By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Buck Sgt. Robert Crook had more trouble getting to Vietnam than he did while he was there.
Crook served in Vietnam from May 1965 to May 1966, among the first combat troops to be sent there on ships.
He helped build Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, the major port of entry for U.S. military supplies and personnel in South Vietnam.
The Mansfield native, 75, enlisted after growing up on a farm.
He already had some mechanical skills and could operate heavy equipment, so the Army improved them and he joined the 864th Engineer Battalion.
The training served Crook well when he returned to farming.
He departed from Oakland, Calif., on “an old military ship brought out of mothballs.”
But the long troop ship passage was broken up when the ship lost power and drifted in the current in the South Pacific.
“We crossed the International Date Line back and forth at least three times,” Crook said.
Finally, a ship arrived, fired a line to Crook’s ship and towed it to Midway, where the 3,500 men landed.
On Midway, Crook saw a “gooney bird,” an albatross.
“We called them gooney birds because they didn’t just land gracefully, they just crashed into the beach,” he said
A new ship took them to Cam Ranh Bay, where there was a deep harbor but no docks.
“We climbed off the ship on rope ladders. I was careful to be one of the last to get off over the side because guys were dropping their duffel bags and hitting each other.”
A landing craft took them in to land.
“There was nothing there but sand,” Crook said.
“We slept in two-man pup tents, and then they put up group tents on concrete pads. That got us out of the sand and away from the centipedes.”
He and other engineers used bulldozers to build what would become a huge base and airfield.
They broke up rock — sometimes with dynamite — to build roads and runways. Some concrete was mixed with lead, which turned out to be a bad idea.
“There were wavy parts on the runways,” Crook said. “It all had to be taken up.”
He said he was proud of the base, with a bay considered one of the best in the world for off-loading ships.
In 1972, the South Vietnam government took over Cam Ranh Bay.
After his military service, Crook returned to farming.
But 1988 and ’89 were very bad drought years.
“It took me 11 years to pay off my banker,” Crook said. “I woke up one day and said, ‘I’m done.'”
He has continued to work after leaving the farm and moving into town, currently as a shuttle bus driver.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at email@example.com.