Not to the Swift or the Strong
"I NEVER realized this was from your Swift boat," says my 17 year old daughter as she lightly touches the teak ship's wheel in my den. "How did you get it back from Vietnam?"
As casual as I can, I tell her. And I remember one of the fine, brave men I had the privilege of knowing.
October 1966, US Navy PCF-13, its flag flapping in the stiff monsoon breeze, sits in the mouth of the Hue river. The 50 foot aluminum Swift boat is pitching badly.
Ahead I can see the broiling froth where powerful river currents collide with massive incoming waves from the South China Sea. I estimate the breakers at 15 to 20 feet.
I radio back to DaNang recommending the patrol be scrubbed.
"Negative. Assume station."
I make repeated requests, each higher up the chain of command. Soon I'm talking with an admiral in Saigon.
"Ledger India 13, this is Admiral _____. Permission to secure patrol denied. I say again, permission denied. Proceed to station immediately."
Staring numbly at the combat charts, I briefly weigh the relative merits of a general court-martial. My five crewmembers shrug and grimly don their life jackets.
Minutes later we're fighting for our lives. The great waves smash into us. Trying to cut through the crushing wall of water, we're hurled sideways, heaving over sharply, from 45 to 60 degrees. Cans of 50 caliber ammunition tumble and clatter beneath decks, shoving their hatch covers loose.
Another huge boiling breaker a city block long and high as a semi smashes across our windshield. The bow plunges deep into the green water. Then through flailing windshield wipers we glimpse calmer seas. The boatswain's mate cranks over the teak ship's wheel and rams the throttles forward.
The little Swift sprints into calmer water. We've made it.
Weeks later my tour is up. With the Division commander's okay, I'm attempting to remove the ship's wheel to take home as a memento. I'm replacing it with a nearly identical wheel I'd purchased in Japan 2 years before. But I'm having a hard time removing the corroded spline key!
"Why don't you let me handle that Mr. Stephens" says a quiet but strong voice behind me. It's Chief Petty Officer Willy Scott Baker. He returned to the Navy from civilian life "to help some of these kids make it home safely." He's a really an old-timer may be even 40.
"Thanks, Chief, I'd really appreciate that." An hour later, he brings the teak wheel to me, cleaned and polished. I'll never forget his tight little smile and I never see him again.
Months later, back in the States, I hear that PCF-77 had attempted to make it through the same river mouth, but was flipped over and sank. Chief Baker, attempting to rescue one of his "kids", went down with the patrol boat. Two other crewmen also drowned.
I'm not what most people call religious, but I find great truth, beauty and peace in parts of the Old Testament. One of my favorite passages contains these words:
The race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong but time and chance happen to them all as fish are caught in a cruel net so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.
Thanks, Chief Baker. Wherever you are, one of your "kids" wishes you eternally fair winds and following seas.
Story as told by LTJG James Stephens of Ainsworth, Iowa, Officer in Charge PCF 13
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This page was last updated on: October 14, 2007 at 16:39