USS Finch (DER – 328) Destroyer Escort Radar

( Vietnam )

By Robert T. McDowell

I entered the Navy 31 May 1962. After ten weeks of Boot Camp and twelve weeks of Shipfitter school I received orders to the USS General WA Mann. This was sometime in December 1962. The Mann had been a civilian cruise ship before the Second World War, but was converted to a troop transport when the Navy needed ships to transport troops. It was one of four troop transports that operated from the west coast. The Mann’s schedule never varied. We loaded troops, their dependents, and all their possessions at the Oakland Naval Supply Center in Oakland , California , and then headed for Hawaii . After one day in Honolulu, Hawaii it was off to Yokohama, Japan for a day and night, and from there to Okinawa for a day and night, then back to Yokohama for another day and night, back to Honolulu for a day, and then back to Oakland Naval Supply Center.

The trip took about a month or maybe a little more. We would be in Oakland anywhere from a week to two weeks, and then repeat the same routine all over again. I got pretty sick of being out to sea for that many days... so in early 1964 I put in for a transfer. I was surprised at how quickly it happened, but soon I had orders to a Destroyer Escort Radar ship; the USS Finch DER 328 out of Treasure Island , San Francisco. I reported aboard Finch on 15 July 1964.

I served aboard the Mann for approximately a year and a half. I was a fireman apprentice (E-2) when I came aboard the Mann, but shortly after that I passed the test, and was promoted to fireman (E-3). On 16 November 1963 I passed the test, and was promoted to 3rd class Petty Officer (E-4). My rate was Shipfitter Metal Smith.  

The Finch


Just five days after I came aboard the USS Finch we got a new Captain; Lieutenant Commander George I. Thompson became Finch’s new Commanding Officer on 20 July 1964. Ceremonies were conducted in the ship's homeport of San Francisco ; it was a big occasion, as Captain Thompson was only the second African American Navy Captain in the history of the US Navy. I remember Jet magazine had reporters there interviewing him. He was a really good man. I had occasion to witness that first hand, but that’s another story.

The west coast was divided up in sectors, and each sector was manned at all times. I never really knew where we were geographically, as we were far enough off the coast so as not to be able to see land. I suppose it had something to do with the twelve-mile rule and international waters. The Finch was active in one of these sectors about a month at a time; then we would pull into port for about a month. It was great duty compared to the Mann. I had my car there, a nice little “64” GTO, and when in port my buddies and me had a good time... drinking, chasing girls, and all the things that young stupid kids do. I was too young to get into the bars and nightclubs so the girls I hung out with were considered teenyboppers.

Whenever I had a three day weekend I would head home to Glendale , Oregon , which was my home of record, and where my girl friend, Carol, lived. I was head over heels in love with her, and every chance I got I headed north, but when I was in San Francisco I was in another world, and hey... boys will be boys. Life was about as good as it gets, and although I was having a lot of fun I couldn’t wait to get out of the Navy.

I was promoted to 2nd Class Petty Officer (E-5) on 16 January 1965, and was then volunteered for the engine room throttle watch, which was four hours on and eight hours off around the clock. Before that my watch duties had consisted of taking soundings of the fresh water, ballast and fuel tanks. I actually liked the throttle watch, as I was in charge of answering the bells and changing speeds. I really enjoyed doing maneuvers; it was like a game trying to see how fast you could respond to the bridge’s commands when they would change speed or direction. We could turn that little ship on a dime. In order to turn the ship sharply you had to put one screw in reverse and the other in forward, and in a matter of minutes you might have to reverse what you were doing, and go in the opposite direction. When doing maneuvers they would really put you through the paces. The officer on the bridge would change his throttle indicator and a bell would go off in the engine room, and I would change my throttle indicator, and a bell would go off on the bridge, which would let the bridge duty officer know that we were in sync. Then I would immediately adjust the speed of the ship accordingly.

You can call it bragging or fact, but I was very adept at this task, and was considered by my peers to be the best on the ship. If you couldn’t handle the job you would be replaced, and quickly. Not very many sailors wanted the throttle watch, as it was a pressure packed job, but to me it was a lot of fun.

Sometime in the spring of 1965 we began hearing rumors that we might be getting redeployed to Vietnam . “ Vietnam ,” I thought to myself, “Where is that, and why would we be going there?” Just shows how ignorant I was about current events although Vietnam wasn’t that big of a deal at that time.

