MARIANNA, Fla.— Anyone who lived through the 1960’s can likely tell you about the Vietnam War.
Among these people is Sandy Westmoreland, who began serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1964.
Westmoreland, 73, went for his draft physical and was given a 1-A ranking, meaning that he was fit for the service.
Previously, he had been a student at Georgia State University. After his first year, however, he got burned out and decided to go to work. He began working for a department store in Atlanta.
“I was a shoe clerk— in the women’s shoe department, if you can believe it,” he said.
Westmoreland said that he knew that he’d likely receive a draft notice within six months, as he was no longer a student and was deemed eligible for the military.
“I really didn’t want to go into the Army,” he said. “It wasn’t what I particularly wanted to do. Although my father served in the Army in World War II and several of my uncles.”
Westmoreland said he knew of a Naval Reserve unit on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Upon signing up, there would be a six-year military obligation.
Westmoreland was sent to Providence, Rhode Island for two weeks of basic training.
His first year of the service comprised of him attending meetings every Monday night at the Georgia Tech campus.
“It was a four hour meeting and we had drills and stuff,” he said. “They’d tell us about the military: how to salute, how to stand at attention, all that military stuff.”
After that, he had two years of active duty.
“Two years of active duty in the Navy sounded, to me, a lot better than two years of active duty in the Army,” he said.
In November of 1966, he got his orders for active duty.
“One of the guys at the Naval Reserve office had talked me into possibly volunteering for submarines,” he said. “What I didn’t think about at the time is that I’m claustrophobic and I didn’t swim all that well.”
So, Westmoreland was shipped to Connecticut to attend the Navy’s submarine school.
“Fairly quickly, we found out that I didn’t like to be closed up in a small space,” he said.
Following his stint at submarine school, he was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was assigned to a submarine tender called the USS Holland.
Westmoreland had yet to decide on his job, or “rate.”
“Of course, if you haven’t decided what rate you want to be, then, you usually end up on deck force,” he said.
The deck force is typically involved in maintenance duties, such as mopping the floors and painting.
“Well, that wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend two years on active duty,” he said.
Then, he was sent to mess duty. This was something all divisions required of their lower-ranking men, according to Westmoreland.
“So I found out I could possibly decide that I wanted to be a commissaryman, which is what they call cooks,” he said. “I thought that wasn’t a bad idea.”
One of the benefits of this job was the scheduling, he said.
“I found out, you had every other weekend off,” he said. “Whereas, if you were on the regular deck force or in one of the regular divisions, you only were off a full weekend every third week. Which, me being 20 or 21 years old, being off was really important.”
Westmoreland said he was one of the few guys there from the south that didn’t care for fish. Since his daddy didn’t really like fish, he said he never really had that much fish to eat growing up.
“But I found out working in the kitchens, of course I had to taste everything I fixed and make sure it was okay,” he said. “I worked in the salad locker for a while and we’d make shrimp salad and stuff and I started eating shrimp and thinking, ‘This isn’t half bad.’ We had to fry other kinds of fish and so it helped with my appetite and helped with my weight, too, which I really didn’t need a lot of help with.”
Westmoreland enjoyed his time as a cook for the rest of his active duty service.
“We lived in cramped quarters,” he said. “And I always thought it was interesting because the compartment that I lived in had about 20 guys in it and we got along good. Nobody ever really got on each other’s nerves, even though it was like three bunks on top of each other. So just the ability to be able to have that many guys together was interesting.”
Westmoreland says that in addition to the military helping with his appetite, it also helped him to mature as a person.
“I grew up while I was in the service,” he said. “I was very immature and young for my age.”
After serving his two years active duty, Westmoreland decided he wanted to go back to school.
“Going into the service helped me to mature and helped me to realize that I wanted to do better in school,” he said.
According to Westmoreland, his performance in school was one of the reasons he had dropped out after his first year. After going back to school, however, he saw improvement. Westmoreland says he even managed to make the Dean’s list a few times.
Westmoreland once again attended Georgia State University, where he received his degree in public information.
Westmoreland has now been married to his wife for almost 50 years.
“My wife likes to hard-time me,” he says. “She’ll say all the time, ‘Why don’t you cook?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I can only cook for several thousands of people at a time. I can’t cook for small groups.’”
Westmoreland says that although at the time he didn’t want to be there, he did end up growing an attachment to some of the places.
“I’d go back and all these places I didn’t really care for back then, and I found out I had a fondness or fond memory of them,” he said.
Westmoreland said that if given the choice, he would enter the service again.
“I love this country,” he said. “We have short-comings, we have problems. I’m not really happy with the way things are going now and the divisiveness. But yeah, I would do it again.”