The Transylvania Times -

Vietnam Veteran Series: Lillard Oversaw Choppers From Okinawa's Deck

 

December 17, 2018

Lillard (right) helicoptered to Danang on his way to the communications center.

By Michel Robertson

The Vietnam War was in full force in the winter of 1964 when New Jersey natives Peter "Pete" Lillard and his best friend, seniors at Wake Forest University, decided to enlist in the Navy.

"We were getting our degrees in May and we didn't want to be drafted," Lillard said. "So, we enlisted in the Navy. My friend was hesitant, but later he thanked me profusely, saying that I probably saved his life."

The two young men attended OCS (Officer Candidate School) in Newport, R.I., and were commissioned as ensigns in November 1965. They then attended Communications School, adding another two months to their training. Lillard was assigned to the USS Okinawa, the second Iwo Jima class amphibious assault ship of the United States Navy, home ported in Norfolk, Va. In December 1966, the Okinawa was transferred to duty with the Amphibious Force in the Pacific Fleet. On Jan. 24, 1967, Lillard began the long journey to the South China Sea in Vietnam via the Panama Canal, San Diego, Hawaii, the Philippines and Okinawa.

The USS Okinawa

Lillard's cruise book, "Okinawa, LPH-3, West 67, describes the development of the concept of vertical assault as follows: "With the advent of nuclear weapons, military thinking of the past decades became obsolete. A powerful and highly mobile amphibious force was needed to operate under the threat of nuclear war. Thus, the concept of 'vertical assault' came into being. By this method, most of the assault troops would be taken from an Amphibious Assault Aircraft Carrier, by helicopter, to strategic positions behind enemy lines. Due to the range and speed of the helicopter, it was possible to separate the amphibious assault units and thus avoid the total destruction of the force by nuclear opposition. The high mobility of the craft made it possible for units separated for protection against atomic attack to be concentrated rapidly to meet conventional threats and win victory over enemy format-ions once contact was made.

"The new LPH (Landing Platform Helicopters) provided the command facilities, helicopter operating spaces, and helicopter control and maintenance facilities for assigned forces. Assuming her place in the formidable Pacific Fleet in 1967, the following months were to see Okinawa bringing her forces to bear against the enemy in Vietnam. Each time the Marines were landed, Okinawa stood ready in support of her troops ashore."

RPS Custodian and Signals Officer

The USS Okinawa carried a Navy crew of 500 – fifty officers, and about 3,500 Marines – as well as 24 single-blade H-34 helicopters, each of which could carry eight fully loaded troops. The ship performed an extremely important support function analogous to that of an aircraft carrier for its jet fighters. The helicopters, carried and maintained on the ship, lifted Marines and dropped them in strategic locations, sometimes behind enemy lines, in a relatively safe manner.

Lillard performed three important functions aboard the Okinawa, assisting in her mission: as RPS (Registered Publications System) custodian, signals officer, and OOD (officer of the deck). As RPS custodian, he carried out special functions in connection with communication security and communication and electronic intelligence.

"I had a big safe, the size of a small office," Lillard said. "All lined with key lists and crypto gear and an Adonis coding machine."

Key lists enabled the decoding of messages and were changed daily. Lillard helicoptered to Danang every four to six weeks, where he signed for new key lists and other classified documents, carrying them back to the Okinawa in a locked briefcase. Each transmission of code and documents was carefully logged so that "Lillard always knew the disposition of the materials.

The key pads (a pad of key lists) and other classified materials were kept in the safe. Every day Lillard would remove the old key list from the teletype machine and insert a new one. A "burn bag" contained outdated information.

"I would go down to the bowels of the ship where there was a furnace, always accompanied by another officer," he said. "We both signed a document describing what I threw into the furnace to make sure everything was accounted for."

In his role as signals officer, Lillard oversaw communication with other ships using visual methods such as flag hoists (where various combinations of brightly colored flags and pennants are hoisted to send messages), signal lights and flag waving.

Officer of the Deck

The officer of the deck (OOD) is the direct representative of the captain during a certain watch, responsible for the ship during that period. At sea, the officer of the deck is stationed on the bridge and is in charge of navigation and the safety of the ship, unless relieved by the captain or a senior qualified line officer.

"The captain tells you where he wants to go and the OOD looks at the chart compass and gives the helmsman the directions – 'right full rudder, 'steady to course 009,' and so forth. When you get there, the OOD maneuvers the ship so it stays where it's supposed to be," he said. "We typically increased speed and made an oval course, maintaining it until all the helicopters had returned. This was necessary to put enough wind over the deck, so they could land more easily than if the ship were still.

"While on the bridge during transporting the Marines ashore, I would listen to the chatter of the helicopter pilots. They'd announce, 'we're getting incoming fire, we're going up or right of left, we have to get out of here,' etc. It was both fascinating and horrific," he said. "One time a helicopter got hit badly with machine gun fire. The pilot made it back, but several rounds had gone into the cockpit. They started bouncing around, off the glass, which didn't break. One hit him on the helmet right at his temple piercing his helmet and nicking his skin. A little drop of blood was running down his face when he climbed out of the helicopter. He was ecstatic. He was a pretty lucky guy!"

