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Report From The Rear
By Gregory Ross
In 1966 I flunked out of night school. I got my "greetings" before the official "failed" notice from the college. I worked full time days; went to school full time nights and was triple time frightened of going to war. I was as ignorant as most of my friends about geopolitics, though. I couldn't have found Vietnam on a map to save my life (pun intended).
The day after I got my draft notice, I went to the Navy recruiter. He laughed and said, "You got lucky, son. The Department of Defense tells us when we can take draftees. Yesterday the answer was, No!!" So, I signed on the dotted line and went home to face my mother's fear wrapped in wrath and make my father proud. My father had served in the Navy in WWII as a tail gunner. Two planes he was on were shot down, plus he was on a ship that was sunk. One of those times he spent 17 hours in a life raft on the Pacific with one other man who died before rescue. He never took another bath after that, just showers.
He stayed in the Reserves and was called up for Korea. That war he was assigned to a Marine unit. He told only one story and he told it only once but, it made his 6 foot 2 inch, 230 pounds of muscle shake with anger for an officer who shot one of his men in the back as he ran from his first firefight. If anyone called my father "Sir," he would bark, "Don't call me that, I can read and write." He hated officers.
I had hoped that the Navy would save me from Vietnam and combat. It mostly did. My first duty station was in Morocco where I had an incident involving a large knife, the word Infidel, and my ability to run fast. Once I was fired upon by the Moroccan police: wrong place, bad timing but, lucky.
My next duty station was the Philippine Islands; a comparatively peaceful experience on a small communications base. Liberty was in Olongapo City/Subic Bay. We got stoned and listened to cover bands of late sixties rock. Inevitably, I pissed off my duty officer and was sent out T.A.D. (Temporary Axillary Duty) with the 7th Fleet, most of it on what the Navy called the "Gun Line": aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and support ships floating off the coast of Vietnam. I was assigned to two cruisers while out at sea: the Saint Paul and the Newport News, both with 16 inch guns capable of throwing 2,000 pound shells up to 20 miles, what the Marines called "freight trains." Part of my job was to keep the lines of communication open to place the shells. Do it right, people died; do it wrong, people died. Done right or wrong, almost unfathomable amounts of destruction.
Although I never set foot on the soil of Vietnam, I got much closer to combat than I had hoped when I signed up. The 16 inch guns, one deck above my work and sleeping spaces left me with a severe case of "startle response." But the most troubling experience I dealt with didn't happen to me.
In the Philippine Islands, the police are part of the military. No "Para-Military" euphemisms for them. The Philippine Constabulary, at least when I was stationed there, were powerful and corrupt. Olongapo City had a Bazaar selling almost anything you thought you might need. No surprise: the Bazaar also functioned as a Black Market where you could buy almost anything else you thought you might need, as long as you didn't get caught. And it was surprisingly easy to not get caught even though it was patrolled by Shore Patrol, Military Police and the Philippine Constabulary.
The Seventh Fleet was in that day so there were many thousands of sailors in their dress whites all over Olongapo City. A Fleet sailor had just bought a wristwatch and a few steps from the seller a girl about 10 years old grabbed the watch and ran. He yelled and a Philippine Constabulary raised his weapon, shot her, then walked over to the body, picked up the watch and with a big smile sauntered back to the shocked sailor and proudly handed it to him.
Floating off the coast of Vietnam I knew that those 2,000 pound shells were killing people and animals; destroying villages and rice paddies or just pure jungle but, never had to see it. The girl was the first person I had seen killed so violently and so senselessly. I had hoped that the Navy would save me from combat. Mostly, it did.
Gregory Ross is a Navy veteran who served off coast of Vietnam, 1968-69. He's a graduate of a VA drug, alcohol and PTSD program (1980). He's a Licensed Acupuncturist (detoxification specialty, 1989) He has published in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Avoids haircuts, shaving.