The "Original" Boat People
March 1967

            As we floated slowly but surely toward our destination, the black sky above faded into a reddish glow in the distance. We had been on the Kula Gulf for over two weeks and now the journey was nearing the end. Were we floating into Hell? The goose pimples on my arm told me we were. The silence among us, usually non-stop banter, was deafening. We stared at the horizon and not much was said.

            Who were we? What was the Kula Gulf? And where the Hell is Hell?

            Well, we  were the "boat people". We all came together late last summer  at Fort Bragg, NC to start the 187th Aviation Company, to be renamed later the 187th Assault Helicopter Company. At that time, we had no helicopters so we became excellent ball players. Once a week, we drove to the flight line and kicked tires on an old Korean War Chickasaw helicopter for 20 minutes, then drove back to the ballfield. Eventually, our Hueys showed up and we had to cut back on baseball just when we were finally getting good.

            On December 27th, 1966, we received our orders to deploy to a restricted area overseas. In February 1967, we received clarified orders. Most of the company was going overseas. Twenty-seven of us had to report to California. I was among those 27. So were some of my best friends. Of all the men in the company, I was closest with Tom Lovetere, Marty Alexander, Don Garceau, Fred Thompson and Jim Smith. Tom, Marty and Don were also among the infamous 27.

            We were not naive enough to think that California was the restricted overseas area, though that would have been rather nice. Our assignment was to accompany the helicopters on a three-hour tour which took 19 days. Instead of taking the SS Minnow, we went aboard an aircraft carrier named the Kula Gulf.

            We were the "original" boat people, a term I believe coined by Lovetere some years later.

            And Hell? A chunk of land previously called French Indo-China, now called Viet-Nam, or the Republic of Viet-Nam.
            In any case our duties in California for the Boat People was to let contractors wrap the helicopters in a cocoon (to protect the skin from the elements) while we explored the hillsides of Alameda and San Francisco. It was a tough job, but we knew from our Army training, someone had to do it.

            The timing was unique.

            The Haight Ashbury hippie movement had started. We had stopped by at the suggestion of a doped-out bearded guy who was spray painting graffiti on the wall of a restaurant we had just eaten in. I had no idea what he said, but A. J. Lagel (the chess whiz of the Boat People!) being from Los Angeles was our interpreter. We found the area and parked. For the most part, the true Hippie movement had started, but these characters seemed more beatnik, dressed for the most part in dirty Army fatigues, no bell bottoms or tie-die yet. And apparently no baths.  The hippies at that time seemed to be just homeless panhandlers. Some of the women dressed like the few beats we had in high school. We were a few months too early for the Summer of Love 1967. But the Boat People were there where the Beat Generation begat the Flower Power Generation. We made little or no impression on these hippies with our short hair, clean-shaven faces and dress spit-shined Army regulation black shoes.  And who knows? Maybe one of the ones I tripped over (they were laying all over the sidewalks in front of some gorgeous Victorian homes) could have been Jerry Garcia or Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, crazy Charley Manson or possibly Steve Jobs before Apple. 

            Next, Carol Doda from Big Al's and the Condor Club led the strippers in the topless sex club wars while sporting some of the first implants. She also was instrumental in changing the world as we know it, though in a rather different way than Steven Jobs. We drove past the club, but by now lacked the funds to go in. Actually, we lacked the funds to pay for the rental car and a cab back to the ship. But hey, we're going to Hell, so what the hell?

            Prospect Park near Berkeley was already starting their War protests so we wisely avoided that area.

            To our glee and delight, the mini-skirt had recently been introduced. Most of the women of San Fran had very well developed legs, no doubt from hiking up and down those hills throughout the city. The mini enhanced these trophies and made it more difficult for us to contemplate leaving all this eye candy for a year.

            All in all, a beautiful city as we drove around and walked around Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf , countless steep hills and crooked streets.

            We barely made it back to the ship before it departed. We had dragged out as much time on-shore as possible, but now it was time to leave the States.

            That morning we left and drifted out past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, porpoises leapt out of the water by the front of the ship and started their voyage with us for next couple hundred miles. Some of our crew were sick. As for me, I lucked out. Though I was nauseous for the entire trip, I somehow kept it together. My problem, however, was I believe shared by many of us. As we pulled out of dock in Alameda, an ache started in my heart which stayed with me for the entire tour of duty overseas. It was constant and always there, sometimes flaring worse with news from home, whether good or bad. It was homesickness and nothing could cure it. Homesick for the States, the family, the friends, the sweethearts. A very real, very genuine ache.

