Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Perils of Reliance on Memory: A Personal Experience

In TIGHAR’s investigation of the Earhart mystery, we’re skeptical of anecdotal evidence – what people say they remember seeing or experiencing. Some others who have pursued answers to the mystery have based their conclusions almost solely on such evidence; the various permutations on the Japanese capture hypothesis are virtually entirely built on anecdote.
I’ve just had a personal experience that illustrates how unreliable memory can be, and I think it’s worth reporting.

On November 1, 1963, the government of South Viet Nam, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, was overthrown in a coup d’etat widely thought to have been backed by the CIA. The coup is regarded as a pivotal event in the early history of the Viet Nam War.
At the time, I was a 21-year-old Seaman aboard the USS Terrell County, LST 1157, based in Yokusuka, Japan and operating throughout east and southeast Asian waters. For years I have told the story of how my ship and others had been orbiting off Saigon on the day of the coup, loaded with U.S. Marines ready to go ashore if things didn’t go the way the U.S. intended. My vivid recollection of this deployment was associated with a particular event – the near-drowning of several dozen Marines allowed to go swimming in the South China Sea while we steamed around waiting to see how the coup came down. The association of swimming Marines with coup has been quite clear in my mind; I even have a visual recollection of the long black coast of Viet Nam on one of the rare occasions when, I thought, we had gotten close enough to sight it.

Recently, with other writing assignments under control, I’ve been spending a little time transcribing the rather detailed journal that I kept during much of my active-duty Naval career. And I’ve come upon the account of the swimming Marines. Here it is:

The day began like any other day, with a lousy breakfast, oppressive heat, and a lot of hot sweaty paperwork to do in Supply Office. But this was not any other day. This was the day the Captain went mad and we almost drowned 60 Marines.

It was early in the afternoon when they announced that swim call would be held, at 1430 for the troops and 1530 for the crew. So at 1430 the bow ramp was lowered, the ship stopped, and the Marines prepared to swim, while the crew, variously attired in swim suits, cut off dungarees, and skivvies, waited for our turn. Ollie (the Boatswain) on the ramp, noted a strong undertow and advised against swimming, but someone gave the Marines permission to go, and they swarmed into the water. And the ship, caught by the wind, promptly began to drift away. The Marines tried to swim to the ramp, but the undertow carried them away. Eventually 60-odd Marines were floating helplessly, separated irrevocably from the ship. Man Overboard! A V.P. (LCVP: Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) went into the water, we clambered to our stations. The Marines kept excellent order, and a few got to the lee side and up the debark nets. The V.P. was soon loaded far beyond capacity and in danger of sinking. It moved back toward the ship, but at this point the old man, who was running around in frantic little circles and jumping up and down, ordered it to come to the ramp. Ollie wouldn’t allow it; the V.P. would have ripped her bottom out. The captain ranted and screamed, but allowed the boat to come to the debark net. Then he ordered it away. “Keep that boat away ‘till we get permission,” he screamed. From whom he expected to request permission remains a moot question. Poor Stew, running the boat, had the old man, the Exec, Moritz, McAdams, and half a dozen others screaming at him, Marines vomiting over the side, his boat sinking and the seas mounting. Finally he got alongside and the Marines struggled up the net. Fifteen minutes later a 12-foot hammerhead shark cruised down the port side. I think it will be a long time before today’s maneuver is tried again.

OK, so far so good; the incident seems to have occurred. But when did it happen, and where?

Both facts are easily ascertained, assuming one trusts my journal. The date of the Marine swim was May 21, 1963, and we were en route from Okinawa, where the Marines had embarked, to Yokusuka, where they were to disembark. In other words, we some five months ahead of the Saigon coup in time and about 1500 miles from it in space.

And on November 1? The Terrell County was in Subic Bay, in the Philippines, loading ammunition, and members of her crew were planning an R&R trip up the Pansanjan River. We learned about the coup the evening of November 2, via our fairly efficient grapevine, but we played no part in it.

So how did this work? How did my memory construct a completely erroneous historical event? I think it happened this way:
1. At various times we did carry a lot of Marines, in task forces of various kinds, and steamed around in circles on the high seas waiting to deploy them, or not.

2. At some point in my travels through the South China Sea, I probably did see the coast of Viet Nam in the distance.

3. The incident of the swimming marines did happen.

4. And we did at one point think we were on our way to Viet Nam. On August 30, the journal documents a sudden multi-ship, midnight emergency deployment out of Yokusuka, under orders not disclosed to the crew; an entry that evening says:

Though nothing definite has been said, the word is out. It’s Saigon all right. The US is in a touchy situation, with Diem on one side and the Viet Cong on the other and neither of them very happy with America. Anyway I’m happy; it’s new territory, and seeing a country in the throes of disintegration should be very educational.

  Right, very educational.  As it happened, we never got to Saigon; we sat around in Okinawa for some time and then went home to Yokosuka – probably because the planned coup didn’t quite come off, but then did occur two months later.

So I think what happened was that I put my journals away, and over the years my brain combined the events of late 1963 into a structure that made sense and related to the then-unfolding history of the Viet Nam conflict.

In just the same way, it’s easy to imagine someone on Saipan remembering seeing a woman of apparent European ethnicity in Japanese captivity – maybe a German or Spanish missionary, maybe a White Russian √©migr√© – and upon being questioned about a missing American flyer, putting the memories into an order that fits the subject of the questioning, and pleases the questioner.