Remembering Vietnam's Forgotten Seamen

by Stephen Schwartz, San Francisco Chronicle October 20, 1997

On San Francisco's Embarcadero, near where their ship sailed off to Southeast Asia, a gray stone memorial honors seven West Coast merchant seamen who died in the Vietnam War.

The monument at the foot of Howard Street is a window to the waterfront's past - and a reminder of the current campaign to get full veterans' benefits for civilian seafarers. In the ongoing debate over the conflict in Southeast Asia, as in the recollection of most of America's wars, merchant seamen tend to be overlooked.

"They should be recognized as veterans," said Dan Horodysky of the American Merchant Marine Veterans group, which is lobbying for complete veterans' benefits for all civilian seamen who served in wartime.

Few of the merchant mariners to serve in America's wars have received such recognition. The one exception is seafarers who served in World War II: many of them were granted veterans' benefits in 1988, and two bills now before Congress would extend those benefits to thousands who were excluded in the first legislation.

The seven men memorialized on the Embarcadero tablet were members of the "black gang," the below-decks personnel -- named for their usual state of appearance while on the job stoking boilers in the old steamships -- aboard the Baton Rouge Victory. Neither their names nor the names of 37 other seamen who died in Vietnam are etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Baton Rouge Victory left port with a crew of 45 on July 28,1966. The Embarcadero was still teeming with seafarers then, but now the ships have vanished, the men who worked aboard them are largely forgotten, and restaurants and lofts dot the area.

The ship, which had been built at the end of World War II and was one of the first Victory ships taken out of the mothball fleet at Suisun Bay for service in Southeast Asia, was leased as a supply vessel by the federal government and operated by States Line. It was carrying a load of military trucks and other heavy equipment.

On August 23, 1966, the ship was proceeding along the Long Tao river, about 22 miles southeast of what was then Saigon, when a limpet mine, placed on the 8,500 ton freighter's hull, ripped through its belly. The explosive had been positioned by a swimmer and then detonated electronically by someone crouching on the riverbank.

Of the seven who died, Raymond Barrett, Earl Erickson, James McBride, Timothy Riordan and Robert Rowe were members of the Marine Firemen's Union, while Charles Rummel and John Bishop were officers and members of Marine Engineers' union.

The explosion was blamed on the Viet Cong. They had begun attacking ships with small arms fire in February of that year, and two other freighters had been slightly damaged mines in May. The Baton Rouge Victory was the first American vessel sunk in the Saigon ship channel.

In all, 44 merchant mariners perished while serving on U.S. merchant ships in Vietnam. As with the armed service personnel who died in combat, some are known only by their family names, and one is unidentified. Two are missing in action and presumed dead.

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