The Reserves in Vietnam,
I was a freshman college student at St. Petersburg Junior College November 22nd 1963. News of the Assassination (President Kennedy) came over the speakers at the Student Union. We were all in shock! This seemed like the beginning of difficult times for students of my generation and many thoughts would go through our minds, as we made our way into adulthood.
The action in Vietnam escalated in the next few years and the draft was going full bore seeking more young solders for the war effort. The talk on any campus throughout the nation was to go or not to go. The question was, is it a real war on not?
I had passed my Selective Service Physical and was advised to keep my grades up or prepare to dig foxholes. So it was (shape up or ship out). I did what thousands of other smart patriotic young men did. I joined the RESERVES! Six months active duty and back home again, so I thought.
The typical Reserve Units were all filled up but I managed to find a spot. In fact I found two spots in the 231st Army Heavy Boat Transportation Unit out of St. Petersburg, Florida. The only problem was the slots were for a Hard Hat Divers? I talked my roommate Glen (Tink) Crosby about taking the other spot for the draft had caught up to him also. The rumor was, (no way would we go to Vietnam) for the 231st had been called up during the Berlin crisis. At least that is what we wanted to believe and Vietnam surly did not need a heavy Boat Unit. I was an avid scuba diver doing underwater cave exploring, spear fishing etc. so the challenge to train in the Hard Hat Equipment was exciting for me. Not so for my roommate who had never been diving however. I reminded him that if were dive qualified in Hard Hat we could always get a job in nearby Tarpon Springs FL. as a sponge diver or work on the Gulf Oil rigs. We enlisted!
I shipped out to basic training at Ft. Jackson SC in 1964 and trained separate from Crosby but we finally met up at the Ft. Eustis VA at the U.S. Army Transportation Diving School. Tink and I were part of a class of six including Jim McCutchen of St. Petersburg, a couple of surfers from California, Barns and Dompier and a giant of a guy from Connecticut we just called Foster. It was an exciting six months of training with the grisly old Army Master Divers who spent every waken moment trying to intimidate us. These ‘Lifers’ were all counting down for retirement and wanted no part of the Vietnam War. It was a lesson on how to get along with Army Lifers as well as sometimes funny, sometime dangerous procedures in our MOS as Hard Hat Salvage Divers. We spent half the time training and half the time drinking and playing hearts. The Diving took place in the pitch black James River under the dead fleet. It was spooky as hell but kind of like the caves in Florida I had been exploring. It was truly claustrophobic hard and dangerous work as depicted in the movie ‘Men of Honor’ and Glen (Tink) was petrified. I was not very excited with the training but tried not to show it. I had talked Tink in the situation and felt obligated to help him through the training. One of the hardest things in a Hard Hat helmet is trying to clear your ears. I could not hold my nose and really had to work your jaw to clear at depth. The suit alone weighed more than I did and I could hardly stand up to jump off the side of the barge. Once in the water with your ears cleared it was a great heavy duty underwater working diving rig.
It was late in 1964 before I returned home to our family printing company. Besides working in the business I settled down into being a part time college student and the role of weekend warrior.
I did a quick diving gig to Cuba using my new skills. I was part of a 7 man crew to lay a underwater cable across Guantanamo Bay. We were assigned as a civilian contractor ‘Misner Marine’ to the Navy. I thought that would be the nearest to combat that I would ever see. We kept the engines running for quick escape on our Tug Boat for Castro was threatening to invade Guantanamo at any moment.
As a reservist we did very little at the meetings. I was put in charge of a ships warehouse stuffed with all kinds of old army / navy Gear and Equipment. The goal was to get as much sleep as possible in preparation for shooting pool and drinking beer after the meeting. Little did we know that Army life was about to change. Except for the Beer Drinking.
I married my rock and roll sweet heart Linda in 1966 and we were blessed with a Son, Michael Thomas Twitty in April 67. We bought our first home later that year with a GI loan and my dad and I borrowed some big bucks to expand our printing and publishing business to multiple locations. Life was good! Reserve meetings were once a month thus giving us married guys an excuse to get out of the house.
One day in May 1968, I was driving to work when a news flash came on my car radio, “President Johnson has just activated 20,000 reserve troops to booster the Vietnam War effort”. The announcement went on to detail units that were being activated and #1 on the list was the 231st Water Transportation Unit of St. Petersburg. Well Blow Me Down Mate!!
After I recovered control of my car, I pondered the possibility of running off to Canada verse getting my Ass Blown Off in Vietnam. Realizing I would rather make it an adventure out of the call-up rather than be labeled a deserter was a no brainer. With no hesitation I decided it was my time to serve as had my Dad 25 years earlier.
Four Months later (Aug. 1968) I was deep in the Mekong Delta, aboard our 74 foot LCM8 Mike Boat with 5 other fellow crew members hauling a load of ammunition and beer to out bases in the Mekong Delta. We considered the beer cargo to be essential to the moral of the troops and therefore did our best to deliver the goods on time. Of course we had to take our commission for safe delivery and always had a major oversized cooler iced down with the commission. We shared this with our Navy Gun Boat Escorts that ran protective cover on our Point and Flanks along the narrow rivers and canals. We were the Original Vietnam Beer Men. Our typical mission was 50 to 200 clicks up a 150’ wide canal or river to base camps and outposts. I might add that much of the 200 clicks was enemy controlled so it was natural to hunker down behind your machine gun and wonder if you were in the enemy sites. We endured fire fights, sniper attacks, B52 strikes, Agent Orange dousing, lousy food. As a unit the 231st Reserves LCM special logistic boat unit received accommodations and medals for a job well done. I might add that we brought every man home (182) more or less alive. This was some kind of Miracle for units like ours were taking an average of 10% casualties.
