Friday, October 30, 2015

Vietnam Memories

A coworker recently learned that I am a Vietnam vet and asked me for information.  That started me thinking about long past events, and I decided to write down one of my most memorable experiences, a trip out of the war zone to Japan.  The story is off topic; I'll post some Vietnam boat pictures to give the story context.  Above, top to bottom: 1. Wayne, on watch on the bridge of the USS Askari.  2. A patrol boat of the S. Vietnamese navy.  3. The smoke of battle on the horizon on the Mekong.  4. Heavily armored landing craft used in close range patrols/combat in canals off the Mekong River. 5. A peaceful sunrise on the Mekong.  6. Downtown VungTau.  

September, 1966, I entered active duty with the US Navy.  After attending basic navigation school, I reported aboard the USS Askari, ARL-30, and was immediately assigned to help load armor plate and other supplies for our mission in Vietnam.  We left San Francisco in early December, stopping in Hawaii and the Philippines along the way, toward our new homeport of VungTau, Vietnam.  Most of 1967 was spent in the Mekong Delta.  I then returned to Vietnam aboard the USS Preston, DD 795, during the summer of 1968.  It was an important point in my life when I was on my own, deciding what was important and who I wanted to be.  No one cared whether hours were spent in a library or a bar; each person chose their own path.  It made for interesting observations and experiences.

When you were stationed “in country” in the combat zone for an extended period you would eventually qualify for “R&R”, rest and relaxation outside Vietnam. A friend, Carl Nixon, and I both qualified for R&R in June ’67 and both chose Japan as our destination. You were given permissive orders for the period.  “Permissive” meant that you were to find your own way from our ship upriver on the Mekong to Saigon to catch a flight and then find your way back upon return.  We got a ride on a boat downriver to the coastal town of VungTau.  As soon as we arrived we made ourselves scarce until the scheduled flight to Saigon had departed; then we reported in at the airfield.  That gave us an extra day on our own.  At VungTau, we often would walk some distance to an off-limits beach in a rocky cove served by a single café.  There we could eat lunch and play in the waves which were sometimes big enough for body surfing.  Later, we had dinner and a few drinks in town and, in the process, were joined by another Navy man who was headed to Saigon.  With curfew time approaching, the three of us visited a local hotel to get a room for the night.  The entry to the hotel featured a line of young women waiting along the corridor.  Carl and I politely declined companionship for the evening, but the other fellow bought dinner for “his girl” and she spent the night with him.

The next day we took a Chinook helicopter to Saigon; it felt like a flying bus. The military had leased an entire hotel with a barracks-type configuration for transient personnel in Saigon.  We didn’t wander far from the hotel that day, saving our funds until we reached Japan. We were anxious to get started and happily boarded a leased aircraft the next morning.  Arriving at Tachikawa AFB near Tokyo, we were given barracks-type beds & lockers.  This would be home base.  We relaxed and took a swim in the base pool.  Carl and I had lost our fellow Navy man, but picked up a crazy Marine on R&R.  Why do I say crazy?  This man had been in Vietnam for several years on back-to-back tours in the region of the North Vietnam border.  Every time his tour of duty was up, he would volunteer to stay longer.  Why would he do this?  Because soldiers don’t fight for their country; they fight for their buddies.  If he went home to the US, in his mind he would be abandoning his “band of brothers”.  At this point his unit had sent him on R&R, and then he was mandatorily being sent back to the States.  They would allow no more extensions, and we could sense why.  He spoke casually about killing the enemy, had done it multiple times, and the enemy was anyone who would harm a US Marine.  It was questionable to us how he would re-adapt to civilian life.

Our Marine wanted to rent a cab and go to Yokohama (20 miles away) to drink Black Russians at a bar he knew.  Money meant nothing to him.  We decided to go with him and show him how to use the train system, saving considerable funds.  We found the bar, and drank a few Black Russians, but not enough to keep us from finding our way back.

The next day Carl and I set out again on a train to explore the area.  While on the train (think metro commuter line), I noticed a man reading a newspaper section which had a picture of a person water skiing on the back cover.  We asked where the picture was taken, and, although communication was limited, we were able to ascertain that the water skiing was at Hayama Beach, on the ocean southwest of Tokyo.  Looking at the train schedule, we realized that we could make the last train to Hayama that night.  Arriving at Hayama Beach well after dark, we walked down to the beach and discovered a party for college students was taking place.  We were immediately invited to join the party with the incentive, “We have more beer than we can drink.”  They were very friendly and spoke fluent English. We learned that water skiing was offered in late morning sessions and that a college music festival was taking place for the next few days. A little before midnight we rented a bamboo shack on the beach to sleep in.  Being in the Navy on a regular watch schedule I had developed an internal clock and was able to awaken at an early hour to get us on our way.  We needed to get up early to take the train back to our home base to clean up and get bathing suits and fresh clothes.

