I can't tell you how happy I was. We could hear the clunking of the steam-reciprocating engine, just as the USS Oxford came over the horizon. It was early morning March 23, 1967. The port of An Thoi lie in the distance some 500 yards from shore of the big Phu Quoc Island. We watched from the flat top deck of the floating Barracks, called an APL (Auxilliary Platform for Landing.) It had been our home for the past few days. Radiomen had alerted us that she was coming and would be here at any time. She was affectionately known as The Ox. She was alone. No escorts of any type, not even a PCF (Pacific Coastal Forces) boat better known as Swift boats. Doing just peaceful "technical research," what was the need of an escort? First impressions, the ship struck me as being one big floating antennae, it looked a bit top heavy. It had a huge aft mast, resembling a Christmas tree. We found out later that everyone on board called it The Christmas tree. As she drew closer we could see the big 24 foot diameter TRSSCOM (Terestial Communications) dish, used for bouncing signals off the Moon. It stood just aft of the Christmas tree. The aft deck was painted a very bright reflecting white, and was spotlessly clean. We could see the deck, visibly, as the ship came close and turned some 100 yards away, rolling to port slightly, exposing the upper deck of the aft deck house. Her engine slowed, then reversed, and she drifted to a stop some 50-70 feet away from the APL. A whistle was piped, and the anchor crew hit a catch with a sledge hammer, and the large anchor on the port side came reeling out and down, causing a hell of a racket. Steam brakes were applied to the capstan and the anchor, and the racket diminished noticably. The engine stopped, and the USS Oxford stood before us in all her glory. Ships of the line are named after famous heroes, and Presidents. Many ships are named after women. All are refered to affectionately as She or Her by the sailors who reside on board, no matter what the name. The USS Oxford was named after all the cities and towns of the world named Oxford.
We had waited for five days for the Ox to show up. Life aboard the small APL was okay, only being stuck in on small barracks was not okay. The food wasn't that great, but it was much better not having to walk through a cemetery for it, as we had to do at the Annapolis Hotel. Crews of the Swift Boat, Coastal Swift Squadron, Coastal Division 11, came and went. They were working for the VNN (Republic of Vietnam Naval) Coastal Group Base, at the port of An Thoi. With their PCF boats going out all hours of the day and night, they were used to quietness, so they didn't disturb us new guys, nor the PCF crews that were napping. The crews mostly slept, not getting much sleep on the boats.
We enjoyed the sea stories of the Swift Boat detachment stationed on the APL. They were a brave lot. Boats would arrive with bullet holes, from time to time. It was a wonder no one was wounded on the boats while I was there, let alone killed. "Close call only", the crew of these PCF boats would say. Always down-playing the incidents.
But, we were trained to copy ditties, (Morse code.) That is all we wanted to do. One could copy ditties much faster on an electric typwriter. One could type much faster with ditties coming over the headset, than one normally could without. That's a fact. I wanted to get to the job, I was tired of being in transit.
Waiting with me, were all CTs. (Communications Technicians.) All had at least one year of experience in the field. I held a Secret Clearance, soon to be upgraded to Top Secret. I copied millions of ditties over the past year. I was an R-Brancher, (Radio.) I had only volunteered for duty in Vietnam about two weeks prior. I did not have to go to Vietnam, my only brother was there. The US Military could not send me to Vietnam even if they wanted to, there was a law against it. So, I had to volunteer.
