Yesterday would have been my dad’s 75th birthday, easily within a normal lifespan. However a life of abuse, lifestyle of a biker, Agent Orange, smoking, chemical exposure and incarceration, and mental health ended that abruptly before his 68th birthday.
Here is a picture of him just turning 17 on his way to Cam Ranh Bay in 1966. Having just gotten through Great Lakes training and a few months on the USS Mars he was “volunteered” to serve in the Brown Water Navy aboard Patrol Boat River and Patrol Boat Fast craft.
I have attached a few pictures of what are called Patrol Boat River (PBRs) probably most famous because of the movie Apocalypse Now. Specifically I tried to get pictures that had the 50 caliber gun pit he served in, none of the boat pics are him sadly. He wasn’t able to keep any of his pictures when he was in country.
This originally was just a happy birthday post, but below you will find evidently I needed to talk about it, and I think this is the first time I have ever written publicly. This got long, so please don’t read more if you don’t want to hear long drawn out story that I may update and streamline or expand. I don’t know why now I need to share, but I think my therapist would tell me it is part of my processing of my own trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD, and abuse by my own past demons.
I know so many small stories of the time dad was in Vietnam, that sometimes I can dream it. Sadly though it was a horrific time for a seventeen year old who didn’t want to be there, but because he grew up abused by his uncle Rush, physically, mentally and sexually, he had a hard start. Sadly uncle Rush wasn’t the one who raised him, it as his grandfather and grandmother who had raised him and they tried hard but they were both in their 70-80s.
His grandfather died a few months after his grandmother and they both had just passed away the year when he was 16. He spun out of control, alcohol and trouble making in the small town of Oso and then in the “big” town of Everett (not really that big). His friends and him made a bad decision to break into a convenience store and steal alcohol. At some point a they got in a fight with some others and some people ended up pretty badly hurt (also something he regretted participating in his entire life).
He was brought into court, never had a problem in the past (hell until his grandparents died and he lost weight living on his own, he was known as “Fat Jack” and if he had been born thirty years later would probably be a gamer). However, the judge didn’t believe in chances, and he received no leniency from the court, the only option he got was to go to Vietnam, or serve a 5+ year prison sentence at the age of 17 at the Monroe State Prison.
I hope that judge rots in hell for that.
My dad hoped to avoid killing anyone so he joined the U.S. Navy. Maybe this would have been a good ending if he stayed in the “real navy”, but that isn’t what happened. After being on the U.S.S. Mars for a few months, they had a quota they had to fill of navy personnel to go over to the new river navy in Vietnam to assist the soldiers who had arrived there not long before.
He got “volunteered” for this duty.
He was a 17 year old white boy, the only white boy on his boat. He told me when he arrived and went on board the river craft, he was sure his crew would hate him because they were all black and angry. Turned out though that they loved him and he loved them. I cannot tell you the amount of times I would sit with him in the dark as his alcoholic run was wrapping up and he would just cry because he missed them, especially Steve, the man that died saving his life at the end and who my brother’s middle name is for.
He told me a lot of those stories as a kid (as did a lot of the other vets we grew up with), maybe I can tell their small vignettes in the future.
What I do know is that a river boat crew of black men had adopted my teenage father’s white country/farm ass and because of them my dad was able to come home.
The general gist of this post though is that he was the last survivor of his boat that spent most of its time on the northern part of the Mekong, I can’t remember the official designation, but they were called the “Skating Gators” and their symbol was Wally the Gator with dual 50 calibers machine guns in its arms while using roller-skates, or at least that is mostly what I remember as a young child when I saw the patch).
Their job was , to go rescue pilots, deliver packages (eg people) into Northern Vietnam and Cambodia, and to perform harassment and interdiction of the North Vietnamese use of the Mekong (this is before the North had really implemented the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I have only this picture and one other of when he was in country but not of him, of his friends instead (I need to find it and scan it). His personal stuff was not sent home with him as he was medically transported out.
After nine months, most of the original crew for the entire flotilla were dead or so injured they were transferred out. He was counting down his last three months to go home and get out of the military and out of trouble when he was injured gravely (even put in the pile of “dead” and was only found later when they realized he was breathing, that is another story).
When he was transported home after nine months in country he would be disharged with full honorable medical discharge after he saw the judge and the judge approved his tour in the military. He was rolled into the same judge’s courtroom with his head wrapped, both legs shot/shattered. The judge asked if he served his full year, and my dad’s public defender showed his service record and that he was about to be medically discharged due to combat injuries.
The judge did something that most people wouldn’t expect, but I have seen enough with our judicial system now that it doesn’t surprise me in retrospect. The judge believed because my dad didn’t serve a full year in Vietnam, that he hadn’t met his end of the sentence. The judge said because he didn’t finish his one year tour in Vietnam, that he was going to send him to prison anyways. My grandmother (his mother) who had gotten out of prison while he was gone had confirmed this. Everyone in the court was evidently shocked.
This situation was bad because he was still technically in the navy and because the judge changed the judgment and instead of releasing him like you would anyone who was gravely injured fighting for his country because my dad was too injured to fight, the navy discharged him as dishonorable because of the sentence he was forced to go to even though he had fought.
The injuries both mental and physical were only the start of a poor 18 year old who then had to go to prison for four years as an 18/19 year old and this would result in the life of the John J Bradley I knew, and as a result would direct my siblings and I’s lives as well.
That being said, he did everything he could for his family, and I miss him horribly and would give almost anything to just sit with him for an hour.
I guess this was an awkward way to say Happy Birthday dad, I love you and miss you.