12: NHA BE
<< 11: Saigon || 13: The River >>
Nha Be was a small, but sprawling, American naval facility just south of Saigon near the eastern coast of South Vietnam. Every functional navy support element could be found on the base. There were repair facilities, an armory, a chow hall, barracks, everything required to support the boat units that were based there, primarily PBRs.
When I checked in, I told the receiving clerk that I was in transit to Tan An. He told me to report to the APL - or ‘Apple’ - to get a bunk for the night.
The Apple was a two-story barracks barge. I reported to the APL master-at-arms and he issued me two sheets, a pillow, a pillow case and a blanket and told me to find a rack.
After I found myself a rack, I left the APL and went walking around the base. I decided to take a stroll, to do a little sightseeing, and I started at the main gate. Just outside the gate, on the other side of the fence about 300 yards away, there was a civilian bar. I overheard someone say that the place was off limits. When I got to the gate I quickly assumed that most of the guys on base had just gotten off duty. There were scores of sailors in olive drab pouring out the gate and they all seemed to be heading for this place. I was immediately curious. If it was off limits, why were they all headed there. I almost went over to check it out myself, but thought better of it. I’d just spent well over a week thinking I was in trouble at the Annapolis. I didn’t want to get in trouble on the way to my new duty station so I turned and walked back toward the main compound.
I walked from the front gate down the main drag of the compound. When I’d walked as far as I could I saw a whole mess of PBRs tied up at a dock. I’d never seen a PBR, a Patrol Boat, River Class, and I was drawn to them immediately. PBRs and PBR sailors were the stuff legends were made of in the navy. We used to hear stories about PBRs in Boot Camp. One day, a PBR sailor who’d just returned from the war came and talked with our Boot Camp company about his experiences on the rivers in Nam. Even chief Taylor had been impressed, and it was almost impossible to impress an old ‘Rocks & Shoals’ navy man like him. When the guy left, the chief had said, quite matter-of-factly, “Gentlemen, you just met a hero!”
I walked onto the dock and checked out the boats. Each was about 30-feet long and had a twin set of .50 caliber machine guns mounted in a gun tub up forward. At midships, there was a coxswain’s flat under a canopy. Most of the units had a single .50 caliber machine gun on a pedestal mount aft, but one had a 60 millimeter mortar. All had mounts on the port and starboard sides for belt-fed M-60 machine guns. Two or three had M-60s mounted next to the extreme left and right canopy poles. One boat crew had rigged up two M-60s to a single trigger mechanism, and that trigger was attached to a rod that tied both M-60s together, one adjacent to each outside canopy pole. It was a rather ingenious setup. The person firing those weapons could control both - aim both - fire both - from that one trigger position, that one firing position.
I didn’t know what kind of firepower Charlie had on the rivers, but one of these boats could eat your lunch if it opened up on you with everything it had. On full auto, one .50 cal. alone could put out 1,800 rounds-a-minute. That meant that the twin fifties up forward could generate 3,600 rounds-a-minute all by themselves. Add another 1,800 rounds from the rear fifty, and god-knows-what from one or two M-60s, and you’re talking seven or eight thousand rounds a minute from one boat! That meant that two boats could generate close to 16,000 rounds-a-minute! That’s a lot of firepower! I knew, of course, that those firing ratios weren’t practical. I doubted if any of the boats even carried that much ammo, and I knew that full auto for even one minute would burn a barrel completely up. But practicality aside, that’s what the weapons were rated at and I was impressed.
As I was about to leave the dock, I took one last look at the boats and noticed something I’d missed at first glance. All of the canopy tops had a rendering of the South Vietnamese flag painted on them, and all of the boats were flying South Vietnamese flags. Only one of the boats had a crew member aboard and he was Vietnamese. I’d always thought that PBRs were crewed by Americans. Seeing the South Vietnamese flag on the canopy was a surprise. I remember thinking that there must be two different PBR forces, one crewed by Americans and another crewed by members of the South Vietnamese navy. Satisfied that I’d figured that out, I left the dock and walked back up the main drag.
As I headed off to find the chow hall I saw a medium-sized, white building off to the right. When I got even with it I noticed a small sign that read ‘Armory’. I didn’t know for sure, but I figured that I’d be working in an armory at the Mobile Base - assuming, of course, that it had one - and as soon as I saw the sign I decided to walk in and introduce myself. Maybe the gunnersmates here knew something about the Mobile Base. Maybe they knew some of the gunnersmates who worked there.
When I walked inside there was only one guy on duty. I didn’t see any insignia to indicate what his rank was; he wasn’t wearing a hat and he’d taken off his utility top and was wearing an olive drab undershirt.
“Hello to you.”
“My name’s Powers and I’m a gunnersmate 3rd. I’m in transit to PBR Mobile Base II. Thought I’d drop in and say hey.”
His first reaction was a little stand-offish.
“You a newbie?”
“New in the area. Been in-country seven months. Got transferred down from DaNang.”
The man smiled and warmed up immediately, then he walked over to where I was standing. He wiped his greasy right hand with a rag and then reached out to shake my hand.
“Glad to meet ya’, Guns. Folks around here just call me Trips. Mobase II, huh?”
“Yea. You know anything about it?”
“Oh, yea. Good duty. You’ll like it.”
“Yea. They got a gunnersmate 2nd named Dobbs. He runs the armory. He’s a good man. Say hello for me when you see him.”
“So. You got as far as Nha Be on your first day out.”
“Musta’ left Saigon late in the day.”
“Yea. How far is it to the Mobile Base?”
“It’s not that far, really. Just up the road apiece. It’s the next stop after Ben Luc. Of course, if you go by river that’s another story.”
“Yea. Sometimes there ain’t no vehicular traffic goin’ that way, so guys hop a ride with a boat crew or something and get there by water.”
“It takes longer that way. Nha Be’s on the Saigon river. Tan An and the Mobile Base are on the Vam Co Tay. I don’t know how you get from one river to the other, but the boat guys do. Drop by tomorrow if you can’t get a ride on the highway. Maybe one of the crews’ll be headin’ that way and you can catch a ride with them.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
I left the armory and found the chow hall. I ate a hearty meal and then walked back over to the APL.
I hit the rack early. I wasn’t really that tired, but I was eager to get where I was going. I figured the sooner I went to sleep, the sooner morning would come and I could get on my way. I stripped down to my skivvies and climbed in my bunk. It was an hour or so before taps and the lights were still on. Several of the other transients had a card game going several bunks away which made going to sleep impossible. I thought about getting up and going for a walk, but decided against it. Instead, I just lay there in my rack anticipating what life would be like at the Mobile Base and reflecting on what life had been like during my first seventeen months in the navy.
The first thing I did was to try and imagine what the Mobile Base looked like. All I knew was that it was a barge - or a series of barges - on the Vam Co Tay river in the vicinity of Tan An, the provincial capital of Long An province. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t conjure up an image. At first, when I’d gotten my orders back at the Annapolis, I’d speculated that the duty would be hard, that the living conditions would be primitive. But the guy I’d just met in the armory had said it was good duty. ‘Primitive’ and ‘good duty’ didn’t go together in navy parlance, so I quickly deduced that everyday life on the Mobile Base would probably be more than just tolerable.