            Our original impression of the aircraft carrier Kula Gulf was not overly favorable. We expected a John Wayne controlled gigantic carrier like the movies portrayed, not a wooden deck boat with black smoke pouring out the stacks. The wrapped helicopters loomed like giant white mummies and the giant waves through much of the journey made the trip more than a little hazardous. The ship did have a little bit of Americana attached to it.

            It originally was to be named the Vermillion Bay when it was being built during the Second World War. A few naval battles were fought in the Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands in 1943 and the ship was renamed accordingly to honor those battles. The Kula Gulf was launched in August of 1944 out of Portland, OR.

She saw a little action in that war shuttling planes between Saipan and Guam and then helped bring many of our troops home. In 1946, she was decommissioned in Boston. In 1951, the Kula Gulf was brought out of mothballs and was primarily a training ship in the Atlantic. Part of the Atlantic Reserve fleet for a few more years, she was then transferred in 1965 to Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) as the US expanded efforts to protect the integrity and independence of the Republic of South Vietnam. MSTS worked primarily out of the West Coast ports and the Kula Gulf shuttled aircraft back and forth for two years.

            And now in 1967, it had the responsibility of carrying the 187th to Viet-Nam. We left on March 4th.

            Our days were filled with various chores ranging from smoking, sunbathing, eating, pinochle, hearts, chess, checkers, watching movies, and our favorite, Duck! Duck was standing in the front of the ship during rough seas, anticipating the front climbing up the wave, reaching the crest and crashing down wherein tons of water would splash onto the deck while we duck under the railing, hopefully before being engulfed by that great-tasting salt water.

            Occasionally we had to help with kitchen duty. Fortunately this was not like the Army' s KP duty which typically lasted from 4:30 AM to 9:30 PM. This was an hour or two every couple days and we all rotated helping out. One incident in particular stands out in my mind. One of the cooks showed me how to clean the dirty mops. Each had a hole drilled in the handle. We carried the mops to the rear of the ship where a series of ropes were tied to the ship. We would run the loose end through the hole, make a knot and throw the mop into the sea. An hour later, we'd haul it back in and the mop would be immaculate. I delegated this not too difficult task to one of the privates because once you start making rank, that's what you do.  After a few days the cook told me they were running short of mops. I followed the private that night to see what he was doing. He did everything he was told with exception of the knot. When I asked him why he didn't question the missing mops, he said he assumed I had retrieved them because all he found an hour later was the wet ropes. 

            The toilet facilities were very bizarre. They consisted of a long trough with frothy foaming sea water constantly pumped up and through the trough and back out into the sea. Every two feet or so a seat was hinged to flip up or down.

            Below decks, the bunks were stacked so close they seemed inches apart. Though we were all close friends, most of us were not that close. Weather allowing, we slept up on deck. Almost every night, we were up here under a black sky with a million stars, meteors, shooting stars, and a brilliant moon. Smears of white were apparently distant galaxies. The rocking of the ship should have been a great aphrodisiac, but the sky beauty was overwhelming and we ended up talking non-stop almost till dawn and sometimes longer.

Our talks covered every imaginable subject. There were very seldom any arguments except for everyone telling me to stop my streams of bad jokes. Most of us were between the ages of 18 and 21. Even though the friends and sweethearts back home were sorely missed, the friendships developed in the service were different and deeper. Most of us had been through the ordeal of basic and/or advanced training together. We had started a company and were constantly together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We got to know everything about each other. It was a brotherhood, a camaraderie, a bond that did not happen to us earlier in life and probably would never happen again. The best friends I ever had were Lovetere, Marty, Smitty, Garceau and Fred.

