Those Who Served | From Gulf of Tonkin to the equator

Those Who Served | From Gulf of Tonkin to the equator

CHAMPAIGN — Standing on the bridge of a destroyer during the Vietnam War, Michael Martin wore a headset monitoring gunfire and fire control.

He didn't have to do that; it wasn't part of his duty. He was a supply officer in charge of 40 men on the USS Radford.

"I just wanted to be involved," he said.

The Fletcher-class destroyer was deployed to southeast Asia in September 1966, only a few months after he was commissioned as an ensign.

"I loved it," he says of the Navy.

And it returned the gift, helping him rise to become a successful accountant and manager here.

Martin grew up in Pontiac and married his high school sweetheart, Sharon.

The Navy was his way to college.

"Our family had exceptionally limited resources," said Martin, now 75.

But the University of Illinois Naval ROTC made him an officer Feb. 1, 1966; he married Sharon four days later.

From that month to August 1966, he was sent to the U.S. Navy Officer Supply School in Athens, Ga.

From September 1966 through July 1968, he was supply officer on the USS Radford DD-446, a Fletcher-class destroyer, which was deployed to southeast Asia in 1966, with stays in Hawaii and Subic Bay, in the Philippines.

Martin nearly missed the boat. He and Sharon drove to Oakland, where their car was supposed to be shipped to Hawaii. It took him a roundabout combination of sea vessels and planes to actually get to the ship.

The Radford was about the length of a football field and had a beam 50 feet wide.

"It wasn't long on creature comforts," he said of the destroyer.

However, it was fast, capable of doing 35 knots, or nautical miles.

The Radford's duties included anti-submarine operations. It also escorted aircraft carriers to the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam and supported troops with suppressing fire, often the Marines.

The Radford even provided support for a trip by President Lyndon Johnson to Kuala Lumpur.

After that, the Radford crossed the Equator, and Martin got a taste of the salty Navy.

"When the ship diverted to cross the Equator after accompanying an aircraft carrier into the Gulf of Thailand (then Siam), the traditional 'crossing the line' initiation was held," he said.

It was Nov. 1, 1966.

As a pollywog, "it was quite an experience. They took advantage of us."

"All those who had crossed before, known as 'shellbacks,' initiated those who were crossing for the first time — pollywogs," he recalled.

"The initiation consisted of a variety of activities — crawling through garbage, eating and drinking vile concoctions which caused you to puke, embracing and kissing the stomach of a large sailor which had been coated in grease, getting paddled with sections of what had been a canvas firehose, hosed down and being submerged in a tank of water and garbage."

Ever level-headed, Martin said the experience was unpleasant "for us 'pollywogs,' but good to have had it as part of my naval service afloat."

Often, Martin's men had ordinary assignments, supplying the Radford as well as other ships, even if it was just cigarettes. Often, they supplied parts.

Martin spent 179 days on his deployment to southeast Asia, 131 of them at sea.

In September 1967, Martin was promoted to lieutenant junior grade.

His first daughter was born in Oahu in 1967.

From August 1968 to February 1970, he served in the Office of Supply Corps Officer Personnel in Arlington, Va.

His Navy Achievement Medal was awarded for duties as part of the gunfire support team for action along the coast of South Vietnam, providing fire support for Marine forces engaged along the coast.

"Because the award related to duties within what was deemed the combat zone, the medal was worn with a combat 'V' on it," he added.

In 1969, he was promoted to lieutenant and left the Navy the next year, returning to Champaign, then taking a position at Winakor, Bates & Brunson, CPAs.

He retired as The News-Gazette's chief financial officer.

As for the Radford, she was sold for scrap in October 1970 but broke away from the tug and ran free for 34 miles.

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at pwood@news-gazette.com.

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