Vietnam destroyer stories — Some good, some sad

ANCHORED BY SERVICE — Hank Wernau, 73, of Naples, and his daughter Lea Wernau shared some stories about his service and the tattoo that he got years later. The two were among the guests at the Veterans Breakfast, hosted by the Casco Recreation Department. (De Busk Photo)

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — Hank Wernau lost two shipmates on the USS Wedderburn before it arrived at its destination in August 1964.

Wernau said he talks about his years of service whenever possible. The annual Veterans Breakfast at the Casco Fire Station was a chance to do just that.

“The destroyer stories,” he said. “There were lots of good times and lots of sad times. We lost two people on the cruise over there. One was electrocuted. One was washed overboard. He had eight children. We never found his body.”

He talked about the mission of the USS Wedderburn, a destroyer with a rich history in the United States military.

“We were told the North Vietnamese had PT boats and could launch torpedoes. We were training to see if could spot their lights at night,” he said.

“There was an alga in the water,” he said, referring to bioluminescent plankton that lit up the water at night and could possibly assist the crew in spotting PT boats hiding in the darkness.

The USS Wedderburn was “patrolling the Tokin Gulf specifically for that purpose,” he said.

“One night we could see firefighting in the mountains with tracer bullets going back and forth,” he described.

“We never fired a shot. What they told us later on is our planes went in and blew up the base where the PT boats were,” he said. “After that, the mission remained the same — patrolling the Tonkin Gulf.”

“After we went over to ‘Nam, we homeported in Subic Bay,” Wernau said.

According to Wikipedia, “The warship departed San Diego on 5 August 1964 to begin her 11th deployment to the Far East. Four days before, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred, signaling a stepped-up American involvement in the strife in South Vietnam. That involvement dictated the nature of the USS Wedderburn’s 7th Fleet assignments for the remainder of her active career.”

“During the fall of 1964, she operated off the Vietnamese coast as plane guard and escort for TF 77, duplicating her service during World War II and the Korean War,” Wikipedia said. “She departed the newly-established combat zone in November for a SEATO weapons demonstration and then put into Subic Bay in the Philippines for upkeep.”

“After Christmas liberty at Yokosuka, Japan,” the USS Wedderburn “returned to active operations in the South China Sea in January 1965. At the conclusion of that duty, late in the month, she set course for home, arriving in San Diego on Feb. 6,” Wikipedia said.

As the history books frequently point out, the Vietnam War was considered an unpopular war — one that drew criticism by some Americans while being supported by other U.S. citizens.

At the time, Wernau had just graduated from high school and resided in Long Island, N.Y. He joined while he was in high school. “I went to the Army Reserve meetings,” he said. He added that while training, he spent weekends once a month aboard the Albert T. Harris, a destroyer escort, in Queens.

When Wernau enlisted, nobody really questioned his choice, he said.

“Later on, when I was out, people weren’t as supportive, including some family members,” he said.

“I even changed my opinion about the war. It went on and on — the conflict, the body counts, all that stuff. It was pretty upsetting. Kids were getting yanked out of college and losing a good future,” he said.

“War is something we have to think about a little more,” Wernau said.

“Today, we are trading with them,” he said, referring to the Vietnamese government. “Why couldn’t we have done that then?”

In August 1965, with only three months of active duty left, Wernau returned to Long Island and married his high school sweetheart, Cicilia.

The newlyweds returned to San Diego, Calif., which was the Wedderburn’s homebase.

The destroyer did not stay in port during the remainder of the year.

“We went out twice; and one of those times, we were supposed to be out for short time. It was two weeks because we were shadowing a Russian crawler,” Wernau said.

As soon as his active duty was over, which happened in November 1965, the couple went back to Long Island.

Their daughter, Lea, was born in 1967. The family moved to Maine — specifically to the Town of Standish — on the day after Christmas in 1978.

Lea said since she was an only child, her dad taught her chores typically assigned to a son.

“He raised me like a son and like a daughter. He taught me how to change oil, work on the car, and chop wood, stack wood, use a chain saw,” Lea said, “I went from being a Long Island princess to cutting wood with a chainsaw in Maine.”

She described her family as very team-oriented; everyone shared the chores. After helping her dad outdoors, she was expected to go inside and help her mother with meal preparation. That family team-work extended into community volunteerism.

“Dad and I served on the Naples Rescue together for three years,” she said, clarifying that three years is how long both of them were on the Naples Rescue roster at the same time. Her dad had more years under his belt.

Lea described her dad as fun, funny and just an all-around good guy.

Hank and Cicilia Wernau call Naples, Maine, home now.

Throughout the years, Wernau and his wife have attended some of the reunions of the Wedderburn’s crew. Each year, the reunions are held at a different port city such as San Diego and Buffalo, N.Y.

Lea joined her parents at a reunion held in Washington, D.C., she said.

About 48 years after his tour of duty on the destroyer, Wernau and his wife went to a reunion held in San Diego. They visited the place they called home in those early days of their marriage. Across the street was a tattoo parlor.

So, as happenstance would have it, Wernau was 70 years old when he had the tattoo put on his arm in honor of the USS Wedderburn and the crew with which he served.

He has continued to stay in touch with a couple of guys who shared the bond of “friendship. I’ve tried to keep in contact with just a couple of them. One lives in California and another in Colorado,” he said.

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