"7 March 1970"
as told by then
RD2 Joseph Edward Muharsky

The casualties were mounting in Coastal Division 11 in An Thoi and they were looking for crews to volunteer to go there.  To a man we all voted yes.  I guess that it wasnít long before volunteering was no longer an option.  When they needed a crew, you were going.  We were now going several hundred miles south to the Gulf Of Siam on the western side of Vietnam to raid the rivers and canals of the Cau Mau Peninsula.  We were never trained for this; we learned as we went.  The country was a stark difference from the rain forests and highlands of the north.  A never-ending maze of canals and rivers awaited us not to mention Charlie (slang for Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese regular army) soldiers.  Just before we left for An Thoi we had received the news that LTJG Harwood had been called back to Swift Boat duty and had one of legs shot off by a 50 caliber bullet in an ambush on the Be De river.  We were all saddened by the news.  I found out many years later that Joe Ponder had one of his knees shot off in the same ambush. 

I was assigned to man the M-60 machine gun on the bow of the boat.  I stood in the anchor locker called the peak tank.  I heard later that most crews rotated in the peak tank.  We did not. It was my permanent station.  I donít remember exactly how many rounds were in a belt of 7.62 mm. M-60 ammo but I surmised it wasnít enough for me.  I got myself two 50 cal. ammo tins and linked 3500 rounds together in each tub.  One for the starboard front of the bow and one for the port aft.  The M-60 feeds from the left side so if I had to fire from the other side I could flip the latch up, and switch belts to the other tub in a hurry.  I had 7000 rounds of M-60 ammo for starters.  An M-16 right behind me with 20 clips of 20 rounds each, an M-11 twelve gauge Remington Pump Shotgun with 00 buck shot, an M-79 grenade launcher and a 38 Smith & Wesson pistol strapped to my side for good measure.  Law rockets were also available depending on the need.  I was ready for the rivers.  We were ready to take PCF 94 into action. 

We had gotten is a few small firefights and the adrenaline was always flowing.  You never knew what was around the next bend in the river.  I could talk for days about those patrols and raids but I am going to move now to March 7, 1970.  We were sent out with 2 other PCF's to pick up some Cambodian mercenaries that I understand the CIA was paying $80 a month to fight for us.  I think if the VC had paid them $85 they would have fought for the VC but thatís another story.  They were better soldiers than the ARVN (South Vietnamese Government troops) and besides that they were all we had.  There were no military bases where we made these raids.  It was just us and the VC and sometimes the NVA.

I'm not sure of the number of the 3rd boat that went along that day but I know the second one was PCF 38.  We didnít have the 94 boat this day because it was damaged in some earlier action and was in for repairs.  Re-aluminizing is what we used to call it.  We used PCF 5 that day.  When we left An Thoi for our trip south the regular crew of the 5 boat told us that it was the luckiest boat in the division.  It had never been hit with anything but small arms.  That was to change too.  We entered the Bai Hap River.  It's on the southwestern tip of Vietnam and its entrance is on the north side of a large bay.  The Cua Lon River enters from the south side of the bay.  We stopped in a village along the way and picked up some mercenaries.  On some occasions we would carry UDT teams or Navy Seals for special operations but on this day we had 2 Green Berets along.  Another crusty old Sergeant who I understand was on his 5th tour in Nam was on board the 5 boat with us and a young Green Beret LT. was on board one of the other boats. They had a good working relationship also.  They both knew the LT. was in charge but when they went ashore and the LT. made a decision that the Sergeant thought was wrong based upon his 5 tours in Nam. The LT.  listened.  We dropped the troops and the Green Berets off at various points during the day and they hunted Charlie as we waited for them.   

