US Navy - Lieutenant Junior Grade
USS Mansfield – Destroyer Squadron 9
Vietnam War (September 1966 – August 1969)
The Vietnam War was one of the most controversial conflicts the United States has ever been involved in. Conscription forced many young men to fight, and an antiwar sentiment began to be shared by a vast amount of politicians, teachers, scholars, and soldiers alike. While there were many soldiers who questioned the government’s involvement as well as their country’s motives, there were still men who embraced ideals reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s famous words stated in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” William McKown was one of these men.
Born May 9, 1944 in St. Louis, Missouri, McKown grew up as the son of two very supportive parents. His father was a manufacturer’s representative in the textile industry, or as he put it, “a traveling salesman”. McKown moved to Colorado a few years after his birth and grew up there.
After going to school and eventually graduating from the University of Colorado in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in business and economics, McKown knew that he had to serve his country and thought that the Navy would facilitate the best opportunity for him for what he felt he could offer. He enlisted in the military in September of 1966, going to officer candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island where the Navy at that time trained its future officers. He would stay there for five months before being commissioned as an Ensign upon completion of his training. He was then sent to San Diego for about three additional months of training related to ship handling and gunnery operations. After the first two two months of learning gunnery operations, McKown took the additional “Officer of the Deck” course and learned ship handling. After his effective and thorough training, McKown was assigned as a gunnery officer to a destroyer, the USS Mansfield.
McKown met up with the Mansfield while it was in port in the Philippines. His service aboard the destroyer lasted for about a year and a half. The Mansfield during that time was part of a larger “Destroyer Squadron 9”, but operated independently from Japan, spending its active time off of the coast of Vietnam. One of the destroyer’s roles during that time was operating as a planeguard ship for aircraft carriers; it followed along behind an aircraft carrier while it would launch and recover aircrafts. If one of the planes didn’t make a good landing, then as McKown put it, “We had to bail them out.” The aircraft carrier had to keep going, because if all the other airplanes were hovering up above, running out of fuel, the ship couldn’t stop. “ You have to have another ship that can handle—hopefully handle—the fact that a pilot has had to bail out, so you can recover that pilot.”
The USS Mansfield also operated together with other ships, and planeguard duty was one of the tasks of the ship that McKown was personally involved in. Gunfire support was another one, which was supplied by the destroyer off the coast of Southern Vietnam many times during the war. Gunfire liaison officers that were on foot in the country would call for munitions fire at a certain time and a certain location, and the Mansfield would supply it. As McKown put it, “We did quite a bit of that.” The Mansfield also carried out strategic missions, either independently or with other ships off the coast of North Vietnam, and it would respond to calls for fire by airplane spotters as well soldiers on the ground.
Leisure for the naval officers wasn’t something that occurred on the Mansfield very often. McKown recalled that on the few occasions movies were shown, he was normally too tired to take in anything, and he would end up with three or four hours of sleep a night, on average. On an extended basis, it was a tough thing for him to deal with. The morale of McKown and his crew alike however thrived; everyone on the Mansfield had a crucial job to do and everyone in McKown’s Unit was expected by their Captain to demonstrate excellence in operational accuracy and efficiency in their role, inspiring a sense of pride in the crew members. During McKown’s service, the USS Mansfield was the top gunnery ship throughout the Vietnam conflict. The destroyer fired more rounds than any other ship in Vietnam. McKown told me that the estimated amount of the rounds fired during that time topped over 40,000. One encased shell had about 55 pounds of explosive powder, and on top of that, there was a projectile encased in the shell that weighs another 8090 pounds, meaning that the Mansfield fired an estimated 3.2 million – 3.6 million pounds of projectiles, excluding the 2.2 million pounds of gunpowder. The USS Mansfield played an instrumental role in the Vietnam War, needless to say.
McKown was released from service when the USS Mansfield was in port in Long Beach, California, in August, 1969. He was preparing for another departure which would have lasted close to a year when the Navy changed their regulations. The new regulations stated that if you were going to finish your service time while you were deployed, the Navy would release you early due to the fact that it cost less to release servicemen in the States rather than to release them overseas. Upon returning home, McKown stated that he experienced none of the hardships or incidents that were common among other Vietnam veterans, “I know it wasn’t always a friendly atmosphere, but you take the uniform off, you put on a business suit, and you go to work, and nobody’s spitting in your face there.” After returning home to Colorado, McKown went back to school and obtained his master’s degree in finance from the University of Southern California. After receiving his degree, McKown was hired and worked close to 25 years for Security Pacific Bank as a manager and executive.
About four years ago, McKown was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Because Agent Orange, which had been present on the Mansfield, is associated with the neurological disorder, it is highly likely that McCown’s development of the disease is attributed to his time in service. Despite now living with Parkinson’s, McKown says that overall his time in the military changed his life for the better, “ It was a very rapid maturity process for a young college graduate, and I’m thankful for that.”
Discussing the controversy associated with Vietnam, as well as in general the controversy of the United States being declaring war in any situation, McKown stated that what he learned from his time in the military was the importance of commitment, “You prepared to serve; you prepared yourself to serve. You prepared others to serve. And you served your mission and served it the duty you were obligated to serve, and I was very proud of that. And I think most people are. Some people’s minds get changed and exchanged over the years, but I’m very proud of the United States for what they do; and whether it was the right decision to be involved with the war, history will only tell. We’re now aways of 50 years later, and there’s still no consensus on whether our involvement in Vietnam was the right thing… people have to remember that there were a lot of brave young men fighting, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice serving their country. And they may have felt the same, or differently than I felt or now feel. But they – they signed up and did their job, and I think sometimes that’s lost in debate, lost in the dialogue about the great commitment that was made by a lot of people.”
McKown today lives with his wife in their home in Larkspur, California. He has been an active member, for the last 20 years or so, of the American Legion Post’s local chapter located in Larkspur. Reunions have been held every year for the Mansfield and its crew, and McKown and his wife have enjoyed seeing his fellow service members who shared in the commitment of serving in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. When asked what advice McKown would share with future generations after living through the times he did, he stated, “Life is short, and you’ve got to take advantage of every day that you have. And it’s been important for me today to make sure I appreciate the things that I’m still able to do, and all the friends that I have, and the things that I’ve learned in life, due in part, thanks to the military.”
Interview by Joshua Dov Epstein on October 24th, 2015