The Beer King

Tom Sparkman


     On January 1, 1968, I reported to my first ship as a new naval officer.  This was to be different from any of the later ships I was assigned to.  This time I was a “boot” ensign.  That means that I was an Ensign (my rank) who was newly commissioned.  It also made the assumption that new naval officers don’t know anything, as if they were right out of enlisted “boot camp.”  That is an assumption that is not far off base.  For some reason the lowest ranking officer aboard a ship (me), is called “George.”  I don’t remember the reason for that name.

     The ship I was reporting to was operating in the Mekong River Delta of Vietnam.  Right smack dab in the middle of a war. This ship was the USS Benewah (APB-35), a barracks ship.  It had the hull of a World War II Landing Ship Tank (LST).  It had long been known amongst us naval officers that LST stands for “large slow target.”  A barracks ship is an even larger slow target.  Since the official designation was “Auxiliary Propelled Barracks,” it was a self-propelled barracks ship. As there was a war going, on and we were a rather large target, along with the other ships of our flotilla, we were painted a dark green.  That was so we wouldn’t show up against the dark shoreline at night when we didn’t have air cover to protect us from the Viet Cong.

     My first assignment couldn’t have a distinguished name like destroyer or cruiser, or aircraft carrier.  No, it had to be “APB”.  When the higher ups weren’t near by we referred to it as an “All Purpose Barge.”  We never, and I mean never, referred to it, (at least in front of strangers) as the “Green Weenie.” 

      Barracks ship sounds like a nice dull place to be.  Don’t let it fool you.  With all the gunboat crews and army troops embarked, we were a beehive of activity.  We were the “Mobile Riverine Force” of the Mekong River.  We were a “high value target” to the enemy.

   We would often anchor near Dong Tam, base of Second Brigade, Ninth Infantry Division.  Anchoring there was an adventure.  Our sleep was interrupted once or twice, or more a week.  Sometime between the hours of 2AM and 4:30AM all hell would break loose..  There would be an attack on the Army base.  I am talking mortars and rockets.  Rarely did a week pass where we got a good night’s sleep.  We were anchored near Dong Tam for about 80% of the time in the year 1968.

     Here is where all that dark green paint came into use.  We were blacked out every night.  Not a light of any kind showing.  When the attacks happened in the middle of the night, the enemy couldn’t see us anchored out in the middle of the river.  We would go to General Quarters (battle stations), manning all of our guns.  We never fired a shot, at least not in the year I was aboard.  Why tell the bad guys where we were?  Then they would have opened fore on us.  With over 1,000 men cramped into our ship, we would have been an inviting target.

     We were designed to be the flagship.  The Commodore (almost an Admiral) was in command of all the ships in the flotilla (group of ships.)  We had a crew of about 300, and housed the boat crews of about 20 gunboats, and had sleeping quarters for about 600 Army troops (hence the designation “barracks ship”.   It was a crowded ship, and plain ugly to someone who dreamed of sleek destroyers and cruisers.

     Since we were a flagship we had officers all over the place.  A good many of them were actually higher rank than the ship’s captain.  Lots of Naval officers, Army officers, one or two Air Force officers, and one Marine officer.  I was the junior one of the whole bunch.

      The ship sprouted radio antennas all over its hull and superstructure.  Some Navy, some Army, and a whole lot we never did find out who owned and used.  High up on the bridge of the ship is where we steered or “conned” the ship from.  When we were underway, and where we stood anchor watches, we had three different radios to monitor.  One for the flotilla (big ships), one for the gunboat divisions, and one for the Army.  The Army radio was to stay in contact with their helicopters that landed frequently on our helicopter pad.  It was high up on our main superstructure, in the middle of the ship between the bridge forward, and the smoke stack aft.

      I don’t care what you may have heard, naval officers were destined to be shiphandlers.  Unfortunately, when you arrive aboard a ship they have a tendency to give you job assignments that make you wonder when you are going to get to handle the ship.  This year was going to be a great disappointment to me in the shiphandling department.  I never once got a chance to “conn,” or control the ship, as it is referred to.  My job assignments turned out to be more like routine chores.

      The closest I got to conning the ship in this year was to stand Officer of the Watch duties on the bridge while the ship was at anchor.  This is akin to a race car drive being assigned to sit in a parked race car for six hours a day and never drive the darned thing. 

