EDITOR’S NOTE: In 1969, a young Richard Beckley, aboard the USS Ramsey, sailed into the South China Sea, up the Gulf of Tonkin, and into Haiphong Harbor. The men of the Ramsey were conducting U.S. Navy operations off the coast of North Vietnam – a top-secret mission known only to a few people on the ship, who operated the equipment. The new equipment had never been tested in a combat situation, and its purpose was to disguise the ship’s radar to appear that it was a Chinese “junk” rather than a Navy destroyer. The Ramsey steamed within 100 yards of Haiphong Harbor, undetected. The Navy considered the mission a success. Beckley is the husband of longtime RACmonitor contributor Nancy Beckley, and what follows is his recollections of the tumultuous era of the Vietnam War.
I grew up in a small community near Akron, Ohio, and was born on Nov. 27, 1944. I graduated from high school in 1962, followed by two years at Heidelberg College, a small college of approximately 1,000 students in Tiffin, Ohio, just south of Toledo. I played basketball for Heidelberg both years. I then completed another three semesters part-time near my home, at Akron University.
I was unable to continue college, and also found myself in the unenviable position of not being married, at a time when there was a draft on, as the Vietnam War was in full throttle. Some friends of mine from high school had already served the minimum two years in the Army. They advised me not to wait to be drafted, but to enlist voluntarily, in either the Air Force or the Navy. Of those two, the Navy was only assigning volunteers to serve in Vietnam. I chose the Navy, even though it meant four years commitment on active duty, at a minimum. The Navy had a couple of special programs that tilted the scale for me. There was a 120-day delay program, and they would start anyone who was enlisted and had completed at least two years of college at the E-3 pay grade instead of E-1.
I signed up for both programs to allow myself time to prepare to join the Navy. I married a girl that I knew from high school just before I had to go to Great Lakes Naval Training Center (NTC) in Waukegan, Ill., just north of Chicago. In fact, my wife and I were married the day before I had to report to Great Lakes NTC. I was 21 years old, and leaving the only home I had ever known up to that time. I wasn’t afraid, but I was a little apprehensive. The only time I had been out of the state of Ohio was to visit relatives of my father in West Virginia. Little did I know what an adventure I was in for.
Boot camp was supposed to last 12 weeks, but was shortened to 10 weeks, as the Navy needed to build their forces as quickly as possible, because the pace of the war was quickening. Just before I graduated from basic training, I was classified as a Yeoman (essentially, an office clerk), since they found out I had a typing class as an elective in high school. I also found out I was being assigned to a brand-new ship, which was still in construction. It was the USS RAMSEY DEG-2. It was a guided missile destroyer escort, and the “2” meant it was only the second ship to be built in its class.
The Navy gave us all two weeks’ leave when we graduated. I decided to take the honeymoon my wife and I did not get before we married. I drove the 1966 VW Beetle I bought before I joined the Navy – it only cost me $1,500, for the first brand-new car I would ever own. We were headed to Niagara Falls, which was a popular spot for a honeymoon for people from my part of the country. While we were on our honeymoon, I got a telegram that indicated the ship I was assigned to had ceased construction due to a strike at the Lockheed Shipyard in Seattle.
I was to report to 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego for temporary duty until the strike resolved. I ended up staying there for nine months, until the Navy flew me to Seattle to join my ship. I got five days’ leave to go back to Ohio, get my wife, and drive the VW to Seattle. The Navy flew me to Akron, Ohio. It was the middle of winter, so we couldn’t drive straight to Seattle, so we took old Route 66 from Chicago down through New Orleans and across the southwest states to Los Angeles and straight up the coast, on I-5, to Seattle. We made it with a few hours to spare, with mostly non-stop driving.
I had achieved the rank of Second Class Petty Officer while still in Seattle, the equivalent of a sergeant in the Army. It was as high as I could go without re-enlisting for another four years. I was the senior Yeoman on the Ramsey, and was filling the billet of a Chief Petty Officer (E-7) due to the Navy being shorthanded among the upper ranks. I served the Executive Officer as his chief administrative assistant.
The Navy gave me a chance to have more authority than I had ever had before. The ship was commissioned on June 3, 1967. We took it down to her homeport of Long Beach, Calif., picking up missiles and other armament in Seal Beach. We were supposed to have a drone helicopter on board, but it was cancelled due to its expense and many failures during testing. The hangar where it was to be stored came in handy when we went overseas, as the crew filled it with motorcycles and Japanese goods – and each of us was allowed to bring back up to one gallon of alcohol, duty- and federal tax-free.
We took our first tour of duty off the coast of Vietnam, which lasted seven months. We would not return to the U.S. until January 1968. While we were overseas, we made stops at Pearl Harbor, Japan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong for brief stopovers for liberty. The billboards were right – “Join the Navy and See the World.” When we returned to Long Beach, we were told to expect to only be there for about a month or so, and then we would go back over to the Gulf of Tonkin for another seven-month tour.
Rather than go on another trip to the Gulf of Tonkin, a shipmate of mine had a friend in the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, D.C. I was told if I was willing to extend my enlistment for another year, I would be offered three choices of shore duty, and I could choose whichever I wanted. The first choice out of his mouth was the senior yeoman in the Navy’s computer center in the Pentagon. I jumped at it. We were off on another trip in the VW across the country, this time to Arlington, Va. My wife was a phone operator for Bell Telephone, and it turned out to be the perfect job for a military wife. She was able to transfer everywhere I was assigned and keep her seniority. I had to get a Top-Secret security clearance in order to take the job. I got a phone call from my mom asking me if I had gotten into trouble, as there were FBI agents talking to her and all our neighbors. I laughed and told her not to worry; my new job in the Navy required it.
I was released six months early, as President Nixon was winding the war down. The Navy asked me where I wanted our household goods sent, and I requested them sent to San Diego, and spent the next 14 years there finishing college at San Diego State and working in the area, mostly healthcare-related jobs. I gained more experience than I ever expected.
I have often said that I got more out of the Navy than they ever got out of me. I received a college education, bought and sold several houses using VA loans, and ended up getting excellent healthcare at the VA hospital system here in Milwaukee, all courtesy of a variety of very generous services of the GI Bill, which was available to us Vietnam-era veterans. I see many other veterans every time I visit the VA here in Wisconsin. There are still a handful of World War II vets there, as well as more recent Gulf War and later vets. It is almost like belonging to a very exclusive fraternity, one which I have become a proud member of.
The Vietnam War was not a popular war, to say the least. I was often called names and worse at the time. We were told not to let others know we were ex-military when I was discharged in Washington, D.C. I threw my seabag in the closet in San Diego and went on with my life.
It is particularly gratifying, in recent years, when I am out for dinner at a local restaurant and a mother will send her child over to our table to say “thank you for your service,” because I had my Vietnam veteran hat on. We didn’t hear any kind words like that when I served in the Navy.
Richard Beckley (left) with his shipmate buddy and ship’s cook Frank Young
Young Richard Beckley on the USS Ramsey, circa 1969