Ridgefield veteran reflects back nearly 60 years to 'tense time' serving on river in Vietnam

RIDGEFIELD  — The year was 1965 and town resident George Schuster was serving in the military, on a ship in the river in Vietnam.

"It was a tense time. Machine guns were set up along the perimeter of the ship. At night, we used night scopes to search for enemy troop movements in the swamp," said Schuster, recalling an experience he had in his early 20s. "We had a large mortar ... on the second level to fire flares in the event that we were attacked. Every night, there were three or four Huey (heavily armed) gunships circling and firing down into the swamp with their mini guns. The tracers were pink and you got the impression that a liquid was being poured out of the helicopters."

Schuster, who is now 80, will be the featured speaker Friday, Nov. 11, at Ridgefield's Veterans Day ceremony given by American Legion Post 78. The ceremony will be conducted in front of the Lounsbury House/Veterans Memorial Garden, 316 Main St., beginning at 11a.m. The public is invited to attend.  

Military experiences

Schuster, who graduated from Ridgefield High School and the University of Connecticut, was drafted by the military in 1965. After training at the  U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., he was ordered to report to the USS Kankakee, which was designed to refuel other ships at sea.

Going back in time nearly 60 years, he recalled the ship was two football fields long, carried 10,000 tons of fuel, and had 250 men on board.

He recalled his daily life on the ship.

"We were at sea all the time and we refueled our aircraft carriers on the port side (left) and destroyers on the starboard (right) side, simultaneously. So it was very intense work," he said. "We fueled around the clock. We were a full service ship. We had Navy special oil for ships. We had jet fuel for jet aircraft and we had aviation gas for propeller-driven aircraft."

After 16 months, he was promoted to a junior grade lieutenant. He was ordered to the US Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif. to help activate the USS Indra ARL-37, which was being fitted as a repair ship to service boats, he said.

"It had an engine shop, a sheet metal shop, a welding shop, an electrical shop, and everything needed to repair naval boats," he said. "I learned that I was going to Vietnam, and would be part of the Mobile River Assault Force, known as the 'Brown Water Navy.'"

During Schuster's years in the military, he traveled the world.

"We operated mostly in the Caribbean. We're in and out in Roosevelt Roads (Naval Station), Puerto Rico. That's usually where our fueling station was," he said. "We went into Hamburg, Germany and then into Gothenburg, Sweden; Oslo, Norway; and Glasgow, Scotland. We went down to El Toro, Spain  — so we covered a lot of territory."

While in the North Sea, he witnessed the summer solstice, where it's 24 hours of daylight.

He described that as a "fantastic experience," although he said it didn't change his body rhythm or affect his sleep in any way.

"In the Navy at sea, we operated around the clock," he said. "It didn’t matter if it was day or night."

In the middle of the night one night in 1967, he experienced what he said was a "tense moment."

"We were under way into Ferrol, Spain harbor.  It was 2 o’clock in the morning and pitch black. The radar screen was (lit) up with fishing boats everywhere," he said. "At 23 years old, I was 'Officer of the Deck'  —  in charge of the watch section on the bridge.  It was simply a matter of radioing the destroyers to maneuver independently and then change course to avoid a collision with a merchant man (a large commercial ship)."

Coming home

Schuster said due to his experience in the military, he was able to get a job quickly.

"They had job fairs in San Diego and I got three job offers on the West Coast," he said. "They wanted naval officers. They wanted people who had leadership experience."

However, he decided to come home, to be with his father and brother, who were still living in Ridgefield.

"I got a copy of The New York Times. I opened it up and there was a job for International Paper Company, so I went through a job placement agency. They gave me the interview," he said. "I went over there and I got the job."  

He later worked for Merrill Lynch for 35 years, retiring in 2008. Aside from volunteering with the American Legion, Schuster is also active in Ridgefield's Men's Club.

He said the highlight of his military experience was meeting his future wife, Sylvia Schuster. They've been married for 53 years and raised two children. 

"Besides surviving, I met my future wife in San Francisco — The girl of my dreams, the heart of my heart, and love of my life."