"We picked up a lot of injuries at night," said Lillard. "The ward room showed nightly movies to Marine and Navy officers. Frequently the movie was interrupted with a message coming over the 1MC, 'medevac, medevac, pilot on duty come to the flight deck right away.' When that was announced, the three or four Marine officers on duty would jump up and the other Marine officers would jokingly ask them, 'If you don't come back, can I have your radio?'"

When the ship was steaming out in the ocean, the OOD watches were typically four hours each day.

"That stopped when we were in a landing operation," said Lillard. "During those periods, when more activity was occurring on the bridge, we stood two watches a day, for example 12 to 4 in the afternoon and midnight to 4 in the morning."

During Lillard's tour in Vietnam, the Okinawa participated in eight landings off the South China Sea. These landing operations dropped Marines in locations from the DMZ to an area south of Danang.

The Navy crew performed indispensable support for the Marines who carried out the landings. Several of the Okinawa's landings included "Bear Bite," a search and destroy mission near Hue ("way"), an infiltration route used by North Vietnamese troops; "Beaver Cage," a 15-day search and destroy operation which disrupted enemy claims to territory 25 miles south of Danang; and, "Beacon Gate," Okinawa's sixth amphibious assault through an area known to be a Viet Cong stronghold. The fact that the Okinawa was available as a floating base made these operations possible.

Underway Replenishment

Having to remain on station for long periods of time depleted the Okinawa's fuel supply and required that they receive underway replenishment of oil, water and supplies, rendezvousing with a tanker at sea. Lillard was one of four officers who stood OOD during these refueling operations. Underway replenishment is risky since the two ships must hold to precisely the same course and speed for a long period of time. A slight steering error on the part of one of the ships could cause a collision or separate the transfer lines and fuel hoses. Thus, the refueling team was a highly specialized detail. Experienced and qualified crews were required during this process, paying constant attention to the ship's course and speed.

The ship's captain usually assumed the responsibility of steering the ship during refueling operations, often on the wing of the bridge in order to get a better view of the gap between the two ships. He would yell instructions to Lillard who would relay them to the helmsman on the bridge.

Lillard recalled one particularly tense refueling. The Okinawa, as the guide ship, was supposed to maintain course and speed while the tanker adjusted its course and speed to sustain the proper tension in the connecting oil hose.

"For some reason, the tanker was having difficulty staying abreast of us," Lillard said. "He would get back 3-4 yards, causing more tension, or he'd move forward a few yards. The result could have been either separating the hose or collision."

In this instance, the captain was so far on the right wing of the bridge that he was looking at the compass at an angle that indicated compass degrees off by several degrees. The result was that the ships were moving closer together. Lillard recognized what was happening and walked over to the captain, quietly explaining that he was reading the compass incorrectly because of the angle. The captain moved back to where he could observe the compass directly and the replenishment was completed successfully.

Back in the US

Lillard's reception in San Diego was not as confrontational as those received by his Army and Marine comrades in arms. However, he noted "you didn't want to talk about your military experience with strangers. There would always be someone who took umbrage with what was going on in Vietnam. I grew my hair back as quickly as possible."

Recovery of Apollo Six

The USS Okinawa was the prime recovery ship for the Apollo 6 unmanned space mission. On April 4, 1968, Lillard watched as the spacecraft command module was hoisted aboard, 375 nautical miles North of Honolulu, Hawaii.

"The module landed fairly close to the ship – helicopters got to it within minutes," he said. "It was fascinating to be on the bridge and listen to NASA bigwigs talking to the captain about the mission, and their concerns and plans for future manned flights."

Lillard left the Navy in the winter of 1968 and remembers being glued to the television as the country witnessed the violence and protests against the Vietnam War, which occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Minesweepers off the Coast of New Jersey

Several years later, the ocean again called to Lillard. After some research, he learned that the United States Naval Reserve operated two minesweepers out of Perth Amboy, just an hour's drive from his New Jersey home. For the next five years, he joined local reserve crews one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, conducting periodic exercises up and down the east coast, from Rhode Island to South Carolina. Lillard was promoted to Lt. Commander by the time he left the service, including reserve time.

After the Navy, Lillard enjoyed a financial career in trust administration, where he met his wife, Marjorie, who was the daughter of one of his clients.

Today, the couple enjoys the activities of their five children and 11 grandchildren. Lillard loves the game of golf, although he admits he's playing less these days. His hobby is building and shooting the flintlock musket, the most important weapon of the Revolutionary War.

Lessons of Vietnam

The Apollo 6 command module is brought aboard the USS Okinawa.

When asked what his experiences in the Navy and Vietnam have taught him, Lillard said, "I think everyone should serve in the military for at least six months.

You learn accountability and time management. You also learn to lead by example. If you do the right thing, people under you tend to do the right thing.

"When I was in Vietnam, and when I first got home, I thought it was good to be there. As I get older, I'm not as sure. We lost more than 58,000 American lives."

In collaboration with writer Michel Robertson and the WNC Military History Museum, the Transylvania Times will publish an article once every two weeks on a local veteran who served in Vietnam.

 
 

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