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3510 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

In Da Nang with Dana

by Roberto Loiederman

November, 1967: Da Nang, Vietnam

I looked over the railing. I’d just smoked half a joint after having swallowed small, measured amounts of Dexedrine and Valium, so I was hypnotized by the scene: oil slicks, left behind by ships like ours, created a constantly-shifting color palette just beyond the shoreline.

Small, wiry Vietnamese children used casket-sized Styrofoam casings in order to float on the gentle surf. It took me a few seconds to realize what these casings were: they’d been used to cushion the stowed bombs, big ones, during the SS Del Alba’s trip across the Pacific.

Bob yelled from the bridge: “Hey, Maynard, someone looking for you. Top of the gangway.”

My visitor was Dana Stone, a photojournalist. Before the Del Alba had left San Francisco, Theresa told me to look up her friend Dana in the war zone. I’d left a message for him at the Da Nang Press Club, where a wire service reporter told me, “Dana? Probably in the boonies.”

The next day Dana, in his mid-20s like me, showed up at the Del Alba. He wore U.S. Army camouflage fatigues, but he used an Australian bush hat, cocked at a jaunty angle, signaling he was a civilian. He was short, compact, energetic, wore glasses, with a thin nose that came straight down from his forehead, eyes close together, giving him a rat-like look.

“I’m Dana.”


We shook hands.

“So you’re a friend of Theresa’s,” Dana said. “I call her Big Red.”

“Tall, maroon hair. Yup. Big Red. She was my old lady for a couple of weeks.”

“She was my old lady for a few weeks too.”

“Homosexuality once removed,” I said.


“That’s what Leslie Fiedler calls it. Us, having had the same old lady.”

Dana laughed uncomfortably.

He had a nervous, intense manner, and he was curious about everything on the ship. He asked to see the bridge, the engine room, even the fo’c’sle I shared with my two watch-partners. Dana peppered me with questions: What did I do when the ship was at sea? How did I do it? Did I feel it was risky working on a ship carrying bombs?

“There’s danger of snipers and limpet bombs. There’s a joke on all ammo ships: If anything happens on this ship, she ain’t going down. Unh-uh. She’s going straight up.”

“Yeah, right,” Dana said. “Shit happens. But it’s not like going into battle, right?”

I said the tough part about working on ships was the solitude. I told Dana that I spent a great deal of time by myself: on lookout on the bow at night, scanning the sea for lights, standing by at 3:00 am in the messroom, or working alone all day on deck, removing rust or painting. I said that life at sea had taught me how to be alone.

“Is that useful?”

“Well, it’s what we really are, all the time, isn’t it? Even when we’re with others?”

I said I’d memorized lots of poems, mostly by W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens. That way, I said, when I was alone, I had “good company.”

“Far out.”

We left the ship, went down the gangway to the pier, and walked through a U.S. Army depot where there were hundreds of broken tanks, LSTs, amphibious craft, and other large military machines, kept there so they could be cannibalized for parts. At the end of this area, I pointed out a small, empty, wire-mesh trashcan that had a sign on it: Please help keep Vietnam clean.

“Americans...we’re good at unconscious irony,” I said. Dana didn’t react. It was hard to tell if he had even heard the remark.

Once outside the depot, Dana led me toward a jeep. “A Newsweek reporter lent it to me. I get to use it when he’s in the boonies.”

As he drove, Dana rattled on about the war.

“You get a rush when you’re in battle. I mean really in it,” Dana said. “Man, I’m telling you. Not just for the grunts, for me too. Something inside you takes over, and you know, you take chances. You have to, if you’re going to get a good shot. You get hooked on risk, you know? After a while, it’s like there’s no limits. You want to go all the way. Get closer to the action. Artillery goes off, grunts get killed, gooks get blown up. And after every firefight, you think, shit, I made it past another one.”

Water buffaloes sloshed in the paddies next to the road, a C-130 zoomed low. Dana swerved past checkpoints manned by U.S. soldiers who waved us through.

“There’s a guy I normally go to the boonies with, my close pal: Sean Flynn. Son of Errol Flynn. Sean was in a couple of movies, like Son of Captain Blood, then he gave up Hollywood to come here. He’s fearless when we get into a fire zone...”

At the Da Nang Press Club, we drank beer with a dozen reporters and photographers. Like Dana, they’d come to the war zone to seek adventure and make a name for themselves.

“Did you hear about old Adams?” said a Time reporter. “He caught the green weenie in the air.” George Adams, a Marine colonel, had been shot down in a helicopter. “Yeah,” the reporter went on, “he’s the highest-ranking officer to take the Big Plunge.”

