United States Navy

Service Reflections of YN2 James Hopton, U.S. Navy (1965-1969)


The following Reflections represents YN2 James Hopton’s legacy of his military service from 1965 to 1969. If you are a Veteran, consider preserving a record of your own military service, including your memories and photographs, on Togetherweserved.com (TWS), the leading archive of living military history. The following Service Reflections is an easy-to-complete self-interview, located on your TWS Military Service Page, which enables you to remember key people and events from your military service and the impact they made on your life. Start recording your own Military Memories HERE.

Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Navy.

Graduation at Boot Camp San Diego 1965

I was in 10th grade in high school, and one day I was walking downtown and saw a recruiting poster of a sailor in dress blues with “Travel and see the World” with the USS Constitution behind him. I was hooked from that moment on. That’s all I thought about (Well, with the exception of gals), keeping my grades up and looking forward to graduation so I could enlist.

Funny, at the time, everyone in my high school thought I was nuts for wanting to go into the Navy. This was in 1965, and Vietnam was starting to ramp up, and I thought they were nuts for not wanting to go in. After growing up in a small town, the idea of traveling the world was an exciting invitation. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined doing everything I did and saw during my 3-1/2 year tour.

So in my Senior Year, I went to the Navy Recruiting Office…The Chief came right up to me and shook my hand; he had more gold stripes on his arm than I could count. He tells me I’m smart and he can get me into the Nuclear Program, so I sign up for four years of regular enlistment and an additional two years of schooling. Heck, I’m like 17; I had no idea how long six years was. Oh, I came to find out fast enough.

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 testing in Boot Camp in San Diego, they said I had a high mechanical score, so I was a Fireman Recruit. I had no idea what that was. Since the Chief that signed me up at the Enlistment Office had talked me into a 6-year enlistment so I could become a Nuclear Plant Operator (What does an 18-year-old understand what a 6-year enlistment means?) So after graduation from Boot Camp, they shipped me out to Machinist Mate school in Great Lakes.

I spent the entire summer pounding the pavement marching in San Diego in 1965; I spent the entire Winter in Great Lakes talking about going from frying to freezing…Ouch.

Going to school, all the power plant components were clean and shiny, so I started talking to some of the Chiefs at the school about life in the fleet. Some of these guys still had WW2 experience, and they told me straight. I knew I did NOT want to spend my time below decks, especially during GQ, so I took a leap of faith and dropped out of MM school.

It took a year and a half of effort to get that extra two years dropped off my enlistment.

They promptly shipped me to Norfolk, Va., aboard the USS Boxer LPH-4). When I get aboard, I go to the Personnel Office first. I hand the First Class Personnelman my record, and he tells me to go to the engine room while figuring out where he will put me. I go down there, and now the ship is in port, and it’s 100 degrees. I’m sweating down to my skivvies in no time, realizing I do not want to spend years down here. So I went back up to Personnel and asked the First Class if he had any billet open that was not in the engine room. He says, “I see from your high school record that you took a typing class.” Can you type? I said sure. He asked me if I’d like to be the Chaplin’s Yeoman; I said sure…Not realizing at the time that the Ship’s Chaplin is, without a doubt, the second most crucial man onboard after the Captain.

A few months later, the Captain’s Yeoman was shipped out, and Chaplin stood up and recommended me to the Old Man; next thing you know, I was the Captain’s Yeoman. Yeah, the laundry treated me real nice; you could shave with the creases they put in my uniforms.

If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?

