Editor Al Campbell -- Use This One

Former Managing Editor Al Campbell.

Veterans, regardless of their branch of service, entered for various reasons.

Some were simply drafted. They had little choice or desire to raise their right hands and swear to defend the nation, but they served.

Others fulfilled a dream fed by years of family stories told by parents and grandparents.  They entered desiring to continue the line of service; some into the same branch as their relatives, others into another.

Others, like me, entered the service stoked by a mixture of patriotism, ambition to see the world outside Cape May County, and eagerness to begin a career.

I chose the Navy. Why? Honestly, it started as a Cub Scout on a visit to the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

There we toured a submarine, which scared the daylights out of me. I ran through it believing it would either blow up or sink while I raced through the hatches. As we drove around the base, seeing the huge gray ships made a lasting impression. I wanted to go on one of those ships someday. Thus, the seed was planted.

Time passed - fast forward to maybe 1966. The Vietnam War was in the news nightly. Local men, mostly, were being called to serve.

I recall a physics teacher of mine from Middle Township High School, who was also a Marine. He recounted memories about the service that resonated.

Soon thereafter, stoked by a combination of miserable college entrance scores and a realization that architecture was not my career, I conjured up a future in the Navy as a photographer’s mate.

That is the way to go, I thought. I'd learn a lot in my chosen field, advance in rank to a chief warrant officer, and retire after about 25 or 30 years.

In my senior year, 1967, I latched onto a 120-day delay entry program that the Navy offered - get sworn in, and start serving 120 days later. What wasn't to like about that? I reasoned.

Of course, since I wasn't 18, my father had to consent. He did no grudgingly, fearing that his son would become another casualty in Southeast Asia.

It wasn't until Nov. 3, 1967, when we Philadelphia area recruits arrived by train at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and the iron gate slammed shut on a frigid morning, that what I had done hit me. Iron gates have a way of doing that to a body. There is no easy way out then, with nothing except the future to face.

Yes, I survived the many indignities of boot camp - wearing boxer shorts was the greatest one. However, hanging up frozen sheets in a courtyard while wearing a swimsuit and tying the sheets with pieces of rope was the ultimate insult.

All those things are tucked into the brain's file under "Forget About It" moments.

After radio school in Bainbridge, Md., one of the most beautiful places on earth, came my first assignment in Oahu, Hawaii.

Many folks said I was lucky residing in paradise for two years. I wasn't too sure, but during my flight from Travis Air Force Base in California, in a plane loaded with troops heading to Vietnam, I felt some relief that I wasn't joining them.

I served Uncle Sam for two years in an underground center where messages were relayed from the war zone to the brass in Washington at the Pentagon and such lofty places. We routinely read messages about bombing runs and numbers accompanied by KIA and MIA, which did not sink in until years later. That was the way I served for my first assignment.

A set of orders to a ship came after that. It was the reason I joined the Navy, I thought, so I was elated.

Finally, I would be a Swabbie on a ship; seeing the world, albeit through a porthole, so to speak. Wow!

When I reported to the USS Gallant (MSO-489), an ocean-going minesweeper in a shipyard in Long Beach, Calif., I was disheartened, to say the least.

The ship was more like an overgrown yacht, covered in scaffolding, and looked like a floating junkyard.

Regardless, it was home, at least temporarily.

Because I had arrived after the evening meal, I thought I was out of luck until morning,

The good-hearted cook, a big first-class petty officer, took pity on me. He asked in a gruff voice if I wanted what was available, bologna. He whacked off a piece that must have been a pound, and shoved it between two hunks of bread and said, “Welcome Aboard” with a wink.

Well, by that time in the sea service, I had learned to make the best of any situation.

The Gallant was about 150 feet long, 35 feet wide, bounced like a cork, and had a top speed of about 15 knots. That's slow, but the fine vessel was made to sweep for mines, not win races.

The crew of about 53 became a fairly tight-knit group of men from far-flung parts of the nation. Since the ship only went about 12 knots, the Pacific Ocean became a seemingly endless body of water, sometimes calm, sometimes angry.

We left Long Beach on St. Patrick's Day (March 17) 1967, and finally entered Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam on June 14. We sat broken down in Guam for 19 days, and the crew was almost self-annihilated out of boredom.

We were moored with the South Vietnamese Navy small boats. Patrol followed boring patrol. During the nights, we would witness flares and flashes of light on the mountains - no doubt firefights were taking place.

During the day, we might stop a fishing vessel and check it for Viet Cong, but we never caught anyone.

We were supposed to get five days R&R in Hong Kong, but that was delayed, since our relief vessels also had engine trouble, so we pressed on longer.

Finally, we got the OK to head to Hong Kong. However, a typhoon blew in, and we had to sit a day and a half in Hong Kong Harbor, looking longingly at the lights of the city.

At last, the weather cleared, and we got permission to moor at the Royal Navy base. There it was that I first encountered segregation. Water fountains were labeled “Chinese” and “British.” There was no question about where one would soothe his thirst.

Several of us took in the tourist sites of the city, which was an amazing place.

Our time was over, and we headed for The States. We were a day out of the Philippines when the Red Cross sent a telegram that my father had died, and my presence was requested at home.

There were no nearby ships that could take me, so it was nine days until we got to Guam, and I was granted emergency leave. I flew home on a plane that originated in Thailand and stopped at Andersen Air Force Base for a few souls and fuel. The next stop was Honolulu, Hawaii, (been there, done that), then to Offutt, Neb. and finally to Rome, N.Y.

I flew commercial from there to Philadelphia. I was a second class radioman.

It was an experience of a lifetime that would never have been possible had I remained in Court House.

I would advise any young person to consider serving, at least for one hitch, to learn about themselves and what they want to do in their lives. It can be a life-changing experience.

ED. NOTE: The author is the former managing editor of the Cape May County Herald.