by W. Mahlon Purdin
1. Introductory poem
We were boys, really.
Not the great men depicted in history at all.
We talked about girls and sex,
We talked about parties and high school,
We laughed like fools as we roared
Down the rivers in powerful boats
Bristling with guns.
It wasn’t ours to question, really.
We were told to go there, go here:
I remember the finger pointing to a spot
On the map and thinking, “OK, we’ll go there.”
That it became a corner of hell,
With wild things flying at us out of the night,
Was not our doing.
In combat you learn to duck, really.
And think quickly. It’s not so much about
Glory and courage, it’s more like
Maximizing the chances for survival
For everyone. After all these years,
What I remember most?
We were boys. Really.
2. He Always Loved Being On the Water
The hot air blasted over their oily hands, their fingers on the triggers. The brackish water sprayed into the air at both sides as the boat pounded its way through the brown muddy waters of the Bassac River at 30 knots or more.
They were only boys. Dressed in their hand-me-down camouflage and native black silk, wearing sandals made of old tires and rough black rubber, these young men of America’s riverine warfare effort were intent on loading their guns and avoid going overboard as their boat wildly careened around the meandering rivers and bucked abruptly to avoid local watercraft or sand bars.
He was on the bow and was working faster than the others because he had two guns to load: twin 50-caliber Browning automatic machine guns in a gun turret that could turn and fire to the sides, or even backwards to some degree, but the devastating fire it could lay down directly ahead was the gun mount’s strength. He was pulling on the belts of ammunition and pushing them into the holders on each side of the weapons. There was sweat on the back of his shirt, and his hair was flying boyishly in the wind of the boat’s passage.
He always loved being on the water.
Amidships the weapons array was almost ready as well — a smaller machine gun, an M-60, with belts of ammunition trailing down into a canister, the other end locked and ready. In that same area of the boat, another weapon was also mounted. It had a belt of potato-sized grenades and a hand crank. It was just now fully armed and ready to go. The midships sailor was adjusting his flak jacket and helmet and yelling happily at the coxswain. “Man was she sweet! What a body!” He moved his fingers to his lips, blew a kiss into the hot tropical air, in the direction of the coxswain. He had extended his arm and then held it there dramatically. For a moment he was frozen. Framed by the dull green of the patrol boat and the jungle foliage racing by. The seamless blue sky held his upper body motionless as though embossed. “Oh, yeaaah,” he concluded with smiling relish, “what a fucking babe she was!”
The coxswain threw a dirty rag downwind at him, hitting him in the face and shouted over the engines’ roar, “In your dreams, loser!”
3. The Sampan
The aft gun station was being readied by an overweight young baby-faced crew member. He kept looking around, skittishly, back and forth between his gun and the rest of the crew. He looked awkward in his uniform and uncomfortable with the belts and flak jacket. His helmet didn’t seem to fit well either. The ammunition he was trying to belt into his weapon slipped and, slinky-like, fell, link after link, to the deck of the boat. The rounds rattled on the deck in the vibrations of the roaring twin diesels at full bore. He looked around and then bent to pick them up and started over again. The midship-sailor shouted at him to be careful and check for any damage to the gun belt.
He heard something and yelled, “What?” The midships sailor muttered, “For Christ’s sake,” and stepped off the engine covers down to the after station and grabbed the belt from him. “Look,” he said, screaming over the engines, “be careful. If one of these little doo-hickeys gets bent, the gun will jam. You could get dead.” And then he went back to the weapons of his own station thinking about smooth thighs and wild lies.
The boats, one “lead” and one “cover,” went screaming on down the river throwing up huge sheets of bow waves and rooster-tailing wakes that ultimately crashed into the river banks long after the two boats were out of sight. The boys talked all the way there.
It was just a routine harassment and interdiction patrol. They had done it a hundred times. Not as a crew, though. The squadron had suffered heavy casualties, 70 percent of its corps had been killed over the past year, and more seriously wounded. Three of the crew — forward gunner, coxswain, and midships had sailed together before. The fourth crew member was new and green.
Standard orders for these patrols were to stop anything they encountered on the river, search it, and if suspect, destroy it without compunction. Each sailor carried a sidearm, grenades, and an M-16, in addition to the larger weapons of each station on the boat. The PBR and its crew were really packing.
The boats both carried many thousands of rounds of ammunition and hundreds of 20-mm grenades each. Compared to the manually constructed sampans and crude indigenous river craft, these American war machines might as well have been from another planet. The putt-putt of the sampans was no match for the twin-jacuzzi water jets, advanced diesels, and sleek hydrodynamic design.
Rushing past, the Americans laughed as they, at times, swamped or capsized the overloaded boats with just their wakes, which was nothing compared to the damage their guns could do.
