Richard Hartley served 2 tours aboard USS Mathews, AKA-96, off coast of Vietnam

Until he sailed for Vietnam in 1967 aboard the USS Mathews, AKA-96, Richard Hartley of Port Charlotte, Fla. was a 21 year-old auto worker making Jeeps at Ford’s giant Rouge industrial complex in Dearborn, Mich.

He joined the Naval Reserve about the time he got out of high school and made two six month cruises to the Southeast Asian war zone as a seaman and eventually a boatswains-mate on the 459-foot-long attack transport.

“We left California with a ship load of military supplies that we off loaded at Da Nang harbor in Vietnam,” the 67-year-old former sailor explain. “Over there we spent much of our time taking ammunition up and down the coast.”

Hartley also served as a coxswain aboard a 40-foot landing craft. He was the seaman at the wheel of the LCM. It had a bow ramp that dropped down when it hit the beach to let the Marines charge into battle. They carried 23 landing crafts aboard the Mathews.

“When we first arrived in Vietnam we took beer ashore for the Marines. We lost one case of beer while moving it on shore,” he recalled with a smile. “By morning we had lost a whole pallet of beer that was sitting up on the dock. It was a big deal. They brought in security, but they never found the missing beer.

“As we were unloading some of our other cargo we watched one of our fighter planes crash into Da Nang Harbor. It had apparently been hit by enemy fire somewhere else and was attempting to land,” Hartley said. “A couple of our landing craft rescued the pilot. He wanted nothing to do with us because he said he was headed home in four hours.

“One night we were unloading napalm out of the hold of our ship when the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) or the Vietcong started firing at us with mortars from up in the hills surrounding the harbor. They weren’t very accurate, but I was still a little nervous,” he said.

After their first six months at sea off the coast of Vietnam the crew of the USS Mathews was replaced by her sister ship. They sailed back to their home port of Long Beach, Calif.

When they returned to the war in Vietnam, Hartley and the crew of AKA-96 accompanied a battleship along the coast as she pounded enemy emplacements with shells from her 16-inch main guns.

“I think it was the battleship New Jersey we ran along the coast with for several nights, but I’m not sure,” he said. “They were noisy nights. Her 16-inch guns were big.”

As part of the “Gator Fleet,” what they were called over there, the crew of the Mathews was given a weeks shore leave at a time. Once they visited Honolulu and three times his ship sailed into the port of Hong Kong for R & R.

On one of their trips to Hong Kong they provided the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV-64) with ship to shore transportation for most of its 2,500 sailors.

“The carrier was anchored just outside the port of Hong Kong and we gave the crew ferry service. I think we did this for 10 days. We were 20 hours on and four off for 10 days. We were very tired by the time we got through,” Hartley said.

The USS Mathews (AKA-96) was an attack transport built at the end of World War II and used throughout the Vietnam War. The 459-foot-long ship transported men and equipment to enemy shores in the Pacific and deposited them on the enemy beach with the 23 landing craft it carried. Photo provided

The USS Mathews (AKA-96) was an attack transport built at the end of World War II and used throughout the Vietnam War. The 459-foot-long ship transported men and equipment to enemy shores in the Pacific and deposited them on the enemy beach with the 23 landing craft it carried. Photo provided

A typhoon was the most exciting thing that happened to him on his second cruise to Vietnam.

“We sailed out of Da Nang Harbor about the time the storm hit. We spent three days out in the open sea fighting the storm,” he said. “Thirty to 40 foot waves were breaking over the Mathews’ bow. I had never seen waves like this in my life.

“At the time I was one of three guys the captain designated to steer the ship. He picked us because we were good at the helm. When we got back into Hong Kong after the storm we got extra liberty because we did such a good job of steering the ship.”

It was during his final tour off the coast of Vietnam, a serious fire broke out in the ship’s hole. Some how the hemp landing nets the Mathews carried caught fire and smoldered below deck causing the fire control system to activate.

“For four hours we fought the fire. I was the guy down in the hole with the two-inch fire hose pouring water on the fire,” he said. “After I went through two bottles of oxygen for my mask I was replaced down there by someone else.”

The blaze caused no serious damage to the ship.

Toward the end of his second tour aboard AKA-96, Hartley received word his father had died back home in Michigan. He was granted leave and flew home for his funeral.

He rejoined the crew of the transport 45 days later when it returned to its home port of Long Beach. A short time later he was discharged from the Naval Reserve and continued life as a civilian.

“I returned to Ford, where I had worked, before I went to Vietnam. For the next 38 years I worked at ‘The Rouge,’ Ford’s giant auto complex in Dearborn, Mich. until I retired and my wife, Carol and I, moved down to Port Charlotte in 2005,” Hartley said. The couple has two grown daughters:  Jennifer and Jamie.

Hartley’s File

Richard Hartley is pictured at 67 at home in Port Charlotte. Sun photo by Don MooreName:  Richard Wilson Hartley
D.O.B: 23 May 1946
Hometown:  Highland Park, Mich.
Currently:  Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service:  Naval Reserves in Jan. 25, 1967 to Great Lakes for basic
Discharged:  25 Oct. 1971
Rank:  E-4
Unit:  USS Mathews
Commendations:  Vietnam Service Medal w/1 Bronze Star, Vietnam Campaign Medal w/Devices, National Defense Service Medal
Battles/Campaigns:  Vietnam

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, July 24, 2013 and is republished with permission.

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  1. I was on the ship USS Mathews during the same era and was a crew member on the sm boats which went up the perfume river.The story of the missing beer brings back fond memories since I remember I was one of the lucky men who got to drink the beer while being part of the crew running up the river.
    I also was one of the crew who pulled the downed fighter pilot out of Danang harbour.The capt had a ceremony on the fan tail of the ship and I received a letter of accomodation as being one of the crew who directly pulled the fighter pilot out of the water in Danang harbour.

