By Roger Chagnon, Jr, Navy, Vietnam ERA
Writing Type: Prose
In 1972 I passed my qualifications to become a second class petty officer as a signalman in the United States Navy. Unfortunately, at this particular time, President Richard Nixon issued a wage freeze—in addition, all military promotions were frozen until further notice. So, I remained a third class signalman. After the wage freeze for military personnel was lifted, I reported to the ship's office to accept my advancement to second class. The officer in charge of personnel then informed me that I needed 12 months on my current enlistment contract in order to be advanced to second class. As it turned out, I had only nine months on my contract. I had set a goal for myself at the start of my enlistment that I would work as hard as I could to make second class. Therefore, I requested an extension to my then current enlistment contract of three months. The personnel officer called me to the ship's office, and I signed the advancement. Very soon I was informed that I could now wear the second class insignia. I then converted all of my uniforms over from third class to second class signalman.
I was scheduled to go home on leave and travel from San Diego to Westfield, NY until my ship and squadron were called on very short notice to deploy to Westpac and Vietnam. We were to help defend South Vietnam from a new attack from the North Vietnamese forces. This deployment was very intense and most interesting. While there, we exchanged artillery rounds with the North Vietnamese on many occasions, and we performed our mission in admirable fashion. To this day I still have a piece of shrapnel from a North Vietnam artillery round that exploded close aboard. That piece was very ragged and sharp and would have left a deadly wound.
As a signalman my duty station was on the signal bridge. The signal bridge is the highest continuously manned station on the ship. The sound of an artillery round passing close overhead is something that you are never prepared for. Training has no way to simulate the sound and the shock of being fired upon with heavy artillery by someone who wishes you great harm. Our ship, the USS Hanson DD-832, was the last ship to enter and leave Haiphong Harbor prior to it being mined.
During one mission on targets near the coast of North Vietnam, my watch mate, Alex, and I observed three muzzle flashes from the shore off our starboard quarter. We saw the flash, yet we never heard the sound of the rounds. That made sense because we were several miles from the shore. We knew that artillery rounds were directed to our ship. We were not sure where they would land. Very quickly we heard two detonations in the sea. Alex then turned to me and said "look at that stuff'." Alex did not actually say ‘stuff’ however this is a "G" rated story. You get the picture. Right then we received a close aboard explosion on the starboard side amidships. The Hanson received many shrapnel holes and Alex and I were spared serious injury by the starboard flag bag. The flag bag on a ship is a bit misleading in title. On my ship the flag bag was a steel, rectangular box located on both sides of the signal bridge containing all of the naval signal flags and pennants needed for visual communication using flag hoist. Such a very close call. If the round had detonated 50 feet further forward, Alex and I would surely have been killed or very seriously injured. I had then, as I have now, no desire for a Purple Heart.
My shipmates and I spent many nights on watch listening to Armed Forces Radio and the DJ "Wolf Man Jack" on tape sent from Mexico with a 100,000 watt signal and with his classic howl. If the ship was actively using the air search radar located and rotating 30 feet over our head we had no radio reception at all. To our good fortune we had many nights to enjoy the songs of the day with no operating air search radar. When we were on watch every other day from 11:30 p.m. until 7:00 a.m., the best thing that we had to make it through the night was our music. Of course, we always maintained a very alert and critical visual watch while listening to the music. That was our duty, first and foremost. When a ship called us on the signal light we responded immediately. When I became the senior signalman watch stander I insisted that we maintain a very taut watch. On many occasions we called the aircraft carrier that we were shadowing for plane guard duty and they routinely did not answer our flashing light calls. On a number of nights, we had to ask the officer of the deck on the bridge of our ship to voice call them so that they could notify the signalman to receive an incoming visual message. Not the best way to stand a visual watch on Yankee Station Vietnam. Clearly not the way that we stood watch.
