"Ambush Alley"
The attack on PCF 101
as told by then
Ensign R. R. "Sonny" Barber

            My memory has faded over the years, but it’s difficult to forget the events of March 19, 1969 in what became know as “Ambush Alley” on the Cua Dai river complex south of DaNang.  For 15 hours, LT Bob Andretta, QM2 Bill Pfeffer and I were MIA’s and, at several points during these anxiety-filled hours, I wasn’t sure that we wouldn’t be KIAs.  This is my recollection of that evening and long night, but there are other parts of this story as well to be told that I did not witness.

            The other parts of the story have the real heroes -- crew members such as Ron Wood and others on the 101 and on the 58, who saved the 101 from sinking, returned fire and helped rescue the injured.  Other crews also were heroes as they were called in to join the fray, risking their lives to lay down fire many hours that night either hoping to protect us, should we still be alive, or avenging our possible deaths. 

            It was in mid March 1969 that my crew was selected to be the first to do a 3-day stint on the Cua Dai River.  The tactic was that the boat patrol schedule was to be staggered so that there was always a fresh crew patrolling with one that had been there for a day or so. 

            PCF 58 with OIC LTJG Jim Weinandy and crew entered the river, relieved another crew and set up a patrol schedule with my boat, PCF 101, already a day or two in the river.

            The Swifts in the Cua Dai relied initially on CG 14 for a base of operations and we wanted to be careful not to get caught up river when the tide ran out.

            In the late afternoon of March 19 after a run to Hoi An City, the 58 boat followed by the 101, headed down river.  Not far from the shallow intersection of two Cua Dai tributaries the 58 boat spotted a fishing net partially across the river and stopped to remove it.  LTJG Weinandy told me to go ahead, so we pushed on and the 58 soon followed.

            On board the 101 were several VN Navy personnel and LT Bob Andretta from CG 14.  Traveling at only a few knots, I indicated to Bill Pfeffer to slow.  He pulled back on the Morse controls and let the engines idle as the wake began to lift the 101 and carry us across the sand bar. The main river channel was in front of us with the far bank facing.  We would have turned westward toward CG 14 from this point.

            The 101 drug bottom briefly and then drifted free.  Bill quickly pushed the controls to full throttle and would soon begin the turn toward the Coastal Group near the mouth of the Cua Dai.

            Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash and then heard the explosion.  Standing to the left of the pilot’s chair, I felt a blast of heat from the main cabin.  I turned to look down into the cabin and flames and smoke blasted passed me.  Ron Wood on the M-60 in the peak tank opened fire first.  Then I heard fire from the twin and aft 50’s and from the M-60’s on each side of the aft deck.

            As acrid, black smoke filled the pilot house, I yelled at Bill to get us out of here. Bill turned the wheel to port, but nothing happened.  We were heading straight for the far bank and the enemy crew who were manning the 75mm recoilless rifle that had just pumped its first round amid ship of the 101.   Bill pulled back on the throttles and they wouldn’t respond.  My eyes were burning from staring into the blast an instant after the first recoilless rifle round hit the cabin.  I later realized that the heat and flames had seared the hair off my eyebrows, arms and the front of my head.

            Both doors to the pilot house were closed and smoke filled the space.  It was difficult to breathe and to see.

            The 101 was now at flank speed with no one at the helm heading for the south bank of the main channel -- right into the fire from the recoilless rifle.

            Only seconds had passed since the first round hit.  Bill and I moved toward the starboard door and opened it. We had to get away from the heat and smoke coming up from the main cabin. As we looked out the door and aft, flames and smoke were coming from the hole in the boat.  The black smoke had engulfed us as we stuck our heads out the door trying to get air. Then seconds later, a second recoilless rifle round hit the boat.  The concussion inside the boat was like a giant hand pushing at us both. I fell against Bill, who was holding open the door, and we both tumbled into the river, in water about four to five feet deep.

