Rescue After a Swift Boat Ambush

LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: Thoughts gravitated toward rescue: where in almighty hell were the other boats? 43’s radio was destroyed beyond repair and the backup PRC-25 unit set up by LT Lomas and the SEALORDS staff officer lacked the transmission power to break into the net already froth with urgent traffic. PCF 38, seventh boat in the file, was just heading out of 43’s sight when she realized her trailing sister was missing. Brazenly, she attempted to implement rescue by reentering the ambush site. Thirty-eight’s bravery was thwarted by a rocket round which slammed into her pilot house, severely wounding the OIC and rendering her steering useless. The coxswain’s skillful manipulation of the twin screw throttles enabled the boat to limp out of the kill zone without suffering further damage. [Source: By LTJG Peter N. Upton, UDT-13, article supplied by Steven L. Waterman, mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats]

“Upon reaching the medevac area, 38 passed the word of distress, thereby galvanizing the command boat, PCF 31, and a cohort, PCF 5, into swift action. Both boats entered the kill zone with guns roaring and arrived intact at the scene of battle. Thirty-one maneuvered into a position adjacent to the wreckage while 5 poured out covering fire. Long prayed-for extraction became a euphoric reality as dead and wounded persons were passed up, and finally, the perimeter was withdrawn, exhausted and unbelieving. The evacuation completed, 31 and 5 raced to the medevac perimeter where the dazed men of 43 joined the somber procession, ferrying the wounded to the dustoff helicopters,vainly trying to collect and convey their thoughts of the past hour. l he air was heavy with a pungent haze of disbelief.

“Meanwhile, only twenty minutes after her crew and UDT had been evacuated, 43’s fate was sealed as over a thousand pounds of high explosives and mortar rounds concocted an eruption of cataclysmic intensity, hurling a spuming vortex of flame, smoke, and twisting metal over five hundred feet into the air-her twin diesels could not be halted during the fight, had overheated and ignited fuel, thus starting the irrevocable chain which ended in her ultimate destruction. Wisely, the boats refused to risk a night transit and bivouacked in the river, tethering to mangrove stumps within the reinforced defense perimeter. Few of the 43 boat’s survivors could muster the strength to close their eyes; frozen to the decks of their new homes, they gazed into the starry firmament, wondering, reckoning.

Fighting Back Against a Swift Boat Ambush

LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: “The bewildering, awesome reality of the situation was beclouded by momentary shock. The enemy, probably in a similar state of amazement, did not organize directly and afforded the 43’s survivors invaluable minutes in which to orient themselves. LT Lomas scurried into the pilot house and aided the wounded there. Sandlin’s pain was eased by a quick shot of morphine and a battle dressing. The sporadic shrapnel wounds of a minor nature were of no immediate concern. Survival, and survival only, was paramount, and to live, the survivors knew they had to fight. To this end, a hasty defense perimeter was formed. Campbell, with Piper and Broderick on the fantail, maintained constant M-79 grenade fire into the north bank. Luckily, the 43 boat canted toward the river and provided some natural cover for them. Crew members, discarding the .50 caliber weapons as useless, grabbed M-16 rifles and set up firing positions covering the south bank, thereby providing the stricken unit with a 360 degree perimeter. [Source: By LTJG Peter N. Upton, UDT-13, article supplied by Steven L. Waterman, mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats]

“Simultaneous with these actions, Ruiz and Lowry found the detachment’s M-60 machine gun, and, using the 43’s hull for cover, slid past the bow in order to set up a firing position in a natural emplacement ten meters away. Sandlin, ready to go, was given a rifle and carried to this frontal position thereby supplying additional firepower. Concussion grenades were also used to supplement these basic weapons in the forty minute effort to ward off any attempts of an enemy assault. The foliage proved indeed provident, absorbing much of the enemy fire while precluding his use of rockets and heavy rounds altogether. Though continuous, the resulting incoming fire was relatively ineffective. Only Ruiz was seriously wounded in the ground action as a Chinese hand grenade exploded next to his M-60 firing position. Heroic acts became well-nigh routine as 43 was transformed into a blazing bunker: some fired while Hinson passed ammunition and loaded M-16 magazines; weapons jammed and were replaced; hand grenades were exchanged with the enemy but twenty meters away, a diabolical chess game, one Viet Cong spider hole checkmated by Lowry’s accurate throw. As a result of this aggressive perimeter action, the necessary volume of fire was sustained and the enemy never risked a frontal onslaught.