China Beach 1968

After sailing around the Globe, crossing the Equator, 180 Meridian, Suez Canal, picking up unmanned Gemini Capsules, and cruises to the Med, Caribbean, we’re in Norfolk for a while; I hear the scuttlebutt that another LPH is being home-ported to the West Coast. It turns out it’s the USS Okinawa LPH-3; I go over there and find a Yeoman who wants to stay on the East Coast, we submit our paperwork, and just like that, it’s done, and I get to sail through the Panama Canal on the way up to San Diego. Then, we sailed across the Pacific and spent a year sailing up and down the coast of Viet Nam, dropping Marine squadrons. Every three months, we go into Subic Bay for some much-needed R & R. Olongapo City was the best ever; it was a party city. Heck, we had port and starboard liberty. I’d volunteer for Shore Patrol on my onboard days and dance my way through all the bars on both sides of the town.

After a year of offloading Marine Combat Troops, I decided to volunteer for Viet Nam duty. Now it goes without saying that I saw everything that hit the Captain’s desk. I saw all the travel opportunities. I volunteered for wintering over in the Antarctic, on Hospital Ships, you name it, but nothing came through. I’m a Second Class Yeoman by this time, and the Captain signs my paperwork for Viet Nam. It comes back with a no, so I resubmit the same result so I resubmit for the 3rd time. I finally realized they don’t need paper pushers in a war zone. So the Personnel Office calls me and tells me I’m coming up on two years of sea duty, and he can assign me shore duty anywhere in the world that has Navy personnel, just name the place. I tell him, well, there is only one place I’d want to do shore duty, he says where? I tell him: Key West Florida, Hell, I’m going treasure diving, picking up all those pieces of 8 leftovers from the pirate ships. He cut my orders on the spot. Then he tells me I’ve got a couple of weeks before being shipped out. Guess what? A week goes by, and low and behold, here come my VietNam orders off of my third request…War Orders supersede all others.

They canceled my Key West Shore duty orders and cut my VietNam Orders. Less than a week I flew off the ship to take a flight back to the US. I end up in San Diego, where they have a school to prepare you for VietNam Combat Duty. I get to shoot M-16s, throw grenades, etc. I’m pretty salty by this point; I’ve been around the world, and nothing fazes me. Until the end of the school is approaching, they want to ship me out to Whibley Island, Wa. for survival training. I tell them no way I’m going to play make-believe, get tied up, and slapped around like a POW. So they send me to the Base Shrink; I tell him they’ll have to beat me to parade rest every night to go for that program. I was the only guy not shipped out to Survival School, I got two weeks’ leave, and they shipped me to VietNam. Mid-December 1967……Not so much a fun Christmas.

Off the plane and driven to Camp Tien Shaw, the main Naval Base. I spent a week or two there, then one day, they called us all outside; a guy with a clipboard jumped up on one of the picnic tables and started calling out names and duty stations. He calls my name and a place; I get a hold of one of the staff and ask him where this is; he looks at me and says: You don’t want to know. Cua Viet, I packed my seabag and rode north on an LST.

Get off the boat and check in with the CO, and I’ve got a nice office and a view of the Cua Viet River; besides, North Viet Nam is just a couple of clicks away, with white sand beaches; I figure, heck, I got this knocked. Little did I know. This is mid-January 1968. Boy, did I get a wake-up call about what I had gotten myself into? About a week went by, and you could hear whump-whump sounds way off in the distance, North of us…..Funny, every day, the sounds kept getting closer. When the guys on the compound heard them, they ran like hell to the bunkers, and I would just amble in, last, laughing at them piled on the floor…

Until one day, they started dropping rounds in the compound. I’m sitting on the crapper; a mortar round lands like 50 feet away; I jump off the crapper, skivvies around my ankles, and run about 20 yards to the bunker. Yeah, after that, I was the FIRST one in the bunker. So at first, rounds were landing in the daytime, then they started dropping them at night, then we started getting Marine Recon reports that they would overrun our position. I’m thinking overrun. So I’ll be sleeping in my rack, and some idiot will run in my hooch and stick a bayonet in my gizzard? Not likely. The next day I jumped on an LST and headed back to Da Nang; I called my CO and told him I was down here and would STAY here. He says no big deal and just goes to Personnel for reassignment. Two weeks later, a rocket attack blew up the fuel dump behind the camp and burned it to the ground. I spend two months on SP duty at Tien Shaw. I punched out a First Class PO closing the EM Club. He lost a stripe for that.

