This interview was conducted by Malerie Pereida from February to March 2013 in San Antonio, TX as part of Palo Alto College’s History 1302 – Spring 2013 class.
For 23 years, I’ve called him Uncle Fi, his real name is Rafael Cabello. He is my great uncle who was born on December 13, 1945 in a small town in Texas called Millett to his parents, Pedro and Delores Cabello. He has 9 siblings, four brothers: Ynes, Eloy, Junior and Robert and five sisters: Hortencia, Erlinda, Susie, Julia, and Celia. He moved to San Antonio when he was just a boy and attended Navarro Elementary, Irvin Junior High School and Sydney Lanier High School but did not graduate. At the age of 17, my great grandmother left to be with The Lord and the same day my uncle made the biggest decision of his life. He lied about his age, took his written, and by 4:30 pm had joined the United States Navy. In less than a couple of hours, he was on a flight to San Diego, California for boot camp. He served 4 years in the United States Navy as a Quarter Master and 26 years in United States Air Force as an Aero Porter. Serving 30 years in the Military, he has traveled to many places and has visited many countries. During leave, he met my beautiful Aunt Cynthia at a Fiesta Extravaganza downtown in San Antonio and married her on September 29, 1978.They have been happily married for 34 years. They have three children, David Jay Cabello, and a set of twins Eloy and Elaine Cabello. Now retired, my uncle Fi is an active Minister at the Prince of Peace Church. He is strong believer in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. During his free time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, going to the gym, playing with his grandchildren, spending time with his wife and sleeping in every day. As far as his political views, he has always respected our President serving and now retired. He loves his country and believes everything happens for a reason even if we don’t understand. He always says we are not skilled to understand what GOD has planned but we should have faith to trust HIM in everything.
What was your life like before joining the Navy?
I lived a good life although I was getting in trouble here and there. I had 9 siblings and I started working at the age of 6. The day my mom passed I just made the only decision I thought would benefit me. I was 17 years old, lied about my age took my written, was hungry, tired, and had so many mixed emotions…hours later I was on a flight to San Diego, California for Navy Boot Camp. I’ll never forget looking outside the window, I just remember San Antonio getting smaller and smaller while the plane was departing and I kept thinking to myself, what the heck did I just get myself into. Little did I know, I was making one of the best decisions of my life.
Were you part of the draft of did you join the military on your own?
No, I wasn’t part of the draft.I made the decision to go. I was going down the wrong path in life and I figured that this would help me. The military was sort of a way out for me unlike others at the time.
How many tours did you do in Vietnam and what years?
I served two tours in Vietnam. My first tour was in 1965 and was about 8 and half months long and the second tour was in 1967 and lasted about 8 months.
What branch of the military were you part of during your tours because I know you served in both the Navy and Air Force?
I was in the United States Navy for both tours. I didn’t join the Air Force until 1973.
What year did you get out of the Navy?
Right after my second tour to Vietnam. It was December 28,1968. I thought I could do other things with my life besides the navy at this point in my life. Little did I know, I’d be joining the Air Force a few years later hahaha.
Where were you stationed during Vietnam? on land or a ship?
I was on a ship. We were stationed in Long Beach California and we would go over there by boat or ship rather and we would stop at certain places like Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and various other islands than head to Vietnam to patrol. We were like the border patrols we have now but at war. We would also ship supplies back and forth as needed
What were the names of the ships and were they a lot different from the ships we have now?
The ships were mine ships. We had the good Old USS Loyalty MSO 457 and The USS Leader MSO 490. They weren’t like most ships you know. They were made out of wood. The reason being is that there were mines that were hidden in the ocean, if one of our regular steel ships was near, the mine would trigger and blow up the ship. Since ours were wood, our ships could detect and then remove the mines to make a safe way for our ships to pass through. I remember this one time on the U.S. Leader, we mounted a 50 caliber machine gun. Well when we attempted to fire, the whole deal broke off the front part of the ship. Wood was everywhere. The force was so strong and since the ship was wood it broke part of the front. When this happened we learned only the 30 caliber machine guns could be used since the wood wouldn’t hold with the force of the 50 caliber.