We arrived back in time to sign up for water skiing. This consisted of all participants lining up for mandatory exercises; then being transferred by boat to a covered platform moored in the bay.  The ski boat would come by the platform, each time picking up a new participant for a short period of skiing.  Water skiing was apparently a very new sport in Japan.  I watched people struggle to get up and then wobble around for a few laps before collapsing in the water.  This was the ocean, and waves were present, so their difficulty was understandable. Growing up in Nebraska, I had been skiing for 5-6 years using our family boat.  When it was my turn to ski, I quickly kicked off one ski to slalom and was able to perform enough tricks that a photographer was called out to the platform to take pictures of the action.  He had questions for my friend, Carl. The photographer couldn’t speak English, and Carl knew no Japanese, but they discovered that they both were fluent enough in Spanish to discuss water skiing.

Carl was an interesting guy.  Out of high school, he was accepted and enrolled at the US Naval Academy.  After a short time at the Academy he decided he didn’t like it and requested release. His request was refused until he contacted his Senator, who was on the Defense committee. He then quickly got his release from the Academy, but it wasn’t a release from military commitment. He was ordered on enlisted duty on our ship, the USS Askari, in Vietnam.  After release from active duty, he eventually moved to Morelia, Mexico, where he graduated from medical school and became a primary care physician in rural Mexico.

After skiing we discovered that a dance would be held that night.  Carl and I went to a local communal bath house to freshen up.  Do you take a shower before stepping into the hot pool or afterwards? We may have done both. That evening we went to the dance. The music was almost exclusively familiar American rock & roll songs.  As we walked in, all the girls were in clusters along the far wall, and the boys were along the near wall to our left.  The dance floor was uncrowded. Adults were at tables toward the rear of the room to our right. We were the only Caucasians present. What do you do in such a situation?  If you are on R&R from Vietnam, you ask a girl to dance.

My attention was drawn to a girl standing on the edge of a group (pretty, relaxed, not engaged in the group chatter), and I approached her with a request for a dance.  After several dances she, Tamea, asked me to meet some of her relatives, who were seated in a booth toward the back of the room.  I learned that Tamea’s extended family rented one floor of the Hayama Beach hotel each summer for several weeks.  Tamea was a student at Tokyo University.  Later that evening, Tamea and one of her friends took Carl and myself for a ride to show us the area.  We sat in back with a white-gloved chauffeur driving our dark limousine-type car and drove to a lookout point for a view of the surrounding bay area illuminated by thousands of lights along the shore.  After such hospitality, Carl and I requested that we treat the girls (okay, young women) to dinner the following day.

The next day we spent the afternoon listening to the music festival and talking with Tamea and her friend; one subject was explaining the lyrics and their context for American songs.  That evening we had reservations for dinner in a private room at the hotel.  As an E-4 in Vietnam, I was paid maybe $300 per month, but the exchange rate was 360 yen to the dollar, and we were on vacation.  We wanted to show our appreciation.  However, toward the end of the dinner, Tamea’s brother walked into the room.  Carl and I knew that was a “bad” sign.  Sure enough, they would not let us pay for dinner!  Look, we are enlisted US war-mongers from Vietnam!  Why are you treating us so nice?

I had agreed to shop for some speakers for a friend’s stereo system back on the ship in Vietnam before we went home (to Askari).  The week ended quickly.  Before leaving, I got Tamea’s address and learned that her father’s name was Dodan Kuruma. He was President of the Tokyo Buddhist Federation.  They lived in a suburb of Tokyo (Toshima-ku).  Her father had traveled extensively, to the US and Europe as well as throughout Asia, as a part of his responsibilities.

Tamea and I exchanged several letters during the next four months.  When I was notified of the November end date of my Vietnam duty and realized that I would be passing through Japan on my way to the States, I let her know, and she invited me to visit at their home in Tokyo.  Carl Nixon was given the same return date; we would be flying back together.  Again, we were routed to VungTau, Saigon, and on to Tachikawa AFB, where we would lay over for a few days awaiting our flight to Travis AFB, California.

