"Swift Boat - Tour of Duty"
as told by then
GMGSN Tim Raymond Eichholtz

Preface

This is one sailor’s story of his experience's during the Vietnam war. It represents the life of the majority of the sailors and officers who served on Swift boats during the period of time from 1966 through about the middle of 1968. I don’t remember everything that went on that year, but I believe I have captured the most interesting parts of it; probably why it didn’t turn out as long as I thought it would.

The ‘60s were a turbulent time for America, especially after the TET offensive occurred. TET was the Vietnamese celebration of their Chinese New Year. We figured that the North Vietnamese and the VC (Viet Cong or South Vietnamese communists) decided that this was the best time to attack. The people of South Vietnam would be celebrating their holiday, and both the American and South Vietnamese military would be in a relaxed state. As more modern news reporting systems were in place than there was during World War II, the American military was caught by surprise by what the American people saw on television and how they reacted to it. The US military was trying to justify what they were doing over in Vietnam. Our presence there was generated by a request from the South Vietnamese government. This request was to become known as a policing action. Thus it was controlled by the politicians in Washington, D.C. instead of the military forces that were on the ground.

Temperatures in Vietnam are generally 80 – 100 degrees F, with equally high humidity. Mosquitoes, dry land, water-leeches, ants, scorpions, centipedes, snakes, and flies caused many problems during the war. Malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, diarrhea, “undiagnosed fevers,” heat exhaustion, and dehydration were common ailments.

There were few roads in the Delta, and the primary mode of travel was the waterways. The Mekong Delta branches into three rivers from north to south. These rivers are the Song My Tho, the Song Ham Luong, and the Song Go Chien. The Nhon Trach River to the east defines the Delta’s north edge. The Nhon Trach flows from the north through Saigon and on to the Rung Sat (Forest of Assassins). The Rung Sat was a Viet Cong-dominated mangrove swamp. The Nhon Trach River to the east is the winding Long Tau Channel which is the ship route to Saigon’s seaport. These rivers are hundreds of yards wide. There are scores of smaller rivers and streams – 1,500 miles of natural navigable waterways. The Delta’s Viet Cong controlled about a quarter of the 8,000,000 population; there were no North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops in this area. The VC destroyed many of the bridges, making the waterways even more important to the South Vietnamese. Waterways security was essential to trade, fishing, and transportation since much of South Vietnam’s rice was produced in the Delta. There were 70,000 Main and Local Force VC in the Delta, plus 11,000 political cadres operating the Popular Liberation Front’s shadow government. The VC was organized into three regiments, 20 battalions, and 69 companies.

With all of the rivers, canals, deltas, and coast line that make up South Vietnam and with all of the infiltration of supplies and arms to the VC through these water accesses, the U. S. Army turned to the U.S. Navy to provide a solution to their problem. The Navy came up with several types of boats to address the problem. This was the introduction of the Swift Boat (PCF), River patrol boats (PBR), and the bringing in of the U.S. Coast Guard cutters for the patrol of the coast line, deltas, rivers and waterways. Engagements were often at close range and the lightweight materials used in the boats’ construction (fiberglass, plywood, and aluminum) offered no protection. As a group, the brown water sailors were highly trained and motivated. Many volunteered for the duty and served one-year tours in Vietnam. The brown water sailors called their Army counterparts “grunts” and were likewise called “squids,” but there was a real mutual respect. On the boats it made no difference what color of uniform one wore: it was a shared danger and comradeship. These solutions that the Navy provided proved to be quite effective as they reduced to a trickle the supplies and weapons that were being supplied by water. Also, the support they provided to the military ashore proved to be invaluable and many times they would not do operations without these boats supporting them. The problem for the sailors who served aboard these boats was that they received little recognition for their efforts. Few knew of the service they did, but the sailors served proudly without recognition. If you watch documentaries on the Vietnam conflict you see only Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force action. When you see the Navy involved, it is from the larger ships that are supporting the military from two miles out to sea.

The U.S. Navy made a vital contribution to the prosecution of the conflict in South Vietnam. The importance of this contribution was probably best expressed by COMUSMACV, General William C. Westmoreland, USA, in comments made at a Mission Council meeting held on 19 September 1967.

He said, “The United States Navy has not received due credit for the sizable contributions its forces have made to the war in South Vietnam. Market Time activities have, for all practical purposes, sealed off the coast. Game Warden operations are increasingly denying the enemy the use of inland waterways. [Thirdly], the riverine operation has no parallel in the history of warfare. All of these operations are unique innovations effectively adapted to the situation in South Vietnam. The fine efforts of the Navy should not continue to go unnoticed.”

February 1967

1967… February… Saigon… This was a city that was exotic, but at the same time, a city in great turmoil. When we got off the plane at Ton Son Nut, we were greeted by the US Army. We were given some introduction to the country. They also told us that before we left there, we had to turn all of our US currency into Vietnamese currency. We couldn’t have any US currency in-country. If the Vietnamese got the money, it would go on the black market. They would get a higher price for it and then would go to the VC to purchase arms and supplies. The country is very humid and feels like South Texas in the summer but all year round. As I rode from the airport to the barracks, I could tell the city had a French influence from their occupation period. The homes we passed were masonry style painted either an off white or a pale green. The shutters and door frames had brightly colored stripes or designs that generally were a red or blue color. The local males dressed in a Vietnamese silk loose fitting pants and shirts. They also wore straw hats. We said they were wearing pajamas. The local females wore silk pants. It looked like their blouses went down to the middle of their calves. Below the waist the blouse was divided into four parts. Two panels were in the front and two in the back. The roads were mostly dirt roads like country roads in West Texas. Those who could afford them drove very small foreign cars. The majority of the population rode bicycles or mopeds to get around.

The GI’s who were allowed to go into town were given very strict instructions to follow. We never went alone, but we never went in groups of more than two or three. Don’t congregate in a group with others. Watch people who approached you especially kids. This was a tactic of the VC: to use kids with bombs strapped to them and go into a group of GI’s and detonate the device and injure as many GI’s as they could. If you were in a bar with a bunch of other GI’s and a kid came in, find the nearest exit. If all this didn’t scare you, then you sure proceeded with a lot of caution.

Everywhere I went was military in Saigon. Buses transporting US military personnel had their windows covered with heavy gauge wiring. Sleeping facilities were large rooms with cots. The outside perimeter had heavy gauge fencing up to the third floor, which kept hand grenades from being tossed into the room. Another added security measure was that it was completely fenced in and there was an armed guard on duty out front at all times. Even though there were several types of watches, we normally stood fire watches to protect the barracks against fires.

Tomorrow we go to Cat Lo, our duty station. Some guys tell me (gossip) the Navy lost a boat down in that area yesterday. One guy was killed and the other five wounded. The guy who was killed was in the gun tub (my assigned station). The boat took two hits from a recoilless rifle. Here I was, I had just arrived in the country, and I will turn 20 tomorrow and my chances of surviving this get worse all the time. We are 11 months from the TET offensive.

March 1966

Nine months earlier I was in my second trimester at Northrop Institute of Technology, and I had no business being there. The school was in Inglewood, California, just a few miles from the LA airport. I was just a green country boy from a small town in West Texas with big dreams. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. The first trimester I barely made it and was on scholastic probation. If I didn’t make it this trimester, I was out. We were about 6 weeks through this trimester, and I had been studying my butt off. When I wasn’t in class, I was doing my homework until the late hours at night and I didn’t get it all completed. I was exhausted and had finished my midterm exams and knew there was no way I was going to pass the trimester. As I worked through my options, I didn’t see much hope for another opportunity here or in another school. I was in a school that was on a trimester system and the majority of the other schools were on a semester system. If I tried to finish the trimester and went on scholastic dismissal, I probably wouldn’t get in anywhere. Most schools were about a fourth of the way through their semester period. The draft board would immediately classify me 1A (available for service). My draft number, I believe, was around 78 and I had no way of avoiding the draft. I didn’t mind serving my country, but I wanted to choose the branch in which I would serve. So, as I saw it, my only choice was to drop out of school, not be put on scholastic dismissal, and choose the branch I wanted. I had made up my mind. So now it was time to call my folks back in Texas.