Describe a days work during the war? What were your main duties?
Well we didn’t work a full day for one, well I mean all at one time. They were shifts. We had horrible shifts. We were on guard 4 hours and would be off 8 hours. We never really had a day off the whole time we were deployed. The worst shift was the midnight shift. Ugh, I dreaded that shift. Like I said, we were like the border patrols during the war. We would board sampan, search them for weapons, make sure that they were not Viet Cong and they had the right paperwork or they weren’t transporting anything that was illegal. We would inspect them for that and if we caught them we would transfer them to prison camps. We would be out at sea for 70 to 80 days at a time then head to the nearest island for some R&R which is Rest and Recreation then go back again for another 70 or 80 days. We would get recreation for about two weeks.
Did you ever get sea sick?
I did. My very first time was when we were leaving California to head to Vietnam, the seas were so rough and they were trying to train me to steer the ship and at that time I used to smoke. Well I tried to smoke a cigarette during a break and it didn’t taste too good and my stomach felt funny so I turned it off. So I went back to the training and afterwards I tried another cigarette but this time I got sicker than a dog boy. Need I mention in those days a carton of cigarettes cost 1.10. I gave away 21 cartons and I haven’t smoked since because I swore that is what was the cigarette that was making me sick. Little did I know I was sea sick but praise GOD that’s all it took for me to give up smoking. But for those 4 to 5 days I wished I was dead. I was so hungry but I couldn’t eat because as soon as I saw the food, my stomach would go raaaaawr. All I could eat was ice cream and what happens to ice cream, Como se dise en ingles? (How do you say it in English?) it uh, it uh SPOILS and I would have to throw up.
Did you miss home? How did you communicate with the family.
Of course I missed home. I missed my family, I missed the food and hell, I missed my bed. Mail time was the best. It was like Christmas(chuckling) Things aren’t as bad now with technology you can just get on the computer and talk with your family in a video deal. While I was deployed, all we had was letters and we didn’t receive them for weeks at a time. It was hard but we got through it,it was all we knew and we survived.
How were the living conditions on the ship you were on?
We slept inside on hard cots. Do you know what cots are? They’re really hard beds that fold out. They have no cushion. They’re kind of like a cloth that it bolted on legs haha. As far as showers we had water hours. Once the water hours were all used up, we couldn’t shower. Sometimes we went weeks without showering. When we didn’t have water we used a sink filled with water and you were given one bar of soap. We would just clean up. When water was available we had the pleasure of having what we called a Hollywood Shower. In the middle of the night you could sneak to the shower and take as long as you want without getting in trouble. I remember this one time it was storming and the thunder was so loud I woke up. I hadn’t taken a good shower in weeks so I snuck to the front of the ship and stripped down and there I was taking a shower. A few minutes later, I saw a few of my buddies, by the time I knew it, the whole ship was field with men taking showers outside haha.
What did you eat while you were deployed?
We would eat anything from meat, fish, and bolo. Sometimes we would eat bread that had weevils. Weevils are little bugs. We would have to pick out the bugs then we could eat the bread.
What kind of weapons were used on your ship during Vietnam?
We used 40 mm, m-16s which are sub machine guns and 45s.
Were the uniforms different then they are now?
(chuckles) They were very different. We had bell bottoms. They were called dungareeswhich is kind of like blue jean material.
Were you affected by the Agent Orange?
No and thank God I was one of the lucky ones. I was never on land so it didn’t affect the ship.
Do you still communicate with anyone you fought in Vietnam with?
Sadly no, just my cousins who served as well.
What is your worst memory of Vietnam while you were deployed?
