What follows are two stories by Dave Davis. Mr. Davis is Vietnam Veteran who has made El Paso his home of some 65 years. The stories he submitted are about the after-effects of war.
The Man in the Mirror (PTSD)
The man looking back at me from the mirror is dressed to the ‘nines’. Now in my late sixties, I stand admiring my reflection. My slicked back hair, stoic dimpled chin and Greek nose are all accented by my olive skin and solid white hair. I speak into the mirror, You sir, are-a-stunner!
My bright, dark brown eyes are highlighted with brilliant white. My chiseled jaw glistens under my freshly shaven face. The black crushed velvet bow tie clings to my Armani white silk shirt. The gold bracelet, diamond studded pinky ring and gold watch all exude opulence.
I smile at myself as I put on the finishing touches. Carefully, I address even the smallest of details, for today my daughter marries.
Sliding the tuxedo jacket over my shoulders, I turn to face the mahogany full length floor mirror. Damn fine looking, even if I do say so myself. Not bad for a kid from the Segundo Barrio.
Collecting my jewelry and adjusting the cummerbund, I stop primping when I spy the boots hiding, crumpled in the corner of my 1000 square foot closet. I turn to them and a familiar sadness wells up inside me.
Fifty years now. It’s been over fifty years.
Gently picking up the boots, I inspect them. First, I brush the dust from them, searching them for visible scars from combat. Then I turn them over to examine the damage from the bamboo shoots that tore into the soles. Talking as if to a close old friend, You saved my ass that day. I would have been screwed if it weren’t for the steel lining in your sole. I hold them up to the light. Oh boy, my jump boots.
I feel for the canvas tear on the side, made by shrapnel. Luckily, the canvas caught it, saving my foot from being ripped off.
I shook my head, remembering, If my New York friend, ‘Gumba’ , hadn’t shoved my ass out of the way…
I look at the squished steel toe. Remember this one? In our rush to rearm, dropping that stupid ammo case that weighed a ton. Remember that firefight? Jesus Christ, you were the best $50.00 I ever spent.
I look at the sloping heel, designed to not catch on anything while jumping from a helicopter door to a PBR (river gun boat). My emotions well up inside me as I recall my friends, my comrades, my brothers…I’m the only one who made it.
Leaning back, I slide to the floor, hiding my face with the boots. The tears overwhelm me and the sobbing begins once again.
My wife sees me, in my misery, and rushes in. “No. No. No! Not today! Mija is marrying today. Not today.”
As she hoists me to my feet, I think, Damn strong woman, my wife. My lover, my life.
Taking her kerchief and wiping my eyes, “You haven’t had one of these in a long time. What happened? What triggered it this time?”
I show her the boots. She swats at them, knocking them to the floor. “Damn boots, I thought you got rid of those stupid things. They upset you so much. Who needs that? You don’t need that. That war was a long time ago. You get like this when you remember those days.” Seeing me like this causes her tears to flow.
I take a deep breath. “Oh sweetie.” I stand in front of her as she wipes away my tears. Cradling her face in my mammoth hands, “Maria, I can’t forget. Those boots and I both have scars. You can see the ones on the boots.” I gently clasp her hands to my chest. “You can’t see the scars in me. I can never forget. Look what we have. A house, a home. We have what they will never have.” Resolutely, standing straight and tall, “Everyone else will forget, but I will never forget. I can’t ever forget.”
Fire on the Matt
I joined the Navy, not out of an honorable sense of duty to my country but out of fear, fear that the Vietnam Police Action could get me killed. My options, at the time, were: Canada, Mazatlán, Air Force, Army, Navy, or college.
I couldn’t see deserting my country like many of my generation did. By the time I had decided to enlist the Air Force had filled its quota. The Army would, more than likely put me right in the thick of it, and many my high school guidance counselor had instructed me, “you are not college material. You need to learn a trade like: pipefitting, welding, or even an auto mechanic.”