The Vietnam rumors turned out to be true, and on 3 June 1965 we set sail for Pearl Harbor . I remember steaming out of San Francisco Bay , watching as the Golden Gate Bridge slowly slipped behind the horizon. We arrived in Pearl Harbor on 9 June, and stayed there until 19 June. From there we headed for Guam , which was to be our new homeport. Upon arriving in Guam on 29 June we were underway again on 5 July for Subic Bay , Philippines for a short layover. We officially arrived at our duty station off the coast of Vietnam on 10 July 1965. We had only been on station a couple of hours when I heard what would become a very familiar announcement over the ship’s intercom, “Away the motor whaleboat away.”

Shortly before arriving in Vietnam the Captain had asked for volunteers for three crews of seven sailors to man the motor whaleboat, which was the mode we would be using to search junk boats. The Captain was looking for 3rd Class Petty Officers or above and preferably single. I was a 2nd Class Petty Officer and single so I volunteered. There weren’t enough volunteers to make up all the crews so many married men ended up volunteering or being volunteered to take part in this mission. I was trained to operate the diesel engine on the motor whaleboat; in other words I was the Engineman on my crew. We had a Boatswain Mate 3rd Class who manned the rudder, a Radioman 2nd Class, the Executive Officer and three other sailors that I can’t remember it’s been so long now. I carried a Thompson machine gun and I remember a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) being aboard, as well as various side arms. The Executive Officer, who was part of each seven-man team, wore only a side arm.

“Oh lucky me,” I thought, as I heard the intercom. It was time to search our first junk and it was my watch. I was so scared I was about to soil my self. “Away the motor whaleboat away,” I would grow weary of hearing that message over the intercom before my tour in Vietnam came to an end.

We ran to the armory; picked up our pieces, and then to the whaleboat where a large outrigger crane lowered us by cables into the water. I had to get the diesel started as soon as we touched the water. With that done we set out toward a fairly large junk. I was trying to keep my Thompson available and ready for what I was sure was going to be a firefight. It was while inserting the clip into my gun that I dropped it clip into the bilge, and search as I might; running my hand to and fro in the oil contaminated water I could not locate the clip. “You friggin klutz,” I said to myself, “you’re going to get your dumb ass killed all because you got buck fever, and dropped your clip in the bilge.” It was like a bad dream. Here I was about to go into battle, at least that’s what I thought, and me with no bullets. I finally had to give up, as we were pulling up along side the junk to board and search it. Luckily for me everything went well, and after the Exec and a couple of others searched the Junk we headed back to the ship. It was only after we got back and had secured the motor whaleboat that I finally managed to locate the oil-drenched clip. This was a lesson well learned... never be without extra clips. I went to the armory and found a canvas bag with a shoulder strap, and loaded it up with extra clips; placing it along side my Thompson so I would be ready for the next time we were called upon to search a junk, which wouldn’t be a long wait. It seems like that’s all we did. Between searching junks and standing throttle watch I was one worn out sailor.

I only spent about seven months in Vietnam , and am surprised that they didn’t let me out before we left Treasure Island , as I was supposed to get discharged on 29 October 1965. I was already wearing a short timers chain when we left the states, and on 10 July 1965 when we reached Vietnam I had 110 days to go. Usually when you have less than six months before your discharge date, and you have a change of duty station, they’ll give you an early out, but for whatever reason, maybe an oversight by personnel, I was there. I ended up spending seven months there, as we were involuntarily extended, but I’ll address subject later.

I spent my off duty hours sunbathing, fishing and lifting weights. I ran the movie projector in the Shipfitter shop when we had the time, and learned how to splice film with the best of them. Talk about primitive technology. Looking back it seems that we had an endless supply of movies to watch. I was never into pornography, but there were a lot of private non-sanctioned skin flicks as well.

I can only touch on the high points of my tour in Vietnam , as it’s been almost forty years since I was there. I do remember one incident though that is worth mentioning. We began hearing bits and pieces about a downed pilot, and soon we were steaming full speed ahead so it was obvious that something was going on. We soon learned that we were headed for the location where the pilot had purportedly gone down. We arrived and dropped anchor in a fairly large bay. It was around noon, which was good for me, as it meant it wasn’t my watch, and someone else would be taking the whaleboat out. I was feeling good about that, as this appeared to be a more dangerous mission than boarding and searching junks. We sat anchored in the bay with nothing much happening, and soon it was apparent that if much more time elapsed it would be me taking the whaleboat out. “Damn,” I thought, as 1600 showed on my watch, “I’m going to get involved in this thing after all.” Well it wasn’t long until we heard the, by now, familiar “Away the motor whaleboat away” over the intercom. We grabbed our weapons and headed for the whaleboat uncertain as to what we were supposed to do. I’m sure the Exec knew exactly what the plan was, but all he told us was that we would get as close to shore as possible, and slowly make our way around the bay hoping the downed pilot would see us, and somehow make his way to the whaleboat. As the whaleboat was being lowered toward the water below we suddenly began taking automatic weapon fire. I heard it first and said, “What the hell is that?” Then as it became apparent what was happening the Exec ordered us to be pulled back up. It’s a miracle no one was hit, as you could hear the bullets whistling by and hitting the side of the ship, and also zipping into the water. If the Viet Cong had waited just a few more minutes we would have been so close they could have wiped us out with one well placed hand grenade, as we would have only been a few yards from the shore. Thank God they were impatient or I wouldn’t be writing this story. Whatever happened to the pilot we never learned, as the enlisted men weren’t privy to what was probably deemed as classified information.

