The loss of the first Swift Boat of the Vietnam War

PCF-4 had been on routine patrol for many hours on this Valentine's Day. So far the day had been like any other; the men were patrolling, boarding, searching, and patrolling again, scanning the blue waters and green shorelines with tired eyes that burned in the merciless sunlight, lulled into a stupor by the droning diesels. In the late afternoon the swift was patrolling offshore in Rach Gia Bay, on the western coast of the Mekong Delta. In the distance loomed three small mountains, which the Americans called the Three Sisters, looking formidable in the surrounding alluvial plain. The rumor was that a Viet Cong ammunition factory was hidden in the bowels of one of the peaks. It was not a friendly neighborhood.

At a little past 1600, a crewman spotted an object in the water fairly close to the shore. He reported it to the officer in charge, Lieutenant (j.g.) Charles D. Lloyd, USNR, who immediately ordered his coxswain to set a course to intercept it. Through binoculars, Lloyd could see that the object appeared to be a small bamboo raft, empty except for a pole from which flew a Viet Cong flag.

That flag was a potential souvenir and, more important, represented a break in the tedium; Lloyd decided to capture it. The young officer knew the risk, so he ordered his crew to battle stations and moved in cautiously, slowly circling the objective several times like a predator evaluating its prey. The flag appeared to be nothing more than an exhibition of defiance, an overt challenge of authority by the guerillas in the area. But because Lloyd's caution was still in control, he ordered one of the crewmen to toss some grenades at the raft. Several grenades exploded close to the little bamboo structure, causing the flagpole to wave frantically for a few seconds---then nothing; no secondary explosions. All was quiet except the rumble of the idling diesels on the swift.

Charlie Lloyd's caution had at last been seduced from him, and he turned over his command to the fates. He ordered his craft to close in on the bamboo raft. With the shiphandling skill characteristic of swift boat sailors, the coxswain eased the craft directly alongside the raft so that the flag bobbed within arm's reach of the rail. A seaman reached out and grasped the pole. With his knife he began cutting the lashings while his officer in charge leaned out of the pilothouse to observe.

In the shadows of the mangrove trees on the nearby shore, a pair of eyes watched the great gray fish nibble at the bait. It was time to set the hook. Hands holding the wires of a crude but effective detonating circuit came together, allowing bare copper to touch bare copper in deadly union. An explosion erupted beneath PCF-4, ripping into her underbelly. The main deck buckled upward, crushing and trapping the coxswain against the overhead of the pilothouse; the gunner above was hurled out of his gun-tub and into the water. The swift, her hull torn open and her frame traumatized, plunged beneath the frothing water almost at once and soothed her wounds in the cool mud of the bay's floor.

Lieutenant Gilliam Samuel "Gil" Dunn, USN (LDO 6303), was sitting at the mess table eating his evening meal with several other Rach Gia advisors when the screen door crashed open. A young American sailor shouted, "We're getting a "Mayday" call from one of the VNN junks! They've got some swift boat sailors on board and they're hurt pretty bad!" Gil threw down his fork and ran outside to the radio shack in the back of the mess hall. As he entered the small hut he heard the hiss and pop of the radio and a frantic voice calling "Mayday, mayday. PCF-4 mined and sunk off Three Sisters. Need medical assistance immediately."

Gil, immediately called two Army aviators, Lieutenant Norm Svarrer and Captain Ed Lewis, and asked if they could help with the search and rescue operation. They were airborne within twenty minutes. Gil's counterpart, Dai-uy Dang launched a fifteen-foot runabout, which normally served as a recreation boat, and fueled the 45-hp engine. Gil, an Army medic, and a Navy chief gunner's mate piled into the little boat with a first aid kit, an M-60 machine gun, and a PRC-25 portable radio. They left Rach Gia and turned right, headed up the coast in search of the remnants of PCF-4. Fading daylight and mounting seas did not bode well for the tiny rescue party. The little boat soon gave up trying to climb the gathering swells and began instead to plunge through the aqueous hurdles, the resulting bursts of salt water soaking the occupants and threatening to swamp the outclassed craft. But Gil Dunn had been around small boats most of his life and knew their mettle. He said to the medic in his quiet drawl, "Its rougher'n a cob out here," but drove onward toward the Three Sisters, racing the retiring sun.

