Dec 1 -The American Spirit in Vietnam

By  Fred U.
Culture shock, physical shock or mental shock. Take a boy eighteen years old living in Philly with mom and dad and drop him off in Vietnam. Nothing will ever be the same again. You leave everything behind. You have nothing to remind you of home. It’s an alien world and you live an alien life.
The American spirit is incredible. Even in Vietnam us kids eventually found ways to hold on to some symbols of the way of life we had at home. Care packages from mom were always a hit. Each one was like a Christmas present and simple things like peanut butter or a smoked sausage was the ultimate gift. Somehow a few of us got hold of small artificial Christmas trees usually sent from home. Just looking at it took you back home if even for a few precious seconds. We all found ways to grab a piece of home in a land that was half a world away.
As a crew member flying on helicopters I had a good view of Vietnam. From up high it was a beautiful land. Tropical jungles, rivers and along the coast some of the most incredible beaches on earth. Every day just after taking off we flew past Camh Rhan Bay. A large body of shallow water that judging from the local fisherman must have been full of fish. Sometimes we could see large sharks looking like oil slicks just below the surface. Sometimes using them as targets when we test fired our weapons. Every time I flew over the water my mind would drift back to the countless fishing trips to the Jersey shore with my dad. I loved fishing and missed it dearly.
My letter home must have seemed strange to my mom. I requested that if possible could my dad somehow send me a fishing rod and some tackle. If anyone could pull it off it was dad. He went right to work on it. Our next door neighbor worked for the Budd Company. They managed to make a styrofoam case cut to fit a two piece spinning rod exactly. A separate box of hooks, weights, extra line and even my favorite fishing knife. All I needed was some bait. I knew if anyone could understand why I needed a fishing rod it was my dad. He had planted and nurtured the seed he started on our first fishing trip.
We had local villagers working for our company. I tried to explain the concept of bait but failed since all fishing over there seemed to be done with nets. So I started to draw. My pathetic attempt at a squid drew a few smiles and giggles from the local girls. Then I tried a shrimp and they all yelled yes. I gave the one girl $2.00 to bring me in some the next day. My friend Pedro was a cook and like every GI we were both tired of the food the army served up. Plus flying just about every day one or two of my meals were C Rations. Possibly the worst food ever created by man. We wanted something new and fresh. Fish seemed like a good idea. The next day my jaw dropped when the girl came in with a sack filled with about twenty pounds of the largest shrimp I ever saw. Me and Pedro just smiled. We had our fresh seafood and wondered why we never tried to purchase fresh food from the locals before.
My ship had been down for a few days for some serious maintenance and since I was a door gunner maintenance wasn’t my strong suit. I had a few precious days off. First up was to work on my tan. I was one of the whitest boys in Nam. Our flight gear was called nomex and it was a fire retardant material. We had to wear them long sleeved along with our flight helmet and flight gloves. Flying almost every day meant I hardly ever saw much sun. What better way to work on my tan than doing a little fishing. The next day me and Pedro set out on our quest. Bait, tackle and our M-16’s. Never fished with one of them before but this wasn’t like fishing at home. Only thing left to do was see our buddies on Tower 10. That was out twenty-four hour guard tower where you could see our entire perimeter that was head high with barbed wire, trip wires and booby traps. We had a secret path through but the guards had itchy fingers and we didn’t want to get blown away sneaking through the wire. The bad guys did this and from a distance we could look like bad guys.
What makes this one of my favorite fishing trips is what happened next. After six months in country I figured I had seen it all. What I had gotten used to was the looks on everyone’s faces. We all seemed to have that blankish look on our faces as days turned to weeks than months as we all waited for the day we could go home. On this morning me and Pedro picked up our gear and started walking. The guys just stopped and stared then suddenly smiled. What could be more american looking than two boys walking with their fishing tackle for an easy relaxing day of fishing. A few asked us what we were doing and where we were going. We just yelled that we were going down to our favorite fishing hole and catch some big ones. Guys cheered us and yelled and shouted out that we were nuts but to bring them back some fish to eat. It was so neat as even officers came out to cheer us on. For a brief moment we were all back home at the old fishing hole. We walked past our flight line where ships were taking off. Crews waved to us as we walked by with our tackle. Thumbs up were popping out of every ship as they continued on with the war. It was something special.
We caught fish and I got one of the worst sunburns ever, but we had fun. The only thing missing when I hooked my first fish was my dad standing next to me. We couldn’t identify one fish we caught but it didn’t matter. We had twenty pounds of shrimp to eat when we got back. Word got out about what we were doing and one of our ships even hovered above us to see if we were catching. Even some local fisherman in their sampans came in close to check us out. We weren’t sure how friendly they were so we stood there with our fishing rods in one hand and our M-16’s in the other. They waved and continued on. When we returned to our company many of the guys came running up to us to see how we did. They were as excited as we were and the requests to borrow our fishing tackle was non stop. It was funny how just a simple fishing trip could affect so many people. It was a simple little slice of home in a land so far away.
The fish were small but plentiful and truthfully they didn’t even matter. It was great to feel a tug on the line but it was just the fact that we were in a combat zone and I had been flying for six months and home and family never felt further away. Until I made that first cast and then for just a short time me and my buddy Pedro were home. After that every guy who borrowed my tackle had a little slice of home at the end of something as simple as a fishing line.
Thank you Fred for your friendship, fishing story, for getting home safe, for protecting us and inspiring us. Thank you for keeping the Christmas spirit alive at the Dry Dock and all that you do for your fellow Veterans.