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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 2

The Cruise

There were thousands of us on the docks, all in new jungle fatigues with brand new gear strapped to our backs. We must have been the envy of every army / navy surplus store in the world. I looked in all directions, and all that I could see was GI’s. I believe that each of us was thinking the same thing “what in the hell am I doing here?” It was the last time that some of us would touch home soil alive.

In front of us was the USS General William Wiggle, a liberty ship that was pulled out of mothballs, and converted to a troop transport. I was raised in the mid-west, and had no experience with any kind of large ships, but instinct told me that the Wiggle was a piece of shit. Once we were on board I found that my assessment was perfectly correct. Rust had been chipped off and painted over countless times leaving scars and gouges over the entire surface of the ship. It made me feel like paint was the only thing holding it together. The inside smelled like a basement, old and musty. Old pipes and wiring hung from every deck and bulkhead. They too were so incrusted with old paint that in some places it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other started.

I was told that the Wiggle had a sister ship that was torpedoed by the Germans during World War II. It sank in three minutes. Thank God that the North Vietnamese didn’t have a navy.

My unit was birthed in the farthest forward compartment on the lowest deck, the worst possible place on an ocean going vessel. It was the part of the ship that rode highest on the crest of each wave, and dove lowest into each trough. The bunks were stacked four high, and there wasn’t enough space to turn over without bumping the ass of the guy above me. There was barely enough room to walk between stacks of bunks. If we were animals, the SPCA would have tried to make these living conditions illegal. But, since we were GI’s, it was OK.

The head (latrine in GI terms) was nothing more than a large lateral pipe with toilet seats attached to the top. Seawater was continuously pumped through it and dumped overboard. The merchant seamen had warned us not to use the first seat, the one farthest up stream, because in rough seas the flow changes direction. When it does, the seawater, toilet paper, and shit blow out of the first seat. I learned how important it was to listen to merchant seamen when it came to matters of seawater and shit.

The best defense against seasickness was food and a strong sense of humor. It sounds strange but it was true. The trick was to keep a little in your stomach at all times, and not think about how you felt. There was plenty to laugh about if you let yourself enjoy the show. Our favorite routine was watching the officers run for the rail when the weather got rough. However, the best special attraction was the army mule that an engineer battalion brought along. He was sick the moment that the ship began to heave or pitch. He’d hang his head between his legs, and make the most incredible sound I’ve ever heard. It came out somewhere between a moan and a burp.

The other on deck distraction was the flying fish. I was amazed to find out that they really fly, not very far, but it was definitely flight. Some guy who we assumed knew what the hell he was talking about said that they use this ability to get away from predators. I spent hours at the rail trying to get a glimpse of what was chasing them. It was amazing what a person would do to pass the time.

Below decks we had the continuous poker games. The guys who ran them would pay big bucks for someone to take their duty so that the game could go on. Some of them made small fortunes because the United States Armed Forces had the worst poker players in the entire world. There was no need to cheat because the average player simply threw his money away. It was a matter of simply waiting for a decent hand, and betting it wisely. The experienced guys would lay off one another, and rake in the money from the guys trying to fill the inside straight. By the end of the trip a hand full of players had much of the personal wealth of the ship. But, there was no real harm done because there was no where to spend the money, and no way to send it home.

Our only stop was Subik Bay in the Philippines for fuel and supplies. We were there for one night, and they allowed us to leave the ship. Everyone below staff sergeant was confined to the navy base. I guess they thought some of us wouldn’t want to get back on board, more wisdom from the generals and admirals.

The only things on the base were sailors, marines, and green beer that we drank all night long. I think some of it was still fermenting in the bottle, and later in our stomachs. It caused the worst hang over I have ever had, the kind that makes you think you’d have to get a little better in order to die.

To make things even worse, we hit a storm as soon as we left the Philippines. It was rough enough for them to lock the ship down and seal the compartments. It meant no officer at the rail or mule watching, and no food to keep our stomachs settled. There was nothing in the sealed compartment but sick GI’s, and I was one of them. There was absolutely no where to find relief from the sickness, confinement, or terrible smell. That was when I found an incredible strength that has served me since that night on the ship, the ability to laugh at myself. I knew that I looked just as pitiful and ridiculous as the rest of the guys. I saw the mighty United States Army transformed into poor souls, any one of whom would have kissed a skunk’s ass for just one moment of relief. I learned on that miserable ship that the sun would always come up tomorrow and things would always get better, another lesson that has served me well over the years.

I spent 21 days on the Wiggle, and would have been ready to get off no matter where it stopped. When we finally reached Vietnam there was no deep-water port, so we left the ship by landing craft. By any standards, disembarkation was a mess. The boats were World War II vintage amphibians. The best that I can say for them is they floated and managed to move through the water. They also got me to a place where I would spend the longest year of my life.


Continued next week


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