Nothing much happened so we proceeded farther up the Bai Hap.  I didnít know exactly where we were going and when the boat made a hard starboard turn and we started heading for the bank, I thought we were going ashore again.  That was not to be.  My heart sank as I viewed a canal that didnít look large enough to get a Swift Boat into.  I knew we could never turn around in there once we went in so it was going be a one way shot to the Cua Lon.  Its was called the Cai Nap Canal I found out later and was to change my life forever.  The north end of it must have been a creek and the mangroves brushed the boat as we wound our way through it at about 1-Knot.  I could feel my heart pounding in my toes as I wondered what was around the next bend.  It seemed like an eternity that we wound through that creek until it opened up into a straight man-made canal that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see.  We proceeded up the canal at idle speed.  PCF 5 was the middle boat in the line of three.  At a distance I could see what looked like a small village on the left bank of the canal.  As we got closer to the straw huts we could see some animals and some fresh cooking fires but not a human being in site.  We knew Charlie was there and he knew we were there.  The one thing I learned even way back in training is that you donít sneak through the jungle with two General Motors 12V71 Diesel engines.  It sounded like a damn greyhound buss coming through there. 

We got right next to the village and were going to proceed farther when all of a sudden an explosion went off on the starboard side close to the lead boat.  There was a large open field on our starboard side with a tree line quite a ways back.   The Viet Cong had shot a B-40 rocket and it slid in the mud and exploded on the bank just missing the boat.  We turned the boats starboard and beached them and raked the area with all the firepower we had.  Bogart was wounded in the melee but not seriously.  He had taken a piece of shrapnel in the bicep of his arm.  We think it was from one of the stupid Cambodians firing an M-79 round too close to the boat but we were never sure.  We received no more enemy fire. We turned the 3 boats around and beached them on the other bank where the Village was.  I say, "was" because when we left, the village was no longer there or anything left alive in it.  We wasted it with flare guns and bullets and didnít give a damn either. 

We proceeded the rest of the way south on the Cai Nap canal to the Cua Lon and returned to the Coast Guard Cutter thatís was waiting off shore to put us up for the night.  I believe it was the Minnetonka but can't be sure after 30 years. Somewhere along the way that day we had captured two suspected VC prisoners.  Again my memory fails me as to where and how we captured them.  I do however remember that one was a male in his 20's and the other was an old mamason that looked to be about 60 years old.  Neither of them had any papers so we took them along for the ride. 

We spent the night on the cutter.  Before turning in for the night I decided with many others including some of the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter to watch the Green Berets interrogate our young VC prisoner.  He didnít seem too responsive to their questions so they gave him a little encouragement to talk.  They hooked a blasting cap detonator to his ears, dumped a bucket of water on him for greater conductivity and shot what I remembered to be 60 volts and 2 1/2 amps directly through his head.  His body shot up in the air and then shuddered and he went limp and fell to the deck each time they did this.  As I look back on it now I am saddened by the fact that I had no feeling for him at the time.  I guess I had taught myself how not to feel.  With a casualty rate now over 80% in our unit I think it hurt too much to feel so we just numbed out.  At the time it was just another event to me.  As I look back at it now I am not proud of that but I am not ashamed of it either.  Thatís what war does to young men and until the leaders of this world learn to settle their differences in a peaceful manner, thatís the way its going to be.  The poor bastard just got caught in the middle.  If he didnít sympathize with the Viet Cong they would kill him and if he did, we would kill him.  I try now to put my self in his shoes and wonder what I might have done to feed and protect my family.  I never thought of that when I was 19 years old.  My emotions were also tempered by the fact that if his comrades had captured me a much worse fate was in store. 

Bogart had surgery on his arm to remove the shrapnel.  When I saw him the next morning his arm was in a sling so I knew that he was not going with us that day.  We received our orders for March 8, 1970.  I'm not sure what the crews of the other two boats were thinking but I do know what our crew was thinking.  Pardon my French but we were thinking, What kind of a goddamn REMF (slang for rear echelon Mother Fucker) made this decision.  Our orders were to proceed up the Cai Nap canal and play a Psyops tape (thatís an acronym for Psychological Warfare) otherwise know as propaganda or just plain bullshit. We were gonna tell Charlie what good guys we were and come over to our side.  I wonder if the dipshit that cut those orders had any idea of what we left behind in that canal the day before. 