            When I stood up and wiped the mud and water from my face, I saw the 101 racing straight for the far bank and someone standing at the after helm turning the boat (I later found out it was Ron Wood.)   Bob Andretta also was knocked off the port side when the second round hit.  He was standing on the catwalk some where along the port side.

            The 58 boat raced passed us so close we could almost touch the hull.  We were yelling and screaming, but they didn’t notice us.  The 58 crew was busy returning fire, heading toward the 101 now streaming smoke from the starboard side.

            (Ron managed to get the 101 down river about a half mile and beached it before it sank completely in the channel.  Other Swifts came into the river and helped with the salvage operations and the 101 was refloated and moved to the Coastal Group. It was during the offloading and medevacing of the injured, crewmember BM2 Pete Peterson and some of the VN Navy personnel, that it was discovered that the three of us were missing.  The search and rescue and salvage operations ended about 0300. The March 1969 USNAVFOR VN summary says that a round hit the engine compartment which is inaccurate.  Both rounds went in to the main cabin. The 101 had sufficient power such that Ron Wood jerked the engine controls from flank speed ahead to full back in one quick move and took control of the boat.  The cables and connections to the pilot house helm and throttle controls were severed by the first round that hit the main cabin near the waterline.)

            The three of us stood there, water up to our chests watching the boats’ silhouettes shrink in the dimming light of dusk.  But with the boats gone, the enemy gunners began to focus on us. Small arms fire crackled and splashes appeared around us.  My eyes were still burning from the smoke and my vision was a little blurred. I felt a sting on the left side of my head and I don’t know to this day if it was a bullet graze or a scratch from something in the river when I hit head first. But my hand was bloody when I wiped my head. Bill Pfeffer had a deep cut on his left finger and his finger was broken, later swelling around his wedding band.

            The shooting continued.  We were like targets in an arcade -- no where to run or hide. And we had only a K-bar knife that Bill had strapped on.  I had no sidearm, a mistake I never made again on any river patrol.

            We had to get away from the fire.  I’m not sure how Bob and Bill managed to move back toward the near bank, but I dived down and pulled myself along the bottom using the roots of the trees and plants exposed on the bottom.  I would come up frequently and gasp for air and the shots would begin again with splashes all around us.

            We finally made it around the bend of the island out of the line of fire.  We huddled there for a while, the three of us wondering what we were going to do.  One thing was sure; we needed to put some more distance between us and the enemy gun crew.  Another island was just 20 or 30 yards away across a channel six to eight feet deep.  I was exhausted from the last swim along the river bottom.  I was contemplating how I was going to cross the channel when I sensed pain in my left arm.  It was then I noticed a half-dollar-sized hole in my left arm.  Blood was dripping down mixed with muddy river water.

            I can’t remember how Bob and Bill covered the distance across the channel, but I pulled off my boots and strung them around my neck.  I took off my pants and made a set of water wings, just as we’d been taught during the survival swim class at the at Coronado.  It worked and I made it across. Somehow in our later moves, to find a place to hide, I lost my boots and my pants.

            We kept low on the banks of this island as the sun set. We heard other Swifts sweeping up and down the main channel with an almost constant barrage. Bob decided to go back around to the side of the island facing the channel to try and get the attention of the Swifts. 

            Bill and I huddled on the river bank for what seemed like hours, but Bob never returned.  He later told us he had to hide because some VC/NVA soldiers were scouting the area, possibly looking for us.  While we lay there partly on the bank and partly in the water to keep a low profile, we could hear the Swifts making one run after another firing at the area where the enemy fire had originated.  At some point, an AC-47 Spooky gunship flew around for a while spraying the area with its lights and its tracer rounds.  And once in a while tracers would fly back at the aircraft.  It was like having a front row seat to Fourth of July fireworks with the muzzle flashes and explosions from the Swifts and this gunship.

            I don’t know what time all this subsided, but when it did end, Bill and I realized Bob was not returning.  We needed better cover and moved low along the bank until we came to a destroyed fishing bunker, now not much more than a deep depression in the sand.

