A story Of Triumph, Tragedy
Today is March 5, 1999. As this week has gone bye my thoughts have not been able to turn from a day 30 years ago, March 8, 1969. It was a day in my life that I have tried to forget but as the years have passed the memories do not. On that day 30 years ago I took a fast boat in harms way and the memories have forever changed the way I view life. The story that I tell you today are the reflections of a 51-year-old Veteran who did his duty based upon what he thought was right at the time. I do so not with the braggadocio of my younger years but as a testament to the love I share with an incredible woman who I met on a cold day in 1963.
Before I share that part of my life with you I would like you to know about another women in my life. It was a warm day in the summer of 1947. June 14, 1947 (Flag Day). A young woman struggled to give birth to her 2 sons that the doctor wanted to take away from her some months before. She said no, These are my sons and the only one that can take them from me is God. So she endured months of problems at risk to her own life so that her sons may be born. On Flag Day 1947 she gave birth to identical twin boys, Walter A. Muharsky and Joseph E. Muharsky. Standing by her side was the most wonderful father that was ever put on this earth, Joe Muharsky. His face beamed with pride as all the nurses wanted to see the father of the biggest twins that were ever born at Huron Road Hospital in Cleveland Ohio. Walter was 7 lb. 5 oz. and Joseph was 7 lb. 6 oz.
My father was a veteran of World War II although he never left the states due to a crippling injury to his foot in the coal mines of Pennsylvania when he was 14 years old. His father had emigrated from Poland so that he might make a better life for his children. He passed that dream on to my father also. Dad made a better life for us in spite of the hardships he endured every winter when his foot would fester to the point where walking was a difficult task. Working in the construction business made this a difficult task but he did it with no complaints.
The family prospered under his guidance and Walter, Joseph, Mary Ellen and Teresa were a close knit family. Close by lived my dads half brother Edward, affectionately know to us by his nickname, Uncle Derby. Derby was a kind, gentle and loving man but I remember going with my dad several times as a young boy to pick Derby up at the bar because he was so drunk he could not function. As a young boy I could never understand this. As a 51 year old combat veteran who has seen the movie "Saving Private Ryan" I now understand. On June 6, 1944 Derby ran from his landing craft at Omaha Beach fighting for his life. Derby did not talk about that too much but one day he told me something that I have never forgotten. He said, "Joey, the day after D-Day I tried to walk on the beach but I could not. There were too many dead bodies, I had to walk on them." I remember I did not say a word in reply and as I look back on what he said I guess I had no comprehension of what was in his mind but I do know that it scared me to hear his words. I knew then and there that I did not want to ever be a soldier. I had played war as a child as most young boys did in the fifty's. I had even imagined myself as a hero and some General pinned a medal on my chest for my bravery but those were just the illusions of a young boy that had no idea of the price to be paid for that medal. My fantasy world was a safe one. I could always call the war off for the day and go home at 5:00 PM and mom would have a hot meal for me. Besides that there was no war going on for the U.S. anyway so I did not have to worry about the "real thing."
On a cold winter day in November 1963 an event was to happen that would change my life forever although I had no idea about it at the time. I was a junior in high school and about 10 of us guys decided to go to Eastlake Junior High and watch the wrestling match. I was always somewhat shy and what I did that day was totally out of character for me but it changed my life in ways that are only told in fairy tales. All of us young guys looked up in the stands and there was the most beautiful girl we had ever seen. She was only 14 but she looked older than most of the seniors at North High School. I did something that I had never done in my life and I think I did it because I knew that if I did not, one of the other guys would. I got up, walked up in the stands and sat down next to her and said, "Hi, I'm Joe". When the wrestling match was over all the guys got in their cars and left alone. When I left that day, there was a beautiful young girl sitting beside me. I was the envy of all my classmates because I had the most beautiful girl of all of us. Her name was Donna May Downing.
News Flash: Aug 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats carry out an unprovoked attack on the U.S.S. Maddox. President Johnson goes on television and warns the North Vietnamese about the consequences of their actions. Aug 4, 1964, The U.S.S. Maddox and the U.S.S. Turner Joy are attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. It was night and a monsoon rain was coming down. F-8 Crusader jets were sent from the U.S.S. Ticonderoga to sink the torpedo boats. A funny thing happened though. They could not find any. Captain John Herrick of the Maddox called a board of inquiry to try to find out what really happened that night. Before he could make his report President Johnson called for the U.S. Senate to pass "The Tonkin Gulf Resolution" not only giving Johnson a blank check to wage war on North Vietnam but Laos and Cambodia as well. The Vote in the Senate was 98 for and 2 against. Senators' Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruning voted against it. A reporter asked Senator Morse why he voted against it. His answer was, "History will prove me right. In 1971 the Senate repealed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Tens of thousands of American boys had already died in the process and many more were to follow before we finally called an end to this madness. It should be mentioned that right after the senate vote was taken in 1964 that a direct quote from President Johnson was, "Those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish." Its has pretty well been proven that the second incident on Aug 4, 1964 never happened and Johnson knew it then. We did not.
Playing war was now not an option for me. It was something I was going to have to face and although I tried not to show it, I was scared to death. I did not do well in high school, not because I was stupid, but because I did not care. I worked with my dad in his heating and air conditioning business since I was eleven years old and I knew I had a job when I got out of school. That all changed now. If I did not join some other armed forces I was in all likelihood going to get drafted and go to Vietnam as an infantryman and that scared the hell out of me.
Donna and I had now been together Three years, three of the most wonderful years of my life. To quote a song I used to sing to my newborn sons, "A time when life was a game and your fun was the prize. And love was the bunnies that lived on the street and pain was knowing fear for cookies to eat." My father had bought a boat when I was 7 years old and Donna's father and her wonderful brother Tom had built their family's cabin cruiser from a Sears Kit. Boating was our life in the summer months and by the time I was my dad, Walt and I had purchased another boat. There was only one logical choice for me the way I saw it, join the Navy. This way I might get a good education, I would probably be able to avoid combat, (North Vietnam had no Navy to speak of) and Donna would never be the wiser of how scared I was of going to war.
As fate would have it the local Navy recruiter was renting the home next door to Donna so one evening I went to see him. His name was RD1 Charles Rhorbacker. I was sent to take a test and if I got a high enough score I could be guaranteed electronics school. I was no dummy. I signed the papers and was off to boot camp to be followed by electronics training. I had avoided being a "Grunt" and saved face. When Donna and I attended my senior prom, she had no idea of the fear I had inside of me.
My day was fast approaching to leave for boot camp. It was Jul 5, 1966. As I look back on it now I find it ironic that July 4, was my last day of freedom, as I had known it. It was a beautiful summer day. The sun was shining it was 80 degrees and Lake Erie was as flat as a pancake, a rare event for that lake. I wanted to squeeze all the water skiing in that I could in those final few hours before my train left the next evening for boot camp. We were about 2 miles from the tiny little harbor called Wildwood where we had launched my boat, a 17-ft aluminum day cruiser with a 50 horse Johnson outboard motor. When we first saw it, the sky to the west was darker than I had ever seen before. In those days we did not have "The Weather Channel", satellites or any other type of early warning systems to tell us trouble was brewing. I had only my instinct, which was usually right, but on this day I had guessed wrong. I headed for the harbor but in just minutes the wind was blowing about 40 Knots. There were already 5-ft. waves and the combination was tipping the boat sideways as I tried to make safe haven in the harbor. The wind was catching the side of the boat and trying to tip it over. I compensated by having Donna move to the high side with me to counter balance it. By the time we made the harbor it was raining so hard the visibility was almost nothing and the wind was now well over 50 knots. We made it to the dock and grabbed hold but the wind was so fierce that we had only two choices. Either let go or have our arms pulled off. We let go and I put our small craft in gear and started to circle within the small harbor where at least we had some protection from the large waves that were pounding the break wall. It was not more than 100 yards square inside that harbor and the visibility was now down to a few feet because large hail had started coming down with the rain. I decided to swing her into the wind and head for the break wall. I needed about half throttle just to make any headway and steering into that wind was a trick. I sent Donna up to the deck hatch and instructed her to throw the anchor out as soon as I caught site of the wall. We were only a few feet from it when I saw it and she threw it out and tied it off. No luck. The wind was blowing so hard that it was dragging the anchor right through the sandy bottom and now we were heading for the wall on the opposite side with the anchor out. I knew if we did not get it up before reaching the downwind wall that I would never be able to maneuver the boat into the wind with that damn anchor dragging and we would surely wind up on the rocks. I yelled for Donna to pull it up but the hail was coming down so hard on her and the deck of the boat thats she could not hear me. She said, "what", and again I yelled, "pull the anchor up"! Again she said, "what". So I gave it one last shot. I screamed as loud as I could, "Pull the goddamned anchor up". This time she heard me, and got the anchor up just before we hit the wall. I put the motor in forward and gave her full throttle and got us out of there just in time. We missed those rocks by no more than 10 ft. I will always regret having to yell at Donna but at the time I saw no other choice. She came back in the cabin, crawled under a seat and started to cry. I kept the little boat off the rocks for the next 20 minuets by heading into the wind until I saw the wall and drifting back the other way while at all times keeping the bow pointed into the wind. The storm cleared and we were able to beach the boat in the sand. Donna performed like a real trooper that day, and I will always remember that. In about another 20 minuets the storm blew by, the sun came out and it was a beautiful day again. I asked Donna if she would like to go back out. She did not say anything but that look told me I had better just shut up and go get the trailer. I thought then that this would probably be the most harrowing experience I would ever have on a boat. Little did I know what was in store for me.
On July 5th, 1966 I stood at the train station and said goodbye to my family. I also said goodbye to the beautiful young girl who was standing by my side. Her name was Donna May Downing.
I never told anyone this before but the train left for Chicago that evening and when I went to lie down in my bed the tears started welling in my eyes and soon I was crying like a baby. I was ashamed of myself and was glad that Donna could not see me. I was sure that I would keep that secret to myself for the rest of my life.
I was assigned to company #428 at the Naval Training Facility at Great Lakes Illinois. We made "Color Company" which means that we had the highest score of all the companies that started boot camp then. I was off to a great start. Before going to electronics school I had to attend BE&E school. That stood for Basic electronics and electricity. It was a 9 week school for 8 hours a day if my memory serves me right and they sent all the sailors there first that were going to be Electronics Technicians, Radarman, Sonarman, or Radioman. Then you would move on too your special schools. I knew that if I did not clamp down and study this time around I was going to be chipping paint off the deck of a ship for 4 years so I really clamped down and studied hard. I was proud, I finished in the top 10% of my class. I was called in for a meeting after that and offered Nuclear Power School. There was only one catch. I had to enlist for another 2 years to get that school. I thought about it and decided no. I really did not want to be here in the first place so I will just go to ET school, do my time and get out. The next day I got the stunning news. I had been switched to Radarman. It did not say anything about them being able to do that in the contract that I signed but thats life in the Navy. I was pissed. This was the first time I had been penalized by the Navy for doing a good job; it would not be the last.
When I went to Radar school I did so with a chip on my shoulder although much to my surprise there was a lot of electronics training involved in it and I actually came to like it. I had picked up a magazine one day though and saw a picture of something called a PCF, nicknamed a Swift Boat. The PCF, I found out, stood for "Patrol Craft Fast".
It said that they patrolled the coastal waters of Vietnam. I liked what I saw. I loved boats. Patrolling the coast did not seem to be too overly dangerous and I could do my part in the war. We filled out what was called a "Dream Sheet" being what you would like as a duty station upon graduation from Radar School. My first choice was Swift Boat duty in Vietnam. Me second choice was a destroyer based in Pearl Harbor. By now I had received another small stripe. I was an RDSN in the Navy. An E-3, the same as a Private First Class in the Army. One day just before graduation we received our orders. My orders said to report to the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado California for Swift Boat Training.
I went home on 30 days leave before my training to go to war. When I stepped off the plane in Cleveland there was a beautiful young girl there to greet me. Her name was Donna May Downing. We had another wonderful month together and then it was time to go off to training. When I left for California that day there was a beautiful young girl standing beside me. Her name was Donna May Downing.
I arrived on Coronado Island to start my training. I remember a few days of indoctrination and then I was given the word that they had too many crews now and they did not want any more E-3's on Swift Boats. Once again the Navy had not delivered on what they promised me. After many weeks of doing nothing at Coronado, I was transferred to the U.S.S. Brister, DER (327) based out of Pearl Harbor Hawaii. Well at least I got my second choice so I decided to make the best of it. The Brister had just come back from patrolling the coast of Vietnam with patrols along Communist China mixed in and was to be at Pearl for 5 months. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Hawaii and it is a part of my life I will always cherish.
Then it was off to war. The Brister had sunk a North Vietnamese trawler loaded with arms for the Viet Cong on its last patrol so I knew there might be a chance of seeing a little action. As soon as I got on board the Brister though I put in a request to be transferred to Swift Boats as soon as possible. The Brister was the off shore unit for Operation Market Time off the coast of South Vietnam and worked in close coordination with the Swift Boats so I was able to at least have some contact with them. I knew then for sure that this is what I wanted. I once again applied myself to the task at hand. I became efficient in all phases of the operations of CIC (Combat Information Center) and was good at what I did. I learned just by looking at the radarscope how to send an immediate course to the bridge to intercept a target before figuring it out on a maneuvering board. I was usually within 5 degrees of being correct and sent the correction to the bridge within a minute but we were already heading to intercept an enemy vessel or a replenishment ship. The officers on the bridge came to appreciate my expertise. I also worked the radio on a 4-hour shift helping to coordinate efforts between the main bases in shore, the Brister, and the Swift Boats.