     My primary assignment was EMO (Electronics Materiel Officer).  I was in charge of all the electronics on the ship and the technicians who repaired them and kept them running.  I don’t think the Navy even has that job description anymore.  It was as dull as they get.  Oh, wait a minute, the next assignment listed below is even duller and tedious.

     One of my secondary duties, since I was “George” was publications officer.  I had the tiresome task of making the numerous, too numerous, changes that came out frequently, too frequently.  The changes were to all the publications on the ship that were classified.  I hated that job.  Pretty dull stuff so far.

      When there wasn’t shooting going on, the rest of the time things were pretty dull.  Sounds like a contradiction, but we never got a day off.  Even in this war zone, that I once went four months without ever setting foot off the ship.  When I did leave I only went to one of the other ships to buy a camera.  I still have that camera.   The only break came with a week’s R&R (Rest and Relaxation), when we got a week out of the country.

     Another, unofficial, job assignment was SLJO (shitty little jobs officer).  Any dirty, boring, or otherwise distasteful job was sure to fall on me.  This could have been worse.  The last commodore (command of all the ships) on this flagship had a small dog aboard.  The dog never went ashore and the SLJO before me had to walk the dog every day and make sure the poop was cleaned up.  If the commodore had still been there and I had been given that job, the dog would have come up missing in no time at all.  War casualty, you know. 

     My other secondary job was that of Welfare and Recreation Officer.  The only Recreation we had, with rare exceptions, was to drink beer. That fact was to make me, for a very un-navylike reason, one of the most popular officers aboard ship.  You see, as Welfare and Rec officer, I had the keys to all the cold beer under lock and key.

      Navy regulations say that you can’t drink alcoholic beverages aboard a Navy ship.  We could, however drink beer on one of the two ninety foot pontoon barges that were kept tied up alongside the ship as long as we were in the river.  Hey, when you are under attack, or close to it one, two, or even three nights of the week, every week of the year, you deserve a couple of cold beers a week. 

      Navy ships have men designated to test the fuel and water for the ship’s boilers.  This is done to ensure that the boilers don’t get contaminated and ruin the machinery.  The person charged with this responsibility is called the “fuel and water king.”  Since I was in charge of the beer, and lots of it, locked safely in cold storage, someone jokingly referred to me as the “Beer King.”  The name stuck.

My Beer King hat, at left.

     I thought nothing of this beer king stuff until the ship’s supply officer sent off to Japan for some blue baseball caps for us to wear.  They had the ship’s name on the front with an officer’s emblem.   The hats had the person’s job printed on the back above the adjusting strap.   I got two of them.  The supply officer had ordered one that said “Beer King” on the front of the hat.   That is the one I wore.

     At it turns out, with all the officers aboard the ship, including the Commodore (ranked just below and Admiral), there were many on the staff who outranked the ship’s captain.  The majority of the men, officers and enlisted alike, Army and Navy (who weren’t part of the actual ship’s crew) didn’t even know who the ship’s captain was.  What a predicament for the captain of any ship.  It so happened that every one of them, all 1100 men of every service, knew who the man was that provided the 80 cases of beer every Wednesday afternoon on the pontoons barges.  You guessed it ..................the Beer King.

     We had a beer party once a week.  80 cases of beer comes to 1920 cans of beer in one afternoon.  Vietnam is hot, real hot.  Think of August in North Florida.  It was hotter still on those steel pontoons tied up to the ship.  The first beer was cold.  After that, they were lukewarm to just plain warm.

     We got supplies from other ships that brought us supplies up the river every week.  Just about once a month there would be four weeks worth of beer for us.  That is 240 cases of beer a month.  We had cold storage for that much beer, no sweat.  It had to be under lock and key, for obvious reasons.  I had the key.

     We were in the middle of one such beer party when the news hit us that the Tet offensive had been launched by the Viet Cong.  The city of My Tho, down the river a few miles was being overrun by the enemy.  We still had about 30 cases 

of beer left on the pontoon.  Emergency........ return all the beer to the cooler, get underway, and go to the rescue of My Tho.

