Vietnam Confrontation with Senior Officer

  A Confrontation in Vietnam with a Senior Officer 

As the Oakhill navigator, any officer could call me to the bridge, including the Captain, if they wanted me to assist them in  dealing with our location, tides, currents, weather, or something else. Our Captain observed us carefully to verify the accuracy of our observations and calculations. He had many years of naval experience and had previously commanded a submarine. I stood watch at least for four hours during noon to four daily. Always two officers stood together for four-hour watches on the bridge twice daily while at sea.

 

The Executive Officer (XO), a Naval Academy graduate and a Commander, occasionally joined the Captain on the bridge, or came up during any watch to test us on any area of nautical knowledge. He’d just finished a tour in Vietnam as a Navy Seal. A rugged physical specimen, he showed his athleticism whenever we played a softball, or a basketball game together during a break while in port. I had surprised him by competing favorably.  Some officers, like us, tried to show that officers and enlisted men could engage in athletic games that increased the moral and that we accepted a leadership role without arrogance by associating with them in physical competition.

      

The weather and currents were important for me to know to warn the officers in the night log whether to expect fog, rain, or other potential hazard. In addition to a morning position fix, I took a sun line at noon by using the sextant to calculate the altitude of the sun from the horizon. That allowed me to determine our latitude accurately from our star and sun daily observation charts. Knowing that line allowed me to estimate our position on our course until the evening when I used my sextant observations of star altitudes.

  

We spent two days in Hawaii, which allowed me to take a swim at Waikiki and do some body surfing. Saying goodbye to the surf, swaying palm trees, and the tropical paradise I plotted a course for the Philippine Islands.

   

Our voyage proceeded to our duty station in Vietnam. Continuing to learn from progressive magazines, I discovered additional reasons to oppose the war as I. F. Stone’s Weekly, Ramparts, and the New York Review of Books lambasted the strategy, conduct, and propaganda of our Vietnam adventure. We killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians revealed in operations reports,  and heard first-hand accounts from Marines and naval officers, including the XO,  who said, “Navy Seals killed ‘long haired ones too,’” referring to women.

     

Finally, our ship entered the Vietnam War zone and anchored in Camranh Bay. Jet aircraft armed with bombs and rockets zoomed by and destroyed something in the countryside with an explosion that left a spiraling plume of smoke. Despite such occasional bursts it seemed hard to imagine a war raged a few miles away. Soon, I asked the petty officer who ran a liberty boat to shore at Danang to go with him so I could pick up Oakhill mail as our postal officer.

   

On my first chance to set foot on Vietnam soil a carryall for the mail waited to drive me to the distributing location. As I walked to the vehicle, Navy jets streaked overhead in thunderous roars from various directions dive-bombing areas a few miles away. In front of our mail truck stood an Army vehicle containing expert riflemen at the ready in case we ran into any trouble. The men showed no sign of battle fatigue. They did a job nobody else wanted to do in a place far away from their homes and would do as ordered to try to win the War. Some of the infantry men in jeeps and other vehicles rambling by on the dusty dirt roads looked like hardened helmeted killers with Uncle Sam‘s best weapons to fight an elusive, but poorly equipped insurgent enemy. None of their sweaty sun-baked faces smiled.

 

A week or so later I had another mail run to go on and jumped aboard the liberty boat, picked up the mail, and started to give the commands to return to our ship just as our chief engineer arrived. Generally, the senior officer controlled the actions of such boats if they come from your ship, but no one strictly enforced the rule, especially when a senior officer arrived late as the boat prepared to pull away. My rank as a Lieutenant, J.G. (Junior Grade) was below a Lieutenant, but I had qualified as a department head, the navigator, and CDO (Command Duty Officer) with extensive emergency ship-handling and small craft experience. When I arrived at the boat, I qualified as the senior officer and could easily control the boat safely to our ship.

At the last minute, our chief engineer jumped on board with fifteen sailors and a few ensigns with packages filled with gifts. He had begun his naval career as an enlisted man, and eventually qualified as an officer, which made him a “Mustang.” He outranked me as a Lieutenant. Since I had carefully studied the chart of the area as the navigator, and had taken control of the boat, I gave the commands for the two mile run to our ship. About a mile into the run, the chief engineer yelled loudly, “You’re going to run us aground on that sand bar ahead; I relieve you of command.”

“I‘m in charge of this boat,"I screamed louder than the engineer.  "We are not going to run aground. Boatswain, full speed ahead on your present course.”

“You don’t know these waters like I do; you are going to damage the boat and injure someone on that sand bar. I relieve you of command," thundered the red-faced angry engineer in an ear-splitting blast.

“I’m in charge and know our course is safe. Boatswain, keep your speed and course,”I screamed back with confidence.

The engineer enjoyed challenging my authority to try to embarrass me in front of the sailors. We had engaged in a few arguments in the wardroom during meals regarding: the Vietnam War, the republican position on everything, and his disgust with protesters whom he accused of being spoiled impudent snobs. Challenging him when those listening deserved a different perspective seemed a way to enliven our otherwise bland discussions, but this time he took my remarks as disrespecting a senior officer.

Eventually the boat pulled up to the Oakhill. By this time, the engineer had moved to the bow to disembark first. He smirked as he shrieked at me, “Mr. Lavery, you’re going to face a court martial for gross insubordination.”All eyes stayed focused on both of us as this was extraordinary behavior for two officers from the same ship. My body shook from the heat of anger at a conspicuous show down where I had determined not to let him intimidate me. He charged up the ladder to the gangplank trembling with rage and dashed into the Captain’s stateroom like his feet were on fire. I strolled behind gradually coming under control confident in the predicament he had caused. Soon he walked out and ignored me staring ahead expressionless. We stood like two khaki statues at attention against the grey bulkhead awaiting  resolution.

After an exasperating minute, the Executive Officer appeared unperturbed and calmly said, “We aren’t going to waste our time on something like this.”The captain’s perceptive assessment of the dispute left the engineer snubbed and an angry adversary thereafter, but he knew I had taken a stand and called his bluff. Glad my knowledge of the chart had proven his ploy did not dissuade me, I had stood up to him in front of the very men he had intimidated whenever he felt like it. The grins covering the sailors’ faces and the beam in their eyes revealed they were delighted I had challenged the harsh and egotistic Chief engineer whose eyes glared with malice. I had learned valuable lessons at Annapolis with difficult personalities, but no longer shied away from asserting myself when confronted by a higher ranking officer.

        (click to zoom Dan at Annapolis 1961)

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A Teenager at Kamakura Beach

On a warm Saturday I walked in my swimming trunks about a mile to the beach and observed Japanese families relaxing, sunbathing, swimming and kite flying. An athletic student with dark hair combed strait back was playing ping-pong at tables where many watched and took turns. He seemed interested in talking to me, “Do you speak English?”I asked.

“Yes.  My name is Yoshio Suzuki. You can call me Alex. What’s yours?”

“Dan.”

“Would you like to play?”

“Sure, it’s one of my favorite games.” He handed me a paddle and flipped a coin. “Heads,” I said while it was in the air.

“Tails makes it my serve,” Alex said. At first he served an easy ball I volleyed back. He held the paddle differently from anyone I had played ping-pong with before. Instead of placing the handle in his palm, he put his index and middle finger around the handle so he used those fingers rather than his entire hand to manipulate his paddle. He could give balls a top spin, backspin, or curve this way that differed from the way I’d seen them before. His slams and curves came at me faster than any I had ever seen. When I served the ball to the back corners or down the edge of the table he was often unable to return my serve. Nevertheless, he beat me each game. Most Asians held a ping-pong paddle similarly. They seemed to have found an advantageous way to strike the ball over our method. When we finished we walked toward the beach and conversed, watched the waves roll in, and put our feet in the cool water.

“What grade are you in?” I asked.

“Fourth year.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“How long have you studied English?”

“Six years.”

“Do you play sports?”

“I practice Judo every day.”

“How long have you done judo?”

“Six years.”

“Would you show me some moves?”

“After school. How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Yokohama American High School.”

“First year?”

“Yes.”

Near Kamakura beach, Alex took me on a hike to explore a sacred volcanic island known as Enoshima. We jumped from rock to rock, while the surf crashed sending refreshing salt water ocean spray on us during a hot summer day. Crabs and small fish moved in pristine tidal pools with snow-peaked Fujiyama piercing the blue sky in the background. A range of mountains flanked the active volcano that occasionally sent a plume of curling grey smoke skyward that dissipated in the gentle breeze.

   

Giant Tombe hawks circled overhead squawking and diving as the surf crashed into caves under high sea cliffs covered with green foliage. Running through verdant pathways we found a shrine to Benzaiten playing a flute. The nude female Sea Goddess was a milk-white statue with half-crossed legs displaying her genitals. “Ancient shoguns and the public prayed to Benzaiten for success and revered Enoshima as a sacred place,” Alex said. The wilderness felt like a spiritual shrine to ancient Japan.

   

We exchanged name, address, and telephone numbers. It was an accomplishment connecting with the first Japanese stranger I had met by taking a chance, instead of acting with my usual shyness.

The next week, Alex invited me to his dojo to learn judo, “the gentle way.”

“I play football, am much bigger than you, and don’t want to hurt you.”

“That doesn’t matter in Judo."

He put me in a sturdy white cotton jacket with a belt, white cotton drawstring pants, and bare feet. As we grappled in front of about fifty others, the principle of using an opponent's strength against him--adapting well to changing circumstances, was an important lesson to learn. When I pushed against him; he stepped aside allowing my momentum and his skill to throw me into a padded wall. He showed me rolls, falls, throws, hold downs, and basic chokes. Exhausted, my respect for Alex, judo, and his culture grew exponentially.

Alex invited me and Chip to his birthday party at his home a few weeks later, introducing us to his mother, father, two brothers, and sister. He also invited Bill Mikasa and Ken Blankenship from YoHi. His father owned a milk factory in the city. Some of his American friends gathered with us around a brown wooden table for a traditional Japanese meal. Alex’s mother and sister served courses in ceramic bowls decorated with nature scenes--miso soup with tofu, rice cakes, chicken teriyaki, cucumbers with seaweed, spinach, and steamed rice, sodas, and a green-colored bowl of noodles that did not look appetizing. He demonstrated the use of chopsticks, assuming we needed his expert advice before we attempted to eat the noodles. As a sensitive cultural ambassador, I took a spoonful of the sticky substance,  laid it on my plate, and ate a small portion allowing a few of the slimy noodles to slither down my throat. I hid my displeasure and looked at Alex’s plate. He had none.

“Alex, why didn’t you take the green noodles?”

He turned toward me and whispered back, “I don’t like them.”

(Click to zoom photos: Dan on a rock at Enoshima, and Yoshio's Birthday party-Chip, Bill Mikasa, and Dan back row, Ken Blankenship front, Yoshio, "Alex," head of table with his sister and other friends 1955)

   

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Where were you when JFK was Shot?

On the way to the Navy vs. Maryland football game at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in the city of Annapolis, The Brigade of Midshipmen marched through the city. About a half hour before we left, a classmate from Texas decided to play Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” so loud the words and music penetrated the atmosphere on the Fourth Battalion floor. I guess he did this as a kind of a joke because the song made a strong anti-war statement and an impassioned assault on the people who profited from wars and the blood of soldiers. The first fervent verse grabbed my attention:

Come you masters of war

You that build the big guns

You that build the death planes

You that build all the bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want you to know

I can see through your masks…

You fasten the triggers

For the others to fire

Then you set back and watch

When the death count gets higher

     

You hide in your mansion

As young people's blood

Flows out of their bodies

And is buried in the mud

How much do I know?

To talk out of turn

You might say that I'm young

You might say I'm unlearned

But there's one thing I know

Though I'm younger than you

Even Jesus would never

Forgive what you do…

Dylan’s song cut through the rituals of the Academy, seared into my brain, and passed through me with an awareness shock. Had the emotion of my declaration of conscientious objector status just a few years ago returned to remind me once I would not put on a military uniform, nor take the Oath of Office? How far removed from that eighteen-year old boy wearing his conscience as an invisible shield had I come since Naval Academy indoctrination? A powerful social justice and peace movement existed just outside the confines of the Naval Academy led by Martin Luther King and many others. They marched and talked about non-violence, boycott discriminators, integrate our schools, and stop the bomb. However, I had little time to reflect further as bells sounded for formation and another parade. With my uniform on, spit-shined shoes from the closet, adjusted white cap, I dashed out the door just in time to join the Twentieth Company Commander’s yell: “Forward march.”

In a few minutes we began to pass the radical and intellectual St. John’s College, known for its strong opposition to uniformed military, and began singing “The Navy Blue and Gold.” Students stood along the sidewalk two feet from me on the right heaped ridicule upon us. I pretended not to hear their abuse, a computerized robot looking straight ahead—but out of the corner of my eye appeared the ivy-covered buildings where they studied the classics from original sources.

Students held signs, “Get out of South East Asia,” “Ban the Bomb,” and “Peace Now.” “How does it feel to be professional killers?” yelled a tall bearded student within touching distance.

“War-mongers, when will you do anything good for society?” shouted an attractive female in sandals.

“Here come the boys with their toys finding joys playing soldier,” called out a muscular side-burned foreign student with a poetry book.

“Put down your arms and join the peace movement,” others shouted.

    

Soon we passed them and filed into the stadium for the game like blue and white puppets on a string and took our seats. From mine I wondered how it would feel to be exploring the classics with those liberal arts scholars. How could they know I enjoyed the works of Bertrand Russell in my Philosophy and Logic elective who at ninety-one  led “Ban the Bomb” marches worldwide, and interned as a pacifist when his conscientious objector status during World War I convicted him of an English crime. Or, that I put on civies, attempted to appear a student, and watched Tom Jones, The Leopard, Hud, Irma la Douce, and The Birds at their film festival on weekends.

  

The kickoff started the bitter rivalry. Maryland had no answer for Roger Staubach. On one possession, he threw, passed, or ran for three touchdowns, but the referees called back two on penalties. On fourth down he went back to pass and dodged every charging lineman looking for an open receiver. He broke fast for the sideline, juked one defender after another leaving at least four of them on the ground showing why he earned his nickname, “Roger the Dodger.” Finally, he rambled into the end zone for a climax to a fifty-yard touchdown run to wild cheers from standing midshipmen like me and our fanatic fans.

   

On November 22, 1963 I walked back from swimming a mile in the natatorium when a classmate yelled, “President Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas!” I ran frantically to the TV room on my floor of Bancroft Hall for the story. Kennedy was my Commander-in-Chief, a former naval hero on PT 109 in World War II, and we had a special relationship with our president. The Academy canceled classes for the next day. We mourned the loss of our leader and whispered if an investigation would point to some sinister plot since many had been outspoken in their condemnation of President Kennedy for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion that failed to give adequate air support for fear of revealing our involvement. When we learned Lee Harvey Oswald killed him, a reporter suggested the assassin may have had connections to Cuban militants including Castro in revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1962.

 

In Washington D.C. on a cold wintry day with the Brigade of Midshipmen behind Kennedy’s casket surrounded by his family to the steady chilling drumbeat of the Navy marching band, I thought about the precious gift of life that so suddenly had ended for a brilliant leader who had averted nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such a tragic event reminded me of my vulnerability and awakened me from the routine to consider how each of us must face our fate, whatever that may be, in peace or war.

 

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Who’s Insane?

  It's said that I'm the one who's gone insane. I willingly should join that happy throng, Though our society's become a bane, In shouting out, MY COUNTRY RIGHT OR WRONG. I willingly should join that happy throng, For they are patriots, so loud and proud, In shouting out, MY COUNTRY RIGHT OR WRONG. It's me the fool who will not join that crowd.     For they are patriots, so loud and proud, As though their crowd could never be but right. It's me, the fool, who will not join that crowd. It's me the fool who cringes at the plight. As though their crowd could never be but right, They march to war ignoring all the lies. It's me the fool who cringes at the plight, As they, the sane, ignore our anguished cries.   They march to war ignoring all the lies, Forgetting they're commanded not to kill, As they, the sane, ignore our anguished cries, With little thought to all the blood they spill. Forgetting they're commanded not to kill, It's freedoms they have fought for, but from what? With little thought to all the blood they spill, It's freedoms lost at home for which they fought.   It's freedoms they have fought for, but from what? The real enemy is not without, It's freedoms lost at home for which they fought. And sadly, they've no clue what it's about. The real enemy is not without. Though our society's become a bane, And sadly they've no clue what it's about, It's said that I'm the one who's gone insane.   Hal O'Leary is an 85 year old veteran of WWII who, having spent his life in thereat, and as a Secular Humanist, believes that it is only through the arts that we are afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. As an 'atheist in the fox hole', he composed his epitaph at age 20. With open mouth and open mind, I came into the world to find Life's riddle in one word defined, BELIEVE! And now, that Life is left behind, Although I know they would be kind, With open mouth and open mind, I LEAVE! Hal was recently inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame and is the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University. His favorite quote is from Goethe. "I build my house on nothing, therefore the whole world is mine."

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