Larry Armstrong was in the U.S. Navy from 1970 to 1974 and served with the national guard and reserves. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
He graduated from Billings West High School in 1969.
Armstrong: "I left home right away after I graduated and some friends of mine and I went over around Circle to some farms and ranches and did some farming. I stayed on with a family there for about three months.
"I came back to Billings and I got into a little bit of trouble with the law, which is typical of teenagers. I remember being up before a judge and saying, 'Well, Larry you can either spend 45 days in jail or you can go into the military. You got your choice.'
"I said, 'Well, I'll just go ahead and go into the military.' I did not tell him that I had already signed up."
Gazette: But that was a choice that was given. We've heard people who heard of stories like that, but you're the first veteran that actually had it happened in this series.
Armstrong: "In my case, I had already enlisted. I knew that the draft was out there. I already had to sign up for the draft, so I just thought, 'Well, I don't want to be drafted. I don't want to go into the Army or the Marine Corps.' I had heard horror stories about that already.
"My dad was in the Army when World War II in Germany on a quad-mount. He and his younger brother both spent time over there. My older brother was already in the Navy. He joined in 1968. He'd been in and he was in an air squadron."
Armstrong went into boot camp in San Diego.
Armstrong: "Boot camp for me was something that I would have just rather stayed in."
Gazette: Wow. Why? We haven't heard anyone say that.
Armstrong: "For me, I was scared. I had a bit longer hair, not real long. I just remember going there and we were in a big long line and going into the barber shop and the guys coming out of the shop, some of them had long hair and they're proud of their hair. They are shaved. There's guys crying. That's something that has stuck in my memory ...
"When reveille happened, we had the corrugated garbage cans, and they'd take the baton and swirl it around inside there, and it was so loud and everybody would bail out and hit the floor.
"About the beginning of the second week, the recruiters came around and the commanding officer came around and said, 'Anyone who wants to be in color guard can sign up, but the prerequisite is you have to know how to march and be able to keep time to the drums.' I figured I was always able to march good, and so I raised my hand and a few others raised their hand. They did this from each of the rifle companies.
"I had no idea what the color guard was. ... I was chosen as the recruit chief petty officer. I was in charge of the 56 guys that were in the boot camp company. ... Everybody wanted to get on our good side so they could get perks. They would shine our shoes, make up our racks, press our clothes. That's why I wanted to stay in boot camp."
Gazette: Was the prospect of going to Vietnam scary to you?
Armstrong: "It was not. I really did not think about that. When I talked with the recruiter about going in, my father was a Teamster, and he did a lot of equipment operating. There was a couple summers where I got to go out on construction and watch him drive truck or operate equipment. I kind of liked that.
"I asked the recruiter if I could go into the Seabees. I talked to my older brother and he said I should talk to the recruiter about that. They had a different idea for me. It never occurred to me that I might be in any danger."
Armstrong went to signalman school.
Armstrong: "I said, 'What is a signalman?' He said, 'A signalman is the guy who does all the flashing light and hand waving. I said, 'My recruiter—' and as soon as I said that, he said, 'I don't care what your recruiter told you, this is what you're going to do.' There was no arguing with him. Now, I've read and heard of guys who signed a contract. I never signed a contract, not that I recall."
Gazette: That had to be disappointing.
Armstrong: "In all actuality, the Good Lord was shining his countenance on me. Had I gone into the Seabees, I would have gone right over into Vietnam. I have talked to a number of people over the years who said the people down there probably did you a favor by putting you aboard a ship, even though the ship that I was on was a horrible riding ship. It was flat-bottomed and terrible. I was very disappointed. I was looking forward to being a Seabee and running equipment, over there in the States, playing around on equipment."
Armstrong went to signalman school for three months, still in San Diego.
Armstrong: "I had to learn all the flags and pennants. I had to hoist them on the yard arms. ... It was a pretty difficult rate to learn because we had to learn Morse code and learn what each one of these flags meant, and the phonetic alphabet and what the flags meant.
"To learn Morse code at the same time using flashing lights rather than sound ... I thought, 'If I am going to be on a ship, I want to be on a gun where I can shoot something.' We would be on the signal bridge, up above, all the time. That was our duty station."
He went aboard the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa, a brand new land tank ship.
Armstrong: "I thought, 'Oh boy, a new ship. A lot like getting a new car.' Well, not so much."
The ship was designed to carry Marines and could hold around 450 people.
Armstrong: "Our first deployment was in the latter part of 1970, we spent one winter over there. ... When we would go to Hawaii or even to the Philippines, we didn't have to stand watches because there was no threat. But, we spent some time touring up and down the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. We did our fair share of going up and down there — more for, well, I thought it was a waste of fuel. If they would have needed the Marines or the equipment we had on board, we could have just gone right in and within 12 or 14 hours, we could have off loaded the equipment. We saw other ships a lot of time, going up and down. ...
"There was only one time when we were off the coast of Vietnam and I was on watch that particular night and I saw a tracer round come over the top of our ship. We must have been pretty close. I just remember seeing this tracer round come right across the top of the ship and land on the water."
Gazette: What do you hope people remember about Vietnam and that era and that part of the world?
Armstrong: "I was never in country. We had a change of command ceremony in Vung Tau, and that was the only time I set foot in Vietnam. But for people aboard ships, and it might be different for folks who were on aircraft carriers who sent planes over to do bombing, as a general rule, we weren't the horrible people they had us pegged for. If you saw me everyday in civilian clothes out on the street, you'd never know me from anyone else. You'd never know I was in Vietnam or anywhere close for a good portion of my military time."