So in 1968 I enlisted in the US Navy and after three months of boot camp indoctrination, boarded the USS Mattaponi AO-41.
She was a 1942 small auxiliary oiler moored at Hunter’s Point, San Francisco.
All Navy ships are camouflaged Haze Grey from stem to stern. She had three structures: the bow (the front of the boat), amidships (the middle of the boat), and stern (the back of the boat). Amidships was five stories and from it you could see forward to the bow and aft to the stern. Above the main deck was a secondary deck made of wood both forward and aft. I learned that the wooden deck was a safety precaution. Seems wood won’t spark. Something you really want to avoid on an oiler.
She was going to be my first duty station and was scheduled for another West Pac cruise to Vietnam. She was going to teach me what real fear was all about.
When you’re young you truly cannot see the big picture. You’ve got no experience to rely on. You are in the forest and without elevation you get from experience then you cannot see the forest for the trees. Most Americans have no concept of how a war is fought. I know I didn’t.
There are many dynamics involved.
The soldier, getting shot at, (not an enviable position by any means), is not the only one in harm’s way. He is supported by the rest of the military establishment. He has to have food, water, ammo, air support, and most importantly mail. Mail? Yes. Mail. For without the mail, morale goes right into the ‘crapper’.
These things don’t just happen by accident. It is a structured system that has been in place and evolving since the War of Independence. These things are provided for the servicemen. That’s where the auxiliary Navy comes in. That’s what a supply ship does. It provides that service.
The Mattaponi would carry the supplies necessary for them to continue their missions.
To think, for one minute that being on a supply ship was safe is just naïve, and yes, I was.
The Navy, just like anyone going on a long journey, carries with it the fuel to get it to where it has to go. Most civilians think that the Navy is nuclear and never needs refueling. The modern Navy has made strides in power plants but the Vietnam Police Action required our WWII Navy, which ran on oil that was carried on tankers. Tankers that would spend days refueling a carrier groups, like the Coral Sea, or the Kitty Hawk. There can be hundreds of ships in these groups. Resupplying operations were called ‘UNREPPING’ (underway replenishment) which occurred over and over again with the Matt running back to port to get the precious fuel and of course the mail.
On one of these occasions we were refueling at the POL Piers, (Fuel Piers), in Subic Bay Philippines, when disaster struck.
It started, as most disasters do, small, insignificant events that churn into a disaster. I call this the ‘Domino Affect’. One simple little thing going wrong, a transformer failure in the engine room.
When the transformer failed, it shut the engine room ventilation system off raising the interior temperature immediately, forcing the engine room to be evacuated and those Enginemen, pulled out were suffering from heat exhaustion. All had to be evacuated to the hospital. No one gives up their post willingly. Some overstayed and were hospitalized for their efforts.
The First Domino had fallen.
No problem though, we had an auxiliary generator. One life lesson I learned from the Navy was redundancy. Every system has to have a backup in case the primary system fails.
I then became part of the skeleton crew of seven or eight enlisted personnel. So with the help of a tug boat we would simply move the ship to our normal pier across the harbor.
I was to have liberty that day but decided to save the $1.75 for the seven San Miguels, ( a quarter each ). I was in the mess, at the aft part of the ship, and was bragging, to my friend, Lanahan, about how I had liberty and would leave just as soon as we tie up.
“I’m outta here,” I shouted, waving my hands and goofily making a Jackie Gleason imitation.
That’s when the first explosion occurred. Stepping out of the aft mess I could see smoke billowing out the mid ship’s aft entrance and I could hear the bow anchor being dropped. Domino Number Two.
Moving out, onto the deck Lanahan and I looked at each other and watched as Boatswains were pulling pins out of 55 gallon drums special racks. The racks were set up for emergency dumping of Naphtha, Agent Orange and gasoline. You know, the normal stuff that explodes when heated,
One after another, after another, after another. The ships complete supply of drums dumped into Subic Bay in a matter of seconds.
