1968 – A Veterans Journey from the United States to Japan and Vietnam

By Tom Edwards

February 5, 1968 was 3 days after my 19th birthday. I was at the Induction Center at 39 Whitehall Street in New York City. That location had me close to where I was born, the one and only Brooklyn; former home of the Dodgers and still home of the best pizza in the world. Singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody “This Land is Your Land, This Land is my Land” Guthrie) mentions the Induction Center and “sitting on the Group W bench” on the title track of his debut album, Alice’s Restaurant. Arlo performed the song on July 24 for a receptive audience at the Newport Folk Festival. Having completed my induction, it was day one of a 4 year military commitment. The Selective Service Board was in full swing but having grown up near the Atlantic Ocean, the Navy appealed to me, so I joined.

Edwards junkBeing familiar with winter on the east coast didn’t come close to preparing me for February at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I thought I understood the definition of cold. As it turned out, I wasn’t even close. Getting off the bus at the snow covered training facility gave me a new definition of cold. Like all of the other recruits, I slept (sort of) with my pea coat, watch cap and gloves on. It was an interesting first day. We were never told the temperature and that was probably a good thing. I do know it would have had to heat up, a lot, to hit zero. My wife and I have lived in Minnesota for the past 4 years. It isn’t the buckle of the Sun Belt but I still have never been as cold as I was at Boot Camp. Somehow I managed to graduate and, after a 30 day leave, I was off to my first duty station. I arrived onboard the USS Krishna (ARL-38) on May 13, 1968. The ship was dry-docked at the naval base in Yokosuka, Japan. On the night I arrived, there had been a large turnover in the crew and I was assigned to be an Electricians Mate Apprentice. My naval career was underway.

Given the ships location, the liberty (time away from the ship) policy was very liberal. With a less than staggering income and a lot of free time in Japan, I went to the Naval Credit Union and obtained a $500 loan. At the time, that was real money. The military was justifiably confident they would get their money back, and they did. At 360 yen to the dollar, it was a great time to be in the Land of the Rising Sun. My plan was to make the next few months memorable and they were. I have very fond memories of Japan. It is where I developed (no pun intended) my interest in photography. Finding a nice 35mm camera there was not the biggest challenge I have ever faced. Among my first stops was the Great Buddha of Kamakura at the Kotoku-in Temple. At nearly 44 feet tall and more than 10 tons, the bronze statue and immaculate gardens throughout the site are impressive. I made several trips there during my time in Japan. Weekend journeys to the Noto Peninsula were memorable. It is on the west coast of Japan to the west of Tokyo. The scenery is the classic definition of picturesque. A trip to Tokyo was about what I expected; it reminded me of New York. One difference was that Coca Cola was the only sign I recognized. I had purchased a “Japanese to English” book while I was there and tried to learn a few basic phrases. Having read it for about an hour, I saw a young lady about my age with what appeared to be school books. In my best Japanese, I thought I asked her “Excuse me. Can you tell me which train goes to Kamakura”? She looked at her watch and in English much better than mine she said “Wait about 10 minutes. There will be a train here that I’ll be getting on. Get on it and get off at the 5th stop”. I thanked her and asked why she let me struggle with Japanese. She said “I have lived here all of
my life and have never had anyone asked me “Are you go for ice cream when no Kamakura”? Apparently, I was not qualified to join the Tokyo Debate Team. The months in Japan went by quickly. In mid-September the dry-dock was flooded and the WWII vintage Krishna was underway. Next stop, An Thoi, Vietnam.

