She wasn’t sleek, came from humble beginnings, didn’t amount to much in her younger years, and never turned a man’s eye in adoration. Some considered her downright ugly. However, she did provide a valuable service, and at that, she was a pro. Her name was the USS Benewah, APB-35, a barracks ship built to service men for the U.S. Navy.
She was laid down on Jan. 2, 1945, in the Boston Navy Yard while WWII still raged in Europe and not launched until May 6, 1945, two days before Germany surrendered to Allied forces. Finally commissioned on March 19, 1946, seven months and four days after the Japanese surrender, Benewah was primed for a war that was already over.
The Benewah remained in Boston and served as a barracks ship for the crews of aircraft carriers being decommissioned. That, her first post-war assignment, only lasted four months. On July 29, she herself began deactivation procedures and by Aug. 30 was decommissioned. In February of 1947, she was moved (in reserve) to the St. Johns River waterfront facilities of the Naval Auxiliary Air Station Green Cove Springs, Fla., and served (in reserve) as the headquarters ship for Subgroup 3 of the Florida Group, Atlantic Reserve Fleet. Basically, the Benewah just sat there trying to look pretty, which for her was a very challenging assignment.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Another war was on. And the Benewah waited for her orders, and she waited and waited. She waited 16 months. On Oct. 10, 1951, the call came down to prime the Benewah for her return to active service. The preparations took about a month and on Nov. 9, 1951, the Benewah was recommissioned.
Outfitting took place in Jacksonville, shakedown and fresh training were out of Norfolk, Va., then she moved north to her new home port at Newport, R.I. On March 9, 1951, the barracks-ship-that-could, USS Benewah, departed Newport on her first overseas deployment: to Europe. For nine months she delivered logistics supplies and material support for mobile construction battalions. In December, she returned to Newport to take up operations along the east coast of America. For the next three years the Benewah served in numerous roles until decommissioned, once again, during December of 1955. She remained inactive for over four years, but by August 1959, she was placed back in service, yet again, in reserve. By February of 1960 the Benewah was housing the pre-commissioning crews of newer ships being built in the Newport News shipyard, a wearisome and cheerless assignment lasting over six years. But 10,000 miles away across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean something bad was brewing in Southeast Asia, and especially in a country called Vietnam.
July, 1966: Built for WWII, yet never served in combat; sent to Europe instead of Korea during that war, now with over 20 boring years of service under her hull, the barracks-ship-that-could was finally going to war. Once modernized and refitted, Benewah put to sea for the Far East in February 1967. First stop the Panama Canal, then on to Pearl Harbor until finally making port in South Vietnam on April 20, 1967. The Benewah proudly became the flagship for the Commander of Task Force (CTF) 117, the Mobile Riverine Force operating in the enemy-infested Mekong Delta. Her unexciting days of duty were over. The USS Benewah would be in combat for the next 44 months and was destined to become one of the most decorated ships during the Vietnam War.
And the lady could, and did, protect herself from disrespect and assault with a lethal sting. Armed with two quad 40mm AA gun mounts plus a minimum of 20 .50 and .30 caliber machine guns, her dedicated complement of 12 officers and 129 enlisted men provided a reasonably secure respite from swamp warfare for another 26 officers and 1,200 enlisted personnel.
What was it like to fight in swamps, rice paddies and on ground so soggy the soldiers didn’t even change their wet socks in the field because an attempt at foot hygiene was hopeless? What was it like to walk into an ambush knowing all along you were walking into an ambush? What was it like to be pulled out of a soggy delta to engage in street to street, house to house, room to room urban warfare in Saigon during the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive? And what was it like to return to an old WWII-era barracks ship for hot food, a clean bed and relative safety, at least for one night? Doug Garner knows. Doug called the USS Benewah “home,” and finally came home to Georgia with bad memories, survivor’s guilt, PTSD and shrapnel in his arms and chest. In his own words: his story, the Benewah’s story, a story all who served “boots on the ground” in Nam understand.
“When I first arrived in the Mekong Delta, the Benewah was anchored on the My Tho River. She could house a battalion of soldiers, feed 1,000 men per day, plus service the 100 or so Navy vessels in the area, like swift boats and landing craft.
“We’d get word from Intelligence about a crucial target then board the landing craft. We were escorted by swift boats, but the waters were hostile and ambushes along the riverbanks were common, and expected. The Delta was flat as a pancake, with thousands of canals, rice paddies, and plenty of buffalo dung. There wasn’t much jungle in our area, but what jungle there was belonged to the Viet Cong.
