Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Nice Afternoon

I wrote this a while back and it's been on my website, buried in one of the offtopic pages. I thought I'd move it to the blog

It was really nice spring afternoon. The sun was bright; there were just a few white, puffy clouds in the sky but not enough to block the warmth of the bright sun. The winter months had been dreary, rainy, and overcast, with a cold, bitter wind. This spring day was a welcome change of pace. The sky was a pale blue, much lighter than the blue of the ocean. The sandy beach was about a mile away, the white sand sparkling from the rays of the sun. I don’t know what the temperature was, but those rays of the sun weren’t too warm, because I was comfortable wearing a flak jacket while standing on the wing of a destroyer patrolling the waters of the Vietnam DMZ. It was 1968.

I was standing on that bridge wing with Daniel James, a LT(jg), supply. He was the ship’s junior supply officer but since the ship was chronically short handed he stood line watches while the ship was on the gun line. The gun line was what the Navy called a one mile strip of beach along the northern end of the DMZ. That mile was constantly patrolled by two destroyers and a cruiser, all of them outfitted with big guns rather than missiles. The Navy had plenty of guided missile frigates back in 1968 but they didn’t use them on the gun line. The gun line was for guns.

We had a dual mission. We were the artillery support for units of the 3rd Marine Division that were operating close to the beach in the north end of the DMZ and we provided harassment and interdiction fire along suspected supply routes of the bad guys. The harassment and interdiction fire was mostly making a lot of noise. The Marine fire support was almost always emergency calls for fire support. So we had guns manned constantly, whether we were shooting or not. Back and forth, up and down, go south a mile, turn around and go north a mile. Over and over. That was our patrol path.

We patrolled anywhere from about a half mile to a couple of miles from the beach, each of the three ships in the task force somewhat staggered, following parallel tracks. This particular afternoon we were closest to the beach, probably a little less than a mile. The beach was clearly visible, providing a scenic panorama to the two of us standing on the wing taking it in.

Lt(jg) James was not my favorite person, and not someone I would have chosen to enjoy that afternoon with. But, I was the starboard lookout and couldn't leave my station and he was standing the junior officer of the deck watch and could pretty much walk around the bridge and bridge wings as he pleased. The consensus of most of the enlisted men was that James was a worthless jerk. He bummed cigarettes from enlisted men, he was an all around cheapskate with only two pairs of khaki uniform pants. We could tell when he changed to a clean pair of pants because one of them had a small burn from a cigarette. Probably not a cigarette he'd purchased himself.

In the Navy, officers have to pay a wardroom fee for meals they eat in the wardroom. Being a supply officer Lt(jg) James was responsible for periodically “inspecting” the enlisted chow. That meant he was required to eat enlisted chow every once in a while. Once a quarter would have been sufficient. But, he didn’t pay for meals in the mess deck, and wasn’t billed for missed meals in the wardroom. Lieutenant junior grade James ate in the mess deck 3-4 times a week. He wasn’t just a jerk, he was a cheap bastard.

Another habit James had was that he got picky about his coffee. On the gun line we stood 6 hour bridge watches. We had two watch sections, standing 6 hours on then 6 hours off. So, we’d go the entire length of a 45 day patrol without ever once actually getting a full nights sleep at one time. We drank a lot of coffee.

It was the custom of the watch messenger to begin each watch by filling a 5 gallon thermos with coffee from the very large urns of coffee on the mess decks. It was not good coffee. Those urns were scrubbed daily with kitchen cleanser and a residual taste of the cleanser permeated the coffee. But, it’s what we had.

Everyone on the bridge drank that coffee. The watch crew, the Officer of the Deck, the Executive Officer, the ship’s Captain, and when we were temporarily serving as a Commodore’s flag ship, the Commodore drank that rank mess deck coffee. But not LT(jg) James.

The wardroom had a small percolator. Whenever James wanted a cup of coffee he’d send the bridge messenger down to the wardroom to have the stewards brew a fresh pot and pour him a cup of coffee.

I guess you had to have been there to understand the level of resentment that sort of behavior built. We used to piss in his coffee.

If I’d been on the wing that day with anybody other than James I’d have probably been having a conversation and might not have even noticed the fisherman. As it was I was watching the beach intently, pretending to look for enemy troop movement or enemy gun emplacements hidden back in the brush and scrub trees in the sand dunes. Anything to keep from actually having to talk to that jerk James. I noticed the small solitary figure rise from the brush in the dunes. After adjusting the binoculars I could clearly make him out to be an old man carrying a bag of some sort. Coming out of the dunes he crossed the beach and went straight to the water line.

His bag contained a large throw net and he matter-of-factly pulled it out and started net fishing the surf. After he’d made 3-4 casts I put the binoculars down and noticed two Navy jet fighters, coming out of the north north-west, apparently returning from a bombing run in North Vietnam. Yankee Station, the area in the South China Sea our aircraft carriers habituated, was to the south of us and returning aircraft found it safer to return home over water rather than over land.

But these two planes didn’t behave exactly like I’d seen previous planes behave. As soon as they got over water they looped back, going back to the beach, no longer in formation – one headed down the beach from the north, the other up the beach from the south. The plane coming form the north took a dive just as he approached the fisherman, who was still casting his nets.

Suddenly the fisherman was surrounded by small splashes of water in front of him and sand kicking up on the beach behind him. The aircraft was firing at him with his wing guns.

When the plane finished his dive he pulled up and the second plane made a dive, kicking up more sand and water with his wing guns. Both pilots missed the fisherman who dropped his net and took off running across the beach.

I’d heard stories about Navy pilots who made $20 bets among themselves about who could take out a farmer’s water buffalo, but I’d never heard such a story about them taking out a man who was obviously a non-combatant, a fisherman, for sport.

Now I was seeing it.

They continued to take turns diving at him, kicking up sand all up and down the beach from the bullets in their wing guns. Each of them made 3-4 passes. The fisherman took a zig on his run down the beach every time one of them started a pass. For reasons I still don’t understand he ran straight down the beach instead of into the brushy dunes. I guess the fear he must have been experiencing just fogged his thinking processes.

I glanced over to LT(jg) James and he was watching the scene unfold just as intently as I was.

Finally one of the pilots got tired of chasing the old man and made a pass without firing his wing guns. Just as he got over the old man he dropped something then quickly made a very sharp turn up. I’d never seen Napalm before, but I knew that the resulting orange and black ball of flame was Napalm. A huge ball, the brightest orange I’ve ever seen, with a thick cloud of black smoke.

The pilots didn’t even wait to inspect the damage, they just headed out to sea, enroute to Yankee Station.

There wasn’t much to see after the explosion. I stared at it until the flame and smoke dissipated. The old man didn’t even leave a grease spot, just his bag and net lying near the water line up the beach from the explosion.

I glanced at LT(jg) James. He didn’t look at me. He just turned around and walked into the pilot house.

The officer in charge had witnessed the same thing I had. Who was I supposed to report it to? I didn't know, so I didn't.

But I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have reported it to anyone anyway. That's probably bothered me over the years more than what the pilots did. Not that I didn't report it to anyone, but that I really didn't care. I certianly remembered the event, it did make an impression on me, but my immediate reaction was a nothing, I felt nothing, it just seemed mundane and unimportant.

That's what happens to people in a war zone, and that's what's always bothered me. Having pissed in Lt(jg) Jame's coffee never bothered me, but not having any feelings about that dead fisherman did bother me and still does.

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