It was around 5:00 pm when the phone started ringing at home and on the third ring I heard Dad answer the phone. I told Dad that I need to talk with him. He said, “What’s up son?” I told him that I wasn’t doing well in school. He interrupts, “You want to come home?” I told him I that I wanted to join the Navy. There is a long pause and then he says, “If you want to do that I want you to come home and do it.” I told him that I was okay with that and besides I need to get my stuff back there. He then says, “How many of you are planning on doing this?” I said it was just me, nobody else. He says, “There’s not a bunch of you joining up at the same time?” I told him I hadn’t said anything to anyone. “Well, I still want you to come home so we can talk about it.” No problem, I want to see my parents anyway. Dad said, “Okay, I’ll get you your plane ticket.” I said thanks and I would take care of the school business tomorrow. I needed to pack up and see if Uncle Tody would take me to the airport on Saturday. I was relieved that Dad understood.

Since my dad had served in the Navy during WWII, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t give me too much grief about my decision. His main concern was that it wasn’t a bunch of guys deciding to join the Navy without thinking about it. After I got home I talked with Mom and Dad and convinced them that this was only me and not a bunch of guys. They understood where I was at and with reservation decided this was the right decision. When I went down to see the Navy recruiter, we talked and he gave me the spiel about the Navy. I took some tests and went back a couple of days later. We went through the results of the test and he told me I was best suited to be a Gunners Mate. I had hoped to be around airplanes on an aircraft carrier. He gave me about 30 days before I would have to report in for my physical. Around April 26 I caught a bus to head to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for my induction physical. I passed that and then they swore us in right then and there. I thought I was only going up for the day to take my physical, go home, and then wait for them to tell me when and where to report. I hadn’t taken anything with me. Man, was I wrong. As soon as they finished swearing us in they put all of us on another bus and we were headed for boot camp in San Diego, California.

Boot camp ran from 27 April, 1966 to 14 July, 1966. One of the things about being in the Navy was that they need you to be able to swim. I can’t swim. So, when it is time to take the swimming test, we have to jump off the diving board and swim to the other end. Those who can’t swim are pulled out and stay behind until we either pass or fail the test. If we fail, we are out of the Navy. They begin by teaching us the elementary backstroke. I learn this and within a couple of hours, I have passed and I am back with the guys. I passed, but this doesn’t mean I can swim.

At the end of boot camp, I receive my orders, and I am on my way to Gunner’s Mate “A” school in Great Lakes, Illinois. So, I go home for two weeks of leave. “A” school will run from 1 August, 1966, to 2 December, 1966. I start working on my parents to see if they will let me take my car up there so that I will have some transportation while I am there. You see, when I came home the last time, before I signed up, they bought me a used 1957 Chevy. It was nice for a 19 year old kid and I was betting I would make some friends real quick when they found out I had a car to get around in. I wasn’t wrong either. They concede and I head out about 4 days before I am to report in for duty in Illinois. I get there in plenty of time. I found a place off base where I could park the car and then I went to check in at the base.

While students are in the Gunners Mate “A” class, we are all exempt from any type of duty on the base. This means my evenings and weekends are free. I make friends quickly on the floor of my barracks but not because of the car. We are all fresh out of boot camp so we are all on about the same page. The barracks are broken down into sets of rooms. There are 4 guys to a room (called quads) with the showers down the hall. At this time there are no women allowed in the barracks and none are assigned to be gunners mates. One of the guys, from another quad, is from Arkansas and got married while he was on leave before he came to “A” school. He will prove to be my first big opportunity for standing up to someone. I don’t remember where the other guys were from but we all got along fine.

Monday morning we meet for our first day of class. This place is quite different than boot camp. At this time in 1966 the school is the largest glass building in the world with 8,800 panes of translucent green glass. With more than 25 million dollars worth of equipment installed in the green glass house, it had lots of different styles of weapons mounted on the concrete floor that had been painted “deck gray”. There are two floors of classrooms that are built in the middle of this complex. The weapons are fascinating to look at since I have never seen anything like them. The big thing about the building was all the guns that were set up in the building. There was a 5” 38 caliber twin mount, next to it was a 5” 54 caliber mount, then an ASROC (Anti-submarine Rocket Launching System), followed around the building by other missile launching systems and different classes of weapons that the Navy used. This building was used to train all of the Navy’s weapons personnel for the different types of weapon schools. “A” school was a class we all had to go through. If you wanted any of the other advanced classes they offered here you had to enlist for an additional 2 years. Not me, I was getting out in four.

We had classes 5 days a week and they ran from 0800 to 1700. But we had to be there at 0700 for PT for 45 minutes each day. Then we had just enough time to get to our class room. We weren’t there to learn how to shoot the guns but how to maintain them. We had classes on electrical systems, hydraulic systems, calibrating parts like cams and a whole slew of other things. Then we had an opportunity to learn about taking care of small arms, M1 rifles, 45 caliber pistols, 30 caliber machine gun, 50 caliber machine gun, and the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). All of these were weapons from WWII and were only used aboard Navy ships. None of the new weapons, like the M-16 rifle or M60 machine gun, were available to the Navy because we didn’t need them aboard ships. They told us not to worry about any of these weapons because if we needed to know that, we were on our way to Vietnam. Hey, we were cool with that. We joined the Navy to see the world and we weren’t going to Vietnam to get shot at.

During the weeknights we usually didn’t go out. We had studying to do and failing was not an option. There were four of us assigned to a room and usually we would get out of class at 1700. Then we would take our books to our rooms before heading for the mess hall. We would go through the chow line, get our grub, eat and then we would head over to the recreational area and mess around for about an hour before heading back to our room. We would study until 2200 and then it was lights out and in the sack. What that meant was that we had already stopped studying, cleaned up for the evening, and were getting into our beds at 2200. Revile was at 0600, grab chow, and then be in the classroom building by 0700 for PT.

Weekends were another story. We had this time to ourselves. The first couple of weekends we went to malls and hung around there. One time we thought we were acting cool and had our Navy blues on and had our shirt sleeve unbuttoned and rolled up one level. As we were walking around, we were stopped by a man in civilian clothes. He reamed us a good one. He told us we were to dress properly when we were in public, and we had better start doing it right now. We were just seaman apprentices, and we figured we just got chewed out by an officer or a chief petty officer. All we knew was that we didn’t want to run into him again under any conditions, on base or off. We decided at that point if we wanted to have some fun, we had better pick someplace that was at least 30 miles from the base. So we started heading further north and somehow wound up in Racine, Wisconsin. A couple of the guys went off to see what they could do to meet some girls. Since I had the car, I drove three of us around to find if there was something else we could do. I don’t remember having much luck but when we met up with the other guys; they had met up with some girls. It was getting late and we needed to get back to base. One of the girls came up to me on the driver side and we started talking. She had met one of the other guys but she really seemed interested in me. She told me her name and gave me her address and phone number. She was a senior in high school and she told me to come see her soon. Man, was I surprised; I never had anything like that happen to me.

