RM2 Michael A Harris U.S. Navy (1967-1971)
RM2 Michael A Harris
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PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE NAVY?
My high school football coach offered me a partial scholarship to a minor college in Oregon, but I decided to follow my brother to Oregon State University. After two terms my grades were not up to speed and I received my draft notice. My brother had joined the navy so I decided to do the same. An underlying reason was to avoid being drafted and serving in the Vietnam war. I come from a rich military family. My grandfather Harris retired as a BMCM with 41 years of service. Twenty one of those were as lighthouse attendant at Cape Arago Lighthouse near Coos Bay, Oregon. My father served on LST-71 in WWII and had 9 years of service in the USCG before he was mustered out due to manpower reductions. It broke his heart as he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. Two uncles retired as CWO4/33 years and BMCM with 26 years. Another uncle served in the Seabees during WWII. With my brother joining the Navy it seemed appropriate that I do so as well.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK. WHAT WAS YOUR REASON FOR LEAVING?
After serving on Riverboats in Vietnam my next duty station was the Naval Communications Station, Guam. I did not realize it then, but my young life was affected profoundly by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was an RM2 by the time I arrived and should have been an immediate “Watch Supervisor”, but I had only experienced voice circuits and machine guns in Vietnam. This meant that I had to be re-trained in order to become effective as a Supervisor. My father pushed very hard for me to make the Navy a career. As my initial four year enlistment came to a close I was offered RM1 if I re-enlisted for another 4 years. Due to the times and circumstances I decided that it would be better if I was discharged.
IF YOU PARTICIPATED IN COMBAT, PEACEKEEPING OR HUMANITARIAN OPERATIONS, PLEASE DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT TO YOU AND, IF LIFE-CHANGING, IN WHAT WAY.
After Radioman “A” school I had 9 months of training before I arrived in-country. It was a long time for a 19 year old to ponder his future. Soon after arriving in Vietnam my new Task Force 117 River Assault Squadron 15/Division 152 boat arrived from the U.S. onboard a Merchant Ship. After outfitting her, we were ordered for temporary duty with RAS 13 where we were “baptized by fire” on the first operation. Our invincibility took a big hit with the reality of wounded sailors. In early November 1968 our RAS 15 was fully operational. We pushed down into the infamous U Minh Forest area for some long operations. During the time approximately 30 out of 35 craft took at least one Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) hit along with small arms and sniper fire. It was not uncommon for boats to take multiple hits.
On the way out my T-152-1 boat and T-152-10 were “chopped” to Task Force 116 to operate with PBRs. The goal of Operation SEALORD was to interdict enemy troops and supplies coming into South Vietnam from Cambodia. Our two boats alternated night patrols for weeks. On December 26th my boat hit the riverbank in the darkness damaging one shaft and screw. Fortunately we limped back to the small Vietnamese Naval Base at Rach Soi without being attacked. The next day T-10 asked us to go out again because they had a hole in one of their fuel tanks. We informed them of our damage and they plugged the hole as best as they could and left the base just before dark. Early in the morning of the 27th, during a “Christmas ceasefire”, the radios awakened us to a hellish firefight. T-10 had taken 4 RPGs. Barry Barber was hit in the chest by one and 3 or 4 other sailors of the 7 man crew were wounded. Following medical evacuation the remaining crewmen brought her back to the base. The next morning my crew took the responsibility of policing up T-10. The carnage was horrific! It left an indelible mark upon my soul from that day forward.
In June 1969 our crews were getting very short. Word came down to prep our boats for turnover to new US crews. Not too long afterwards we were selected to go on a short “Milk Run” outside of Dong Tam. Nine boats were involved. Our RAS 15 had primarily moved Vietnamese army (ARVN) and Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) throughout the year. On this operation we would be handling U.S. 9th Infantry Riverine troops. On June 13th we wereambushed on “Rocket Alley” east of Ben Bre. T-152-6 took two RPGs and automatic weapons fire. Four infantry were KIA on the craft and 22 Army/Navy were wounded. The firefight was so intense that we had to transit down river to a Fire Support Base to offload our KIA/WIA. On June 15th we were hit again close to the same area. When our ramp dropped the cable broke disabling our boat. Around the same time the Viet Cong attacked. Being in the well deck I immediately began rigging the chain hoist to raise the disabled ramp. Lt Tom Kelley, our CO, brought his M-152-1 Monitor in beside us and fired 3 rounds of 105mm into the jungle ahead. The muzzle blasts almost knocked me over and deafened my left ear.
Lt Kelley then moved M-1 to mid-stream and ordered the crew to assault the ambush on the west bank. Soon afterwards his boat took 2 recoilless rifle rounds wounding everyone in the Coxswain’s flat. Despite his terrible wounds, Lt Kelley continued to command our boats and lead us out of the “kill zone” before he was medevaced. In 1970 then LCDR Kelley received the Medal of Honor for his “conspicuous gallantry” on that day. Later Captain Kelley retired from the Navy and eventually worked his way up to Commissioner of Veterans Affairs for the state of Massachusetts. Captain Kelley’s Profile is here on NTWS. During my tour of duty i was involved in 20-25 ambushes on the rivers and canals as well as several rocket/mortar attacks at the Dong Tam and Can Tho shore bases.