After reaching the ship and all the formalities, I was assigned a bunk in a compartment sleeping 150 men. There wasn't a hell of a lot of space. The bunk opened like a trunk and there was more than enough room to fit the contents my whole seabag. I was very happy not to have to live out of the seabag having done it for the past two weeks. I finally got down to the things way down at the bottom of the seabag, my dirty laundry, it smelled pretty bad. I dumped my laundry into the ships hamper, being sure that my name was clearly stenciled on each piece of it so that I would get it back. A number of the guys in my compartment were nice enough to introduce themselves, after all, we were all on the same boat together. But, there was one Marine, a Communications Technician, who kept coming up to me and putting his big arm around me, coming on a bit too strong for my blood. It got really bad when he he started asking me if he could see my pecker. I had to slide as politely as I could out of his grip, and get the hell away from him. Everyone warned me about Willey. I did not know gays could get a security clearance. I was told that gays were not accepted in the in the armed forces, and definitely not given a security clearance. Other members of my compartment were also acting a bit strange.
Our compartment was one deck below decks, and the air conditioning was off when we got aboard. It was hot below decks. They were cleaning the filters. I stowed my gear, then got my toilet gear and went in and took a shower. The ship had plenty of hot water, the steam-reciprocating engine produced plenty of it, it was a by product. We were told not to use an extravagant amount of it. I got in and took a nice hot shower.
All of a sudden the shower curtain was thrown back from outside. I stood there naked, astounded. There was Willey, the Marine, he snapped a picture of me with a Polaroid camera. He then went screaming into the compartment, "I got it, I got it!" I then heard every guy in the compartment counting form sixty, down to one. I got dried off quickly and put a towel around my waist, and went back into the compartment to see what the hell was going on, the count was down to five, four......they were waiting for the Polaroid photo to finish developing and all had their pants down around their knees with cocks in hand! I was astounded, and now very afraid. What the hell kind of crew is this! They ripped off the back of the Polaroid photo, and all began to whack it! I felt like running away, anywhere. Should I run up to the Captain?! Then, they all began to laugh, hysterically. Big Willey came up to me and put his arm around me, and said, " We were only kidding, we just had to check you out." I was greatly relieved. I should have known there would be some sort of initiation to be accepted on any ship of the line.
I put on my dungarees, standard work clothes while aboard. I went with my pal Louie, and Larry, two of the five who were with me at the Annapolis Hotel, and took a tour of the ship. It wasn't a very big ship, so it did not take long. It was very clean, the deck crew kept the Ox nearly spotless. We went up atop the after deck house, to the base of the after mast, to The Christmas Tree. It was towering, looking even bigger once below it looking up. I would not want to be the one to have to service one of the antenna at the top of it. There was a ladder all the way to the top. We sat on the seats of the TRSSCOM dish, used for manually adjusting the tilt of the dish, but never used. It was all done electronically, below decks in the after deck house. It was "Off limits" to all but the Communications Technician T-branchers (Technical branch.) We did not have the NTK (Need To Know) to go into the spaces. Everything in intelligence was based on the NTK. If you did not have the need to know, then you will not know it.
Soon, it was time for lunch. Mess decks were one deck below the main deck, we got a stainless steel tray with with six big dents in it, and eating utensils. We waited in a short line and got our food put into the proper dents and sat down to one of the best meals I had in the past month, wow was this food good! I even went back for seconds, it was okay, there was plenty. Once back in our compartment, we were told to get some sleep. We were to start standing our first watch in about four hours. We were to stand "port and starboard watches," in other words: eight hours on, eight hours off. There was a shortage of us CT R-branchers. I did not expect to start working so soon. I was given an ID badge, on a chain, to be worn around the neck when entering our spaces, standard issue in the intelligence community, I had one at my last duty station. Anyone without one was not allowed to enter our spaces. Having one signified that you held a Top Secret Clearance, and had the NTK to go in our spaces. We were shown the door to our spaces, it had a combination lock, nine numbered buttons, and told the combination to get in. The combination itself was classified Top Secret. I didn't bother to go in, I already knew what was in there. I would see it, soon enough. I went back to my bunk to get some sleep.