Then, one day, orders came for me to report to Coronado for Swift Boat training. I wondered how this could be. I was still an E-3. Had they changed the rules again? Before my orders were finalized however those in charge of me had a right to tell the chain of command of the Brister why I should not be transferred to Swift Boats. Our head of the Radarman was RD1 Gayle Hollowell. He was in my opinion not a very good Radarman although he was a good man in general. He did not pretend to know more than he did. The real brains of CIC were RD2 Clarence E. (Jim) Ayers. He was extremely good at what he did and was also a proud man whom I became a good friend with. I do remember he was from Redding PA. And would love to see him again some day. Everybody in CIC had a nickname. Jim's was Charlie Echo, short for his first two initials, C.E. I was Sky. That came because we already had a guy named Smykowski and my name ended in Sky so I became Sky.
Hollowell turned down my transfer to Swift Boats. The reason he gave was that I was so good at what I did that I was too valuable to the ship. I was furious. I went to see the CIC officer (Ensign Kline) and the Operations Officer whose name I have forgotten with time. I remember that I told them that this was the second time that the Navy had punished me for doing a good job and I did not think that was right. I said, "If I had been no good at my job and made trouble on the ship that they would be glad to get rid of me but because I was good and I did not get in trouble I was being deprived of what I really wanted." They agreed with me, Hollowell was over ruled and once again I was off to Swift Boat training.
The Brister was due to pull into Subic Bay in the Philippines soon so I had to wait until we got there. I took a bus from Olongapo harbor to Clark Air Force base for a flight back to the states. I will never forget that bus ride. I thought I was dead for sure. It was a winding mountain road with no guardrails and a driver that I would not trust with my bicycle. But somehow we made it without crashing and I was going home for 30 days. Donna and my parents had no knowledge of this so I decided to surprise them. I called my uncle and asked him to pick me up at the airport in Cleveland and take me home. It was night when we arrived and I waited in the driveway. My uncle knocked on the door and my Mom answered. He said, "there is someone here to see you". When my mom saw me she ran to me, hugged me and started crying uncontrollably. I did not know my dad had walked to the store through the woods behind our house and on his return he heard my mom crying and came out from behind the house with a 2x4 in his hand ready to kill whoever was assaulting my mom. When he saw me we all hugged each other and we all shed a few tears. Their joy soon turned to sorrow though when they found out why I was home. I was going back to war on a Swift Boat.
I spent some time with my folks and then called my girl Donna May Downing. I dont even remember what we did that night and its probably just as well because it might not be fit for telling in this story. I do know that it was summer time again and we headed off to do what we always did together in the summer. Go Boating.
My leave time was over before I knew it and once again I was boarding a plane on my way to war. I remember some years later my mom telling me that it was a beautiful starlit night and you could see forever. She said that they watched my plane for what seemed like an eternity until it disappeared in the night sky, knowing that it might be the last time they ever saw there son alive. I never knew what they must have felt that night until my first son was born. Oh, I forgot to mention there was a beautiful young girl standing beside me when I boarded the plane that evening. Her Name was Donna May Downing.
I was finally here, Swift Boat training. Our crew was selected. Some of the names have left me with age but there are a few that stand out. My boat officer, LTJG Michael Hudson, Our Quartermaster, QM2Tally, and our gunners mate TM2 Gary Erlandson. A TM in the navy is a torpedoman but somehow Gary pulled some strings and got assigned to Swift Boats. I recall LT. Hudson as a brilliant young officer although he seemed old to me at the time. I was only 19. He found out that I was doing Market Time operations on the Brister and used my knowledge to his advantage. Thats the mark of a smart man to me. There was no doubt who was in charge, He was but he used all of our knowledge including his to knit us into a good crew who could all rely on each other.
Gary and I became best friends. It turned out that they did not have enough barracks for everyone on Coronado so they offered the petty officers (I had made PO3, E-4) an additional $240.00 per month to live off base. Gary and I jumped at the chance. Between us that was $480 a month and we found a converted garage on H Street in Coronado for $80 a month. That left us $400 a month plus our regular pay to spend as we pleased. We ate in the finest restaurants and every day on our way back to the apartment we would pick up a 12 pack of 16-oz. Hamms beer. We did not have a wall between the kitchen and the living room so it did not take us long to construct one from the empty beer cans. Life was good and in addition to that Gary's two cousins, Jeanie and Jeannette had moved to San Diego and would cook for us. We felt like Butch Casidy and the Sundance Kid. Training every day, eat a steak and some lobster, go to the beach behind the Del Coronado Hotel and do some body surfing and go out on the town with Jennie and Jeannette. Life was good. Although Jeannette had a crush on me I never viewed her as anything more than a friend. I knew I had a beautiful young girl waiting to be my wife when I came home because I had asked her to marry me and she accepted. Her name was Donna May Downing.
Once again I applied myself. We were all given training in each other's skills plus some medical training (I never saw a corpsman in our unit) and how to speak Vietnamese phrases and learn to read flashing light. This all came fairly easy to my crew but the part we all dreaded was yet to come, SERE training.
This was an acronym for Navy training called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and escape. It was special training given to all the Navy SEAL's, The river rats (us) the Navy pilots and the Seawolf chopper pilots. I was not looking forward to it because I understood that they beat the hell out of you as part of the training. We took some classroom training on what to expect and then off we went to the beach for the first night in San Diego. The only thing we got to eat is what we could catch and fishing rods were not issued. I remember some guy managed to catch a small stingray. I did not eat any of it because this was our first day and I was not all that hungry. I would have killed for a bite of that sucker 4 days later. Then the next day it was off to Warner Springs California for the good part (so to speak) of SEAR training. After some classes on survival we were sent on a hike with a map and a compass. I dont remember what day that was but I do remember I was getting damn hungry. I think it was day 3. SERE classes had been coming through that area for years now and every, rabbit, snake or critter with more than 2 legs had already made it to Oklahoma I think. Christ I was hungry. We did come across a pond that had some tadpoles in it and some of the guys were eating them raw. Some just could not stand to chew them so they swallowed them whole and said it was not bad going down, it was feeling them swim around in their stomach that got to them. I was hungry now but not that hungry.
Next came the night evasion course. We had a starting point and if memory serves me right we had to get to a place about 300 yards from the start in about 100 yards wide. Along they way we would encounter barbed wire to go through and guards dressed up as Russians waiting to beat the crap out of us if we got caught. I found it rather hard to evade with about 100 guys all going through at the same time. It Sounded like a heard of elephants going through there. I remember being close to another man when we spotted a guard. We both curled up and "made like a rock". I could feel something moving under me and I thought I was lying on a tree branch and he was laying on it also. Much to my disappointment when he got up and ran and was caught by the guard, whatever I was lying on was still moving. Then it dawned on me and I about crapped my pants. SNAKE. I did not know what to do. Do I just lay here and hope it crawls away? What kind of snake was it? Would it bite me? If I got up and ran the guard would surely catch me. I mulled all of my options and opted for running. I was caught immediately by the guard but was relieved the snake didn't bite me. After slapping me around a bit with his flashlight pointed right in my eyes he said something that I have never forgotten. "Run you filthy American Capitalistic Pig." Its funny now but it wasn't at the time. I could not see because his flashlight in my eyes had blinded me but I ran anyway and ran right into some barbed wire. I was lucky I did not get hurt to bad.
Then the horn went off and the exercise was over. I was relieved and started walking back. I dont think I made it more than 100 yards when one of the guards stopped me and said, "Come here I need your help". When the exercise was over they were just one of us so I did not feel threatened any more. I wondered what he wanted. It was QM2 Tally. He was a big man. I would guess about 270 lbs. and he had his big ass so tangled up in some barbed wire it took 3 of us to get him out. Tally was a nice guy but I dont think he was cut out for Swift Boat duty. Of course this is only my opinion so take that for what it is worth. It was about then however that I did not think Tally was going to make it.
I dont remember what day it was but we were all camped out in the woods. They had given us a parachute, which I thought made sense for the pilots but I dont remember seeing one or having much use for it on a Swift Boat. We cut some logs and were supposed to play Indian for the night. Now I did not claim to be an expert on surviving in the jungles of Vietnam yet but if I was separated from my boat and crew my first thought would not have been to build a goddamm teepee and light a camp fire. Sometime the training just did not make sense to me. Anyway, by now every conscious thought I had was on food. I never really knew what hunger was until that training and hope I never do again. Suddenly a jeep drove up and a guy walked out with a sea bag and dumped its contents on the ground. What came out were a few pigeons that had their wings clipped so they could not fly and a few rabbits. They did not stand a chance with this group of sailors. I leaped on a pigeon like an Ethiopian pouncing on a chicken, twisted his neck and pulled his head off. Then I plucked him clean of all feathers and put him in the stew we had made of the pigeons and rabbits. Looking back at it now it tasted like crap but that day I thought I was dining on a Cornish hen at the Ritz Carlton. I decide to eat a small cactus with my squab. I'm still picking the damn spines out of my hands. They hurt like hell for 3 days.
Last but not least was the Day Evasion course. It was similar to the night evasion except when (not if) you got captured this time you were heading for the POW camp. The guards donned their Russian uniforms again and hunted us down like frogs in a pond. I was captured and brought to a place with about 20 other prisoners. They made us kneel down and put our arms out for what seemed like an hour. Those who's arms dropped were beaten. After a while a high ranking Russian pulled up in a Jeep, walked in front of us a said, "Who is in charge here'? We all pointed to some poor LTJG and said, "He is". They went to the LT. and beat the crap out of him. The Russian said, "I'm in charge here. When you tell me I'm in charge, you can put your hands down." He asked again, "Who is in charge here"? I guess there has to be one in every crowd. All except one said, "You are sir". That one asshole still claimed the LT. was in charge so the LT. received another beating. Obviously this dip shit did not pay attention in class when they taught us to use "Passive Evasion". What that meant was to be smart. We could tell the Russian he was in charge and still take our orders from the LT. This asshole just could not quite grasp that concept and the LT. continued to get his butt whipped. I dont know what the guys name was but I'm quite sure the LT. was going to remember it if he made it out alive.
Anyway moving right along they finally started whipping that idiot instead of the LT. And after they beat him damn near senseless a large truck pulled up, we were all blindfolded and taken to the POW camp. Before entering the camp however we were all stripped down to our skivvies and searched for weapons. We were told all we could give them was our name, rank, serial number and date of birth. Your rank does not mean your Rate. I was a PO3 then. Petty officer third class. That was my rank. My Rate was RD3, which was Radarman third class. Well standing right in from of me was guess who, Tally. Stenciled right across his 3 ft wide ass was, "TALLY QM2. A guard took one look at that and said, ah, a quartermaster huh. I knew his shit was out right then and there. Its like he put a billboard on his ass advertising his specialty to his captors. Not a good move I surmised.
There was only one way into the camp. You had to crawl under some very low concertina in just your skivvies and stick your head through hooch that was up on stilts and be interrogated by a guard. I was fortunate; I did not get hit then. Tally was not so lucky.
I will not dwell on my time in that POW camp too much other than to tell you that when I was taken into interrogation I was truly not prepared for what transpired. I was beaten until I just dropped to the floor. Later my left eye was to swell almost completely shut. I think it is more important to tell you about a remarkable man who was in that camp with me. We all had a best friend then I guess. Gary Erlandson was mine and LTJG Hudson's best friend was LTJG Harwood. I remember a time when LT. Hudson and LT. Harwood came to our apartment about a week before we were to go to Nam and we all got drunk together. This was special to me and Gary I think because it was not normal for officers to do that with their crew but they were both good men and I think they knew the value of being close with their men.
LTJG Harwood was a remarkable man. Most of us viewed that POW camp as something that we could not wait to get out of and I know that if they really wanted to break me there they probably could have done it. Harwood viewed it as a challenge and that really pissed the guards off. He did not care. He was determined to give them more than they could handle and in the end I guess he did. He pissed them off at every opportunity and they beat him unmercifully. But nothing stopped him. No matter what they threw at him he came back for more. It was a game to him and he was going to win. I remember one time that they beat him to the point that he could barely walk. After a few minuets he staggered to his feet, and started walking around with his right arm extended, stopping by the poles that were in the compound. After a bit of this a guard said, "what are you doing" to which Harwood replied, "Oh I'm just walking my dog". That brought the wrath of about 4 guards on him that beat the hell out of him. He could no longer stand up so the guards dragged him to his feet and placed a railroad tie on his shoulder. He fell from the weight and the tremendous beating he had already absorbed. All of us looked on in astonishment and I know that I am not the only one in that class that remembers this. He somehow managed to get to his feet with the railroad tie over his shoulder and stagger up to the podium where Tally and some other prisoners were fanning the camp commander. Tally had spilled his guts in interrogation and was now forced to do this. Harwood staggered right up to the Commandant with that railroad tie on his shoulder and his right arm over it, got this big shit eating grin on his face and said, "Surf's Up". That was it. They beat him so bad I was not completely sure they weren't going to kill him. The guards took him and threw him in a tent and they never beat him again.
