Midnight River Cruise

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

I don’t think Andy Williams was thinking of the Mekong when he sang his song. And, I was certain there would never be another “moon river, and me” on another PBR with my “huckleberry friends” up the Mekong again.

MIDNIGHT RIVER CRUISE

By Al Garcia

Remember the song lyrics of an Any Williams song that went something like “Moon river, wider than a mile. I’m crossing you in style some day, Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker, Wherever you’re going’, I’m goin’ your way . . . .   We're after the same rainbow's end, waitin' 'round the bend, My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me”? 

Well going up the Mekong River one moonless night on board a PBR (Patrol River Boat) with a crew of four and a passenger manifest of two Navy Seals and their Vietnamese counterparts and myself, was no river cruise, my huckleberry friend.  And the parts of the River we were navigating that night were certainly not “wider than a mile.”  PBRs were used by the Navy to insert and extract Navy Seals into and out of dangerous areas during covert missions.  The mission tonight was to slowly and quietly maneuver up the Mekong and drop off the Navy Seals and their counterparts somewhere in An Giang Providence near the Cambodian border.

I had made several calls to the unit in the days prior and was assured that they usually encountered some “action” during these midnight missions.  Just what I was looking for.  Crazy, I know.  That was my mindset at the time.  I had heard so many stories at the pub in the Compound and from guys I interviewed at bases and units throughout the IV Corps about their experiences with “incoming,” “fire fights” and “mortar barrages,” that I wanted to experience it firsthand.  The spirit of a true journalist or just a dumb-ass kid?  I think it was the latter. 

In any event, I met up with the guys at their base along the Mekong.  The first thing I heard from the guy who greeted me (whose name I can’t recall) was “So you want to see some action, uh”?  I met the guys, except for the Navy Seals and their Vietnamese counterparts who stood apart, quiet and removed.  I was given a quick tour of the boat, given a flak jacket and I was good to go.  

During this midnight cruise along the Mekong there was no “moon river,” there were, however, spots where you could almost reach out and touch the tree branches hanging over the muddy colored water.  It was serious business for these men.  A life and death situation and state of mind that they found themselves in more often than not in this humid jungle-like setting of the Mekong.  For me it was just one more adventure.  One more assignment.  Another day at the office. 

On this particular moonless night as I joined these Navy men on board their vessel, the night was quiet.  As they began to maneuver the boat from the dock, one of the crew members advises me “We go in slow and quiet.  We don’t want to wake Charlie up.”  And that’s the way we went, slow and quiet.  In fact, I couldn’t understand the leisureliness, deliberation and calmness on board.  I, on the hand, kept thinking we were sitting ducks going up river this slow.  So I went down below.

Once we were on the River, another crewman came down and told me to come back up on deck.  “You don’t want to be down here if we get hit.”  That’s all I needed to hear before I leaped up and was on the deck before you could say “Jack jumped over the candlestick.”  I didn’t have to be told twice!  Once topside he told me to “find a spot and lay low.”  I did as I was told – I wasn’t about to ask one of the five journalistic questions “why.”  I found a perfect sport behind a large metal box near the middle of the boat and took “cover.” 

A minute or two later, my new found buddy comes up to me, and with a smile on his face, as the other guys looked on, says to me “Al, I think you want to find a different spot.  That’s the ammunition box you’re laying behind.”  Okay, so I wasn’t Navy material.  I was in the Army for Pete’s sake!  How did I know? 

This was a bit different for sure, than sitting at the pub at Eakin Compound enjoying a drink.  But the conversations where the same.  The young men were the same.  Their stories were all the same.  Young men snatched from a world that became more illusion and reality as each day passed.  I talked and asked questions, and I listened as they told me about what had brought them to this night, to this place, to this time.  And their words were those of countless others I had spoken to in the weeks and months before.  I’m here because “I wanted to get this over with so I could get on with my life back home” was one of the refrains I heard from several of the guys on board that night.  Another guy, about my age I’d guess, slender and soft spoken, and a part of the PBR team for only four weeks, told me “What choice did I have?  I was drafted and before I knew it, here I wasWham, bang.”  We didn’t talk much after we left the safe area.  Everyone was quiet, pensive and absorbed with the passing backdrop that slowing faded as we seemed to moved soundlessly against the River’s current. 

I had a thousand thoughts running through my mind all at once, with the strongest one echoing “What the hell did I get myself into here”?  After what seemed hours, what had been a slow speed, became a crawl.  I was told we were getting close to our target destination.  One of the Navy men in a loud whisper says “Get ready,” and the Seals and their counterparts gathered their bags, weapons and moved to the bow of the craft.  Then the movements of the Seals, now in full gear, and the movements of the Navy men operating the PBR took a robotic look and feel.  No words were uttered, no sound was made.  The PBR accelerated like a leopard leaping at its pry.  In the blink of an eye the passengers had exited the boat and the Navy men, moving silently about, began to maneuver the boat around in the direction we had just come from.  Five minutes, maybe 10 minutes later, the engines seemed to roared to life, and without hesitation, the PBR sped away, leaving a awake behind.

I thought we had to be quiet,” I whispered to my Navy buddy.  He responded calmly, as he pointed his weapon into the night and another man expertly manned the 50-caliber machine gun bolted to the deck, “Once we unload our cargo we haul ass as fast as we can.”  “This is when we might catch some flak, so keep your head down.”  I did.  Very down. 

The ride back to base was fast.  Yet in inexperienced journalist time, it seemed like an eternity. The mission had been a success.  The “cargo” had been delivered, and the crewmen and their remaining passenger, the “still-wired” journalist, me, arrived safe and sound.A few hours later I was on a helicopter back to Can Tho and the PIO.

It was two days later when I receive a call at the office from my new Navy Buddy.  He just called to tell me that the night before, on another similar mission, they had encountered some “action.”  I had missed the action by a day or so.  “Shucks,” I said, “maybe another time.”  What was I thinking of for God’s sake.  Another time?  I thought to myself that I really must be a jack-ass to deliberately go out looking for “action.”  This was no Disney theme park. 

I don’t think Andy Williams was thinking of the Mekong when he sang his song.  And, I was certain there would never be another “moon river, and me” on another PBR with my “huckleberry friends” up the Mekong again.


Submitted: June 03, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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