JM: “When I was on this surface ship, crossing the Pacific, we encountered a major typhoon. It was huge, like in the movies- the towering waves, the ship pitching around like a cork.”

What is your birth year?

1943. 

How old are you?

I’m 74. I prefer to say three score and fourteen. {Laughs}

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

I was in the Navy. 

What was your rank?

I got to E-5; it was electrician’s mate, second class. Actually, I passed a test for E-6, but I would’ve had to extend my service, and I didn’t want to do that, so I stayed as an E-5. 

Where were you born?

I was born in Astoria. 

Do you have any siblings?

I have a sister, and another sister who is deceased. 

Did you grow up in Astoria?

I’ve never really grown up, but I spent my youth in the Bay area. 

Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood?

When I was really young, we lived in San Francisco, and it wasn’t all fully developed yet, so there was vacant lots and places. It was innocent- people weren’t worried about their kids. They let them wander the streets. It was just neat. We had a great time as kids, just wondering the hills, playing in the vacant lots. Then when we moved to the suburbs, it was more so! It was right on the edge of this suburban town, and there was the hills and the woods and all that beyond. We got to play outdoors an awful lot. 

Tell me about high school.

Yeah, it was interesting. I loved it; it was a classic old high school, dated back to the 1800’s. It was a beautiful place with a large campus filled with gardens. I just loved it; I had a great time. It was sort of in the middle of town; we had a diverse student body, people from all over. Academically, I wasn’t very interested- I did well with the classes I liked, and sort of ignored the other ones, but I managed to graduate. 

Were you drafted, part of ROTC, or did you enlist?

I enlisted. I actually spent the last nine months- part of it was high school. I enlisted as a Navy reserve person, and then I went into regular Navy at the end of the following summer after I graduated. 

What year was that?

That was in 1961. 

Why did you enlist?

Oh, well, in the ’50s- the military were heroes. WWII, and all that- Eisenhower was well loved. Almost everybody I knew had been in WWII, parents and such, so it was a good military environment. I kind of admired the sailors; I said, “I want to be a sailor!” 

What was your family and friends reactions to your enlistment?

They were supportive. 

Do you remember your first days in service? Did you have a boot camp experience?

Well, I kinda of cheated, since I was a reservist- my boot camp was just two weeks. It was during Christmas vacation in high school! Went down to San Diego, and just did the normal stuff, but it was condensed into two weeks. That wasn’t fair, but I didn’t really mind not going through all the crap! {Laughs} But I did miss out on somethings, that people did more extendedly. That was okay, relatively speaking- it was an adventure! In the early days, I was mostly in school. A lot of training- that was exciting. I enjoyed the subject, I was an electrician- so electrician school! After that, I went to submarine school- I was a submarine sailor. 

Did you go abroad during your service?

We went over to the Western Pacific- the Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam- places like that. Japan. We went there for a while.

What was the weather like?

It was later in the year, mostly in the fall, so it wasn’t this hot, humid horror story you hear about. It was really quite pleasant. In the North, like in Japan, it was extremely fall weather- cool and foggy. 

Do you recall arriving to your assigned locations? What did you expect?

I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t recall arriving- you go aboard, and you report- I don’t remember those moments. It was quite a while ago, it really was! {Laughs} I remember I spent one year on a surface ship; I remember reporting to that one. It was New Year’s Day, so I said Happy New Year. {Laughs} 

What was your job or assignment there?

At first, on my first submarine- I’d been to electrician’s mate school, and I really enjoyed the training, but I was a California kid; I enjoyed cars and engines. It turned out that on my first boat, that they had more need of people to work in the engine rooms than they did electrical. They had a well stocked electrical gang, so I got to work as an engineman- that’s an actual rating, but I did engineman’s work. I loved it, it was great. 

Did you see any combat at these locations?

No. I was in Vietnam during the trouble there; I was on a troop ship, [so] we transported Marines, and supplies to various places in Vietnam. At one point, one of our landing craft was taking some supplies up the river, up near the border, and someone fired a single shot at them. That was our action. In the city of Da Nang, occasionally you’d see some flares over the ridges- there were things going on out of sight. That was as close as I got. 