On March 12th, we floated over the International Date Line which, of course, meant we had to be initiated into the Dominion of the Golden Dragon. This rite of passage was never to be discussed in any detail, a supposedly secret ceremony, a tradition hundreds of years old. In the early 19th century, the initiation was a brutal affair with initiates being flogged with wet ropes and thrown over the side while bound and dragged from stem to stern in the water. Ours was not quite so terrifying. To be sure, King Neptune was there with a beard looking astoundingly like the missing mops, as was Davy Jones, similarly regaled. Triton and Amphitrite (Neptune's bride) were also hanging around. One had tar smeared all over his fat belly and one of the tasks was kissing the baby which was the tarred belly. We being initiated were also blindfolded and made to walk the plank. As we made our way along the plank rather gingerly, being buffeted by the waves, as we reached the end we were forced to jump....... all of six inches. The King's crew tricked us by splashing buckets of water as we walked the piece of wood six inches off the deck, not over the bounding sea. There were other hazing incidents which I'm not permitted to tell so as not to be visited by Neptune in the middle of the night.

Somehow, Marty missed out on this event, as he was part of the newspaper staff we had on board and was busy writing while we were suffering. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are no issues of the great periodical around. We did look forward to reading every issue.

A few days later, we were told we were a hundred miles from Hawaii. Immediately, we hatched a plan to sabotage the ship and end up at Pearl Harbor for a week of repairs. We were trained crew chiefs and mechanics after all! Down into the bowels of this great ship we went. Every level deeper we went, the danker and darker everything became. Doorways grew smaller, valves and pipes leaked steam, we stepped in puddles of water and passed instrument panels and boiler controls which totally mystified us. It took an hour of this nonsense before we finally realized there was a big difference between tightening a swash plate or applying the correct torque on a rotor blade bolt vs. crippling a vessel weighing over 11,000 tons and almost two football fields long. Lovetere reminded me we would probably injure or kill ourselves and not do any damage to the ship.

The next day or so, we found ourselves floating through the Philippine Islands which we discovered were not one or two giant islands but a collection of over 7,100 islands and took us the better part of a couple days to get past these chunks of land in all shapes and sizes. We kept waiting for the native drums and mighty canoes manned by swarthy natives to come charging at us, but it was uneventful. Not even a tom-tom.

A typhoon hit us one night; the ship rocked and rolled, the trays in the mess hall slid off tables, glasses broke, bunks rocked back and forth. We were warned not to go topside, so up we went into a crazy world of darkness and driving wind and rain. By some miracle, we made it back down drenched and exhausted, and worried through the night we'd lose some of the helicopters off the deck. We also had to sleep in the bunks instead of up on deck, yet with the rocking, we slept like babies.

The next morning, the immense deep green waves left whitecaps as far as you can see, the blinding sunlight bouncing off the waves making it the most beautiful morning I have seen before or since. There was not a cloud in a deep blue sky. New porpoises dogged our journey and were a welcome sight. The pelican who was always perched on the back of the ship had disappeared, however. He was replaced by a North Pacific albatross. The sailors told us not to hurt or kill him as he reflected the souls of sailors lost at sea.

That night, we were only a few days away from our destination. We sat on the deck and wondered if the red on the horizon was city lights, gunfire and bomb reflections, or the Gates of Hell. Or all three. What did it mean? We talked about how everything was all so rushed. After going in the Service, basic training was abbreviated from 10 weeks to 8 weeks to push us overseas quicker (and less prepared). We hurried up.... and then waited. Then we hurried to advanced training.... and waited. Then to Fort Bragg..... and waited for the helicopters. Rushed to California... and waited. Slowly floated overseas.... possibly it would have been better for us to fly over with the rest of the outfit. At least we wouldn't have the suspense we now had floating into Hell. The anticipation would be over which is now eating us up inside. Hurry up and then.... wait.

For hours that night and the following two nights, we mused and grumbled and thought as we stared at  the starry sky and the red horizon. Just a year before, we were not in the Army. We had graduated high school, had started feeling independent with our cars, our freedom, our minimum wage jobs, our girlfriends. College considerations, marriage possibly in the future, beach this weekend? Just a year ago.....

Now we lay on a wooden deck of a World War Two carrier floating into oblivion. In basic training, we had sat through the movies about Communism and the Domino Principle. If we allow it there, it will be everywhere. Let's stop it dead in its tracks. Now laying on our backs we realized it was not so much about dominoes. What scared us was the myriad of things that could happen. We just started to enjoy life as it was meant to be enjoyed and we may not come back. Or we could come back crippled. We could be prisoners of war and tortured, could we handle that?  Or worse, one of our friends would not come back or be crippled. Now everything comes together. We're not going there to fight the political war. We're going there to just do the job we vowed to do when we enlisted and, more importantly, we're there to watch out for each other.  There would be no way that, if Marty or Smitty or Tom would get in harm's way,  we would not be there to help get him out. That's what the war means to us. But we're still scared. And we all knew sadly that life would never be the same.