Swift Boat Ambush

Between the hours of 1800-1900, 12 April 1969, at a well-camouflaged sector along the narrow Duong Keo, southernmost in South Vietnam’s vast system of navigable waterways, U.S. Navy PCF’s (“swiftboats”) then supporting Vietnamese Marine river operations under the aegis of SEALORDS incurred their most devastating and demoralizing setback to date. A well-planned and perfectly executed Viet Cong heavy weapons ambush inflicted heavy material damage to every swiftboat unit involved in the action and accounted for thirty-nine wounded in action, many seriously and requiring immediate medical evacuation. Vietnamese Marine casualties were of equal severity. One of the eight boats involved, PCF 43, was totally destroyed during the encounter. Its mangled, blackened carcass still rests on the ambush site. Her seventeen-member crew included ten members of an underwater demolition team, two were killed: Only three of the remaining fifteen escaped unscathed.[Source: By LTJG Peter N. Upton, UDT-13, article supplied by Steven L. Waterman, mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats]

LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: “Vietnamese mornings are singularly beautiful… However, this morning elegance passed quickly, when word was passed to UDT promulgating the modus operandi and logistics requirements for the upcoming three-day SEALORDS operation. It was about 1630 hours when UDT personnel scampered down the sagging cargo net, consummating the already bulking load. Rendezvous with the PCF units involved in the mission took place approximately one hour later, one thousand meters outside the gaping mouth of the Duong Keo, the watery path which would lead to the day’s assigned sweep area. Forty-three informed the command boat of her special cargo, then took her assigned station as the rear element of a stately file of eight units. Flak gear was donned and battle stations manned on the fantail as the boats proceeded to enter the foreboding jaws of this river, infamous for its demonstrated hostility to allied units who dared venture into her inner reaches.  Continue reading

Surviving a Helicopter Crash in Vietnam

Helicopter pilot USMC Gunnery Sergeant Paul Moore told the journalist Peter Alan Lloyd, “I had one particularly close call was when I was flying an H-34 to determine some control problems. I had a VNAF Capt as co-pilot and we were observing a flight of Army HU-1s on a mission on a mountain. I auto-rotated down the mountain side and when I added power and pulled up the collective to recover from the auto rotation, the helicopter began a rapid spin and loss of fore and aft cyclic control. (Later I discovered that the tail pylon had sheared resulting in an extreme out of balance fore and aft). [Source: USMC Gunnery Sergeant Paul Moore, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, May 2013]

“I followed the known emergency actions which I was very familiar with, since I also taught them, as we dropped approximately 1,500 feet, including auto rotation prior to the flare at about 500 ft when the tail pylon failed and the spin began. We hit nose down because of loss of fore and aft control, then I applied full left cyclic to wind up the Main rotor blades, as they struck the ground. These procedures were: ) Reduced the hand throttle to idle to stop or reduce the spinning; 2) Turn off the battery switch; 3) Turn off the magneto switch. These actions were to help prevent a fire when crashing. Then I had to stop the main rotors before they came through the cockpit. I did that by full left cyclic so the main blades would strike the ground, and stop their travel before they could hit the cockpit. I was on the bottom left side of the helicopter, and the VNAF Captain disappeared out through the right side window, leaving me with my left leg trapped. Continue reading

Helicopter Missions in Vietnam

Michael Herr wrote in “Dispatches”, “I was already down at the strip waiting for a helicopter to come and take me out of there… At one lz the brigade chopper came in with a real foxtail hanging off the aerial… “Best way’s to just keep moving,” one of them told us. “Just keep moving, stay in motion, you know what I’m saying?” We knew. He was a moving-target-survivor subscriber, a true child of the war, because except for the rare times when you were pinned or stranded the system was geared to keep you mobile, if that was what you thought you wanted. As a technique for staying alive it seemed to make as much sense as anything, given naturally that you were there to begin with and wanted to see it close; it started out sound and straight but it formed a cone as it progressed, because the more you moved the more you saw, the more you saw the more besides death and mutilation you risked, and the more you risked of that the more you would have to let go of one day as a “survivor.” Some of us moved around the war like crazy people until we couldn’t see which way the run was even taking us anymore, only the war all over its surface with occasional, unexpected penetration. As long as we could have choppers like taxis it took real exhaustion or depression near shock or a dozen pipes of opium to keep us even apparently quiet, we’d still be running around inside our skins like something was after us, ha ha, La Vida Loca. [Source: Michael Herr, “Dispatches”, Knopf, 1977] Continue reading

Drugs, Freaks and Beyond Fear in the Vietnam War

Michael Herr wrote in “Dispatches”, “Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear. Whenever I heard something outside of our clenched little circle I’d practically flip, hoping to God that I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed it. A couple of rounds fired off in the dark a kilometer away and the Elephant would be there kneeling on my chest, sending me down into my boots for a breath. Once I thought I saw a light moving in the jungle and I caught myself just under a whisper saying, “I’m not ready for this, I’m not ready for this.” That’s when I decided to drop it and do something else with my nights. And I wasn’t going out like the night ambushers did, or the Lurps, long-range recon patrollers who did it night after night for weeks and months, creeping up on VC base camps or around moving columns of North Vietnamese. I was living too close to my bones as it was, all I had to do was accept it. Anyway, I’d save the pills for later, for Saigon and the awful depressions I always had there.[Source: Michael Herr, “Dispatches”, Knopf, 17

“I knew one 4th Division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. “They sure give you the range,” he said. This was his third tour. In 1965 he’d been the only survivor in a platoon of the Cav wiped out going into the la Drang Valley. In ‘66 he’d come back with the Special Forces and one morning after an ambush he’d hidden under the bodies of his team while the VC walked all around them with knives, making sure. They stripped the bodies of their gear, the berets too, and finally went away, laughing. After that, there was nothing left for him in the war except the Lurps.