The next thing that came to mind was that I was alone again; starting all over again. My whole naval experience to date had been one, continuous transfer: from boot camp to ‘A’ School; from ‘A’ School to BUDS; from BUDS to SERE; from SERE to transient status in DaNang; from transient status in DaNang to Deep Water Piers and hatch team Foxtrot; from hatch team Foxtrot to hatch team Charlie; from Deep Water Piers to transient status in Saigon, and now, from transient status in Saigon to Mobile Base II with an overnight stop as a transient at Nha Be.
My next thought concerned the whereabouts of all the friends I’d made since I’d joined the service. Where were all those people? What had become of them? The list wasn’t incredibly long, but it was longer than I expected it to be when I started adding them up: Rucker, Irby, Fabian, Snow, Bohon, Bugman, Scooter, Earles, Jimmy Lloyd, Yogi, Booboo, Bullwinkle, Rocky, Tom, Sylvester and Browder. I knew that my chances of ever seeing any of them again was remote at best. I remember thinking that the navy should include that point in their recruiting information: ‘Join the Navy and see the world, but don’t plan on making any lasting friggin’ friendships!’
Eventually, sometime around 9 o’clock, someone turned out the lights and I drifted into la-la land.
When I woke up the next morning, I went to the head and shaved and showered. Then I went to the chow hall and ate breakfast.
After breakfast, I went back to the APL and rounded up my bedding. I turned the stuff in at the master-at-arms office, checked out, shoulder-slung the M-14, shouldered my seabag and then made my way to the main gate.
From 8:30 in the morning until 12:30 in the afternoon I waited on the side of the road just outside the main gate. Almost all the traffic was heading toward Saigon. The one or two military vehicles that were headed in the direction of Tan An didn’t stop. I tried to wave them down, but the drivers didn’t seem to notice me.
At one point, a Lambretta pulled over and the driver offered me a ride. There was plenty of room for me and my gear; there were only two passengers on the back of the vehicle. But the driver was the quintessential picture of what a Vietcong looked like. He had on black pants, a black top, sandals, and a big, conical straw hat. He asked me where I was going. I told him. He offered to drive me to Tan An for nothing. I immediately refused his offer. I was absolutely convinced that he was a Vietcong. I had this mental picture of him pulling off the road and into the jungle just a mile or so down the highway; and killing me; all three of them killing me; killing me hard! He looked at me funny when I refused to accept the ride, then he shrugged his shoulders and drove off.
Sometime around 1 o’clock I hoisted my seabag onto my left shoulder, grabbed my weapon and walked back through the main gate. I was starving. I made my way to the chow hall, dropped my gear just inside the door, went through the serving line and ate.
When I finished eating I decided to grab my gear and walk over to the armory. The guy at the armory had said that I might could catch a ride to Tan An on a PBR. That possibility brought on two completely different emotions. The opportunity to ride on a PBR was exciting; exhilarating! But it was also scary as hell! What if we came under fire? I hadn’t been trained to crew on a PBR; I wouldn’t know what to do! I wanted to do it - to get to Tan An on the river - but, by the same token, I didn’t want to do it; the thought that I might be involved in a firefight was terrifying; especially since I had no idea of what would be expected of me if that happened! The one thought that kept coming to mind was that Tan An wasn’t that far away. The guy in the armory had implied that Tan An, and the Mobile Base, were only a short distance down the highway. Surely the ride on the river would be a short trip, too.
When I walked into the armory there was a sailor wearing a black beret talking to Trips, the gunnersmate I’d met earlier. The PBR sailor had his back to me and my eyes were immediately drawn to the back of his beret. The loop on the back had been cut; that meant he’d been in combat; he’d been under enemy fire. As soon as I walked in the door, and Trips saw me, he began telling the guy in the beret that I might be able to help him with his problem:
“I can’t help you. But Guns here might be able to. Hey, Guns. You still need that ride to Tan An?”
“What’s your name again?”
“Powers, this is Ski. Ski, this is Powers. He’s a gunnersmate 3rd. Maybe you two can work something out.”
When the man in the beret turned around I looked at his collar. He was wearing E-5 hardware. He extended his right hand and I took it. His handshake was firm, his voice was, too, and he started speaking immediately.
“You know anything about .50s?”
“I’ve got a problem. The rear .50 on one of my boats is chokin’ up. Five or ten rounds into a cold shoot it just locks up. I’ve tried everything; a new barrel; head space; timing, but nothing seems to work. Think you can do anything with it?”
“I don’t know.”
Trips joined the conversation.
“Sounds like a claw ... but it could be almost anything.
“Anyway, Ski came in askin’ if we could issue him a new .50. We’ve got spare parts out-the-ass, but no main housing. I can give you all the innards you need, and barrels, but I don’t have a spare .50 housing.”
I didn’t know what the problem was, but I didn’t figure the main housing could be involved.
“It don’t sound like a housing problem. Maybe if we change out all the internal parts, maybe that’ll do it.”
“Guns is right. I can give you all the innards you want. Why don’t you give him a ride, maybe he can get her workin’ on the way to Tan An.”
The man in the beret didn’t seem eager to take on a passenger.
“You ever been on the river before?”
“Ever been on a PBR before?”
“I don’t know, man. We ain’t supposed to ride you support guys.”
Trips pointed out the obvious.
“Aw, come on, Ski. It ain’t that far, is it? Tan An can’t be more than five or ten miles from here.”
“By highway, yea. But it ain’t that close by boat.”
“How long would it take?”
“That depends. Are you sure you can’t issue me a new weapon?”
The man in the beret thought for a moment. Then, quite abruptly, he made a decision.
“What-the-hell. Come with me. We’ll go down to the boat and get the son-of-a-bitch. We’ll bring it back here and you can refit it. When you get done, we’ll take it down river and test-fire it this afternoon. We’re headin’ out on an op first thing in the mornin’, at first light. You get that sucker workin’ and I’ll take you to Tan An.”
“What if he don’t get it workin’?”
“I ain’t real fired up about takin’ on a passenger, but what the hell! If he don’t get it workin’, maybe he could sweet talk the guys in the armory at the Mobile Base; maybe he could convince them to give me a new one.”
Trips got a big smile on his face.
“Now that sounds like a plan.”
Trips came over and picked up my seabag and M-14.
“I’ll store this shit in the back for you, Guns. You can pick it up this afternoon. Ya’ll go get the weapon and I’ll set you up a work station in the back.”
Ski and I walked out of the armory. When we got to the dock, Ski pointed to the four boats tied up there and gave me an impromptu briefing.
“This is an RPG unit. RPG stands for River Patrol Group. It’s a ten boat flotilla; six are out on patrol right now, at three different points on the river. It used to be an American River Division - a Riv Div - but it’s already been turned over to the gooks.”
“How many units have been turned over?”
“All of ‘em, I think. I keep hearin’ that there’s still one or two American Riv Divs left, but I think that’s just scuttlebutt. I ain’t seen an American unit in months. Far as I know, there ain’t no more All-American crews.”
“Why’d they turn ‘em over?”
“They call it the Vietnamization program. It’s part of Nixon’s plan to end the war, and his promise to bring us all home in a year or two. We’re turning everything over to the gooks. Supposedly, by the end of the year, by January of ‘71, everything navy’ll be ‘gooks only’. Come January 1 it’s supposed to be ‘gook-against-gook’; no Americans on the rivers at all; just the South Vietnamese navy against Charlie and the N.V.A.”
As Ski talked, we made our way to the far end of the dock. The boats all seemed to be fully crewed; there were four Vietnamese on each craft. The Vietnamese could hear everything Ski was saying. As he continued to talk I was surprised at how candid he was. A lot of what he had to say, especially about the Vietnamese crew members, was negative. In fact, some of it was downright derogatory. I was surprised that he was saying what he was saying knowing that they could hear every word.