“Before my first month was up, the Communists launched their Tet Offensive of 1968. My entire battalion boarded choppers and flew in a massive helicopter air armada to fight street to street, house to house, in Saigon. This may sound crazy, but urban combat in Saigon was a lot better than fighting in the Delta. In Saigon, we at least had houses, walls, or even hotels that provided cover, but down in the Delta …. well, we didn’t have cover, only levees and muddy water. We’d shoot at the VC from windows in Saigon, just like in the movies, this was a conventional war. Bodies cluttered the streets. We lost some people, but we demolished the enemy. They paid a terrible price for Tet.
“We were in urban combat for about four weeks. I had one incident that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. We came under fire, so I jumped for cover, right into the middle of a pile of, well … let’s call it a cesspool. I was waist deep in crap. I had to stay that way, too … no time for a shower. The guys avoided me like the plague.
“After we returned to the Benewah down at Dong Tam, I was in combat for a solid eight months, including the horrible battles of Can Tho and Vung Tau. I still question ‘why,’ why did I make it when so many guys didn’t. I remember going down river to Can Tho in four boats. We got hit as soon as we disembarked. Three of us and the Lieutenant crawled behind a levee. When the Lieutenant rose up to toss a hand grenade he got shot in the back. Our sergeant cradled the lieutenant’s head in his lap but he too took a round to the head, and the guy next to me was shot and killed. When I glanced back I saw the tip of an AK-47 disappear into a spider hole. Our captain ran up, opened the spider hole, and pumped his entire .45 caliber clip into the sniper. Those men died, and I survived. I was the closest one to the sniper, yet he chose not to shoot me. Why? I’ve reflected on that my whole life.
“Vung Tau was another hotbed of enemy activity. Sometimes we’d be on a river boat for six hours searching the tributaries. We rounded up 30 men without valid identification from one village, and they turned out to be high ranking enemy officers. I mean, it was crazy. During the day the villagers and kids would come out to sell us stuff, like Cokes or beer. The captured men had done the same thing, selling us stuff, trying to make a buck between battles.
“On one patrol the Vietnamese scout in front of me tripped a booby trap. He died, and I took shrapnel in my arms and chest. A chopper flew me back to the Benewah for treatment. They had an excellent medical facility aboard ship and patched me up pretty good. I got a couple of days off, but I’m still carrying some of that shrapnel around with me.
“On another patrol I was walking point armed with a blooper (M-79 grenade launcher). We were in a tiny patch of jungle, and when I walked around a small hut, well, I came face to face with a VC with an AK-47 slung behind his neck. We were both bug-eyed. I fired my blooper at the guy. We were too close to each other for the round to detonate, but I thought perhaps the impact would kill him. Well, I missed the S.O.B. Without time to reload, I ran like hell back down the path figuring I’d get a bullet in my back. I dove into a small indentation beside the path and glanced back. Shoot, the VC had hauled-ass, too, back up the same path he came from.”
Doug Garner endured 10 months of incessant combat before receiving what he called “a cushy assignment.” He said, “I got an assignment to finish my tour working security at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. After Dong Tam and the Delta, that was a piece of cake.”
Garner returned home and within two weeks married his sweetheart, Lajuana Payne. Garner said, “We’re still honeymooning. She has been my rock.”
And the barracks-ship-that-could, the USS Benewah? From Dong Tam to Ben Tre, to supporting our soldiers during the Cambodian Campaign, from suffering yet surviving frequent enemy fire and responding in kind with her own defenses, after 44 months of combat the war-weary Benewah set sail for the Philippines on Nov. 26, 1970. Upon arrival at Subic Bay, she underwent a detailed inspection by a board of inspection and survey. Deemed unfit for further active naval service, she was decommissioned on Feb. 26, 1971. She served a short time as a station ship and a miscellaneous auxiliary until struck from the Naval Vessel Register on Sept. 1, 1973. She was turned over to the Republic of the Philippines for conversion to a hospital ship.
As one of the most decorated ships of the Vietnam War, the USS Benewah was credited with participation in 11 major war campaigns, earning her 11 battle stars. Other awards and decorations: World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2), American Campaign Medal, Navy Unit Commendation (4), Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbon (2), Navy Presidential Unit Citation (2), Vietnam Service Medal (13).
All good things must come to an end. During her conversion to a hospital ship, an acetylene tank detonated and the resulting fires ended Benewah’s conversion to an angel ship of mercy. She was towed to a location in the southern Philippines to be used briefly for what she was built for, a barracks ship. At the end of her military life, the Benewah became a lasting thing of beauty. She was sunk in crystal blue waters off the Philippine coast and is now, and forever will be, a coral reef. May you rest in peace, lovely lady, you served your country well.