OF ALL YOUR DUTY STATIONS OR ASSIGNMENTS, WHICH ONE DO YOU HAVE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY? WHICH ONE WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
I only had two duty stations during my 4 year enlistment. While on riverboats I heard a rumor that if a Radioman put in for school then he would go to the fleet. I wanted a shore station so I decided to not put in for a school. The rumor turned out to be true. Two of my RM buddies went to Teletype Repair School and then to the fleet. I was sent to Guam. Ironically the Navy sent me to 16mm Motion Picture Operator School in San Diego before I was transferred to Guam. My duty with River Assault Squadron 15/River Assault Division 152 would have to be the highlight of my enlistment. To fight in close combat with sailors and soldiers whom you depended on for your very life was profound. Our casualty rate was high. Our RAS 15/RAD 152 ended up with 385 Purple Heart Medals and 10 sailors paid the “Ultimate Sacrifice”. Of our 4 squadrons, 82 sailors were killed in action. Being stationed on Guam was difficult for me in many ways. Besides suffering from PTSD, I was subject to the “spit and shine” of the Navy after our Uniform of the Day on the boats was often cutoff greens and combat boots. However, I learned my job and performed to the best of my ability.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE, INCLUDING COMBAT, DESCRIBE THE PERSONAL MEMORIES WHICH HAVE IMPACTED YOU MOST?
Fighting in frontline combat was bittersweet. I was pleased with the way I performed under such extreme conditions time after time. It was such a pleasure to serve with sailors who had my back no matter what rank or race. We were truly a team and we fought our boats with great vigor. The downside of my tour was the toll taken upon my soul by the firefights and casualties. You never forget those men who were wounded and killed in action. As mentioned, I have suffered from PTSD for decades now. However my character has also become very strong through my experiences. If any trauma occurs I will be the first one to go towards it instead of backing off.
Unlike many Vietnam Veterans, I returned to Vietnam in 1990, 92, 94, 95, 99 and 2010. Each time back I honored our KIAs and all of the men who served. In 2010 I logged coordinates in my GPS and visited all of the locations where our sailors and soldiers were killed in action. It was extremely humbling to salute them once again on those distant rivers and canals where they gave their all. Ironically when visiting the June 15th ambush site I found out that the Viet Cong had placed a monument at the exact remote spot. I have enclosed a photo.
WHAT ACHIEVEMENT(S) ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF FROM YOUR MILITARY CAREER? IF YOU RECEIVED ANY MEDALS FOR VALOR OR OTHER SIGNIFICANT AWARDS, PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THESE WERE EARNED.
I received a belated Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” for my actions in raising the disabled ramp during the June 15, 1969 ambush. LT Kelley was so badly wounded that he was medevaced out of country. Later, when he found out that I had raised the ramp, he initiated the award recommendation. I dedicated it to all who were there on that terrible day. Ironically June 15, 1969 was my parents 23rd wedding anniversary and my Mother passed away on that date in 1989. I also received the Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V” for “Professionalism” in the line of duty over the 12 month period on riverboats. I must say that many acts of heroism were performed by our sailors that should have been recognized with decorations. One problem was that we were all on small boats fighting from isolated positions with no eyewitnesses. How I escaped being wounded is beyond me. There were so many close calls. One piece of shrapnel hit my helmet about 1 inch up from my forehead. It would have done serious damage if it were a bit lower.
OF ALL THE MEDALS, AWARDS, QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ONE(S) MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
To be honored with the Bronze Star Medal with Combat distinguishing device is special, but I am so proud of all of the other “Unit Awards” that our sailors earned corporately. There are 6 or 7 Presidential Unit Citations, scores of Navy Unit Commendations and a few Meritorious Unit Commendations. Combined with the Vietnamese awards we were one of the most highly decorated units in the Navy at the time. Add the 9th Infantry units that we operated jointly with and we may be the most decorated force during the Vietnam war.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL(S) FROM YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY STAND OUT AS HAVING THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
My RMC instructor at Radioman “A” school played a big role in my 19 year old life at the time. For a senior enlisted man he was very good with all of we RMSNs. If we did not understand something he took us aside and made sure that we “got it”. Then later I truly appreciated the way that he appealed to us to choose riverboat duty due to the high attrition rate in-country. Even though it led to tremendous pain in my life, the choice also shaped me into a strong individual. All of the sailors that i served with on riverboats helped to positively impact my life. CDR Walter Deal, CO of RAS 15, was right up front fighting alongside us. Our other division officers led us into battle and every enlisted man fought his specific boat in ways that cannot be adequately described. All of these men will be forever close to my heart.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN FUNNY AT THE TIME, BUT STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
There were many. In Vietnam humor kept us going during the tough times. Guys would say things over the radios during bad times that would truly lift you up. Holidays were especially tough, but we made due with our humor and what we had available. After several months in-country my boat crew and another were in Dong Tam for repairs and resupply. Of course we hit the EM Club every chance we got. Earlier in the day I had walked by a Conex Box that a soldier was rummaging through. I quickly noted that it was almost full of cases of beer. After the club closed I gathered up 4 or 5 guys for the “Conex Box OP”. The plan was to get a fork lift and carry the Conex Box off to we didn’t know where. Close to the fork lift a sentry was riding a bike around the buildings on his watch. I had RM2 Buchanan go over to distract him. Then I jumped up in the fork lift and began turning it over. It finally started and I was gunning the engine to get it to run more smoothly before launch.