“Just another day at the job,” Dana said.

“You guys are pretty cynical,” I said.

“You let yourself get emotionally involved, and you stop taking risks,” Dana said. “If you stop taking risks, then you can’t go all the way.”

We left the jeep parked outside the Press Club and walked through Da Nang, a city pockmarked with bombed and crumbling buildings ringed with sandbags. People on the street were selling back-scratchers, stone pendants, filigreed fans, sexual potency powders, marijuana, carved tusks.

A woman with a scrawny, deformed child in her arms begged for money. Her mouth was rouged-out from betel-nut chewing. A blind man, playing what looked like a home-made guitar, was led around by a little girl who held out a tin can for coins.

“The way I see it,” said Dana, “Vietnam is like some grotesque amusement park. Disneyland for the weird. An E-Ticket in an alternate universe. Surreal. Sir-Real.”

Dana chattered about himself in a rat-a-tat-tat hipster manner. He had studied photography in Maine, he said, then moved to “the coast,” where he met Theresa. She convinced him to pay his own way to Vietnam to try his luck as a war photographer.

“She got rid of me the same way,” I said.


“Yeah. She suggested it was time for me to catch a ship back to Vietnam. What’s she do, send all her old men here?”

“Yeah, well...” said Dana. “So you’ve been here before?”

“This is my third trip to the Zone.”

“As in: War Zone?”

I nodded. “That’s how seamen call it: the Zone. See, when we’re within fifty miles of the Zone, we get double our base pay.”

“And what do they call napalm?”

“Bonus cargo. Ten percent more of our base pay while there are 50 tons or more of ammo on board, any kind of ammo. It’s all about the paycheck.” I changed the subject. “So you came out here as a freelance photographer. Then what?”

“Yeah, see, some of my pix got picked up by the wire services, you know. As soon as that happened, man, I was on my way. That’s when I kind of hooked up with Sean. He looks like his father, you know, tall and handsome, so when I’m with him there’s always a lot of attention from the ladies. From guys too. He’s got this movie-star charisma and everybody’s drawn to him.”

As if on cue, whores came up to both of us at that moment, pinched our arms and offered a variety of services. I was always ready to go to a massage parlor, but I hated group pinching and waved the whores away.

“I wonder if all wars have been like this,” I said. “People whoring themselves to the invading army.”

“We’re all whores, man,” Dana said. “You, working on ammo ships. Me, taking pictures. I mean, we chose to come here, and we choose to stay. We’re all whores. That’s what Graham Greene would have said.”

Dana had two touchstones. One was the outrageously handsome Sean Flynn, who set young girls’ hearts aflutter and whose posters probably sent their fingers wandering over their own bodies. The other was Graham Greene, who had spent years in Vietnam during the 1950s. Dana pointed out places where Greene had slept or eaten or been entertained when he was a journalist here.

We walked past the American NCO Club, where dozens of cyclos—two-seater bicycle rickshaws, pronounced SEE-cloz—waited for business. Dana gathered some of the drivers and gestured as if he were smoking a long pipe. He said, “O-peen, o-peen.”

One of the drivers, ancient-looking, nodded and gestured for us to sit in the cyclo.

A few minutes later we were being pedaled deep into a warren of very narrow streets where most of the residents wore black pajamas.

“Does the clothing mean anything?”

Dana laughed. “Hey, it could mean they’re VC. But, you know, I respect the little yellow bastards. Far as I’m concerned, they’re not Charlie. They’re Charles. Look, nothing’s safe. Nothing here is safe. You can’t protect your ass all the time, you know. We’re the invaders. They can move around like shadows. We can’t.”

In a narrow alleyway—no way in the world we could have found our own way out of there—the driver stopped and pointed to a doorway. Dana jumped out, knocked, and a toothless papa-san came to the door.

“O-peen?” Dana said. Papa-san nodded and waved us into the house.

I signaled the cyclo driver to wait for us and we went inside.

One by one, Dana and I lay down on our hips on top of the wide, bed-like platform, covered only with tatami mats, that took up most of the small room. Then a pipe-preparer joined us, also lying on his hip, facing us, a kerosene lantern in front of him.

“This is the origin of the word ‘hip,’ you know, meaning ‘cool,’” Dana said. “You lie on your hip to smoke opium.” I doubted the etymology but just nodded.