“Sampan ahead!” The coxswain shouted the warning.
The two boats swooped up on the 35-foot craft, crammed full of people and circled it at full speed, people screaming as their boat dangerously rocked in the wakes, taking on brown Bassac River water as mothers held their babies up to keep them dry.
Suddenly, the forward gun mount began firing, the excruciating noise terrified everyone, and the screaming got louder. The water around the sampan exploded with the round impacts. The two American boats stopped abruptly, their wakes catching up and throwing water high in the air, stirring up the turbulence around the sampan even more.
Two Americans from the lead boat were training M-16s on the people in the sampan and a third, the after gunner, was firing into the air. He shouted in Vietnamese, dừng lại! ” Stop.”The putt-putting of the engine stopped immediately, and the craft drifted, gliding alongside the two PBRs, rocking the people inside, the water in the bilges now reaching over their ankles and making the craft’s stability awkward as it sloshed back and forth. The two Americans jumped into the sampan and violently began searching everything on board, The after gunner covered them. The coxswain idled the engines and held the boat’s position steady. Then there was gunfire and screaming, now bloodcurdling. People were rushing around, panicked in the narrow sampan, one fell overboard into the river. More gunfire and the thrashing in the water stopped. More gunfire. More screaming. The two Americans came back aboard their boat. “All clear. One KIA, several WIAs,” one said. There was a rush of water spraying high as the coxswains expertly gunned their engines, completely swamping the sampan, throwing people into the water holding babies, children swimming, boxes and crates of fruit floating and churning in the jacuzzi wakes. The swamped sampan spun in the moving water as though circling a drain, people holding onto it, helping each other, many crying and still screaming, although softer now as the two boats raced away, continuing on their patrol.
4. Cocked, Locked, and Ready to Rock
The high speed of the boats smoothed the river passage and for a time they seemed to be flying. The crew was cleaning guns and eating c-rations, talking over the roar of the engines. “Well, you know, she had great tits. Not much to look at in the face department, but brother those hooters! Guys were standing in line.” The coxswain looked at him, and shook his head. “You guys are going to get screwed. Those girls are dirty. What are you thinking?” The midships sailor laughed. “What are you talking about? Ass is ass. This is war. Gotta get what you gotta get.”
The after crew member was sitting on the step of the engine cover alone watching the wake streaming away.
“What do you think shithead is thinking about?”the coxswain asked, keeping his eyes ahead most of the time, both hands on the helm. His left hand was at about 9 o’clock and his right hand was holding the “suicide knob.” He could grab this “knob” and spin the wheel. The boat, at full speed, nose down, could turn around in its own wake. Amazing to see. Many sailors had been thrown overboard by this sudden maneuver. Many sailors had also been saved by it.
The midship sailor answered. “Probably nothing. He’s just sitting there like a big turd waiting to be killed.”
They both laughed at that comment. The forward gunner was watching, but he couldn’t hear anything. The rushing of the boat pushed the voices in the wrong direction. He could see their lips moving and their heads thrown back in laughter, but all he could hear was the bow wave and the hot wind rushing by. It’s always like this, he thought. I’m up here, can’t hear anything. He saw the cover boat about a hundred feet back in the wake. He saw the coxswain of that boat talking on the radio and shouting something to his crew. The forward gunner realized that his own coxswain was also shouting at him. “We’re going in! Get ready!” He knew what that meant. The radio call had identified a fire area. He jacked back the cocking handles on his guns with a full body lurch backward, and one round in each gun was driven home as he released the handles, holding his hands high as the slides went home. Two thumbs up over his head told the rest of the crew that the main attack weapons of the boat were cocked, locked and ready to rock. Both boats turned smoothly and at top speed headed toward a small inlet just ahead. The land was now rushing towards them.
The boats raced fearlessly into the inlet. This was exciting to the crew. Steering around corners by radar anticipation, the boats were causing a sensation of activity among the people living in and around there. The powerful wakes were crashing immediately on the very near shores; the inlet couldn’t be more than 50 feet wide. The bow waves actually thrusted through some of the huts’ openings into the living areas, floods coming out the doors. The crew, alert at their guns, were all talking happily. One of the boat crews opened up, and suddenly there was gunfire everywhere, huts being torn apart people screaming, fires starting. And then the boats emerged again into a wider portion of the river and raced away down river. “Any rounds received?” the coxswain screamed. “I saw some weapons,” said the midships sailor, “but we were gone before they knew what hit them!”
“Kill zone dead ahead!” All eyes were trained forward. Stretching as far as the they could see was the confluence of the river, the jungle’s edge, and the flawless blue sky. The coxswain was concentrating on the radar scope, the boats still at full speed, nearing 40 miles per hour with the current. It was normal to move around the boat at these breakneck speeds for the crew. It took new sailors a while to get used to, but there was safety in speed and everyone knew it. “All stop,” the coxswain shouted, and the cover boat shadowed the maneuver.