SERE training was now over, somehow I had survived it. Next stop was the chow hall. I ate very little at first because after no food for 8 days it was likely you would barf if you filled your stomach too fast. But I do remember eating a little bit of food about 20 times that day.
Now I was ready, This was it, I was finally going to do my part in the war. Wrong again. We were told that word came down from Saigon that they had too many Swift Boat crews in Vietnam and we were all going back to the fleet. Once again I was getting the shaft. Then LT. Hudson told us that they needed just 2 more crews and they were going to be made up of different people from this class. I told him that this was my second time here for training and I wanted too be part of those 2 crews. LT. Hudson put in a good word for me and I was chosen as the Radarman on one of the crews but that meant training again with a whole new crew. LT. Hudson, my best friend Gary and LT. Harwood and most of the rest of that class were going back to the fleet.
The Crew was chosen. Beside myself were LTJG Dan Salinas, QM2 Larry Potter, BM3 Dalmas Coates, EN3 Barry Bogart, and GMSN Chris Whallen. I found it ironic that out of all those men they chose to put an E-3 in our crew. We took all of the boat training again together as a crew and we were ready for war. I always wish I would have had the chance to fight with LT. Hudson but thats they way it works in the Navy sometime. Although I respected LTJG Salinas very much in my opinion he was not a leader but like I said it's just my opinion. The last I heard he retired from that Navy and his last duty station was the Executive Officer of the Battleship Iowa. Shows ya what I know huh.
Just before leaving for Vietnam though I had an unexpected surprise. A beautiful young girl came to California with her mom and dad and I got to say goodbye once more. She came to our apartment and met my best friend Gary too. Once again when I left for war, there was a beautiful young girl standing beside me. Her name was Donna May Downing.
We arrived in Vietnam at a place called Cam Rhan Bay. We spent they night there and were to depart for Coastal Division 12 in Dannang early the next morning. Although I was somewhat scared I was not terrified. Cam Rhan was pretty secure and we just had to take a bus ride to the airport, which was a few clicks (slang for kilometers) away. Suddenly I remembered, Oh shit, I left my wallet under the bunk in the barracks. I could not turn the bus around so I made the decision to hitch hike back to the barracks at Cam Rhan, retrieve my wallet and hope I did not miss the flight to Dannang. Now I was scared. I was just a damn kid hitch hiking in the jungle with no weapon on my first day in country. I will always be grateful to a crusty old Sergeant that came along in a jeep and said, "where ya going sailor"? I told him my plight and he not only took me back to the barracks to retrieve my wallet but drove me back to the airport at a rate of speed that would rival that bus ride in the Philippines. Like so many others I met in Nam I never knew his name but I was a brother in need and he helped me. I arrived 10 minuets early and made my flight.
On our first patrol from Dannang each of us were sent out for one day with a different crew just to get used to the patrols. We were heading north up to the area of the Cua Viet River when suddenly I spotted a parachute. We went to where it was coming down immediately and by the time we got there a search and rescue plane and a chopper joined us. It was an Air force pilot forced to bail out of his F-100 due to mechanical problems. We plucked him from the water within minuets. He had hurt his back when he ejected but was more pissed than hurt. The chopper dropped down and harness and radioed down, "is the pilot ready for pickup'? The pilot grabbed the mike and said, "I have had enough flying for one day, I'm going back on a boat." We transferred the pilot to the boat that we were relieving and he made his way back to Dannang by sea. His squadron bought the crew a case of booze for picking him up. After that we were assigned to PCF 78 and we were on our own.
I now felt like I was part of this war even though I had not seen any action. That was to change. As a general rule Swift Boats did not get into a whole lot of combat. The patrols were rough in the monsoon rains and high seas and it was always a danger boarding and searching suspected enemy vessels. A young LTJG by the name of Bernique in Coastal Division 11 out of An Thoi felt that he was not getting enough action so he and another boat entered a canal which later became known as Bernique's Creek and caught the Vietcong by surprise. He killed several of them and turned in a report that he had done so. Bernique was sent to Saigon for a Court Marshall and Saigon sent him back with a Silver Star. From then on the duty of the Swift Boats would never be the same. I thought of John Wayne's remark to Kirk Douglas in the movie "In Harms Way" when their destroyer was attacked on Dec 7, 1941. He said, "well it looks like we got us a war. A gut busting mother loving navy war". It was not a Navy war for most of the troops in Vietnam but for Swift Boat sailors we were going in harms way now. I had not been up a river yet but I remember one of the boats had make an excursion up the Cua Dai river just south of Dannang at Hoi An. I dont remember for sure but I think it was the 22 boat. I remember seeing her tied to the dock the next day. She was full of bullet holes and my heart sank.
I wrote home more often than most of the guys did but when this came about I never told my parents or my gal back home about it. What they did not know would not hurt them I figured. I'm not sure that was the right decision but its the one I made at the time and if I had it to do over I would probably make the same choice. Some time in the fall of 68 a yeomen came to the dock and he said, "Hey Ski, I got good news for ya. You made the first increment and you have been a Petty Officer 2nd Class for 2 months now. I was now an E-5 equal to a Sergeant in the army. The job did not change for me but they pay was a little better.
The casualties were mounting in Coastal Division 11 in An Thoi and they were looking for crews to volunteer to go there. To a man we all voted yes. I guess that it was not long before volunteering was no longer an option. When they needed a crew, you were going. We were now going several hundred miles south to the Gulf Of Siam on the western side of Vietnam to raid the rivers and canals of the Cau Mau Peninsula. We were never trained for this; we learned as we went. The country was a stark difference from the rain forests and highlands of the north. A never-ending maze of canals and rivers awaited us not to mention Charlie (slang for Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese regular army) soldiers. Just before we left for An Thoi we had received the news that LTJG Harwood had been called back to Swift Boat duty and had one of legs shot off by a 50 caliber bullet in an ambush on the Be De river. We were all saddened by the news.
I was assigned to man the M-60 machine gun on the bow of the boat. I stood in the anchor locker called the peak tank. I heard later that most crews rotated in the peak tank. We did not. It was my permanent station. I dont remember exactly how many rounds were in a belt of 7.62 mm. M-60 ammo but I surmised it was not enough for me. I got myself two 50 cal. ammo tins and linked 3500 rounds together in each tub. One for the starboard front of the bow and one for the port aft. The M-60 feeds from the left side so if I had to fire from the other side I could flip the latch up, and switch belts to the other tub in a hurry. I had 7000 rounds of M-60 ammo for starters. An M-16 right behind me with 20 clips of 20 rounds each, an M-11 twelve gauge Remington Pump Shotgun with 00 buck shot, an M-79 grenade launcher and a 38 Smith & Wesson pistol strapped to my side for good measure. Law rockets were also available depending on the need. I was ready for the rivers. We were ready to take PCF 94 into action.
We had gotten is a few small firefights and the adrenaline was always flowing. You never knew what was around the next bend in the river. I could talk for days about those patrols and raids but I am going to move now to March 7, 1969. We were sent out with 2 other PCF's to pick up some Cambodian mercenaries that I understand the CIA was paying $80 a month to fight for us. I think if the VC had paid them $85 they would have fought for the VC but thats another story. They were better soldiers than the ARVN (South Vietnamese Government troops) and besides that they were all we had. There were no military bases where we made these raids. It was just us and the VC and sometimes the NVA.
I'm not sure of the number of the 3rd boat that went along that day but I know the second one was PCF 38. We did not have the 94 boat this day because it was damaged in some earlier action and was in for repairs. Re-aluminizing is what we used to call it. We used PCF 5 that day. When we left An Thoi for our trip south the regular crew of the 5 boat told us that it was the luckiest boat in the division. It had never been hit with anything but small arms. That was to change too. We entered the Bai Hap River. It's on the southwestern tip of Vietnam and its entrance is on the north side of a large bay. The Cua Lon River enters from the south side of the bay. We stopped in a village along the way and picked up some mercenaries. On some occasions we would carry UDT teams or Navy Seals for special operations but on this day we had 2 Green Berets along. Another crusty old Sergeant who I understand was on his 5th tour in Nam was on board the 5 boat with us and a young Green Beret LT. Was on board one of the other boats. They had a good working relationship also. They both knew the LT. was in charge but when they went ashore and the LT. made a decision that the Sergeant thought was wrong based upon his 5 tours in Nam. The LT. listened. We dropped the troops and the Green Berets off at various points during the day and they hunted Charlie as we waited for them.
Nothing much happened so we proceeded farther up the Bai Hap. I did not know exactly where we were going and when the boat made a hard starboard turn and we started heading for the bank, I thought we were going ashore again. That was not to be. My heart sank as I viewed a canal that did not look large enough to get a boat into. I knew we could never turn around in there once we went in so it was going be a one way shot to the Cua Lon. Its was called the Cai Nap Canal I found out later and was to change my life forever. The north end of it must have been a creek and the mangroves brushed the boat as we wound our way through it at about 1-Knot. I could feel my heart pounding in my toes as I wondered what was around the next bend. It seemed like an eternity that we wound through that creek until it opened up into a straight man-made canal that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see. We proceeded up the canal at idle speed. PCF 5 was the middle boat in the line of three. At a distance I could see what looked like a small village on the left bank of the canal. As we got closer to the straw huts we could see some animals and some fresh cooking fires but not a human being in site. We knew Charlie was there and he knew we were there. The one thing I learned even way back in training is that you dont sneak through the jungle with two General Motors 12V71 Diesel engines. Its sounded like a damn greyhound buss coming through there.
We got right next to the village and were going to proceed farther when all of a sudden an explosion went off on the starboard side close to the lead boat. There was a large open field on our starboard side with a tree line quite a ways back. The Viet Cong had shot a B-40 rocket and it slid in the mud and exploded on the bank just missing the boat. We turned the boats starboard and beached them and raked the area with all the firepower we had. Bogart was wounded in the melee but not seriously. He had taken a piece of shrapnel in the bicep of his arm. We think it was from one of the stupid Cambodians firing an M-79 round too close to the boat but we were never sure. We received no more enemy fire. We turned the 3 boats around and beached them on the other bank where the Village was. I say, "was" because when we left, the village was no longer there nor anything left alive in it. We wasted it and did not give a damn either.
We proceeded the rest of the way south on the Cai Nap canal to the Cua Lon and returned to the Coast Guard Cutter thats was waiting off shore to put us up for the night. I believe it was the Minitonka but can't be sure after 30 years. Somewhere along the way that day we had captured two suspected VC prisoners. Again my memory fails me as to where and how we captured them. I do however remember that one was a male in his 20's and the other was an old mamason that looked to be about 60 years old. Neither of them had any papers so we took them along for the ride.
We spent the night on the cutter. Before turning in for the night I decided with many others including some of the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter to watch the Green Berets interrogate our young VC prisoner. He did not seem too responsive to their questions so they gave him a little encouragement to talk. They hooked a blasting cap detonator to his ears, dumped a bucket of water on him for greater conductivity and shot what I remembered to be 60 volts and 2 1/2 amps directly through his head. His body shot up in the air and then shuddered and he went limp and fell to the deck each time they did this. As I look back on it now I am saddened by the fact that I had no feeling for him at the time. I guess I had taught myself how not to feel. With a casualty rate now over 80% in our unit I think it hurt too much to feel so we just numbed out. At the time it was just another event to me. As I look back at it now I am not proud of that but I am not ashamed of it either. Thats what war does to young men and until the leaders of this world learn to settle their differences in a peaceful manner, thats the way its going to be. The poor bastard just got caught in the middle. If he did not sympathize with the Viet Cong they would kill him and if he did, we would kill him. I try now to put my self in his shoes and wonder what I might have done to feed and protect my family. I never thought of that when I was 19 years old. My emotions were also tempered by the fact that if his comrades had captured me a much worse fate was in store.
Bogart had surgery on his arm to remove the shrapnel. When I saw him the next morning his arm was in a sling so I knew that he was not going with us that day. We received our orders for March 8, 1969. I'm not sure what the crews of the other two boats were thinking but I do know what our crew was thinking. Pardon my French but we were thinking, What kind of a damn REMF (slang for rear echelon Mother Fucker) made this decision. Our orders were to proceed up the Cai Nap canal and play a Psyops (thats an acronym for Psychological Warfare) tape, otherwise know as propaganda or just plain bullshit. We were going to tell Charlie what good guys we were and come over to our side. I wonder if the dipshit that cut those orders had any idea of what we left behind in that canal the day before.
As we packed up to go we all had a bad feeling about this one. I remember Bogart hanging over the rail of the Coast guard cutter knowing that he was not going with us and I think he felt bad about that. We did not go out without an engineman so we took a guy with us that I understood had three days to go before he went home to "The World" as we called the U.S.A. I had never met him before, he was a tall lanky young man with a friendly smile and I remember his name was Poole. I never learned his first name. He knew his job well and fit right in with our crew. We all tried to make him feel welcome. His job was to man the Honeywell Grenade launcher on the back deck. It was called a Honeywell because it resembled a Honeywell movie camera. A small box with a short barrel sticking out of it and a crank on the side. When you turned the crank, it would spit out 40-mm grenades that were in a canvas belt. You could get 32 of them off before the first one hit the ground. A great little weapon for close in fighting.