From the air, Captain Lewis spotted the broken hulk of PCF-4. As he swooped low, he saw that she was almost completely submerged, only the very top of the pilothouse still visible in the valleys of the swells and the radar mast protruding from the water as though the craft were snorkeling through it. A Vietnamese Navy junk was nearby with three figures lying on the deck. Captain Lewis called Gil on the radio and vectored him to the area. An Army "Dust-off" medical evacuation helicopter and PCF-3 were on their way as well.

Gil climbed aboard the VNN junk. First he reached a seaman lying quite still; Gil checked for his pulse but could find none. While the medic checked one of the others, Gil moved forward to the next figure and found Charlie Lloyd. Gil had once ridden on PCF-4, and he and Charlie were friends.

Charlie's eyes registered recognition through the pain. "Gil," he said weakly, "how's my seaman? Is he all right?"

"He's doing fine," Gil lied.

The Vietnamese sailors on the junk had rigged a splint for Charlie's badly broken left leg using an M-14 rifle. He had no other serious wounds visible, but his weakened state worried Gil, who started to tell the medic to check him when the helicopter began hovering above to take away the wounded.

The sea conditions had continued to deteriorate, and the junk was rising and falling dangerously now as the helicopter came closer. Only the wounded , RM3 Robert R. Johnson was loaded onto the aircraft before the erratic pitching of the junk brought the helicopter's rotor blades much to close and the rescuers had to wave it off. They tried again, the pilot settling his skids right onto the top of the junk's aft cabin in an attempt to stabilize it, but again the seas were in control. The junk slipped out from beneath the skids and, moving sideways, nearly careened into the deadly rotor-arc once again. The risk was too great, the mission was aborted. By radio Gil told the pilot that PCF-3, which had nearly arrived by this time, would take the seaman and the lieutenant on to Rach Gia, where there was a team of American surgeons and nurses. As the sound of the helicopter faded into the darkening sky, Gil looked down at Charlie and realized that he and the RM3 Johnson were the only survivors of PCF-4's six-man crew.

Once aboard PCF-3, headed back to Rach Gia, Gil noticed that Charlie's other leg seemed swollen. He and the medic removed the elastic blousing strap from the lieutenant's ankle and found that the whole trouser leg had been filling with blood. Ripping open the material, the medic located a severed artery; he quickly applied a tourniquet. Gil sat down on the deck next to Charlie, who clasped his hand for the remainder of the trip. Gil did not know that the disaster had occurred because of a reckless souvenir hunt, so he was puzzled later when Charlie looked up at him from the operating table in Rach Gia and said, in a voice filled with remorse, "I don't hurt in my legs, Gil, I hurt right here." He was pointing to his heart.

In the aftermath of the PCF-4 incident, the first loss of a swift boat in the Vietnam War, Gil Dunn returned to the Three Sisters area with a 20-ton mobile crane loaded on an LCM-8 borrowed from RMK (Raymond, Morrison-Knudsen---a civilian company contracted to do Defense Department construction work in Vietnam). He and others from units in the area were able to recover the remaining bodies and attempted to salvage the sunken swift. Hostile fire from the nearby shore greatly hampered the operation, but with the combined firepower of Army helicopters, WPBs, PCFs, and VNN junks suppressing the fire, the salvage team hooked onto the swift and, after several unsuccessful attempts at raising her, dragged the stricken craft into deeper water, out of range of the Viet Cong weapons. The repair ship USS Krishna (ARL-38) then raised her. The craft was severely damaged and would never sail again, but the aluminum cadaver was shipped to Subic Bay, where it was carefully evaluated by engineers. Their analysis of the damage led to improvements in the hull design that would reduce the craft's vulnerability to mine-inflicted damage in the future.

The wounded RM3 Robert R. Johnson, recovered from his injuries and requested a return to swift boat duty. The last Gil ever heard of Charlie Lloyd was word from a Saigon hospital that the leg with the severed artery had developed complications and there was considerable doubt that it could be saved. But luckily that word was wrong, Charlie Lloyd's leg was saved.

 

The crew of PCF-4 on February 14th 1966

Charles David Lloyd, LTJG, Officer in Charge - WIA

Robert R. Johnson, RM3 - WIA

Jack Charles Rodriguez, EN2 - KIA

Tommy Edward Hill, BM2 - KIA

Dayton Luther Rudisill, GMG2 - KIA

David Joseph Boyle, SN - KIA

 

 

Story based on a story by Thomas J. Cutler, from his book "Brown Water, Black Berets", Naval Institute Press, 1988

Retold and corrected by Larry Wasikowski

 

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This page was last updated on:  September 08, 2007 at 17:09