As we packed up to go we all had a bad feeling about this one.  I remember Bogart hanging over the rail of the Coast guard cutter knowing that he was not going with us and I think he felt bad about that.  We didnít go out without an engineman so we took a guy with us that I understood had three days to go before he went home to "The World" as we called the U.S.A.  I had never met him before, he was a tall lanky young man with a friendly smile and I remember his name was Poole.  I never learned his first name.  He knew his job well and fit right in with our crew.  We all tried to make him feel welcome.  His job was to man the Honeywell Grenade launcher on the back deck.  It was called a Honeywell because it resembled a Honeywell movie camera.  A small box with a short barrel sticking out of it and a crank on the side.  When you turned the crank, it would spit out 40-mm grenades that were in a canvas belt.  You could get 32 of them off before the first one hit the ground.  A great little weapon for close in fighting. 

As we loaded the boats up with all the ammo we could possible get on board I remember the silence.  No one said a word.  The crew of the cutter was watching us also and they knew better than to break the silence.  It's a feeling that only men who are about to go into combat have ever experienced.  There were glancing looks at each other for we all knew that every time we went out that some of us might not come back.  Nothing had to be said, we all understood that.  It was after all, "Our Job". 

The cutter was to be replaced on station that evening by an LST so we had to take our prisoners with us. We chained the young male to the back deck of our boat and the old momason was left unchained on the back deck.  Together LT. Salinas, Potter, Bogart, Coates, Poole and my self left the Cutter and headed for War.  Oh yes, I forgot to mention, there was a beautiful young girl riding with us that day for her picture was always in my wallet and the thought of her was always in my mind.  Her name was Donna May Downing. 

This time we were to enter the Cai Nap canal from the south so we made our way up the Cua Lon River at about 1700 hrs.  Along the way we spotted a VC flag flying from a brick kiln that was on the banks of the Cua Lon.  I understood that these kilns were built by the French sometime in the years they occupied Vietnam.  They looked just like in igloo but were made of brick.  This usually meant a booby trap or a command-detonated mine was waiting for any stupid troops that thought the flag might make a good souvenir.  The crew of PCF 4 found that out the hard way on 14 February 1966.  Two were wounded but survived.  The other 4 have their names on the wall in Washington. 

We stooped in the middle of the river and a well-placed 81MM trigger fired mortar round by BM3 Coats took care or the flag and the bunker.  I remember looking aft from my position on the bow and Poole was looking at me with that big country boy smile on his face.  It would be the last time I saw him smile.  We beached the boat at that time and the Sergeant and the LT. went ashore and blew the rest of the kilns with grenades.  I donít think there were any VC in them but if there were, all the better.  After all, body count was the "Name Of The Game" in Vietnam. 

It was getting late now and this little side excursion was not in the plans so we decide to get moving to the Cai Nap.  We never made it.  PCF 5 was the middle boat in this procession of three.  I remember scanning back and forth across the bow, looking for any movement.  A twig or a leaf or anything that didnít look quite right would get my attention and bring a response from my machine gun.  I just happened to be looking straight ahead when an explosion went off on the starboard side of the lead boat.  Then all hell broke loose.  All three PCF's were taking heavy enemy fire from both banks of the canal.  Rockets, recoilless rifles small arms and 50-caliber machine gun fire continued to rain down on us.  We kept moving at full speed (about 30 knots) and the enemy fire kept coming.  We gave them everything we had and returned the fire with no holds barred.  I remember Whalen shooting the twin fifty's right on top of me and it was not long before I lost my hearing. Each time one of those 50's goes out and you are in front and below it you think your head is going to explode from the noise they make. We endured this for 11 minutes at 30 knots.  Thatís a lot of ground covered at that speed (about 6 kilometers).  It was later estimated that a large enemy force was laying in ambush for us.  No shit.  I bet the same REMF that planed this operation came up with that one.  The mangroves are thick along the Cua Lon and the enemy was well hidden.  I just fired across the bank and hoped I hit something or someone.  It did no good to crouch down, as there was no armor on a Swift Boat.  Just 1/4-inch aluminum was all that stood between an enemy bullet and us.  I remember seeing one enemy soldier stand up and fire a recoilless round.  I immediately swung my machine gun at him and fired.  He went down but he got his shot off.  You can actually see those things coming at you. Not in any great detail but kind of a blur coming your way at a high rate of speed.  It dipped just before it got to the boat, hit the water and ricocheted over top of us.  At least thatís the way it appeared to me at the time. It was all happening so fast.  Something big, either a recoilless or a B-40 rocket came right over my head on about a 45-degree angle from the starboard side.  It went straight through the center windshield and passed between Potter who was driving and LT. Salinas who was standing to his left and went out the door.  It never exploded.  I guess Charlie shot it from too close and the centrifugal pin didnít have time to arm it.  Potter was blown out of the driver seat by the force of the glass that came at him from the windshield but recovered in time to keep the boat from going aground.  He had to look through the hole that the round left in the windshield to steer the boat and was hampered by the blood that was running down his face from the glass that was imbedded in it. 

