I cannot remember one Vietnam War protest going on in San Diego.

OS2 Arthur Ellingson
USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7), U.S. Navy

I served in the Navy Reserve from 1969 to 1975. I was on active duty from September 1’st of 1970 until June 15th of 1972. I joined a Navy Reserve program at Great Lakes which was called the 2×6 program. The 2 stands for two years of full-time active duty, six years total Reserve commitment.

I failed several times to get into an ROTC unit in college. They bounced me out because of my vision. They were not taking people who were as blind as I was without glasses. I was always 20 / 20 correctible but, when he showed me the chart and said: “Read the top line of the chart” I said, “What chart?”—I couldn’t even find the chart half of the time.

I figured that I would do the service first and let the military pay for my college education, which is basically what happened. I graduated from high school in June of ’68, joined in October of ’69. I had one year of college. I went to Reserves meetings one night a week and did all the paperwork associated with boot camp. In the summer between 4 and ten months after I joined, they sent me to boot camp at Great Lakes for two weeks. I reported on June 28th of ’70. After two weeks at boot camp, they sent me to Norfolk for two weeks of workship. During those two weeks of workship, I was on the USS Henley DD 762. Which is a destroyer, and we made a cruise during the middle weekend up from Norfolk to Baltimore. I spent the weekend having Liberty in Baltimore, then Monday morning we came back to Norfolk.

I spent four weeks in the summer of ’70 on active duty then I was back to Reserves for maybe a month give or take. They gave me orders on a Tuesday night to report to Great Lakes on Friday, September 1st. So I had three days’ notice that I would be on active duty. This was Labor Day Weekend.” I reported in at 11 o’clock- 11:15 and they said: “You’re on liberty till 08:00 Tuesday morning.” So I didn’t even unpack, I just turned around and drove back home and came back Monday evening.

My orders were to go to Radar A School at Great Lakes. I was there about four months attending that school. Then on January 22nd, 1971 I graduated. I graduated 2nd in my class, the guy that beat me had a Master’s Degree in Physics from Purdue. He only beat me by a tenth of a point.

I had orders to my 2’nd choice of assignment which was a destroyer out of San Diego. I was assigned to the USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7). They were in intensive training to go overseas so they would go out to sea from 7 o’clock on Monday morning until 7 o’clock on Friday. They would tie up to a buoy and then take boats ashore. That would save them 2 hours of going completely into the harbor. It also got the crew used to living on the ship.

I had heard about Vietnam when I was in grade school. My parents were saying “I’m glad that the Vietnam War is going on now because it will be over before our kids are out of high school.” Wrong. Okay. I was aware of what was going on in the news. I remember watching Johnson on the news during the first year I was in college, I didn’t have a TV, but I typically would knock off studying at 5 to 10 and go upstairs to the TV lounge and, at least, watch the news to know what was going on in the world.

When I graduated from Radar School, I anticipated that I would be on a ship that would take a West Pack Cruise and the ultimate destination was Vietnam. But I also knew that from my Reserve time that the Navy’s side of the war was relatively friendly at that time. Now guys who were in the Army and Marines do not like to hear this, but we knew the shore batteries had the range of about 3 miles, so we stayed 3 ½ miles off the coast. Our guns had a 13-mile range so we could shoot anything within 10 miles of the beach and still not be in danger.

From the time I left San Diego until I returned to San Diego was six months, one week and one day. We were off North Korea and off Russian waters during July and August. On September 12th, we left Yokosuka and went down to Vietnam. Then we spent about five weeks off the coast of Vietnam, went to Hong Kong for a week of R&R, spent another five weeks off the coast of Vietnam and spent another week of R&R in Singapore. At that point, we had a vote to see whether we were going to go home, which was the original schedule, or whether we were going to go back to the gun line for a month. Well, if we went back to the gun line for a month, then the deal was we could spend two weeks in Sydney for Christmas. And the single guys all said, “Yeah, let’s go to Sydney for Christmas,” and the married guys said, “Let’s all go home.” So we ended up going home. I voted to go to Sydney. I would love to have seen it.

