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"When daylight came, we realized the scope of the attack. Many were still trapped, but we just couldn't get to all of them in time." (Photo: James Gill/Wisconsin Public Television)

Ken McGwin
2nd Class Petty Officer, U.S. Navy 7th Fleet Amphibious Forces
September 1967-April 1971

It was easy to be drafted in Marquette County, Wisconsin, in 1967—the pool was not large there. I chose not to go to college; I knew everything already. We were farmers and the farthest I’d been from home was Kansas City. A friend had gone into the Navy and I thought this would be a great way to see the world. I had visions of the Mediterranean, France and Spain.

After basic training, I was assigned in September 1967 to USS Vancouver in San Diego. North Korea took the spy ship Pueblo in early ’68, so everyone was anxious about that, and Vancouver got underway early for an extended deployment in the Tonkin Gulf and the South China Sea. At sea, near Da Nang, I received orders for USS Westchester County and flew to its home port at Yokosuka, Japan. Wesco, as it was known, was a 384-foot tank landing ship (LST), so I’d gone from deep water navy to brown water navy.

We were in Operation Midraft, the deployment with the joint Army/Navy Mobile Riverine Forces in the Delta. We traveled far up the Mekong, moving with the tides in shallow waters to supply armored gunboats and troop carriers, or gunboats called “Tangos.” They would tie up alongside the LST with a “camel,” a pontoon-type thing between the boats, so the crews could come aboard for meals or to get cleaned up. We refueled the boats and made repairs. I became a third class petty officer, a machinist’s mate, and spent most of my time in the engineering spaces, where boredom was interspersed with some activity and lots of work.

That all changed on Nov. 1, 1968, when Wesco was attacked while anchored midstream on the My Tho, 40 miles up-river from Vung Tau. The ship was serving as temporary home and base to 175 soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division’s 3rd Battalion, 34th Artillery, and to crews of Navy River Assault Division 111. It was a typical night. I was in the boiler room distilling water for the ship, there was a full watch on the bridge and picket boats had dropped percussion grenades in the water to keep the Viet Cong from swimming out to the ship to deliver mines or attach explosives to the hull. At about 3 a.m., I felt two tremendous explosions.

General quarters sounded. I couldn’t get anyone on the phone, so I left the boiler room for the main deck. Lights were out, and clouds of choking steam, smoke and vaporized diesel fuel filled the air.

Ken McGwin was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for saving the lives of shipmates after Wesco's attack..We manned our repair stations, but decided that someone had to find out what was going on. I went with another guy to the starboard side and saw many dead and wounded. Two gigantic holes had been ripped into Wesco’s starboard side, directly beneath the camel. Steel plating was twisted and shredded, fuel tanks were ruptured and berthing compartments, where senior petty officers had been sleeping, were destroyed. You could hear people struggling to get out. We expected more explosions and didn’t think we would live through the night.

Most of the senior ranking petty officers had been killed. Where people were trapped, there was only the light from our battle lanterns and flashlights. We could not use torches to cut people out because of diesel fuel in the air. Wesco began listing to starboard and there was still power to the pumps, so we opened valves and pumped water to restabilize the ship. With ammunition laying scattered about on the oil-slick deck, and highly flammable vaporized fuel hanging in the air, it was a recipe for disaster.

When daylight finally came, we realized the scope of the attack. Many were still hurt and trapped, but we just couldn’t get to them in time. We discovered two men alive in one of the partially flooded compartments, so I climbed down into the wreckage and pried them out. Our hospital corpsman calmly treated them, even though he himself was badly injured. That night 25 were killed and 22 wounded—the Navy’s greatest single-incident combat loss of life in the war.

Days later, we beached the ship on the bank of the river and Seabees patched the holes. Wesco then steamed back to Japan, a trip that saw another crisis. Trying to outrun a typhoon in heavy seas, we lost some of the patches, and water again flooded the ship. We ran the pumps and shored up as best we could. Wesco arrived safely at Yokosuka on November 26.

I returned to Vietnam as a second class petty officer on the amphibious assault ship Tripoli as Vietnamization began, hauling out aircraft and equipment.

In 1971, during Tripoli’s yard period in San Francisco, I got out of the Navy. I wanted to go home to the farm and get away from people. A friend from Indiana, who got out on the same day, had a new VW Beetle, so we hopped in it and headed east, feeling free and alive.

Adapted from the documentary film Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories, by Wisconsin Public Television,