On our last day en route to the southern tip of Phu Quoc Island, (south of the Cambodian coastline) I had crow’s nest duty. That vantage point, with a high quality pair of binoculars gave me the first view of where I was about to experience the most memorable chapter of my military years. On September 24 we dropped anchor and Swift Boats (Patrol Craft Fast) were about to become a part of my daily life until May of the following year. The Tet (Lunar New Year) Offensive had been launched about a week before I started Boot Camp. In an effort to offset their mounting losses, Vietcong forces began attacks in locations throughout South Vietnam. As a teenager, I was about to get a close up look at life in Vietnam.Edwards PCF

After testing a variety of craft to combat the Vietcong’s unlimited access to waterways and the coast for infiltration and smuggling, Sewart Seacraft, a manufacturing firm in Louisiana, was awarded the contract to construct 50 foot long Swift Boats. The crews that manned them trained at the naval base at Coronado, near San Diego, California. With two 480 horsepower Detroit Marine Diesels below the deck, the quarter inch thick aluminum hull craft had a top speed, depending on fuel load, etc. of about 25 knots. Twin .50 caliber machine guns were above/aft of the pilot house and a .50 caliber over an 81mm mortar was on the aft deck. The boats, and the warriors that manned them, were a perfect fit for disrupting the supply lines from the north to south Vietnam. The Navy was engaged in a new type of warfare along the rivers and canals of Vietnam. Swift Boats, and their all mostly all-volunteer 6 man crews, were more than up to the task. Repairing and maintaining them gave me skills I utilized throughout my post-military career. Edwards on PCF

As a member of the Brown Water Navy I quickly learned that keeping the boats up and running was a 24/7 commitment.

Without exception, every Krishna crew member took pride in their assignments. In spite of where were stationed, the weather and food that was just a touch short of gourmet, morale was never a problem. On the contrary, the comradeship among the Krishna crew was at a consistently high level. During Operation Market Time, Swift Boats interacted with junks (fishing boats) daily. A majority of the junks were operated by legitimate fishermen. That frequent contact gave the Swift Boat crews the opportunity to give the junk operators candy and cigarettes when their boats were inspected for contraband, a great public relations move. Among their other assignments, Swift Boats also served on reconnaissance missions, evacuating the wounded and assisted in special operations. Amphibious assaults against Vietcong enclosures was also on their lengthy “to do” list.

As a maintenance and repair electrician, I still remember the Swift Boat crews returning to An Thoi to thank us for what we had done and letting us know about anything that needed attention. I recall starting to work on one boat at about 11:00 AM and finishing about 1:00 PM the next day. Once you have done that a few times, there isn’t much in life you will confront work-wise that will be much of a challenge. My time in Vietnam, in fact, gave me the eleEdwards PCF nestctrical trade skill set I used for more than a decade after my discharge.

 Shortly after earning an engineering degree I had the opportunity to work in the aerospace industry. Having satellite launch vehicles built and successfully launched requires a high level of teamwork, the kind I learned during my Navy years. 1968 was an unforgettable time for me; one year, 3 countries, a war, and a return to a divided nation. The Beatles sang Hey Jude, Otis Redding was Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, the Rascals told us it was a Beautiful Morning and Steppenwolf said we were Born to be Wild. As a veteran looking back at that year, I am pleased to see the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being shown the respect they have earned. In 1971 the U.S. Navy donated two Swift Boats to the newly formed Republic of Malta. They served as coast guard vessels enforcing fishing rights and were also involved in rescue work of those fleeing North Africa. Virg Erwin, Officer in Charge of Patrol Craft Fast 67, has served as a board member of the Swift Boat Sailors Association and the Vietnam Memorial Fund. He was invited to Malta to accept donation of one of those retired boats to be delivered to the San Diego Maritime Museum. It will be restored, maintained and used to promote the history of Swift Boats in the service of both countries.

In 2007 I became a member of the Swift Boat Sailors Association. My wife and I attended the 2007 SBSA reunion in San Diego and the 2011 reunion in San Antonio, Texas. Having done that, we are ready for the 2013 reunion and a return to San Diego. Given that I was not a Swift Boat crew member, “I fixed ‘em when they broke ‘em”, I am honored and humbled to have been welcomed into the SBSA, a great veteran’s organization. I wish my shipmates fair winds and following seas.