Shelly Berryman of North Port, Fla. started out not wanting anything to do with the Vietnam War. However, before the conflict was over he was in the thick of it flying 1st Infantry Division troops into battle in a Huey helicopter.
After graduating from high school he decided to go to junior college in Riverside, Calif. That was a bad mistake on his part because he wasn’t ready for college. The best he can say about his first attempt at higher education, Berryman played on the school’s varsity baseball team. Then he signed a contract to play minor league ball with the Cincinnati Reds’ minor league Tampa Tarpons.
“The next spring, in ’64, I got injured playing ball in Tampa with the Tarpons. I was given a release and $150 to fly home,” the 68-year-old recalled 50 years later. “I had no skills, no college and no minor league baseball connection. I knew people were being drafted and I didn’t want to go to Vietnam.
“I was 20-years old and I decided to join the Merchant Marines to stay out of the draft. While going through the induction process with the Merchant Marines I was asked about my draft status. When I told them I was ‘1-A,’ I was told: ‘We can’t take you in the Merchant Marines with an A-1 status.'”
Although he couldn’t get in the Merchant Marines Berryman somehow managed to get a Merchant Marine card saying he had membership.
“I hitchhiked to Long Beach, Calif., went to the Merchant Marine union hall and presented my card. I told them I wanted to go to sea right away. The next day I was assigned to an old World War II Victory ship, the SS Ames, headed for Southeast Asia.
“Several days later, as the Ames sailed into the open Pacific, I ask one of the other crew-members where we were going. He told me to go to the ship’s library and check out the map on the wall.
“I found out we were sailing for Vietnam and it was 8,000 miles from where we just left. It took us three weeks to get there,” he said. “We dropped anchor in Da Nang Harbor. The Navy came out and took the four river boats lashed to our deck.
“From there we sailed to Binh Chau, a French colonial beach resort near the Saigon River. We spent the next 35 days anchored off shore waiting our turn to unload our cargo on the dock at Saigon.
“We finally sailed up the Saigon River. I was staining on a hatch cover looking for beautiful French girls along the beach when a sailor aboard our ship pulled me off the deck. He explained I was going to get shot by a Vietcong sniper. I had no idea, everything looked so beautiful and tropical,” Berryman said.
When the Ames arrived at dockside it was carrying three types of cargo: trucks, Jeeps and beer. The freighter was a big hit with the locals.
“When we arrived at the Port of Saigon, Vietnamese longshoremen took over unloading our ship. We could do nothing,” he said. “They put the beer in cargo nets and every second cargo net full of beer they dropped on the dock. When that happened 100 people would come out of a nearby warehouse and scoop up all the beer, then they’d disappear.
“When we finally got off our ship later that night I ended up walking down Cholon Street, the heart of Saigon’s ‘Red Light District.’ A couple of us started drinking beer and I didn’t realize there was an 11 p.m. curfew. The Navy Shore Patrol found me at 3 a.m. wondering around the district drunk and lost. They drove me back to my ship.”
When he sobered up the next day Berryman learned being drunk and lost in the Cholon District wasn’t the smartest thing to do. One might get killed doing stuff like that.
Three days later he and the Ames sailed for Yokohama, Japan.
“When we arrived I immediately went AWOL. I knew I would probably never get to Yokohama again. I wanted to see the town and check out the people,” he explained. “I got myself a big fancy dinner, bought an amethyst ring for my wife and returned to the Ames with a shipboard buddy. I was immediately called up to the captain’s quarters.
“The skipper wanted to know where I was all day. I told him it was probably my first and only chance to see Yokohama and I didn’t want to miss it. The captain let me off light. He docked me half a day’s pay for going AWOL.”
On the return trip from Yokohama to Honolulu, Berryman fell below deck and injured his back. He ended up in the hospital in Honolulu. His injures were severe enough to get him discharged from the Ames. He flew home to California.
“By then I had just turned 21. I was summoned to the LA Draft Board. When I arrived with my letter from the doctor at the Honolulu hospital, the service didn’t want me and they sent me home,” he said. “I was happy.”
He ended up driving a truck for Union Oil Co. in Rialto, Calif.
“It was at this point my wife’s favorite cousin, a second lieutenant in Vietnam, was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the head. At the same time, some of my buddies from school were coming back from Vietnam in body bags. Others were returning from war with serious injuries.
“I knew I had to do something, so I went down to LA again and signed up for the service. I never told them about my back problem. It was 1967 and I wanted to train to be a helicopter pilot, but I was told my test scores weren’t high enough. I also flunked out of radar repair school after 27 weeks,” he explained.
Just by chance, one of his buddies worked in the Army personnel department. When Berryman told him what happened to him, his friend cut Berryman orders for helicopter school. No problem.
“On Feb. 17, 1967 my wife, daughter and I reported to Fort Walters, Texas to begin five months of preliminary helicopter flight school. After that I went to Fort Rucker, Ala. for advanced helicopter training,” he said.
“Then I had to report to Oakland Army Air Terminal to ship out for Vietnam. When I arrived I was transitioned into a ‘Loach’ OH-6. It was a little helicopter I flew the first couple of months I was over there.