Now the boats were gliding on their momentum until they came to a dead stop in the water. The only movement the gentle current. They were within 100 yards of the shoreline, nothing remarkable showing, no structures, no trails, just jungle at the river’s edge. Nothing at all unusual. “Throw over the hooks!” The boats anchored. The quiet was unsettling to the crews. The sounds of the engines still filled their ears. The crews of the two boats were shouting to each other, voices echoing off the jungle. There was laughter and the forward gunner dove into the river to cool off. Soon everyone was swimming, and it started to sound like a party. Back on the boats, the crews had lunch and the two boat coxswains discussed the assignment and then moved the anchors closer to shore.
“Man your stations. Prepare for harassment fire.” All eight crew members, four per boat, went to their assigned positions and noisily began to ready their weapons.
5. Kill Zone
Two twin 50’s, each capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute; two aft single 50’s, equally deadly; two portable M-60 machine guns amidships; two Mark 19 grenade launchers capable of spitting out 50 20-mm grenades a minute. Each grenade contained a department-store-size explosion.
Everything now trained on the water’s edge at the specified grid on the map. The coxswains checked and rechecked the coordinates and confirmed each other’s solutions.
“Yep. This is it! Commence firing!”
There wasn’t any discussion about what they did next. It had all been done many times before. Only the aft gunner was a little confused, but as the firing commenced, he got the hang of it right away. The guns blazed. The jungle trees shook at first and then began to change, thinning, burning and being swept away by the onslaught of lead and explosives.
A pattern emerged. Each gunner started low and, by increments, notched their weapons a little higher for each pass. Like gardeners with scythes and weed whackers they were leveling the vegetation and sending round after round deep into the jungle, tearing and destroying everythings in their path. Trained to cover every inch, they worked at their craft with skill and grim determination. The designated area was about the length of a football field and apparently uninhabited.
As in so many things Navy, they had learned not to question. Confirmation of their firing could be being made by B-52 surveilliance so far overhead as to be all but invisible to them. In the high-tech war, one carried out his orders with the awareness of operating under the eye in the sky. They were diligent. After about an hour they took a break for coffee and cigarettes. Some of the crew swam again. One boat towed skiers around. Most PBR sailors were excellent water skiers. In fact, at this moment, one might have mistaken them for beach boys. In their nakedness, sun tans, and muscled bodies, they appeared to be anything but what they were.
After the break, it was business as usual. The firing resumed. The boats were riding noticeably higher as the weight of ammunitions stores was expended, the casings thrown overboard. The target area was now on fire or smoldering and pretty much completely cleared out a hundred yards back from the edge. Nothing had escaped the ongoing enfilade. At times the tracers were as thick as fireflies, and not even a bird or a large insect could skirt around them there were so many. Trees were splintered; dirt was thrown in the air violently. And the firing continued.
There was a small stream that wound its way inland, and the heavy 50-caliber rounds had hit it so many times that the water was gone, and the banks were pockmarked with smoking, muddy craters. And still the firing continued.
The coxswain yelled at the after gunner for a round count. He knew that the most inexperienced crew members fired the most rounds. “Two boxes,” came the screamed reply over the cacophony of gunfire and explosions. “Cease fire!” ordered the coxswain. All guns quiet, the only sound to be heard was that of the gun barrels crackling as they cooled and the clearing of chamber rounds and tossing casings overboard. The eight men on two boats looked approvingly at their work. Total devastation. The area was cleared beyond a doubt.
The coxswain looked at the midships sailor and said, “We killed them weeds dead, Baby!” The midships sailor laughed. The coxswain made an encoded radioed report and then instructed the crews to prepare to leave the area with the traditional “prepare to weigh” command. Attention was now turning back to the big river and getting their patrol back to home base. They had been on station about seven hours.
“Holy Jesus! Look at that!” Someone shouted, pointing towards the area they had been firing on.
In the still of the Vietnamese afternoon, when the heat is volcanic and clouds gather for the sheeting rains that always come, there is a humidity so thick that it wets your face. Your clothes stick and chafe as you move. You want to take them off. After hours of gunfire the cordite is thick on your face and arms, and it grits in the wet and sweat. The sailors’ faces were streaked with it, and it has the effect of mascara running down your cheeks, you keep trying to wipe it away. This effect created a look of sadness as though all the sailors had been crying. It also was a little ghoulish looking, like miners coming up.
The eight of them stood staring at the land like they were frozen in a bizarre photo. They were looking at a small white flag of truce waving uncertainly in the midst of the destruction.
