Love and War: Topside on Patrol
By Dave Payson, 1964-68
Topside on patrol and I am sitting propped up against a bulkhead near the Wilhoite’s forward gun mount, sitting on the salt-washed deck under a canopy of stars and a moon that appears so impossibly close that it has to be magnified to twice its normal size by some kind of atmospheric phenomenon found only in this part of the world. I come up here at night after radar watch to be alone with my thoughts, and to experience the Wilhoite in her “natural” environment, as she patrols these waters off the coast of Vietnam. She cuts through the water effortlessly, silently, leaving in her wake a long churning phosphorescent tail. I know it sounds strange, but she seems like a living, breathing thing to me. Below deck, in her innards, it is not the same.
So when I am topside there is a feeling that I am experiencing the ship in all her natural elements, the sea and the land and the air and the sky. But there is also the other thing—my constant pining over my former girlfriend—who I think about all the time up here. Mine are torn, anguished, and depressed thoughts brought on by the Dear John letter she wrote me while I was still in Boot Camp. It was cruel and usual punishment for a young, still-wet-behind-the-ears boot such as myself to have had to go through. My thoughts during these moments of self-pity usually go something like this: How could she break my heart like that? What was she thinking? We had a future together. Really, I lead myself to believe, I am lucky I didn’t wash out of the Navy after that Dear John letter. I don’t know how I managed to hold myself together.
And it goes on this way, this kind of pathetic thinking that I wouldn’t dare share with my buddies. Pitiful! Rather than moving on, I have let it fester within me, a sliver that has been very slow to work its way out. I am my own worst enemy in this regard, for I talked her into continuing to write me, even though she dumped me ignominiously in Boot Camp. And nearly two years after her Dear John letter, we still write. But it is hard for me to pour my heart out to her, even though I really want to, knowing what she did to me. And her letters back to me are guarded, unemotional, perfunctory. Kind of like being in a loveless marriage, I suppose. Still, I take what emotional sustenance I can get from our strange relationship, and my hope is that she will take me back when I get out of the Navy.
Broken heart notwithstanding, there is a war going on, and this is one more reason I come up here after radar watch, for the war is a welcome distraction from all this pitiful romantic baggage I’m carrying around. So I put this baggage aside, and try to figure it out—this war that I am a part of. Along the coastline, white beaches pale in the moonlight, I can see perhaps half a dozen parachute flares in the night sky, each several miles apart and each having descended to a different altitude above the ground. These flares that are spitting white phosphorous (Willie Pete, they call it), incendiary, white-hot light that turns night into day, represent separate firefights out there, I know. Two- to three-hundred feet below them, I can follow the tracer fire, green and red fireballs, snaking along in jagged lines, serpent-like. Somehow this reminds me of the Chinese New Year’s celebration I watched in San Francisco a year ago as part of a crowd of two-hundred-thousand people. I was attending radar school then at Treasure Island. Accompanying this action, I can hear the distant thump-thump of mortar fire as well as automatic-weapons fire from the combatants. Every night, the sights and sounds of war surround me up here. Men are fighting and dying onshore a few miles away from me while I ride the Wilhoite through the comparatively secure waters offshore. We are looking to engage the enemy, to be sure, but we don’t face the kind of trouble those guys on land face—the kind of trouble that can get you sent home in a body bag. And get your name inscribed on The Wall in Washington, D.C., many years later.
Momentarily, my thoughts wander back to that damn Dear John letter she sent me while I was still in Boot Camp, and I struggle to get my attention back on the war. I know where to look to draw it back—and there, in the night sky, I find it! It is working tonight right on cue—the helicopter gunship "Puff the Magic Dragon." When it is in action, Puff is the best show in town. And there is Puff living up to his reputation, reigning pure hell down upon the enemy below. Victor Charlie may think he owns the night, but Victor Charlie is wrong. Puff owns the night. Anything in Puff's path is obliterated by several 100-mm cannons firing a concentrated stream of tracer fire at rate of 10,000 rounds per second. I shudder to think what it must be like being on the receiving end of that death ray! The enemy fears Puff more than anything else in this war, I have heard. And I believe it, even though my source is Stars and Stripes.
Higher up in the sky on these nights I am up on deck—so high, in fact, that I cannot see them—are the B-52s that have flown here from Guam to deliver their payloads of death and destruction on the Forces of the North. They are saturation bombing, or carpet bombing, as they called it in World War II, when they had reduced entire cities, such as Berlin, Dresden and Tokyo, to rubble. Except this time it is not cities but jungles and every living thing in them that are being reduced to rubble. The B-52’s bombs, I have heard (again from Stars and Stripes) leave huge gashes in the earth, totally obliterating jungle and men alike, leaving behind little more than small parts of both. On some nights I can see the flashes and fires from the bombings burning far inland like a snapshot from hell, and a few times I have brashly predicted to my radar mates that the war was as good as over (this must have been in ’67), because the enemy could not possibly survive such destruction and will have no choice but to surrender to our superior firepower. Otherwise we will bomb him into the Stone Age.
Finally, it is time to go below deck to the comfort of my rack. At sea, a sailor’s best friend is his rack, by far and away. But before I head down, I always think one last heartbroken thought of her and scan night sky one more time to see how the war is progressing. I think: My heart will never heal, but this war will be over in a year. Then, dogging the hatch tightly behind me, I'm gone below.
Ever-vigilant, the Wilhoite picks up speed, changes course and commences the northern leg of her patrol. She moves silently, effortlessly into the night, doing the job she was designed to do.