"Red Sky at Night,
Sailor�s delight...
Red sky at morning...
Sailors take warning!"

S/S Fairport, 1969

by: Michael Gillen
© 1998


I was a (civilian) merchant seaman on the Vietnam Run, as we called it, between April and July 1969. There were other ships, but only the "Fairport" went to Vietnam (Đà Nẵng).

Thirty years ago yesterday I "signed articles" in Seattle to ship out on the S/S Fairport, a World War II-vintage freighter under contract to the Military Sea Transportation Service. The agent in the Seafarers International Union hall asked me, "Are you ready to go to work?"


"OK, I have a ship for you and an OS [ordinary Seaman] job.  Do you want it?

"Yes." I was committed. "Where's she going?"

"Vietnam, with ammunition." So I signed the papers, on April 28, nine days after my twenty-first birthday. (Enroute to Seattle I had stopped at a Vineyard and bought a bottle of wine. The guy asked me for my ID and I was glad to show him I had turned the requisite age just a few days before. That night, in Scotia, California, with a new friend who has served me dinner in a local diner, I drank it, in commemoration of the occasion and what was to come.)

I was still a little ambivalent about the war, but not about going to sea: that was what I wanted and needed to do at that point in my life, ship out again. It really didn't matter where it would take me. I wasn't exactly following up funeral processions, but, Like Ishmael, I needed to go to sea again. A few days later, with seabag and a few books in hand (including Conrad's "Victory" of all things) I was aboard the Fairport, and assigned to the 12 to 4 watch. A doc came on board just before we got underway, and administered shots for The Plague, Typhoid, Typhus and Diptheria Tetanus. I had no idea what I was getting into, and it didn't matter.

We secured for sea, set sea watches, and the word went out: no smoking on deck except in a few designated areas; Fire and bombs, and smoke grenades--we carried about 8,000 tons of it--was a dangerous combination. I had a small quantity of pot with me, yes, this is the truth--it was April 1969 after all--and at one point soon after getting underway I made my way to the back (fantail) of the ship one evening and
threw it overboard. It was a symbolic gesture, but in more ways than one that voyage, and that time in my life, would be defining. In a few weeks, after a short time in Subic Bay, The Philippines we would be in Vietnam.

Emerging on deck one night to stand my lookout watch on the bow, there were the lights, which I dutifully reported by phone to the navigation bridge

Parachute Flare, pulsar imageParachute Flare, pulsar imageParachute Flare, pulsar image

And I would write, years later:

Three flares dead ahead
burn holes in a China Sea night
guiding us to war.

They are still with me today; I can still see them, and so much more from 30 years ago. Vietnam: little did I know, little did I know ....

But last night, watching that program about the "Forgotten Veterans"-- the women who served--sitting on the couch with a glass of red wine, and the dogs close by I cried again.


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