“The little people fuck up a lot, especially this bunch. This unit has already been turned over. In fact, it was one of the first units to be completely turned over; no Americans at all, not even advisors. I’m already supposed to be back in the states, I was scheduled to rotate a month ago. But these guys fucked that up. Two of their boats got chewed up in a waterborne ambush two months ago. Their patrol officer asked MACV if they could get an advisor to work with them on that element of operations. When I reported for checkout back at the Annapolis, some guy from MACV was there and he asked me to stay over for a couple of weeks and teach these fuckers how to ‘bush’ again.”
“You extended your tour?”
“Hell no! All I gotta do is get ‘em up to speed and then I’m gone, I’m out of here. I’ve been out with each two-boat group once already; at night; layin’ a waterborne bush. It was a cluster-fuck each time. I’m takin’ each group out one more time; I’m gonna show ‘em how to do it one more time; show ‘em how to lay a bush one more time. Then, I’m climbin’ on a big, shinny Freedom Bird and flyin’ back to the WORLD!”
“But what if they don’t do it right?”
“Fuck ‘em! The little people want an American with ‘em; they feel better if they’ve got one of us with ‘em. They ain’t foolin’ me; they’ll keep fuckin’ up just to keep me here. Well, fuck ‘em! If I tell my liaison, the guy from MACV, that they’re up to speed, he’ll take my word for it.”
“Even if they aren’t?”
He turned to look at the Vietnamese. He had a stern look on his face and a serious tone in his voice. He spoke very loudly; it was obvious that he wanted them to hear what he had to say.
“They better god-damn get it right this time! One more night bush with each two-boat group and I’m out of here!”
I turned to look at the Vietnamese, to see their reaction to what he’d just said. They were all grinning a stupid, shit-eating grin. One or two were mumbling something to each other in Vietnamese, but they all continued to grin that grin. I’d have given a months pay to know what they were saying. Then, there was a long moment of silence. It lasted 20 or 30 seconds. Ski kept staring at them the whole time, a stern, probing, serious stare, and the whole time he was staring they kept grinning those disturbing, irritating, shit-eating grins.
When the stare-down was over, Ski and I boarded the boat tied up at the far end of the dock. We made our way to the rear .50. and in no time at all we had the weapon disconnected from the mount. I grabbed the barrel and he grabbed one of the rear handles and we carried the weapon back to the armory.
I spent the next hour-and-a-half changing out all the internal components and replacing the barrel. Once I had the weapon disassembled, I gave it a complete cleaning. I soaked the old housing in solvent and scrubbed away all the rust. All the new parts, including the spring, were coated with cosmoline, so I had to soak them in solvent, too. Then, when I finally had everything rust and cosmoline-free, I lubricated everything and reassembled the sucker.
I wanted to pre-set the head space and timing, but I didn’t have a gauge, so I went over to where Trips was working and asked if I could borrow one.
“Hey, Trips. You got a gauge?”
“You ain’t got a head space and timing gauge?”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder.
“Damn, Guns! A gunnersmate ain’t a gunnersmate if he ain’t got a gauge!”
He walked over to one of the bins and took a small plastic package out of a box on the middle shelf. He tossed it to me.
“There you go. You can keep it. Tell Dobbs he owes me a beer.”
“Will do. By the way, how many clicks? In ‘A’ School they told us to start with five.”
“I’d start at six. You won’t really know what it needs to be till you test fire the sucker, but I’d start at six. See what kind of play you get with the gauge. If it don’t feel right, twist her all the way in and then back her out five.”
I pre-set the head space and timing and went down to the dock to get Ski.
Ski and I walked back up to the armory and got the .50. We took it back down to the boat and re-attached it to the rear pedestal mount. Once the gun was in place, Ski handed me an ammo box. I opened the box, pulled out the belt of ammo, opened the cover on the .50 and placed the belt in the loading position.
“Hey, man. You want me to lock and load?”
“No. Not yet.”
I removed the belt and closed the cover.
Ski then told the crew to make preparations for getting underway. He yelled to the crew two boats down and issued the same instructions to them. The Vietnamese were very slow to respond. That irritated Ski and he yelled at them again.
“Come on, you fuckers! Get the lead out!”
They were still slow to respond. It seemed like they were moving in slow motion. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry at all.
“God-damn little people. They just don’t take this shit seriously.”
Ski motioned for me to come with him and we walked over to the base radio room. We walked inside and Ski had a brief conversation with the duty radio operator. He told him that we were going up-river for a click or two and that we’d be test-firing a weapon. Ski knew that the personnel on-base would probably be able to hear the firing and he wanted the radio guy to know it was a test. He asked the radio guy to get the word to anybody who needed to know. He said that he would and we left and returned to the dock.
The Vietnamese still weren’t ready. Ski went ballistic and called them a bunch of names in Vietnamese. They grinned those stupid, shit-eating grins again and Ski started cussing them in English.
“God-damn slants! Fuckin’ slopes! Jesus, people! Let’s go!”
It was another ten or twelve minutes before we finally got underway.
Just as we pulled out, Ski instructed me to load the .50 and point the barrel in the safe position - pointing upward - barrel pointing down river- off the fantail of the boat. I did as I was told and we headed west. The boat we were on took the lead with the second boat following two or three boat-lengths behind. Ski was at the controls as we traveled up-river and he gave me a brief overview of PBR operations.
“A single PBR never travels by itself. At the minimum, we always go out in a two-boat tandem. Ordinarily, the boats work a five-day patrol week; two day patrols with a night and a day off, then two night patrols with a day and a night off. Then the whole routine starts over again.
“When the tandems go out, the lead boat is just that, the lead boat. The boat in the rear is the cover boat. On some operations, we might go out in a four or six boat group. I’ve even been on ops where the whole division went out together, but that’s rare. Most of the time the boats go out in pairs and each pair has a pre-assigned section of a waterway to cover.”
“What do you do when you cover a section?”
“You want the long version or the short?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll give you the watered-down long version.
“U.S. Naval forces began operations in Nam in early ‘65. The first real river patrols were part of Operation Market Time - that started in March of ‘65. Basically, Operation Market Time involved interdicting all traffic on the coast and the rivers and checking all Vietnamese civilian craft for arms and other contraband. I don’t know what kind of craft they used then, they called it the Junk Fleet, but the first PBRs didn’t get here till March of ‘66.
“The Mobile Riverine Force ... RAF-1 ... they formed up back then, too.”
“Yea, River Assault Flotilla One - you know - the Riverine Force - Tangos, Monitors, Alphas, Mikes ...”
“Early on, back when the boats were crewed by American crews, the main duty of the PBR force, aside from some special operations in key, hot areas at certain times, was to take the waterways away from Charlie. We went on day and night patrols to monitor civilian river traffic. The Rags still do that today - Market Time is still going on - but in December of ‘68 - here in this neck-of-the-woods - the navy officially replaced Market Time with a campaign called Operation Giant Slingshot.”
“Yea. When you look at a map, the Vam Co Tay and the Vam Co Dong rivers come together and form what looks like a giant slingshot. At the same time they instituted Slingshot, they implemented the ACTOV program.”
“Yea. It’s the biggest fuck-up in the history of the navy!”
“What kind of fuck-up?”
“ACTOV stands for Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese.”