As we loaded the boats up with all the ammo we could possible get on board I remember the silence. No one said a word. The crew of the cutter was watching us also and they knew better than to break the silence. It's a feeling that only men who are about to go into combat have ever experienced. There were glancing looks at each other for we all knew that every time we went out that some of us might not come back. Nothing had to be said, we all understood that. It was after all, "Our Job".
The cutter was to be replaced on station that evening by and LST so we had to take our prisoners with us. We chained the young male to the back deck of our boat and the old momason was left unchained on the back deck. Together LT. Salinas, Potter, Bogart, Coates, Poole and my self left the Cutter and headed for War. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, there was a beautiful young girl riding with us that day for her picture was always in my wallet and the thought of her was always in my mind. Her name was Donna May Downing.
This time we were to enter the Cai Nap canal from the south so we made our way up the Cua Lon River at about 1700 hrs. Along the way we spotted a VC flag flying from a brick kiln that was on the banks of the Cua Lon. I understood that these kilns were built by the French sometime in the years they occupied Vietnam. They looked just like in igloo but were made of brick. This usually meant a booby trap or a command-detonated mine was waiting for any stupid troops that thought the flag might make a good souvenir. The crew of PCF 4 found that out the hard way on 14 February 1966. Two were wounded but survived. The other 4 have their names on the wall in Washington.
We stooped in the middle of the river and a well-placed 81MM trigger fired mortar round by BM3 Coats took care or the flag and the bunker. I remember looking aft from my position on the bow and Poole was looking at me with that big country boy smile on his face. It would be the last time I saw him smile. We beached the boat at that time and the Sergeant and the LT. went ashore and blew the rest of the kilns with grenades. I dont think there were any VC in them but if there were, all the better. After all, body count was the "Name Of The Game" in Vietnam.
It was getting late now and this little side excursion was not in the plans so we decide to get moving to the Cai Nap. We never made it. PCF 5 was the middle boat in this procession of three. I remember scanning back and forth across the bow, looking for any movement. A twig or a leaf or anything that did not look quite right would get my attention and bring a response from my machine gun. I just happened to be looking straight ahead when an explosion went off on the starboard side of the lead boat. Then all hell broke loose. All three PCF's were taking heavy enemy fire from both banks of the canal. Rockets, recoilless rifles small arms and 50-caliber machine gun fire continued to rain down on us. We kept moving at full speed (about 30 knots) and the enemy fire kept coming. We gave them everything we had and returned the fire with no holds barred. I remember Whalen shooting the twin fifty's right on top of me and it was not long before I lost my hearing. Each time one of those 50's goes out and you are in front and below it you think your head is going to explode from the noise they make. We endured this for 11 minutes at 30 knots. Thats a lot of ground covered at that speed (about 6 kilometers). It was later estimated that a large enemy force was laying in ambush for us. No shit. I bet the same REMF that planed this operation came up with that one. The mangroves are thick along the Cua Lon and the enemy was well hidden. I just fired across the bank and hoped I hit something or someone. It did no good to crouch down, as there was no armor on a Swift Boat. Just 1/4-inch aluminum was all that stood between an enemy bullet and us. I remember seeing one enemy soldier stand up and fire a recoilless round. I immediately swung my machine gun at him and fired. He went down but he got his shot off. You can actually see those things coming at you. Not in any great detail but kind of a blur coming your way at a high rate of speed. It dipped just before it got to the boat, hit the water and ricocheted over top of us. At least thats the way it appeared to me at the time. It was all happening so fast. Something big, either a recoilless or a B-40 rocket came right over my head on about a 45-degree angle from the starboard side. It went straight through the center windshield and passed between Potter who was driving and LT. Salinas who was standing to his left and went out the door. It never exploded. I guess Charlie shot it from too close and the centrifugal pin did not have time to arm it. Potter was blown out of the driver seat by the force of the glass that came at him from the windshield but recovered in time to keep the boat from going aground. He had to look through the hole that the round left in the windshield to steer the boat and was hampered by the blood that was running down his face from the glass that was imbedded in it.
As the battle waged on another large round of some sort hit the starboard side. It went through the freezer, exited to the refrigerator, came out through the front door of the refrigerator and hit the fire extinguisher in the cabin. Again this one did not explode either but the next morning's breakfast was in disarray.
By this time my M-60 was getting hot. I started to notice as the tracers came out of my barrel they were no longer going in a straight line. Then it happened. The extractor on the end of the bolt malfunctioned and it did not pull the spent round out and another round tried to go in. The gun jammed. I threw up the top and removed the belt and banged the stock of my M-60 on the deck until both rounds came out. I put the belt back in and started firing again. I was able to get of a few hundred more rounds and then it happened again. I had to keep repeating this process for some time until finally the tracers coming out looked more like a roman candle shooting balls of fire in a curved arc in every direction. I realized then that I had burned up the barrel of my M-60 so I grabbed my M-16 and started to fire away with that. I remember thinking it was like a bebe gun compared to the M-60 but at least it was shooting straight. I knew that 400 rounds were not going to last me long so I saved some and started firing 40mm grenades with my M-79.
Whalen continued to fire his twin 50's from above the pilothouse. On the back deck Coates was firing away with his single 50. The hot shells were coming out and soon quite a pile of them built up around the chained Vietcong on the back deck. They burned the hell out of his legs. Poole was pumping grenades out of his Honeywell so fast that he soon ran out. The old momason on the back deck saw this and ran down in the cabin. I guess it didn't matter to her who was who at that time. She just wanted to see her family again I guess so she rummaged around in the cabin, found some rounds for Poole, carried them up and started feeding him the belts. If she was going to die I guess she wanted to have something to say about it too.
Once again another recoilless round hit the boat. It did not explode either but we were not so lucky this time. It hit right at the starboard aft cabin and a large piece of the cabin went flying in all directions. Poole was hit just below the left eye by a large piece of shrapnel and it took off a large piece of his face. Coates said he saw Poole get hit and as Poole was about to fall over the side, Coats left his gun and grabbed him by the flack jacket and pulled him back on board. As Poole was dropping to the deck a VC bullet found its mark in his leg. He was bleeding profusely. Coates went back to his gun and continued firing. The Sergeant who had been on the back deck also firing his M-16 put his gun down and straddled Poole. He bandaged his face first then unchained the VC prisoner, and administered an IV of plasma to Poole. He had the VC prisoner stand up on the back deck and hold the plasma bottle up right in the middle of all the fighting. I later heard that the Sarge received the Navy Commendation with Bronze V for his actions that day. I bet in years to follow that the medal was a topic of discussion around his teammates.
After what seemed like hours, the shooting stooped. LT. Salinas stuck his head out the door and looked at me. He said, "are you hit". I could not really hear him because I think my ears drums were broken but I knew what he said. I said "no, is everybody ok"? His reply was "no, get ready to go ashore the 38 is sinking." Again I could feel my heart pounding in my feet once more. I had now learned the difference between Fear and Terror. Fear is when you step into the street and almost get run over by a car. Your heart races the adrenaline pumps but as the car misses you and goes by you return to normal. Terror is when you have had the fear for 10 minuets and you know it may get worse soon. My body was alive with Adrienne
We were not far from the ambush site and we had to beach the boats. Were the Vietcong waiting for us there also? Did they know they hit us bad and would double time it to our position and finish us off? By now it was getting dark and it made things even more confusing. As we beached the boats I jumped down in the mud and took up a defensive position with my M-16 and M-79. Not that that would have done any good but I did not know what else to do. I was now performing my job on instinct for I learned that if you take time in combat to think about your actions, you will probably die.
Then the strangest thing happened. I looked back and there was LT. Salinas hanging over the side near the bow, cleaning out his underwear. I dont mean to judge him in any way shape or form but looking back on it I figure one of two things must have happened. He either got some bad Chile in the wardroom of the Cutter for lunch that day or he shit his pants on the spot when that recoilless round went between him and Potter and out the door. I will leave it for others to judge which it was.
I think just a few minutes passed and we did not receive any fire so I got back aboard. The Sarge said "Hey Ski, come here I need a shoelace". I removed the lace from my right boot and that is when I saw Poole for the first time since he was hit. His leg was bleeding profusely and my shoelace was used as a tourniquet. The Sarge had given Poole some morphine by now and he was not crying out in pain. His face was bandaged and only his right eye was showing. It just had a blank stare on it. Some of the Mercenaries were hit also but I really did not care about them at the time. Some were crying out in agony from their wounds but it was my brothers that were my main concern now. The situation stabilized on the 5 boat so I went over to one of the other boats to see if I could help. I think it was the 38 boat again but I can't be sure, it may have been the other one. A large caliber bullet, probably a 50 had come through the twin 50 gun tub and when it exited it took the heal of the gunners foot with it. I dont know who he was but I do know he was a brave sailor. He remained at his position and kept firing until he was pulled out of the tub. As he lay on the floor of the pilothouse he was given morphine also and an IV of plasma. I dont think I was of much help there but I tried.
The call had been put out for medivac choppers and they were on their way. There were more wounded but I dont remember how many or on which boats, Not all needed medivaced. If they were able to fight they were going back with us. An air strike was called in to hit the position of the ambush because we had to go back out the same way we came in. I now went back to the 5 boat and decided to knock the front windshield out for it was shattered with a hole right in the middle where that recoilless had came through. We had a long metal pole with a large steel weight on it. This was used for cleaning the Mortar and would do nicely to knock out the windshield. When I hit it with the first blow I thought it would break in pieces and I would soon have it out. Not only did not it budge, I slipped on all the shells that were on the bow and fell on my ass. I knew I could never get it out with that footing so Coates got the broom and started to sweep the spent shells over the side. I was amazed at how many of them there were. I had put out thousands of rounds before my M-60 gave out on me. I hit the windshield again and again it did not move. I was shocked by its strength. I continued to beat on it with that ram until it finally started to give way. It never did break in pieces but warped and went into the pilothouse all in one piece. By the time I got it out I was completely out of breath, on my knees, and gasping for air. I went in the pilothouse and retrieved the windshield and threw it over the side. Everyone on board was busy doing something either to comfort the wounded and prepare them for evacuation or patching the holes in the boats with damage control plugs. (Assorted size wooden cones and sludge hammer to pound them in with). They were crude but effective to repair holes in aluminum.
Just then the leader of the air strike was calling out for us on the radio. LT. Salinas was busy so I answered the call. The flight leader told me that he was sorry but "something more urgent had come up and he would not be able to help us out". I still remember my response to that, I said, "what the fuck is it, the third world war." I knew then that if we were going to make it out alive we were going to do it on our own.
My mind was racing and my heart was still pounding and for a moment my thoughts now turned toward home for I was pretty sure I would not live through the night. Who would tell Donna, I wondered? A minister, maybe my father, perhaps a strange man in a military uniform would drive to her home and tell her that the boy she loved had died that night. Another explosion went off near by and I remember making a decision that I wanted to live. I got back to the task at hand. Just then we heard the unmistakable sound of the rotor blades of the Huey's, or slicks as they were called. Its a sound that anyone who ever served in Nam can never forget.
We had Poole on a stretcher now and I took the left front. As we carried all the wounded men some distance to the waiting choppers. I heard the pilots screaming, "come on, come on, come on. Get em on board"! I remember being a little pissed at the time. What the hell did they think we were doing out there, having a picnic? I guess I needed to walk in their shoes to understand. They were sitting ducks to the Viet Cong when they were waiting for us to load our wounded and just wanted to get out fast. Many more men would have their names on the wall if it were not for their bravery and courage under fire. We loaded Poole on the chopper and I put my hand out. He raised his and we clenched fists. I said, "hang in there buddy". That was the last time I ever saw him. I know he survived because some years later I looked for his name on the wall. I was relieved when I did not find it.
If my memory serves me right, out of the 18 crewmembers of the 3 boats, 10 were wounded. Those of us that were still able to climbed back aboard the boats and headed back to the Gulf Of Siam. It was so dark that I could not even make out the riverbank. Potter was steering by radar. I was not sure how far we had to go to get back to the ambush site but once again, my heart was racing expecting the worst. By now I was sure we must have reached the ambush zone. No enemy fire. I felt like I had a hold of a live wire and could not let go. My whole body was tingling. Then I saw it, could it be? Yes, it was the faint silhouette of the bay where the Cua Lon emptied into the ocean. Just a few more minuets and we will be clear of land. When I knew for sure that we were in the ocean my fear was replaced by and eerie sound of silence and awesome sense of survival. I had survived one more day in Nam. With the amount of firepower put out by the 3 Swift Boats we must have hit Charlie pretty hard. Those that survived our onslaught must have anticipated an air strike and left the area.
When we arrived back at the LST that night, (actually I think it was now early morning March 9th), Bogart and some crewmembers of the LST were waiting for us. They had listened to our radio messages and knew that we were not all coming back. They tied our boats up and secured them for the night. Most of us went to the mess hall and drank coffee. Still, not a word was said. We were all immersed in our own thoughts of the events that transpired that night. Then the silence was broken. I remember one of the crewmembers from the other boats just sitting and staring in the distance while drinking his coffee. Another swift boat sailor who was not with us that night said to him, "was it bad"? He never looked at the man that asked the question but he did reply, "yes". Those were the only words I remember being spoken in the galley that night. I went and climbed in my rack to try to get some sleep. After about 2 hours the Sergeant suddenly awakened me. He said, "Come on Ski, we are going back." I still remember my reply to him. I said, "maybe you and John Wayne are going back. I'm staying here". He said, "no, were going back to An Thoi." The 5 boat was too badly damaged to continue operations.
