Southlands Snuffys

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 13 (v.1) - Vagues sans Gloire

Submitted: May 01, 2014

Reads: 685

Comments: 1

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Submitted: May 01, 2014

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Vagues sans Gloire.

 

“The first thing you will notice in war is that absolutely nothing, and nowhere, is safe anymore.”

 

Our Drill Instructor, a Veteran of the Korean War, Parris Island Graduation, 1966.

 

On a morning that had broken clear and sunny, our detail had started off in an agreeable and pleasurable way, with a sun-warmed little flotilla of Mike boats heading down the placid mid-channel of a brown colored, kilometers-wide Vietnam river, towards the sea in a line astern formation. Thick, tall jungle, appeared as smoky purple in the misty early sunlight, and the lush bloom spangled trees along the river’s edge subtly tinged the air with their scent.

The flotilla had consisted of two GS Mike boats, general standard cargo “humpers”, working in a troop transport role with lines of round green helmets just barely visible above their gunwales, and looking like peas in pods. Ahead, as the vanguard, an armored Monitor “Lawnmower” boat, so called due to an ability to literally “scythe” an area with its weaponry,  and our dependable “Zippo” brought up the rear as stern guard.

It had been a “Sweeps and Stops” detail, a simple and deliberate military action which had entailed dropping off the human cargo of one GS Mike on the river bank near where the river estuary joined the sea, after which the troops headed inland through the reed beds and elephant grass to pre-chosen relatively clear areas, and once there to set-up choke points using stops, four man squads armed with two M60 Machine guns.

The next part of the operation entailed the remaining boats heading out of the estuary to the mangrove mudflats which formed the chosen seashore, to an accessible point where the second GS would discharge her S V Marines. These were to act as the sweeps, a long line of Marines, who, as beaters on a bird-shoot, would drive Charlie before them to the chosen killing ground, and onto the machine gun fire of the stops.

Each of the flanks had to be secured to take care of any attempted “bug-outs”. To achieve this, two companies of SV Marines from the second GS were to cover the left flank, and as the river was effectively the right flank then the task of securing it inevitably fell to the Lawnmower boat and our Zippo, the two GS Mike boats standing by to retrieve the Marines at the mission’s conclusion.

“Sweep and Stop” operations were conducted for one reason only, and that was to clear out any VC from an area by completely annihilating him. There was never any quarter given, on either side, for Charlie soon came to realize that these were killing missions, so he reacted accordingly. Anyway, the VC very rarely gave quarter, only doing so when it suited their purposes, and even then our most seriously wounded would be killed. If taken prisoner it was a case of either being capable of marching, or you died.

I had been mighty grateful that my boots would not be stomping around in the boonie on that detail. Acting as a Sweep trying to push through twelve feet high elephant grass with a forward visibility of no more than two feet, accompanied by the ever present fear of a rifle, or pistol, round fired at point-blank range at ones face, or being a Stop, slaughtering everything which presented itself that wasn’t dressed in the same uniform as I, was, to say the least, completely devoid of appeal.

Walking on the sand with not a care, warm sun on my shoulders, a summer breeze played with my hair as the ocean hissed a mournful tune on the beach. I was lost in my dream as I napped on top of the wheelhouse in the early morning sun’s influence, until I was rudely dragged away from it, and back into the real world, by weapons noise. The Zippo’s forward 50’s had opened up with short test bursts, and then the aft quad joined them in the racket of weapons being fired.

Small, interspaced blobs of red and green light, produced by tracer rounds, lazily arced away from our boat with the normal illusion of slowing down as they reached the peak of their trajectory. Then the other boats joined us in the mad moment, for testing weapons before an operation was an imperative. The Lawnmower’s ranked mini-guns, Gatling guns, always proved the most spectacular. Firing with a sound similar to that of ripping silk, their muzzle flashes rippled along her hull in a terrifying display of fire-power, similar to cannon blasts during an ancient sea battle.

Going exactly as pre-planned we had left the first GS where she had disembarked her contingent of South Vietnamese Marines, and a small group of Special Forces who had bummed a ride, and were going off on their own somewhere. With them were a few Montagnards, a somewhat primitive highland people, who detested communism and were part of the CIDG, Civilian Irregular Defense Group, a paramilitary force working exclusively with our various Special Forces. As with their SF handlers, and trackers, they had been trained in Commando techniques at the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia.

Continuing down the river and out to sea, and daringly running close inshore, we headed for the next deployment point, when two great water spouts shot into the air, one ahead of our three boat flotilla, and one astern, then two bracketed the GS. The down-shower from what we took to be artillery bursts saturated the packed troops in her cargo well-deck. The rounds being possibly fired from an old Japanese 75mm field piece, abandoned at the end of World War Two, or even an NVA supplied US made “75” pack howitzer, and both of which had the easy ability to sink a Mike boat. Prudently we changed course, moving out of firing range. If a statement was required as to the Viet Cong laying claim to Delta real-estate, and his ability at hitting back, that was it.

With the tide running near the top of the flood we approached the mangrove tangles at a place known for its furious tidal rips. It had to be a quick off-loading to make the most of slack water before the turning when the ebb tide would generate the rips. Inflatable rubber boats were quickly made ready to convoy the SV Marines and their equipment ashore. Known in the service as an IBS, they were ubiquitous in Vietnam during the war, and even considered by some as easily expendable, apart from the two purloined by us from the Vietnamese Navy, as those were our “life rafts”.

