American sailors load bodies on a helicopter following catastrophic fires on board the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
And All the Ships at Sea
Fifty years ago this past weekend, a rocket was accidentally launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier Forrestal, which was stationed with its battle group off the coast of North Vietnam. The rocket hit a fuel tank, scattering flaming fuel and setting off bombs and other explosions. Within minutes, flames had engulfed a large swath of the flight deck. By the time the fire was under control, 134 sailors were dead and 161 injured, including John McCain, who was hit by shrapnel as he leapt from the cockpit of his burning A-4.
The Forrestal fire is a reminder of the significant, but today largely overlooked, role that the Navy played in the Vietnam War. More than 1.8 million sailors served in Southeast Asia during the war; of those, 1,631 were killed and 4,178 were wounded. The Navy was there at the war's beginning — the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 — and at its very end in 1975, when American ships received helicopters carrying embassy staff and refugees fleeing the fall of Saigon.
The Navy did everything. Enormous aircraft carriers offshore sent out thousands of bombers and fighters on missions over South and North Vietnam, and into Cambodia and Laos. Destroyers pounded the coast; cruisers, with bigger guns, penetrated far inland. Other, faster ships interdicted smugglers. Amphibious assault ships ferried Marines to landing zones. Search and rescue helicopters saved hundreds of downed airmen.
Maybe the Navy's most important role was its least glamorous — keeping the entire American operation supplied. As one veteran wrote to me, "If the troops on the ground ate, their foods were brought in by the Navy. If they had tanks, trucks, jeeps or other rolling stock, that was brought in by the Navy. If they fired artillery rounds, dropped bombs or fired M16 rounds, you can trust me that their mothers did not send that stuff in by airmail. All medical supplies came in by ship; many troops came in by ship; pencils, papers, office equipment and about anything else those men in the field had came in by ship and generally, those ships were Navy. They had to have fuel for their vehicles. How in the hell did that get there?"
While the giant aircraft carriers floated far offshore, thousands of sailors aboard hundreds of ships and boats plied South Vietnam's rivers, carrying supplies, interrupting smugglers and inserting Army and Special Forces units into combat zones, especially in the venous waterways of the Mekong Delta. For four months John Kerry, the future congressman and secretary of state, patrolled those waters in his aluminum-hulled Swift boat.
Despite the hazardous conditions, the so-called brown-water Navy comprised older and less reliable boats, many of them leftovers from Korea or World War II. The boats leaked, and even those in top shape often lacked basic amenities, like water purification systems. Swift boats were basically off-the-shelf vessels originally designed to carry men from the American Gulf Coast to oil rigs. Well armed but poorly armored, River Patrol Boat crews faced annual casualty rates of up to 75 percent.
Though they didn't know it at the time, those sailors — in both the brown-water and blue-water navies — were also being exposed to Agent Orange. Men working on cargo ships were exposed to it when they loaded and unloaded it from their holds. Dioxin runoff poisoned inland waterways and coastal waters. As a result, thousands of men who never set foot in Vietnam have nevertheless suffered the effects of Agent Orange.
These men have been fighting for years for the government to recognize their claims. In 2002, the Department of Veterans Affairs ruled that to receive benefits for Agent Orange exposure, claimants had to have served on dry land or inland rivers — a remarkably narrow interpretation of "service in the Republic of Vietnam," the key requirement to receive V.A. Agent Orange coverage. (This year a bipartisan group in Congress introduced the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017 to extend benefits to sailors who served in harbors and coastal waterways.)
But even when sailors qualify, there is often a bias against them — an assumption that because they served on a ship or a boat, they couldn't possibly have suffered the physical or mental consequences of serving in a war. Evaluators assume that being on the water makes you invincible. Tell that to the men who served on the Forrestal. – Clay Risen
In Case You Missed It
Articles from the series this week
Stanford's Robert Rakove discussed Richard Nixon's landmark 1967 speech at the Bohemian Club, which kicked off his political resurrection and offered a blueprint for the hawkish foreign policy he would pursue as president.