We left Subic Bay the evening of December 1st, and we were running a typhoon coming back, so very few people ate much during that first 13 days. We pulled into Hawaii on December 13th for Customs, food and mail call. We left at five o’ clock in the evening and were off the coast of San Diego at seven o’ clock Friday night. We could have easily been at the pier by eight thirty, but no, we had a band waiting for us at ten o’ clock in the morning. So we had to sit off the coast and wait. We putzed up the coast at five knots, but we were close enough we could turn the TV on and point our TV antennae at San Diego.

When I came back I had 30 days of leave coming so I went home. I came back after about two weeks. I came back early because I knew the ship wasn’t going to be doing much for the next six months. You have a very relaxed day for the first three months you’re back from overseas. You didn’t do much of anything. One of my jobs was to update a couple of technical manuals. So I would get classified mail every day, and I’d have to update these manuals which would take typically 15 minutes a day. And when that was done, I was on liberty at ten o’clock in the morning.

We began to do a little bit of training, but they also knew that I was going to get out. My discharge date was September 1st. We weren’t scheduled to go back overseas ‘til September 15th. So there was no reason for me to train with them. So they sent me to temporary duty on shore often.

I cannot remember one Vietnam War protest going on in San Diego. I spent a bit of time at San Diego, but I never saw any protest when I was there.

Getting out was a two-step process for me. First, there was a weeklong process of checking off the ship, and that went maybe the week before Memorial Day Weekend. I had liberty Memorial Day Weekend, and then Tuesday morning they handed me my orders to transfer me to the 32nd Street Naval Station to be mustered out. I spent about a week there, where they would go through all their process including physical exams and so forth.

They told me, “Tomorrow you’re going to get your papers,” and they said there’s nothing special about it. I got my package of papers, which they said, “Take this package of papers, this is your stuff to keep. Once you check in at a Reserve Center, bring this package with you, but then we’ll send your records, our set of your records to the Reserve Center, but you’ll get to keep these forever.” I called a friend of mine who had a car. He came and picked me up. I was packed and ready to go. I had five bags, which of course two bags were free in those days, with five bags, you had to pay for three. But when I got to the airport, they’re like, “Five bags!” “Well, I just got out of the Navy today.” As soon as I said that, they said, “Okay, we’ll fly those home for free.” They never charged me extra.

Coming Home
I boarded a United flight. Now at this point, I’m in my dress blues. The night before they gave us all of our ribbons. So I had ribbons on for the first time. I’ve been wearing one what was called the GeeDuck Ribbon, which was officially the National Defense Ribbon. Now I’ve got three or four ribbons on my chest. And so, I get to the airport, and I got five bags with me, and they fly all this stuff home for free. But United Airlines is where I bought the ticket, and it was standby. They had me board one plane, and then they bounced me, and then they boarded me on the second plane, and they bounced me. Then they put me across the hall at American. American put me in the back row, in the middle with the seats that don’t recline, and I thought, “Well, this is better than not getting home at all.”

But then they called out my seat number, I don’t think they called out me by name, they just called me by seat number, this is passenger and seat number, I didn’t know what the row number was, I was in the very back row of the plane – “Would you step up to the front of the plane please.” And I get up to the front of the plane, and there was this college hippie girl who’s sneering at me, “Haha, I’m getting your seat.” She was paying one-third off, I was paying half off, and so she, “Haha, I get your seat.” And she went back, and I thought, “Okay well, I’ll be singing when you find out where that seat’s located.” And I was getting ready to get off the plane, and they said: “Just hold on a minute.” They waited for her to get down the way, and then they were like closing the door. “We have one seat left, first class, all yours.” So I flew home on American, first class.

All my bags were on the first United plane, so I had to walk across the terminal back over to the United section to get them. I did not know what was going on at home. I didn’t know if my parents were home or not. I don’t recall if I even tried calling home. I don’t think I tried calling home. I know I had written them a letter which was mailed from Pearl Harbor that said that if all goes well, I’ll be in San Diego by noon on Saturday. I don’t know if they got that or not. So when I finally got home to Chicago about seven o’clock, I called from a payphone. First I got my bags because we lived very close to the airport. My cousin answered the phone at my dad’s house, and I’m saying, “Rich, what are you?” He says, “Oh, we’re having a big party because your brother just came home from the Marines.” He was actually in Quantico, Virginia. Going to a Marine Corps school. He finished college in March and got commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, so he went to Basic Infantry School in Quantico, Virginia. He finished that school in mid-December. So they’re having a big party to welcome him home. So I came home in the middle of that.

