Merchant vessels and crews helped to maintain the many supply chains needed for the war in Vietnam. Ships arrived daily and carried anything from matches to tanks. The seamen on these vessels were a special breed. Most admitted that they were only in it for the money. Here is one seaman’s mind-numbing take on a single cruise from the US to Vietnam.

By David Gerstel

It was a long passage, more than forty days. Standing a watch across a mostly empty sea is easy, but thousands of miles takes a toll. Not much company, a few ships we knew, mostly like ourselves, old and tired. Vietnam is where ships and men come toward the end of their lives on the way to the breakers yard. Most have seen decades of peace and years of conflict. The most senior, like this vessel under the American Export Lines house flag, served in WW2, running at speed and trusted to sail alone, able to outrun the U boats. After that she made a living on the India run, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea to Jeddah, Dijbouti, Port Sudan, Massawa, over to Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma and return, year on year. She knew her own way.

Summer, and it is hot. The humidity starts at 100 percent and goes higher. The ship does not have air conditioning and sweat falls like heavy rain. Clothing is soggy in 20 minutes. We entered the war zone a day earlier as we rounded the bottom of Vietnam. There is no danger, just a feeling of anticipation, but the war bonus begins, so we are pleased. A stop on the way to somewhere else. Our destination is the Vung Tau roadstead, off the river to the port of Saigon. The French called it Cape St. Jacques; a headland, high and lush, hooking south and east. Beaches, a low swell from a thousand miles away, light wind. We come to anchor among fifty other merchantmen, all waiting orders. Bright sunlight, no clouds or shadows, green, blue water. We are streaked with rust and salted up, exhaust soot on the masts, eating the metal, dirty. Stages of dress, the signs of time. We ride low in the water. Stop engines and knock out the stoppers, let go the anchor. The chain rumbles and bounces through the hawse pipe. Back to set; take some bearings. Plot it, check the depth, no weather threats forecast.

The essence of life on a merchant ship is consent to boredom. That’s how you want it. We aren’t in it for god, government or glory; we follow the money. The company gives you a ship, when it sails, where it’s bound. You don’t know for how long and the destinations change. It could be five months or a year. Leave from New York, Houston or San Francisco. A last look at the skyline, low cargo sheds next to tall cranes beside rail tracks. Romance is for posters and movies. With Vietnam, there is a job for every captain, mate, engineer, sailor, or fireman that can be found on the beach or in the hall. If you breathe, you have a job. If you walk, you work. Many of these men sailed in the terrible years to the Med, Britain, Russia, and shipmates dying in frozen water and burning oil. Then they were forgotten.

Twelve thousand miles and a ship on the way to the future. The ports before when the lights were on, when it was safe, you could walk and not worry who was behind you. When the worst was getting rolled for cash at the end of the pier.

A commercial jet passes overhead, heading home to the world or coming in with new troops. We ignore the trails in the sky. A fighter bomber heads up the coast to bomb or strafe, to save someone’s life in a firefight at a location identified by coordinates. The names you remember are the ones you try to forget. The places men die. A chopper follows the beach, looking for what? The only thing of interest is Christ on a cross on the side of the mountain. It is white and shining and it will disappear in a rain squall. Once a rainbow comes to his open arms and you wonder why. Was Christ there as a blessing? The color marks a contrast to the jungle and tigers in the forest. The danger is distant and does not matter. Our world is small. As long as the sea is calm and Christ stands, we are content.

We lie at anchor for three weeks. The ship is chipped and painted, oiled and greased, the cargo gear made ready, wires over-ended, hatch covers and tarpaulins removed and put away, hatches opened to let air in. The humidity and heat keep rising. With no wind, the ship swings slowly on the tide and the sun tries to melt us. It is too hot and you know something has to change. Monsoon will come, but until it does, hell is cooler. Ships leave the anchorage and head up river. We watch them, hulls with gray stacks, striped and colored, friends seen in Calcutta or Rangoon. We will see them again, but don’t know when. Most of the ships are American, some British, Greek or chartered for the cause. War is stuff, tanks, bulldozers, beer, bombs, and napalm. Peaches. Soda. Shoes and laces, soup. Telephone poles, body bags, medicine and crutches. Material enough to make a city, a country, especially to make a war.

Three weeks doing nothing and getting ready. Updating the notices to mariners. A lifeboat drill. Relaxing. Washing clothes, playing cards and reading. Taking the sun, the best part of war. The radio officer’s shortwave brings in America, not often and not well. People play records or tapes. The music is out of date. Mostly there is silence and the ship rolls. The war bonus adds up.

We get the word to move upriver. Pull out the charts, flake the dock lines on deck. Test the winches. Bring the logbooks up to date. Paper, even in a war, paper. Give an advance to the crew, check the company docs. Wash the shore clothes again. Go over the manifests, where the cargo is stowed in seven holds. Are we loading anything dangerous? The country is dangerous, but we ask; the answer is unimportant. Who wants overtime? What is the watch schedule? Who has to get to the embassy, needs a doctor, must call home? Where is the mail? No one asks about church.

We speak with the navy. The next day, the pilot boards, a gun crew joins and set up their weapons. The chief engineer finds some steel plate to cover the side windows. We are protected against snipers and fire from the river banks, not from the sun. Is there sun screen for 50 caliber rounds from an enemy machine gun?

The run to Saigon takes hours. It’s quiet, and we see boats fishing. People live on the river. We head up, the waste of a city flows out and past us. Trees, branches, leaves, pieces of dunnage, plastic, the body of a pig, the body of a man. In the end, they look the same, bloated and discolored. This is war from the covers of Time and Life. We have seen war and they are all the same. We stay undercover, following the pilots’ commands, small talk. As we go inland it gets busier, tighter, crowded with traffic. A merchant ship passes us to port, heading out and away. We acknowledge the waves of the crew on deck.