“Ah ... Vietnamization.”
“You got it. Nixon was all over the Pentagon’s ass to get us out of here. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt is COMNAVFORV and he helped implement ACTOV to make Nixon happy.”
“Commander of Naval Forces, Vietnam.”
“I thought he was Chief of Naval Operations ... CNO?”
“Not yet. He’s takin’ over the CNO job sometime next month. Anyway, now there’s talk about a new campaign called Operation Blue Shark; to replace Slingshot. They keep talkin’ about it, but nobody I know seems to know anything about it.”
“So basically, you’re ... I mean ... the little people ... they’re still doin’ the Market Time thing ... interdicting river traffic and checking for arms and contraband?”
“They don’t call it that anymore, but yea. That, and working in support of the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division and the turned-over Mobile Riverine groups in the Slingshot campaign.”
“Ninth Infantry Division?”
“Yea. The Ninth’s all over the place. The Third Brigade of the Ninth is located in Tan An; the RPGs at Mobile Base II support their operations. Anyway, we also do SEAL insertions and extractions. In fact, we’ve got to extract a group of SEALs somewhere on the Vam Co Tay sometime in the next 24 to 36 hours. I’ll probably know what time the pickup is when we get back to Nha Be.”
“A SEAL extraction? Damn! I’d like to see that!”
“Can’t do it, man. We ain’t supposed to ride you support guys. Remember?”
“You’re ridin’ me now!”
“Yea, I know. And if my liaison guy or their patrol officer ever find out, I’m up shit creek without a paddle!”
“Aw, come on. I won’t be a problem, I promise.”
“Can’t do it, man. But trust me, it ain’t no big deal. If the extraction happens during the daytime, all we’ll do is park, sit, wait and bake. If it’s at night, we’ll park, sit, wait and slap mosquitoes. That’s all there is to it.”
“If you know what time the pickup is, why do you have to wait? I’d think the SEALs would be prompt, that they’d be at their extraction point at the appointed time.”
“You’re right. They’re very prompt. If you get the word to pick ‘em up at 1600, they’ll be sittin’ there waitin’ on your ass at 4 o’clock sharp. They’re strack, man! Real strack! SEALs don’t play when they’re in the bush; they’re all business!”
“So! Why do you have to wait and bake, or wait and slap mosquitoes?”
“That used to be SOP when I was with the Riv Div. We always got to a SEAL extraction point early. Real early! It’s just something we always did. We always got there an hour or so early so we could be sure the area wasn’t hot. We didn’t want those SEALs to come crawlin’ out of the bush and find Charlie sittin’ there waitin’ on ‘em.”
“I imagine they’d know whether Charlie was there or not, don’t you?”
“Yea, you’d think so. But Charlie’s pretty clever. He hates the SEALs; he’s deathly afraid of the fuckers; he don’t wanna tangle with ‘em ordinarily. But if he know’s where they’re gonna be; ahead of time; and can lay a trap; set a bush; he’ll do anything to take a team down in a situation like that.”
“Take ‘em down?”
“Yea. Charlie’s got a price on every SEAL head ... a bounty! Now we ain’t talkin’ a couple-of-hundred bucks here! We’re talkin’ big money! Thousands! Thousands per head! That’s one reason the SEALs never insert and extract at the same place twice. They don’t wanna set up a routine that Charlie can figure out and take advantage of later.”
“Thousands per head!”
“How do they collect? I mean, how would their upper level command know that they’d taken down a SEAL?”
“They’d take his head back! At least that’s what they’re supposed to do!”
“Has that ever happened?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I do know that some of the captured cong have said that’s a standing order in their units. If they bring in a SEAL head, they’re in for a big payday!”
“But how would they know they’d killed a SEAL?”
“Trust me, they’d know! Their uniforms; the green face paint; their equipment; their weapons! If they knock down a SEAL, and take his head and his gear back, they’ll know.”
“But why kill ‘em? Seems to me the upper level command would want ‘em alive.”
“No shit! They do! The bounty on a live SEAL is really high!”
“So, why don’t they try to take ‘em alive?”
“I don’t think they could do that; the price would be too high.”
“SEALs don’t leave SEALs in the bush, dead OR alive! A SEAL team will give itself up, exhaust itself, sacrifice itself, they’ll all forfeit their lives to free a captured teammate, or recover the body of a dead one. They don’t leave anybody in the bush; alive, dead or wounded! And Charlie knows that! He knows that if he captures one SEAL, his ass is in the high grass and the lawn mower’s comin’. The other SEALs on that team are gonna be relentless in their attempt to recover the guy. They won’t leave the bush without him. The only way Charlie will attempt to go for a bounty is to take out the whole team; kill ‘em all! He’ll go for the ‘head money’ on the whole team, but he ain’t dumb enough to try the ‘live bounty’ thing ... especially for just one SEAL. No way he’d ever do that!”
“And hey, the SEALs ain’t the only group with a bounty on their heads. There’s a Mike boat in the Riverine Force that’s got a bounty on it, too! Big bucks!”
“No shit! Hey, this looks like a good place. You can use that sandbar up there for target practice.”
Ski throttled back on the engines and made a U-turn in the middle of the river. As he did so, he motioned for the cover boat to turn as well. He yelled a verbal command that was barely audible above the sound of the engines. That verbal command instructed the coxswain on the cover boat to pull ahead and assume the lead position.
“All right, Guns. Give her a series of five or six-shot bursts. Let’s see how she does.”
I assumed a firing position and pointed the barrel of the .50 up-river toward the sandbar Ski had pointed out. I pulled the handle back to chamber a round. I forgot that I’d already done that and an unfired round came flying out. I was embarrassed, but I pretended not to notice. Ski noticed, but he didn’t say anything. I slowly squeezed the butterfly trigger:
‘rat-tat-tat-tat-tat ... rat-tat-tat-tat-tat ... rat-tat-tat-tat-tat’
“Damn, Guns! I think you fixed it! Go full-auto and see what happens.”
“All right! Let her cool down for a second or two, then go back to the short stuff.”
I waited for fifteen or twenty seconds and then popped off three more five-round bursts. The sound was incredibly loud:
‘rat-tat-tat-tat-tat ... rat-tat-tat-tat-tat ... rat-tat-tat-tat-tat’
I turned to look at Ski. He prompted me to continue firing.
“OK. Go full auto again.”
When I stopped firing, I looked at the barrel. It was beginning to glow red-hot.
“Damn good job, Guns! You did it! The beer’s on me tonight!”
“How was my shooting?”
“You’re aiming a little high. See that dead tree over there, on the river bank?”
“Aim just in front of it and a little to the left. Watch where your rounds are hitting. As soon as you see the first rounds hitting the water, walk ‘em up and to the right. Walk ‘em up and into the target. That way, you’ll know where your rounds are going.”
I did exactly what Ski told me to do. The first four or five rounds hit the water and generated incredible splashes that went six-to-eight feet in the air. As I continued to fire, and to walk the rounds into the target, the dead tree trunk began to disintegrate; to explode into a myriad of large, splintered pieces.
“There you go, Guns! Damn, son! You gotta knack for this shit!”
We let the gun cool down again, this time for five or ten minutes, then we went through the same drill again: two or three short bursts, then a blast on full auto. When Ski was satisfied that the weapon was up to par, he hand-signaled the other boat and they fell in behind us - in the cover position - as we passed them and headed back down-river.