Then I heard the Yeoman at China Beach is being rotated back to the US; I put in my papers, and the next thing you knew, I was the Yeoman at China Beach R & R Center for the next ten months. It had to be the best time of my life.

Surfed every day and wore a bathing suit all the time; during the summer, only the guys who worked there could walk across the sand to the water; the sand in 120-degree heat was brutal unless your feet were used to it. GSA shipped over surfboards, and I got a pretty yellow big board. After storms, we’d get three 10′ breaks before shore; Man, hanging 10 was the ultimate……We used to have contests to see who could stay out after sunset. Hell, in the Winter, we used to surf, choppy and dangerous…..Like we cared…

Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.

Besides rockets at Cua Viet, we took a few close ones at China Beach. I’d bolt up out of my rack, race down the stairs, cross the little bridge, and sprint across the sand all the way to the water. I figured I’d be safe there….and I was.

One night we hear a round go off, close. Everybody bolts up, grabs their gear, and runs outside…..The Guard getting off duty walked into his hooch throws his M-16 in the corner, but first…He had a round jacked in it, and it went off through the roof. The CO, an LTJG, Victor J. Tardino Jr, cusses him out, and everybody heads back to their hooches; I’m walking back, talking to one of our guys, saying what a jerk the Guard was. I pull out my .45, cock it, raise it up, and pull the trigger….and it goes off; the guy I was walking with falls on the deck, and the whole compound turns out again……Oh man, now the CO is pissed. He tells me I will pull guard duty on the perimeter at night. I’ve never pulled guard duty before; I ran the place.

So, that night I get ready, flack jacket, steel pot, shotgun, two bandoliers of rounds, my .45, and pop-up flares. Razorwire and lights showing out from our position, I see something moving about 100 yards away, where the local’s hoochs are. I take a flare, pull off the cap, put it on the bottom, hold it horizontally, and smack it hard…..It goes out like a rocket, lands on top of the hooch, and sets the roof on fire……Oh yeah, the whole camp turned out……Nothing was really going on except for me doing guard duty. That was the last time they assigned me guard duty.

Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?

Me on left, Vic on right

China Beach, hands down. Wore a bathing suit for most of my ten months there. Complimentary beer, and steaks, what’s not to like? I surfed, sailed, and generally lived like I was at a Caribbean resort. My duties were minimal, and I could do almost all of them in one day, leaving me six days to do what I wanted. I worked out at the gym down the road and boxed Inter-service. The guys were all good guys to work with, especially LTJG Vic Tardino, I was 21 then, and I think he was like 24; we got along great.

I surfed almost every day, even in terrifying storms, the sea was boiling, but a day after a big Storm, we’d have three glassy 10′ breaks before shore; it was great. Almost drowned once, and once wiped out and plunged into a giant jellyfish, burned like Hell……Sea Snakes were scary, heads popping up, we always heard that one bite and you’re toast, so when I’d see a swarm of them, I’d paddle like all get out for shore. You had to get your uniform on to eat chow at Tien Sha; once I decided to skip that, I ate canned beans For a month…Yeah, I know, but I was only 21…Who has any brains at 21?

I don’t actually have any least favorite duty stations in mind. I joined the Navy to see the world and was completely open to the program; I did what I did because they gave me everything a young guy needed to find his place in the world. I got clean clothes, money, rules to follow, and experiences I would have never been able to have otherwise. The Navy is very clear about its rules, follow them and succeed, Try to buck the system, and you’ll suffer; I caught on from day one.

From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect back on to this day.