To this day, I remember many of those songs and the time spent on watch during quiet and stand down times. Our ship, along with all of the other ships deployed in Vietnam, had some quiet times and also some very, very intense times while exchanging fire with the North Vietnamese, and acting as plane guard units operating 1000 yards astern in the wake of the many aircraft carriers deployed on Yankee station. In light of the recent collisions involving Navy ships, we were constantly concerned about the high volume of ship traffic on Yankee Station. At one point there were four aircraft carriers (Constellation CVA 64, Enterprise CVA 65, Kitty Hawk CVA 63 and Hancock CVA 19) plus their plane guard destroyers, numerous support ships, and, of course, the Russian so called trawlers that were obviously spy ships all maneuvering in the same area. On several nights when I was not on watch, I returned to the signal bridge, loaded up on coffee and chatted with my guys standing watch. If something bad happened, and it never did, I would at least be able to see and react to it.
Upon our arrival back in San Diego, I requested the leave I had missed earlier because of our quick deployment to the Western Pacific. I was granted 20 days leave starting immediately. I gathered my leave papers, and informed my division officer and my first class, packed a small travel bag, called the airport for tickets, and signed out on the quarterdeck on my way to western New York. This was to be a significant transition point in my life. My flight left at 11:55 p.m. and arrived in Buffalo, NY at 8:45 a.m. after a layover in Chicago. My brother met me at the airport and we drove to Westman Drive in Bemus Point, N.Y..
It was the holiday season and Christmas was just a few days away. My brother asked me if I would like a date during this holiday time. I said, What do you have in mind." He said that the sister of his good friend next door might be available for a date. We were nearly the same age so I said, "Set it up, I am interested." My brother let me know that my prospective date was Debbie Bowen and she lived nearby in Westfield, N.Y.. I called her and we set up an evening for dinner. She suggested that we go to a restaurant in Dunkirk, N.Y. by the name of Rusch's. I called Rusch's and made reservations for our dinner.
On the evening we were to enjoy a night out I drove to Westfield, parked on the street in front of her house, and began my walk up the sidewalk. Suddenly, a very large and beautiful German Shepard bounded from the bushes in the front of the house and ran directly toward me. I had been raised with German Shepard dogs and I knew that they could detect the smell of fear on humans. He should have had a significant noseful. I did the best that I could to not appear afraid and I held my hand down for this gorgeous dog to smell. He then knew that I was a friend, and he actually escorted me up the front stairs to the house. I was much relieved that this date was now on a positive track.
Upon arriving at the front door and ringing the bell, a very nice gentlemen answered the door. I asked if he was Mr. Bowen and he informed me that he was Dick Wilson. He then let me know that his wife was Debbie's sister and that they were upstairs getting ready for our date. Dick then informed me that Debbie's father passed away in 1968. Very soon she came down the stairs and I was stunned at how beautiful she was. We had some conversation and then we left for our dinner date. Dinner was very nice and when we were finished with our meal Debbie took me on a tour of the campus of the State University of New York at the Fredonia campus. We had a great ride and then we proceeded back to Westfield and her home. We saw each other a few wonderful times before I had to return to my ship in San Diego.
Within a few short weeks after returning to my ship, my personnel officer came to me and asked me if I would like to re-enlist. He asked me if I had any duty stations that I would want to be assigned to. I said that I would like to be an instructor at the signalman school in San Diego. He looked into that and then told me that there was a long waiting list for that assignment. I was very puzzled because I had a few months left on my enlistment and so I asked why. He said that I was highly recommended for re-enlistment, and I was also recommended for an early out. Somehow these two options did seriously appear to be diametrically opposed. He then informed me that the Navy was reducing enlisted personnel levels near the end of the Vietnam conflict. He asked me if I was willing to re-enlist. With Debbie strongly on my mind I said, “No thank you, I will go home”.
I returned home to be reunited with Debbie and plan for the future. Soon our relationship would move to the next level. Our great feelings for each other blossomed to the point that we were soon engaged and then married on June 28, 1975. We continue to be best of friends and lovers to this day. We have two wonderful children: Heather and her husband David who make their home in Santa Rosa, Calif., with their children Caroline and Rachel, and Roger and his wife Jackie who make their home in Westfield, N.Y., with their children Ella and Roger IV. Our life has become a marvelous journey in comfort, experiences and monumental happiness. When I look back on my decision to transition from the U.S. Navy to civilian, married life, I clearly realize that I made the best decision possible.