    Living and working on that ship was not fun at all !!!!! We are talking a ship built in 1944
    Between many fires on board and the ship breaking down in the middle of the ocean having to deploy our smaller boats to tow the ship to try and make the next port on time was nerve racking to say the least.There is a good chance I was on the same mike boat with Richard Regards seaman Terry Judge ps I have photos of many of these events

    • Finding this article was a miracle. Reading it brought back so many memories. Terry I was on the Papa boat with you, the ships Dr., Lt Prawl, Keplinger, ships PC & the coxswain the day we were all going ashore to Da Nang to pick up supplies for the ship. I remember it was early morning and looking over to see the plane hit the water and then the parachute.
      I still have the commendation letter hanging on my wall. I’ve got the pictures. You even took some of me during the fan tail presentation. I remember the fire in one of the holds. Capt. Bachert’s cherry wood furniture that he bought in Hong Kong went up in flames. It always remained a mystery as to how or why it started. But the general consensus was that no one liked the Capt. and someone put a torch to it. Merely speculation I’m sure. I also remember the time outside Subic when all the generators went out. It was so hot below everyone had to sleep topside. Yes who can disagree that Ol’ Ma Mathews was a heap.
      But with all it’s boils and sores I was saddened during the decommissioning ceremonies in San Diego. I think some were not there due to the which hunt held onboard. Some of the guys were kicked off because of smoking pot. Can’t remember who though. They do much worse nowadays. So many memories. To many to list here.
      Thanks Richard for writing this article. A Navy “Well Done” to you.
      Storekeeper SN Rick Franco

      • Hey Rick good to hear your post !!! I also have the letter and photo I assume you took it of myself recieving the letter on the fantail while we were underway. Would love to contact you if you like !!!!Its veterans day tomorrow email me terryhotshoe@yahoo or go to facebook im on there now looking forward to hearing from a fellow shipmate and friend.

      • Hi Rick, I”m Jack Andrews from Hereford Texas. I was in Supply division on the Mathews at the time of the fire. I worked in the office buying supplies and such for the ships store. The sailor who ran the ships store was named Ojeda. I remember our supply officer name being Titus. We called him the nerve. He would come in our office and see what we were doing and light a smoke at each desk. When leaving he would have at least 4 going. If I remember right, the captian restricted the ship from liberty. somewhere. I still think that caused the fire. From the Mathews I transfered to the Navaro, and my last tour was on the USS Alamo LSD 33. When the Mathews arived in Long Beach the last time I had leave and came back to the Navaro. I remember the New Jersey firing while we were on line. I also remember the Mathews being one of the slowest thing I was ever on. A good bicycle could leave it in your dust. I worked in the ships laundry for a while which was 3 or 4 degrees cooler than hell. All in and done, I would not take a million dollars for the time and memories of the Navy. I would not give 2 dollars to do it again. God bless the USA.

  2. I was on board the same time. Remember delivering Budweiser to the DMZ bases. A lot of pallet loads broke and was returned to the hold. Later supplied the ships party on the Long Beach breakwater moorage before the ship left for decommissioning at San Diego. Remember the trip where we supplied airstrip matting to construct Marine airstrips at the DMZ. Also remember running liberty boats for the Connie. I was a ETR3 and since we couldn’t run radars, had a week off in Hong Kong. I remember standing watch at Danang, having to worry about Viet Cong swimmers that were attaching mines to cargo ships…stressful watches. Liberty in Kaoshiung Taiwan where everybody loaded up with 19 cent record albums and cheap books.

    • Terry, Great read. Really enjoyed it. Wow, I don’t remember this guy but he hit the nail on the head.

      Hope you’re doing well. Thanks,

      Rick Franco’s IPad


  3. Hey Jack,
    Good hearing from you! Enjoyed reading your comments. If you can let me know an email address.
    I’ve got some pics of you. I think you’ll get a kick out of them

  4. Just to clear up the misconception about the boats: the Mathews had 16 boats aboard. There were 10 LCMs, 4 LCVPs, 1 LCPL and 1 Captain’s gig.
    About the fire in #1 hold: there were, in addition to the Captain’s fancy dining room furniture, about a dozen motorcycles that had been purchased by crew members in Yokosuka. Mine was a Honda 305 Super Hawk. I had the con while the Flying Fire Squad was fighting the fire. From the starboard wing of the bridge I could see all the charred pieces of the captain’s precious furniture floating by as the fire fighters tossed it over the side. I was somewhat worried that I would be seeing charred motorcycles going over the side, but the fire had been well set (I mean we were lucky) and only the captain’s stuff was burned.
    Mike Salisbury, Navigator

  5. OH YEA, Liberty in Kaoshiung Taiwan, is probably the best thing about being stationed on the USS Mathews. I remember the fire for sure and the real General Quarters in Danang. Everyone was in their underwear and trying like mad to lower the ramp and get the hell out of there. Shortly after that, I got the great idea that I wanted to go back to Danang and load supplies to the ships that came in but luck has it I didn’t specify the duty and the Navy sent me to River Patrol boats training in California and the next thing I knew I was a gunner on the rear of a gunboat going up these small rivers to set ambushes at night. Never saw Danang again.
    I remember the pot smokers because the NIS came on board and woke everyone up from a dead sleep and started opening lockers.
    Man pot was falling out of those lockers like it was snowing. Ha
    We worked hard on that ship, I was on the hook, can’t remember what hole I worked. Does anyone remember the old 3rd class boatswains Mate that ran the show on this ship? Memories!
    Oh well gotta go,
    Ben Phillips

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