By Bob Houf

Two brothers joined the Navy in 1967/68, and each had different experiences during the Vietnam War. Read what happened.

I was on board the 617 as a Missile Technician and diver (E-6) during refit and listening to the cassette tape my older brother Jim had sent from Vietnam.

When I dropped out of school in 1967 and joined the Navy, Jim waited until January 1968 to drop out of Ohio University in his second year of school and enlisted as well.

1968 was an inauspicious year in the war era–the Tet Offensive of January had exploded, and the hated Vietnam war was about to enter an entirely new and dismal phase.

Although I was headed to the Polaris program and knew that during Boot Camp, Jim was headed for the fighting Seabees and Vietnam–but he didn’t know it when he came out to San Diego.

Now here we were, years into our enlistments and we had been exchanging cassette tapes back and forth by mail.

Jim, a BU2 (E-5), and his Construction Battalion were moving all over Vietnam constructing forward fire bases for the Marines while I was making Polaris patrols out of Rota, Spain.

Mom was back home trying to calm her anxiety through all of this – she had gone through it once before when Dad was a Marine Lieutenant fighting on Guadalcanal in the Pacific during World War II – now she had to relive the experience with two of her sons.

Mom was a very strong woman and handled stress well, but I only really understood some of what she was going through many years later when she opened up a bit about what it was like.

Wives and mothers bear a deep burden when their men go to war, to sea and serve.

In the middle of a monologue about his duty that night I heard, “Stand by – I have radio traffic from outside the wire” come out of the cassette player.  I could hear the radio static and hiss of the VHF radio in the background while Jim was engaged with troops on patrol outside the concertina wire surrounding their compound on the river.  He spoke into the radio in a low voice and I had trouble making out what the grunts were saying back.

How vastly different his world was from mine – I couldn’t tell him anything about our patrols and had to keep my comments to the occasional item of interest – like a great trip during refit one weekend to Torremolinos, a Mediterranean hot spot on the Spanish Riviera. 

We managed to squeeze that in because things had gone so well in a nuclear weapons proficiency audit and we had made great progress in refit in the Missile Compartment.

All of that and a new best-seller book by James A. Michener, “The Drifters” had just been released and devoured by all of us which described this Mediterranean town and what it was like.

So, taking advantage of the situation a couple of runnin’ mates and I shoved off for what turned out to be a fantastic weekend…

So I would tell Jim about that kind of thing and when he had time he would enthrall me with tales of R&R in Bangkok, Thailand that he and his mates took.

Jim spent over 2 and a quarter years in country doing his Seabee job and as a result got assigned to some exceptional duty stations, like LZ Hardcore, Phu Bai, Da Nang, Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Cam Lo, Hai Lang, Dien Shanh, LZ Sharon, Giadangh, Mai Linh, La Vang, Cua Viet, Chu Lai, Phu Tho, LZ Stud, LZ Charley 1 & 2 – LZ being the code abbreviation for a Marine Landing Zone big enough for helicopters to resupply the grunts.

All of which he worked on.  And was shot at and rocketed, on too.  He kept a calendar and marked each day they were rocketed – month after month, waking up in the middle of the night to dash into an underground bunker “assholes and elbows” flying high.

Jim was a PO2 in the Builders rating which meant he swung a hammer – as well as an M-16 and somehow got chosen to be the squad machine gunner which meant he hauled the M-60 around everywhere they went.

Fighting Seabees, indeed.

On that night Jim was in the guard tower over the compound, manning the radio network and using a starlight sniper scope to survey the surrounding area for Charlie.

When I asked him about Charlie he just snorted and said, “They come inside the wire and work beside us during the day as Vietnamese and at night they are Charlie…”

So there we were, both serving during our own version of war – hot or cold, take your pick – we had it covered.

The most interesting – and nearly fatal – account he gave, other than the nightly rocket attacks, was when he and another Seabee were up on the side of a water tower about 30 feet above ground.

A Vietnamese wandered out from the area about 40 yards away and was carrying an M-1 Carbine and then began to plink against a rice paddy away from their compound.

The next thing Jim knew, slugs were slamming into the wood supports next to him and his buddy – Jim turned around to see the Vietnamese aiming at him and leapt off the tower grabbing a line that was tied off on top and fast-roped to the ground before the next shot got off.

They were never able to find the bad guy.

Our cassettes were filled with the youthful manly banner of the time and sadly, only one very benign tape remains, filled with mundane monologues of brotherly friendship and the daily life of a Seabee and a submarine sailor.

Jim died last year of the complications of cancer and other diseases related to Agent Orange – which he had been liberally coated with.

Bob Houf on Polaris Sub

Jim Houf Seabee Builder


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