As soon as we arrived at Tachikawa, Carl and I headed for a train to Tokyo.  Another shipmate, Steven Quade, asked to be included.  Tamea had met Carl, but I was hesitant to impose on the Kuruma family with three of us.  Quade was from the south side of Chicago (“the baddest part of town” according to Jim Croce’s song).  He didn’t have college aspirations like Carl or myself, but he was a fairly polite and decent guy so we couldn’t refuse.  We had the commuter train directions figured out, and the three of us had little trouble making train transfers to arrive in Toshima-ku.

Stepping out on the street of this busy neighborhood, we wandered for a while before giving up on finding Tamea’s home.  We enlisted the aid of the local police precinct station.  A helpful policeman escorted us to the Kuruma home.  No wonder we couldn’t recognize the home!  OMG!  It wasn’t a house, it was a compound encompassing an entire (small) city block.  A tall, black, wrought-iron fence enclosed the entire block.  The entry gates were closed; behind that were trees, bushes, a garden, and the home.  The policeman was able to rouse one of the house staff to open the gate and notify the family of our arrival.
They quickly invited us into their home, more family members arrived, and we enjoyed a warm welcome.  We were invited to stay for dinner.  The dinner table was only about one foot above the floor, but we discovered that the tablecloth disguised a foot well built into the floor under the table.  We tried our best to use chopsticks and be polite guests, but I am sure we transgressed some unfamiliar Japanese custom.  They offered us the option of forks to use and were forgiving of any shortcomings.  After dinner, various conversations sprang up around the table, lubricated by ample servings of wine and sake.  When we said our good-byes for the evening, Tamea’s brother escorted us to the train station to ensure that the sake’s influence didn’t mislead us.  We were invited back the next day.

Upon arrival the following morning we were introduced to Tamea’s older sister, Masayo.  Wow!  Tamea was a very pretty young woman, but her older (and taller) sister, Masayo, would have been appropriate on a magazine cover.  They offered to show us downtown Tokyo.  We took a smaller vehicle, Masayo (driving) and Tamea in the front seat, and us three sailors in back.  It was amusing to watch these two gorgeous women maneuver their way through heavy traffic.  With the car windows open, they would smile and wave out the window and the nearby cars would move aside to let them pass.
We parked in front of the Imperial Palace and walked the area, peering through the surrounding fence at the extensive landscaped gardens.  Tamea’s father, Dodan, met us at Chinzanso restaurant for lunch.  This is an internationally-known eatery where we were served, outdoors in a garden, by a chef preparing our meals at our table.  Later we went to a playground/park with adult-sized swings, slides, and such items and walked, talked, and played on the equipment.  Tamea and I went down the slide together (yes, my arms were around her).  For dinner, we rode an elevator to the top of a skyscraper in downtown Tokyo to the Suehiro restaurant.  The entire restaurant rotates as you dine so that you enjoy a 360-degree skyline.  Another famous eatery; no, we were not allowed to pay for ANYthing.

The following day, Carl, Steven, and I boarded our non-stop flight to Travis AFB.  I passed through Tachikawa again in September, 1968, coming home from my second tour in Vietnam, but was only there for a few hours.   I continued corresponding periodically with Tamea for about 1-1 ½ years after that.  Carl and I kept in contact until he graduated from medical school.  I always considered Tamea as a “pen pal”.  She was obviously very attractive, educated, and congenial.  But there was a huge economic, cultural and geographic separation to consider, and I was only a college student financially on my own.

I have never forgotten my visits to Japan because what we experienced was so exceptional.  It seems like a dream with events bigger than life.  What motivated this wealthy, high class family from a vastly different culture to treat us with such openness and generosity?  Is this the Buddhist influence?  Carl and I were junior enlisted sailors from a war zone; nothing notable about us.  Wouldn’t most people have brushed us aside?  How did this all happen?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Along the Adriatic Coast

                                                     The complete tan, near Rovinj

To end the summer, we spent most of September in Europe with our main destination being Croatia. The Adriatic, Istrian Peninsula, Dalmatian coast must represent one of the most ideal yachting areas on earth.  Of course we couldn't bring our boat, but we did enjoy a day cruise in the Porec-Rovinj area of Istria, a stay on the island of Hvar, and ferry boat rides across the Bay of Kotor.  The weather was perfect, the waves were moderate, and the breeze was consistent for the sailors.  Anchored off the city of Split was the beautiful and unique yacht "A", 394 feet long with the outline of a modernistic submarine.  It is reportedly owned by a Russian billionaire who is now building a larger yacht.  For me, ogling the beautiful yachts, in the harbors along the coast, was a significant attraction.  Hvar and Dubrovnik are especially beautiful.  Put the area on your vacation wish list.