As the battle waged on another large round of some sort hit the starboard side.  It went through the freezer, exited to the refrigerator, came out through the front door of the refrigerator and hit the fire extinguisher in the cabin.  Again this one did not explode either but the next morning's breakfast was in disarray.  Several bullets also found their mark on PCF 5 but so far no one was hit. The Boat was beginning to look like Swiss Cheese. 

By this time my M-60 was getting hot.  I started to notice as the tracers came out of my barrel they were no longer going in a straight line. Then it happened.  The extractor on the end of the bolt malfunctioned and it didnít pull the spent round out and another round tried to go in.  The gun jammed.  I threw up the top and removed the belt and banged the stock of my M-60 on the deck until both rounds came out.  I put the belt back in and started firing again.  I was able to get of a few hundred more rounds and then it happened again.  I had to keep repeating this process for some time until finally I broke the stock off my gun and  the tracers coming out looked more like a roman candle shooting balls of fire in a curved arc in every direction.  I realized then that I had burned up the barrel of my M-60 so I grabbed my M-16 and started to fire away with that.  I remember thinking it was like a bee bee gun compared to the M-60 but at least it was shooting straight and not jamming.  I knew that 400 rounds were not going to last me long so I saved some and started firing 40mm grenades with my M-79. 

Whalen continued to fire his twin 50's from above the pilothouse.  On the back deck Coates was firing away with his single 50.  The hot shells were coming out and soon quite a pile of them built up around the chained Vietcong on the back deck.  They burned the hell out of his legs.  Poole was pumping grenades out of his Honeywell so fast that he soon ran out.  The old momason on the back deck saw this and ran down in the cabin.  I guess it didn't matter to her who was who at that time.  She just wanted to see her family again I guess so she rummaged around in the cabin, found some rounds for Poole, carried them up and started feeding him the belts.  If she was going to die I guess she wanted to have something to say about it too. 

Once again another recoilless round hit the boat.  It didnít explode either but we were not so lucky this time.  It hit right at the starboard aft cabin and a large piece of the cabin went flying in all directions.  Poole was hit just below the left eye by a large piece of shrapnel and it took off a large piece of his face.  Coates said he saw Poole get hit and as Poole was about to fall over the side, Coats left his gun and grabbed him by the flack jacket and pulled him back on board.  As Poole was dropping to the deck a VC bullet found its mark in his leg.  He was bleeding profusely.  Coates went back to his gun and continued firing.  The Sergeant who had been on the back deck also firing his M-16 put his gun down and straddled Poole.  He bandaged his face first then unchained the VC prisoner, and administered an IV of plasma to Poole.  He had the VC prisoner stand up on the back deck and hold the plasma bottle up right in the middle of all the fighting.  I later heard that the Sarge received the Navy Commendation with Bronze V for his actions that day.  I bet in years to follow that the medal was a topic of discussion around his teammates. 