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.

There were so many, and they all made an impact. I enjoyed the schools; I enjoyed learning. As a high school student, and a grade school student, I didn’t think much of my academic ability, but I found out that I could actually learn things after all, and do well at it. That became really exciting for me. The schools were good; they became kind of a enlightenment for me. I enjoyed using the skills that I had learned as an electrician. I went to nuclear power school, as a nuclear technician, so those were all high-tech, cutting edge- just fascinating. There were some things, some difficult jobs that I had to do, and I admired completing those well. There was one job I kind of screwed up on, and I remember that- I got chastised for it. It was just fun, doing the work. On the surface ship, we had to replace the lightbulbs way up on top of the masts, and I had fun crawling up there and tinkering around with the lights and replacing bulbs. Looking down at those poor mortals below. {Laughs} It was fascinating. There were some moments; we were in Hawaii on a boat during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were ordered to prepare to go to sea; we spent all night loading supplies- I remember that vividly. We were on the other side of the country, so nothing ever came of it, but we were prepared. We got busy getting ready. 

Another time, when I was on this surface ship, crossing the Pacific, we encountered a major typhoon. It was huge, like in the movies- the towering waves, the ship pitching around like a cork. At one point, they had a fire break out in the galley, and we had to go to our battle stations. Mine was in a troop compartment; there was a damage control facility there in the troop compartment, with hundreds of Marines around, all very seasick. {Laughs} It was a fascinating experience! After we remained on battle stations for quite a while, ready, we got to knock off and return to our normal duties. That was pretty interesting, too. I can’t imagine a wave like that! They were just towering over the ship! I imagine the ship was probably leaning into it, and the wave was high, and probably looked bigger than it was, but it was literally like mountainous waves. Just like in the movies- I couldn’t believe it. Were you frightened? No, no, it was fascinating! I wasn’t concerned- I thought, “You know, we could really get into deep trouble here.” But I was confident enough- maybe I was just being in denial. {Laughs} I didn’t really have a problem with it. 

In Vietnam, I was so amazed- the country was so beautiful. It’s a beautiful country, and the people just seem so gentle and nice. “How could these people be killing each other?” I couldn’t understand that one bit. 

What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?

Occasionally, I had to run across the military mentality- that was the most difficult. Fortunately, those episodes were few. There was some aspect of it that was always there, and that was difficult, but it’s just like something sore- you just ignore it. We coped with that, and that was probably the most trying. I kind of gently coasted through it all. I was in for six years, and it took me all that time to decide what to do with my life. It was a fortunate time- I had something to do for six years after high school. Then, I finally got a goal- it was a nice interlude. 

What were the best memories of service?

Getting advancement- whenever I got a promotion, that felt really good. The people, really great people- in the military, you meet people from all over the country. They have all these things to bring: their own variety of humor, and their own way of speaking and all that. That was just really neat- I liked that. Finding that I could learn, that I was good at doing my job well- that felt really nice. I had a lot of pride in that. Meeting some people that I could like, admire even- some of my bosses were really admirable people. You see these pictures of Beetle Bailey being all intimidated by the people above them, but many of the people were very admirable. They are neat people. One of them I missed out on meeting- my last submarine had been a fellow named Lloyd Bucher. He was the Executive Officer, and he left to assume a command of his own, and all the crew members had just really loved him. He was a very popular officer. He left to assume command of an intelligence ship called The Pueblo. It was impounded by the North Koreans; it got too close to them and they took it. I think the ship got sunk! All the people were imprisoned for a while, accused of spying- of course, that’s what they were doing! {Laughs} They had to destroy their papers, and a lot of their equipment, before the Koreans found the ship. Lloyd Bucher became a well-known person- he was in the news. He suffered along with the rest of the crew; because he was the captain, he suffered more. I remember not having met him because I arrived just a little bit too late, but he was someone I knew of, anyway. 

Were you awarded any medals or citations? If so, what for?

