‘Voluntary spirit’ Navy service thrusts veteran into the heart of Vietnam War

 
Russellville, Mo., veteran Roger Thompson holds a piece of the pin from a rocket that could have killed him in Vietnam. Courtesy of Jeremy P. Ämick
 
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By Jeremy P. Ämick

When asked why he chose to enlist in the military amid the heat of the Vietnam War, Roger Thompson jokingly responded, “The Navy seemed better than the Army because the Army was in Vietnam.”

Vietnam War
Russellville, Mo., veteran Roger Thompson holds a piece of the pin from a rocket that could have killed him in Vietnam. Courtesy of Jeremy P. Ämick

Yet this voluntary spirit would soon land the recent high school graduate in the same overseas location that he believed naval service might help him to avoid.

The spring of 1965 should have been a joyous time for Thompson since he had just graduated from Jefferson City (Mo.) High School, prepared for a full life yet to be lived.

Military service, however, became the primary destination in his personal forecast, as he realized the likelihood of being drafted, thus encouraging his enlistment in the U.S. Navy.

“I enlisted in October (1965) and they sent me to San Diego for boot camp,” said Thompson, 67, Russellville, Mo. “Then I reported to the USS Hollister to await my next assignment.”

Though he did not receive any specialized training after boot camp, the recruit was slotted for a specific job when reporting for first duty assignment.

“They just kind of said ‘You’re gonna be a gunner’s mate,’” he grinned.

The Hollister—a Gearing class destroyer commissioned shortly after World War II—was stationed in Long Beach, Calif. Shortly after Thompson’s arrival, the ship sailed for Yokosuka, Japan.

For the next two years, the ship supported combat operations in Vietnam by retrieving “downed pilots” and performing shore bombardment in areas such as the Gulf of Tonkin.

Vietnam War
Roger Thompson is pictured above in 1968 standing in the well deck of his “Tango” boat in Vietnam. Courtesy of Roger Thompson

Thompson explained: “There wasn’t a heck of a lot to being a gunner’s mate; you would load the guns, shoot them and help maintain them.”

But it was not long before the sailor’s duties removed him from the protection offered by a large vessel and placed him in close proximity with the enemy.

In early 1968, he left the Hollister and was transferred to Vallejo, Calif. For the next several weeks, he trained aboard “Tango” boats, which were the smaller vessels used to deliver troops via the inland waterways of Vietnam.

“Everybody (in our training group) learned how to steer and operate the boat. I was the gunner’s mate and operated two 20mm anti-aircraft guns, two .50 cals (calibers), four .30 cals and a MK-19 grenade launcher,” Thompson said.

After completing a two-week class in survival and escape techniques, Thompson flew to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, arriving in May 1968.