Another incident I remember was comical in nature. We pulled into a nice little bay where the shoreline was heavily covered with the foliage associated with that part of Vietnam . I remember thinking that it looked a lot like the Oregon coast where the evergreens grow right down to the water. Anyway we dropped anchor, and all was going well until, what appeared to be, a lone sniper began shooting at our ship. What was funny was that this lone gunman was able, because of the logistics, to hold a fully armed Navy ship hostage with only a single shot rifle. It seemed to be coming from the trees back away from the shoreline, but every time the anchor crew would come out from cover to try and bring the anchor up, the deck would get peppered with shots from this lone sniper. I’m surprised we weren’t swimming; as we sometimes did when we pulled into what we thought was a safe haven. It was after dark before the anchor crew could finally haul the anchor in; at which time we made a hasty retreat back to the open sea.

I can’t remember the occasion, but for whatever reason we took the whaleboat into an Army base at Quinon. I still have photos of myself, and several others taken, while in the whaleboat on the way in. I can’t remember if there was a dock or if we just beached the whaleboat as we did so many other times when checking out villages located on the shore. I remember walking into a barracks full of Army guys and after spending a short time talking to them I was very glad I had made the decision to go in the Navy rather than the Army or the Marines. I greatly admired these guys, and what they were going through, and felt something akin to guilt; knowing that so many of them wouldn’t be coming home, and thinking that my situation was so much better than there’s. Barring something totally bizarre happening I knew my chances of surviving Vietnam were much better than those I found myself with that day.

I remember Finch having a big beer blast on a deserted Island located just a short distance off the coastline. Unfortunately it was my day for whaleboat duty so I spent my day ferrying beer, hot dogs, hamburger, and other barbecue supplies from the ship to the Island . The water wasn’t very deep where we were, and I could see the bottom easily, and was thinking how I would like to dive down and pick up some of the beautiful shells lying there on the bottom. The coastline of Vietnam contains hundreds and hundreds of miles of the most beautiful pristine beaches I have ever seen. I remember even as a young inexperienced sailor thinking what a fabulous investment opportunity this would be if the area ever became stabilized.

Captain Thompson did his best to make our situation as tolerable as possible. I remember several times anchoring in a secluded peaceful inlet and hanging rope ladders over the side and swimming for hours. We would dive off the top of the ship, climb back up the rope ladders and do it again. We actually went swimming on Christmas day in 1965. I quit participating in the swimming activities as my time began winding down to discharge time. I wasn’t taking any chances with sharks or anything else that might be lurking down below. I’ve never been all that crazy about swimming in really deep water anyway; too vivid of an imagination I guess. I could just imagine some sort of sea monster waiting there in the deep to bite my legs off.

We searched junks pretty much every day; never really finding anything of any value. Once we found a GI ammunition box being used to store fishing gear, and another time we found an AWOL South Vietnamese soldier. We had a Vietnamese liaison officer aboard the Finch who would pick out what he thought looked like a suspicious junk and then he would, by using a big bullhorn, make known our intention to board and search their vessel. Any junk that didn’t comply would be sunk.

One day a suspicious acting junk, after being warned, made a mad dash for shore. As they were beaching their boat the ships three-inch guns took out the entire junk and crew. I could see bodies flying through the air. There were no survivors. There was a saying among the sailors that if a junk stopped and allowed us to board and search them they were South Vietnamese, but if they ran they were Viet Cong.

One occasion I’ll not soon forget was a junk being hailed to stop and be boarded, but for whatever reason they weren’t getting the message, and just kept going on their merry way. I think they were close to getting blown out of the water when it was noticed that the junk carried a group of catholic nuns and priests. That would have been a terrible tragedy, and would have made all the headlines back home, but who’s to say they were really what they appeared to be. There was all kinds of chicanery going on, and it was hard to know whom you could trust. Especially when we were hearing about little kids riding their bikes by Army jeeps and dropping grenades into them. The Viet Cong knew all the tricks and used them in many different ways to disrupt the American forces.

