On the Deck of the Duke Victory

Lopez, a Wiper from the engine room, took this picture of us in the South Pacific, headed for the Far East, summer of 1969. That’s Winston Baker, 8 to 12 oiler, on the left, and an engaging young fella from the galley named Miguel in the middle. (Note the pipe in the latter’s hand; a bit of affectation he picked up from some of the crew. It didn’t last long.) The ship was the Duke Victory, a WWII vet, now MSTS, (Military Sea Transport Service) a freighter that carried jeeps, rations, and so on; but secured on the foredeck sat the barrels of six 135 millimeter cannon. We were on our way to Vietnam , among other ports of call. On the night of the moon landing the ship was somewhere in the South China Seas . I was hanging out with Chief Cook Luis Concepcion from San Miguel, Puerto Rico in his fo’csle, or his foxhole as he called it. We had an old boom box propped up in front of the porthole, with the antenna sticking out over the ocean. We turned to Armed Forces Radio and we heard the landing. Luis had smuggled a bottle of rum aboard. We took turns at the porthole, quite stirred by the moment. The sky was clear and black and the moon was bright. We could not quite grasp the idea that men were about to walk on it. We heard Armstrong say, “ Houston , I’m on the porch,” and then the signal began breaking up. Unfortunately, we did not hear the “One small step…” clarion call. It didn’t matter in the end as we had had a unique and memorable advantage point. Fifty-two years ago.

Seaman's Papers

By my third year of college the urge to escape, to bolt, was overwhelming. I’d been managing editor of the UMASS/Boston newspaper, and was caught up in it; and I’d stopped going to some of my classes. I knew I was adrift and had better latch on to something solid and stable. The mournful face on the document says it all. To sail merchant marine had been in my mind for years, and the Sixties mantra of finishing an education “on the road” was a drumbeat to a budding writer. Despite the folk songs that were popular then I had no desire to hitchhike, or ride the rails. Witness Eric Anderson’s road romance, “Well, I’m goin’, my baby / I’m gonna leave you, pretty gal / for a train passed by while you lay sleeping / I’ll write you a letter on a dusty boxcar wall.” So many books had I read of a life at sea; one major influence was The Call of the Sea by Jan De Hartog, and the Victory at Sea TV series had gripped my youthful heart and imagination.

Da Nang Pass

We were a day in line to unload. I did go ashore, walked around, and took it in, the green uniforms, the Vietnamese, the noise, the chatter. There was an odd smell, not disagreeable, but certainly unlike any other port I’d been in, or would be in. Qui Nhon was next. We sat in the harbor that night. A skiff manned by three young soldiers circled the ship about once an hour dropping concussion grenades to dissuade any swimmers armed with explosives to attach to our hull. We lowered tea and coffee to the soldiers. I went to bed at last and slept through a couple of mortar rounds thrown at us.