The worst memory I have is when we were transferring this one female via Kong and I was on duty guarding them and she was crying and crying and she looked like a little girl. Well when it came my turn to guard her by myself and she would go like this (puts hand to mouth) and I thought she was hungry or wanted a cigarette so I grabbed a cigarette from my buddy and some bread and I tried to give it to her and the Commander saw and started yelling at me and my buddies that were on duty elsewhere came running. The Commander threatened to put me with her locked up if I gave her anything. I felt so bad because she was so little but they are the enemy and I was letting my emotions get the best of me.
How many awards total did you receive while serving in the military?
Nine, but I don’t remember all of them. They are put up is storage. Your aunt had them up at our old house but she hasn’t gotten to them yet here.
Do you ever regret joining the military?
Actually joining the Military was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made besides giving my life to the Lord and marrying my wife. I recommend it for anyone. I learned a lot and saw a lot. It made me the man I am today.
Do you think Vietnam was a war worth fighting? Was it worth the lives that were lost?
I don’t think anyone should have to lose their life to war but sadly its part of life. Some die in order for our country to be free. It’s the sacrifice we make in order to be free. It’s sad but I don’t regret being part of the war. I do thank God I chose the Navy because if I would have joined the Army or Marines, there’s a good chance I would have never made it back. That is why I have the upmost respect for Army Men and Marines. They had it bad during the war.
Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?
I just want to say now that I’m retired and have lived my life, I would like to encourage anyone and everyone to join the military. I loved every minute of it and would do it all over again if given the chance. If not, take full advantage of going to school. You can never get enough education and it’s never too late. While doing all this, make sure that Christ is the center of your life. You’ll never go wrong in doing so when putting him first. One last thing, just SLOW DOWN, make right with GOD and always love too much. Thank you for allowing me to share my story with you. It brought back a lot of memories and I’m glad I was able to share them with you.
I learned so much more from this project than I probably would have in a regular history book about several different topics. I guess when you actually have the chance to speak to someone or even better a family member who has experienced life in a different era than yourself, you have a better chance of understanding the history that took place because it’s not like a book thats about a famous hero. You get to hear about a normal, hardworking man who lived a hard, honest life but also is a hero. To be honest, I didn’t even know my Uncle’s real name before this interview. I learned what life was like back in the 1940s from child labor, to vehicles and places that were hot to shop at, and the roles the Navy Men had during Vietnam. Before doing this project, sadly I didn’t know much about Vietnam. I knew the years it took place and who the President was during the war and how it ended but I had no clue on what an actual soldier experienced during the war. My uncle shared stories with me about the hardships of war and how he survived them. He shared the feelings he had from being scared to being very proud of all his accomplishments as a retired veteran. He spoke in a very honest, heroic tone. I think there are many benefits of learning about the past through the oral history process. Overall, if I had to choose I think that this is one of the best learning tools that can be used to help remember and educate on the past instead of a History Book. Most of the time, books that are written are generally in that persons point of view and the downfall is that you miss what the other side is thinking. When doing oral history reports, you get the point of view of the person who experience it. After all, as Professor Myer always says, when someone dies, it’s like a library has burned down.
- Rafael Cabello was born on December 13, 1945 in Millett, Texas.
- In 1951, he got his first job at the age of 6 working at a tire shop cleaning batteries.
- In 1962, at age 17 he joined the United States Navy.
- In 1965, he served his first tour in the Vietnam War.
- On June 6, 1966 he earned his GED.
- In 1973, he joined the United States Air force.
- September 29, 1978, he married his wife Cynthia Hernandez Cabello.
- On November 4, 1979, his twins Eloy and Elaine Cabello were born.
- In 2006, he retired.
- Present time, he is an active Minister at the Prince of Peace Church and spends all day doing anything and everything he wants to do.
- The Handbook of Texas Online is a multidisciplinary encyclopedia of Texas history, geography, and culture sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association and the General Libraries at UT-Austin.
- Viet Cong
- Photographs and/or documents on this website were provided by Rafael Cabello.