I told my cousin that I was at the airport. I don’t remember who picked me up, I think it was my Dad, but I don’t remember. I remember when we got to the front door, I could see that nobody had taken in the mail. So I open up the mailbox, pulled out the mail, and there was the letter I mailed them from Pearl Harbor. It was in the mailbox. They hadn’t even looked at it.

My mother was putting dinner on the table when I got there. And the whole focus of the party shifts from my brother, who is the wimpy jarhead who has just graduated from school to the hero that just came back from the war. My brother was, you know, very miffed that I stole his thunder. But our whole lives he was always miffed at something.

During my Christmas leave in ’71 or 72, I remember walking into the local VFW hall wondering what was going on. The only thing that I knew was what that the VFW hall was famous for sponsoring the Park Ridge Drum and Bugle Corps. So I remember going to the VFW hall, and asking, “What do you guys do here?” and so forth, and even before I could get those words out of my mouth somebody said, “You don’t belong here. This is for veterans of foreign wars.” And I said, “What do you call Vietnam?” And I don’t remember what they said, but I was not regarded as one of their peers. I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve been in Korea, and I was made to feel totally unwelcome. I did not go into a VFW building again until around two years ago when I heard that there was a Vietnam veterans group, and they met at the Park Ridge VFW.

I went to Illinois State. Whenever you saw somebody who was older than the typical college student, you sort of figure they were a veteran. My winter jacket was my Navy pea coat, but at that time everybody was wearing blue Navy pea coats, so I blended in.

In April ’75, I was in college, did not own a TV, I probably did not know Saigon fell until a couple of weeks after that. There was very little reported about the war in the Daily Gazette at Illinois State, the only newspaper I typically read in those days. By 1975, I was a part-time college student at Illinois State and a full-time pastor in Streator, Illinois. I’m preaching on Sundays; I’m not reading the newspapers. And I was at a church that had a Sunday morning service, and a Sunday evening service. Well, I’m preaching two different sermons every Sunday, so I didn’t have a lot of time to read the paper or watch TV. And I didn’t own a TV at that period.

The war was awful. The people who bore the brunt of the battle got shafted in more ways than one. But every time there was a dogfight when I was not on the radio with the pilot, I was, at least, listening to the conversation. Any time there was a dogfight between three Mig’s and one Phantom jet, the Phantom always won. If there were four, sometimes the Phantom won, sometimes the Phantom didn’t. But if there were three, two or one, the Phantoms always won. And what it did was told the Soviets, “Don’t you dare start a bigger scale war because we’re going to clean your clocks.” Because our technology was so much better and our pilots were so much better than theirs. It prevented other, larger scale wars from happening. So regarding holding back the spread of communism, regarding stopping other wars, I think it ultimately saved lives in the long run, just like the nuclear bombs in Japan. Yeah, 40,000 people died in a flash, in the long run, those bombs saved lives.

Author: Jack McCabe

Jack McCabe was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from high school in 1969 at the age of 17 and two days after he turned 18 he joined the Army. He was sent to Vietnam less than a year later in October of 1970. He extended for a second tour and finally came home for good at the end of May 1972. He finished his three-year enlistment at Fort Huachuca, Arizona and returned home to Chicago. After his return from Vietnam, he pursued his education using the G.I. Bill, receiving an associate degree in electronics engineering from DeVry Institute. He eventually continued his education by attending night school and received his bachelor’s degree in business and management from Northeastern Illinois University in 1981, at the age of 30. He owned his own business for 20 years and then sold real estate for 20 more before retiring to North Carolina, where he became a certified Peer Support Specialist with a veteran designation. He has a deep passion for helping veterans doing volunteer work with the YMCA Resource Gateway in Gaston County, NC where he handles all the calls from those with past military service. He helped veterans with PTSD, financial crisis’s, substance abuse, homelessness, and veteran benefits. He received the North Carolina Governors Award for Volunteer Work. Jack believes that the most important thing he can do is to give Vietnam and all veterans a voice. By sharing their stories veterans understand that they are not alone. There are many going through the same struggles as they are. For non-veterans, he hopes they will understand the struggles veterans face when they return home from war. He has since retired and is in the process of writing another book.

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