When we got back to base and our rooms the next day, we were discussing the previous evening. The guy who was married for only about 2 months said that he was going to see this girl again and try to get some of “that”. As he kept talking I finally realized he was talking about the girl that I had met. I told him he was just barely married, and I asked him if he was going to start running around on his wife. This was not sitting well with me. I told him this was not right and besides I believed she liked me and I planned on seeing her that coming weekend. He got real upset at that point and told me to stay out of his life and if he wanted to mess up this girl’s life he didn’t care. He said that in a few months he wasn’t going to be around and she would never find him. Now he really had me going. I wasn’t planning on being “the goodie two shoes” since I wasn’t married, had no girlfriend, and planned on doing some of my own sowing. We had a few words and a falling out. After that he was not part of the group that went around with us anymore since it was my car. I did go up and see the girl the next weekend and we dated up until the time I left “A” school.

As you look back at what I have shared so far you might be wondering why I chose to be a gunner’s mate. For me it was quite simple, I was very comfortable around guns and I guess you could say that I had been around them most of my life. My dad started taking me hunting when I was around 10. He bought me a shotgun (16 gauge pump action Remington) to use when we went bird hunting and I loved it. Every weekend during bird season we went hunting. The game was plentiful and we both generally came back with some birds. But that didn’t matter, we just loved hunting together. When bird season was over, it was time for deer season. Of course, we could only get one buck but I was okay with that. Now I was using a rifle. I was with my dad and some of his friends on what I would call the best hunting country in Texas. We were hunting on the 06 ranch, the third largest ranch in Texas. I got to do that for 8 years before I went off to the service. The rifle Dad let me use was a collector’s item he had from around 1900. It was a 38/55 lever action rifle but it shot a 55 grain slug. The slug was so heavy it would drop about 15 feet from where you were aiming at 300 yards. If I was going to get anything with it I had to quickly learn about windage and elevation. That first season I killed my first buck which was a 12 pointer. I still have his rack hanging in my garage. I got to see death up close and personal then. It turned my stomach but I didn’t show it. It’s not the same as human death but it is still death. By the time I was a junior in high school I was fairly well used to it. So, was I comfortable around weapons? Sure, Dad had taught me how to safely handle them. I had the proper respect for their usage. I knew how to shoot pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns long before I ever joined the service. Most people going into the service probably had never touched a gun. Because I was a gunners mate, I trained sailors, who have to stand guard duty with loaded weapons, to properly use their weapons. Many times during training some of the sailors were so scared when a gun jammed, they immediately left the area. That caused them to be disqualified from this type of duty.

The rest of “A” school was basically uneventful. Around the middle of October it started getting really cold and by the time it was mid November, I didn’t think it could get any colder. Even wearing navy wool uniforms with a “Pee” coat, I would have sworn I wasn’t wearing anything when I was outside. That wind blew through all that clothing.

Graduation from “A” school was approaching at the first of December. We were about a week from graduation, and we still had not received our orders. We were all anxious about where we were going to be stationed. I had requested a ship out of one of the naval bases in California. Finally our orders came in. I looked at mine and I find out I am off to another school – Swift boat school in Coronado, California with final deployment to Vietnam. I looked at my orders again and I don’t believe it. I’m going into a war zone. I thought duty like this was voluntary in the Navy. I look up and everyone is discussing where they are going and someone asks me what I got and I show them my orders. They look back at me and say, “I didn’t know you volunteered for this duty!” I say, “I didn’t but I guess I have now.” Come to find out, there are three of us who are going off to Coronado and none of us volunteered. Someone asked me if I was going to contest it. I looked at them in surprise and said, “No, why should I?” We get more leave before we have to report to our next duty station. I don’t have to report in there until 15 December, 1966. Graduation day comes and we all say our good-byes. We pack up our gear and head to wherever home is for the duration of the leave. I have 2 weeks’ leave before reporting to Coronado.

December 1966

On December 13, 1966, I arrived in San Diego and found a motel somewhere near downtown and found out that Coronado was on the other side of the bay. Since I’m still not old enough to drink, I try to find something to keep myself occupied. However, I get bored and decide to report in on December 14. As it will turn out it is one of the luckiest things I do. I will not have to go through SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training. I catch a cab over to the base. As we approach the entrance, I not only see that this is where I am supposed to train but it is also the SEAL training base. I start wondering as to what kind of training I am getting into. After I pay the cabbie at the gate, I walk up to the guard shack and hand the sentry my orders. As I stand outside as he goes back in, I look at the buildings inside the base. They are Quonset huts, buildings whose roofs form a half circle to about 8 feet above the ground where you can see some windows. Entrances and exits are front and back. The streets inside are quiet but I see a jeep parked here and there. I can’t recall any cars; since it was Sunday, perhaps everyone was on weekend pass. The guard comes back out and says, “Are you reporting in early?” I said, “Only a few hours but I had nothing else to do.” He points to a building and tells me to go in there where the duty officer is sitting. He asks me what I want and I tell him that I am reporting in for duty and hand him my orders. He takes them, looks them over and tells me welcome aboard. He then tells an enlisted man there to take me over to a particular hut where I will be staying for the night.

Swift boat school was 12 weeks of training, learning about all of the positions on the boat. We have to be able to do the duties of all the other crew members in case they are injured or killed. This is how each week was laid out.

Week 1 (20 Nov ’66 – 24 Nov ’66) – Introduction to Swift Boats
Week 2 (27 Nov ’66 – 31 Nov ’66) – First Aid training and Radar, radio and chart reading.
Week 3 (3 Dec ’66 – 7 Dec ’66) – Engine familiarity along with Onan generator
Week 4 (10 Dec ’66 – 14 Dec ’66) – Survival, evasion, resistance and Escape (SERE) Training
Week 5 (17 Dec ’66 – 21 Dec ’66) – Fuel and electrical systems
Week 6 (24 Dec ’66 – 28 Dec ’66) – Seamanship training
Week 7 (31 Dec ’66 – 4 Jan ’67) – Weapons training
Week 8 (7 Jan ’67 – 11 Jan ’67) – Fire drills and more about weapons
Week 9 (14 Jan ’67 – 18 Jan ’67) – Weapons range and actual firing
Week 10 (21 Jan ’67 – 25 Jan ’67) –Surveillance Center watches and the 50 cal. MG
Week 11 (28 Jan ’67 – 1 Feb ’67) – Underway checks and testing
Week 12 (3 Feb ’67) – Graduation

As you can tell, if you study the dates, I could not be at two places at once. I didn’t have to report to Coronado until 15 December, but the Swift classes started on 20 November. Through the fourth week of the Swift Boat class, the original boat crew had a different gunners mate. In week 4 the crew goes to Mare Island, California for SERE training. This is a pass/fail point in the class. If you don’t make it out of SERE, you are off the crew. The gunners mate broke during this week. When they got back to Coronado, he had been given orders back to his original ship. He is off the Swift Boat crew. This is where I come in. Since I was the first one to check in for duty (since I got there early), was a gunners mate, and had not been assigned to a crew yet, I am assigned to this crew as the replacement. So, what do I do about the first four weeks of training? They tell me that when the class is over I will have to stay the extra 4 weeks to complete the training. Then I will be shipped out to join my crew. My question silently is “What if I don’t make it through SERE training at the end?”

I meet my crew and the officer in charge of the boat. Because we have the potential of going into international waters, we have to have an officer. His name is Mr. Michelesen, LTJG, we called him “Skipper”. I’m sure at one point I heard his first name but we never used it. Enlisted men aren’t allowed to call officers by their first name. It was always “Mr. Michelesen, sir”. The petty officer in charge is M. A. Dadigan, BM1. The rest of the crew was made up of a radio operator Haller, RMSA, seaman Hicks, SN, engineman Cantrell, ENFN, and then me, Eichholtz, GMGSA. A crew is made up of six men.