Just before we got back to Nha Be, Ski instructed us to clear our weapons. The rest of the crew disengaged their ammo and jacked the handles back to eject the rounds n the chambers. I watched intently and did exactly what they did.
When we got back to Nha Be it was close to supper time. We tied up at the dock and Ski instructed the Vietnamese to clean the rear .50 before they broke for chow. He told me to go back to the Apple to get a bunk for the night. As I headed off toward the armory to pick up my seabag and weapon, Ski yelled at me from the dock.
“Hey, Guns. Meet me at the chow hall in twenty minutes. We’ll grub, then I’ll take you out for them beers I owe ya’.”
“Sounds good. See ya’ in twenty.”
When I walked in the armory, Trips had already placed my gear just inside the doorway.
“Hey, Guns. How’d it go?”
“Great. Worked like a charm.”
“You didn’t have to make an adjustment?”
“Good job! Was Ski happy?”
“Seemed to be. This my stuff?”
“Thanks for keepin’ an eye on it. I’m gonna head back over to the APL and check-in again. Catch ya’ later.”
“I doubt it. I’m gon’ hit the rack early tonight. You guy’s’ll be leavin’ ‘fore the sun comes up, I’m sure. So - just in case we don’t hook up again - keep your head down.”
“You, too. And thanks for all the help ... and the timin’ gauge.”
After a final goodbye to Trips, I walked back over to the APL and checked in with the master-at-arms. He wasn’t surprised to see me. When I told him I hadn’t been able to get a ride, he said it happened a lot. He gave me another set of linen and told me to pick out any rack that was free. I went and found a bunk, made it up, and then stowed my seabag underneath. Then, I walked over to the chow hall to meet Ski.
“Hey, Guns. You get squared away?”
“I went over to the radio room and got the skinny on that SEAL extraction. It’s still on the Vam Co Tay, so droppin’ you off at the Mobase ain’t gon’ be a problem.”
“Good. You sure I can’t go?”
“On the extraction?”
“No way, man! Can’t do it!”
“Oh, well. Can’t blame a man for tryin’.”
“Let’s eat. I’m starvin’.”
We hurried through the chow line and found a table off in a corner. Almost as soon as we sat down, three American Mobile Riverine Force sailors came over and sat down right next to us. They’d met Ski when his old American Riv Div had worked some ops with them six or seven months back. They’d already finished eating and were on their way out when they saw Ski come in.
Ski and the MRF guys seemed genuinely glad to see each other; they talked the whole time we ate. There were never any introductions, so it was like I wasn’t even there. But that didn’t bother me. The stories they told were incredible and I hung on every word.
The story-telling continued for ten or fifteen minutes after Ski and I finished eating, then the MRF guys got up, said their goodbyes and left. They were all on their way to Saigon, their tours were over and they’d be checking out at the Annapolis in a day or two and rotating back to the states.
“Come on, Guns. Let’s go to the bar. I owe you a beer or two for fixin’ that .50.”
I assumed that Ski was going to take me to the E.M. club, but that wasn’t what he had in mind. As we walked out of the chow hall, he made a beeline for the front gate. Once outside the fence, with me in tow, he headed straight for the off-limits bar.
“Hey, man! Ain’t that place off-limits?”
“Won’t we get in trouble?”
“Hey! What they gon’ do? If they put me in the brig, who’s gon’ take the little people up-river? Who’s gon’ check ‘em out and say they’re good to bush? It’s all smoke, man! They don’t want us to go to this place ‘cause every girl that works there has the clap or worse. But we ain’t goin’ to get laid; we’re goin’ to get drunk! Right?”
“Well, come on!”
I followed Ski to the bar. When we walked inside I was shocked. There were sailors everywhere; it was standing room only.
The place was so packed that Ski and I had to wait for more than twenty minutes before we finally got a seat. While we waited for a table, a Vietnamese hostess came over and took our order. Ski told her to bring us two bottles of Ba Mui Ba, and she did. We stood by the door and sipped on them casually. By the time a table finally became available I was already feelin’ a buzz. We went to our table, sat down and I took another swig of my beer.
“What-the-hell is this stuff?”
“Ba Mui Ba. It’s Vietnamese beer. Ba Mui Ba means 33. The alcohol content is 33%. Just sip it now, don’t guzzle!”
For the next 30 minutes or so, Ski and I just talked I noticed that he wasn’t sippin’ his Ba Mui Ba, he was chuggin’ it. So I did the same.
What Ski had to say was a primer on Nam. In our short conversation I learned more about the Vietnamese, the war, the enemy and combat operations than I could ever have learned otherwise. The first thing we talked about were the Vietnamese.
“I’m tellin’ ya, man! The little people are fucked up! And this Vietnamization shit - this ACTOV crap - it ain’t gonna work!”
“Oh, they can do the op shit. They can work the rivers OK. They don’t do it like we did it, but they’ll get by, I ain’t worried about that. It’s the jobs you guys do that’ll be their downfall.”
“Support! The little people can’t handle that shit!”
“Look. They’ve got ten gook gunnersmates in this RPG unit, one on each boat. They all worked on that weapon and couldn’t get it operational. You come in - new as a virgin in a whorehouse - and you get the son-of-a-bitch to work in one try. We didn’t even have to adjust the head space and timin’ on that sucker. They don’t know what they’re doin’. And the bad thing is, they don’t care! They don’t give-a-shit!
“And that ain’t all! They don’t know shit about maintaining and overhauling the engines. That’s gonna be their downfall right there. They’ll run that fuckin’ shit till it breaks ... till it won’t work no more. And guess when that’s prob’ly gon’ happen?”
“On a bush?”
“Bingo! And there they’ll be ... like a bump on a log ... exposed ... like a big, red rash on a piece of whorehouse snatch!
“ACTOV is a fuck-up, man! A royal fuck-up! If we go through with this Vietnamization shit, there ain’t no way these fuckers can win!”
“It seems like the upper-level command would know that. Don’t they know that?”
“Hell yea, they know it! But what they gon’ do? Nixon’s the one pushin’ for this shit. MACV didn’t want no part of it. But Nixon’s ordered them to bring us home. The only way they can do that, on the accelerated timetable Nixon’s got ‘em workin’ on, is to turn the war over to the gooks. What they gon’ do? They gotta do what the big cheese says. And they gotta do it on his timetable. I’m tellin’ ya’, man! It’s one, giant, mother-lovin’ fuck-up!”
Ski waved down a hostess and ordered us another round of Ba Mui Ba. Then, he leaned across the table and spoke to me in a whisper.
“Guns. If you won’t tell anybody, I’ll tell ya’ what I really think.”
He looked around real quick to make sure nobody was listening, then he spoke so softly that I had trouble hearing him.
“I think Nixon and the folks at MACV know we ain’t gon’ win this thing. I think they’ve written the whole thing off already.”
I leaned forward and spoke in a whisper, too.
“Why do you say that?”
“ACTOV! It’s a cluster-fuck! Nixon’s haulin’ us out of here so fast ... guys’ names are showin’ up on flight lists so fast ... HELL ... some of them don’t even have time to get their laundry back from the mama sans. ACTOV, MAN! We’re turnin’ this shit over to the gooks ... and they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground! ACTOV, MAN! ACTOV! The whole thing is a cluster-fuck!
After Ski vented his frustrations, neither one of us said anything for two or three minutes. We just sat there, across from each other, sipping away on our beers. Finally, I broke the silence.
“Hey, Ski. Mind if I ask you a question?”
“No. Go ahead.”
