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In 1966 and 1967 Steve Bell volunteered for duty in Vietnam--TWICE

Steve Bell last Thursday at the TIMES offices in Marianna. Steve Bell last Thursday at the TIMES offices in Marianna. JACKSON COUNTY TIMES photo — Bo McMullian

It was 1963. Although this was in the middle of America’s Cold War with the USSR and the specter of Vietnam was lurking in Southeast Asia, Steve Bell’s yearning to join the US Navy was undaunted. He joined before finishing up at St. Petersburg High School. As part of his enlistment agreement, he signed up at 17 and got his GED in the Navy. Steve was inducted on June 3, 1963—five months before the assassination of President Kennedy and eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Steve was first assigned as fireman aboard the Destroyer USS Holder (DD 819) out of Norfolk, Va.,  and later as a machinist’s mate aboard the Cruiser named after and based in the capital of Massachusetts—the famed USS Boston (CAG1). But that didn’t keep him out of harm’s way, not even in the early pre-escalation days of the Vietnam War.  Bell was aboard the Holder when the World War II-veteran ship was assigned to “chasing Soviet subs across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.  At least he got to see most of Europe while in port.  But those were submarines with nuclear missile capability.  

After the assignment in the Atlantic, the Holder returned to Norfolk where it was reassigned to Vietnam.  The ship reached the Pacific via the Panama Canal, stopping at Hawaii and then the Philippines. She would return home on the other side of the world through the Suez Canal. By then it was 1966 and the Holder was sent to the coast of what was then the free Republic of South Vietnam.  “In the Navy at my level,” Bell explained, “you very seldom knew where you were at any given time—they never told you much.  My duty was more like Star Trek than Rambo.”  

The USS Holder’s job was to shell targets up to 10 miles inland with the use of its 5-inch guns with 38 caliber shells.  Steve often had to hand-carry the heavy shells from place to place aboard ship.  The Communists and the North Vietnamese Army didn’t appreciate the big guns so they fired back.  However, the Holder was a moving target so it never got hit during Steve’s first tour of duty in Vietnam, he explained.

That wasn’t the case during Steve’s second trip to Vietnam almost a year later, in 1967.  That was when the Boston, a much bigger ship, used its 8-inch guns to fire shells up to 20 miles inland, shells that could take out half a city block when they hit, Steve said.  The enemy really hated the Boston, and one day they hit it, but the damage wasn’t great.  “I heard it hit when I was in the engine room,” Bell explained.  “We were somewhere off the coast of Vietnam is all I ever knew.  We’d go out at night and zigzag up and down the coast.  It was a game of cat and mouse—the enemy couldn’t tell where we were.  The Boston, also a World War II veteran ship, was well armored so the hit didn’t do too much damage.”

Someone on another ship, Steve doesn’t know who or what ship, took a famous photo of the Boston getting hit.  The ship’s newsletter described the incident:  “A geyser reaches 95 feet to the bridge as Boston comes under fire from heavy caliber North Vietnamese shore batteries while Boston is supporting troops of the 3rd Marine Division near the DMZ during Operation Beau Charger.”

“Unlike two cruisers that served in Operation Sea Dragon prior to our arrival,” the October edition of the “Beamrider” continued, “Boston was extremely fortunate in not receiving any direct hits from enemy coastal defense emplacements.  On 13 separate occasions, Boston came under intense barrages of enemy fire.  Air bursts left shrapnel littering the decks and point-detonating shells came dangerously near, but Boston always escaped to fight again.”

A note included in the newsletter from Capt. Leon Smith Jr., the commanding officer, praised the men of the USS Boston:  “Since I assumed command on July 3,” Capt. Smith wrote, “Boston has plagued North Vietnamese logistics with a passion.  We destroyed or damaged close to 200 enemy supply craft during the past three months, as well as numerous coastal defense sites, highways, ferry landings and similar line-of-communication points… Almost daily we steamed into areas in which enemy gun emplacements were known to be on the lookout for us.  While we were sinking (enemy water crafts), the enemy was calculating our movements as a target for his guns and often his solution was disturbingly close.  But the next day we were right back to his supply lines again.  We fought a dangerous type of war in which the hours were long and the glamour short, but our military leaders, still aware of the consequences, still considered the job important enough for a heavy cruiser and her 1,200 men.”

The Captain’s conclusion was very inspiring.  “Therefore, in the years to come,” Smith said, “when you are asked where you were while many of your countrymen were engaged in protests or draft evasion or debating issues or disclaiming personal ‘involvement,’ I think you will be proud to say:  ‘I was off the coast of North Vietnam in the USS Boston!’”

Indeed, Steve Bell had encountered some of those “protests” when he was back in Virginia between the assignments from the Holder to the Boston.  That’s why he volunteered for duty that sent him right back to the war—and he knew it.  “So many people blamed the veterans for the decisions their country was making,” Steve explained.  “The hostility was amazing.  A lady on the street one day looked at me and told me she was glad her son wasn’t a murderer like me.”  Anti-war media coverage, featuring the daily body counts, took a toll on Americans’ attitudes about the Vietnam situation.  But it backfired on men like Bell.  “I put in for a transfer back to Vietnam,” he said.  “I got orders to go to Boston and within weeks, we left for Southeast Asia.”

One term in the military was enough for Steve, though.  He returned home to St. Pete where his World War II veteran dad Ed Bell was a building contractor.  Ed Bell was too old for the infantry during the Great War but he was honored for his service in the last couple of years (1944-45) with the US Army Corps of Engineers (see photo, this page). Bell’s brother Allen Bell also served in Vietnam, in the Army. Steve married Fran Schmitz in St. Pete in 1972 and this past February, they celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary at their home in Calhoun County near Blountstown.  Steve, a member of the Marianna VWF Post #12046, recently retired from 10 years with the Florida Department of Corrections, finishing at Calhoun Correctional Institution.

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