The skipper was a quiet man, in his mid to late 20’s, and never raised his voice nor did he get mad at us. He was very friendly but never associated with us when we were off duty. Mainly because these were the rules of the Navy; officers don’t mingle with the enlisted. As far as I knew we all liked him, I know I did.

Dadigan BM1

Dadigan (nicknamed “Boats”) was in charge of the upkeep of the boat. He made sure we did our assigned duties. He was a man who had been in the Navy for a while so he was probably in his early to mid thirty’s. When we were on patrol, he and Hicks generally took care of the cooking. I think Dadigan just liked to cook which was okay with the rest of us. Occasionally, we had to cook; but we always had to do the dishes.

Haller - Radioman

Haller, around 20, was our radioman. He took care of the radio and radar equipment. During board and search procedures, his duty was to search the Vietnamese sampans, junks and trawlers that we came across. If the Vietnamese vessel was too large for one person to search, Cantrell usually went with him. Haller, Cantrell and I usually hung out together.

Hicks - Seaman

Hicks was the seaman aboard the boat. He was around 19 or 20, tall and lean. He seemed a little awkward but most of the time kept to himself. He took care of the general maintenance of the boat, which we all had to help him with at times. During GQ (General Quarters) he was on the forecastle (the very front of the boat with no protection) and had an M-16 rifle. General Quarters means we are at our battle stations ready for combat. Our weapons are fully loaded and ready. I didn’t envy him. He stood out there with no protection other than a flak jacket. The flak jacket is our bullet proof vest. It wasn’t perfect but it helped.

Cantrell our engineman

Cantrell was our snipe (nickname for a person who takes care of the boat’s engines located below deck). He too, was around 20, and from the South. I think he was from Alabama. During GQ he and “Boats” handled the aft 81MM mortar that had a 50 cal machine gun piggy backed on top of the mortar. When we had to fire the mortar, “Boats” took care of aiming and firing. Cantrell was the loader. When “Boats” was on the aft helm, Cantrell was on the 50 caliber. The aft helm was on the outside of the left part of the cabin. The person at this position was able to bring the boat along side of other boats with a clear vantage point. Again, not an enviable position because there was no protection back there when in a fire fight.

Me

Then there was me. I am 19, from Texas and as green as a kid can be. As the gunners mate I have responsibility for the upkeep of all of the weapons on board. The swift boat is a pretty formidable boat and plenty of fire power for 6 men to handle. We each have a M-16 rifle except for the skipper who has a 38 caliber revolver. The Swift Boat also has a 12 gauge shotgun which is mainly for close quarter encounters. It shoots “00” buckshot. “Boats” is assigned to the 12 gauge shotgun; however, anyone can use it in an emergency. The Swift also has a M-79 grenade launcher which is basically a propelled hand grenade. About half way through our tour, we will get a M-60 machine gun for some better protection forward (at the front of the boat). These are the personal weapons for the crew. The swift boat has twin 50 caliber machine guns mounted in a gun tub on top of the pilot house forward. The tub can rotate almost 360 degrees. The tub design came from the gun turrets that were used in the old WWII bombers that flew over Europe. The tub fed 1500 rounds of ammunition to each of the 50 caliber machine guns continuously before I had to get more ammunition up to the tub.

Swift school goes by for the rest of the class term with no problems. When it comes time for our first sea trials, we hit the open sea. The boat starts being tossed around, and I get sicker than a dog. Sea sickness can be one of the most miserable feelings you can have. It takes me two years to get over being sick. I wasn’t sick the whole time I was out; only the first three or four days and then I would be okay. After I get over my sea sickness period of 2 years and I know it won’t affect me anymore, then I join in with the kidding of the guys who aren’t quite there yet.

Anyway, we are coming up on graduation day from Swift school and I am unsure how this will work since I have to stay behind and do the first 4 weeks that I missed. At graduation I am given a graduation certificate and orders that I am going to Vietnam with the crew. We are assigned to Coastal Division 13 based out of Cat Lo. I am a little confused at this point and I go to the skipper and ask him if there has been a mistake made here. He smiles and tells me that the school command has decided that they don’t want to break up the crew and that I have shown myself to be an outstanding sailor and crew member for the boat. Also, there are no extra crew members in Cat Lo. They would be doing things around the base waiting for me to get there. So, on 6 February 1967, I graduated from Swift School and don’t have to do those four weeks of makeup. Man, was I relieved.

I get a few more days leave and go home. My family shows a good front but they are a little anxious about me going off to Vietnam. We all keep up a good front and then it is time for me to fly to San Francisco to catch my military flight on to Vietnam. The date is 14 February 1967. I will turn 20 the next day. When I am at the airport in San Francisco, I meet up with a couple of other sailors going over there. They are able to get a hold of a bottle of booze, and I get drunker than a skunk in the airport waiting on the plane. I don’t know how I got on the plane, but I regret to this day that I did that. The last day on American soil before putting my feet on ground in a war zone, and I don’t remember leaving my country.

February 1967

After we arrived in Saigon and go through our in-country indoctrination, we are ready to head to our boat base in Cat Lo. On 16 February, 1967, we go back out to Ton San Nut airbase. We are put on a Chinook helicopter and are flown to the Army base at Vung Tau. It is only about fifteen miles from our base at Cat Lo, where the Navy has Coast Guard cutters, swift boats and PBRs stationed. It is a very small base and has eight Quonset huts. Three huts for the enlisted, one for the officers, one is for base personnel, one as the mess hall, one for the enlisted men’s bar and another for the officers. We have an armory where we will get ammo to restock the boats. And on the base, we also have a barber shop. It was unusual for such a little base to have a barber. If he wasn’t there, we would have had to go fifteen miles to Vung Tau for haircuts. On the river, in front of the base, are the piers where the boats are tied when they are not on station.

The piers are connected to large pylons that stand about 20 feet in the air at low tide and are flush with the piers at high tides. With the tides moving in and out, the river’s level changes quickly because it is very fast moving at these times and is very dangerous. We are right at the entrance of the Mekong Delta with its many tributaries. The delta is the main thoroughfare up to Saigon. This is the primary route for all supplies going up to Saigon. These ships occasionally receive fire from the shores and sometimes will hit a river mine that might have been set the night before. Through centuries of the water flowing in and out, there is a lot of sludge and the Corp of Engineers are continually dredging the main canal trying to keep the waters deep enough at low tide for the big ships to traverse.

When we are on patrol, we have to constantly watch our depth. We can be out to sea five to six miles and still have only ten feet of water under the boat. Then we go past an underwater cliff and the depth will suddenly be about 200 feet.

When we arrived at Cat Lo and got off the truck that took us there, I start looking around and then it really hit me – I was in a war zone. As I looked around at our base, there were guys dressed in green fatigues and in the background I could hear bombing in the distance. I will come to accept this because it will go on 24 hours a day. I am told that I will see a lot of action while I am here since the Mekong is a hot spot. I am also told that there are over 1,000 VC in the hills that surround the base. I will come to find out that 90% of the country south of the Mekong Delta is controlled by the VC. People might be friendly to you but they will not give you any allegiance, mostly out of fear of the VC.

Coastal Division 13 is the largest PCF division that the Navy has in Vietnam. We will have more than 300 miles of coast line to patrol and close to around 50 different rivers and canals to investigate. Because over 90% of our patrol area is south of the Mekong Delta, we will have very little friendly support from either the US military on land or the Vietnamese military. The only support we receive will be from seaward from the US Navy or from helos that we can call in when we need them. Most of the navy ships will be supporting us from a distance because of the depth of the water. The other problem is that it could take up to an hour before anything will get to us. So we are mainly on our own. We have enough boats now to patrol our entire sector, but we don’t have enough crews yet. So our search areas are larger than they should be, and it takes us many hours to move from one end of the patrol area to the other. There are times, due to search and seizures or support activities, we may cross our patrol area only once during that 24 hour period.

