Diego on Nov. 4, 1967. In addition to our crew of six officers and 100 enlisted men, we carried 11 Marines, several trucks, amphibs, gear and supplies destined for offloading in Danang.

Unlike the very nice Cathay Pacific jet that carried me an Dottie high above the Pacific at 600 mph, the Jerome County wallowed along at about eight knots (approximately 9 mph), often less. We didn’t have enough food, water and fuel to go directly to Vietnam, so our route took us to Pearl Harbor, then Guam, then Subic Bay, Philippines and finally, after 48 days, Danang, Vietnam. We arrived three days before Christmas. Along the way, we were becalmed several times because of mechanical failures.

There were no navigational satellites or high tech radios in those days. We navigated the old-fashioned way, with a sextant and compass. The only long-distance communication we had at sea was CW (low frequency morse code).

Because of our breakdowns, we ran short of food and fresh water. We took to looking for squalls and then steering toward them to collect rainwater.

Boredom was the most common complaint. We only had a dozen 16mm movies on board, mostly B-grade westerns staring Rory Calhoun.

One of the bosun mate’s and I did attempt to fish off the stern while we were becalmed. We didn’t see a fish, let alone catch one.

The most exciting thing on that crossing was riding out several days along the edges of a typhoon. Our hollow, flat-bottomed, coffee-can of a ship bounced and tossed on the huge waves so violently that we had to tie ourselves to things to keep from being launched overboard.

Sleeping was impossible. Baloney sandwiches and other cold food were all the cooks could manage. Pots, pans, and other kitchen items could not be trusted loose on any surface, let alone a hot stove.

All these memories came back to me at 35,000 feet above the Pacific as I lounged in my comfortable Cathay Pacific, Boeing 777-airline seat, while charming attendants served me cocktails and warm food and I watched the latest movies on the airline’s digital entertainment system.

We will be on or near the Mekong River for a good part of our stay. It runs from the Tibetan Plateau on the boarder of China, all the way down to Gulf of Thailand, 2,700 miles. More than 40 million people fish the Mekong. Close to 3 million tons of fish are caught and consumed by residents of the lower Mekong annually.

One would think I’d have chance to catch a fish or two here.

We’ll see.