I was awoken a few hours later by the deck crew raising the anchor. There was no sleeping through that racket, the capstan was just above our spaces. We dressed quickly to go up and watch. I could feel the hum of the engine at idle. Once the anchor was fully raised, the stops were applied to the anchor chain, and the anchor washed off with fresh water, the engine was engaged and the ship began to clunk on its way. It would become the most familiar sound on the ship, the ships heart beat. We went below to stand our watch. Our spaces were at the foward part of the ship, just below the main deck, protected by a combination door lock. I punched in the four digit number I was given to memorize. The door gave a buzz, and opened to the smell of electrical circuitry. There were rows of Collins R390 A/URR receivers, all manned by CT-R branchers. I was no stranger to the R390, I had used one for a year at San Miguel, Zambales, in the Philippines, and in NCTC (Naval Communications Training Center,) in Pensacola, Florida. It's a powerful radio receiver, considered the finest high-frequency receiver ever built.
I met my Petty Officer in Charge, a Second Class CT. He pointed at the man I was to relieve. He was busy copying his man, A Viet Cong in the bush somewhere using a six watt hand-cranked transmitter. The man I was to relieve gave me a sign to wait, wait until he finished this guy. The VC was all over the frequency, and the guy I was to relieve had one hand typing onto six-ply fanfold paper, and one hand on the knob to change frequency. Finally, after some minutes, he threw down the headset and got up. Good luck, he told me, and I sat down and put on the headset. I was given a clipboard with call-signs to listen for and a list of frequencies to monitor. Some were on a hot list and I was to contact the T-branchers if I got one of them up, so that they could get a line bearing. A number of line bearings, from different locations all on the same target and we could get a fix on our man. It's called HFDF (High Frequency Direction Finding.) The HFDF antennae were above us at the prow of the ship, above decks.
I got down to business, knowing the importance of my work. There was a coffee machine with freshly brewed coffee, and we were allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink all the coffee we wanted. On guy drank no less than 23 cups on one eight hour watch. Needless to say, he did not fall asleep the whole watch. It was not all hard work. When taking breaks, we could roll up to a music frequency on our R390 and listen to the top ten records. Number one at the time was "To Sir, With Love," from the movie soundtrack. Some guys would even drop their man, to roll up and listen to it. We had to be careful not to play it too loud or the supervisor would catch us and give us extra duty. The ship chugged along at about ten knots, while we chugged along at about six words per minute below decks, copying Charlie in the bush, calling out to get DF bearings. It was great fun. We did have the NTK to know where we were heading. We were going near the southern-most coast of Cambodia even within their territorial waters, to conduct "geophysical technical research." Alone, armed with only two 50 caliber machine guns, hand grenades, and M16's, used to repel boarders.
I had trouble following my man, but once I got back into the groove, it was easy. These Charlies in the bush only send ditties at about six words per minute, it was just difficult trying to follow him up and down the frequency. I could picture in my mind some poor bastard, stuck in the jungle somewhere, wet and hungry, with his partner, the guy doing the cranking. One guy cranking to create electricity and the radio operator keying out the ditties. Now that is dedication to the cause. Only, he most likely was not alone. He may have a whole battalion hidden with him, bent on killing American or ARVN troops. Our job was to intercept Charlies' radio transmissions, break the code, pinpoint his location, and take him out. Our supervisors need not express the importance of our mission, we knew how important it was. We were just a dedicated as Charlie.
when you are busy, time flies. We finished our watch and went back to our compartment to get some sleep. It was about midnight when we finished the watch, and there wasn't much to see above decks. Only the millions of stars. On a moonless night, with the ship blackened out it seemed like you could see every star in the Universe. You could see the lights of the coastal villages of Cambodia, far off, some 10-15 miles away. I could feel the ship's heart beat, and all was well. This ship would be home for the next year, whether I liked it or not. So far, I liked it. Everything would not be hunky dory on the Ox, but that's another story. I heard that we would be heading for Subic Bay, in the Philippines in about a week, for some repairs and to replenish our supplies. It was a tiring first day aboard, so I went below and got some shuteye, wondering what would come next.