USS Mars Was There, Part Two
By Glenn Hendricks
Late March, sailing west into the Tonkin Gulf from the PI, loaded to the gunwales with supplies for the Task Groups off Vietnam. This was the same route US Navy ships had been traveling since the mid-1960s. Yankee Station was up north, where the carriers and their escorts loitered while sending strike missions north. Yankee Station was where the Forrestal caught fire, where ships had been going for nearly a decade.
We were heading toward the South, the Operation Market Time waters. Waters where coastal interdiction patrols and shore bombardment missions took place. We caught up with the various Task Groups a couple of days out of Subic.
As a supply ship, our job was pretty straight forward. Give groceries to the fleet, return and pick up more, rinse and repeat. We always were doing our mission when we were underway. While the cans and carriers were training, we were delivering. We unreped everything we needed to get off to the ships, then turned back to Subic to pick up another load. I can’t remember how long we were out this time, might have been a week, maybe 10 days. You know how the days blend together at sea.
Return to Subic we did, another load out and back out to the fleet. We still didn’t have any idea about what was going to happen. We started seeing a lot of Amphibs loaded up with Marines in Subic (which screwed up the liberty the way Marines always do). It still seemed like we were rattling the saber, warning the North to back off. Many of us really thought that if they didn’t back off we’d be in a hot war within weeks if not days. We were all kind of tense.
One of the things that came up was that we were now in a combat zone. Free mail (you’d just write ‘free’ where a stamp would go) and TAX-FREE PAY. Now for most of us, this was something we’d never seen before. Our pay jumped pretty dramatically, at least dramatically for an E3 making $420 a month. All of a sudden we had extra cash and nowhere to spend it. Naturally, this led to some poor choices.
The engineering department had a poker book going. We played cards for money, but nothing on the table. The book was kept by a 2nd class and card games going on at all hours of the night. It ebbed and flowed but there was nearly always a game on the mess decks. Get off watch, play for an hour and hit your rack. Get up early, play for a bit and go on watch. There was some serious money in the book and a couple of people got way deep into it. As in a couple of month’s pay. I knew a couple of guys who got in fairly deep and stopped playing. They started taking other people’s watches for cash. The guys who bought out of their watch either slept or played cards. It was a strange time.
This lasted for maybe 2 or 3 weeks until one FA was busted for sleeping on watch in shaft alley. He was a dirt dragger and ended up getting a BCD (which is another story) but he was into the book for around $350. He whined to the MPA that he only fell asleep because he’d been playing cards trying to catch back up.
Mr. Waterford was a CWO3 and wasn’t amused. He knew what was happening, but he didn’t “Know” what was happening. Now it was in his face and he had to take action. I don’t know all the details but the 2nd class had a meeting with Mr. Waterford, the book was closed (although everyone but the FA paid up) and if you had a deck of cards out you damn sure better be playing spades. There never was any formal action taken. Mr. Waterford didn’t need to bother the formal system. He didn’t need to.
This back and forth from Subic to the fleet went on from late March to mid-April. By the middle of the month, things changed. We were sailing further to catch up with the Task Group, they were closer and closer to Vung Tau. The situation on land was rapidly deteriorating as the NVA pushed further south with armored columns. We still expected to see airstrikes from the carriers, expected to see the Marines load up on landing craft and moving toward the shore. We didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Then the helicopters began arriving.