After what seemed like hours, the shooting stooped.  LT. Salinas stuck his head out the door and looked at me.  He said, "are you hit".  I could not really hear him because my ears drums were broken but I knew what he said.  I said "no, is everybody ok"? His reply was "no, get ready to go ashore the 38 is sinking."  Again I could feel my heart pounding in my feet once more.  I had now learned the difference between Fear and Terror.  Fear is when you step into the street and almost get run over by a car.  Your heart races and the adrenaline pumps but as the car misses you and goes by you return to normal.  Terror is when you have had the fear for 10 minuets and you know it may get worse soon. My body was alive with Adrienne. I felt as if I was holding a live wire. 

We were not far from the ambush site and we had to beach the boats.  Were the Vietcong waiting for us there also?  Did they know they hit us bad and would double time it to our position and finish us off?  By now it was getting dark and it made things even more confusing.  As we beached the boats I jumped down in the mud and took up a defensive position with my M-16 and M-79.  Not that that would have done any good but I didnít know what else to do. I was now performing my job on instinct for I learned that if you take time in combat to think about your actions, you will probably die. 

Then the strangest thing happened.  I looked back and there was LT. Salinas hanging over the side near the bow, cleaning out his underwear.  I donít mean to judge him in any way shape or form but looking back on it I figure one of two things must have happened.  He either got some bad Chile in the wardroom of the Cutter for lunch that day or he shit his pants on the spot when that recoilless round went between him and Potter and out the door.  I will leave it for others to judge which it was. 

I think just a few minutes passed and we didnít receive any fire so I got back aboard.  The Sarge said "Hey Ski, come here I need a shoelace".  I removed the lace from my right boot and that is when I saw Poole for the first time since he was hit.  His leg was bleeding profusely and my shoelace was used as a tourniquet.  The Sarge had given Poole some morphine by now and he was not crying out in pain.  His face was bandaged and only his right eye was showing.  It just had a blank stare on it.  Some of the Mercenaries were hit also but I really didnít care about them at the time.  Some were crying out in agony from their wounds but it was my brothers that were my main concern now.  The situation stabilized on the 5 boat so I went over to one of the other boats to see if I could help.  I think it was the 38 boat again but I can't be sure, it may have been the other one.  A large caliber bullet, probably a 50 had come through the twin 50 gun tub and when it exited it took the heal of the gunners foot with it.  I donít know who he was but I do know he was a brave sailor.  He remained at his position and kept firing until he was pulled out of the tub.  As he lay on the floor of the pilothouse he was given morphine also and an IV of plasma.  I donít think I was of much help there but I tried. 

The call had been put out for medevac choppers and they were on their way.  There were more wounded but I donít remember how many or on which boats, Not all needed medevaced.  If they were able to fight they were going back with us.  An air strike was called in to hit the position of the ambush because we had to go back out the same way we came in.  I now went back to the 5 boat and decided to knock the front windshield out for it was shattered with a hole right in the middle where that recoilless had came through.  We had a long metal pole with a large steel weight on it.  This was used for cleaning the Mortar and would do nicely to knock out the windshield.  When I hit it with the first blow I thought it would break in pieces and I would soon have it out.  Not only didnít it budge, I slipped on all the shells that were on the bow and fell on my ass.  I knew I could never get it out with that footing so Coates got the broom and started to sweep the spent shells over the side.  I was amazed at how many of them there were.  I had put out thousands of rounds before my M-60 gave out on me.  I hit the windshield again and again it didnít move.  I was shocked by its strength.  I continued to beat on it with that ram until it finally started to give way.  It never did break in pieces but warped and went into the pilothouse all in one piece.  By the time I got it out I was completely out of breath, on my knees, and gasping for air.  I went in the pilothouse and retrieved the windshield and threw it over the side.  Everyone on board was busy doing something either to comfort the wounded and prepare them for evacuation or patching the holes in the boats with damage control plugs. (Assorted size wooden cones and sledge hammer to pound them in with).  They were crude but effective to repair holes in aluminum. 