Someone said, “What the fuck?” And suddenly a gun fired a burst, and the flag exploded and the stick holding it splintered in the air.
“Cease fire!” the coxswain yelled holding up his hand. The crews moved to their stations and adjusted their helmets, not knowing what was coming next. A small frail hand came up into view. Waving, trying to get attention. Thinking they didn’t see my flag. Thinking maybe they don’t see me.
Next there was a movement. Something moving. The coxswain shouted to the crews who started jacking back the guns, “Stand down. Wait for my command.” Everyone stood still and waited. And watched. The movement continued. The small bow of a tiny sampan, no larger than six feet long and two feet wide, obviously handmade, came into sight. There seemed to be no one aboard, but it continued to move. The crew could see now that there was someone in it, but he was keeping low, huddling the bilge. The boat continued, now moving near the main river’s edge. Again, out of training, someone jacked back a gun, readying to fire if necessary. The coxswain held up his hand; it was unnecessary to repeat his order. Everyone was watching incredulously as the sampan moved away from the river’s edge and toward the American boats 50 yards away. It was being paddled by hidden hands along the hidden side. All guns now were trained on the little scene. A head showed itself. An old man with a long gray beard that trailed into the boat. He was hiding something.
The coxswain unholstered his .45 and fired three rounds rapidly into the air and one within inches of the boat into the water. The sampan stopped. The old man raised his hands above his head in a fearful, hopeless gesture of surrender. The coxswain ordered him in Vietnamese to stand. Another person was beneath him. It was a small boy.
The coxswain ordered the old man to bring the sampan to the boat. As he approached, the crew noticed the foul smell of the sampan; it’s passengers’ fear had racked their bodies. Then the badly damaged sampan swamped, and they were swimming for it. The crew roughly dragged them into the PBR. The swamped sampan broke into pieces. Personal belongings and cans of food floated away or sank. The old man and the boy looked at the pieces of their boat, their lives.
Their clothes were burned and full of holes from shrapnel and bullets. The old man’s beard was singed and his skin was bleeding from grazing wounds. The boy was unhit, but he was burned and terrified. The midships gunner slugged the old man so hard he hit the side of the boat and fell overboard, and then he tried to kick the boy, but the others stopped him.
“Stop it!” the coxswain screamed, pushing the after gunner away and pointing to the water. “Get him back in here.” The midships sailor and the forward gunner came to get the old man back aboard.
The crew stood looking at the two of them. Wet, scared, bleeding, beaten, half naked and huddling in the back of the boat. “Pathetic,” said the gunner. “What a couple of shithead gooks. Just our luck.” He knew there was going to be a lot of paperwork.
The small boy licked his dry lips. The old man touched the boy’s hand. “What a couple of lucky sons-of-bitches,” said the coxswain. The old man’s fingers squished the blood and dirt on the boy’s hand as he gripped it a little tighter. The boy’s eyes were kept low but were now looking around as though sensing danger passing, life going on. His eyes lifted a little and caught the eye of the forward gunner through the coxswain’s flat as he returned to his mount in the bow. The forward gunner was from a small town in New England where as a boy he tooled around in the harbor in a little boat of his own. As he hitched on his helmet and cleared casings from the seat of the gun mount, resuming his station, he looked back and saw the little boy still furtively watching him. The barrels of the twin guns were still very warm to touch, the hot metal smell reached the sailor’s nostrils with a familiarity as he settled in, still looking back at the boy. The boy blinked. A flash of something there, like hope or maybe just a flicker.
The forward gunner saw it, squinted his eyes in the afternoon sun at the boy. Shook his head slightly and smiled briefly, almost to himself. The boy’s eyes widened at the gesture as the sailor turned to his guns and adjusted his seat. All the boy could see now was the back of his helmet, the collar of the flak jacket, and the gun barrels moving into position. The forward gunner was thinking about the Vietnamese boy huddling near the transom and of that boy back in New England in a boat tooling around in the harbor. He lifted up and turned to look back again. The boy’s head was buried in the old man’s arms. They had survived somehow.
The forward gunner dropped back into the gun mount seat, his hands on the guns, mentally shrugging it off. There was still a long way to go before it was over. This was just one patrol of many he had made and one of the many more patrols he would make before he was home again.
“Hold on boys, we’re getting underway!” the coxswain shouted.
The engines roared and both boats spun in the water gracefully and forcefully spraying water in the air from the jacuzzis’ acceleration as they turned and sped off downriver. The churned-up water swirled around in the watery mist. A dissipating rainbow appeared in the boats’ wake.
The impact fires were still burning quietly on the shore. Smoke still rose slowly even after the distant roar of the diesel engines had faded away.
For a time it was quiet by the river there; the jungle still smoldering. And then the rains began.