Nothing special. Actually, a good conduct medal is special- some people get in trouble. I actually got the good conduct medal- it’s not rare, it’s just not universal! {Laughs} The standard Vietnam medals, just for having been there. 

Were you injured during the war? How, and any after effects?

Everybody gets injured, minorly. I had a few incidences here and there, but that wasn’t a major problem. It turns out, however, that I was exposed to Agent Orange, in Vietnam, and the VA has determined that that probably contributed to my diabetes. There’s a link. I’m a disabled veteran on account of that. Do you know where you came into contact with Agent Orange? Da Nang. We went ashore, and they used a lot of it there. There’s some talk that people even who were on off shore ships were exposed, from wind borne Agent Orange. It’s pretty commonplace, a lot of it around there. Were you diagnosed with diabetes during your service? No, it was many years later, but both my parents had been diabetic- I thought that was probably the link. But they say, “Oh, well, we’ll just assume it’s Agent Orange.” They granted me a disability. I didn’t actually claim it- I got the notice from PGE in my electric bill- they said, “Veterans, get in touch with the VA and see if they have anything for you!” I went down and talked to them, and they started digging, and came up with that. I’m not complaining! 

What were your friends and family’s reaction to the Vietnam conflict? 

They were kind of neutral; nobody had too much to say about it. One fellow that I’d known in high school, that I ran into later at a junior college, was staunchly against it. Of course, since I’d been there, and been in the service, I thought we were doing the right thing by fighting the ‘Communist Menace’. Took me years and years to realize how wrong we had been. Most people were supportive; later on, in the ’70s, they’d spit on returning veterans and all that, but this wasn’t like that. When I got out in 1967, there was still a positive or neutral attitude about our engagement there, although people were still resisting the draft, and resenting their children for going off to war. That’s been universal for thousands of years. 

How did you stay in touch with your family and friends?

I’d write, occasionally. 

What was the food like?

In submarine service, the food is famously outstanding. Even on the surface ships, it was good, and on the military bases, I wasn’t complaining! I was kind of a poor kid, so any kind of food was good food to me- just plentiful!

Did you feel stress or pressure about the war and its effects?

No, no, I didn’t personally feel any stress. I did wonder that the whole thing was happening- it just seemed wrong. Then I heard all the stuff about the crooked generals who were just taking stuff and running. Some of the leadership in Vietnam was just despicable people. I was aware of that, but I didn’t realize how big a factor that was. I was kind of apolitical; I’ve never been too much into current events- just drift though it all! {Laughs} If I had been more aware, I probably would’ve been more opposed, I think. 

Are there any people you met that you specifically remember? Did you keep in touch with any of these people? If so, for how long?

There were people I was great friends with, and I haven’t stayed in touch. Then, there were people who were real jerks. Like I said, there was a whole spectrum of humanity. Most of the submarine sailors were exceptional people; the ones that weren’t sorta ended up being weeded out, or [left]. The other sailors were the whole variety; most of them, we got along pretty well. Aboard a ship, your livelihood depends on the ability of your shipmates to do their jobs. If they could do that, you just love them. {Laughs} Your life depends on them! There was a lot of that- a lot of respect for your fellow shipmates. And then some disrespect- there’s the usual young comradery. Most of the people in the military are like 20 years old, so the whole thing is being run by kids. They have huge responsibility- there are a few older people that try and direct them, but they can’t keep an eye on them all the time. It’s amazing how well- it does work relatively well, considering the scope. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

It’d been six years, and I’d signed up for a six year hitch. By that time, I was getting tired of being a part of the military, the bureaucracy, the chain of command, and all that stuff. It was starting to wear on me, so it was just a good time to get out. Then, like I said, I finally had a desire to go to college and do something with my life. They came along at the right time. 

Did you have a family after the war? How did the war affect this?

Not until after I graduated from school. My last few years in college, I got associated with some people, and then I had a family. Got married- didn’t last, but it was okay for a while. That was another aspect of my life that I was completely unprepared for. {Laughs}

What was your job or career after the war?