November through April is also the time of year when the monsoons hit Vietnam. They are generally over around May. We get the rains the rest of the year but not the continuous downpours that came in the monsoon season. The waters can be quite rough, and we have to be on patrol no matter what the weather is like. During these rain storms out at sea, we have to watch for water spouts. These are basically tornados over water. This type of tornado sucks up water and when they dissipate, they dump more rain. These things are just as dangerous as a tornado, so we make sure that we avoid them. One day, when we are on patrol, we see four of these water spouts form at one time. Boy, are we busy keeping our eye on them to make sure we avoid them, but it sure was amazing to watch them from a distance. Today I hear they are sending the boats out in 18 to 25 foot swells. That is quite brutal in a 50 foot aluminum hulled boat. We never did get used to being out in the rough seas, but we did it.

When the new crews report to this division, they are stationed at the lowest end of the patrol areas for about six months before they are permanently stationed out of Cat Lo. We will have to sail south for about 8 to 10 hours to meet up with the LST (Landing Ship Tank) that will be our home base for the next 30 days. Then we get to go back to Cat Lo for 10 days before we have to go back south again. There will be two crews assigned to a boat while we are stationed on the LST. We will do 24 hour patrol rotations. The crew that takes the boat to the LST will depart onto the LST while the other crew takes the boat out for the first patrol. When your patrol is over, you meet up with the LST and the crew that was on patrol can leave and the fresh crew comes aboard with the needed supplies for the patrol while the skippers exchange information. Then we are off to our patrol area.

Patrols at times can be quite boring. Other times they get a little bit more than just exciting. We will do four hour rotations for a watch. It will be three men on and three men off. The skipper or “Boats” will have the helm, someone in the gun tub and someone on the radio. My watch duty was always the gun tub. The skipper was generally on my watch at the helm and Haller was on the radio. The other watch was “Boats” on helm, Cantrell in the gun tub and Hicks on the radio. Whoever was off watch got to prepare the meal. Off watch didn’t mean you got to sleep or do nothing. Sleep came at night, if the seas allowed you. You generally had duties that needed to be done. I cleaned the guns daily to keep them in good firing condition. Cantrell was watching over his engines, Haller did things with the radios and radar and Hicks kept up with the rest of the boat.

Nighttimes were generally peaceful, especially when the seas were calm. When I was on watch, the sky was pitch black and the stars were too many to count. You couldn’t see that many from the cities back in the States. The skipper was watching for blips on the radar screen, and I would scan the horizon for any unusual objects. When you looked towards land, you would always see flashes of light. Eventually you would hear the explosion from the firing. It always kept things in perspective. The binoculars were almost worthless in the pitch black darkness; so we depended on what we saw on the radar screen. You always looked for silhouettes on the horizon when the moon was full. About half way through our tour we got a set of “star light, star bright” binoculars and that helped quite a bit. However, the radar was still our main source of detection. In rain or rough seas, the skipper would have me cover the gun tub with the gun cover tarp and call me down to the helm area. We would watch for things from there both visually and by radar. We would chat to kill the time and on occasion someone on the off watch would come up and join us because they couldn’t sleep.

The majority of the time we rarely had any activity at night. When we did it was mainly seaward. During this time in the war, North Vietnam would try to sneak trawlers through our net to smuggle supplies to the VC that were in the south. Most of the activity was just before the TET offensive; afterwards we never had any incidences because they had found other supply routes for getting their supplies into the south.

It got pretty scary when we would have to chase down one of these big ships or trawlers. We didn’t know what would happen. Here we were, a 50 foot patrol boat, chasing down these big supply ships that could be heavily armed with small arms weapons and have a large group of men to defend the ship. We would be at general quarters when we approached a ship from the rear. The ship would be doing about 25 knots and our top speed in good weather was around 30 knots. As we approached from the rear we would turn on our spot light and get the name of the ship. We would follow from behind as the skipper called it in for identification. We are still doing about 25 knots to stay up with the ship. I am in the gun tub with weapons at the ready. Sea spray is hitting me making it hard to see, and we are bouncing around in the wake of the ship. Sometimes we got answers back that everything was ok and to let it pass and then we would just steer off to starboard and drop our speed and let the ship go on its way. Other times we have to kick it back up to 30 knots and pull along side the ship. We would look like a mouse pulling up alongside of an elephant and telling it to pull over for an inspection. We only had to do that once. This unidentified ship, about 300 feet long, could have guys with AK47’s, machine guns, or whatever else that could pop out without notice and open up on us. The skipper is pulling along side with the spotlight on the pilot house trying to get someone’s attention. I’m in the gun tub aiming the 50’s at the deck waiting for anything to happen. Suddenly someone steps out a door in the pilot house area. I swing the 50’s back in his direction and he begins yelling at us. The skipper gets on the blow horn and says something back to him and about then we must have gotten some okay to let the ship pass because the skipper yells some apology and then swings off to starboard. Man, was I relieved.

There were two incidences of North Vietnamese trawlers that were able to make it south down into our area before they were detected. When they were challenged by one of the Coast Guard cutters, they made a run for the beach and opened up on the cutter. The chase was joined by a swift boat and a fire fight went back and forth for about the next four hours. The trawler finally ran aground and was ablaze from the fight. It burned most of the day, but neither the cutter nor the swift boat could get in close because of the depth of the water. I understand it ran aground about ½ a mile from the beach. The military suspects the crew got off on the other side of the trawler and made it to shore. It was watched over the whole day and night but the military suspects that the VC got back out to it that night and got most of the weapons off of it. When the military was finally able to get on the trawler, they found most of the supplies gone. My crew was doing its 10 days at Cat Lo when this happened.

March 1967

On 5 March we are called in for gun fire support. From what we are told, there are some VC huts in one of these canals close to the shore line. This is a confirmed VC village, and we are ordered to destroy it. As we approach the village, we do not see any activity. We set up about a hundred yards away from the village and open up on it with our mortar. We drop 32 rounds of high explosives on the village and then 5 rounds of what we call “willie peter”. These are white phosphorous shells. This is mean stuff. If you are ever hit by it you can’t stop the burning. It will burn clean through you and still burn. The only way to put out this type of fire is with sand and when you are burning you don’t think about that. After we stop shooting and leave, the village will continue to burn for another 2 hours.

As we are leaving the village we see a bunch of Vietnamese running along the beach. It looks like they are starting to set up a position to open up on us. At this point I am given the order to open up on them. When I do, they scatter back into the brush, mainly because they weren’t ready to take us on. I don’t know if I hit anyone during this action as it can’t be confirmed.

A couple of weeks later we are sent in for another gun fire support mission. During this action, we will destroy one building and damage five others. We were about 300 yards off the beach and run aground. It takes us about 30 minutes to get ourselves out of the situation. Running aground is not fun but all of the swift boats will run aground at some point. You are more than likely to do it several times. One time we were in a river that was about 100 yards wide, and the tide was going out. We were about 50 feet from the shoreline when we hit a sandbar or mud bank. We were stuck big time. The tide continued to go out and when it finally hit its lowest point, we were high and dry. The water was about 20 feet away from us. We were a little nervous at this point. If the VC spotted us, we were sitting ducks with no place to go. We had to stay at our stations for 12 hours that day just in case they did find us. We shut off the engines to reduce any noise we would have made. We usually keep the engines running to power the radio and radar. The skipper contacted the base and informed them of our situation. They sent out another swift boat, and it stayed about 100 feet from us in case we did get into a fire fight and we had to abandon the boat. Finally the tide came back in and lifted us up off the sand bar and then we got out of there.