“They needed Huey pilots, so I switched back to Hueys. I was sent to the 1st Infantry Division to fly their troops into battle. I spent the last four months of my tour in Company A, 2nd Platoon, 1st Infantry Division.”
What Berryman remembers most about his time in Vietnam is the Battle of An Loc, South Vietnam.
“It was a big battle. With the help of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army), the VC (Vietcong) and the Americans we destroyed the entire village. We blew up the place and left,” he said. “Then we’d go somewhere else and do the same thing all over again. We’d move out of the second place we just destroyed and the NVA and VC would move back in. We held no ground in Vietnam. It was an absolutely stupid strategy.”
After three years in the Army, Warrant Officer Shelly Berryman was discharged on Aug. 29, 1970. He returned to California, where his wife and two young daughters lived. and went on with life as a civilian.
Shelly Berryman served aboard U.S. spy ship searching for Russian subs
Second of two parts
More than a decade after he returned as a chopper pilot from the war in Vietnam, Shelly Berryman of North Port, Fla. had a yearning to go to sea. He signed up once more with the Merchant Marines just to see the sea again, get out of Dodge and check out what the rest of the world was doing.
The Merchant Marines initially stopped him from becoming a rifle toter in Vietnam in the 1960s. He bombed his freshman year in junior college and had also been dropped by the Cincinnati Reds minor league baseball club, the Tampa Tarpons.
Just before the draft board’s long arm reached out and plucked him out of civilian obscurity, Berryman was forced to drop out of the Merchant Marines and sign up for the draft. Although they didn’t take him, because of injuries sustained at sea and while playing baseball, he finally volunteered to fly helicopters in Vietnam after a number of his friends were killed and wounded in the Southeast Asian war.
It was mid-1980s when he went back to sea again after joining the Merchant Marines. This time he served aboard a Navy spy ship in Honolulu.
“I spent six months in a Navy ship searching for Russian submarines in the middle of the Pacific,” the 68-year-old former chopper pilot and Merchant Mariner said. “She was called the USNS Indomitable. The ship was 245-feet-long with a crew of 32.
“There was a secret room aboard the ship filled with Motorola spy equipment. The only people that went inside that room were special people who did all the listening for enemy subs,” Berryman explained. “We were out searching for Russian subs more than any other ship in the fleet. One time we were out 96 days straight and ran out of food.
“At one point my buddy and I were on deck when a Russian helicopter appeared out of no where. For 30 minutes it hovered above us taking pictures of our ship,” Berryman recalled. “The gunners on the Russian chopper were wearing bright orange flight suits. There was even a woman behind one of those machine-guns wearing an orange flight suit.
“‘Don’t you think we should get below deck before these bastards start shooting? I said to my buddy. “We went below deck and the Russian helicopter flew off.”
Later Berryman and the rest of the crew was in the Sea of Japan, between Japan and China, when a Russian ship spent a week off their starboard bow watching and waiting.
“At the end of the week the Russian ship sideswiped our ship and took off. Our captain called the Navy and reported the ship collision. The Navy scrambled two jet fighters that went looking for the Russian vessel.
“The next thing I knew the two Navy fighters were chasing the Russian ship while it’s hauling tail,” he said. “I don’t know whatever happened to the Russian ship.”
Berryman had spent six months as the purser aboard the Indomitable. By then he had had maritime adventures aplenty.
“When my ship returned to Yokohama, Japan I got off, flew home to North Port and never went to sea again,” he said. “I went to work as a carpenter and eventually began building custom homes in the area. A little later I opened my own real estate office in North Port.”
After returning from the Vietnam War in 1970, Berryman took the G.I. Bill and went back to the California junior college he had flunked out of a decade earlier. The second time around he did well in college and received his AA Degree.
He and his wife and their children moved to Coos Bay, Org. where he started his own air conditioning business. After five years of living in the cold northwest Berryman had had enough. He moved to North Port where his parents lived and it was warmer.
Ever since his days in Vietnam, he has been involved in veterans’ organizations. He is a life member of the Disabled American Veterans and was the commander of his DAV post in Coos.
“After moving to Florida I decided to reopen my veterans claim. The Veterans Administration classified me 50 percent disabled after I crashed my Huey helicopter in Vietnam. In November 1997 I was classified 100 percent disabled, 27 years after I filed my first claim with the VA,” Berryman said proudly.
For decades he has lived on a secluded 3 1/4 acre tract out east of I-75 in North Port off Tropicaire Boulevard. These days he lives on his VA pension and Social Security.
“I think my three years of service flying helicopters during the Vietnam War entitles me to the VA pension I get from the government,” Berryman concluded.
Name: Shelly Rue Berryman
D.O.B: 17 Feb. 1945
Hometown: Orlando, Fla.
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 16 June 1969
Discharged: 29 Aug. 1970
Rank: Warrant Officer I
Unit: 1st Infantry Division
Commendations: National Defense Service medal, Vietnam Service medal, Vietnam Campaign medal, Overseas Service bar, Air Medal 2/Awards, Army Aviator’s Badge
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of An Loc
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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