The preparer slowly stabbed pellet after pellet with something that looked like a pick-up stick, held each pellet over the lantern while it hissed and became distended, then—while the pellet was still very hot and gummy—jabbed it into the small aperture of a large, elaborately-carved pipe. The pipe was then inverted over the lantern so that the opium could be inhaled. It was an unhurried ritual. I stopped after we’d smoked four pellets.

“You hedge your bets,” said Dana. “You go only so far and no further.”

“I’m as stoned as I want to be,” I said.

“Yeah, well,” Dana said, “the idea is to fill up the last corner of your brain with smoke. Keep sending out your mind till it stops coming back.” He laughed as if he were exhaling smoke.

Dana smoked and smoked: ten pellets in all.

An hour passed, maybe more. I drifted in and out of the present, dreams mixing with the reality of the room. I felt peaceful, surrounded by a loving lava flow of warmth. Lots of nods, smiles, touches. Mama-san brought in some tea and cookies.

When we finally left, it was dark. The cyclo driver was outside, still waiting. We got in, and he cycled us toward town, ringing a bicycle bell when pedestrians scooted in front of him. I felt a quietness of spirit, as if I were on the other side of things, a feeling that nothing needed to be done. Not by me, at least. The dim lights of this neighborhood—its narrow streets throbbing with life—took on a tranquil aura. We rode in silence during most of the trip.

I finally said, “We headed to some restaurant along the water?”

“Nah,” Dana said. “I never eat next to the water. This coast has funny tides.” He meant: bombs, explosions. “We’ll go to Graham Greene’s favorite place.”

Once inside, he ordered entrecôte and I had fish wrapped in banana leaf. Both of us washed down our food with bottles of 33 Beer.

“Tell me something, man. What the hell are you doing working as a deckhand on ammo ships?”

“It’s a living,” I said.

“You know what I mean,” Dana said. “You went to college, right? All that shit about memorizing poems... what did you major in, English?”

“I don’t remember,” I said.

“No, seriously, man, you’re like some wacky character in a novel, exiling yourself into downward mobility. Why the hell are you doing this?”

He sounded a bit like my parents, which was unsettling.

“I’m like you,” I said. “A voyeur. This is the outer edge of the known world, isn’t it? Where humanity’s doing itself in? How could I live through this era and not see it for myself?”

“Ah, that’s pre-packaged shit. What about the name ‘Maynard’? Where’d you get that?”

“Guys on my first ship, a couple of years ago, they thought I looked like Maynard Krebs from The Dobie Gillis Show.

“But I got the note you left me in the Press Club. It didn’t say Maynard. Your real name is what, Leaderman, right?”


“Ah. Loiederman as in ‘oy.’ As in oy gevalt. Bizarre. A nice Jewish boy like you,” Dana said in a mock Jewish accent. “Bringing shame on your family! A shonda! Feh!”

I laughed: My Jewish origins seemed very distant from the person I was now: a muscular deck-hand, high on opium, on the shores of the South China Sea, in a war zone where artillery illuminated the night sky.

But he was dead on: my family was embarrassed by me. My parents were ashamed by what I’d chosen to do with my life so far. I changed the subject.

“I tell you what I’m ashamed of. Every time I join one of these ships I have to go past antiwar groups outside the docks. Protesters holding up signs and yelling ‘Stop delivering napalm! You’re baby-killers!’ And they’re looking at me in a van going into the docks with other seamen, and my shipmates are saying, ‘Commie scum’ and ‘We should stick napalm up their asses.’ But the demonstrators, they’re my people, not the fascist seamen I work with.”

“So... you feel guilty about working on ammo ships... ever think about taking direct action?”

“What? What’re you talking about?”

“Mutiny... Or sabotage. Why don’t you organize other seamen and hijack an ammo ship?”

The idea took my breath away. “Whoa!”

“I know, I know: you’d never go all the way...”

“I’m willing to do a lot of crazy shit, but I’m not going to throw my passport into the drink.”

“The drink?”

“The ocean... I’m not willing to throw my Z-card into the drink either.”

Dana squinted, not understanding.

“My seaman’s document,” I said.

“Okay, then: What would you throw into the... into the drink?”

I thought for a moment. “My past,” I said finally. “Parts of it.”

“The nice Jewish boy part?”

I was getting tired of his needling.

“All those times I hurt others, whether I meant to or not. Those times I betrayed people. Those times when people counted on me and I didn’t come through.”


“What I wouldn’t throw into the drink is my future. I like to keep options open.”

“Fuck the future. Trouble with you is, you’re still carrying your parents inside of you. All that guilt shit. That’s what keeps you from going all the way. Unless you go all the way...”