Around the end of April we leave for our assigned patrol area at 0800 as we normally would. We get there and start our normal routine in the southern most patrol area known as “7 delta”. About 0900 we get a call from a spotter plane that we had about 40 junks in a restricted area just north of us. Sepia (our Costal Surveillance Command Center) calls and tells us to go in there. Our orders are to take all of their ID cards and chase them out of the area. If they refuse we are instructed to consider this a hostile action. Then we are to destroy the boats. Luckily we don’t have to do that to unarmed civilians; I get to spend the next eight hours in the gun tub as we have each boat come along side and take their ID cards and instruct them to leave the area.

One of the things that I talked about earlier was how fast the rivers flow during high and low tides. As we are pulling up to the refueling dock at Cat Lo, the tide is going out and the river is flowing very fast. As we start pulling up to the pier, I notice that the dock is about 15 feet above us. The 12 X 12 wooden pilings have lots of large wooden splinters on them. I am on the forecastle to throw the line around a piling and as I do, the line gets hung. I can’t pull it loose. The rest of the crew is at their stations and can’t see what is going on up front and they think everything is going fine. When they cut the engine the rapidly flowing river starts pulling the boat away from the pier. As I continue to struggle to pull the line loose, I am being pulled closer to the edge of the boat. Eventually the current hits the boat hard and I am jerked overboard. As I fall into the water, I cling to the line. I hit the water and scramble up the line which continues to hold to the piling. The boat finally is stopped by the line that is hung on the piling. The rest of the crew heard me fall in and come around to see what is going on. They see me hanging from the line, soaking wet and burst out laughing. They begin to pull in the boat and get me back on board. They take me below to make sure that I am ok. I dry off, and later we are all laughing about the incident.

In May, we run into a situation which requires me to use my weapons. We are on normal patrol, and the skipper gets about 15 blips on his radar. I am in the gun tub on watch duty. He asks me if I see anything at about 11:00. I look in that direction but I don’t see anything at that time. We are about a mile from shore. As the skipper turns the boat to head toward the blips and shore, we are all told to go to GQ. Haller passes me my flak jacket and I put it on. The others are doing the same. I continue to look for what the skipper sees on radar, and finally I see the junks in the distance. I call down to him to let him know. We get closer, and the skipper has to stop about 150 yards from the junks because the water is too shallow to get any closer. The skipper gets on the bull horn and tells them they need to come along side for inspection, but they act like they don’t hear us or they are ignoring us. The skipper tells them again, only this time he is a little more firm with them and adds that they will be fired upon if they don’t comply. At this point one of the junks decides to make a run for it. We recognize it as a VC long shaft, a junk that is powered by a powerful engine. The shaft from the motor to the propeller is about 10 feet long. This long shaft and motor gives the junk the ability of reaching speeds up to 50 miles an hour which is faster than the swift boat. As it is making a run for shore, they are running parallel to us. The skipper tells me to lay some warning shots across their bow. I put about 10 warning rounds across the bow and at the same time I am getting the range down. The shots across the bow do not slow the junk down, and they ignore the commands to stop. The skipper tells me to open up on them. I open up with the 50’s and my aim is deadly accurate. After about 20 rounds the skipper instructs me to stop because the junk has stopped dead in the water. Haller, Cantrell, and Hicks are all excited about my shooting. They are saying that I was dead on and that they saw wood chips flying from the junk. There were about 3 to 4 people on the junk, and I believe they are all dead now. Because of the depth of the water, we are not able to go in to investigate. This action must have brought the reality of war home to the skipper because we just sat there for the next five to six hours at GQ just watching the other junks. We don’t do anything; we don’t call out to them anymore, just sit there. They did not move from their spot nor did we. The junk I had just shot up just sits there and rocks in the water with no human movement… no sounds… just rocks. It is a very sobering feeling. The reality of what I just did has no impact on me. I just killed four people, and it doesn’t bother me. Recently, I told my wife that I know I killed them and it still doesn’t bother me. The only thing that does bother me is that it doesn’t bother me. Finally the skipper decides to move on because we can’t get any closer and they are not moving from their spot. The deadlock ends, and we move away with no further action taken. I don’t know if the skipper ever reported what we did but nobody ever says a thing about it to me. We are never questioned about the action that was taken. But I believe there should have been some type of investigation. No helicopters or PBRs were brought in to investigate in the shallow waters. The PBRs are boats that draw a shallower draft than Swift Boats. This means they could have gotten closer to investigate the situation. It just seems mighty strange.

For the rest of the tour the skipper seems to avoid situations that might draw us into a combat action. We don’t seem to go too far into the rivers or canals anymore. When we are assigned to a patrol that has a strong possibility for combat, we have another skipper assigned to the crew for that patrol. A couple of situations like this one did occur. A different skipper was in charge each time. It might have been just a coincidence, but both officers seemed to be on the patrol only to get a medal or two.

August 1967

This brings about the story of a patrol with one of these new officers. At this time we are in the last 6 months of our tour, so we do our patrols out of Cat Lo. On this particular patrol, we leave the base and head into the Mekong to get out to sea. Our patrol area is about an hour south of the Mekong. We get to our station and the officer wants to start heading into the rivers. We go into one river and don’t see anything. We head out and then go into another river with the same results. We go deeper into the third river and come across a village on the shoreline. It is completely empty of activity. We pull within 10 feet of the shore and he has Haller call Sepia to see if the village is “friendly”. As we are waiting for an answer, he and “Boats” are standing on the fantail just chatting as if they were sitting on their back porch at home with no worries in the world. We are deep in VC territory and then the call comes in that this is a suspected VC village. He asks if he can shoot it up and they ask if we are having any activity. Of course, the answer is no but we are to use discretion. He looks up at me and tells me to lay rounds into each of the huts to see if anyone is hiding in them. I open up on the huts and before I am through, I almost use up all of the ammo in the tub. When I stop, I point the 50’s at a 45 degree angle away from the huts. There is not a stir or a sound from any of the huts. We will sit there waiting for something to happen. The officer and “Boats” are still just standing around on the fantail. About 2 minutes later I hear this round go off right in my ear. It startles me and everyone on the boat as they all look up at me. I say it must have been a “cook off”. They turn back to the village but still nothing is happening. (A “cook off” occurs when a gun has been fired so much at one time that it heats up the barrel. The barrel gets so hot that when you leave a live round in it, it will heat up the shell casing to the point that it will ignite the powder in the shell casing - thus causing a “cook off” effect.)

Since nothing happens at the village, the officer decides to leave. We start heading out of the river. With all of the shooting that I had done, there are shell casings and clips all over the bottom of the gun tub and down in the pilot house. Haller, Hicks and I start taking all of the rounds and toss them over the side to clean up the pilot house and the tub. When we have finished that, Haller helps me get ammo out of the storage area to refill the gun tub. As I finish this up, “Boats” sticks his head out of the starboard side door and tells me to open up on the bunch of Vietnamese who are setting up on the shoreline about a hundred yards from us. He points to where they are. I start swinging the 50’s around to where he says they are but I don’t see anything. He yells up to me to open up on them before they can open up on us. I tell him that I don’t see them and to show me again where they are. He points in a direction that is about at 3:00 but I still don’t see anything, just open beach. He yells at me again to open up and I say, “At what? I don’t see anything.” Then he says, “Just do as I say.” I then say I would if I just knew where to shoot. Now we are both frustrated. He goes back into the pilot house and tells the officer he couldn’t get me to shoot. The officer says, “Damn it”. Then we head back out to sea on patrol. I start thinking about the incidence. The officer never says anything to me about these people on the shore line. He never gets the rest of the crew to GQ nor does he change the boat’s speed at any time. It is then that I realize this officer is just out on patrol looking for some medals.