            We found some vegetation and practically made a blanket with several layers that provided some camouflage, but no protection from the bugs and damp night air.  We lay there for some time trying not to move, our feet in the water, mine bare because I had lost my boots.

            Bill and I spoke little, but I believe we both prayed hard for some divine intervention to help get us out of this predicament.  We had no real ideas except that we figured we’d have a chance of getting some attention from friendlies at first light.

            Unfortunately, we did get some attention from friendlies -- during darkness – some group with a 105 howitzer.  Perhaps we were spotted moving or else where we decided to hide had been a frequent crossing point for VC.  At any rate, we heard the thud of the howitzer and a few seconds later, we saw a splash across the river from our position, maybe 75 to 100 yards.  Then another thud and another splash, this time closer.  A few more rounds went off and then splashes, each closer to us than the next.  I can’t recall what went through my mind -- terror, the thought of being blown to bits or maybe the fact that we had cheated death by the enemy only to be killed by friendlies! Whoever was using the artillery had obviously targeted this area and had the coordinates down pat as they carefully walked the rounds across the river.  I guess our praying helped because the rounds stopped, the last falling maybe 30 or 40 yards away.  My heart was now pounding so hard I thought anyone within earshot my detect it.

            We went back to just hiding and praying.  I know we whispered to each other wondering what might have happened to Bob.  The thoughts were chilling.

            It seemed like many hours before dawn finally came.  We knew it was time to signal for help.  There was an RF/PF camp up river, probably the source of the artillery fire. We could see a watch tower from our position and we stood up and began to wave our arms toward.  Someone noticed us because they immediately began shooting at us.  I grabbed Bills knife, took off my formerly white skivvies and, with my drawers on the end of the knife, waved my Fruit of the Loom surrender flag.  It worked and the shooting stopped.

            Then we heard the sound of small engines.  It was fishing boats leaving Hoi An and other villages and heading out to sea.  We waved at them, but none would come over to us.  We found a log and floated out into the channel hoping one of the boats would stop.

            As we floated in the channel, we noticed another figure back on the bank also waving.  It was Bob and he had persuaded a boat to come over and pick him up.

            The boat with Bob aboard approached us and the fishermen and Bob helped us in the rickety craft. We were elated both to be picked up and to see Bob.  We had seriously considered the thought that he was dead.

            I sat in the boat shivering and thanking God I was alive, that we all were alive.  I turned to the fisherman steering the boat and gave him my watch.  I remember he smiled and said something and nodded his head.

            Within a few minutes, we approached the Coastal Group.  Several Swifts were side by side, bows onto the beach.  I looked over beyond these boats and there was the 101 lying over on one side. Debris littered the deck and all around. There was a huge hole in the side and what looked like hundreds of wooden pegs plugging as many bullet holes.  Many of those were just beneath the starboard door where 15 hours before Bill and I had made an awkward departure. And all around were empty mortar round containers and I don’t know how many used up 50-caliber machine gun barrels.

            I remember several crewmembers coming up to us yelling and grabbing us.  It was bedlam for a few minutes.  But we were all safe.

            We went to the CG for a while and then Bill and I rode back to DaNang on a Swift.  We got some medical attention, a shower and some clean clothes and Bill had to have his wedding band cut off since his finger was so swollen. 

            After an uncomfortable night’s sleep, my now smaller crew and I were sent out on a patrol the next day to relieve another boat which had gone into the Cua Dai.  The 24 boat had been hit by two recoilless rifle rounds while patrolling with PCF 99.

            Ron Wood received the Silver Star for his actions on March 19.  Pete Peterson never returned to my crew after being medevaced.  By the end of the long year in VN, only RD3 Larry Linkous remained of my original crew.  He and I were the only two US personnel on several VN Navy crew patrols in those waning weeks.      


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This page was last updated on:  March 26, 2011 at 13:05