Fifty Years Later
Where were you from the 15th to the 18th of August 1969? Five-hundred-thousand people—obviously rich enough to avoid being drafted and sent to Nam—gathered in the rain and mud of a New York farm to get high, fornicate, and declare their displeasure with mommy and daddy’s conservative and stuffy world-views in an Aquarian display of “free-love” and hard-rock rebellion. Actually, mommy was likely having a little free-love herself when daddy wasn’t looking, but not flaunting it by dancing naked in the rain.
The day Woodstock began, I was on an LCU ( Landing Craft Utility ) in the South China Sea, six-miles off the coast of Quang Tri Provence in Vietnam, heading northwest toward the Cua Viet River with a load of artillery ammunition for the marine firebases along the DMZ. At seven knots, the trip north from DaNang took most of the night. Since Vietnam was across the International Dateline, the 15th of August was the 16th in Nam. It was the evening/night of the 15th in the United States as my boat headed up the river to unload at Dong Ha—a marine combat base a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.
I recall the day clearly because I was hung-over and barfing over the side of the boat as we went up river, although I didn’t let that inconvenience interfere with manning a 50 calibre machine-gun on the starboard side of the boat and watching the peasants in their black pajamas on the grassy bank of the river twenty yards away. I remember the day because I had downed a fifth of vodka the night before to celebrate my 20th birthday. The liquor was courtesy of the boat’s cook who was an alcoholic and kept several fifths stashed in the boat’s galley.
It was a hot and humid morning with an orange-ball sun and the eight-mile trip upriver from Cua Viet to Dong Ha was uneventful. The biggest danger was from submerged mines the Vietcong put in the river at night or an ambush with a rocket-propelled grenade. One RPG fired into a 180 tons of black powder cannon ammunition was bound to make for a bad day. The boat beached and lowered its ramp at a staging area in Dong Ha just down river from the bridge which would be blown-up by a marine named John Ripley during the Easter Offensive of 1972 to deny the North Vietnamese Army a way to get tanks across the river. Since the river was closed to traffic at night, except for PBRs ( river patrol boats ) drifting with the current to ambush any VC moving supplies in sampans, every craft master wanted his boat unloaded quickly so he could go down river to the safety of the South China Sea before sunset when the river closed. Otherwise, the boat had to stay in Dong Ha overnight within range of North Vietnamese artillery.
There was a backlog at the staging area that day and even though the ammunition was unloaded and trucked away before nightfall we had to stay overnight. So as the second day of Woodstock was happening a half-a-world away, I was standing guard with an M-16 and tossing grenades into the dark water around the boat to discourage swimmers from trying to plant a mine on the hull.
1610 class LCU with a load of ammunition
The trip back down river the following morning was uneventful as well as the eighty-mile trip back to DaNang. By the time my boat rounded North Island at the entrance of the harbor and moored at the floating causeway at Camp Tien Sha annex, Woodstock was in its third day.
The American troop strength in Vietnam in August of ‘69 was 475,000 so there were about the same number of Americans at Woodstock as were in Nam. That seems somehow oddly significant. I think the people who brought us Woodstock were likely the same ones who gave us Vietnam.
Woodstock was planned as a paid concert and 186,000 tickets were sold before control of the event was lost. Estimates of crowd size varies from 400,000 to 500,000. The ticket price of $7 for one day would be $50 in 2019. A two day ticket at $13 would be $92 and a three day ticket at $18 would be $127 (thank you federal reserve).