The next day another boat crew heads up the same river to the same village. Only this time, the VC are waiting. There is a gun fight. The boat takes a recoilless rifle round just below the pilot house. The round explodes wounding the officer and the gunners mate in the tub. The officer takes shrapnel in his legs and hips. The gunners mate gets a little shrapnel in his left buttock and continues firing. The crew continues to take the boat out of the river and out to sea. The boat is taking on water faster than they can pump it out. Of course, Sepia has been notified and another swift boat is on the way to their location to assist them. Eventually the boat sinks in about 20 feet of water, and the crew is rescued by the other boat. In the meantime, a medevac is on its way out to evacuate the wounded. The officer and gunners mate receive purple hearts for their wounds. The gunners mate will also receive the bronze star for his actions of remaining at his station, though wounded, and shooting at the enemy.

A small salvage ship is sent out to where the swift boat sank to begin the salvage efforts of raising the swift boat. They get it back up to the surface and secure it on the salvage ship. They take it back to a repair ship that is anchored in the Mekong Delta. It will be repaired, refurbished and placed back in service in a few months.

September 1967

During one of our patrols, we are ordered to proceed to a Vietnamese Army Base up one of the rivers in our patrol area. As we round one of the bends of the river, I see the base just ahead of us, off to starboard. I am in the gun tub and standing watch. The skipper slows the boat as we approach the pier so that we can tie up. The base is a small one. Just a couple hundred feet from the river bank and off to the right of the pier; there is a row of about 6 buildings that appear to be the barracks, mess hall, officer quarters and the headquarters for the base. Off to the left I see a watch tower with a couple of Vietnamese soldiers dressed in the traditional army green. As you step off of the pier onto the wooden walkway the land slopes down. It then flattens and goes across a parade ground to a built up dirt barrier that was about 8 – 10 feet up. On top of the dirt barrier laid a row of razor wire. On the far side of the dirt barrier are several more rows of coiled barbed wire and razor wire. I am sure there are traps and mines in between the rows. The grounds are lush green with grass and well taken care of. There are troops gathered around at different locations on the base. As we tie up to the pier and the skipper shuts the engines down, a couple of Vietnamese soldiers come over and greet the skipper and “Boats”. The skipper tells us that he and “Boats” are going over to talk with the CO of the base and we are to just relax but stay close to the boat. We go over to where some of the soldiers are gathered near a mound. Things are quiet for awhile as it seems that none of them speak any English. They carry on conversations in Vietnamese. After a few minutes we can tell that the conversation between two of them is starting to heat up. At this point we decide we need to back away from the group because we don’t know where this is going to lead. The men standing around have M16 rifles with them, and we are not carrying any weapons at all. At this point the argument is getting extremely heated, and one of them begins to walk away. But, instead of walking towards the barracks, he is heading for the fence line as if he is going to desert. The other soldier pulls his M-16 rifle to his shoulder and aims it at the man walking away from him. He is yelling something at him now. From the jest of what we saw and the way things were going, we assumed he was telling him to halt or he was going to shoot him. The man continues to walk toward the fence line. Now the soldier has put a round in the barrel and has taken the weapon off safety. None of the other men are doing or saying anything… just watching. The four of us must have just been standing there with our mouths open; we just stood there watching. At this point I must have come to the realization that this was not good. I am at the back of the group and nudge Hicks to slowly slip away to the officer area and tell the skipper what is going on. In the meantime I whisper to Cantrell and Haller to cover for me for about 30 seconds as I slip back to the boat which is only about 200 feet away. Everybody’s focus is on what is happening between these two men. The one man continues to walk away, with his back to the group, saying nothing, while the other continues yelling threats at him and is on the brink of shooting him in the back. I slowly slip back to the boat and get one of our M-16 rifles. I load it up and step out to the deck of the boat. I place the rifle on the roof of the cabin so that it does not appear that I am threatening anyone. By this time Haller and Cantrell make it back to the boat and go below to get an M-16 also. I tell them to lean theirs by the door and just stand by me on the deck. By now Hicks has made it to the Skipper and “Boats” and tells them what it going on. As Hicks, Skipper, “Boats” and the Vietnamese officer are hurrying out of the building; the man who was walking away must have come to his senses and stops. Then he turns and starts walking back to the group. The Vietnamese officer is yelling at the group as he approached them. The skipper and “Boats” return to our boat. We stand there as things seem to calm down on the base. The Vietnamese officer comes over and the skipper and he exchange their good-byes as we power up the boat and leave to return to patrol. The skipper never gives us any explanation as to what had just happened or why we went to the base in the first place. This is just another day in the life of a swift sailor.

October 1967

Sometime around October, 1967, during one of our patrols, we are ordered to rendezvous with another boat to do a transfer of some personnel. The time is around 2000. The sky is pitch black when we approach another swift boat. We slow down, pull alongside each other, and five men move from the other swift boat to ours. They are dressed in camo's, and one of the men shakes hands with the skipper. We find out this is a “SEAL” team that is made up of an officer and 4 enlisted men. We are to silently take them up one of the rivers in our patrol area and drop them off. We are given strict orders that we are to have no communications or contact with them. I am in the gun tub while the SEALS gather on the forecastle of the boat. This is where they will remain huddled as a group talking quietly to each other. All lights are out, and the engines are running as quietly as possible at almost an idle RPM to keep us from being detected. In the rivers of Vietnam, the direction of sound can be very deceiving; this is to our advantage. If we are heard by the enemy, they are not quite so sure where we are at. In a little while we come to the point where we pull up close to the river bank. The SEALS slip off of the boat and then into the brush. We then maneuver back out into the river and slowly pull away at the same speed so not to give away what we have just done or our position. I am going to assume that the SEAL mission was a success. We never heard anything about them again.

Mid October 1967

By now our crew has been in-country long enough that we are eligible to get our 7 days of R&R. We can do this at a couple of bases in Vietnam or we can go to Japan, Hong Kong, or Hawaii. I choose to go to Hong Kong, because I don’t know if I will be coming back to this part of the world when my tour is over. I don’t remember where the rest of the crew decided to go; but I am the only one of the group going to Hong Kong. I have saved up my money for this trip, and I have several hundred dollars to buy things. I fly to Hong Kong and get a hotel room on the Kowloon side which is the mainland. It is a nice hotel, and I have a great time while I am there for those 7 days. At this time Hong Kong is still a British possession, and you can have suits made of excellent English material. I find a place that does three fittings for the suit over the 7 days. I have three suits tailored made of the finest select material for about $50 each. I also have about a dozen shirts tailored made for me that cost only $2 a piece. I find another place that makes tailored made Navy uniforms and have one made up that I will wear for the rest of my service. I really looked sharp in it. I also find the military PX in Hong Kong and buy things for the family. I bought mom a vase that she wanted that came from Japan. I brought my sister a set of fine china dishes and have them shipped to her. I also find out they make gun belts. I purchase one, and take it back to Vietnam. I bought myself a fine stereo system and had it shipped back home. Even after all of this, I still had cash left to enjoy myself.

I get back to Cat Lo feeling good and meet up with the rest of the crew. We exchange our stories about our R&R week. We are now ready to finish our tour.

November 1967

After a couple of weeks of being back and doing our patrols again, I start getting this feeling that things were just too quiet. We were keeping up with the action that was going on throughout Vietnam. There were only sporadic incidences as if the enemy was just trying to keep us on our toes, but nothing heavy was occurring. As I talked about it with the guys, they all felt the same way. It appeared to be the quiet before the storm. Little did we know...