I was interested in electrical engineering- surprise, I’d been primed by six years as an electrician! It was fun. I kept in that until I retired, almost 20 years ago. Next month, it’ll be 20 years. 

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

Since I’ve had the privilege, you could say, of seeing the inner workings, I know that it’s not all what you see in the movies and on the newspapers. Just a lot of daily drudgery and tedium. During the actual warfare, it’s punctuated by violent times. Sailors, shipboard people, are not face-to-face with that; they are miles away, and if they shoot things, they go for miles before they land. If it’s a torpedo, it’s all underwater! A sailor’s form of warfare, unless you’re a Navy aviator and fly over territory- even then, you’re not close to your enemy. It’s an abstract thing. We would look at war as more of a technical challenge. Sort of cold hearted, but that’s basically what the job was, being a military technician. Most sailors are like that. Most of shipboard life has nothing to do with warfare- it’s about running a ship. 

What do you think the general public should know about war?

It didn’t take me long to realize how tremendously wasteful it all is. Some of a country’s best efforts just get thrown away in warfare- their best people, their best resources. They just get completely wasted. All that effort could be best spend on improving the country itself- or other countries! Like the trouble we’re facing in the Middle East- I’m convinced a lot of that could be solved by two things. One of them is just getting the military out of there, and just giving them money. Giving them massive assistance, being friends with them. There’s all this stuff about Iran- we could be friendly with Iran, go in and be brothers with them. I think we’d get along very well, and a lot of our goals that are trying to be achieved by military action could be achieved by peaceful action. My naive opinion! The other thing, I think, in the Middle East- if we quit supporting Israel as much as we do now, we’d be much greater friends with the Middle Eastern countries. Right now, Israel is behaving so abominably towards the Palestinians that they don’t deserve our friendship. We’re still continuing to support them, no matter how evil they’ve been! How can the other countries help but see us as undesirables? As enemies? 

Have you found adequate resources and connections in Portland?

Most of my life has had nothing to do with being a veteran. But, when I have rubbed shoulders with the Veteran’s Administration, it has been very positive. They’ve been completely on my side, and very supportive, and have helped me out when I might’ve needed help. Some of my friends have gotten help from them- I’ve heard a lot of complaints about other VA offices around the country, but the ones in Portland seem good.

How did your service affect your life?

It got me to know people, to see a lot of different kinds of people, to make conclusions about our common kind of humanity. Some of the bad, some of the good- that was the main thing, the human thing. And it pointed me toward a satisfying and rewarding career.

Is there anything we missed that you’d like to add to this interview?

Well, I suppose I should make some comment- as a transsexual woman, I should say something about the military attitudes about that. As a sailor, I didn’t see any problems; there was no open latent homosexuality, or transsexuality, but there were people you kind of wondered about. They were pretty much accepted with amused tolerance- some would make jokes about them, but nobody ever treated them meanly. They’d snicker a little bit, but nobody was unkind or anything like that. Once again, aboard a ship, the main criteria you judge people by is how well they do their job; if they are doing that well, then they are your brothers. Of course, I was a man at the time, so I was exposed to some negative comments about homosexuals, and transsexual people- it was just what boys do. They make jokes about whatever they can, and because it was all so strange to a young person, they can’t help but be a little nervous and maybe hostile towards the concept. None of it was overtly nasty or anything like that; you didn’t see people doing nasty things behind someone’s back, trashing their lockers or whatever- none of that happened. It was altogether a pretty gentle experience. I wasn’t into my trans nature at the time, but it was sort of developing without me knowing it- it wasn’t put down. I didn’t see any kind of put downs anywhere, so the military experience was okay in that respect. I’m pretty sure it was probably the same in other aspects of the military, even not aboard a ship- if you’re an actual combat unit, then once again you depend on the capability of the people around you. If they’re good at it, then you gotta respect them. That’s the main thing, that’s what most servicemen will say about their gay and trans comrades. If they are doing their job, then we got no problem. Other countries, their militaries don’t have any problem at all- it’s just us, the US, that’s awkward about it. 

DuffieInterview (1)

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

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