Thursday, August 09, 2012

Home is the Sailor

Home is the Sailor
By James J. Kilpatrick
November 1969

San FranciscoThe aircraft carrier Coral Sea left Alameda, bound for Vietnam, on Sept. 7, 1968.  She returned this past Friday, a great grey bulk of a ship, her fourth tour of combat duty behind her.  Her aging hull was stained with rust, but her flags were flying as happily as so many tropical birds.

As combat cruises go, Coral Sea’s last tour on Yankee Station offered no more than a footnote to the chronicles of war.  She had been on the line only a few weeks before bombing was halted north of the 17th parallel.  The rest of the time was spent in ground support, reconnaissance, and routine patrol.

To the 4,500 officers and men, the tour was a tour of duty—hard and exhausting duty, performed under constant tension.  The steam catapults were forever pounding and the jet engines screaming for release.  There was danger, and there was death:  Marvin Naschek, Tom Bitter, and Norman Ridley, dead; Quinlin Orell, James Hunt, and Larry Stevens missing in action.

When a great ship comes into port, especially to its own home port, the crowds turn out.  So it was on Friday morning.  By 8 o’clock, they had begun to gather, wives and parents and children, bearing their hand-lettered signs:  “Scott Says ‘Howdy’”…”Welcome Eddie Schofield from the Dalles, Ore.”… “Hi Jerry Schur”…The 12th Naval District band gave forth; gulls figure skated on the sky; balloons, like airborne tulips, flowered above the pier.

A little before 9 o’clock, the ship could be seen beyond Golden Gate Bridge, an unmistakable speck on the sea.  It would be an hour before she docked.  There was time for a visiting father to glance at the papers.

Student militants at Stanford University called off their nine-day occupation of the Applied Electronics Laboratory, amid indications that the University administration would yield to demands that war-related research be halted…

On Pier 3, Lorette Harvey of Lisbon, Maine, pushed a stroller back and forth.  Before long her husband, Aviation Supplyman Raymond Harvey, would see his new-born baby Kevin.  Phil Duncan’s mother was there from San Jose to meet her sailor son, just as she used to meet her husband 20-years ago.

Meanwhile at Merritt College in Oakland, 30-members of the faculty Senate were locked in a conference room by angry students demanding a “retraction.”  The students aroused by conflicting reports on the development of a Mexican-American Studies Program, kept the professors imprisoned for three and a half hours.

By 9:20, Coral Sea was plainly coming in.  You could see the sailors lined in dress blues on the flight deck.  The whole Vinton family had come from Medway, Mass., to meet Petty Officer Donald Vinton—father, mother, brother, girl friend.  Mrs. Charles Brinegar was there; her husband, a chief in aviation ordinance, has served his country for 22-years.  

At Harvard, agreement was reached on a plan to reduce the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program to an extra-curricular activity.  The agreement represents a victory for student militants who last week seized a university building.  In New York, 200 young men, demanding an end to the university’s program for training Naval Reserve officers held a seven-hour sit-in.

Now the ship was nudging her 63,000 tons against the pier, and the moment of reunion was close at hand—the moment when man and woman, mother and son, father and child, could cling to one another.  We scanned the crowded decks, searching for a single face.

A radical student at Stanford University pleaded to have the group continue the sit-in until troops or police were ordered in.  At that point, he said, the students could abandon the laboratory to wage some form of guerrilla warfare on campus.

High in the crow’s nest, 75 feet above the flight deck, a slim young sailor skimmed his white cap toward the pier.  It landed with fine precision right at this reporter’s feet.  I looked up, and he waived.  Even from a distance, you could tell; He had lost weight, and grown a little older, but the old grin was there.  Son Chris was home from Vietnam.

Liberty commences


Jim said...

Gus, the Navy had the honor to leave as a group and the survivors could come home as a group. There must be nothing better for a spouse/parent to experience than to have a loved one return with their whole unit.

We in the Army were shipped out in the middle of the night and if we were lucky enough to return we had to wear the Uniform to board our midnight flight home but had to change to civies on board so we would not disturb those that stayed at home to be able to spit on us.

No I have not mellowed. I will never vote for a Commander in Chief that is not a Veteran--I divide the world into "Spitters "and "Spittees".

Gus said...

The Navy wasn't under too much threat during that conflict. There were duels with shore batteries and it was known that the north had some small swift boats fitted with SS missiles, which to my knowledge they never used. Both of those threats were quickly and easily suppressed if they popped up. Although they did score some hits, for the most part the Navy came home intact as you suggest.

Kim said...

My father came home from Korea on a train, surrounded by the men in his battalion. I still remember running to meet him. He was certainly in uniform, like the rest of his men, and no one thought of doing anything but celebrating their safe return. Another time.

Gus said...

Vietnam was different. A lot of us have never forgotten it, nor forgiven the vile ones who greeted us.

To this day, some of the gray beards that took to the streets in protest believe they were "warriors" on the "front lines in the United States" and I interact with a few of them in Facebook. They are and apparently always have been the same kind of people you see in the so-called "occupy" movements taking a crap on police cars.

However, I have learned something from some of the more lucid members of our class who also got caught up in the protest movements of that long ago era. For the most part, their beliefs were formed late in the game when the war had already begun to wind down.

There's a story there that I'm still developing...and it is an interesting one.

Kilpatrick's juxtaposition of his son's return along with some of the day's headlines is, in my opinion, masterful and useful for any future historian having the intellect and appreciation to draw from it.

Mike said...

Oh man Gus, too many memories of some guys I knew, I was so very fortunate, or maybe saw ahead, I joined the Navy and was stuck in the 6th Fleet, Mediterranean Sea over to Persian Gulf, so never "in country"... and I've been up to the Vietnam Wall twice... one visit was a cold January morning a couple of weeks before Bush Jrs. innauguration, so the city was quite busy and festive... but anyway, I and a couple of buddies were walking around, I see this one young couple, guy and girl, probably about 19, they were intently looking at names, something just clicked and I quietly said to them, "you notice the ages of most of these soldiers" and both of them took a breath in a few moments, once they processed what I was saying, "oh my, they were all our ages"... and deep sadness came over both of their spirits and faces... I quietly go into deep sadness just remembering those few moments...

Gus said...

We must have seen the same scene ahead as we settled on the same solution for the same reasons, but my course took me west with the 7th. I discovered late in life that every male generation in my line managed to serve in a war, back to the first one. Further study revealed that they were all very young, like you rightly described to your young couple.

That's the fact that angers me most when I see yet another lightweight wanting to "play" president.

Nothing about the experience touched me until my one and only visit to that wall about 20-years after getting back home. I wrote a piece about it a few years back, then put it away.

Mike said...

just read your blog Gus... you're right, for decades none of us talked about our being Vietnam Vets.

And to this day it makes me feel uncomfortable for a non veteran of any shape, size, color or creed, to say to me, "thank you for your service." I just quietly nod and lower my head a little.

What I feel like saying is, you have no idea what you're thanking me for. If you want to be thankful, then join up and see what it is and why you're being thankful... you don't thank another buddy or soldier you meet, you simply acknowledge he did his job and you and he have that common, quiet bond.

Gus said...

The rote "thank you for your service" does seem a bit trite, but I tend to cut them a little more slack than you do. I see it as unfair to expect them to know what they do not know. But it would be welcome to see a bit more humility in their expression of their strong beliefs now and then.

Terry Allen said...

Great thread of comments - thank you Gus for your efforts in this blog. - Terry

Gus said...

Thanks, Terry. I'm operating on the theory that we've had a larger experience than just the class of this year or that one.