From now until the middle of January, 1968, (when TET begins), there are no reportable incidents that I have to record. The time continues to be one of tension. We all know that something is happening but we are unable to put our fingers on what or when. There are only a couple of comical incidents I would like to record at this time.

During one of our patrols, as we did with every patrol, we are inspecting a sampan that has just come along side of us. We are at our normal stations: skipper at the door, Hicks on the forecastle, “Boats” at the rear helm, Cantrell standing by on the fantail, and me in the gun tub. Haller is the one who boards the sampans and junks to inspect them. We pull along side this fishing sampan, and I see a large shark that they had caught. It was lying inside the sampan on the port side, which was to seaward. I believe all the rest of us see the shark but for some reason, Haller does not see it. The skipper exchanges greetings with the fishermen and checks their papers. Everything looks to be in order. Haller boards the sampan and begins the inspection. He goes into the small shelter area, looks around, comes out and starts to remove the floorboards of the sampan to inspect for anything beneath them. As he starts to remove one of the planks, he starts to reach over to balance himself by putting his hand on the shark (thinking it is the side of the sampan). One of the fishermen is standing close by when Haller lets out this blood curdling scream and jumps back. The fisherman knows he is getting ready to be shot and drops half way to his knees while waving his hands in a “no, no, no” fashion. I burst out laughing and so does the rest of the crew. As the fisherman calms down, he realizes what has happened too and begins laughing. Now Haller doesn’t think it is so funny; he had just been attacked by a dead shark. We don’t find anything, so we leave the fishermen with a little laughter in their day and the same for us.

The second humorous situation that I remember was when we pulled alongside another sampan with a fantail loaded with freshly caught shrimp. It was unbelievable for us to see this much shrimp. We had not had any for over 8 months. We started asking them if we could buy some of the shrimp for us to eat. We knew enough Vietnamese to get our message across, and they knew enough English to share with us what they wanted. We had a 5 gallon bucket on the fantail. They asked for it and filled it to overflowing and handed it back to us. Then they asked if we wanted more. We couldn’t eat all that
they given us. Now for the unbelievable part: when we asked what they wanted for the shrimp, they said one package of Kool-Aid. We couldn’t believe it. We were going to give them five packages, but they would not accept that many packages because that was too much. We got them to accept two packages. They went off happy, feeling as though they got the better part of the deal. Of course, we feasted on boiled shrimp that evening. I can’t think of a better meal during this time.

January 1968

In mid-January, when TET began, we were on patrol. It was a normal patrol; the night was quiet with some bombing going off in the distance. The radio starts to chatter with messages in code that Haller begins to decipher. Within a few minutes the calm that we had felt had turned into the storm. We continued to monitor the radio traffic, but we increased our vigilance trying to prepare for anything that may come our way. At 0800 our patrol is over, and we head for Cat Lo. As we pull up and refuel, we remain at our stations. The bombing in the distance is intensifying - the sound seems to be getting closer. We finish refueling and pull up to the base piers. Most of the boats are either standing at the ready or have gone out to assist where they can. We are told to stay at our stations while the skipper goes up to the command post to talk to the base CO. We get a message that we need to prepare to go up river to the Aussie base. It’s about five clicks (five miles) from us and is under attack by the VC. We get a little nervous since we’ve never been that far up river past the Cat Lo base. The river bank will only be about 5 – 10 feet from the boat on both sides. If we come under fire, we will have no way of turning around. We really can’t go forward because we will be going deeper into enemy territory. We wait for the word and finally get the message to stand down. It is too late for the Aussies. Their base has been taken. The story we hear is that the Aussies have been pretty brutal with their enemy captives and the VC take the same retribution on them. It was said that the men at the small base were all killed or captured. They were skinned alive, or if they had already been killed they were also skinned and then hung on stakes for all to see.

The next 30 days are really intense for us. When we are not on patrol and are back at the base, we are spending our share of time manning the post’s fences or fox holes. During this time, I also find out that the Vietnamese man that gave us haircuts and shaves turned out to be a VC spy in the camp. From that time until now, I have not let another person shave me.

February 1968

When my swift crew leaves Vietnam on 14 February, 1968, we had completed 187 patrols, destroyed five VC villages, been part of 47 gun fire support missions, detained 153 Vietnamese citizens as suspected VC (or having invalid paper work), rescued around 15 – 20 Vietnamese from sinking sampans or junks in rough seas, and other actions which I have forgotten over the last 43 years. Even though there were times we were extremely angry with the South Vietnamese military due to their lack of support and participation during actions against the enemy, I do not hold any animosity against them as a people. In many ways I admire them. They were a people that had known nothing but hostility and war for over 60 years. Some of them despised the enemy even more than we did, and they fought very bravely beside us.

After our tour was over, I only ran into one of the crew. We all went our separate ways to new assignments and, to the best of my knowledge and research, none returned to Vietnam for other tours of duty. I ran into Haller once in Yokosuka, Japan. He was stationed on a communications ship. I found out he had gotten into some trouble and had been busted back to RMSN (Radio Seaman). I don’t think he really cared; I think he was just looking forward to getting out.

We were a crew that was aware of the difficulties and strife that was going on back in the States, but we never lost focus of our mission. We may not have agreed with this conflict; but we were not war mongers. Even though we were there to prevent the enemy from making headway in Vietnam, we also saw other opportunities of doing the decent thing by reaching out to the boat people. We gained their trust, and we treated them fairly. I have read that when the war was over, it took over five years for the new regime to “Vietnamize” the boat people in the rivers, canals, and deltas where we patrolled. I hate to think that we worked so hard to get the people to trust and believe in us and when it is all over, we left them to the mercies of the enemy.

Epilogue

In the last five years, I have tried to find out about the crew. But so far, it has been to no avail. I can find no record of them. There are some men who were so touched by their service there that they did three tours aboard the boats before their time was up. I never gave it a thought. I guess I felt I was lucky and there was no need to push it.

This is a report taken from the http://swiftboats.net  web site, that lists a lot of information about what went on with the swift boats during the Vietnam War. This excerpt is taken from some history on PCF 71 (the boat I was on).

This incident occurred the day after we left Vietnam.

“PCF 71 suffered two personnel casualties on 19 February, 1968, as she closed the beach approximately 49 miles northeast of Ca Mau point, in company with PCF 102, to provide direct gunfire against a hostile area. The Swift boats returned and suppressed the hostile fire with their .50 caliber machine guns while withdrawing to seaward. The injuries to the US Navy men were minor and the extent of enemy personnel casualties was unknown.”

There is one last thing I would like to add. We have a military wall in my house. In the middle at the top is a flag in a flag encasement. To its right is a bolo machete that my dad picked up during WWII from the island of Borneo. To the right of the machete is a ships bell that my dad got from one of his ships reunions. To the left of the flag is one of my sailor hats. Below the flag is a frame holding all of the medals I received and other information. Surrounding this case are picture frames of 16 other men in Patsy’s and my family who served. The reason I mention this is to bring focus on the flag. American flags become weather worn and tattered by the wind as they fly. At some point they have to be replaced with a new one. During one of these times aboard our swift boat, it was time to replace the standard. I asked the skipper if I could have the one being taken down. He said yes and when we took it down, we folded it properly and I stowed it away. After I got out of the service, I still had it and decided to keep it for prosperity.

This is my history behind this flag.

This flag has only flown over a war vessel in a combat zone and has never known to fly under peaceful conditions. I have never unfurled it, so it still contains the dried water of the Mekong Delta. It hangs in honor here in my house. I would like for it to remain in this type of domain forever.