I just can’t hack it back in the World,” he said. He told me that after he’d come back home the last time he would sit in his room all day, and sometimes he’d stick a hunting rifle out the window, leading people and cars as they passed his house until the only feeling he was aware of was all up in the tip of that one finger. “It used to put my folks real uptight,” he said. But he put people uptight here too, even here. “No man, I’m sorry, he’s just too crazy for me,” one of the men in his team said. “All’s you got to do is look in his eyes, that’s the whole fucking story right there.” “Yeah, but you better do it quick,” someone else said. “I mean, you don’t want to let him catch you at it.”

But he always seemed to be watching for it, I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean. He wore a gold earring and a headband torn from a piece of camouflage parachute material, and since nobody was about to tell him to get his hair cut it fell below his shoulders, covering a thick purple scar. Even at division he never went anywhere without at least a .45 and a knife, and he thought I was a freak because I wouldn’t carry a weapon. “Didn’t you ever meet a reporter before?” I asked him. “Tits on a bull,” he said. “Nothing personal.”

But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was. His face was all painted up for night walking now like a bad hallucination, not like the painted faces I’d seen in San Francisco only a few weeks before, the other extreme of the same theater. In the coming hours he’d stand as faceless and quiet in the jungle as a fallen tree, and God help his opposite numbers unless they had at least half a squad along, he was a good killer, one of our best. The rest of his team were gathered outside the tent, set a little apart from the other division units, with its own Lurp-designated latrine and its own exclusive freeze-dry rations, three-star war food, the same chop they sold at Abercrombie & Fitch. The regular division troops would almost shy off the path when they passed the area on their way to and from the mess tent. No matter how toughened up they became in the war, they still looked innocent compared to the Lurps. When the team had grouped they walked in a file down the hill to the lz across the strip to the perimeter and into the treeline. I never spoke to him again, but I saw him. When they came back in the next morning he had a prisoner with him, blindfolded and with his elbows bound sharply behind him. The Lurp area would definitely be off limits during the interrogation.

“When the commander walked by us he almost took an infarction.”Don’t you men salute officers?” “We’re not men,” Page said. “We’re correspondents.” When the commander heard that, he wanted to throw a spontaneous operation for us, crank up his whole brigade and get some people killed. We had to get out on the next chopper to keep him from going ahead with it, amazing what some of them would do for a little ink. Page liked to augment his field gear with freak paraphernalia, scarves and beads, plus he was English, guys would stare at him like he’d just come down off a wall on Mars. Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had thirty years before as Captain Blood, but sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip, overloaded on the information, the input! The input! He’d give off a bad sweat and sit for hours, combing his mustache through with the saw blade of his Swiss Army knife. We packed grass and tape: Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows, Best of the Animals, Strange Days, Purple Haze, Archie Bell and the Drells, “C’mon now everybody, do the Tighten Up. . . .” Once in a while we’d catch a chopper straight into one of the lower hells, but it was a quiet time in the war, mostly it was lz’s and camps, grunts hanging around, faces, stories.”

Fire Fight During a Night Ambush Patrol

U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd: “Shots ring out and the platoon dives for cover, each of us landing in pools of water and mud on the floor of the rubber plantation. We are as surprised as Charlie as we come face to face less than 50 feet apart. Because of how we were moving, not everyone has a clear field of fire. I have a number of troops between me and the enemy. There is random and sporadic fire directed at the VC. They are returning fire as well. I can hear the crack of some AK-47’s and then “Whoosh”. I know a RPG is coming and there is a loud explosion to my right, then another one. This one sprays me with shrapnel. Nothing serious, just small fragments in the hands. PFC Juan Antu, a 20 year old Mexican kid from Yvalde, Texas, one of our grenadiers who packs a M-79 Grenade Launcher, is hit in the exchange. [Source: Arnold Krause with Peter Alan Lloyd, Wall Street Journal, Eyewitness Accounts General News The Vietnam War, May 2013]

“We have no cover other than the darkness that surrounds us. Everyone is staying put from where they have dropped to the ground. Finally, we are returning a base of fire at any muzzle flashes we can see and Charlie disappears into the darkness, the firing stops and the rain, which was pouring down, eases up but the wind continues to blow hard. It’s around 2100 hours. We do a quick check to see what our casualties are. Juan Antu, who was in front of me, has taken a bullet. The round hit his helmet, spun around in the helmet liner and entered his skull in the back.  Continue reading