Swapping Old War Stories
For months I had reached out to Don for an interview after his son mentioned that his Dad was a Vietnam Veteran, but Don was busy relocating his pool supply store to downtown Newhall. However, recently we finally met in his new store and what a pleasurable chat we had swapping old war stories.
Donald R. McKenzie was born August 11, 1945, in Glendale, California, though his parents lived in East Los Angeles. At age five, Don’s family moved to Arleta in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up graduating from John H. Polytechnic High School June 14, 1963. Don then attended Pierce Junior College, however Don said, “Because girls, cigarettes and alcohol got the best of me I decided I better join the Navy.” On Columbus Day, October 12, 1964, Don reported to duty and took Boot Camp in San Diego. 12 weeks later, he was off to Electronics School at Treasure Island near Oakland, California.
Mine Sweeper Operations
Six months later after graduating Electronics School, Don was permitted to choose his next destination and realizing he had never traveled beyond the Western United States, he chose the East Coast. Soon, Don was flown to Charleston, South Carolina, and assigned to the mine sweeper, USS Ability (MSO), a wooden hull ship with a crew of 71 sailors. During the majority of the next two years, the USS Ability was at sea patrolling from Halifax to the Bermuda Triangle stopping in at various ports along the Eastern Seaboard. While at Port Everglades, Don visited a bar that caught fire before he finished his first beer, hence he rallied to pull several Merchant Marines who were sleeping in a back room to safety which earned him the Navy Commendation Medal.
Hydrogen Bomb Search
Early 1966, the USS Ability took a mission with the 6th Fleet to the Mediterranean Sea to help recover five hydrogen nuclear devices that fell from a B-52 Bomber that collided mid-air with a KC-135 cargo plane. Those devices were unarmed so they fell safely to earth with three landing on dry ground and the other two into the Mediterranean Sea. It took three months but the one that fell deepest into the sea was located by Don and his fellow sailors which led to a mini submarine retrieving it. Russian trawlers were desperately trying to get their hands on at least one device, but the 6th Fleet kept them at bay. All five devices were secured and off Radar Man Don and his USS Ability sailors went to Naval Base Cartagena, Spain, where they enjoyed much sight seeing and a lively night life.
Following several days at Cartagena, they were off for the next month to several other ports, which Don described as an R & R (rest and recuperation) of sorts. While sightseeing in Toulon, France, Don and several buddies were drinking beer in a bar (imagine that, sailors in a bar). Interestingly, they somehow found themselves socializing with several undercover KGB agents who offered cash for information on their Hydrogen Bomb search mission. Don and his buddies simply had a few drinks and left. Meanwhile, Don noticed beautiful women there, but hey, that’s a whole ‘nother story. Don also enjoyed watching Bull Fights in Valencia, Spain, and exploring Marseilles, France.
Good Morning Vietnam
Once their Mediterranean mission completed, the USS Ability headed to the Straits of Gibraltar, Azores Islands and then back to Charleston. It was January 1967 and Don was anxious to visit home so he was granted a two week leave of absence if he volunteered for Vietnam, which he did. After visiting his family, Don went to Coronado Naval Station for three months of Swift Boat training, where he learned to fire twin mounted .50 Caliber Machine Guns and how to handle operating their speedy river boat. At Coronado, Don took jungle and survival training and when they were practically starving they killed a rattlesnake, fried and ate it, which Don thought was tasty. In mid-1967 from Coronado Naval Base, Don flew to Tacoma, Washington, and on to Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam.
Swift Boat PCF 73
Coming down from his plane’s ramp, Don was instantly gasping for air in Vietnam’s excruciating heat and sweltering humidity. Don thought, “My God if the VC don’t get me, this climate surely will.” Soon, Don was sent to a Navy base at An Thoi northeast of Saigon and was assigned to Swift Boat PCF 73 with four other sailors, which is where they were based their entire tour of duty. Their principal responsibility was patrolling the coastline, rivers and canals to search and seize contraband from Vietnamese sampans and junkets. It was highly dangerous as the VC were bound and determined to deliver weapons and guerrilla fighters to specific battle zones within South Vietnam. Don said, “It was bad enough during daylight patrols but night time missions were especially nerve-racking.” Don experienced a number of firefights along those water ways, but the worst thing he ever saw was bodies of civilians hanging from trees. Communist VC virtually terrorized the population while taking food and young rice farmers to support their cause.
Don’s swift boat patrols were always in close support with the Army’s Special Forces’ (Green Beret) missions. Don recalls one such mission while patrolling South Vietnam’s coast during the Tet Offensive in March 1968 as the Green Berets were in threat of being overrun by Viet Cong. As PCF 73 swung into action firing their twin .50 caliber machine guns at the enemy, Don and his fellow sailors came under heavy automatic rifle fire. Don was manning his radio when a VC bullet ripped a hole right through his right shoulder knocking him to the floor. Once the VC were sent packing, a Green Beret medic patched him up and their mission continued. That firefight earned Don a Purple Heart.
The remainder of Don’s tour of duty was more patrolling the water ways out of An Thoi searching sampans and junkets and dealing with occasional firefights. Don’s tour of duty ended in August 1968 and he returned stateside to Travis Air Force Base where he was medically checked and sent home for the remainder of his Navy service. Don was Honorably Discharged October 11, 1968. Soon after Don returned home, he landed a job with Lockheed Aerospace at their Van Nuys facility working on the Army AH-56 Helicopter program. When that program abruptly ended, Don transferred to the L-1011 commercial airliner program in Burbank earning $3.65 per hour. However, the L-1011 Rolls Royce crises in February 1971 sent thousands of employees into layoff mode including Don. I too was laid off.
Mac’s Pool & Supply
Don realizing aerospace was not for him, got a job with Leslie’s Pool & Supplies Company for the next 17 years until a hostile takeover cost Don his job, so he promptly went to work for Sandy’s Pool & Supplies. Don helped build the company from 3 to 21 stores during the next four years. Then one day, Don thought, “Here I am opening stores for Sandy’s so why not open my own store.” In April 1992, Don opened Mac’s Pool & Supply on Bouquet Canyon Road and has since moved to a larger location on Newhall’s Main Street. Over the years it became a family business as his daughter Wendy is store manager and his two sons, Glenn and Adam are technicians, while his wonderful wife Connie keeps the family well grounded.
Love at First Sight
Speaking of Connie, when Don returned home from the Navy, he discovered that a new beautiful young lady had become a nearby neighbor. One day, Don spotted Connie washing her car so he pulled up to say hello. That very next weekend was their first date. Don said, “We just hit it off and I fell instantly in love with her.” They started off in a Reseda apartment and later moved to Saugus in 1976. Don loves his business and has no intentions of retiring but he admits that he’s slowly turning his reigns over to his very capable children.