Two years ago, Jim Shaffer attended the inaugural Wyoming Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event in Casper. During a breakout session for Navy and Marine Corps members, he heard a man speak about his experience as a shipmate on a dock landing ship, or LSD, that carried troops to Da Nang, Vietnam, in July 1965. As he listened, Shaffer soon realized that he had been on that ship.
“We started going around the room, and each person got up and introduced themselves and said when they were in Vietnam and what they did,” said Shaffer. “He was Navy. He said he delivered Marines to Da Nang in July of ’65, and there was only one LSD in that float and I was on that one. He was one of the first speakers to get up. I couldn’t believe it.”
Shaffer, a Pennsylvania native, had joined the Marine Corps “on a whim” along with a high school friend after hearing a Marine Corps recruiter speak at career night at their high school. After graduation in 1963, he headed to Parris Island, South Carolina, for training and became a Marine.
By January of 1965, he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and serving as a brig guard.
“A bunch of us from the brig requested to transfer out right away because we had heard about Vietnam, and guys that we were stationed with and we served with were in platoons that served in Vietnam. And we wanted to go with them,” said Shaffer.
Out of the eight guards who requested duty in Vietnam, only Shaffer and one other Marine were chosen.
“Well, my buddies were going to Vietnam, and I wanted to go with them,” he explained. “They were going for what they were trained to do and what I was trained to do, and we wanted to put that training into use.”
On July 5, 1965, at the age of 19, Shaffer arrived at Da Nang and soon began patrols with B Company, 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion. Amphibious tractors, or Amtracs, served as troop and supply transport.
“I did a lot of desert patrols and river patrols,” said Shaffer. “Amtracs would go in the water and on land. We were troop transport vehicles … but we could go anywhere. We’d take supplies out, we would run patrols. It was 32 tons of metal that, on paper, wouldn’t float, but it would go four inches out of the water. It was a landing craft for hitting the beaches.”
Shaffer and his crew volunteered for many assignments ferrying troops, doing patrols on the river or guarding bridges.
Hazards of the job
While transporting troops or supplies or traveling on patrols, landmines were an ever present danger. In fact, a tractor in his platoon was the first one to hit a landmine in Vietnam.
“We had 480 gallons of gasoline underneath the floor plates,” said Shaffer. “And when they hit the landmine, the entire tractor went up like a candle. One guy died on site, two of them died in Hawaii and the fourth guy didn’t get a scratch. We ended up putting sandbags on the floor of the tractor after that, basically to help keep the fire out if we hit a landmine.
“I was one of two crewmen that went and helped bring the tractor back, put it back together and we had maintenance guys that got the engine running. And we drove it back. We weren’t going to let it sit out there and be a symbol.”
Shaffer had a close call himself soon after. While driving the lead tractor with two others behind him, he missed a landmine, but a tractor behind him did not.
“That was the third landmine he had hit and the third Purple Heart he got,” said Shaffer, of the driver in the second Amtrac. “He was none too happy. It broke his legs. (Later) he painted a Purple Heart on the side of his tractor and put two stars on it.
“We always had to watch out for them no matter where we went. A lot of times you’d pass a house that nobody lived in and get shot at. They were trying to draw you in, because the landmines were in front of the house. If you took the bait you could lose a tractor.”
Shaffer estimates he spent 80 percent of his time in Vietnam on patrol. When back at base camp, he and his men performed a variety of maintenance tasks on the tractors, such as oiling, painting and putting tracks on.
“They were fairly reliable,” he said. “We kept after them and kept them in good working order. Back in camp, we just basically did maintenance on the tractors so they were ready to go next time.”
In addition to regular maintenance, Shaffer had an unusual incident that later required not maintenance, but a thorough scrubbing of the vehicle.
“We evacuated a village because they were going to come through with bombers and bomb the area,” he said. “And I got the job of transporting cattle across the river inside of an Amtrac. I am the only Amtrac’er in the history of the Marine Corps that ever did that. But I didn’t volunteer for that. I know what cows do when they get nervous! It was everywhere, I just dropped the ramp and drove the tractor in the river, and we started shoveling. They called me Rowdy Yates for a while after that.”
Once was enough
Shaffer left Vietnam in April 1966 and returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Though the Marine Corps wanted him to remain in the service, he declined.
“I was offered reenlistment,” he said. “I figured if I reenlisted I would be heading right back over to Vietnam. Basically it was, ‘I’ve done it, I don’t need to do it again.’ I wanted to find out what I could do in the world. I actually got out and went to college.”
Shaffer attended a small college near his home town, and with help from the GI Bill, obtained a degree in data processing. He got married in 1978, and he and his wife lived near Hershey, Pennsylvania, where over the years, he worked in the computer field for the state and federal government as well as private industry. In 2004, the couple purchased a home and retired in Wyoming.
Shaffer has reflected on his service in the intervening years. “That is what we were trained for. We just did our jobs. I think most of us had the idea that if something happens, it is going to happen no matter what. It could have been bad but it wasn’t, so I just moved on. You appreciate things more. Once you are in combat you realize things can disappear in a heartbeat.”