The Beer King
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Several hours later
we were anchored way up the
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
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. <>Tom Sparkman
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
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
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.
July 25, 2002