“Aren’t you afraid of ‘em?”
“Afraid of who?”
“The gooks. I mean, the way you talk about ‘em; in front of ‘em; right to their face, don’t you worry that they might try something when your back is turned?”
“You mean like frag me or somethin’? Or shoot me?”
“Yea, I’ve thought about it. And I wouldn’t talk like that if I was permanently assigned; if I was gonna be with ‘em for any length of time. But they know I’m only gonna be here for another week or so. They ain’t gon’ try nothin’.”
“How do you know?”
“Trust me. You gotta be firm with the fuckers or you won’t ever get nothin’ out of ‘em. There’s a line you can’t cross, and I know what that line is.”
“Whadaya’ mean, what?”
“What’s the line? The one you can’t cross?”
“Touchin’ ‘em. You can’t do that! You don’t touch ‘em; you don’t put your hands on ‘em. But that aside, the only way to get anything out of ‘em is to bad-mouth ‘em; dress ‘em down. Trust me. I know what I’m doin’.”
Neither one of us spoke for a minute or two. Ski was chuggin’ away on his Ba Mui Ba and I was thinking about all the things he’d just said. Finally, I took a long, guzzling chug myself.
“Man, this is some strong-ass shit! 33% alcohol, huh? What’s the alcohol content of American beer?”
“The store-bought stuff back in the states is 6%. The stuff they sell the military is that three-point-two shit.”
“Man. I’m half-lit already and I’ve only had two. I wonder why the American brewers don’t bottle a beer like this.”
“Are you kiddin’? You’d have to drink a whole six-pack of Schlitz to get the buzz you’ll get from one bottle of this stuff. Two bottles and you’re zonkered; three and you’re under the table. Hell! If the brewers back in the states had their way, they’d only make the three-point-two shit! That way, you’d have to drink three six-packs just to get a buzz!”
“Damn good point!”
There was a momentary pause as I marveled at the incredible buzz I was experiencing after only two bottles of Ba Mui Ba. I really was half-lit, and my mind started thinking about those crazy things you think about when you find yourself in that condition.
“You know what?”
“Everything’s a conspiracy, ain’t it?”
“Nixon and the Joint Chiefs are turnin’ the war over to the gooks ... who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground ... and the beer manufacturers back in the states are conspiring to sell us watered-down beer!”
“Fuckin’ A, man! Tell it like it is, Guns! Tell it like it is!”
I raised my bottle of Ba Mui Ba and offered up a toast.
“Here’s to the conspiracy!”
We banged our bottles together and then chugged ‘em dry.
While Ski ordered us another round, I began to think about the ACTOV program. I began to wonder how the turnovers had been accomplished.
“How’d the turnover thing work?”
“No, really. How’d it work? Back when you were on the Riv Div, did you guys just wake up one day and there were Vietnamese there to take over your boats?”
“No! The upper level command is bonkers, but they ain’t that crazy!”
“How’d it happen? How’d you do it?”
“By the time ACTOV started we’d gotten to a point where guys were rotating home on a regular basis. That bein’ the case, each time a guy would rotate, we’d just replace him with a gook. Slowly but surely, one man at a time, each boat got turned over. And eventually, each division got turned over.”
“Wait. I thought I read somewhere that the first Riv Divs were formed up by guys who came in-country at the same time. If that’s true, wouldn’t you all have rotated home at the same time?”
“You’re right. Early on, the first units came in-country together, so that meant they were rotating out together. But it didn’t take the upper-level command long to figure out that that wasn’t a good idea. The old, seasoned vets were being replaced by totally green newbies. They didn’t know the rivers, they didn’t know the drill, and some of those totally green units got their britches ironed early on.
“Eventually, the command began to move guys around. When they’d form up a new Riv Div, they’d lift some guys from an existing unit and put them with some newbies to crew the new division. Then, they’d send some newbies over to the old Riv Div to take the place of the men they’d moved to the new one.”
“That makes sense.”
“Almost everybody got moved at least once. I got transferred twice. I don’t think I know anybody who served a whole tour on the same boat. And I only know one or two who stayed with the same Riv Div for a whole tour.”
“So, they’re all turned over now?”
“Far as I know. Now most still have an American advisor or two workin’ with ‘em. The bunch I’m with is the only one I know of that’s completely on their own.”
“And they’re really not ... I mean ... not as long as you’re with ‘em.”
“They will be in a week or so. I’m goin’ home, bubba. I’m gon’ teach ‘em how to bush one more time, then I’m gettin’ on that Freedom Bird and haulin’ butt back to the world.”
The hostess delivered our beers and there was a brief pause while we chugged away on the new ones. Then, out of nowhere, I began to think about the Vietcong. I wanted to know what they were like; how they presented themselves in the bush; whether they were as undisciplined as the South Vietnamese seemed to be.
“Tell me somethin’.”
“What are the V.C. like? Are they like the South Vietnamese? Are they ...”
Ski interrupted me, and when he did, he had a stern, terse look on his face.
“Bullshit! Them fuckers are strack, son! They ain’t nothin’ like the gooks! Charlie’s got his shit together. It’s hard for me to believe that Charlie and the gooks are from the same stock. Our little people are a train lookin’ for a 60 degree downhill grade; they’re a train wreck waitin’ to happen, man! But Charlie’s different. Charlie’s a pro; he’ll take it to you big-time and he knows what he’s doin’! He’s one hell-of-a-fightin’ man! And the N.V.A.! Hell! They’re even better!”
Ski got a wild look in his eyes. He put his elbows on the table, bottle in hand, and leaned forward as he talked.
“Let me tell you somethin’ about Charlie. If he had his way, he’d take it to you hand-to-hand in every fight.”
“To take away your trump cards.”
“Yea. Artillery. Air support. Charlie calls it grabbin’ us by the belt buckle. If he gets in real close, you can’t call that shit in on him. If he’s as close as 100 yards, you can’t call in artillery without that shit landin’ on you, too. Same thing with the Seawolves.”
“Yea. Seawolves. You know what an Army Cobra is? The helicopter?”
“The one where the pilot wears this sighting device like a pair of glasses, and wherever he looks, that’s where his rounds go?”
“Yep. Well, the Army turned a bunch of them bad boys over to the navy and taught some of our pilots how to fly ‘em. The navy version of the Cobra is called a Seawolf, and them suckers are bad! They’ve baled us PBR guys out a buncha’ times. Personally, they’ve saved my ass at least three times that I know of.”
“No shit! Hey, there’s a Seawolf detachment that works out of Ben Luc. That’s just down the road a piece from Tan An ... where the Mobile Base is.”
“Tell me more about this hand-to-hand stuff. Have you ever been hand-to-hand ...with the V.C.?”
“No. But if Charlie could make that happen, he’d do it. He’d do it every time.
“You’ve been on the river, Guns. That river you were on today is typical of the rivers in Nam. It wasn’t that wide, was it?”
“How wide was it? How wide do you think it was?”
“Two hundred feet? Two hundred-and-fifty? Hell! I don’t know.”
“It was more like three hundred. Some are wider, but not by much. And some of the canals are smaller. A lot smaller! Canals are shit, by the way! Canals are bad news. But think about it. A river, a typical river ... let’s use three hundred feet just for grins. If you’re on a PBR, and you’re cruisin’ the river in mid-channel, you’re only a hundred and fifty feet from either bank. A hundred and fifty feet, now! Not yards! That ain’t nothin’! If Charlie’s laid an ambush - up close on the bank - he’s only 150 feet away! Half a football field!”