Just then the leader of the air strike was calling out for us on the radio.  LT. Salinas was busy so I answered the call.  The flight leader told me that he was sorry but "something more urgent had come up and he would not be able to help us out".  I still remember my response to that, I said, "what the fuck is it, the third world war."  I knew then that if we were going to make it out alive we were going to do it on our own. 

My mind was racing and my heart was still pounding and for a moment my thoughts now turned toward home for I was pretty sure I would not live through the night.  Who would tell Donna, I wondered?  A minister, maybe my father, perhaps a strange man in a military uniform would drive to her home and tell her that the boy she loved had died that night.  Another explosion went off near by and I remember making a decision that I wanted to live.  I got back to the task at hand.  Just then we heard the unmistakable sound of the rotor blades of the Huey's, or slicks as they were called.  Itís a sound that anyone who ever served in Nam can never forget. 

We had Poole on a stretcher now and I took the left front.  As we carried all the wounded men some distance to the waiting choppers.  I heard the pilots screaming, "come on, come on, come on.  Get'em on board"!  I remember being a little pissed at the time.  What the hell did they think we were doing out there, having a picnic?  I guess I needed to walk in their shoes to understand.  They were sitting ducks to the Viet Cong when they were waiting for us to load our wounded and just wanted to get out fast.  Many more men would have their names on the wall if it were not for their bravery and courage under fire.  We loaded Poole on the chopper and I put my hand out.  He raised his and we clenched fists.  I said, "hang in there buddy".  That was the last time I ever saw him.  I know he survived because some years later I looked for his name on the wall.  I was relieved when I didnít find it. 

If my memory serves me right, out of the 18 crewmembers of the 3 boats, 10 were wounded.  Those of us that were still able to climbed back aboard the boats and headed back to the Gulf of Siam.  It was so dark that I could not even make out the riverbank.  Potter was steering by radar.  I was not sure how far we had to go to get back to the ambush site but once again, my heart was racing expecting the worst.  By now I was sure we must have reached the ambush zone.  No enemy fire.  I felt like I had a hold of a live wire and couldnít let go.  My whole body was tingling.  Then I saw it, could it be?  Yes, it was the faint silhouette of the bay where the Cua Lon emptied into the ocean.  Just a few more minuets and we will be clear of land.  When I knew for sure that we were in the ocean my fear was replaced by and eerie sound of silence and awesome sense of survival.  I had survived one more day in Nam.  With the amount of firepower put out by the 3 Swift Boats we must have hit Charlie pretty hard.  Those that survived our onslaught must have anticipated an air strike and left the area. 

Joe Muharsky

 

Volunteer:  1966  United States Navy, age 18
Volunteer:  1967  U.S.S. Brister, Destroyer Escort #327, Vietnam, Age 19
Volunteer:  1968  Forward Machine Gunner,  PCF (Swift Boat) 78, DaNang, Age 20
Volunteer:  1970  Forward Machine Gunner,  PCF (Swift Boat) 94, An Thoi, Age 21

Awarded:
    Six medals, 4 citations including Bronze ďVĒ earned in combat, for service to my country. 

Operation Market Time, Operation Seal Lords, Operation Phoenix 

Recipient:

First ďAdmiral Zumwalt Humanitarian AwardĒ

From ďThe Swift Boat Sailors Association - 2003 

Volunteer:  Coxswain and Flotilla Operations Officer

United States Coast Auxiliary 2002 Ė present, Age 55 

Recipient: Search And Rescue Team 9 Award

For saving a 16 year old boys life

From:  United States Coast Guard Auxiliary- 2004  Age 57 

Recipient: First Place Division  Coxswain Award.

From:  United States Coast Guard Auxiliary- 2004

107 missions and 314 hours underway.  May-Sep, 2004 

Recipient: First Place Division  Coxswain Award.

From:  United States Coast Guard Auxiliary- 2006

246 hours underway.  May-Sep, 2006 

Recipient: First Place Division  Coxswain Award.

From:  United States Coast Guard Auxiliary- 2007

198 hours underway.  May-Sep, 2007