We got ready for Vietnam by heading to San Diego on May 21st, 1965 on a truck and bus convoy trip down from Camp Pendleton. We would spend the following several days on the naval pier avoiding work parties wherever and whenever we could.
The ship we would be taking over to first Hawaii (although we didn’t know it yet) was on the USS Pickaway (APA222). The Pickaway was an older WWII transport ship and soon to be the home for the approximately 1800 Marines and sailors of the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines.
On the morning of the 22nd of May, after a day on the pier or near it, we were told we would be boarding that evening. We boarded the USS Pickaway on May 23 in the evening and told where we would be berthed. Most went down to claim there bunks in the hold. I was no exception. Many of our H&S Company didn’t remember the “Rules to Boat Rides”.
Never take a bottom bunk!
Try not to get a lower bunk!
The higher you go the less you will be “puked on”.
I took the third up in the five bunk high tier. I figured that yes, there were two above me but I was higher than the splashes when those above me would “puke” on the deck if they would.
Most of it didn’t matter as I spent the majority of my evenings up “topside” on the main deck due to the stench (not only the heaving but the B.O. of a few days without a shower by some. Smelly feet didn’t help either. Besides, the deck was in the fresh air and I didn’t feel confined.We finally boarded the ship to get our living arrangements squared away. Many of the Marines charged down the gangways in to the deep recesses of the lower holds and proudly claimed the lower bunks. Others wanted the upper or top bunks.
The bunks were 4 or 5 high depending on which “hold” you were in. In our hold the bunks were 5 high. I took the middle and told most of the rest of our 12-man team to do the same. Some chose to follow my lead while others wanted the lower bunks.
We stowed away the gear we had brought along as well as our personal gear. Most of our belongings we didn’t need had remain behind and been stored at Camp Pendleton during the days before our mount out. We still had our duffel bags full of utilities and the 782 gear (canteens, cargo belt, knap sacs, etc).
When we finished in the hold, we went back “topside” and then off the ship. For the remainder of that day we did very little except keep out of the way of Sgt. Sheldon or one of the corporals who were looking for people to go on a “work party.” Some of us started treating this time like we were in combat already with “lookout” stationed watching for the “enemy of the work party.”
That night, on the pier, there was a lot of talk about where we were going. Everyone assumed that it would be Vietnam. Some still had only a sight idea of where Vietnam was. Someone had the Look Magazine of late 1964 with the HMM-363 article in it. This did not exactly cheer any of us up. The article showed a week in the eyes of a corporal who was a crew chief aboard a H-34 helicopter in Vietnam. It ended with one of the corporals friends dying during an assault while moving the troops of the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN). It was a sobering story and a prelude to what was about to happen to our Marines of 2/7.
We were issued C-rations before leaving Pendleton to eat during the 1st day on the pier at San Diego This was to last us as the departure of the Pickaway wasn’t scheduled until May 24 but, we didn’t know this as none of us knew exactly which day we would debark. That night the choice was either board the Pickaway and sleep there or sleep on the pier. Several of us chose the pier figuring we would be aboard ship for several weeks and didn’t need extra time on board. The following morning dawned to find some of the Marines venturing out to the local McDonalds to get something to eat and to buy “carryouts” back to those who were fortunate enough to order them.
We stayed out of the way of Sheldon most of that day but getting food to eat was a challenge. I figured if I went to get C-rations as soon as I could I would have a better chance to “skate” the duties. Each of us was to draw 3 boxes for that day’s needs on the pier.
As this distribution point “held a captive audience” one might say it was a good place to fill up any needed people for any work parties. I waited until about 1100 to get mine. When I finally got my C-rations, Sgt. Sheldon was nowhere to be seen. I was however approached by someone in supply to help out with some moving. I told him I was “PM”ing (Preventive Maintenance) the radio gear. He left mumbling but didn’t bother me anymore. This was a particularly boring day and by early afternoon we were looking for something to do. Grabbing “ZZZZs” was about all we could do that afternoon. This was no easy choir as it was in the high 80s and there weren’t an abundance of shaded spots to lie down in on the open pier.
That evening we were all ordered to board ship. There we found any open place to rack out but there wasn’t a whole lot of sleep as the excitement and anticipation of leaving keep many of us up most of the night
There were card games and money lost and made that night but finally about 0200 most had found a spot to rack out. I slept under one of the large lifeboats and semi-hidden from the work party NCOs.
There was question about where PFC Tom Wardrop III was as no one had seen him since the previous afternoon. Several questioned if he got emergency leave while others joked that he just plain left. Now, that would not have been Tom as Tom was all Marine. One Marine said he saw Tom getting into a little red sports car about 1600 hours the afternoon before. “Yea right, getting into a little red sports car. He probably went to the races,” was the return sarcastic comment on that statement.
On the morning of May 24th, about 0700 the morning, we had an inkling that this was going to be the day that we would leave. The actions around ship and the fact that we could no longer leave the ship to go on the pier were early indications our hunches were to come to fruitation. Most of us were up by 0630 and cleaned up by 0645 (didn’t take us long to clean up). All we could do was just hang out having one big “smoking lamp is lit party” and looking over the rail of the ship at the pier we were tied up to. By 0730 that morning there was a bit of excitement as Sgt. Sheldon looked for Tom. We didn't give him any answer, as we didn’t know.
We were about to leave the harbor and looking over the port side of the ship about 0830 when a bright red two-seater sports car came roaring up to a screeching halt.
The top was down and there in the passenger’s seat was Tom. Next to him driving was a beautiful and very shapely blond in sunglasses. Tom jumped out, ran around and opened to door for her to get out. He got the nod and as he was about to board he planted a big kiss on the blond as we cheered.
He looked up and gave a small wave and then planted another one as she walked him up to the gangplank and talked to the OIC. The discussion lasted for a few minutes as Tom stood nearby. He saluted asked permission to come aboard and was granted permission. Tom then boarded without any further problem. We later found out she was the wife of some big Naval officer who was on an extended tour in the Pacific.
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