It was the summer of 1965 when Waco resident and Abbott native Don Holland, made his first trip to Vietnam with the U.S. Navy aboard the small destroyer escort ship, the USS Savage. Arriving off South Vietnam, they initially cruised up and down the coast.
But there was a special mission: to intercept the flow of contraband, which was being moved on “junks,” or sampans. That meant boarding these small watercraft to conduct searches. “The captain asked for volunteers, and I raised my hand and volunteered to be in the boarding party,” Holland, 77, said. “I figured it would at least get me out of the office.”
It could be a dangerous operation, boarding boats where someone may have hidden contraband, such as guns, money or ammo. In fact, the first junk Holland boarded ended up being towed to check further. One of the men he was guarding made a move that got the Thompson machine gun Holland was carrying waved in the man’s face. Holland said he later learned the men were discovered to be spies and were executed.
The remainder of his time boarding boats went smoothly, with no further incidents. “I never had to fire my gun,” he said.
After his first trip to Vietnam, Holland was sent Newport, Rhode Island, to officer candidates school. He was transferred from the Savage to a small Coast Guard cutter that bobbled like a cork, he said. “I was sick in no time flat.”
He was commissioned as an ensign on Dec. 1, 1965 and assigned to the USS John R. Craig. Once again, he was deployed to Vietnam, this time as the ship’s only supply officer. The ship provided gunfire support from the shoreline for the troops on the ground.
The ship was shot at, but nothing hit its mark, thankfully. Still, Holland was never afraid. A survivor of a motorcycle wreck, he was no longer afraid of anything and felt very safe under God’s care, he said.
He made a final deployment to Vietnam but was diverted to the Sea of Japan. “We thought we were going to war,” Holland said. During the trip, he served as officer of the deck underway for two weeks. They then headed for Vietnam, where they provided more gunfire support for the ground troops. It was his last deployment.
“During one gun battle, we fired so many rounds that we split the deck and soon had to return to the yard for repairs,” Holland said.
He also organized a working party to move bullets to the forward gun mount, which was running low of ammunition. “While I was doing this, I saw a big splash off the port side that appeared to be very close and realized that it was a North Vietnamese shell landing that close to my ship,” he said.
When he returned, he was stationed in Hawaii, where he was assigned to Commander Service Force US Pacific Fleet. His job was to monitor the supply status of all major ships in the Pacific. “I really enjoyed it,” he said.
Promotion for Holland
He was promoted to lieutenant and became the administrative assistant to a two-star rear admiral. He also attended the Naval Post Graduate School for a year in Monterrey, California, where he earned his business administration degree and transferred to the East Coast, to a Philadelphia shipyard. He briefly attended procurement management school, graduating with honors.
One of his most significant projects included creating an automated supply system and financial management. He served his last year at a naval air station in Maryland (where he met his wife), retiring as a full lieutenant on Dec. 1, 1977.
Holland moved back to Texas, attended Texas State Technical Institute briefly, taking building construction and livestock management. He also attended Tarleton State, where he earned his MBA.
When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, Holland’s brother Ben, an insurance adjuster, asked him to go. Holland then joined his brother in damage assessment for major disasters, such as the North Ridge earthquake and various fires, tornadoes and hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew. Today, married to Janet (Welk) Holland, they have four children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. This August will mark their 57th anniversary.
If you ask Holland today whether it was all worth it, he would definitely say yes.
“I’m glad I did, because I was a 17-year-old, uneducated male making very little money and with very little to look forward to,” he said. “The military offered lots of opportunities,” including a bonus for re-enlisting. “But with the kids coming along the way they did, we never had any money.”
Still, there are no regrets: “I got adventure and had fun along the way.”