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Vietnam Voices: 'We got even more Agent Orange than guys who were drinking the water on the land'

Don Lorash


Don Lorash was in the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1968. He lives in Boyd. He went to school in Joliet. This is part of his Vietnam story.

Lorash: "When I got drafted in 1965, my dad had just had a heart attack and he needed help at home and we went to the draft board and got me a 90-day deferment so that I could finish up the fall work because my brothers were all younger than me and they were all in school. So, during that 90-day deferment, I had heard about the Navy Reserves which allows you to drill for a year and you go to boot camp and you drill for a year and then you go for two years of active duty. That worked out really well with dad being sick and me being able to help him at home. That's what I did. I joined the Navy Reserves in fall 1965."

He went on active duty in October 1966. He was an engineman, a diesel mechanic. Many of the assignments for the typical engineman were on swiftboats being used in the "Brown Water Navy" in Vietnam's rivers.

Lorash: "When I found out that I would be going overseas, it wasn't a real good feeling. You go through lines of shots for days when you go over there. You get everything from smallpox and whatever. We got our orders and I knew I was going overseas, but when I got my orders, I went to the Current, which was a rescue/salvage ship. That's because the main propulsion guys were electricians and diesel mechanics. I lucked out for most enginemen. I wasn't assigned to a swiftboat in the middle of the Mekong Delta, being cannon fodder for the Viet Cong. Anyway, it was a very interesting job for me because I enjoyed the mechanics part of it. But, you're on a ship that's 140 feet long, 40 feet wide, flat-bottomed. It's like riding a cork in a bathtub."

"When you're that small and flat-bottomed, you're just bobbing and weaving and whatever and when you look past the fan tail of the ship, and one time all you can see is the dirtiest, muddiest, stinking water you've ever seen and you can't see above those waves. Then the next thing you see is this cloudy gray sky and you'd have to look over the edge of the boat to see the water beneath you. Then when you go off the wave, those twin screws that are built for power, they come out of the water, and when you go back into it, those four blades on the props and start hitting the water, that old ship, she just shudders and you go down and up the other side. We'd do that sometimes for days, going around the typhoons. You're stuck with 85 to 90 guys like the size of three normal houses, you know? You sometimes get tired of each other. And you're working -- a lot of times because you were shorthanded -- you'd be six hours on, six hours off. You did have some stuff you had to do if you were doing the 4 to 10 watch, then during the day, they had stuff, normal maintenance stuff, it was very interesting ship for me.... I was in the A gang, which was out of the machine shop, (taking care of) the divers, their compressors, which were 125-pound compressors that supplied air for the divers when they went down in hard suits or to fill their bottles for their scuba gear. ...My job when we were at sea was to run the evaporator, making fresh water. You bring cold water in to this pressure cooker and there's steam running through coils, and the fresh water comes up off the brine, then it goes over the top and gets the cooler. That's how we made fresh water at sea... When George Bush decided that us blue-water sailors were not included in the contamination of Agent Orange, they found out — the Australians did a terrific study on that — that because we concentrated the ocean water, that we got even more Agent Orange than guys who were drinking the water on the land. That was one of the things that we did. We were the support group for the guys were on land in Vietnam. We brought ships that were aground, we got them floated again. We had a tanker setting in the bay that the Viet Cong sabotaged and sunk it. We had to patch that hole and pump all the water out of it, and get everything out of it that they had had."

"Because we were built for power, not speed, our top speed was 13 mph. If we were towing something, that dropped us five or six. It took us forever to get anywhere we were trying to go."

Gazette: You spent a lot of time traveling?

Lorash: "We did. We spent a lot of time at sea. When the only thing you can see out there is water and you came from the hills of Montana here, and the biggest body of water was Cooney Dam, then you get out in the middle of the ocean and all you can see is water and sky, it's kind of unnerving at times. We never saw anybody else. It isn't like you travel in groups like the aircraft carrier guys."

About a fourth of the personnel on Lorash's ship were divers.

Gazette: So if something goes down, because of enemy fire or if something runs aground, or sinks, it's your job to go get it and salvage it?

Lorash: "That's what we did. The ship that the Viet Cong blew a hole in and sunk, that was a fuel tanker. They had unloaded, luckily. But, they sabotaged it so that it couldn't go back and get more fuel. You need food not only for the troops, but you need fuel, which is the food for the mechanical stuff, tanks, whatever. But the merchant vessels and that one tanker and the rest of them were merchant vessels with — I don't know what was on there because I was always under deck — I didn't see what they brought off the ships. It was cargo. It could have been anything from ammunition to food for the troops. But, it would take days to off-load them onto barges and take them in. A couple of times we weren't that close (to land). One vessel went aground 200 miles north of Da Nang. They were a long ways from port when they went aground. They were a long way from port when they went aground. The tugs come up with the barges and you load the barges and you take it back to where it was supposed to go or go to the nearest port."

Gazette: It's kind of hard to imagine these ships running aground.

Lorash: "I can tell you they're not supposed. That's how that goes, you know. You don't know why. It's like running into a chuckhole on a road. There's a coral reef, you know they're there. You're in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and you're off three or four miles, you know, that's not a long way. But, if there's a coral reef there, you better know where that is and you better steer around it. That's what happened to them. A couple of them were coming into the harbor and they hit a mudbar. One of the ships that was right in the mouth of the harbor, hit on the mudbar and we had to drag it off that. That ship sat there for a week with the tide and everything rolling it back and forth, so it just kept on sinking deeper and deeper and deeper. That was one of the longest times that we ever worked on one, when that was stuck on the mud. When they were on the coral, then you get the high tide and get them off loaded, once you get it to start moving, there's only so much noise because the coral is so coarse, it's kind rubbing it on sandpaper, so once you get enough force and start moving, that vibration came through the tow cable and it was just piercing on your ears. You knew — you knew when that outfit you were pulling on started to move because you could hear it. I don't care where you were. Engines were roaring and we were at full speed and sometimes we'd do that for six or eight hours, just as hard as those old engines could run with just as much electricity as they would generate for those main motors. When it moved, you knew it, there was no doubt. Man, there was pandemonium. Everyone was doing high-fives and whatever

"It takes everybody to make something like that work. When we went over there and pulled them off a reef or a mudbar, we were doing our part to support those guys that were on the ground in Vietnam."


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