     The problem wasn’t the fact that most of the beer didn’t make it back to the cooler to be put under lock and key.  It was the fact that a large portion of the crew had had a few too many beers.  How we managed not to run aground is a wonder to me.  We had to try to anchor three times when we got down the river to My Tho.  Just plain clumsy shiphandling and anchoring by a slightly tipsy crew.  Then the Army troops were put ashore to save the city.  They had all had at least a couple of beers apiece.

     Once in a while we would run short of beer.  It arrived aboard a supply ship, usually an LST (Landing Ship Tank), once a month.  Most of it originated in Australia.  A few times we ran short and I had to improvise.  Fortunately, the Army cooperated since their troops benefited as much as the ship’s crew.

     One time I got a working party from the Army and went ashore at the fortified base at Dong Tam to get more beer for the ship.  I was looking for at least a week’s worth.  I was hoping the supply ship would show up any day, but whether it had our beer ration on it was not known.  The trip ashore meant my changing from khakis to BDUs (battle dress uniform) and strapping on that gunbelt.  I borrowed a PAPA boat.  That is an LCVP landing craft which we shorten the name to PAPA.  It has a bow ramp that lowers to allow a jeep and trailer to be landed on a beach.   Dong Tam is a dirty, sore spot on the river.  In a lush tropical country, they had dug fortified positions complete with trenches, sandbagged positions, and some tin huts surrounded by sandbags.  If you saw the movie “The Green Berets” with John Wayne, the first part of the movie shows a typical Army base in Vietnam.  Dong Tam was the same.

     I left my men at the boat dock and went looking for the supply officer.  I went into a metal hut surrounded by sandbags.  The air conditioner was noisy, but it was cool in there.  My business only took about 20 minutes.

     I went outside to get my crew to load the beer that the supply officer was going to send to the dock.

     There wasn’t a soul in sight.  My men were gone and so was everyone else.  I was puzzled as I walked towards the landing craft tied up to the dock.

At left:  me in front of a PBR.

     Only when I got to the boat did someone peek their head out from one of the trenches.  He told me a sniper in the tree line beyond the perimeter fence had been shooting at the men by the docks.  In the hut, with the loud rattle of the air conditioner, I had missed the noise of the shooting and the alarm that had sounded.  Luckily, he stopped shooting just before I left the hut.  I knew there was a reason I hated wearing those BDUs and carrying that gun belt. That 45 caliber automatic was of little comfort.  If I was close enough to the enemy to use the pistol I was close enough to throw it at him.

     One other time we ran out of beer.  I sent a chief petty officer and some men in the PAPA boat (landing craft) to Dong Tam, which was within sight of our anchorage.  Only a short time later we received a message.  We were to up-anchor and steam upriver towards the Cambodian border to handle an emergency.  I had my own emergency.  I went to the captain and told him about the working party that went after the beer.  The captain said they would have to look after themselves.  This was a real emergency and the ship would wait for no one.

     PAPA boat, at the bottom of the photo (right), pulling away from a pontoon alongside the ship.
     As we steamed up the river, I saw the PAPA boat come out of the canal that led from Dong Tam.  It was heavily loaded and low in the water.  That darned boat would never make it to where we were going.  It would have to chug up river in our wake, against a pretty good current. 

     Worse yet, we were usually shot at anytime we were underway up the river.  The enemy fired from fortified, hidden positions that are a frequent feature along the river banks.  When we steamed up or down the river we usually came under fire from several of these places.  This was in the daytime.  That landing craft wasn’t armored and was unarmed.  I did not like it one bit.  I was fearful for the boat if it didn’t catch up to us before dark.  When it got dark things usually got rough on the river.  That is when the enemy came out in force.

     Several hours later we were anchored way up the Mekong River.  I stood there for hours afterward watching down river, waiting for a sign of my men.  Finally, just before dark, a pair of armored gunboats came into sight towing the heavily loaded PAPA boat, which had broken down.

     After the beer was unloaded and stored away the chief told me that he had “given away” some of the cases of beer to get the gunboat crews to tow them.  I didn’t care.  I had the men back safely.  I cared less about what happened to the darned beer, or the boat.  I didn’t like this business of running out of beer.  Something bad always happened when we did.

