Vietnam veteran Dennis Ulvestad

Vietnam veteran Dennis Ulvestad holds challenge coins given to him from the secretary of the Navy during his recent visit to Billings.

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

Dennis Ulvestad graduated from Billings West High in 1968. He joined the U.S. Navy, knowing he’d probably be drafted. His father was a Navy veteran. 

Ulvestad: “I knew my Selective Service was coming up, and after I had already joined, my number came up, and it was No. 2. So, I knew I was going. In ’69, I went to San Diego — boot camp, from there I was transferred to the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam.”

Gazette: In 1968, people are reading about Vietnam. Did it scare you, the prospect of joining the service during the Vietnam War?

Ulvestad: “No.”

Gazette: Why?

Ulvestad: “I just knew ... I was brought up to do service to my country, and I knew I could be a help to the country, and help win this war we had.”

Gazette: What was boot camp like?

Ulvestad: “In boot camp, I got to be the guy who made the duty roster for everybody. But one time I made a mistake. I missed somebody to stand duty and watch. ... I had to stand it myself. And another experience I had in boot camp was that I forgot to shave one day and I guess an E4 and E5 said, ‘You’re not shaven,’ and so he made me dry shave.”

Ulvestad was trained as a supply clerk. There were around 4,000 personnel on the Ticonderoga.

Ulvestad: “I was (at) Subic Bay in the Philippines, and I got to fly on a mail plane, on to the USS Ticonderoga, on to the flight deck. ... When we went to Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, a couple of things happened that I’ll never forget. One time I was on the flight deck, and off to the side, (the plane) didn’t make it, he went down in front, and all we found of him was a chest cavity. They were doing the sorties and doing the (missions) against the North Vietnamese MiGs. ... Also another (incident was when) an airdale we called them — they worked on the flight deck — ... when they land, they release the cable, and he happened to be where he shouldn’t have been and the cable cut him off at the knees.

“Then another experience I had in Ticonderoga was that general quarters, we had heard someone had dropped a nitrogen bottle in the bomb elevator. So, we had general quarters and everyone scrambling, because that’s pretty serious. Finally, we found out that no, we didn’t (have that). That was really scary because it was dropping down to where the bombs were — the ones we put on a plane to put on the sorties that fight the North Vietnamese MiGs.

Gazette: What’s the Gulf of Tonkin like? Of being stationed in that particular place?

Ulvestad: “Lot of water. One time when we were going over there, sometimes we ran into 30-foot waves and they would splash over the side. I remember one day it would be calm and the next day it would be a little rough.”

Gazette: Is this during monsoon season?

Ulvestad: “Always. Always. Always. We’re floating back and forth, and we see these Russian trawlers, and they’re getting a little closer. We had destroyers get right next to us — what we used to call ‘tin cans’ — to protect us. They’re getting a little too close to the aircraft carrier. We heard they were just Russian fishing boats, but we knew better than that. They were actually trying to get information.”

Ulvestad was eventually transferred to the USS Bonhomme Richard, getting a secret clearance to become a radio operator.

Ulvestad: “My job, as the messages were coming in from Vietnam and the States, I had to put them in order by the second, by the minute, by the hour and by the date — in order... That was eight hours of doing that.

“... There were six or seven of us radiomen, and it’s 24 hours a day, every day. Every day, the messages coming in, coming in, coming in, and, of course, going out. Of course, I knew where we were going before the captain did. We would get the message.”

“... We worked eight hours on, eight hours off, and then eight hours back on. During that eight hours, we had to sleep, eat and do whatever we had to get done. Our division, the radiomen, slept right below the flight deck. So, we could hear, as they were doing the sorties and the planes taking off, the catapult all night long — click, click, click, click. Click, click, click, click. All the way back, up and down.”

Gazette: How do you sleep during that?

Ulvestad: “We don’t. We maybe try to sleep for four (hours). Then, we had to eat — go down to chow hall. Then, we had to go down there, shower, go back to sleep. We slept in racks that were four high. ... There would probably be in one room, probably 100. You’re sleeping and then there’s these guys are on a different shifts (working). ... You learn to do it, but it’s pretty grueling.”

Gazette: You know information that the others do not. Is that hard?

Ulvestad: “It wasn’t that hard for me. I knew the job that I had to do. I knew by getting a secret clearance, being loyal to our country, I knew that I had a job to do. We were all in the same room — 12 or 15 of us on the radio — we all knew, and we kept it to ourselves.”

Gazette: How do these messages get written down? What are the processes?

Ulvestad: “They come across like a printer. In crypto, the keyboard is different than a regular keyboard. You have to learn to do it.”

Gazette: Is that confusing?

Ulvestad: “Yes.”

Gazette: What was the hardest thing about being a radio operator?

Ulvestad: “The hardest thing was the eight on, eight off and eight hours back on. Of course, on your eight-hour shift, if you didn’t do what you had to do, what you did for the full eight hours, you’d fall behind. There were so many messages being communicated and coming through that you just had to keep going.”

Gazette: So if you fall behind, how do you catch up?

Ulvestad: “You stay late. You have to catch up. You have to catch up for the next shift to come on.”

Gazette: Are you surrounded at all time by water? Can you see land?

Ulvestad: “Once in awhile, we see land. One time, we got an order for Cam Ranh Bay. That was inland, but most of the time, we’d see land when we got closer to North Vietnam, but most of the time we were surrounded by water.”

Gazette: Were you worried about taking fire from MiGs or the North Vietnamese Army?

Ulvestad: “At one time, I don’t recall if it was on the Ticonderoga or the Bonhomme Richard, we got a call to go up to the Sea of Japan. We had a message the NVA MiGs were firing on our ships, so we got a message to leave the Gulf of Tonkin and go up to the Sea of Japan to see what was happening. We found out ... there was nothing.”

Gazette: Were you worried you’d see action?

Ulvestad: “You were always worried. There was always that feeling. Of not knowing.”