Vietnam War

John Calder

Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS McDermut, USS Stoddard, USS Samuel N Moore
Date: June 20, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: William Elwell
Veterans History Project


John Calder was a US Navy Radarman aboard three destroyers in the years leading up to and during the initial stages of the Vietnam War. He served on aboard the USS McDermut (DD-677), and the USS Stoddard (DD-566), both of which were Fletcher-Class destroyers, and aboard the USS Samuel N. Moore (DD-747), an Allen M. Sumner-Class destroyer. Calder was trained in naval gunfire support, which was a large part of both his and his ships’ duties.

John Calder at the Militia Museum of New Jersey, 2016

Calder was born in April, 1943, in Kearny, New Jersey. While his father did not serve, two of his uncles were in uniform during the Second World War. One was in the Army, and the other, his namesake, served in the Navy as a pharmacist’s mate. Following Calder’s own tours of duty, his uncle John would be the only person he would discuss his service with.

Calder entered the military in 1962, following his graduation from high school. He made a pact with five friends to “up their draft number,” or push forward their entry into service as draftees who would serve for two years. Another friend and Calder soon enlisted in the Navy anyway, for a four-year term. Within a month after Calder entered service, his parents received his draft notice from the local draft board, but he “was already in the Navy anyway,” so it was irrelevant.

Calder was sworn in on January 25, 1962, and then boarded a train for Navy basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes, North Chicago, Illinois. He remembers a drill instructor who “made the company run the obstacle course in temperatures as low as twelve below zero” which “left half the company with pneumonia.” Calder spent a few weeks in the base sick bay due to illness. He graduated from boot camp in May of 1962 and went home on a thirty-day leave. Calder recalled that he had acquired a “different persona” after his initial Navy training. His new attitude was different from that of his old friends. “Their interests were no longer my interests,” he remembered, and he “couldn’t wait to get an assignment.”

Prior to enlistment and boot camp, Calder had taken vocational tests to determine the course of his further training. He scored highly in the skill set needed for sonar, radio and radar work. Given options, Calder chose radar, as he “didn’t see a need for sonar” and wasn’t interested in radio. He also felt that radar could eventually lead to a career as an air traffic controller in the civilian world. Following his leave, Calder returned to Naval Station Great Lakes for Class A Radar School. The course lasted for twenty-six weeks, and he recalled that it was dramatically “different from high school” due to the high possibility of “washing out.” On successful completion of the course, Calder requested assignment to a warship, except an aircraft carrier. He was assigned to the USS McDermut. Coincidentally, when Calder was born, the McDermut was being planned and laid down by the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Kearny, New Jersey.

Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, where the USS Maddox (DD-731) allegedly came under attack by North Vietnamese PT boats and approximately 6 months prior to being deployed to Vietnam, Calder attended Naval Gunfire Support School at Point Loma, near San Diego, California, where he trained in ship-to-shore and ship-to-air communication for gunfire support.

Prior to the deployment of the USS Stoddard, Calder met with a Radarman who was aboard the USS Maddox (DD-731) during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Following a lengthy discussion, the sailor completely refuted the accepted story of the incident. This along with Calder’s extensive knowledge of the Stoddard’s armament, questioned the ability of a PT to launch an effective attack a destroyer. He believed the blips on the radar screen were the result of strange weather patterns in the Gulf. These blips appeared to mimic a PT boat movement on surface radar. Based upon the discussion with the sailor from the Maddox, coupled with his own personal experiences, he questioned whether an attack ever occurred, casting considerable doubt on the official version of the incident that led to a series of events that eventually brought on the Vietnam War.

The USS McDermut

Aboard the McDermut in San Diego, Calder was first assigned to mess duty, which impressed him because he worked on the main deck and was “able to see a fleet in real time.” Following mess duty, he was assigned to Combat Information Center with the other radar men. The McDermut trained off of Point Loma, California in offshore gunnery and antisubmarine warfare. While running ASW drills, the McDermut collided with the USS Gregory (DD-802), which bent the McDermut’s bow, forcing the ship to return to port in San Diego, where it was fitted with a temporary new bow and then decommissioned. Calder was reassigned to the USS Stoddard (DD-566) which was at sea near Japan. He flew in an Air Force propeller-driven plane from San Francisco, California to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and from there to Midway Atoll and on to Japan.