The war was over for the Army's 231st after serving a year in the combat zone. Our unit returned to Tampa Bay and we were released without fanfare to civilian life. Tink and I never had to use Hard Hat gear while in Vietnam. The only diving we did was to change or untangle a prop every now and then and check out hulls for damage or mines. Of course on more than one occasion it included pushing aside the deadly Asian Sea Snakes while we did our underwater work. My MOS also included Marine Oiler and I keep up the engine room along with duty station on one of our 50 cal. machine guns. We ate a regular diet of c-rations and LURPS plus some other native dishes if they looked palatable. Our M79 grenade launchers were a great duck guns. We could get a whole flock of ducks in one shot and drop the ramp to pick them up. These ducks made good trade for blocks of ice to keep our cooler stocked. We were scared to eat them for the Mekong River is the sewer system for millions of people.
We were all instilled with memories of this war some good, and some bad. Many of the guys had loved ones waiting like me and many had ex loves on their return. War was hard on relationships and mental anguish among the 231st troops was common and pushed many over the edge….. So was life on board our boat “Brovo 16” with its six man crew for a year Aug 1968 to Aug 1969.
Back Home our family printing business was DOA on my homecoming. I took a job with another printing company and tried to avoid thinking about Vietnam and the Anti War protest that were ripping the nation apart. The war lasted another 4 years. I was the typical un-appreciated Vietnam Vet that kept my mouth shut did my job and tried to blend in with the civilians. The war finally ended in 1975, 5 years after my return.
Sept. 1998: Roy Livingstone, a WWII EX-POW golfing buddy of mine called to consult about taking over production of the monthly American EX-POW Bulletin. Man, I felt like he had called up the reserves… I was trying to launch a Internet Business and this was a real project that I could focus on for the 21 century. The late 80’s had not been kind to me as a real estate developer and that’s another story.
We had sold our house and I lived in a country club condo with my original rock and roll bride Linda. We are empty nesters with two grown children and 4 grand kids. I was playing two rounds of golf a week to keep my mental mind in order for I had gone from running 7 companies to zero. Agent Orange was attacking my body and working with the Prisoners of War and the VA would help me mentally.
Now being the Son of a New York Herald Tribune War Correspondent, I had been brought up on the stories of the GI’s, and events of World War II. As I looked into how the current publication was being produced, Roy and I concluded that much more could be done with this organization’s material. I jumped on board with a mission to make the Bulletin a publication worthy of the organization. We put in 2 years and brought the American Ex-Prisoners of War into the 21st Century with improved print quality plus the introduction of an interactive website. This was monumental improvements in 1998-99. The organization is still active but the WWII vets are dying off fast. The number of Prisoners of war survivors is shrinking rapidly thus the idea of a Combat Veterans interactive website came about. So I launched www.CombatVets.net in 1999.
I became an advocate for my Army Units surviving 182 men and spent a lot of time helping them work their way thru the VA maze for benefits.
Personally I have survived so far, a bout with Prostate Cancer discovered in 2002 and other effects of the Vietnam experience. Our boats traveled up and down 1000’s of miles of defoliated rivers and canals. Was the cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange or not? Amazing the VA stepped up and declared over 18 diseases to be contributed by the defoliants used during the war. We continue to publish articles and news to help Vets in dealing with ailments like this. Many of my comrades have fallen ill and some have died not only from cancers but from parasites that were contracted from various native foods while living on the Delta for a year. I invite all Combat Veterans to join and support the CombatVets Network and share experiences, seek medical checkups and care if needed. Many have been able to receive medical and disability compensation from the VA for certain conditions. We are particularly lucky in that St. Petersburg, Florida for the Bill Young VA Hospital formally Bay Pines. Bill Young VA has some if the latest state of the art diagnostic equipment and offers excellent services to Veterans. I presently receive 80% service related disability due to my prostate cancer and underwent radiation pellet insertion as well as external radiations in order to arrest it and prolong and quality of life. I might add that the VA did not offer this type of treatment at the time. I was lucky to have medical insurance via my wife’s employer and sought more state of the art procedures than the VA offered. I recognize however that it was the VA who discovered my cancer and stepped up to the table and paid me for the (time served) of which I am thankful. Keep in touch via this website if you are a Vet. All of us need to fight for continued services or we will be forgotten.
After the Sept. 11th 2001 attack on America everyone should be thankful that the U.S. Reserves were ready when needed. Please support all of our veterans if you can and publish their story on our website if possible. The price our troops are paying to fight terrorist worldwide is a giant job and will not end soon. The after affects in terms of health issues will go on for duration. All Veterans and Vet families should be active in demanding services from government. If not they will soon be forgotten and discarded for the sake of the budget cuts. Supporting our Veterans is a mission I will continue to toil till my last beer is tipped to my comrades.
Glen (Tink Crosby) my fellow college roommate and Hard Hat Diving Partner passed away from liver cancer Aug. 30th 2008. We were able to get DIC for Glen's widow by having the death certificate changed to read “death contributed by Diabetes type 2”. His liver cancer was not covered under the present Agent Orange Assumptions. Why, who knows, but this is our mission to always improve the system..
God Bless our Troops
Tom Twitty, Publisher / Editor