We landed in Vung Tau's harbor. We had been warned not to take any dollar bills into town on our first shore leave and to be sure we exchange all our money for scrip which is like monopoly money. One hundred cents equals one dollar scrip equals one hundred piastres, the Viet-Namese currency (actually the French Indo-China Replacement for the Viet-Namese dong).

So we kept most of our greenbacks and exchanged it on the dock at Vung Tau for 135 piastres to the greenback. The first of many trades.

Vung Tau's beach was similar to Wildwood, NJ, wide and broad, clean sand, waves a mile wide. Surfboards for rent as well as beach umbrellas. Even the enemy vacationed there.

Many of the women wore ao dais which were silk tops and matching trousers. These pretty outfits were also worn by most of the schoolchildren. Others wore the black pajamas, both men and women. The conical hats (non bai tho) were worn by almost everyone, a lightweight protection from the burning sun and heavy rains, made from plaited palm leaves. Dress shoes were for the ao dais, rubber tire sandals for the rest. Many of the older natives had a disarming smile with their teeth stained black from betel juice. Their hands were calloused by the scythes used for farming. These people have not known peace for decades.

Welcome to the world of initials and acronyms. DEROS was the date eligible for return from overseas. It was counted in days plus a wakeup. When you reached less than three months, you started filling in a short-timer's calendar every day. We discovered the official enemy was the NVA (North Viet-Namese Army),  the unofficial enemy was the Viet-Cong (VC or Charley) who were the South Viet-Namese sympathizers to the North Viet-Namese, and our so-called friends were the ARVN's (Army of the Republic of Viet-Nam). Another interesting factoid was that all the young Viet-Namese boys seemed to have older sisters named Cherry. Puff was not an imaginary dragon, it was a very real DC-9 with mini-guns and grenade launchers in the windows.

The town of Vung Tau was a big party town with bars open late into the night. We quickly learned that the Viet-Namese beer was called bamiba (actually spelled ba moui ba) and had the mysterious "33" on the label. The number supposedly was the percentage alcohol, but believe me it was not that strong. It was also rumored that the beer was brewed at 33 degrees and also was invented in 1933. Personally, I felt it was the IQ of our politicians.

Bathrooms and flush toilets were non-existent. Lambrettas were three wheeled cabs, usually topless and prone to not taking corners well. Watch out for the two stepper (a snake whose bite kills you before you take two steps) and check for scorpions before you put your boots on. Non-potable water means do not drink. Potable's okay. Dirty your boots, you don't want Charley sniper to see the shine. Do not salute an officer. If Charley sees you salute, he'll shoot the officer you saluted. I do recall a Marine officer screaming at me because I did not salute him as I was walking on a hill near Long Binh. That's when I understood why they're called Jarheads. 

After a few days we had the helicopters all unwrapped and air-worthy, though there were a few close calls as the pilots tried to take off from an aircraft carrier. We flew to Bien Hoa and met up with the rest of the 187th. The rest of the company all  looked like experienced combat veterans.

The land we flew over was hilly and green with winding rivers. Everywhere were the signs of war. Pockmarks in the earth of craters made by mortar shells or bombs dotted the countryside of rubber plantations, rice paddies and tapioca fields.

Then, as we were getting familiar with some faces we had not seen in more than a month, orders started rolling in. It seems the brass shuffle people around to get a mix of experienced and inexperienced. Within two weeks, I was abruptly transferred to the 71st Rattlers and was winging my way north to Chu Lai. It was an abrupt goodbye to all my old beloved friends with whom so much was shared. 

Fred Thompson was transferred to an infantry outfit and never came home. Tom, Marty, Garceau, and Smitty all transferred. I saw Smitty again two years later for a quick visit, then lost track of him. Tom Lovetere contacted me near the end of 2006; I went to visit him in Florida earlier in 2007. It was great to see him and we were at ease with each other just like we had been 40 years before. Tom and I have spoken to Marty by phone a few times, hopefully I will see him this year or next. I have not heard from Don.

We were no longer the boat people after landing at Vung Tau. We were now officially FNGs (eff-ing new guys). We would remain the FNGs until newer personnel come along.

But, as we said one night over 40 years ago, life would never ever be the same.

John Leone