Ron Ledridge served in the U.S. Navy. He was a farm boy who graduated from high school in La Grande, Ore. His father and several uncles served in the Navy. He joined in 1965.
Gazette: Were you thinking about Vietnam when you enlisted?
Ledridge: “I didn’t think about it too much. After I got to boot camp, it was brought up a lot.”
Gazette: Did that make you nervous?
Ledridge: “A little. As everybody used to say, ‘Yesterday I couldn’t spell Vietnam, and today I am here.’”
Ledridge went to boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill. He trained as one of the Seabees, what he had wanted to do.
Gazette: What are Seabees trained to do? What’s that like?
Ledridge: “Of course, a lot of people know the Seabees from the John Wayne movie, ‘The Fighting Seabees.’ We were trained to fight, but we weren’t a fighting unit.”
Ledridge was trained to run a grader, scrapers, backhoes and other heavy equipment needed for tasks like paving roads and building bridges. He deployed to Da Nang, Vietnam.
Gazette: In 1966, when you ship out, you still may not be getting a lot of information about the war. Did you know where you were going and what you were doing?
Ledridge: “I had no idea where we were going. Southeast Asia. I don’t even think I looked it up on a map. ... They tell us where to go, and we went.”
Gazette: Were you anxious? It takes nearly two weeks to get there, after stopping for shots. And you’d been home for 30 days before deploying.
Ledridge: “I guess everybody was a little bit anxious because we didn’t know exactly what we were getting into. Obviously, there was a war going on. You know, we were a bunch of kids. We had no idea what a war really was. We were basically going in blind. We played war games at Camp Pendleton, but you know we did that at the backyard when we were the kids and played cowboys and Indians and army.”
Gazette: But this seemed different?
Ledridge: “It really did.
“I guess because I knew there was a lot of people getting killed over there. If my number was up, that’s where I was going to be.”
Gazette: So that’s how you rationalized it? If it’s my time, it’s my time.
Ledridge: “Basically. I still look at life that way.
“... When I left home, I really thought I was going to be in the fleet Navy; that’s what Dad was in. He was on a destroyer fleets. That’s what I really expected until I got assigned to the Seabees, and then I thought, ‘Well, you know, they don’t use bulldozers in the ocean.’ But it was enjoyable — even my time in Vietnam.”
Gazette: What don’t people understand about that military life and they way it operates?
Ledridge: “Well, I found out real quick when I was a young boy, I was pretty hot-headed. If someone said something to me I didn’t like, I’d told them about it. I’m still a little bit that way. In the military that doesn’t happen. It does, but there are serious repercussions. Of course, it has to be that way for an organization of that size.”
Gazette: So it helped temper that?
Ledridge: “They have ways of taking out of a fella. ... Even after I got to Vietnam, I painted many outhouses — saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
Ledridge flew into Da Nang.
Ledridge: “When we got to Vietnam, we noticed the heat. Oh gosh, the humidity was terrible. When I got to Vietnam and they opened the doors on the airplane, it just felt different. I don’t know exactly how to say it, but you knew that you were some place besides in your own backyard.
Ledridge remembers going through a little village called “The Dogpatch” as he arrived.
Ledridge: “Just seeing the people there. Man, this is nothing like I had this figured out to be.”
Gazette: In what way?
Ledridge: “I guess I didn’t know exactly what I expected. The dress was one of the main things everyone noticed. Most of the Vietnamese wore black silk pajamas, we called them — pants and tops. Then sun hats, of course.... We got used to it pretty quick.
“...There were a lot of critters over there. I personally saw probably hundreds of cobras. But animals, I didn’t see too many animals. A few dogs running around. But Vietnamese eat dogs, and so there weren’t many of them running around, either.”
He was a truck driver, hauling equipment for Marines and the Navy. The battalion also worked on roads around Da Nang. He also went to help refinish an airfield for the Marines, west of Da Nang.
Ledridge: “A whole battalion of Marines was around us, so we never felt threatened at much of anytime. There were times when mortars and rockets came into the base, but that was usually on the far end where the Marines were. The first time we went on alert, most places had a siren or something to notify everyone that we (were taking) incoming rounds. We had trenches everywhere. Our main goal was to get in those trenches and hope one doesn’t get in there with you. ... We’d be on alert, and it might last 10 minutes or it might last 30 minutes. Then everybody was back doing what they were prior.”
Gazette: One minute getting shelled ...
Ledridge: “The next minute back on a tractor. ... That was one thing they kept drilling into us all the time: Shutting the equipment off before bailing. We had one young fella who was on a 15-ton asphalt roller. He bailed off it and it went on down the runway.”
Gazette: How do you stop a 15-ton asphalt roller?
Ledridge: “There was two of us who saw it coming. It was coming down toward our end, and we couldn’t figure out why this guy was still going and there was rockets over hitting in the Marine base. When it got closer to us, we could see no one was on it. Well, they don’t run very fast, so, this kid and I jumped out of the hole, ran over to it, climbed on it and shut it down.”
Gazette: Did the mortar or shells ever come close to hitting?
Ledridge: “From where I was at, the closest one that hit probably was at least 100 yards away.”
Part of Ledridge’s job involved driving a truck in convoys.
Gazette: Were you worried about being ambushed in a convoy?
Ledridge: “There was a time when I got out of Anh Hoa. We were running some convoy because we had the airfields shut. We had it closed down because we had to resurface it. So, the Marines weren’t getting the supplies they needed, so we started running convoys out of Da Nang. There was a time or two there that convoys got hit. I was only on one that got hit, but we had must have had two squads of Marines with us. We got out with our rifles, but the Marines kept us close to the equipment and they were the ones taking care of the snipers or whatever it happened to be. It was really interesting running those convoys. The first two times I made that trip, you basically you kept looking at every bush. You just knew somebody was going to jump out at you really quick. After about the third or fourth trip down there, it was: Have a nice day looking around — (there’s a) water buffalo out there. It was almost like going on a Sunday drive.”
Gazette: What did you miss about home?
Ledridge: “Several things, I guess. The family was one of the main things. Of course, like I’ve said, we were so busy that I didn’t have a lot of time to think about being gone. You just got used to the idea.
“That was one thing when we came home, if it was just for a 30-day leave, it was commercials. They were the funniest things we ever seen when we got home and got to see commercials.”
Gazette: Why was that?
Ledridge: “The television we had in Vietnam — it was the Armed Forces — and they had programs, but there was no commercial advertisements. The only commercials we saw were: Be sure to check the oil in the truck before you start it, or clean your weapon every evening. Military stuff. When we got home, it was really amazing to watch television just to watch the commercials.”
Gazette: What was monsoon season like?
Ledridge: “Rain all the time. It was just steadily raining almost every day it rained.”
Gazette: What did you do during that? What could you do?
Ledridge: “Same thing you did when it was dry. It didn’t make any difference. We worked in the rain. Up there in Khe Sanh, it was the strangest thing that I was ever in. Sixty degrees was cold. I mean it was real cold. We were wearing heavy down jackets ... and they would only allow us to work outside for two hours and then we’d have to go over to the mess hall for an hour, drinking coffee — whatever — get inside out of the cold and it was 60 degrees. ... It just felt like you were icing up all the time. ... We had a little furnace, and it burned diesel fuel and it was about the size of five-gallon can. I think it had a three-inch exhaust pipe. We burn five or six gallons of diesel a night and we’d keep it just as red hot as you could get it.”
Gazette: When we think of Vietnam, we don’t think of it as cold.
Ledridge: “As far as being cold as like it gets in Montana, no. It feels similar to that, not quite as bad. It’s a wet cold. You’d freeze to death at 60 degrees.”