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
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
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
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