NEW TOWN - Former crew members of the USS Arikara who served on the ship during the Vietnam War are on the Fort Berthold Reservation this week to meet members of the tribe that their ship was named.
The Arikara was a Navy ocean-going tug or fleet tug that saw service in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and also in peacetime.
Steve Ussery, of Wilmington, N.C., reunion organizer, said when they were serving on the USS Arikara, that he knew the ship was named for an American Indian tribe but did not have more information than that.
USS Arikara crew who served on the ship during the Vietnam War gathered for a photo Tuesday at the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge, west of New Town. Their ship was named for the Arikara tribe. From the left are: Ron Bennett, Bob Chady, Michael Lee, Tommy Flowers, Steve Ussery, Gene Abling and Tim Schulte. Pete Ward, the ship’s executive officer, had not arrived yet when this photo was taken.
"We knew that the tugs were named after tribes," Ussery said. But he said he didn't realize the Arikara tribe no longer existed. Then one night he was watching a show about George Armstrong Custer on PBS. "They were talking about Bloody Knife, scouts, and they were Arikaras, and they were the first to do that for the government," he said.
Ussery started searching the Internet for more information about the Arikaras. "I found the reservation and saw that they were here," he said.
After the group's 2009 reunion in Detroit, Ussery headed to North Dakota to visit Fort Berthold, where he spent a day with Marilyn Hudson, administrator of the Three Tribes Museum, and Austin Gillette, Vietnam veterans and former longtime Three Affiliated Tribes council member and former tribal chairman from White Shield. That visit started the plans for the USS Arikara reunion in North Dakota. Hudson coordinated events for the group on Fort Berthold.
Seven crew members met with the The Minot Daily News Tuesday afternoon at the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge, west of New Town, to talk about the ship and when they served on it.
Ussery, an electrician's mate on the ship, brought to North Dakota USS Arikara artifacts, including two sets of uniforms, pins and medals that he is donating to the cultural center in White Shield.
Bob Chady, of Exeland, Wis., was an electronic technician second class on the ship. "I think all of us were there in '69. There were some overlapping guys coming, guys leaving. That was my third tour. I was on that ship for most of 1969."
"It was the smallest ship the Navy put in the sea," Ussery added.
Chady said they were "in and out of Vietnam waters." The ship and its crew did a combination of rescue/salvage, towing as well as gathering intelligence.
"We're the only people that you'll ever meet that went head-to-head against the Soviets in the war zone. I like that fact, it's a very unique fact," Ussery added.
Ron Bennett, of Burlington, Iowa, had the job of machinery repair. However, he ended up being a fireman.
He said he remembers most that the Arikara was very small and "never a smooth ride. There were only one or two times I remember it being smooth."
Michael Lee, of Helena, Mont., was the ship's storekeeper. "We were everywhere," he recalled, adding that there was never down time for them.
"We depended on each other we're brothers. No one of us could have survived without the other," he added. "Some of us never went below deck, some of us never went above deck. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but it's where our work focused. For example, I was the storekeeper supply. So if we went into DaNang, I went and got supplies."
When they were at sea, they took turns on watch each day.
Tim Schulte, of Brownstown, Mich., was the lowest ranking member of the ship an electricians mate fireman.
"I was married a month and I went to the ship, and I was befriended by some friends that go back 42 years who I still touch base with and we've touched base every year since, per se," Schulte said.
"Reflecting on Lee's comments that they depended on each other, Schulte said, "Everybody counted on everybody. It was like a family it is a family."
Crew members recalled that at times the water was as smooth as glass, there was a full moon and they could see every star in the sky, and like another world. But for most of the time they were bobbing in the sea.
Tommy Flowers, of Laurel, Md., was the signalman. "That was visual communication. Officially, I spent most of my time on the bridge," he said.
Flowers and other crew members recalled that one day a swell went right over the top of the bridge.
Crew members said when there was a storm they were "all in the same boat, literally."
Gene Abling, of Arvada Colo., was an electrican on the ship "and I still am for 44 years," he said.
He remembers the crew members had the "ear" of the ship. "We always heard the same thing we always heard the shaft, we always heard propellors, we always heard pumps," he said.
"But I do remember we'd sit up in our racks (beds) from a dead, dead sleep if we didn't hear anything," he said.
Crew members said it was a real challenge to eat on the ship because they had to eat while the ship was rolling with the water. When the sea was really bad, they said they didn't eat, "We had sandwiches if you ate, but a lot of people could not eat," Ussery said.
"You had to take turns to throw up. This is the truth. We had a very small head (toilet)," he said.
Executive officer of the USS Arikara, Pete Ward, of Moorestown, N.J., joined the group Wednesday.
An open house was held for the crew members Tuesday afternoon in the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge.
On Wednesday, a ceremony to honor the crew members, with Gillette as emcee, was held in White Shield, home of the Arikara. The crew members received gifts from the Arikara people. The crew members also presented to Chief Robert Bear a ceremonial sword, a ship artifact.
Some crew members plan to attend the Nuxbaaga Celebration, the powwow south of Parshall that begins today. Others will be leaving to return to their homes.
"These are wonderful, warm people," one crew member said.
"And they're so patriotic, and we came home at such a bad time," Ussery said. He said when he came home from Vietnam he returned with shame.
He said he's learned since visiting Fort Berthold that when the Arikaras returned from Vietnam they came home to honor, and ceremonies were held for them by their people.
"In this process of getting to know the Arikaras and seeing how patriotic they are and how much they love this country, it's brought me full circle to where I am not ashamed. That's the beauty of this whole trip," Ussery said.
"The Arikara people and the Arikara sailors are a family and we did not know that before. And now that we are here, we met and we are brothers and sisters, and it is beautiful," Ussery said.