“How can you call in a Seawolf if he’s that close?”
“If he’s laid his ambush well, you can’t, you’re screwed! But if he hasn’t, if he’s left you a clean channel, then it’s time for a firing run.”
“A firing run? What’s that?”
“Once Charlie opens up on you, and you know where he’s at, you open up on him with everything you’ve got - full auto! Then you haul ass and get on step as fast as you can. “
“Then, you turn your shit around and make a run in the opposite direction. Again, you open up with everything you’ve got - full auto.”
“I thought you were supposed to fire the fifties in short, four or five-round bursts?”
“Not when you’re suppressing fire. When we open up with everything we’ve got - two or more boats - on full auto, we don’t get much return fire if we make a second pass.”
“And that’s called a firing run?”
“So, where do the Seawolves come in?”
“If we need ‘em, we’re spendin’ that time on the firing run calling in coordinates. We keep makin’ firin’ runs, keepin’ their heads down, till the wolves come. Then we clear the area and let them have it.”
“You said you were screwed if Charlie laid his ambush well. What did you mean by that?”
“If you’re cruisin’ down the river, especially at night, and Charlie’s wrecked the channel in the direction you’re movin’ in, you’re screwed.”
“Whadaya mean ‘wrecked the channel’?”
“He might run a wire rope across the river - tie it off to iron spikes he’s driven in the ground - and bring that sucker taught right at the waterline. When he opens up on your ass, you gun the engines and start your run. You get up to top speed - guns-a-blazin’ - then boom! You hit the wire! You’re dead in the water and goin’ down fast! You’re a sittin’ duck! You’re dead meat! And you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll have an ambush set up where that wire rope is, too! A triangulated ambush on both sides of the river!”
“Yea. Three separate ambush points, like the points on a triangle, with each point firing toward the middle, toward the center of the triangulated area. Charlie can box you in and hit you from three directions at once doin’ that, and none of his firing points are vulnerable to the fire from his other positions. He learned that shit from the Green Berets.”
“Now, where was I? Oh, yea ... the wire rope across the channel. Imagine the same scenario, but you see the rope and turn before you hit it. You cut your down river run short and head back in the other direction, starting a run up-river. You can’t get on step - the wire forced you to turn too early - but you settle for what you can get. In the meantime, at a point on the far side of where they’ve set up the bush, beyond the first location they hit you from, they’ve got another wire rope across the river. It was there all the time, you passed right over it comin’ down-river, but it wasn’t pulled taught. As soon as you passed it, Charlie was pullin’ it taught and tyin’ it down. Now, there’s a wire rope you know about blocking one avenue of escape, and a wire rope you don’t know about blockin’ the other. If you don’t see the second wire, boom! You’re dead in the water! You’re dead, period! If you’re lucky, and you see the second wire, you can turn around again. You’ve got to keep movin’, though, you never want to be a stationary target. And you’ve got to keep shootin’. But your ammo ain’t gon’ last too long in a situation like that. There’s not enough channel left to get up to speed in either direction, so you’re gonna get chewed up bad. If somethin’ like that ever happens ... well ... in a situation like that, you can call in the wolves if you want to, but it won’t do you any good.”
“What are you sayin’? Are you sayin’ I’d be dead?”
“Cold to the touch, ashen-gray in color, eyes wide open and the rigor settin’ in!”
“God! Has that ever happened?”
“Hell, yea! Shit like that happens all the time. I’m tellin’ ya’, Charlie’s bad! In the last year or so, he’s learned how to fuck the boats; he’s adapted to the way we used to do things and he’s gotten damn good at fuckin’ that shit up. That’s why I’m worried about the gook navy. I’m tellin’ ya’, Charlie’s real bad! Don’t ever think you’ve got him figured out, man! You’re dead if you do!”
Our conversation was suddenly interrupted when a PBR sailor Ski hadn’t seen in a while came over and tapped him on the shoulder. The PBR sailor was on his way out of the bar and he didn’t stay long. While they talked, I thought about what Ski had just said. I was under no illusion; life on the rivers was dangerous. But in spite of the dangers involved, I still wanted to go on that SEAL extraction. I made up my mind to make one more appeal, to ask Ski one more time if I could go. When the PBR sailor left, I started to ask him, but Ski interrupted me.
“Ski, about that ...”
“So, Guns. Tell me about you. Where you from? How long you been in the navy?”
“Well. I was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia. Graduated from high school in ‘66. Got a music scholarship to Auburn University ...”
“No shit. Anyway, after two years of college, I decided that music wasn’t what I wanted to major in, so I dropped out of school.”
“You dumb sack-a-shit!”
“Yea. No kiddin’. And as soon as the draft board knew I wasn’t enrolled anymore, wham! I get a notice in the mail to report for an induction physical. I went to see the navy recruiter the very same day and he started the paperwork.”
“Did you wanna be a gunnersmate?”
“No. I joined the navy on the UDT/SEAL program. I always figured ...”
Ski seemed surprised, and he interrupted me in mid-sentence.
“You came in on the BUDS program?”
“What happened? Why’d you drop out?”
“I wasn’t cut out for that shit.”
“You couldn’t hack it?”
“It was hard, don’t get me wrong. But it was more the mental part of it than the physical. Those guys are a different breed. They eat, sleep and breathe that shit. I didn’t. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my time in the navy runnin’ 20 miles-a-day back in the states, or humpin’ through the boonies in Nam.”
“The reason I wanna go on the extraction is ... well ... I thought maybe some of the guys in my class might be over here now. I sure would like to see ‘em again; four of ‘em in particular.”
“When were you in training?”
“Our class formed up in June of ‘69.”
“Let’s see. July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April ... that’s ten months. I don’t know. Seems like I heard one of ‘em say once that it took ‘em over a year to get here.”
“Well ... it takes what, eighteen weeks to complete BUDS? Then they go to paratrooper training at Fort Benning. And while they’re there, some of ‘em go through Ranger training. Then, they have to do cadre training and be assigned to a team. All that shit takes time. Seems like I heard one of ‘em say it took him over a year to get here.”
“But what if it only takes ten months? What if some of ‘em are already here? What if one of those guys you’re pickin’ up is one of my friends?”
“Aw, come on, Guns! Don’t do that to me!”
“Come on, Ski. I won’t be any trouble, I promise. Take me along for the ride. I promise, I won’t be any trouble at all.”
“Guns, if it was any other time, I’d do it. If that shit wasn’t goin’ down in Cambodia right now, I’d do it. But I can’t. Things are just too whacky right now. That Cambodian shit’s got everybody on edge.”
“What Cambodian shit?”
“You ain’t heard?”
“Nobody really knows for sure, and that’s the problem. Seems a month or so ago, some-time in the middle of March, the Cambodian prime minister, some guy named Lon Nol, he goes on the radio and gives all the Vietnamese living in Cambodia 24 hours to leave the country or else.”
“Or else what?”
“That if they didn’t leave within 24 hours, blood would be spilled.”
“Damn! He threatened the North Vietnamese?”
“The North Vietnamese are in Cambodia, that’s for sure. They’ve totally taken over the sanctuary ... the area on the Cambode side where the Bode borders the Nam. But the North Vietnamese ain’t the only Vietnamese over there.”
“Seems that thousands of South Vietnamese have moved to Cambodia, too.”
“Yea. A lot of wealthy South Vietnamese, especially men with sons that are draft age, have moved their families to Cambodia to keep them out of the military and the war over here.”
