JUST AN OL' FLAG
copyright Sam Elmore


She wasn't much of a Navy vessel to begin with. A minor relative of the U.S. Navy fleets that roam the oceans of the free world (for the purpose of keeping 'em that way). She was way, way down on the back-end of 'importance'; (sort of like that old saying about a bastard-first-cousin-at-a-family-reunion.)

But, insignificant as she may have been, she was my vessel. Well, at least she was one of mine. I had more than two hundred Navy vessels under my responsibility; there in Vietnam in '67; all different kinds, shapes and sizes of vessels.

Legend has it that a vessel is 'alive', as long as there are sailors to man and operate her. Navy vessels are always called 'her' and 'she'---never as 'he'. Why 'she'? Well, tradition has it that it's because of all the powder and paint. It takes so much powder (to shoot the guns) and paint (to keep her from rusting) that they are just naturally referred to as 'she'. (Honest, I didn't make that up. That's what is known as 'hard sayings'...they've been around for years.)

When this particular vessel sank off the east coast of the island of An Thoi, in South Vietnam, she struggled and tried; but when the full force of three Kilos of explosives from the sapper charge exploded in her guts, there wasn't much she could do but struggle...and finally sink. Two American sailors went down with her. Maybe that was why she struggled so hard...to delay the inevitable; but in the end, she had to give up.

The surface of the water over the sunken vessel was like glass, until the chopper I was riding hovered over the site and stirred the surface like broken mirror reflections of a surrealist painting. I waved the pilot off, and we proceeded to the landing pad not far from where the vessel lay upright on the bottom, in three fathoms of water. She was clearly visible from aloft, as if she were just taking a short rest before getting on with the business at hand.

The most striking thing, down on the vessel from aloft, was the current had her flag streamed to the full, as if the vessel were still underway. The contrast between the light green of the salt water and the dark tint of the olive drab camouflage paint, made the the red, white and blue of the flag very brilliant, as it waved there underwater. "I'll have me that flag", I vowed to myself.
The Huey helicopter settled onto it's skids, butt first, on the perforated steel Marston mat landing pad. It had been two weeks since the vessel sank. The remains of the two young sailors had been recovered and, in the normal course of things military, had been forwarded towards home.

I was here to determine if there was anything possible in the way of salvage, in view of placing the vessel back in service. My first few hours on site were dedicated to paperwork, after which I took a shower, changed into clean fatigues, and went for a walk on the talcum-powder beach. My only intention was a break from the paperwork, and to stretch the kinks from the long chopper ride. That's why I was surprised, an hour later, to find that my unguided boots had brought me around the cove, to the point where I now stood...near the vessels resting place.

She lay about thirty feet from the shore where I stood. I knew that it was twelve feet from the vessel's keel to the top of the mast. The depth of the water where she lay on the bottom was eighteen feet. My heart said: 'the flag is only five or six feet beneath the surface. You can do it. Why not?' My head answered: "Because you can't swim, idiot!'

To my life-long chagrin, I have never learned how to swim. I float real good, especially in salt water; and I've never been afraid of the water. (One doesn't spend a quarter of a century at sea being afraid of the water.) I knew if I thought about it too long, I'd never do it; so, disengaging my brain, I shucked out of my fatigues and waded, naked, into the water.

When the water level reached my Adams-apple, I turned over and floated on my back, and began using my hands beside my hips like fish fins. Papa used to do that when he would take us kids swimming; even though he could swim like a fish. He said he had learned the sculling maneuver from watching a largemouth bass under a bridge one time.

When I was directly over the vessel, I took half-a-dozen deep breaths and dove beneath the surface. The salt burned my eyes unmercifully, even though I had mentally prepared for it. On the first dive, I was able to get a grip on the top of the mast and, hand-under-hand, I 'climbed' down the mast to the bottom snap-swivel of the flag's halyard. I unsnapped it and came up for air.

I floated there on my back for a little bit, resting, as I gazed up at cotton-candy puffs of white clouds above me. On the second dive, the top snap-swivel yielded on my first attempt, and I floated again while I piled the surprisingly heavy flag onto my chest, and "bassed" my way back to the beach.

I squeezed all the water I could out of the flag and spread it on the sand to dry. It was obvious the flag had seen a lot of service, snapping in the breeze while the vessel was underway. The end of the flag was hemless and badly frayed, with several rips extending into the stripes. It had obviously been a long cruise for this ol' flag.

When the sun had dried my body, I got back into my fatigues and idled around, waiting for the flag to dry. An hour before dark, I folded the flag, slipped it under my fatigue jacket, and trudged back to my temporary quarters.

Some months later, my tour of duty in 'Nam was completed. The Air Force Customs Inspector, in the departure area of Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon, was pawing through my carry-on luggage. He pulled out the flag.

"What's this, Dai Oui?" (Vietnamese for Captain)

"It's just an ol' flag".

"Sir, ever think about getting you a new one? This thing has just about had it!"

"Naw... I'll just hang onto this one, Sar'nt,"

Several weeks after I returned Stateside, I went to visit one of my big brothers, at his fishing camp on the lake. He had been in the 7th Cavalry at the end of WWII, and had gone into the Marine Corps when the Korean war broke out. After a fine catfish supper, we sat out on the porch, jawing about old times. I got up and went inside. Taking the flag from my parachute bag, I went out and handed it to my brother.

"What's this, then?"

"Just an ol' flag", I said; then I told him about how it came to be here on his porch.

He unfolded the flag, looked it over real good, then held it up to his nose and smelled the dried salt. Without a word, he got up and went inside. I heard him opening drawers and raking things around, as I sat on the porch and watched the sun set beyond the lake, through the veil of Spanish moss on the cypress trees at the water's edge.

Pretty soon, I heard big brother with his hammer. After he was done, he rejoined me on the porch and we sat...two of seven brothers, together after a long separation. No conversation was really necessary between us. The mosquitoes finally drove us inside. Later when I went to my bed, I saw that the flag had been affixed to the wall above my bed.

And there it stayed for several years. Then, a flood wiped out the camp; lock, stock, barrel...and flag; all gone. My brother built a new camp on the same site, where it remains to this time. The flag had survived the first sinking; but the second one took it away...forever. It had done an exemplary job in it's time; both in Southeast Asia and later in Southwest Mississippi. A real fine job...considering that it was just an ol' flag.