When we got back to the base we all got some much-needed sleep. The next evening, Gary Erlandson and me (Gary had been transferred from the fleet back to Swift Boat duty) did what we usually did on our nights off. They showed a movie every night on the back deck of the U.S.S. Krishna; (the floating barracks ship that was our home in An Thoi Harbor). We each got a couple of Cokes, dumped half of each can over the side and filled them back up with Suntori rice whiskey that we had managed to buy from a bar in Ha Tien. We watched the movie, got drunk and talked about old times on H Street in Coronado. I think they knew what we were doing but as long as we did not make it too obvious or make a scene they were willing to over look it. What were they going to do about it anyway, send us to Nam? I distinctly remember the casualty rate being much lower in the brig than it was in the rivers.
More patrols and raids followed in the next month. I noticed a change in Gary. Every time we went out I was scared. Not Gary or at least he did not show it. He seemed to thrive on firefights and could not wait to get in the next one. By now I had had my fill of war. I realized some time before that we were asked to fight a war, where victory was unattainable and defeat was unacceptable and no one right up to the president had a plan to win it. How many more of us would have to die before we left this god-forsaken place?
Our orders were cut for another patrol. This time it was to be up the Rach Giang River. We entered this river from the city of Ha Tien and it ran right along the Cambodian border. A favorite ambush site for Charlie. The events of that raid are foggy to me now but I know that we all came back with no casualties. Bogart's arm had healed and he was back with our crew. We decided to take a little R&R on our own. I was always happy that Lt. Salinas approved this mission. I knew an airline stewardess back in the states and she had sent me a bunch of cans of the drinks they used to serve on airliners. We consumed a few of them and decided that water skiing might be a swell idea. I do not remember exactly where we got the skis but we had a large rope with a big Philips head screwdriver tied to it for a handle. We also thought it might be prudent to station Bogart on the fantail with an M16 to shoot the sharks when we fell of the ski's. I would not even be telling you this if I did not have this picture to prove it. It may not be the dumbest damn thing we did in Nam but it was definitely in the top three. The picture is signed by Senator John Kerry who was a LTJG in our unit.
We were back at the Krishna stowing our gear and ammo. LT. Salinas had left the boat but returned in about 10 minuets. I always thought that it was rather cold the way he gave me the news. He said, "here ski, this is for you". He handed me a small piece of paper and walked away. It didn't say much on it but what it said dropped me to my knees. I remember it verbatim. "TO: RD2 Joseph E. Muharsky. FROM: The American Red Cross. "Your father has had a cerebral hemorrhage, could expire any moment. Your presence is requested at home. Make arrangements for emergency leave ASAP." I was stunned. My dad was only 48 years old.
I was informed that the mail plane would be coming in soon and arrangements were made for me to leave within the hour. I climbed on top of a mail sack on a C-47 and was headed to Saigon. I was given priority status for the next flight to San Francisco. I had about an hour wait. My thoughts turned to the man I loved so much, my dad. Had he died and they just didn't want to tell me? Would he "expire" before I got home? My mind was racing and my heart was pounding once more. A raid in the Cua Lon would have been much easier for me to bear than this. I had about an hour before the flight left so I tried to get some rest on a bench outside the airport. It was not long before rockets started going off about a kilometer away. Everyone started running for shelter except me. I wondered what the hell was their problem. That shit was over there, not here. I guess I was used to explosions going off a lot closer than that in my war. It didn't concern me.
We landed at San Francisco International Airport and I had a short amount of time before my flight to Cleveland. The first thing I did was call home. When I heard my mom's voice we both started to cry. She did not even know I was on my way home. She said" Dads ok, when are you going to be here." I told her I would see her in 3 hours.
I went to the bar to have a drink. There was a band playing and people dancing. For me I might as well been on another planet. Are these people for real I wondered, Dont they know what is going on in the world. My brothers are dying and you are dancing. Don't you give a damn you selfish bastards. Two Shore Patrol proudly wearing there Geedunk ribbon's, (slang for the National Defense Ribbon that was issued to all armed forces personnel on induction) walked up to me and feeling very important they told me to button the sleeves on my dress blues. I had rolled the cuff's back. The rage that built inside of me was only tempered by the knowledge that if I did what I felt inside (leave them both beaten and bloody and the floor of that bar) I may never see my father alive again. I swallowed my pride, buttoned my sleeves and turned away from them before I did something that I would regret. I couldn't help but think though, you lousy bastards, you dont have a clue. It would be some years latter when Dr. John Wilson, head of Psychology at Cleveland State University, explained my feelings to me. He had an acronym for it too. He said it was called PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
As I walked down the steps of the plane I caught site of my mom. Standing right next to her was the same beautiful young girl that had seen me off to war. She hugged me with a tear in her eye and said, "I love you". I dont' think either one of us knew it that day but the young boy she said goodbye to twice on his way to war was not the same one that walked off that plane that day. Her name was Donna May Downing.
A total of 19 hours had passed since I left An Thoi. We drove straight from the airport to the hospital. My mom told me the score on the way. There had been no permanent damage yet from the bleeding in dad's head. That was the good news. The bad news was that he would need surgery to repair the artery that had ruptured. When I last saw my dad he was a 47-year-old vibrant active man in the prime of his life. When I entered the intensive care unit a strange silence came over the ward. I wondered why. I guess my dad was still as proud of his twin boys as the day they were born and had told the nurses of his sons. When I saw him he was flat on his back with his head in a vice to hold it completely still until his surgery. When dad saw me he said something that I will never forget. It explained the silence in the ward. He said, "well son, I got you out of the jungle". I think the other patients were wondering why the nurses were crying. Bringing his son home from war was much more important to him than his own life.
My brother Walt was home on emergency leave from Ft. Rutger Alabama. He had just finished flight school and was to be the honor graduate for that class in fixed wing aircraft. I had always wanted to fly and had planed on going to flight school when my duty in Vietnam was through. Not this day though. When I returned from the hospital Walt and I went and finished the job my dad had started the day he got sick. We were not real sure what we were doing but we got it done.
There were not many places to spend money where I was in Vietnam so I came home with $2000 dollars in back pay in my pocket. That was quite a bit of money in 1969. The thought of doing anything else with it other that what I did never even occurred to me. I did not think I was doing anything special and still dont to this day. I handed it to my mom and said, "here mom, we are going to need this. Pay the bills with it". That's what families are for isn't it? We were a close knit family. Walt had to go back to Ft. Rutger and like it or not, one day after a combat patrol I was now the manager of State Heating and Air Conditioning Company and temporarily the sole "bread winner" for our family. Teresa was still in high school.
The next day we were going to start a new installation of a furnace and air conditioner. The whole crew of my dad's employees were there that morning plus my cousin Ray from Pennsylvania. I will be forever grateful to Ray for what he did. He took two weeks vacation to come to Ohio and help me with the family business. Ray had worked for my dad some years ago and had knowledge of the business that I did not. I'm not sure I could have done it without him. There was also Jack Bittner, who owns his own business today, and Roger Hupp. I had never met Roger before. My dad had hired him while I was in Nam. I knew Jack well for he had started working for my dad when I was still in Jr. High School. As we sat at my mom's kitchen table that morning I instructed Ray and Roger to go to the job site and start working and Jack to go to Cleveland and pick up some material. Jack and Ray went outside and I overheard Jack pitching a bitch. He said to Ray, "who the hell does he think he is? He is back one day and already he thinks he is the boss." I felt I had to act now so I went outside and confronted Jack. I said, "look Jack. I didn't ask for any of this shit but its here and I have to deal with it the best I can. Only one of us is going to be the boss and its not going to be you. I'm sorry but you have only 2 choices Jack. You can either go to Cleveland and get the material or you can take your tools and go home and I will hire someone else". He was pissed but he did not say a word. He got in the truck and went to Cleveland. Not a word was ever said about that incident again and Jack is still my good friend to this day.
It was lunchtime now. Jack, Roger and I went to McDonalds to get something to eat. Ray remained on the job. I ordered my food and asked for a large Coke with no ice. It always pissed me off when I got a coke from McDonalds and there was more ice in it than there was coke. This had never happened to me before and has never happened sense. Some high school kid with an IQ of a Mongoloid mosquito was waiting on me. When he gave me my Coke, it was only half full. I said, "ya wanna fill that up boy"? He said, "no, thats how much ice is supposed to be in there and thats all your going to get". Wrong answer, I thought to myself. I reached over the counter and grabbed him by his shirt collars, drug him across the counter pinned him to the floor with my forearm across his throat and commenced to tell him the facts of life. I picked him up and threw him back across the counter. People were running out the doors including Jack and Roger. They must have thought I was nuts. Looking back on that episode I guess I was lucky I did not get arrested for assault. We took our food and left. P.S. I did get a full coke.
Some years latter I was speaking to a group of Dr. Wilson's graduate students in psychology at Cleveland State University. I told them about this incident. Dr. Wilson told them that he wanted them to understand something. He told them that, "For me that was a moral victory. He was surprised I did not kill the little shit."
I remember one more incident like that some weeks later. I was making a right hand turn at an intersection. I had the right-of-way. Five teenagers made a left turn right in front of me, cut me off and gave me the finger as they proceeded through the intersection. I followed them to a stop sign and they couldn't go because of traffic. I reached across the seat for my tire iron that had become standard gear on the front seat of my truck now (I never left home without it) and ran to their car. I reached through the driver's window, grabbed the driver by the throat and told him, "If you stick that finger out at me again, I'll break it off, you little asshole"! They were scared to death. All of a sudden they were calling me "Sir" with the words, "I'm sorry" being repeated over and over. By now I had reached the point when someone called me "Sir" the phrase, "You're making a scene" usually followed. I bet it was a long time before they gave someone the finger again. Looking back on that incident I can't believe I was that stupid. I was always able to handle myself pretty good in a one-on-one fight but I do remember fighting two guys once in my life when I was a teenager and they beat the crap out of me. I can't imagine what 5 would have done to me if I hadn't scared the shit out of them. They probably could have killed me.
The feelings that provoked that incident have never left me to this day but age and wisdom have tempered my reactions to them. Most of the Vietnam Veterans I have met share one thing. We all have a clear-cut idea of what is right and wrong. There is not much gray area and we are all very quick to point out what we perceive as an injustice. I don't know if that is good or bad but thats the way it is.
My father had his surgery and it was successful but he would be unable to return to work for some time. My time was nearing where my leave would be up and I would have to return to war.
I knew I had another decision to make. State Heating Company was going smoothly now and the family was holding its own financially. We weren't getting ahead but we weren't going backward either. I was not taking any paychecks though. I took a small sum of money for clothes and booze. My nights were usually spent at the bar. I was not getting drunk but I was consuming far too much alcohol. If I went back to Nam our family would have to go on assistance. I applied to the Navy for a "Hardship Discharge" They had a Navy Office in Cleveland and the paper work was handled through there. An old Chief Petty Officer handled my case and I will forever be grateful to him also. He said that based upon the circumstances of my family's situation. The fact that my service record was as clean as a whistle and the fact that I had volunteered for duty in Vietnam three times that he thought I had a good chance. I felt bad about leaving the crew of the 94 boat but I found out many years latter that they all made it back with all there limbs still attached to their bodies.
My 30 days was up but word was sent to the Naval office in Cleveland that I was to remain home until a decision was made. No one asked me about what it was like for me in the war including Donna. I think they all sensed something inside of me that was not to be shared with them at this time. About forty days had passed and one day there was a letter for me from the Department of the Navy. I dreaded opening it for fear I was going back to Nam soon. I opened it and read it. It was not the news I was waiting for. It said, "The Department of the Navy is proud to inform you that you have been awarded the Navy Achievement Medal with bronze "V" for your actions on March 8, 1969. Please make arrangements with the Naval Office in Cleveland to receive your Medal in a formal ceremony. I was shocked by what it said. My dad was home now and he said, "what is it son" I couldn't speak for some reason so I just handed it to my dad. He read it and did not say a word either. He just hugged me and shed a few tears.
I never really thought I did anything special that night to receive that medal. It's meaning was further cheapened for me when about 20 years latter I met a young sailor who had been in the Navy for about a year. He received the same medal (minus the bronze "V") for doing a good job marching in a parade.
I went to the Navy Office to receive my award. They had the whole office in their Dress Whites standing at attention and a Captain with a microphone called me forward. This is what he read. I will type it just as it appears in my citation.
UNITED STATES NAVAL FORCES
The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in presenting the
Navy Achievement Medal to
JOSEPH E. MUHARSKY
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS
UNITED STATES NAVY
For service set forth in the following
"For professional achievement while engaged in armed conflict against
the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist aggressors in the Republic of
Vietnam. On 8 March 1969, Petty Officer MUHARSKY, serving as forward
light machine gunner aboard Inshore Patrol Craft 5, was proceeding to
the Cai Nap canal to conduct a psychological warfare broadcast during
Operation SEA LORDS. His boat was in company with two other Inshore Patrol
Craft with Mobile Strike Force troops embarked. Suddenly heavy enemy
Fire was received from both banks of the canal. All enemy weapons were
Silenced after ten minuets of the withering volume and deadly accuracy
Of fire returned by the Inshore Patrol Craft. Petty Officer MUHARSKY'S
effective employment of his M-60 machine gun was one of the key reasons
the three Inshore Patrol Craft and the Mobile Strike Force were able to
suppress the enemy fire while hampered by severe damage. Petty Officer
MUHARSKY'S courage under fire, professional ability and loyal devotion
To duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
Petty Officer MUHARSKY is authorized to wear the Combat "V".