“And that ain’t all. These wealthy South Vietnamese have totally taken over the commercial district in Phnompenh, the Cambodian capital. Almost all the businesses in Phnom-penh are owned by South Vietnamese, and as other, less-wealthy South Vietnamese immigrate, they’re giving them all the jobs in their businesses. The Cambodians are pissed and they’ve been puttin’ a lot of pressure on the government to do something about it.”
“And now they have.”
“Boy, have they! When that 24-hour period passed, bodies started turnin’ up in the rivers flowing out of Cambodia.”
“The RPG units were pullin’ bodies out of the rivers on a daily basis after that. The Cam-bode civilians went on a rampage and started killin’ South Vietnamese civilians. And it wasn’t just the civilians they hit. They hit the North Vietnamese Interest Section in Phnompenh, too.”
“No! And now, MACV thinks this Lon Nol guy might be makin’ plans to get Cambodia involved in the war over here.”
“A coup. If he takes over the government from Sihanouk, MACV’s afraid he’ll declare war on the North Vietnamese and get Cambodia involved in the fight.”
“Norodom Sihanouk is a prince, a descendant of the old, royal Cambodian dynasty, and he’s the head of the Cambodian government, but right now, he’s on vacation in France.”
“Geez! This is insane! Why would Lon Nol do that?”
“He’s crazy, man! His elevator’s broke! It definitely don’t go all the way to the top floor!”
“Obviously. Why-in-the-hell would he do that?”
“Well, all I can figure is it’s a racial thing. The Cambodes and the gooks don’t like each other, they been fightin’ each other forever. It’s pure, unadulterated hatred, man; and it’s been goin’ on for centuries. For hundreds of years now, when the gooks ain’t been fightin’ the Chinese, they been fightin’ the ‘Bodes. They’re like cats and dogs, man! They hate each other bad!”
“If the Cambodians hit the North Vietnamese embassy ...”
“Whatever. That means the North Vietnamese are gonna hit ‘em back.”
“No shit! And that’s the problem! I mean, let’s face it ... as soon as they did that, as soon as the ‘Bodes hit the North Vietnamese, that was a declaration of war right there! The North Vietnamese are prob’ly mobilizin’ to whip Lon Nol’s ass right now; as we speak!”
“Damn! If the North Vietnamese do somethin’, that means we’re gonna have to do some-thin’. Right?”
“Right! I bet Nixon’s pissed! This is gonna fuck up his ACTOV thing big-time!”
“You’re right, though. We’re gonna have to do somethin’. Hell, we been fightin’ for ten years now to keep Nam from fallin’, to keep it from bein’ the first country in Southeast Asia to fall under communist control.”
“The domino theory!”
“Right. But now, Cambodia could be the first domino!”
“What kind of army do they have? The Cambodes?”
“North Vietnam’s got more men in one of their regiments than Lon Nol’s got in his whole god-damned army!”
“Yea! No shit! It ain’t lookin’ too good, is it?”
“No, it ain’t!”
There was a brief pause in the conversation. Ski finished off his Ba Mui Ba while I thought about the mess in Cambodia. Then, I thought about the extraction again. I still wanted to go, so I decided to make one last appeal.
“Come on, Ski. Take me with you ... on the extraction.”
He thought for moment, then he leaned across the table and spoke in a soft, quiet voice.
“You were in BUDS training, huh?”
“And you think you might have some friends on this team?”
“Maybe. Hell, stranger things have happened. Right?”
“Yea, I’ve had an experience or two like that myself. Ah, what-the-hell. You handled that .50 well enough. But that’s it! I’ll take you on this one ride, but that’s it! OK?”
“Well, come on. We need to turn in. It’s gonna be a long day tomorrow. A long night, too.”
“It’s gonna be a long day AND a long night. We’re goin’ on an extended patrol; I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone.”
“The extraction is scheduled for 0800 day-after-tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’m gon’ take two boats down to the extraction point. We shouldn’t have any trouble gettin’ there by late in the day. We’ll set up our bush there. We’ll do the bush all night. Then, when 0800 comes, we’ll pick up the SEALs. One stone, two birds. One patrol, two assignments.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Well, come on then. You’re berthed in the Apple, right?”
“Me, too. When we get there, show me where your rack is and I’ll come and get you in the mornin’.”
We got up from the table and made our way outside. On the way back to the Apple, Ski gave me some last-minute instructions.
“Tomorrow mornin’, don’t put on any deodorant, after-shave lotion or cologne.”
“Charlie can smell that shit. He can smell it a mile away.”
“And don’t bathe in no scented soap, either.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.”
When we got back to the Apple, I showed Ski where my bunk was, then he went to his bunk and I collapsed in mine. I was really feeling the alcohol. When my head hit the pillow I felt like everything was spinning around, totally out of control. The disoriented feeling finally subsided and I drifted off to la-la land.
Ski woke me up at 0515. I was wrecked. The Ba Mui Ba had done a number on me. I’d consumed three bottles of the stuff, the equivalent of three six-packs of any stateside American brew, and the hangover was brutal.
“Come on, Guns. We gotta get a move on.”
“Aw, man! Give me another ten minutes, OK? I’m dyin’!”
“Take all the time you want. But if you wanna ride, you need to boogie.”
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’!”
I slowly came to a sitting position and moved my feet over the side of the bunk to the floor. Every move, no matter how insignificant, was agony. I ached all over, and I could feel my heart pounding in my brain.
“I’m serious, Guns. You need to boogie. If you can make it to the chow hall in 20 minutes you’ve still got time to eat. We’re pullin’ out in 45. If you’re there, you get to ride. If you ain’t, you don’t.”
As Ski walked away, I forced myself to stand. I dragged my seabag out from under the bunk and opened it. I grabbed my shaving kit, a towel and a clean change of skivvies and stumbled to the head.
I shaved, showered and got dressed as quickly as possible, then I threw my shaving kit and dirty clothes in my seabag and started ripping the linen off the bunk. I shoulder-slung the M-14, shouldered my seabag, grabbed the linen and headed for the master-at-arms desk. There was nobody there. I didn’t want to miss chow so I just threw the linen on the desk and left. When I got to the chow hall I dropped my gear just inside the door and rushed through the chow line. I was hung over bad, but I was hungry. I sat down at a table with three other sailors and was immediately enthralled by their topic of conversation.
“Man, they’re just stuck up there! They may die up there!”
“Can they get ‘em down? I mean, surely there’s somethin’ they can do!”
I had no idea what they were talkin’ about, but whatever it was sounded bad. I wanted to know, so I asked.
“Excuse me. Who’s stuck where?”
“Apollo 13. They’re on their way to the moon. Something happened and now they’re stuck up there. The ground crew in Houston’s trying to work something out; tryin’ to figure out how to get ‘em back home again, but right now it ain’t lookin’ too good!”
“Damn! What happened?”
“Somethin’ blew up!”
“On the spacecraft?”
“No kiddin’. The last report I heard was that they were going to have to go behind the moon and get a slingshot effect from the moon’s gravity to sling ‘em back toward earth.”
“Yea. And they all had to move into the lunar module. They had to shut down the power in the main spacecraft.”
“Man! That don’t sound good!”
I didn’t usually say grace before I ate, but this time I did. I prayed for the crew aboard Apollo 13. Then I scarfed down my breakfast, grabbed my gear and made a beeline for the PBR dock.
<< 11: Saigon || 13: The River >>