     The supply officer ordered the beer so you can’t blame me for what happened next.  We had a worse problem than running short of beer.  Somehow, we wound up with a tad too much beer being delivered.  In this case, one shipment too many.  We had a few too many cases.  Say...... 1,000 cases or so altogether.  We did not have enough room in the locked cooler.  In fact we were hard pressed to find any lockable place to put a large portion of the beer.

      The ship had a brig.  This is Navy talk for jail cells in a ship.  The brig had a lock on the door and was as secure a place there is to lock something up, although beer was not intended to be one of them.  We never had any use to lock someone up before, so we put a several hundred cases of beer in the brig for safekeeping.  From front to back, ceiling to floor, all the way to the door...... sort of rhymes, doesn’t it.  Now I had all 1,000 cases under lock and key............ for a very short time.

      Several nights later, I was just getting ready to go on watch at midnight, on the ship’s bridge.  You command the bridge and conn it (drive it) from there when the ship is underway (sailing).  It is also where we had an officer and several enlisted stand watch (duty) while at anchor.  It wouldn’t do to have the ship drag anchor, run aground, or collide with another ship also anchored at night.  We didn’t even have any lights showing.  Any lights would have invited artillery, rockets and machine gun fire.  <>

     The Chief Master-at-Arms came to see me just before I left my stateroom for the bridge.  He is the closest thing to a policeman aboard ship.  It seems an Army enlisted man had stabbed another man over a poker game.  He needed to lock the man up in the brig.  Oh, Oh.  All that beer in the brig.

         I woke up Major Sun who was the operations officer on the Army staff.  I explained that I needed the keys to his office.  I had to have a place to put some of that beer.  I didn’t know how long he would be without the use of his office.  It was his men who benefited as much as the ship’s crew from the beer parties so he agreed.

         We got a working party (11:45PM) to move just enough beer from the brig to have space to lay the prisoner down.  How was that going to work?  We put the man in a straight jacket.  It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but it was only going to be until the next morning when we would move him off the ship.  There were still several hundred cases of beer in the brig with him.  I was going to be late relieving the watch so I headed to the bridge with the keys to the brig in my pocket.

         About two hours later the Chief came to me on the bridge.  He had checked on the prisoner and the man, in a straight jacket, lying on the deck, had chewed through a couple of six packs of beer with his teeth.  The Chief needed the keys to the brig.

          Any kind of operation on the Mekong River at night is dangerous.  At night the enemy would sneak up close to the river bank and try to find us.  Every night between two and four thirty the enemy usually started a rocket and mortar attack on the Army base, Dong Tam, just across from our anchorage.

         Now we were going to have to arrange to have a gunboat come and fetch this, now drunk, prisoner.  I would have to carry him upriver, at night, to another ship which could put him in their brig...... without the beer.  Fortunately, we found another ship that would take him.  We arranged for a gunboat to pick up the prisoner and deliver him.
         By mid morning, the beer was safely back in the brig and Major Sun had his office back.  I sure was glad when our beer supply was used up enough to keep from using the brig again.

         I had one particularly bad experience as Beer King.  One day a senior staff officer who was higher rank than the ship’s captain called me and said he and a couple of other senior officers wanted to have a few beers.  “No problem”, I said.  I would have them up to his stateroom in a few minutes.  Oh no, he reminded me that it was against regulations to drink aboard ship.  Fool, I knew that, but I didn’t think he was dumb enough to drink a few beers in front of the rest of the crew.

        I was wrong.  The damn fool had me bring two six packs down to the pontoons.  As I set the beer down on a work bench, the three officers, with their backs to the ship proceeded to enjoy some cold beer.  They said, “Hey, have one yourself.”  I looked up and saw about 300 men lining the rail above their heads staring at them drinking that beer.  “No thanks,” was all I could think to say.  I wasn’t about to drink beer in front of the crew and Army troops when they couldn’t enjoy the same privilege.  I wished those fools had taken my suggestion and had drunk their beer in their stateroom.

        In the year I spent up the Mekong River it seemed like most of my time was spent on my secondary duties.  I know that is an illusion, but I have bad memories of cut-and-paste sessions with my confidential publications and their many change.

      My only real regret......... I wish I had saved that hat.  “Beer King,” was the one secondary job in the Navy that I have fond memories of.
Tom Sparkman
July 25, 2002