Jeff Jardine

Veteran gained greater appreciation for fresh water while in Vietnam

Joe Vivion learned about the value of water in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, where the only good water he had at times was what he packed in canteens. He is pictured in the backyard of his Modesto home on Friday morning.
Joe Vivion learned about the value of water in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, where the only good water he had at times was what he packed in canteens. He is pictured in the backyard of his Modesto home on Friday morning. jlee@modbee.com

Every day, Joe Vivion reads the paper, checks out the TV news and surfs the Internet.

Stories about the drought, and specifically folks’ reaction to it, intrigue him. They tell of people who are angry and frustrated because water restrictions are turning their lawns brown, including a recent story about how rich homeowners in Southern California believe they should be exempt from water cutbacks because, well, they are rich homeowners in Southern California. They tell of the battle over who controls the Sierra snowmelt runoff.

The stories depict farmers upset because the lack of water threatens their livelihoods. They tell of how throughout the state and including Stanislaus County, people are worried their groundwater wells are being pumped dry. Some towns to the south are out of water, and the ground in places is sinking at a rate of about a foot a year because so much water has been taken from below.

It’s so bad that Gov. Jerry Brown last week told reporters he had skipped his shower that day to save water just to drive home the point.

Serious stuff, indeed, by our standards because the vast majority of people here in the Valley have only known a reliable supply of clean water and made it through previous droughts pretty much unscathed.

Vivion understands a water shortage better than most people. The same can be said for others who fought in wars in the jungles and deserts, where drinkable water is scarce.

For 13 months in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, Vivion and others in the 1st Battalion 7th Marines drew their fresh water from a bag hanging from a tree in front of the radio bunker at Sandbag City, the nickname for their camp at Chu Lai in South Vietnam. It was trucked in periodically from some unknown place known simply as “the water point.”

“Few people had ever been to, or seen, the mysterious water point,” Vivion said. “The Marines who drove the water trucks seemed reluctant to talk about it. It was rumored that there was a brothel of some kind near the water point.”

Regardless, it was the best water they had while in ’Nam.

“We filled two canteens, and that was our drinking water when we were out in the field,” Vivion said. They’d collect rainwater to refill and carried pills to use when they were forced to rely on water that didn’t look so good.

“We were given tablets called Halazone, a chlorine-based chemical used to purify questionable water,” he said. “It came in small brown glass bottles that dated back to World War II. It only had a two-year shelf life, but they gave it to everybody for when you were out in the field and had to rely on rice paddies or river water.”

He tried it only once.

“They told you to wait 15 minutes (before drinking), but it made me sick as a dog,” Vivion said. “The stuff lurking in the water over there probably made the Halazone run for cover.”

He said he lost 40 pounds during his tour of duty, mostly from the dysentery he got from drinking bad water. Vivion became so weakened and dehydrated that while preparing for an amphibious assault, he couldn’t climb the rope ladder to board the ship. Two other Marines helped him up over the side.

“Then they dropped me and I landed on the deck face-first,” Vivion said.

In camp or on patrols, personal hygiene wasn’t part of the routine.

“I often went several weeks at a time without anything that even remotely resembled a shower,” he said. “Being rained on all the time didn’t help much.”

When they found water that wasn’t completely stagnant, he and the other Marines would fill their helmets half full, strip down naked and do a splash bath “to get the hot spots,” he said. They didn’t linger.

“There would be no glory in being shot by a sniper while squatting naked over a helmet,” Vivion said.

He returned to the States in 1965 when his hitch ended and became a deputy sheriff in Riverside County. He retired there before moving to Modesto five years ago.

Between the steaming, rotting jungles of Vietnam and the bone-dry desert of Southern California, “I never took water for granted again,” he said.

“This drought situation in California seems very serious.”

Which brings us back to Gov. Brown’s assertion that he passed on his shower before meeting with the media, which Vivion read about as well. It was a nice piece of political posturing on the governor’s part, but skipping a shower here and there can’t compare with what Vivion and so many others have endured overseas.

“He’s probably never squatted over his helmet naked,” Vivion said.

Pray for an El Niño to make sure that never happens.

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