Paddles were made useless by a swift current and the tidal eddies, also were outboard motors due to the shallow nature of the silted beach, with its many thousands of partially buried mangrove root snags. To get the heavily laden rubber boats ashore it had to be done by hand hauling, a continuous running line was rigged; one pulley end fastened to the bow of the now securely grounded GS Mike, the other to a large mangrove tree.

By late morning there was a menacing rough, dark line forming on the horizon, as if a child had scrawled it with a crayon between the sea and sky. In a short time the onshore wind had started to freshen, driving accompanying tropical rain in soaking sheets, and angry short waves, before it into the mangroves.

The peaked waves capsized two of the rubber boats, spilling their packed weapons and gear, which were immediately swallowed by soft, foul-smelling, black, mangrove mud. The now empty, but still tethered, rubber boats started flailing around in the wind until eventually tearing themselves free. Sailing off in the strong wind they became impaled on the mangrove roots and slowly deflated, looking more like trash stuck to a garden hedge rather than boats.

Only the life preservers worn by two Marines, who had valiantly attempted to control the madly cavorting boats, saved them from joining the weapons and gear in the morass. Having no more success at clinging on than amateur steer riders in a rodeo, they had been quickly bucked off, and into the foaming brine. But still they had a struggle remaining afloat as the waves continually rolled over them. Threatened with surface drowning they made for the mangrove tangles in an unconventional swimming style forced by fear and desperation.

My throat felt raw with shouted orders that had become empty and meaningless against the now quickly strengthening wind, which had already reached near gale force, as sweating Marines worked furiously to complete the final part of the off-loading, allowing our Zippo and the GS to reverse off the beach and head for the river at best possible speed, before the fast approaching tropical storm descended like a mad thing in flight.

Blowing out of her exhaust ports enormous clouds of blue- black diesel smoke from her overworked motors, the Lawnmower boat had managed to drag her monitor class bulk out of the beach ooze, and stood-off about two klicks out waiting on the GS Mike and our Zippo to do likewise, whilst she rolled and pitched in a rising sea she was not specifically designed to endure.

It took what seemed like an eternity to get the GS and our Zippo off the beach and out the surf on a falling tide, to regain the relative security and safety of the open sea, and rejoin our cohort the “lawnmower” boat. Flies adhered to flypaper must feel the same way as we did, for no matter how much power our motors produced we were stuck on the beach, and there we would have stayed until the next high tide, if not storm-wrecked beforehand.

Fate looked kindly upon us as an unusually large wave rushed in and effortlessly lifted us up and off!  Going with its after-wash, and at full throttle, we had reversed into the next hissing, roaring wave, which smashed into our sterns with a force only the sea can produce. Massive amounts of water cascaded over the boats threatening to completely swamp them.

With the only thing keeping us afloat being the inbuilt buoyancy of double-skinned hulls and with tons of seawater sloshing around in the boats altering their stability, we finally had committed to a turn with bilge pumps going flat out trying to clear the well decks of their flooding. Counting the waves from the highest to the seventh in line, in normality the shortest, and still listing dangerously, we acted in harmony and turned in its trough, both boats together as a pair of dancers would in a ballroom.

Propellers bit deeply into the face of the next surging wave, driving the pair of Mike boats upwards towards its white-capped crest, and once there perched for a second, nigh-on twenty feet in the air! With motors racing and propellers spinning, our boats unwillingly rode the wave shoreward’s as if it was a tamed beast, before gravity enforced its will, making them tip forward to slide down the waves reverse face. With bluff bow-doors hitting the trough with a booming slam, and diving into the translucent water before shaking themselves free of its grip, they started on the next climb.

There was no horizon to judge distances by as the great towering waves, and flying spume and spray, blurred out everything. We were riding on a roller coaster of the gods, where the dull sky and sea seemed to merge into varying hues of gray, blue and white. Slowly but surely we clawed our way out to deeper water, where the raging seas became just that little less steep and severe, allowing us to turn once more, and make a run for the river. The stern quarter-on sea gave the boats a corkscrewing motion so violent all hands became terribly seasick.

Sailing in such perilous seas had made the passage from the beach to the river long and agonizing, but once in the relatively calmer water it had become surprisingly quiet compared to the raging world outside. I had felt stiff and bone-weary from fighting the weather at the helm of such an ungainly craft, like an arthritic old man. Even though I was finding it hard to keep awake there was still no rest to be had for either my crew, or I, as the mission had to be brought close as possible to its designed conclusion.

It proved to be a bitter-sweet one as our latest encounter with the forces of nature meant we had arrived too late to properly participate in the action as had been ordered. Other than the short spate of near-miss artillery rounds we had encountered no further enemy fire. Not so the river GS which we had earlier parted company with, for she had serious damage from B-40 rocket and small arms fire, and looked it by the amount of punched holes from shrapnel and rounds that riddled her hull area. In addition a rocket had penetrated the motor compartment, and exploded. It smashed the port motor killing her engineer who was working on it at the time.

The final analysis was that the mission, taken as a whole, had proved to be a waste of resources, both human and material, for what little success there was. The casualty tally being two SV Marines wounded, and one so severely he later died. The river GS engineer killed. On the Viet Cong side nine had fallen victim to the operation, and two of those were later found to be innocent civilian reed cutters, who had, in all probability, spooked at the battle noise, and then, inadvertently, coming in contact with the sweep line had been shot-down on sight without challenge.

We had needed all our seamanship skills and knowledge as we faced and endured hardships greater than those penciled in for us by the military planners in Saigon, and Da Nang, who gave the impression that they seldom took into account the temperamental weather pattern of the area. But the heroes of the day were undoubtedly our boats, for a half dozen times we had been within an ace of destruction, but still we had survived due to their stout construction.


© Copyright 2020 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.

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