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Vietnam veteran recalls service with pride

Phil Ledford talks about his service in the "brown water navy" in Vietnam.

Phil Ledford turned 19 years old standing on a harbor pier in Da Nang waiting to be transported to the ship he would serve on for more than a year transporting supplies to American bases in the Mekong Delta and other rivers of Vietnam.

November 11 is Veterans Day commemorating the service of Ledford and all other Americans who served in the Armed Forces.

Ledford was a member of the "brown water navy," the term applied to U.S. Navy personnel who served on the rivers of Vietnam rather than on the blue water of the ocean offshore. He enlisted without knowing much about how he would serve.

"I originally enlisted because growing up in Kansas, I didn't know they had rivers so wide you could sail ships on them," he said. "When I got to Vietnam, I was assigned to an LST as a supply ship in Vietnam."

The military acronym "LST" stands for "landing ship tank." The design went back to World War II when the ships carried armored tanks that were unloaded onto beaches over ramps that unfolded on the front of the ship. In Vietnam, the ships were loaded with supplies that were then unloaded onto the beach at military bases over those same ramps.

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Sailors of the brown water navy adopted the definition "long slow target" for LST, Ledford said.

During his service in Vietnam, Ledford served on the USS Hampshire County, LST 819, for 14 months. The ship had been launched in October 1944 and saw action in World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. The ship was 328 feet long, had a width of 50 feet and carried a crew of about 120 men when fully staffed, Ledford said.

"We were usually short-handed with about 99 or 100 men," he said.

Ledford was part of the "deck force" during normal operations. This involved chipping, sanding and repainting the ship as needed.

When under fire, Ledford was a "trainer" on a gun tub. A gun tub included two 40 mm guns mounted inside the tub. A sailor adjusted the elevation of the guns and pulled the trigger. The trainer was outside the tub and pivoted it so the guns were trained, or pointed, in the direction of the threat to the ship.

The supply ships also brought comfort to the sailors and soldiers at the bases along the river.

"We served hot meals to the soldiers coming in from the field," Ledford said. "I was low man on the totem pole so I got stuck in the galley washing dishes, which I didn't mind."

On some occasions, the supply ships arrived at a base that was under attack, Ledford said.

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"One time the Viet Cong were firing on an ammo dump," he said. "The LST came up and we were a big target."

Ledford said he called some of the base soldiers brave for staying at their posts when they were often under fire.

"The ground soldiers said the LST crews were brave to go out of the area (to the rear supply bases that were considered safe) and then to come back into the combat zones," Ledford said.

Ledford said the spirits of the soldiers serving in Vietnam varied but seemed to peak when Richard Nixon was elected president because he had campaigned on winding down the war.

"Most of the time, there wasn't time to think about it," he said referring to the politics of the Vietnam War.

After he left the service, Ledford became a Christian and was called to ministry.

"I didn't get the big churches," he said. "Often I had to work at second jobs."

Those second jobs included being a substitute teacher and polygraph examiner for the state of Kansas as well as other occupations along the way.

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He recently moved to Kensal, N.D., to be closer to family in retirement. He can be seen in the Kensal and Jamestown area wearing a Vietnam veterans cap as a way to engage other veterans in conversation.

"Depression and suicide and Agent Orange," he said. "We have a lot of things to talk about."

Ledford said his time in the brown water navy is important to him.

"I don't regret my time in the military," Ledford said. "At the time, it was very trying, but I wouldn't trade it for a million bucks."

He said it was part of what makes him who he is.

"I served God and my country," Ledford said.

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Veterans Day activities in Jamestown

Here is the schedule for Veterans Day activities at the All Vets Club in Jamestown on Thursday, Nov. 11.

  • 7:30 a.m. - free breakfast for area veterans, their families, area patriots and friends
  • 11 a.m. - free soup buffet followed by family bingo
  • 5 p.m. - celebration banquet free to veterans and Jamestown Drum and Bugle Corps members. A fellowship social and a performance by the Jamestown Drum and Bugle Corps at 5:30 p.m.
  • 6 p.m. - American Legion will conduct the POW-MIA ceremony
Related Topics: PEOPLEJAMESTOWN
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