Another Casualty of War

 

In November of 1968 my boat, T-152-1 (Tango 1), and T-152-10 (Tango 10) were cut from the main River Assault Squadron 15 and sent down to a small Vietnamese Navy Base at Rach Soi, Viet Nam. This was close to the larger city of Rach Gia which is adjacent to the Gulf of Siam (now the Gulf of Thailand). We remained there until January 1969.

The Tango boats were 54 foot converted LCM-6 landing craft from WWII. They had ramps on the front for loading and offloading infantry troops in the Mekong Delta. The boats were redesigned and outfitted with cannons, automatic grenade launchers, machine guns, and small arms. The ramp alone weighed 4.5 tons so the Tango boats were extremely heavy and moved slowly in the rivers and canals. They moved even more slowly when pushing against an outgoing tide.

After arriving in Rach Soi we were informed that we would be operating on "Charlie Canal". Earlier in the Fall some 30 river assault craft from RAS 152 had experienced heavy combat in this particular canal. It was a desolate stretch of land that went on for miles. The canal was straight as an arrow since it had been dug by the Chinese and Vietnamese centuries ago.

There were 2 PBRs (Patrol Boat River) at Rach Soi when we arrived. They are 30í fiberglass boats with twin Jacuzzi jet engines in them. A PBR could stop and go very quickly. A speed of 30 knots could be easily attained in a short time.

We were told that our Tango boats would operate on alternate nights on Charlie Canal. A PBR or two would accompany us. We would leave the little Vietnamese base in the late afternoon and return in the early morning hours. No Vietnamese would ever operate with us during our 2 1/2 month stay. We had no goal on our nightly outings other than to draw fire. No troops accompanied us and we had no "air cover".

Each daily patrol turned out to be a possible suicide mission. The PBRs were so fast that they decided that our Tango boats should traverse the rivers ahead of them. They then would meet up with us about 1.5 hours later for the evening patrol. I remember being extremely fearful as we traveled the rivers alone every other day. When we reached our destination we would beach our boat at the same remote village and wait. If the Viet Cong had wanted to ambush or capture us they could have easily done so. We should never have carried out the same battle plan on a daily basis.

Finally one night our dreaded fear began to unfold. Our boat had gone out the evening before and we had backed us into the riverbank. I became very evident that one drive shaft was bent. As we accelerated the entire boat vibrated uncontrollably so we cut that engine out and began limping back the 8 kilometers on our other engine. Fortunately we made it back to the base without the enemy taking advantage of us.

After arriving the crew of Tango 10 informed us that they had a hole in their fuel tank. They wanted to know if we could go out that night in their place. We told them about our bent shaft. They plugged the hole with a chunk of wood, fueled up and headed out.

We were enjoying a game of cards when all hell broke loose on the radios. Tango 10 and a PBR were engaged in a fierce firefight with the Viet Cong. It was late in the evening and pitch black out. I can still recall the panicked screams coming over our radio. You could hear gunfire when the radio mikes were keyed. It was total chaos and we could do nothing to help our buddies.

The PBR kept calling for Tango 10. There was no answer for a long time. The gunfire persisted. Little did we know at that moment that almost everyone on Tango 10 was wounded or killed. 

Now the dreaded news. A frantic call went out for a medivac chopper. The sailor said that several were wounded and one was dead. A terrible sinking feeling came over me. Who was dead? How badly were the others wounded? We only heard fragments of the developing situation as it unfolded.

After the medivac chopper had ferried the dead and wounded sailors away we finally heard what had happened. Tango 10 had received 3 direct hits from rocket propelled grenades. One had hit our friend Barry Barber in the chest. Others had been placed strategically to wound other crew members.

I remember stillness as we waited for Tango 10 to be escorted back to our location. She had to be towed and it took a long time. Sometime around mid-morning she rounded the bend and we helped tie her up to the concrete abutment.

Nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see. When the lights were shined into the well deck of the boat we could see the horrible carnage.  Blood mixed with spent machine gun cartridges. The latter was evidence that Barry had fought hard until his sudden death.

We all stood around like zombies in disbelief. I remember hearing someone say that the Army Medic on the chopper had thrown up when he saw the aftermath. They had taken Barry's remains away in a body bag. Now it was our responsibility to clean up the rest.

That night I donít think any of us got any sleep. Tango 10 was tied up next to our boat and we could smell the scent of blood, gun powder and death. I wept in silence at the loss of our friend. The fact that he had died manning the same machine-gun position that I did in my boat would not hit me until later. It could have just as well been Tango 1 and me.

I fought off my natural desire to vomit as I saw the magnitude of the catastrophe the next morning. My emotions ran wild as I climbed down into Tango 10. I recall slipping on blood and cartridges as we formulated a hasty plan. Hundreds of flies swarmed us as we stood there in shock. Hardly anything on the boat had escaped the destruction.  It was impossible to clean the boat thoroughly. Hours later we finally had done the best that we could with what we had to work with.

After our job was complete someone said a short prayer. Tears flowed as we gave our regards to our lost buddy. 

I still struggle with Barryís death to this day. He was killed during a Christmas "cease-fire" on December 27, 1968. I remain angry with those who sent the crew members of Tangos 1 and 10 on such a suicide mission. For what? We knew that something would eventually happen. We just didnít know how serious it would be. A good man died that day. Shortly afterwards the "brass" decided that the area was too dangerous for us and had us rejoin the rest of our squadron.

One never forgets something like this. It, as well as many other traumatic incidences, has caused me to be emotionally hardened to this day. It was as if my emotions were cauterized that day and I can never replace the old feelings.  I was 20 years old at the time and felt like 50.