While waiting for his ship, Calder was “basically on leave,” and he and other sailors befriended local Japanese college students. He joined the Stoddard in Yokosuka, Japan and was assigned to CIC. As liaison between targets and the gunnery officer, Calder had “one of the busiest jobs on the ship, which kept him “involved,” much to his preference. The Stoddard was assigned as the Da Nang Harbor Defense Ship, to pilot recovery duty and gunnery support up and down the Vietnamese coast and into the Gulf of Tonkin. The Stoddard, according to a South Vietnamese officer, was “the first Da Nang Harbor Defense Ship,” and it was referred to by North Vietnamese radio propaganda personality “Hanoi Hannah” as “The Imperial Ship Stoddard” in this role. Ironically, “Hanoi Hannah” actually boosted morale aboard ship, playing rock and roll music and making an occasional personal mention, much as “Tokyo Rose” had in World War II. Morale was also boosted by frequent visits to a well-protected beach for swimming and relaxing.

The Stoddard remained on duty at Da Nang as Defense Ship for a month, staying in port during the day and being often called away at night for gunnery support, or other missions as needed. During these missions, Calder would facilitate communications between ground forces or Forward Air Controllers and his own gunnery officers to direct the destroyer’s fire. He gained enormous respect for the Marines during one firefight. In that action, Marine helicopters stayed on-station through a hailstorm of Vietnamese fire to direct the Stoddard’s own shelling in support of Marine ground forces. They remained on station until the target was neutralized.

Calder and the Stoddard docked at multiple ports-of-call while deployed. Resupply was conducted at Yokosuka and other Japanese ports, and a major refit and rearmament was completed in Subic Bay, Manila, in the Philippines. The crew would receive liberty while in ports. The USS Stoddard also conducted diplomatic visits to Hong Kong for the American embassy there, and served as the Hong Kong station ship for a short period of time. Given the US and Britain’s difficult diplomatic relations with China at the time (concerning the status of the then British crown colony of Hong Kong), Calder believed that they were deployed to the city for “political reasons.” Royal Navy and US Navy ships were often challenged by the Chinese while enroute to Hong Kong, something that he thought was more bothersome than threatening. Of all the places he visited, Calder enjoyed being in Japan the most, and the Japanese people. The only time he ever he felt “uncomfortable” in Japan was on a visit to Nagasaki in 1965. Calder and some other sailors visited the city only twenty years after the second atomic bomb was dropped there, and the “crowd got vocal” at them and their American uniforms. He recalled that “it was obvious we weren’t wanted.”

Calder remembered that another “interesting mission” of his ship was supporting Navy Underwater Demolition Teams. While their assignments were classified, Calder and the crew were awestruck by the secretive unit and were sometimes called to support their missions. He said that the UDTs “didn’t interact with the crew” and “slept on the main deck,” but he was always pleased to have them aboard. UDTs were eventually renamed as the famous US Navy SEALS.

In late 1965, the USS Stoddard sailed back to the United States, but Calder’s enlistment “was extended by six months”, by an order of President Johnson. While the Samuel N. Moore was enroute to Vietnam, at the suggestion of the ship’s executive officer, Calder signed paperwork to be transferred. He was High Lined to an oiler, during a refueling operation, and later High Lined to the Moore a few days later. Aboard the Moore, Calder was again assigned to lead communications for gunfire support along the Vietnamese coast. He was personally commended by the captain for excellence in his duties. Calder left active duty on May 23, 1966.

Recalling coming home, Calder commented that, “it was difficult for vets.” While in-theater, he and his fellow sailors had no idea of the anti-war sentiment brewing at home. Calder may have partially agreed with some of the basis for protest, but was angered because Americans “were taking it out on the vets.” He also believed that the media at the time wrongly portrayed the war. Calder was discharged and sent home upon reaching California. He felt that coming home and adjusting were easy, as it was just “another part of my life that was over.” Calder could talk to his Navy-veteran uncle about his war experiences, but no one else. He used his GI Bill to go to college and buy a home.

Speaking of his service in retrospect, Calder said that “the Navy is really what made me a person.” He also said that, “as time goes on, you think more and more about your time in the military.”