For the Secretary of the Navy
E. R. ZUMWALT
Vice Admiral, U. S. Navy
Commander U. S. Naval Forces, Vietnam
As the Captain was reading this, my mind turned to my days as a child that I had mentioned earlier. Remember, I imagined a general pinning a medal on my chest. Somehow it just wasn't the same. There was a lot of extra baggage this time that I never thought about as a child. Poole was probably facing reconstructive surgery on his face if he was still alive and repairs to his leg if he kept it. (I did not know at that time that he had lived). The gunners mate of the PCF 38 was going to have to learn to walk without a heel on one of his feet and countless others, including myself, would never be the same. When we left that battle that night, Mom didn't have supper ready.
When the Captain was done, he said, "do you have anything to say son"? My reply was, "you got the wrong guy buddy, I did not do that". He was pissed but he tried not to show it. He patted me on the back and said, well come on in my office and we will talk about it. I went to his office and he said, "What's the problem"? I said, "Who the hell wrote that shit. First of all we never made it to the Cai Nap canal, they hit us in the Cau Lon. What's this crap about "silencing all enemy fire in ten minuets"? I guess in essence that was true, because we were too far away to hear it. I surmised that the same asshole who had cut our orders on March 8, 1969 must have written that citation. Once again I guess I was making a scene.
There was a beautiful young girl standing beside me that day when the captain pinned the medal on my chest. In retrospect, I should have had him pin it on her for I know now that it was her love for me that saw me through the difficult days. She had thought that I was patrolling the coast so the reading must of shocked her but she did not say a word about it on the way home and neither did I. Her name was Donna May Downing.
By now my days were filled with work, Installing Furnaces and Air conditioners. Word had come from the Navy that my discharge was accepted and I was now a civilian. My days were filled with work from 8 until 5 every day with emergency repairs at all hours of the night. I slept from five until about ten each evening and then went to a bar to immerse my mind and my body in booze. I would return home in time for work the next morning and repeat the process the next evening. Donna and I grew farther apart. I could not talk and she did not ask. Soon I was only seeing her about once a week. I think my mom and dad were worried about my drinking but did not know how to stop me. Then one day in Jan of 1979 Dad said, "Hey son, why dont you build a house." My dad and Derby had built 25 houses in their spare time to make money for the family and had built the one we were living in now. The expertise was there and I did not know it at the time but my mom told me many years later that Dad saw that as a way to get me out of the bars. By now Donna and I had drifted so far apart that she was dating other guys and I was busy designing my home. Here I was, building a home and I did not even own a car, I had no wife, no kids and no debt. I never realized it at the time but it was the best move I ever made in my life. I think what I came up with shocked my dad but we set out to do it anyway. A 3000 square foot 4 level home with open beam ceilings; an open balcony all paneled with rough cut mahogany. 13 rooms total with a 400-gallon bathtub complete with stairway leading into the tub. The house never had a woman's touch when I drew the plans. A factor that I was to regret latter.
The plans were complete, the money was in place, (thanks to my Mom and Dad) and we broke ground on May 7, 1970. Within a week the foundation was complete and we were ready to start putting up walls. For eleven days, my Mom and Dad, Uncle Derby, Uncle Anton, Uncle Mike, Cousin Ray (again he had taken a vacation to work) and myself went to work on my home. Ray and I worked every day from sunrise until we dropped usually about 1:00 AM the next morning. We had strung lights across the trees so we could see at night. At the end of 11 days we were finishing up the shingles. The frame was complete.
Sometime that winter of 1970 Donna and I had parted ways. I dont even remember how it happened but it happened. To this day I blame myself.
About a month earlier my best friend, Jack Miller (also a Vietnam Veteran) had brought his girl to meet me. Her name was Chris. It was when I was drawing the plans for my home on my mom's kitchen table. They stayed for about an hour and left. She was a beautiful gal but then again thats all jack ever dated. She seemed to be fascinated by me and the fact that I was building a home even though I was only 21 years old.
The next evening I was working on the plans again when I heard a knock on the door. It was Chris. She said, "Jack left his pen here and he asked me if I would stop and get it." It took her three hours to retrieve the pen. I sensed she wanted something more from me than Jack's pen. We said goodbye and the next time I saw her she had stopped at my home that was being built. I had the foundation in and the sub floor on the living room, kitchen and dining room. I asked her if she was busy that evening and she said, "no". I asked her to dinner and we went to Smith's Restaurant in Euclid Ohio.
Jack and I used to party and drink a lot after Nam. We always had an understanding between us that each other's girlfriends were "Fair Game" so to speak. He asked me on several occasions if he could ask Donna for a date. I said, "what the hell ya asking me for ask Donna". I dont think Jack ever asked Donna for a date but I knew even if he did, she would have said no.
Three days after dinner with Chris, I asked her if she would be my wife. She said Yes. Chris said, "how we going to tell Jack'? I said, "leave that to me. About a week later Jack came out to my home. The second floor was on by now and Jack was standing looking out the window. We made small talk for a while and then I said, "Hey Jack, Ya coming to my wedding"? He said, "No shit, who ya going to marry"? I said, "Chris" He sounded just like Porky Pig. He was trying to say something and the only thing that would come out was "abdaabadaabada". I felt a little sorry for him but not that sorry. I did not have to live with him for the rest of my life. He got on his motor cycle and left and I never saw him again.
Chris and I were married on Aug 22, 1970. We worked together to finish our home. It took us about two years although we moved into it when there were still just stud walls up. We did not even have the water in yet. We had to go to the neighbors to take a crap.
Life was good and we decided to wait before we had children. On July 18, 1974 she gave us a son, Joe Allen Muharsky. I never liked Joseph so I named him Joe. He was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. When I held him in my arms for the first time he was only 5-lbs. 6 oz. I remember he looked at me and sneezed all over me. Chris and I decide we wanted a son and a daughter.
It was now Christmas Eve 1976. Chris was now 7 months along with our second child. We packed the car and did as I had always done on Christmas Eve. We went to my mom and Dad's for a wonderful evening of dinner and opening gifts. My dad was in good health and he was a proud Grandpa now to our son Joe and my twin brothers two boys, Wally and Jeff. We had a wonderful time and I remember my dad saying "he never felt better in his life". The evening was over. I packed my little family in the car and we went home to get ready for Santa Clause the next morning. Chris and I went to Joe Allan's room and said, "Wake up son, Santa Clause was here. He raced to the tree and started to open his presents. Then the phone rang. It was Derby's wife. I answered it, "Merry Christmas". She said, Joey you better come quick, something happened to your dad." I raced to his home at a high rate of speed. When I arrived there the police had already taken him to the hospital. (There was no EMS in those days).
Our family had started the New Year with a funeral. They had to open two rooms for my dad at the funeral home and keep them open for two days. I was not the only one who knew what a wonderful man he was. I held my mother's hand on the way to the cemetery. The procession of cars was over a mile long. After the service was over I went home in the car with mom. I said, "I love you dad" and left to start a new chapter in my life. I had been strong through the whole ordeal but that night when I rested my head on the pillow, I broke down and cried. I never felt so alone in my life. I didnt' know it then but I was to have that feeling again many years later.
On February 19 1977 our second child arrived, Paul Anthony Muharsky, 7-lbs. 15 oz. Life was good. When I held him in my arms for the first time my thoughts turned to dad and how proud he would have been to have a fourth Grandson.
Chris and I loved our boys so much and prospered as a family. My dad had started in the coal mines of PA at 14 years old and worked hard his whole life so his children would have something better than he did. He succeeded.
There was only one thing missing from our lives now, a daughter. On October 24, 1978 Chris gave birth to our third child, Scott Michael Muharsky. The best laid plans, Huh. Now I had my three sons. We did everything together. We were a family. There were many medical problems involved though. In a span of 16 months between Chris and our sons there were 22 admissions to a hospital and 6 surgeries.
I often wonder if my sons illnesses where somehow related to "Agent Orange" That was a dioxin based chemical defoliant that the U.S. Government had sprayed on the jungles of S. E. Asia to kill all the vegetation. The thinking being that if Charlie did not have the jungle to hide in he couldn't ambush us from a close distance. A tragic story came out of this for me. Remember who signed the medal that was presented to me, Admiral Zumwalt. He was the Commander of Naval forces in Vietnam. His son Elmo Zumwalt Jr. was also a Swift Boat Commander in Coastal Division 11. Due to the high casualty rate that was now being incurred by the Swift Boats, the Admiral ordered Agent Orange sprayed on the riverbanks so Charlie could not attack us from close range. His son Elmo Jr. survived Vietnam only to succumb to four different types of cancer. Elmo Jr. got all the cancers at the same time. There was a book written about this and later a television movie was made It was called, "My Father My Son."
I still had that little day cruiser that Donna and I used to go out in many years before. It now became the family boat. We named her "Eagle" and she gave us many hours of fun but the boys were getting bigger and we were quickly outgrowing it. My good friend Jim Yager owned a marina. We did not have much money back then but we were sure having fun. I spotted a 20-foot Rennil day cruiser sitting on his lot. It had been there for some time. It was on a trailer but there was no cover on it. The whole interior was rotten to the point where trees were actually growing out of what was left of the seats but I started the motor and she seemed to be in good mechanical shape. I purchased her in December of 1983. In the spring of 1984 I gutted her. There was nothing left but the hull. There was enough of the seats left where I could use the wood for a pattern. I built new seats, had them upholstered and bought a canvas top for her. The little family now had a good boat, or so I thought. She looked like a million bucks; the only problem was she ran like 100 piasters, About $1.00 in South Vietnamese money. If you look up "Piece Of Shit" in the dictionary, your will see a picture of that boat. I would like to say we enjoyed her but "endured her" for 4 years is a more appropriate term. My children learned a whole new vocabulary every time we took her out. Sometimes Chris would get pissed at my language but I was spending more time in the engine compartment than I was behind the steering wheel. I guess it was not fair but when Chris used to get pissed I would always think, "OK babe, you get down here and fix the goddamm motor and I will sit and bitch about your language".
The final straw came in August of 1988. We were about 5 miles off shore. The sky was turning black once more. My thoughts turned to July 4, 1966. I still remembered it well. The difference was this time I had my family with me and the motor would not start. I could see the lightning in the clouds and the fear on my family's face. I tried not to show my fear. I knew that we wouldn't die because we had life jackets on and the water was warm but I figured we were going to get real wet.
Lady luck was smiling on me that day. The storm passed south of us and in about an hour I got the engine running. It was not running good but it was running. We limped back to shore and I vowed, "Never again".
One week later we were the proud owners of a 25 1/2 foot Bayliner, complete with a cabin, a stove, a sink and for the first time in my boating career you did not have to hang your ass over the side to take a crap. It actually had a head. I named her Xin Loi (Vietnamese for, "Sorry About That Asshole") and instead of putting the homeport of Mentor (our hometown) Harbor on it, I put Saigon. Every now and then, when we were cruising a harbor, I would see a man about my age on another boat or the shore pointing at my boat, laughing his ass off. He had to be a Nam vet because anyone who ever served there knew what Xin Loi meant.
I had heard through the grapevine that Donna had found happiness and got married. I was happy for her. Some years latter I ran into her at K-mart. She looked as beautiful as ever. I tried to talk to her but she said, "I'm sorry, I have to go." Our meeting lasted about 1 minute. A few years latter I stopped at a Lawsons store to buy a pack of cigarettes. Chris was with me. To my surprise the lady that waited on me was Donna. I said, "Hi, how are you"? Again she did not want to talk so we left. I remember saying to Chris, I feel sorry for her, she looks old". I had no idea what she was going through.
Chris never worked outside the home after Joe was born. She was a full time mother and a good one at that. She was a wonderful mother to our children and a good wife to me. I like to think that I was a good husband too. Everything I did I did with her or we did it with our kids. I never went out with the guys and when I say "never", I mean "Never". Chris was not only my wife; she was my best friend. We did everything together or we did not do it.
After nineteen years together it all began to unravel. Chris decided she wanted to get a job. Thats when it all changed. All of a sudden we had "Our Money" and "Her Money". I said, "thats not right" There are many things I wanted in my life that I couldn't afford because you and the kids came first. Your money should go to this family just like mine. I think that was the beginning of the end for Chris and I.
On June 14, Flag Day, 1993 we went to see a Concert with some friends. We saw the Beach Boys, Chubby Checker and Dion. Everybody had a good time except me. I felt Chris was ignoring me. On June 15 she seemed kind of distant to me. I said, "what's wrong". She said, "I filed for a divorce, you better get a lawyer". I was stunned. This is not right I thought.
I tried for 3 months to talk her out of it. My children had made the decision to leave with mom. She had been secretly talking to them about it. Actually they did not want to leave; they wanted me to leave. I had purchased a brand new home as an investment in 1978 and it was used as rental property. They wanted me to move there. I tried to talk to my sons. They said, "I'm sorry Dad. We want to stay with Mom". Two months passed. Every day I told Chris I loved her and dont do this. Her only reply was, "you better get a lawyer".
