CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
James C. Boehm
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt
Date: May 11, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Colin Critchlow
James C. Boehm is a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Navy from November 1965 to December 1969. He spent part of his enlistment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB/CVA/CV-42) on “Yankee Station” off the coast of North Vietnam. Boehm’s father, a veteran of twenty-three years in the U.S. Coast Guard, was stationed in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Initially Boehm tried to join that service, but the Coast Guard was not accepting new recruits at the time he applied. The Coast Guard recruiter told Boehm to join the Navy, and he did, to his father’s disappointment.
After enlisting and completing boot camp, Boehm, who had chosen the submarine service, was sent to submarine school at Groton, Connecticut. Unfortunately, an eye test revealed that he was color blind to the color green, and he was rejected by the school and transferred to Naval Station Mayport, Florida, where he was assigned to the crew of the Roosevelt.
Aboard the Roosevelt, Boehm was initially assigned to the “W Division” and charged with handling “special weapons,” a euphemism for nuclear weapons. He had to be vetted for a top-secret security clearance for the job; and, before entering his workplace each day, he had to display his ID to the Marines guarding the entrance. When the Roosevelt sailed from Mayport, Boehm was reassigned, along with several other men, to the conventional bomb handling unit. His job there involved working shifts of 12 hours on and 12 hours off, moving bombs from storage and sending them up to the flight deck.
The first stop on the trip to Vietnam for the Roosevelt was Rio De Janeiro. The carrier was too big to fit through the Panama Canal. She left Rio to sail across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, where she was battered by 60-foot-high waves, and many crewmen became seasick. The Roosevelt’s next stop was at the US Naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, where she picked up supplies and then proceeded to Yankee Station, off North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The carrier’s tour of duty lasted from August, 1966 to February, 1967.
US aircraft carriers deployed at Yankee Station were assigned to take part in air operations against North Vietnam. Boehm’s unit was detailed to sort the various types of bombs that were going to be used by the carrier’s planes, put them on skids and send them to the flight deck, where they were fitted with fuses and mounted on planes preparatory to takeoff.
Even though Boehm and his fellow sailors were not on the ground battlefield in Vietnam, jobs aboard an aircraft carrier were fraught with danger. On one occasion a fire occurred on the Roosevelt when a fuel tank fell off an F-4 Phantom jet and hit the carrier’s flight deck, where the volatile mixture was ignited by a spark. Fortunately a damage control team, which was always on duty, was able to extinguish the blaze quickly.
After a tour on Yankee Station, the Roosevelt sailed to Japan. The carrier’s captain had been flown off the ship due to a heart attack and was replaced by his second in command until the vessel docked in Japan. Unfortunately, the Roosevelt ran into a typhoon and there was some rough sailing on the way. Once in Japan the crew received not only the six-day rest period they had been promised, but they remained in port for another two weeks while storm damage was repaired.
During the repair interim, Boehm was stationed in Yokohama, and he used the opportunity to visit Tokyo. Unfortunately, in late October of 1966 there was another, much deadlier, fire aboard the Roosevelt, which took the lives of eight men. In the wake of this harrowing event, Boehm was assigned to the detail that moved the bodies from the scene of the disaster to another location, and there were no body bags available to stow them in.
When the Roosevelt was seaworthy again, it sailed to Hong Kong and remained there for five days. While his ship was in port, Boehm was assigned to work on the “liberty launches” (small craft that transported sailors on leave to shore and back). Sailors leaving for Hong Kong would descend a staircase mounted on the side of the ship to a platform on the water, from where they would board the launch for Hong Kong. When returning, the process would be reversed. One of Boehm’s jobs was called the “drunk watch” — keeping returning intoxicating sailors from falling off the stairway into the ocean.
When the Roosevelt prepared to sail home, the crew was given a choice of a “congratulatory port” to sail to for a brief “vacation.” The choices offered were the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, or Cape Town, South Africa. Much to Boehm’s surprise, the winner was Cape Town. On arrival in South Africa, the crew received an interesting welcome. There was a band playing and signs were held up by a crowd welcoming the sailors, including one that curiously read “Down with American women.”
It turned out that the Roosevelt was the first American warship to arrive in Cape Town since World War II. Unfortunately, civil disturbances about the racial repression of apartheid prevented the crewmen from leaving the ship, but local white citizens visited the Roosevelt every night, bringing fruit and other gifts while the crew gave them tours of the carrier.
After returning to Mayport, Boehm was injured in a motorcycle accident and spent six months in the hospital at the air station. Following his release, he was put on limited duty in the air field personnel office for another six-month period before returning to the Roosevelt, then sailed to Norfolk for an eleven-month renovation. Boehm’s new assignment was in the carrier’s personnel office, and he was promoted to Petty Officer, 3rd class. He continued in that job until his discharge.
Since he had sailed around the equator, Boehm was considered a “pollywog” and was eligible for initiation to become a “shellback.” In order to do so, he had to perform a number of humiliating tasks, including crawling through garbage and being sprayed with a hose while locked in a cage. He successfully completed the initiation and officially became a “shellback.”
As he neared the end of his service, Boehm was asked by an officer if he wished to re-enlist, but he declined. He had passed the civil service test to become a firefighter in New Jersey, and a civilian job awaited him. Boehm was discharged in December of 1969 and became a paid firefighter for the Ventnor City Fire Department the following month, a job he held for five years after leaving active duty. His ship, the Roosevelt, was decommissioned in 1977 and scrapped in 1978.
Boehm believes that the draft was good for America because it strengthened the military and helped young people get a responsible start in life. He opined that when men and women are 18 years of age and not doing anything with their life, they should join the military. Boehm said that military service can teach them skills and help them establish goals in life. He also believes that our military needs rebuilding, because the world today is more dangerous than when he was in the Navy.