A piece of metal zipped by my face and brought my attention back to the fire. CWO4 (Chief Warrant Officer Boatswain Sarkisian called us to action.
Dressed in my ‘Whites’, an OBA (oxygen breathing apparatus) was strapped to my chest and I was handed a CO2 hose. Without the engine room, we had no fire main and some were assembling the P250’s (Submersible water pumps that had an intake that was dropped into the bay. Pulling the mask on I noticed that air was flowing, from the OBA. It seemed to flow to freely. It surprised me and I should have taken heed but I charged into the fire anyway.
We had done this training many times before. The Navy wanted us to be prepared and most of all not to panic.
I stepped into the structure and saw absolutely nothing. When I pulled the trigger on the CO2, just as I was trained to do, “Aim low and sweep.” By the time I got to the auxiliary generator I couldn’t breathe. I. chokingly fell to my knees and crawled out where someone hoisted me to my feet. I couldn’t see who it was because the smoke and fire had seared the OBA’s visor. I stood there a moment when I realized that he was shoving rags into the OBA’s canister compartment. The OBA was missing its canister that was used to recycle and clean my air.
I didn’t find out, until weeks later that the OBA canisters were in a locker above the auxiliary generator.
Domino number three.
All the while, I’m being told we need to put this fire out, there are pieces of metal flying through the bulkhead (the steel wall of the ship).
Repeatedly I would enter and spray to the point of suffocation then evacuate.
After catching my breath I would start back in again. I felt this procedure went on for days. Later I learned that it was only two days that we burned. My recollection of the rest is, admittedly, a blur.
I never saw the flames of the fire. Nor did I know that the Executive Officer had had a heart attack. When I saw the two men leave the ship I thought it was the Captain. He escorted the stretchered EX-O onto a dingy floating aside then taken to safety.
Our portable sea water fire pumps were useless because in the rush to clear the decks we had inadvertently dumped the fuel that powered them.
Domino number four.
What I do remember is looking at my new patent leather shoes and noticing that the soles were melted. Looking at the deck I watched and heard the deck start to buckle under the heat. I thought. “Shit, this is it. The Matt is about to explode.”
These sounds; the metal deck creaking, the smells of burnt electrical wire and rubber, and wanting desperately to jump ship are emotions and memories etched on my soul that I will never forget.
I was so close to jumping ship, wanting to run and abandon my ship and my shipmates…
Then, while waking up again from being force fed oxygen, I heard someone yelling, from over the side, in a skiff alongside, “Permission to come aboard, Sir”, and then I think I heard the Harbor Master yell back, “Permission granted!”.
I lay against the rail, watching as hundreds of sailors poured over the it like ants.
I was in and out and may have lost consciousness but it was the fire crews from the Coral Sea, the Eisenhower, the Kitty Hawk and several other ships put out that fire.
I piecemealed these details, of what happened, much later.
The engine room transformer that failed It had controlled not only the ventilation for the engine room, but also the auxiliary generator room. No ventilation caused the engine rooms temperatures to spike. When the enginemen were forced to evacuate the engine room, they switched power to the auxiliary generator. Without the ventilation, it quickly overheated. The heat melted the generators bearings and pieces of the generator became shrapnel exploding and slicing thru the bulkhead.
The exact cause of the fire is still unknown to me. This recant is what I heard and have since piecemealed together. For me what happened is that I learned what fear is and I don’t like it. I felt the shame of cowardice and have never forgotten that I would have left my shipmates if the brave sailors of the: Kitty Hawk, Coral Sea, and Eisenhower hadn’t bailed us out.
The Mattaponi was subsequently repaired and we continued back to Vietnam to continue her mission. To support our troops with supplies, munitions, and even PBR’s (river gunboats).
Later we were even called upon to aid in the Korean blockade to help free the USS Pueblo. After which she was to be decommissioned at the end of that year.
To this day, as full of explosive fuel, millions of barrels of oil, with the fire on the deck above the tanks, why did she not blow up? A question I ask daily.