I can only be pushed so far and then, as George Bush was to say some years latter, I drew a line in the sand. It was a Sunday morning. When she awoke I said, "I love you dear, don't do this". Her reply was "You better get a lawyer". My reply was "I did". Much to my amazement, she cried. I was thinking, "ya dumb ass. You have been telling me for two months to get a lawyer and when I did you cry"?
I drew my line in the sand. I told Chris and my children that I built this home with my own hands and the only way I was going to leave it was to be carried out. If you all are going to leave me then leave me but I'm staying here. I guess I did not know it at the time but it was the best decision I ever made in my life. My children said they did not think it was fair that I kept the big house. My heart went out for them but I had made my decision and I was not going back on it.
The other house we owned was rented out to a good friend and a wonderful lady named Mary. Chris went to see her one evening in the summer of 93 and Mary told me later that after some small talk, Chris said, "Oh by the way, you have two weeks to get out, I'm moving in". Mary was devastated. She had kept that house like a crystal palace in my eyes and never once was late paying the rent. She even put In a patio in the back yard at her own expense. I am always grateful to her to this day that she did not hold it against me for what came down on her. We sat together and cried a few evenings together before Chris took over her home. Mary is still and forever will remain my friend.
On Labor Day 1993 Life as I had know it for almost 24 years ended. I was happy for 24 years, I guess Chris was only happy for 23. The moving Vans came. I sat on my back deck and never lifted a finger to help. If my family was going to leave me they were not going to get my help in doing it.
The door closed and they were gone. I broke down. I remember talking to my self as I was sobbing. "What the fuck happened", I said to my self. I was crying uncontrollably. I cried so hard that I barfed on the living room floor. What the fuck had I accomplished after twenty-four years, I wondered? I was alone now.
After I had regained my composure to some extent I called my next door neighbor and my best friend Mike. We had met some 17 years ago when he moved in. We had never had an argument. Although Mike did not have any children, his wife pulled the same shit on him a few years before. I remember that I tried to be there for him too, but Mike is more of a private person than I am and did not share his thoughts too much. As an added bonus Mike lost his job at the same time. Mike was a pilot (my life long dream) and a good one at that. I gave mike a job with me. He never worked in construction of any sort but he did his best and I paid him what I could. When his wife left him it looked like he might loose his house so I made arrangements to buy it and rent it out to him for whatever my payment was on it. Fortunately that never transpired but he was a good enough friend, I was willing to do it. Some years earlier Mike had given me part of my dream, He had his own 1946 Piper Cub and he taught me how to fly. Mike said I was the best student he ever had. We flew of a private strip so I was able to do many more takeoffs and landings than if I would have had to get in a traffic pattern. I had about 4 1/2 hours of instructions when we landed one day. Instead of taking off he said, "taxi back to the hanger Joe". Mike got out and said, "Go ahead, you're on your own." It was a short flight but it was my first solo. When I landed Mike ripped off a piece of my shirttail. That is a tradition I did not know about when you make you first solo flight or I would have not worn such a good shirt.
The next day I went to work. I remember that I did not want to come home that day. Usually I could not wait to get home but I did not want this day to end because I knew when I opened the door there would be silence. Scott had taken his dog and Paul had taken his cat. I reluctantly opened the door and faced "The Sound Of Silence" I went to bed at 8:00 PM that night. Once again I had learned how "Not To Feel" Vietnam was the first time. This was the second.
My children said that they would come back and spend some time with me. Scott was only 14 when they left, Paul was 16 and Joe was 18. Scott was still going to the Jr. High School right across the street from me. Each day when he left school I looked out the window and cried when he passed the house on his way to his friend's home. His mother had told him she did not want him to see me so he did not stop. I never tried to stop him. I hoped that when he was ready, he would come. Two months later Scott came back to stay with me for two weeks. That was November of 1993. He is still here as of this writing. After 2 weeks with me it was time to return too his mom. Scott said to me, "dad, I thought it was you until I moved out with mom and realized nothing changed". Chris was devastated when she got the news. I had hoped it would bring her back. It didn't
I think at that time that I needed Scott and he needed me. We would go for long drives together almost every night. Mostly he talked and I just listened. As bad as I felt, I was smart enough to realize that he was the one that was really hurting. I could deal with my pain on my own. He needed me.
Scott and I developed a routine that winter. We would go snow mobileing every night we could, come home and cook a steak and watch Jeopardy. We became very close. Thats when Scott first became a mechanic. Our snowmobiles were old and we spent mot time fixing them than we did riding them.
I was done with women forever I thought. The only friend I had that was truly a friend was Mike. On the nights that Scott and I were not able to snowmobile Mike and I would get together and play chess. No matter what he was doing Mike would drop it and spend time with me. One evening I told Mike about a girl I once loved. Her Name was Donna May Downing.
I had been thinking about her often now. I wondered what surprises life had given her since that day in July 29 years ago. I told Mike I might see if I could find her and give her a call. One day I looked in the phone book and my body went numb as I saw it. 942-3047 The same number as it was in 1963. It was still listed under Nathan Downing. That was her dad and I knew that he had died. Could it be I wondered? I told Mike about my discovery and said that I might call and see what happens. I had no idea if she was married or single but I guess I was feeling sorry for myself and just wanted to hear her voice. I waited about a month before I called. A stern male voice answered the phone. I said, "Is Donna there please." He said "No" so I said goodbye and hung up. Oh well, I tried I thought. I told Mike what happened and said she was probably married. I dont even know why I did it but I do remember it was a Wednesday, by chance Donna's only day off during the week. I dialed the number again and I heard her voice. I said "Hi, this is a voice from your past, do you know who it is"? To my surprise she said, "Joe how are you"?
We talked for three hours that day. She was not married and I made arrangements to meet her in a park the following Wednesday. It was the longest week of my life. Finally the day came. I was 1/2 hour early. I stopped on the way and bought her a single red rose. When she pulled into the park she looked just a beautiful to me as the day we said goodbye, July 5, 1966. I gave her the rose, grasped her hand and we walked to a park bench on the beach, sat down and watched the sunset just as we had so many times before. I did not tell her that night but I knew then that I would never give her up again.
Donna had not had an easy time of it. Her husband had left her when her daughter Dina was 18 months old and her identical twin boys, John and Jade, were six months old. She never received a dime from him. When I met her on that Wednesday she was she was working 6 days a week from 7:30 in the morning until 11:00 at night to take care of her children. Never in my life have I met women who with so little, gave so much to so many. I dont know how she did it working all those hours but her children turned out to be wonderful just as mine had.
We were now together again after 29 years. I still had a bad day to look forward to though. It was the day I was to go to court and my divorce would be final. It was not an easy time for me because I had truly thought I had given all the love I could to Chris. But I endured and when I walked out of the courtroom that day with a tear in my eye there was a beautiful young woman waiting for me. Her name was Donna May Downing.
I had told her that there was something I needed to do this day and that is exactly what I did. We went to my friend's home. Her name is Jean Pearce. Jean is and will always be, special to me. Her son WO1 Dale Allen Pearce was reported Missing In Action on 17 May 1971. He was a Chopper pilot on his way to rescue some wounded Americans. A brave soldier going in harms way to help a brother in need. The day I met George and Jean Pearce I felt bad for being pissed at some brave medivac pilots on March 8, 1969 that were yelling at me to hurry up. Dale never came home.
George was a pilot and a wonderful mechanic. He had been flying for many years. He and Jean had purchased their property complete with an airstrip about three years before. George had a small single seat airplane know as a CGS Hawk. I had met George and Jean at a POW/MIA ceremony. We talked about flying. Mike was with me at that ceremony and George invited us out to see his plane some time. I dont think Mike was all that interested but I persuaded him to go one day. George knew that Mike was a long time pilot and asked him if he would like to take the Hawk up. Mike jumped at the chance. While Mike was up, I said Hey George, Could I take her up for a ride"? George said, "let me ask mike first". When Mike landed George asked Mike if he thought I was qualified to fly the Hawk. Mike said yea and George said, "Thats good enough for me". Once again I was in the air doing the thing that had become my dream. I will forever be grateful to George for that flight because it was one year latter when I scrapped together enough money to buy my own single seat CGS Hawk. I was in heaven. When I went up in my Hawk, (pardon my French again) no body fucked with me. It was just me and the sky. In essence I was my own country up there. I could do as I pleased and did not have to answer to anybody.
George was like a second father to me. We had a loving relationship that was based on kindness and generosity. We often talked of his Son Dale. I remember he once said to me, "you know Joe, I dont know one Vietnam vet who would want to go back but if there ever came was word that Dale was alive, I could fill up a boat with Nam vets in twenty four hours to go get him".
George always wanted a two-seat Hawk. It was "his dream". One day he got the money together and started on his dream. Every time I went to George and Jean's place George was busy building his new aircraft. I would usually arrive about 5:00 PM and George was busy working on his Dream. As the months went by the little craft started to take shape. Seventeen months in all and she was ready for her maiden flight. It was early September 1995. Ten days had passed since my family had left me.
A few trips up and down the runway to check out the systems and then up he went. As George cleared the end of the runway he gave the "Thumbs Up" sign and had the biggest smile on his face a man could have. George was about half a mile due West of the runway when it happened. The plane suddenly headed straight for the ground with the engine racing at full throttle.
The local EMS were the first on the scene. Next was a neighbor and a good friend. He ran crying to the sight in the cornfield where the little craft had gone down. He was stopped by the EMS personal. He struggled to get away and said, "I have to see George"! Their answer to him was, "I'm sorry son, there is nothing left to see."
The autopsy reveled that George has suffered a massive heart attack and he was dead before he hit the ground. The only consolation to his death was that at least he died doing what he loved the most.
The services were held on the runway. George's remains were cremated and when everyone was done paying their tributes to George, there was a moment of silence. Taps were played and then a lone vintage WWI BI-plane flew over and scattered his ashes on the runway. As the plane pulled up and headed to the North something happened that left the crowd in awe. A lone Eagle swooped down across the runway, made one circle and flew off directly into the sun. I couldn't help but wonder if Dale had sent that Eagle to bring his father home.
When Donna and I left the courthouse the day of my divorce, I told her I needed to be alone in my thoughts at 4000 feet. We drove to Jeans. Before I took my plane up though there was one thing to do. Donna and I had been shopping one day and she saw an Indian Rain Stick. She said how beautiful they were and she loved the sound that they made. She said that she had always wanted one. I had looked all day before my time to be in court and had found the biggest most beautiful rain stick there was. I presented it to her, told her I love you, and climbed in my plane. She was worried about me of course and she said, "are you ok"? I assured her that I was fine, did my pre-flight, strapped my self in and headed for the sky. I climbed to 4000 feet and was alone in my thoughts. I had 1/3 of my family back, the woman that had meant so much in my life and I had my dream, Soaring with the eagles. Life was good again.
Donna had told me that winter that she used to go down to the beach all those years we were apart and Dream about being on the lake. She even showed me the spot where she used to sit and watch the lake. When I put Xin Loi back in the water, the summer of 94, I took her too that spot and said to her, "How does it look from here"?
When my family left me on that fateful day in 1993 all my friends told me that my children would be back some day. I did not believe them at the time I guess. There was only one person that just knew me, not my children, and she told me the same thing. Just knowing me was enough. Her name was Donna May Downing. In the spring of 1994 Joe and Paul came back home. Now they were not only back with me, they were back with us. Donna had moved in with me.
November 14, 1994 was Donna's birthday. I decided to write her a letter and send it to her place of work. Along with the letter were twenty-nine flowers. I will not tell you the whole letter but I will give you the last page.
There are twenty-nine flowers for you this day. One for each year we were apart. Give one to Sally and tell her, "Joe loves me". Give one to Doug and tell him, "I love Joe". Share them with your friends so that they may know that you are not only my love once more, you are my life, and without you I am nothing. With you I am a melody which will whisper a sweet love song all the days of our lives.
Take one today to the park across the street where we shared an hour together so many times and scatter its petals to the wind. They will spread the message across this land that I love you Donna May. Take one to the park where you sat and dreamed of being on the lake so many times because it is no longer a dream Donna. It is your life now. Shower its petals on the waves so that they may spread the message across the sea that I love you Donna May. Take one up in a plane and sprinkle it's petals in the air so that the heavens may know that I love you Donna May.
Give one to each of your beautiful children so they too may know that I love you and that the mother who so unselfishly gave of herself, has finally found happiness. Take one to where your wonderful mother rests so that she may know that her little girl who she loved so much is back with Joe. I know she will be happy.
Last of all, bring one home to me so that we may put it in a special place in our home and share in it's meaning all the days of our lives. On this 14th day of November 1994 I proclaim my never-ending love for you Donna May Downing.
YOU ALONE CAN MAKE MY SONG TAKE FLIGHT HELP ME MAKE THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT
Happy Birthday and All my Love Forever
I CAN FLY HIGHER THAN AN EAGLE YOU ARE THE WIND BENEATH MY WINGS
In the spring of 1995 I received a letter from "The Swift Boat Sailors Association". PCF 1 and PCF 2 had been located at a base in Panama and arrangements were made to transfer PCF 1 to the Naval Museum in Washington D.C. I was invited. It was to be called, "The Last River Run." Twenty-nine years had passed since Donna kissed the boy she loved goodbye and saw him off to war but she still had no knowledge of what had happened to him in the jungles of S. E. Asia. I thought it was time for her to know. I made reservations for Donna, my youngest son Scott and myself to attend. I knew that there would be lots of my old comrades there. I had hoped that Gary would be there. It had been 26 years since I last saw or heard from him.
