Vietnam veteran Kelly Besel

Vietnam veteran Kelly Besel.

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

Kelly Besel served in the U.S. Navy. He grew up on a farm near Laurel. He graduated from Laurel High in 1968. He enlisted in the Navy. This is part of his Vietnam story. 

Gazette: Why’d you enlist in the Navy?

Besel: “I don’t know. I always wanted to be a sailor.”

Gazette: You enlisted at a time when Vietnam was going on, right?

Besel: “Definitely.”

Gazette: Was that part of the reasons you enlisted? Did that worry you?

Besel: “I knew Vietnam was going on, but I figured Navy would be better than the Army.”

Gazette: Why’d you figure that?

Besel: “I didn’t think I’d be inside Vietnam.”

Besel completed boot camp in San Diego. From there, he went to San Francisco and then on to the Philippines on a floating dry dock. From there, to Vietnam. He was trained as a pipefitter on a ship, mostly welding.

Gazette: When you went to the Philippines, did you know that Vietnam would be your next stop after that?

Besel: “No. That was 18 months, and I didn’t know I was going to Vietnam until I got my orders.”

Gazette: Philippines doesn’t sound like bad duty. What were you doing there?

Besel: “No, it’s good duty. We were working on the dry dock. A dry dock, it submerges and they pull ships in and then you lift them up.”

Gazette: In the Philippines, what are you doing on the dry docks?

Besel: “Repair. ... They were general repairs.”

Gazette: Let’s talk about your orders for Vietnam. When did you get them?

Besel: “A couple days before I left the Philippines. ... Report to Nha Bay, Vietnam.”

Gazette: What were your thoughts when you heard that?

Besel: “I about crapped.”

Gazette: How did you cope with knowing where you were going (during a 30-day leave before entering Vietnam)?

Besel: “It’s tough, but you cope with it. I kept thinking about tomorrow.”

Gazette: When you were overseas, what did you miss about Montana?

Besel: “The blue sky. The silence.”

Gazette: Where’d you go in Vietnam?

Besel: “We landed in Saigon. I think we spent three or four days, if I remember right, in Saigon for indoctrination.”

Gazette: Was the trip to Vietnam long?

Besel: “I didn’t think we’d ever get there. ... We went from San Francisco to Alaska and Japan and then Vietnam.”

Gazette: What do they tell you that’s different in Vietnam?

Besel: “You can do this, but you better not do (that).”

Gazette: Do you remember the things that you either could do or could not do, and thinking it sounded odd?

Besel: “You couldn’t shoot at someone unless you were positive that they shot at you.”

Gazette: Did they tell you what you could do?

Besel: “Mostly it was what you couldn’t do.”

He went to Nha Bay, 20 miles south of Saigon on the Saigon River.

Gazette: What do you recall it looking like?

Besel: “There was a little village — just shacks.”

Gazette: Did it ever strike you odd that you’re from Laurel, Montana, and you find yourself all the way in this remote part of Vietnam?

Besel: “Yeah. It was like I am not supposed to be here.”

Besel was helping a crew repair the river patrol and tactical boats.

Besel: “I was on a small ship on the river. On the river, it was anchored in the river an ARG 4 ... for a year.”

Gazette: Tell me about the living conditions on a boat in Vietnam for year. Seems confining.

Besel: “Very. You had your bunk, and your locker, if you will, was underneath your mattress. You get to know the people very well.”

Gazette: How many other guys were with you?

Besel: “I want to say 60.”

Gazette: What kind of repair work did you find yourself doing?

Besel: “Hull repair. ... I would say that was the biggest. A lot of times, pipes.”

Gazette: What was it like being on the river in Vietnam?

Besel: “Terrible. The heat. We had a rainy season, and it would get down to 75, 80, during the monsoon season.”

Gazette: During the rainy season did it get rough?

Besel: “The river was about the size of the Yellowstone. As far as the width.”

Gazette: Did it look like the Yellowstone?

Besel: “Oh heavens, no. The Yellowstone during high water is muddy. That’s what the river was like all year. Really dark.”

Gazette: What was the living like on a boat? How’d you eat? What was the food like?

Besel: “Not like Mom made. You wouldn’t starve to death, but when you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything.”

Gazette: When you got off the boat, where’d you go?

Besel: “When we got off onto the shore, we’d go into that little village and have a couple of beers.”

Gazette: What was that village like?

Besel:”You could walk from one end of it to another in about 15 minutes.”

Gazette: Where could you have a few beers there?

Besel: “It was sort of a tent with no ends on it.”

Gazette: Was there good beer in Vietnam?

Besel: “We drank American beer over there. But it didn’t taste like you’re used to, or I was. It had formaldehyde in it so that it wouldn’t go bad.”

Gazette: Would they have brand names you’d recognize? Like Budweiser?

Besel: “No Bud. They had Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

Gazette: Did you get to interact with the people there?

Besel: “A few.”

Gazette: What was that like?

Besel: “I am not going to say they welcomed us, but they were decent.”

While on the river, the boat became a target for the enemy.

Gazette: How did you survive?

Besel: “Every five minutes, I think on the boat there, on the port side, two grenades — they’d throw grenades over the side. Every five minutes on both sides and then the front and the back. Every five minutes a grenade was going off.”

Gazette: That sounds loud and crazy. There’s no peace.

Besel: “No. You get used to it.”

Gazette: They did that as an offensive thing?

Besel: “To create a barrier.”

Gazette: Would you have to go to a battle station and shoot back if the enemy started firing back or at you?

Besel: “No, although a friend of mine and I were up on the deck, and they did throw a grenade onto the boat.”

Gazette: What did you do then?

Besel: “I scooped it up and threw it off.”

Gazette: What were you thinking picking up a live grenade?

Besel: “It’s either me or everyone else.”

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