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Brent Downing: 'I'm not sorry I was there'

Sep 7, 2017

Brent Downing served during the Vietnam War with the Seabees, the U.S. Navy's construction battalion. Downing said he enlisted because he wanted to defend his country.
Credit Emily Hunt/WXXI

A doughnut almost led to disaster while Brent Downing was serving with the U.S. Navy's Seabees during the Vietnam War.

He was on a mortar crew, which typically only fired flares. But one night, the crew was asked to set up for high explosives, or HE. A lieutenant a mile away from the mortar pit was instructing the crew by telephone on what to do during the drill.

At one point, Downing said, the lieutenant told the crew, “Give me one.”

So, the mortar crew dropped a round of high explosives in.

What nobody realized is that the lieutenant had been distracted by a baker bringing in fresh doughnuts.

“So the guy over there handing out the doughnuts says to him, ‘You want one?’ He's going, ‘Yeah, give me one.’

Luckily, the miscommunication had no casualties.

“No one was hurt, we didn't kill anybody, but the lieutenant who ran the drill that night, I think he got fined and he may have got busted,” said Downing, a Fairport resident. “But that's how friendly fire happens. A stupid thing like that. The guy is asking for a doughnut and we could have killed somebody.”

Downing, who enlisted for four years, served two nine-month tours in Vietnam. His father had been in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and he wanted to serve in the same branch.

“I wanted to be onboard ship. I thought that's the place to be. I'll join the Navy and see the world and see all these different ports,” Downing said.

Brent Downing sits in his bunk in Vietnam. Downing said of the war: 'I'm sorry there was a war, I'm sorry people died, I'm not sorry I was there.'
Credit Provided

The Navy had other ideas, though. Downing’s father was a builder, and Downing had learned many related skills. Once the Navy learned that during Downing’s basic training, his fate was decided.

“They said, ‘Guess what? You're in the Seabees because we don't have to train you very much.’ You don't get your first choice when you go into the military. You get what you're told and go and do it.”

The Seabees essentially is the Navy’s construction battalion, Downing said.

“We had all kinds of equipment for building piers, piers on the water, construction to help get ships on and off beaches. But Vietnam, we didn't do as much of that. Most of our work was for the Marines, roads, bridges that were needed to cross rivers.”

Downing said they had to repair one bridge three times in nine months.

“Once we repaired it after it was blown up, the (Viet Cong), they're very smart, after we would leave, they would put explosives in a boat, a reed boat, and float it down the river and ignite it just under the bridge and it would blow the abutments out and you couldn't use the bridge anymore.”

Despite the danger and the war’s widespread unpopularity back home, Downing said he enlisted because he wanted to defend his country.

“Communism was a terrible thing to have on the world. So the domino theory of preventing that made sense. … But there was absolutely no way I was running to Canada. This is my country, my home and I'll do what I can to protect it.

Brent Downing served two nine-month tours in Vietnam after enlisting in the U.S. Navy. "Communism was a terrible thing to have on the world," he said. "So the domino theory of preventing that made sense. ... This is my country, my home, and I'll do what I can to protect it."
Credit Provided

“At the time I thought it was the right thing to do.  … There was definitely a communist government being formed. There's a communist government today — it's called North Korea. Vietnam could have turned out to be North Korea very easily. I don't think I would have liked the idea of another North Korea in our world today.

“I'm sorry there was a war, I'm sorry people died, I'm not sorry I was there. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do; I'm not 100 percent sure of that now. I can tell you this: For all of the men who went there … they were all honorable, good people.”