We pulled on the dock which also was a parking lot at the U. S. Navy museum and that is when I saw her. PCF 1 sitting in the water right in from of me. I said, "there she is". Donna didn't say anything as we drove right up to the Swift Boat and then made a right turn looking for a parking space. Then Donna said. "Wow, that is really small". Then it hit me. Donna was looking at the 300-foot long WWII Fletcher class Destroyer that was part of the museum. She never saw the Swift Boat. I said, "I think your missed something dear, The Swift Boat is back there. She turned and looked and her reply was "Noooooooo". As we left our car and walked toward PCF 1 not a word was said by Donna, my son or myself. I'm not sure I would have heard them had they chose to speak. Today was my 48th birthday. The same age my father was when LT. Salinas handed me that note. I was alone in my thoughts. It was Flag Day, June 14, 1995.
We boarded the small craft and then I heard the unmistakable roar of the twin diesels. We set of for my "Last River Run" I tried to control my emotions as the little craft left the dock for what I knew would be my last ride on a Swift Boat. I crawled into a small place on the bow that I had come to know so well many years before, The Peak Tank. There were a few differences this time though. I was at peace, I was sure that we were all coming back this day and the woman who's love had seen me through the difficult times was sitting by my side holding my hand. I knew then and there that I would never let her go again. Her name was Donna May Downing.
On the return trip to the dock, my thoughts turned to all of my brothers who could not make the ride with us on this day. There were far to many of them for such a small elite unit. I did not forget them though. I went to the wall that evening and looked up their names. I dedicate this story to there memory.
SN David J.Boyle BM2 Tommy E. Hill EN2 Jack C. Rodriguez
GMG2 Dayton L. Rudisill BM2 Raleigh L. Godley EN2 Gale J. Hays
QM3 Eugene L. Self BM2 Hubert Tuck GMGSN Alvin L. Levan
BM1 Kemper S. Billings MRC Willy S. Baker BM3 Harry G. Brock
RM3 Bruce A. Timmons SN Daniel E. Moore BM3 Terry L. Davis
SN Gary W. Friedmann SN Dennis R. Puckett LTJG William H. Murphy III
BM1 Bobby D. Carver EN2 Carl R. Goodfellow GMG2 Billy Armstrong
QM2 Frank Bowman BM2 Anthony G. Chandler EN2 Edward Cruz
RD3 Gerald D. Pochel BM2 John P. McDermott BM3 Richard C. Simon
EN2 David L. Merrill BM3 Peter P. Blasko BM3 Stephen T. Volz
LTJG Richard C. Wallace BM2 Steve R. Luke EN2 John R. Hartkemeyer
BM3 Gerald R. Horrell LTJG Donald G. Droz QM3 Thomas E. Holloway
BM3 Richard L. Baumberger Jr. EN3 Dewey R. Decker GMG3 Richard W. Stindl
BM3 Robert A. Thompson RD2 Kenneth P. West EN3 Albert M. Fransen
GMG3 Glen C. Keene GMG3 Stephen J. Penta LTJG Robert L. Crosby
QM2 Richard L. Wissler LTJG Kenneth D. Norton RD3 Martin S. Doherty
RD3 Craig W. Haines RD3 Frederick D. Snyder QM2 Lanny H. Buroff
QM1 Joseph P. Jurgella
I was glad that Gary's name was not on this list. I looked forward to seeing him again. He had made it to "The Last River Run" I noticed something different about him though. He was wearing a brace that went from his neck to his waist and all the way around his torso. That was to support his spine and relieve some of the pain. His spine was full of shrapnel and if they operated to remove it he might never walk again. He had been hit in both arms and his left shoulder also. I guess it was the VC bullet that got him in the back of the head that caused Gary to lose his memory though. He had no idea who I was. My heart went out to him and I realized one more time how lucky I was to be alive. A short time later I received a call from Jennie and Jeanette. Gary had told them that I had been killed and they thought I was dead for 26 years. I was glad to be alive.
On September 30, 1995 about 1700 hours, I found myself in a strange place, a church. My best friend Mike was there too. I looked out in the pews and there were lots of people I knew also. My life had come full circle. There was a beautiful young woman standing next to me that day also. And when the day was done her name was Donna May Muharsky.
We were married about 1/4 mile from Geauga County Airport. The people all left the church and drove to the airport. Donna and I climbed into our new two-seat Hawk and flew away into the sunset. I could not help but think of George on that flight back to his home. He would have been proud.
In September of 1998 Dona and I purchased a new boat, She is beautiful craft and is named Xin Loi also. This boat means more to me than any other one I ever owned or sailed on because it is not my boat, It is our boat.
As I close this book I would like to say that Vietnam not only affected the lives of those of us who fought it but a whole generation. I think it was the biggest mistake this country ever made. I know in my heart now that it was so wrong. I am still proud of the fact that when my country called I served. That is a paradox that I will live with for the rest of my life.
Vietnam touched Donna in a way that I never knew also. Her wonderful brother Tom was drafted into the army when he was 25 years old. They called him Pop for he was an old man by Vietnam standards. He was the leader of a tank retriever team in I corp. At one time Tom and I were only about five clicks apart when we pulled the Swift Boat into the Cua Viet River to refuel. Tom and I wrote to each other often. Tom was married to a wonderful woman named Kathy. When Donna and I re-met in 1994 I found out then that the brother and husband that they saw off to war is not the same one that came home.
Tom never talked to his family about Vietnam. They never knew what he did there. I was looking forward to seeing Tom again. It had been many years. Tom and Kathy did not even know that Donna and I were back together. We decide to pay them a surprise visit. Donna asked me to please not bring up Vietnam. When we knocked on their door you can imagine their surprise when Donna and I walked in together. I honored Donna's wishes about Vietnam but to everyone's surprise, Tom brought it up. For the first time Donna, Kathy and their young daughter Connie got of rare insight into Tom's service in Vietnam. When we left Donna told me how surprised she was that Tom had mentioned it. I told Donna that I was not surprised. Tom felt for all those years that if he tried to tell them, they would never understand. The difference this time was that he knew that I would. We stopped and visited Tom and Kathy often and I was glad that Donna, Kathy and Connie were able to finally know about Tom's life as a soldier.
Some months had gone by and the phone rang one evening at about 11:PM. It was Carol, Donna and Tom's sister. She informed us that Tom had suffered a seizure and was in the hospital. The news the next day was bad. Tom had a brain tumor and would need surgery. It got worse. The brain tumor came from the tumor they found in his lung. We were all stunned. Tom was only 52 years old. Tom's options were limited but he made the decision that I knew he would. He chose to fight.
It was Christmas time once more, December 12, 1997. Donna and I joined Kathy and Connie at there home. We all said goodbye to a man we loved, Nathan Thomas Downing Jr. Tom had died a few minuets before. I helped load him in the hearse that took him away and said, "Goodbye my brother, I love you".
Kathy asked me if I would write Tom's eulogy. I had no idea what I would write but of course I said, "Yes". This is what I wrote.
My Brother Tom
As we gather here today to morn the death of a dear friend, a father, a brother, and a husband. I think it is important that we all think of what Tom Downing was to each of us. To each of us in this room he was, and always will be something special.
To Kathy he was a loving husband. To Connie a devoted and affectionate father. To Carol and Donna he was their big brother and I know that to my wife Donna, he was and shall forever remain her hero. When Donna was ten years old, Tom was eighteen and he was always there for her. She watched as Tom fixed the car and when something broke she remembered how to tackle the problem. All she had to do is think, "How would Tom fix it". Carol and Donna watched in awe as Tom and Nate built the family boat, a task, which few men would dare to endeavor. I know that in some way Tom Downing touched each of our hearts with kindness and with love and his unselfish generosity.
I was honored when Kathy asked if I would speak here today but I also did not know what I would say. As I contemplated the events of the last 34 years one thing came to mind. Carol had a brother and a sister. Donna had a brother and a sister, but Tom only had two sisters. He never had a brother. Although I may only be a brother in law I felt that Tom had a brother in me and I am grateful that somehow I found the courage to tell him that several weeks before his death. I was not sure what his reaction would be, but I felt very gracious when Tom replied, "I feel the same way Joe".
That may sound like just so many words to most people but I meant it from my heart and I know that Tom meant it form his heart. I know that because there is a part of Toms life that many of you here today probably dont even know about because Tom never talked about it. A part of Toms life that I alone shared with him. I want to share a little of it with all of you today.
Twenty-nine years ago today Tom and I were in the mist of an incredible journey together. A journey that was to change our lives and ultimately separate me from the Downing family for 27 years. Events in the world which Tom and I could not control, let alone try to understand, took us away from those that we loved and changed our lives forever. Two young men sent to a far away land that time forgot to fight a war where victory was unattainable and defeat was unacceptable. The year was 1968 and they place was called Vietnam. Tom and I learned much about life in that year. We learned about life by dealing with death on a daily basis.
It is Christmas time now and on this day twenty-nine years ago Tom and I were 5 kilometers apart going into harms way. Tom from the deck of a tank retriever, and myself from the deck of a river gunboat. Tom faced war the same way he faced life and even death. With an unwavering conviction to do what he had to do, no matter what the odds, and not once did I ever hear him protest. I have never in my life seen a person face what Tom had faced in the last two and a half years with so much bravery and I know that is where Kathy and Connie must have gotten the strength, the courage and the wisdom to deal with Toms illness. I envy their fortitude.
Each day when I would call Tom or stop to see him, and even as late as last Monday, I would say, "How ya doing buddy." The reply was always the same. With a smile he would say, "OK Joe". I have met very few men in my life with that kind of grit.
In the last four years, since I have been part of the Downing family again, I was happy that Kathy, Connie, Carol and Donna got to hear about a part of Toms life that they did not know much about, for Tom never shared his experiences in Vietnam with them but he did not mind sharing them with his Brother.
As we gather here today it is only natural that we should morn Toms death but let us also take a moment to celebrate his life. The true measure of a man is not how long his candle may burn but how brightly. Toms candle did not burn nearly long enough but it did burn ever so brightly as is evidenced by all the pictures you see of Tom here today. I am not sure if there is a picture on display here that Tom is not smiling. He had an extraordinary wife an awesome daughter and a family that loved him ever so much. Tom got to spend many years doing what he loved so much. Taking his family out on their boat. I am sure that Tom must be sailing the oceans above at this very moment.
My thoughts turn now to some beautiful words that I once read that reminded me of Tom Downing. They are written on the tombstone of the author Jack London, who wrote "Call Of The Wild." I do not remember them verbatim, but they go something like this. "I would rather to have lived my life as a flaming meteor burning but for an instant brightly across the night sky in all my magnificent glory for all the world to see than to have lived my life as a burned out asteroid drifting aimlessly across the heavens, devoid of all meaning of life and existence." That is how my brother Tom lived his life. Each time I gaze at the night sky and see a meteor streaking across the heavens I will know that it is Tom telling me one more time, "Im OK Joe."
It has been said that you have never truly departed until the last person who remembers you has passed on. If that it true then Tom Downing will live on for a very long time, for he lives in the hearts and the minds of all of us who he touched with his kindness his generosity and his love.
Good Bye My Brother.
I Love You
December 14, 1997
As I finish this letter story it is now exactly 1700 hours March 7, 1999. Twenty-nine years and 355 days since that fateful day in the Cua Lon River. Tomorrow will be thirty years. My thoughts will turn to the men that did not return with us that day on the Cua Lon and my Beautiful Wife. Her name is Donna May Muharsky.
She does not know I am writing this but tomorrow she will. I am sending it to her place of work with thirty flowers. One for each year that has passed since that fateful day in 1969. I will end this story with a note to my wife. She should arrive home from work about 1700 hours on March 8, 1999. I will hold her in my arms once more and tell her that I love her.
There are thirty flowers for you this day my love. One for each year were since that fateful day in 1969. Give one to Sally and tell her, "Joe loves me". Give one to Doug and tell him, "I love Joe". Share them with your friends so that they may know that you are not only my love once more, you are my life, and without you I am nothing. With you I am a melody which will whisper a sweet love song all the days of our lives.
Take one today to the park across the street where we shared an hour together so many times and scatter its petals to the wind. They will spread the message across this land that I love you Donna May. Take one to the park where you sat and dreamed of being on the lake so many times because it is no longer a dream Donna. It is your life now. Shower its petals on the waves so that they may spread the message across the sea that I love you Donna May. Take one up in a plane and sprinkle it's petals in the air so that the heavens may know that I love you Donna May.
Give one to each of your beautiful children so they too may know that I love you and that the mother who so unselfishly gave of herself, has finally found happiness. Take one to where your wonderful mother rests so that she may know that her little girl who she loved so much is back with Joe. I know she will be happy.
Last of all, bring one home to me so that we may put it in a special place in our home and share in it's meaning all the days of our lives. On this 8th day of March 1999 I once again proclaim my never-ending love for you Donna May Muharsky.
You are my wife now and I love you Donna May.
I CAN FLY HIGHER THAN AN EAGLE YOU ARE THE WIND BENEATH MY WINGS.
THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK GOD FOR YOU, THE WIND BENEATH MY WINGS.
March 8, 1999