I think the scariest event that I experienced was when our Exec decided that we were going to beach the whaleboat, and search a village located in a stand of trees not far from the edge of the beach. There was a high cliff with a watchtower structure built on top of it. This must have looked suspicious to the captain or once again maybe the ship had orders to check it out. The enlisted man never knew what was going on until he was knee deep in it. Anyway we beached the whaleboat and walked right through a deserted village, but it was apparent it hadn’t been vacant long as fires were still burning, and food half eaten had been left behind. I just knew we were walking into an ambush, and there would have been no way to ever get a shot off; talk about sitting ducks. The Exec took a couple of sailors with him and they made their way up a well-worn mountain trail to the structure located on top. We were left standing around like lambs for the slaughter while they checked out the edifice. Pretty soon they came back down and the Exec ordered us all back to the whaleboat and back to the ship. Soon after getting back the small structure was blown off the top of the cliff by the ship’s three-inch guns. I guess it was good target practice if nothing else. I thought it was a stupid move by the Exec to take a bunch of untrained sailors into a Vietnamese village that we had no way of knowing if they were friendly or hostile. I think most Vietnamese were afraid of both sides in that travesty of a war.

Every once in a while a Vietnamese Navy Junk would come up along side of the ship, and we would converse back and forth; mainly about Zippo cigarette lighters. The Vietnamese sailors would do anything to get a Zippo. Sometimes they would come aboard and actually walk around the ship, which I thought was pretty dumb, but I guess they must have been invited. They were a rough looking bunch and their smell could almost make you lose your breath. I’ll bet they went through hell once we pulled out of the war. Everyone had to be reprocessed to get their thinking straight again, and I can only imagine what that consisted of.

I’ll never forget one junk that was brought along side of the ship. I was kind of daydreaming looking down at the kids, and all of a sudden I noticed this young boy of about twelve who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. What was amazing is they weren’t deformed looking or anything like that; they were perfect. I guess he was further along the evolutionary process than the rest of us. I wish I’d had my camera with me; that would have been a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I think what I hated most about searching junks was the trauma caused to the occupants on the boat. Most of these people were just trying to catch enough fish to sustain their meager diet. I remember the scared look in the their eyes, as they waited for us to complete the boarding and searching of their vessel, which many times was also their home. They had no idea what we were up to, but they did know what we were capable of doing should one of them make a wrong move. There was fear and trembling as they huddled together talking under their breath as they watched our every move. All it would have taken was for one of the Vietnamese men to make a wrong move, and any one of us could have opened fire possibly killing innocent people.  

I guess the best way to sum up my tour of duty in Vietnam is to say I was tired, very tired of the daily non stop searching of junks and the never ending watches we had to stand. I was so happy as the days slowly counted down to my discharge date, which was 29 October 1965.

Then the bad news came; all Navy personnel had been involuntarily extended for an undetermined length of time. What a disappointment; I was totally devastated! It seemed like fate had just played the cruelest joke possible. I had forty-five days left; almost, but not quite within reach, and then it was gone. A couple of my friends who were married with kids just about freaked out. I think one of them even had to be medicated. What a slap in the face, and the worst thing about it was the length of the extension was undetermined. We didn’t find out until a couple of weeks later that it was a four-month extension. Now instead of a month and a half to go I was back to five and a half months to go. Four months can seem like an eternity when you’re tired, and your joy and excitement of going home has been totally crushed.

I still have the article from the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper. See excerpt below:


4. Effective 2400, 15 September 1965 at expiration of enlistment or enlistment as extended, enlistments of regular Navy personnel will be involuntarily extended for a period of four months under authority of 10 USC 5538 unless member voluntarily extends his enlistment or reenlists in accordance with current directives.


Well, even with the extra time it was finally coming to an end. I along with four other sailors from the USS Finch were being taken by motor whaleboat to the USS Navasota, a refueling ship, which was on its way back to Subic Bay, Philippines. The old motor whaleboat that I had spent so much time in was taking me to freedom. In just a few days I would be flying out of Clark Air Force base back to Treasure Island for discharge. I was so ready for this; little did I know that I was about to experience something so bizarre, so surreal, that it would forever change my life.


Note: Those of us who searched the junks, and went up the rivers in a motor whaleboat were the original Brown Water sailors, and nobody ever mentions it. We were there before the Swift Boats and the River Boats; searching junks and doing whatever else we were called upon to do.

Maybe one day we will be recognized for what we did before the Brown Water Sailors got there. I saw my first Swift Boat about a month before I left Vietnam ; number thirteen. They were cool looking, but in reality they did essentially the same thing we did... search junks.

They just had a higher profile due to the publicity they received before arriving on the scene. I never saw a River Boat until later and then only in a picture. The River Rats got the glory and they deserve every bit of it.