Mike Roddy at his graduation from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969.
Stories from the Vietnam War, told by the people who experienced it
"Against the War at Berkeley"
In the fall of 1967 I enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, partly inspired by the protesters who stopped troop trains passing through Berkeley earlier in the war. I had already lost a high school friend in the battle of Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and was enraged by the incessant lies coming out of Washington. It also became apparent, from studying the history of the region, that we were never going to win that war.
The action started right after I arrived: Stop the Draft Week, in October and again in December, was an effort to disrupt the war at the gigantic Oakland Induction Center by yelling, raising placards and getting chased around by cops waving billy clubs. Different versions of that protest became common in the next few years, as we faced off against the Oakland sheriff's department (the infamous Blue Meanies), the National Guard and the California Highway Patrol. Campus and City of Berkeley police were much less aggressive.
Later, in 1969, the Berkeley campus was cordoned off by the National Guard, and we were bombed with tear gas from helicopters, so that Gov. Ronald Reagan — who had dodged the draft in World War II — could look tough. My friend Candy and I were attacked by a California Highway Patrol officer, who filled our backsides with birdshot, sending us to the hospital.
There was little self-pity. We knew that our soldiers and the Vietnamese people were enduring far worse than our little tussles in Berkeley. Sometimes the protests would become ideological circuses. One night in late 1967, protesters set up an open mike on the steps of Sproul Hall. Someone hung a North Vietnamese flag above the steps, and various rabble-rousers, mostly non-students, called on the crowd to make common cause with the National Liberation Front — the Vietcong. I got up and spoke out against that madness, and drew a mixed response.
Later that year, I was asked to join a friend at Young Socialist Alliance meetings. To humor her, I attended, but it was obvious that the older-looking Y.S.A. leaders were F.B.I. or C.I.A. plants. They kept repeating tired Communist slogans and had neater long hair. I went to only two meetings, but it was enough for someone to come to where I worked, snap a flashbulb camera in my face and walk away. I was probably on file with the F.B.I. for a while.
We took little pride in those protests as the years passed, because we failed. The war did not end until six years later. In retrospect, even though the police were the aggressors just as often as we were, there was little point in declaring moral high ground. Most of us understood that it wasn't black and white, that we weren't superior to the men who submitted to the draft.
Meanwhile, my family was nearly shattered by arguments at the dinner table. My father, John Roddy, was a retired, highly decorated Army colonel who fought in three wars: World War II, the Greek Civil War (as artillery adviser to the Greek Army) and Korea. He liberated death camps in Germany and won two Bronze Stars and a Silver for valor. We had fierce arguments when I came home on holidays. Dad wanted me to do my duty, but a good lottery number in 1969 kept that argument from coming to a head. He was a literate man, and agreed later in the war that it had been a horrible mistake.
Here again, it wasn't a simple fight, the righteous son against the violent father. In 1959, Dad had stood up to a crew of Strangelove-like officers at the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon, where he was a senior staff officer. Some of them wanted to put field-controlled Nike nuclear missiles on the backs of jeeps — in other words, to give officers in the field the authority to start a nuclear war. It didn't happen, though Barry Goldwater revived the idea a few years later. Maybe Dad, an articulate and persuasive man, helped effect that outcome.
That struggle influenced his early retirement, out of frustration, in 1963, but his stance at the Pentagon was a greater victory than any of his battles. It certainly dwarfed anything I ever did.
My son Malcolm is a Marine lance corporal. He reminds me of Dad. I'm a pacifist, but could not be prouder of him.
Michael Roddy, a retired river rafting guide and housing developer, now advocates on climate issues.
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The Long Reach of Agent Orange
Returning to 'My Vietnam'
Not Just an American War
What's a Vietnam Movie, Anyway?
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