Another day at work

Traveling the World and China Beach……..But I have to say, after two tours in Viet Nam (One by sea, one by land), I had grown up and was a man. The Navy taught me all I needed to know to live a successful life. Saying that, I had grown out of the Navy; when I returned to Long Beach for discharge in mid-January 1969, they wanted me to ship over for E-6 (I was 21 at the time); I figured I could be a Mustang in no time. But you had to experience with the Officers at various duty stations, either in the clique or out. I knew a Mustang LT, a great guy who followed the rules but was a regular guy; it seems the Old Man didn’t like him, wrote two bad reviews, and his career was over just like that. I really think he got a raw deal, and it made me think a great deal about making a career in the Navy.

What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?

Ready for action

All of them. I kept my nose clean and was always squared away.

Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?

Viet Nam Service Medal with two stars. I wanted to see the war firsthand, I enlisted and volunteered for service in the War Zone.

Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?

Me and Vic

My CO in China Beach, LTJG Victor J Tardino, Jr., was from the East Coast, a recent College Grad, fresh off the boat if you get my drift; I had been sailing ports all over the world by the time I got In-Country, so we got along like the Odd Couple. The seasoned Salt and the Newbie. He let me handle the assigned work, and we got along great. That’s not to say we didn’t have our spats, usually arguing back and forth about who was right about something. But we backed each other up. I still remember him as one of the best.

List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.

Actually, I didn’t make any long-term friends in the Navy. I worked with lots of good guys; I just never got overly friendly with anyone. I concentrated on my work and current duty station.

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?

The funniest was when we pulled into a Port, we had an enclosed foc’sle, and it was always a big deal for a bunch of guys to gather there and bet on who could knock the chock off the anchor chain in the fewest strokes. The thing was, I was 6’1, 195 lbs of muscle, but, mention Yeoman, and up came the image of a pencil-armed guy with glasses…So when I said I wanted to try, everybody laughed. I showed them…..Next port, everybody gathered; money was flying around; I picked up the sledgehammer and eased off the brake, so the chock was the only thing holding the anchor. I realized I had to smack the pin dead on with everything I had. I took a deep breath, leaned back over, and swung that sledge with every bit of strength I had. Bam, hit the pin dead-on, chain started sailing out of the chain locker, filled the entire foc’sle with orange rust, you could hardly see a thing. I got plenty of slaps on the back for that, and I had made my stripes…

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?

I got out in January 1969; two weeks after discharge, I was in college. I got a two-year degree and transferred to a four-year college. I studied Accounting. 1971-1972 was a rough patch; I dropped out and started traveling around. I settled down in the mid-’80s, worked in Ocean Transportation for ten years, opened a welding business for the next 20, and retired at 56. I have always been amazed that the aptitude testing done when I went to the Navy told me I had a high mechanical aptitude. I had no interest in anything mechanical; come to find out, I was really good at it. Go figure.

In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?

What a Day In The Life of a Sailor

I had a good upbringing, so I was totally on board with Navy Regs and rules; it reinforced everything I believed in.

I miss traveling the most, foreign Countries and ports; life is so much different around the world; I think most people never have the chance to appreciate how lucky they are to live in America. This has to be the finest Country ever.

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Navy?

Follow the rules, be diligent, flexible, and friendly. I had the advantage of seeing firsthand all the opportunities open to enlisted men; I volunteered for all kinds of duty, wintering over in the Antarctic, Hospital Ship duty, and shore duty in Key West. I wanted to experience everything I could, and the Navy delivered. I was proud then and am proud now to have been a part of the US Navy.

In what ways has togetherweserved.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.

It’s a great gathering place for former Service members. Those memories cannot be replaced; the best part is reliving them by reading stories from other members. Even tho it was 50+ years ago, they are still fresh in my mind.

Boot Camp, Units, Combat Operations

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Tags: Camp Tien Shaw, Cua Viet, Key West Florida, Machinist Mate school in Great Lakes, Norfolk, Ocean Transportation, Subic Bay, TWS, US Navy, Viet Nam Service Medal, Vietnam


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