NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — Fires were raging and ammunition supplies were exploding during an enemy attack on a Navy base in Vietnam when William Carr ordered his Coast Guard patrol boat ashore to respond to the mayhem on March 10, 1968.
"This is stupid. You are going to die," Carr remembered thinking about that day he ran into the ammunition storage area amid the blazes looking for a missing Navy man, whom he would not find.
Carr was a 24-year-old lieutenant junior grade at the time, commanding the 82-foot patrol boat Point Arden and a crew of 10 other Coast Guardsmen. He led efforts to put out the fires, secure ammunition stockpiles and get medical assistance to the scene, where six to nine servicemen died and 98 others injured. He would be awarded the Bronze Star for his actions.
For 47 years, Carr, 72, never uttered a word about what happened that day — not even to his wife Judy, as he suffered what he believes was post-traumatic stress disorder. He finally started telling people about it in May, after officials at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, told him they were honoring him for his bravery and service.
Carr, now a resident of Davenport, Iowa, recounted his and his crew's response to the base fire on Friday in a packed auditorium at the Coast Guard Academy, which honored him with a plaque that was placed on the Wall of Gallantry in the school's Hall of Heroes. Carr graduated from the academy in 1965.
"Heroism is not something for which you train," Carr told more than 900 cadets and others gathered for the ceremony, which also honored three other academy graduates. "Rather, what happens is we sometimes are confronted with extraordinary circumstances. We do our duty. And sometimes people recognize that as heroism."
One of Carr's crew members from Vietnam, Gordon Landon, made the trip from his home in Beaverton, Oregon, to see his former commander receive the honor. It was the first time they had seen each other since the war. Three of the Point Arden's 11 crew members have died.
Academy officials said it's not widely known that the Coast Guard served in Vietnam, as well as in all of the nation's conflicts since its founding in 1790.
The 1968 attack happened at the Naval Support Activity Detachment along the Cua Viet River, a short distance from the South China Sea and just south of the demilitarized zone separating North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The base was struck by artillery fire from the North Vietnamese Army.
Several buildings caught fire, as well as stacks of pallets containing food, shells and illumination flares. Supplies of ammunition were exploding. Carr ordered a vessel loaded with ammunition towed away from the fires.
"Were we frightened? You bet your butt we were," Carr said. "We just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time."
One explosion rocked the Arden and blew out its windows.
"It was all very confusing after that," Carr said. "Every one of the crew members took matters into their own hands. It was incredible how they all did their duty."
Carr, a former banker who started a computer software company with his wife, said he hid his trauma-related problems when he returned to civilian life, including troubles being sociable, because that's what he thought veterans were supposed to do.
"I didn't realize how much trauma I had buried inside," Carr said about finally opening up about his war experiences. "I was honored to be in Vietnam. It changed my life."