Dana held his palms up, head cocked at an angle. The rest of his thought was clear: Unless you go all the way, there’s no personal redemption, no hitting bottom, no breaking through to the other side—which is what we optimistic Americans believe happens when you hit bottom.

“There’s a poem,” I said, “a poem by Yeats. During World War I in Ireland. Yeats is middle-aged and he’s got a friend, Lady Gregory, she has a son who volunteers for the British forces and learns how to fly a plane. Ireland was still a Brit colony then, so he didn’t have to fight in that war. It was his choice, right? He’s in his mid-20s—our age—and he goes off and flies a combat plane in World War I... and gets killed. And of course, Lady Gregory is devastated and Yeats is heartbroken. So he writes a poem called ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.’”

“You aren’t going to recite the whole thing, are you?”

“Just the last couple of lines. Yeats is trying to figure out why Robert Gregory, a young man with his whole life ahead of him, would risk death doing something he didn’t have to do. Yeats says it wasn’t because of a sense of duty or because political leaders told him to. No...”

I closed my eyes and recited slowly:

...A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

I opened my eyes and Dana was looking at me in a quiet, inscrutable way. He nodded, not saying a word. Like a ship knifing through calm waters, the poem left silence in its wake.


After dinner, Dana and I walked back to his jeep, then he drove me to my ship. Since ammo ships weren’t permitted to berth on the inland side of the protected harbor, we had to drive miles all the way around, to the other side of the port. We passed a couple of checkpoints on the way, manned by U.S. troops. I could feel Dana getting more belligerent with each stop: not with me, but with the jumpy American soldiers, rifles ready, who shone lights on us. One checkpoint soldier fired a rifle up in the air after we left, and Dana laughed with delight.

But as we got close to my ship, Dana’s delight quickly turned on a dime to something else. Loosened by—by what? The bit of poetry I’d recited? More likely, by the beer and opium—Dana tempered his cynical stance and talked about the war he’d witnessed.

“This thing, this war isn’t what you think. It isn’t what they say. Our soldiers... they aren’t winning hearts and minds. You know what I’ve seen? Massacres. Massacres, for Chrissake!”

This was before My Lai and other horrors became public knowledge.

“I’ve seen two massacres. Twice Sean and I were there when the grunts got orders to shoot anything that breathes. I mean, they didn’t know if there was any Charlie there. They just wasted a couple of villages. Wiped them off the fucking map. No questions asked. Okay, in a firefight it’s grunt versus gook and may the best side win. But those villages... that wasn’t war. There was no fighting back. They were massacred... men, women, kids...”

“So this war’s getting to you too...”

“Yeah, I guess, man, I guess. I take pictures and some of them are so gruesome and bloody that I never get to publish them. But I got ’em. And I got ’em here.” He tapped his temple with his index finger. “I’ll always have them here.” He seemed on the verge of tears.

We arrived at the base of the gangway. Dana inhaled/exhaled loudly, pulling himself together.

“What was the line from that poem? A waste of what?”

“‘A waste of breath.’ Weighed against that moment when life and death hang in the balance, it’s all a waste of breath. All of it: past, future...”

“Yeah,” Dana said. “Yeah. I guess that sums it up. Everything else... just... a waste of breath.”

We hugged each other warmly and wished each other the best possible future.

As it turned out, Dana Stone’s future did not last very long. A little more than two years later, in early 1970, he and Sean Flynn were taking photos in Cambodia, on the trail of a big story, and both disappeared, presumably captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge.

There is no definitive evidence of what happened to them.

But there is evidence of what happened to me.

It took a few more years, but in time I became the nice Jewish boy Dana foresaw I’d become. Wife, children, house... like Zorba says, “the full catastrophe.” A respectable middle-class father and husband, a quiet unexciting life with family, friends, and a mortgage.

I’ve lived forty-some more years than Dana... but has it been a waste of breath? I don’t know. I really don’t know.


—From a memoir-in-progress, whose working title is Bonus Cargo to the Zone

[Webmaster’s Note: The SS Del Alba was operated by Delta Shipping Lines out of New Orleans. The appellation SS, used by many merchant vessels, stands for steamship.]


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Roberto Loiederman

has been, among other things, a merchant seaman, TV script writer, kibbutz cook, English teacher and journalist. He’s had more than 100 articles published in Penthouse, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Jewish Journal, and other publications. He’s co-author (with Richard Linnett) of The Eagle Mutiny, published by Naval Institute Press in 2001, a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on an American vessel in modern times.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury