Remember How Fragile Life Is

 

Oak Hill Navigator

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

I arrived at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, California in February 1966 for “Indoctrination in Counterinsurgency.” One of the female instructors warned, “Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are subversives out to destroy America.” None of my fellow officers confronted her over these provocative remarks, which I found offensive. Their vital folk music spoke to a rebellious generation. I liked their sound and message. However, for me join the protests emerging like scattered fires on the America’s landscape, it would take something more

Bob Dylan The Times They Are a Changing

At the Coronado officer’s club, I met some aviators who had recently returned from Vietnam. They knew the pilots on the USS Ranger (CVA 61) and informed me that the North Vietnamese had shot down Lt. Gerald Coffee and his navigator over Vietnam on one of their first flights in February. These two officers had relieved Todd and me when we dropped out of the RA5C program a few months earlier. Only the pilot survived and was imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton where he was tortured. This news sent chills down my spine. Our rescue team could not recover the body of the person who had sat in the seat I would have occupied. I had cheated death again.

Vigilante Clamshell Cockpits opened

Much later, I saw a printout describing the attack on that RA5C, which “…was shot down by AAA while making a photo reconnaissance flight near Cap Bouton, North Vietnam, 19º12’N, 105º45’E. The SAR resulted in a vicious mêlée as destroyer Brinkley Bass (DD-887) and guided missile destroyer Waddell (DDG-24), the latter “straddled” by enemy salvos, ‘slugged it out’ with communist batteries. A total of 33 Navy and USAF aircraft were ‘diverted to suppress enemy fire’ while a USAF Grumman HU-16 Albatross attempted to locate the downed crew. Coffee survived but was captured, not returning home until 12 February 1973.”

CHAPTER 27-Y RA5C landing on aircraft carrier 1965

Another report said the navigator died from wounds, although he had ejected from the plane. The pilot watched as his crewmate’s parachute entered the water near a beach. North Vietnamese villagers found his body and buried him at the scene while fishermen captured Coffee and took him to the North Vietnamese military.

When I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2004, I took my wife and three children to witness the navigator’s name etched on the “Wall.” “That man died in my place,” I said tearfully. Had I stayed in aviation, none of you kids would have been born. Remember how fragile life is. How lucky we are to be alive to honor those not so fortunate.”

Vietnam Wall ***

To report as the navigator of the USS Oak Hill (LSD 7) in March of 1966, I took the Coronado ferry to San Diego and parked near the ship’s berth. She was commissioned before the Korean War, in need of fresh paint, and an overhaul. As I approached the ladder leading to the gangplank, I wondered what kind of leaders I would encounter in this branch of the Navy. Amphibious ships had a reputation of being the slowest in the fleet; some said they attracted “bottom feeders.” I might be wandering into a world of egotistic dictators with limited knowledge and malicious attitudes. I walked up to the Officer of the Deck, and saluted, “Lieutenant J. G. Lavery reporting as ordered, sir. I request permission to come aboard.”

Vietnam USS Oakhill black and white

The officer had a black arm patch with gold “OD” on the sleeve of his white uniform saluted back. “Welcome aboard, Lieutenant Lavery. I’m Lieutenant Commander Kay. Show me your orders.”

“Here they are, sir,” I said handing him a copy and grasped his hand in a warm handshake, “Glad to come aboard, sir.”

“Our navigator can’t wait to see you. Take Lt. Lavery to the Personnel Office,” he barked to a sailor. The muscular black swabby saluted the OD and hurried along the port side of the ship. Following him, I peered down into the landing dock where three LCU’s (landing craft utility) could carry a tank and many armed Marines. After the Captain flooded the area and lowered the stern gate, they chugged out to the ocean and to an amphibious landing.

I arrived at the Personnel Office three decks below to meet the navigator. The hum of typewriters rose above shipboard life, never close to tranquil, often filled with unexpected noise. A sharp officer was in charge, sweat on his brow, fastidious expression, intent body language, hands shuffling papers, he was immersed in monotony. Scrutinizing a document from the overflowing inbox, he glanced at me.

“Lieutenant J.G. Lavery reporting to relieve you, sir,” I said with a salute.

“Welcome aboard Mr. Lavery,” he said quickly putting on his cap and saluting. “Good to see you. Take a seat and relax. I’m Mike.”

“Call me Dan. Why are you in the Personnel Office?”

“The duties you’re relieving me of, besides Navigator, include Personnel Officer, Postal Officer, and Legal Officer,” he said with a mid-western accent, appeared intelligent, and was in no sense a “bottom feeder.”

“You’ll have to qualify as Officer of the Deck and later as Command Duty Officer.”

“What do you do as Personnel Officer?”

He handed me a three-page job description that mentioned reviewing the mail, training officers and enlisted men, and distributing orders from the Captain to the Executive Officer. After an hour of learning the office routine and meeting the sailors assigned to the office, I asked, “May I see the navigation equipment?”

“Let’s go!” He bolted out the door, with me close on his heels.

Vietnam Navigator in charthouse

He took me up two flights of ladders (stairs) to the Navigator’s station in the Operations room. A chart of the San Diego harbor rested on the desk with a compass, pencils, and a long-armed ruler attached to a swivel. The Chartroom contained books on astronomy, tides, currents, lighthouses, and other navigational objects above a radarscope used for taking a bearing or identifying ships, boats, or debris in the water. If in a fog, Loran tables provided the ship’s position from Long Range Navigation signals. Sonar sent sound waves into the ocean to determine depth, or the presence of a submarine, torpedo, or rock.

Vietnam sextant for sun line

Sextants and star tables were available for night and day sightings. Everything I saw excited me. I admired Mike and was enthusiastic about the most responsible position the Navy had ever assigned me and realized more than ever, they required me to measure up to the highest standards.

 

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