A battered tug comes to meet us. As we come to the dock at Cholon, we see ships rafted together. Some are discharging on the riverside into LST’S that came from Hitler’s war. They fly Japanese and Korean flags, allies for the time. We find our spot at the dock, nose in, the tug helping, and follow the messenger lines with hawsers. The agent comes aboard. The engines shut down, the gangway is lowered and the ship is silent; the gun crew goes ashore. The captain follows on company business, drunk on Johnny Walker scotch, drunk, for a month. We put out garbage drums, cargo lights, bridles and nets, rat guards. Tomorrow the longshoremen will start taking our cargo.

At 7 am the stevedores come aboard, a gang for each hatch. The language changes from English to Vietnamese. Men go below to take off the chains and straps holding artillery pieces and trucks from moving at sea. The winches whine. This is ballet, men moving cargo with hooks and net. It’s dance, but no one would say that. Up, swing, out, lower, pirouette. Find the sweet spot in the hatch and on the dock. Make it smooth as the boom circles. No wasted motion. There is a rhythm and grace to it.

The men are small, brown, not one above 100 pounds but used to the labor. There are dangers around machinery and heavy cargo. The men are old, some crippled, the young are gone. This is a land of ancient.

Our cargo is office equipment, tents, clothing, caterpillars, food, bayonets, canned fruit. Small arms. Ammunition, mortars, armored personnel carriers. Bits and pieces. Matting for runways. Light bulbs. Unmarked, Agent Orange. Uniforms, supplies marked “deliver Murmansk, 1943”. Nothing like the economy of war. If you don’t use it now, there’s always another.

It takes six days to discharge. The work starts early and goes until dark. Most of the crew don’t even leave the ship. It is hard to understand, but know this, the ship is your entire world, and when you cross over the gangway, it is dark and threatening in the daylight, not understood, of suspicion and fear. People want your money, your life. The only reason to go ashore is for a woman, a walk or a drink. Take your wallet. Keep your seaman’s papers safe. You lost yours once in New Orleans in a toilet stall, along with 20 dollars. Not a good feeling to lose a card validated for emergency service. Seamen were the first to have passports.

An incident, a story that’s not. Hatch 3, afternoon, the lower hold, the fifth day. A brutal sun and the ship smells of diesel oil, sweat, and waste. The sounds are yelled orders, the bang and clang of metal on metal. A cargo hook bounces on the deck. Steam escapes from a winch, hissing. Cargo booms groan. Scraping of a pallet on the deck. The gangway flexes, and wheezes under men walking. Thumps as a skid touches down on a truck bed or the dock and is moved to a shed. Forklifts growl, staggering and moving like beetles. The Vietnamese call for tea, rice and snacks. Sighs from the mooring lines as the ship and fenders move with the river. Vietnamese crap in the corners.

Fifty feet below and dark in the hold, nearly empty. All that is left are crates of small arms with M16’s, machine and shotguns, grenade launchers, tools for the grunts, weapons covered with cosmoline, waiting to be sighted and used. The last time, they will be quiet. Complete, ready to go, like meals. The longshoremen are doing their job, pushing the stenciled boxes into cargo nets. They use their legs. Small men can do wonders with legs. If you look up it’s a long way to heaven. The heat is overwhelming. You could fry eggs on steel, humidity that’s off the scale, drink 3.2 beer forever and never feel a thing.

In the hold, ten stevedores, one American merchant officer and a Vietnamese soldier to protect the ship and cargo. The heat and gloom of the hold has put him to sleep. Time has stopped, a suspended dimension. The mate, tired, nervous and afraid, picks up the soldier’s carbine with a beat up stock and rust on the barrel. He beats the soldier unconscious with his own rifle and steps away from the pooling blood. He clears the chamber, removes the clip, hears the snap as each round exits the magazine, puts them in his pocket, and sets the firearm down on the deck. The longshoremen look at him, nothing in their eyes, no reproach or curiosity, no anger, only the whispers of breathing. The men do not move. The mate walks to the ladder, glances upward, and climbs into the sky. There is a halo above him. His boots slap the metal rungs, khaki pants brush the rungs. The longshoremen’s sweat rolls into their eyes, their hands wet. They continue discharging. The American does not look down. On deck, he gets a coke from the galley refrigerator stained with oily hand prints.

A ship in port is a filthy thing, to be made neat at sea. A ship in port is unnatural. Papers are signed, some cargo for ports on the coast has been loaded and secured, hatches swept, lines coiled and gear secured. We have taken on stores and fuel,. The garbage is thrown out and overboard.

At dawn, a gun crew comes aboard. The decks are hosed down and the gangway pulled up, tied so it cannot move at sea. Time to sail. The flags are hoisted, America and the Republic of Vietnam. The dock men cast off the hawsers with barely a look and no interest. They turn and walk away. Another ship will take the berth in three hours. The hawsers splash the water and come up wet. Only the stern line and spring are left. We leave on the tide, using the spring to turn the bow and the engine backs. The tug pushes us into the stream. Leaving is quiet, just the sound of the engine and the propeller cavitating in air. A word from the pilot, the trees on the banks bending to the wind The world looks better when you leave. The mate turns his eyes downstream. He settles in at the corner of the bridge, his back to the railing, scanning the banks and the course ahead. In a few minutes, he goes into the pilothouse, behind steel. The horizon opens up as the river widens. The color of the water changes from brown to green-blue. It’s going to be a long day and hot.


David Gerstel, a Vietnam veteran and retired officer in the United States Merchant Marines, has contributed two other articles published on the website. Click the links to check them out.

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