While sitting in the fork lift seat, full of confidence, I heard a strange noise over the engine sound. When I turned towards it I looked into the eyes of an irate Shore Patrol. He was telling me to get off the f******** fork lift. I shut her down and jumped down to the ground. He asked me what the f**** I thought I was doing on the fork lift at 1 am. I told him and he proceeded to write me up. While he was doing so RM2 Buchanan was riding behind him on the sentry’s bike waving at me. The next morning I woke up and seemed to recall the event. Laying beside me was a chit to see the Chief at 0700. I showed up and he too asked me what the f**** I was doing. I told him. He said, “Did you just come off the rivers?” I said, “Yes”. He then told me to get out of his office and that he never wanted to see me again. The “Conex Box OP” was not a total failure. I kept my newly acquire RM2 stripe.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR PRESENT OCCUPATIONAL SPECIALTY?
After I was discharged I became a full blown alcoholic. I can see now that I was doing my best to try to numb the pain from Vietnam. I bounced around from job to job. Most were construction related. Then in 1974 I accepted a Veterans Administration offer to go through the Carpenters Apprenticeship program. It required that I join my local Carpenters Union and work out of the hall until I received my Journeyman card. It wasn’t until halfway through the program that I decided that I needed to quit drinking or I might end up being locked in a cage for the rest of my life, or be dead. My plan was to learn what I could in the program in order to start my own construction business so that “I” could call the shots. It worked very nicely for many years. If I wanted to go hunting or fishing I asked myself and received immediate approval. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was able to control my stress and manage my PTSD.
On January 5, 1981, after many years of struggling, I had what I call a “radical salvation experience” with God. If anyone wants the details then feel free to contact me. In 1988 I founded an affiliate of “Point Man International Ministries” (PMIM) Outpost in Coos Bay, Oregon. It is a Christian outreach to Veterans. In 1989 I was asked to form short-term PMIM mission teams to S.E. Asia. I did so and escorted 3-4 over for outreach in Thailand, Burma and Laos. Then in 1992 my wife and I moved to Bangkok, Thailand to work with another organization. Our target country was Laos. In 1995 we moved into Laos and continued our work there. Then in 1997 we returned to the U.S. The Christian Missionary work allowed me to return to Vietnam several times in the 1990’s. Upon my return to the U.S. I continued working with Veterans through PMIM and other organizations. In 2006 I became an accredited Veteran Service Representative (VSR) with Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). I am retired, but still function as a VSR in a limited capacity. My wife and I also founded “Legacies of Honor”. We provide military medals, ribbons, appurtenances and Shadow Boxes to our Nation’s Veterans. Each Shadow Box is like a snowflake. No two are alike.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
Point Man International Ministries: http://www.pmim.org
PMIM Coos Bay, Oregon: http://www.pointman101.org
Mobile Riverine Force Association: http://www.mrfa.org
Legacies of Honor: http://www.legaciesofhonor.org
Vietnam Veterans Of America
Navy Together We Served
Disabled American Veterans
IN WHAT WAYS HAS SERVING IN THE MILITARY INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND YOUR CAREER?
The military structure helped me learn to not only respect those above me, but to also honor and respect those who served under me. It is vital for the “Team effort”. I also learned how to organize and manage my time. This carried over to my life following my discharge. Although combat was tough, it also taught me many valuable lessons. I am much stronger for having endured the challenges.
BASED ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE WHO HAVE RECENTLY JOINED THE NAVY?
Do your best to respect those above you. If you have conflict with some, then, for your own sake, be true to yourself and move on. There will be trials and tribulations, but there will also be good times. I packed my seabag and moved many times: Boot Camp, BE&E School, RM “A” School, Intermediate Speed Morse Code School, Small Boat training, Gunnery training, SERE School, Vietnam, 16mm Motion Picture Operator School and Guam.All of those moves were greeted with enthusiasm and excitement because they were leading me to a brand new challenge in my life. Study hard and move up the ranks so that you can become a quality teacher to help raise up new sailors to serve our Nation.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU REMEMBER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND THE FRIENDS YOU SERVED WITH.
I was able to join NTWS during the first 50K membership drive. Then I assisted the organization as a Representative of our Vietnam Riverboat sailors. Many of my fellow sailors are here on NTWS. It is nice that I know that I can come here to find them at any time.