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?
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.”