Chapter 14: Bateau de la Mort

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

Reads: 783


Bateau de la Mort.

“An AK 47 has a powerful reputation; is brutally simple, easy to operate, and has a noticeable popping-rattling sound when fired. But don’t go picking one up on a battlefield, for I will guarantee that due to its distinctive noise and silhouette some fucking dumb-ass of a cherry will blow your brains out, thinking you are Charlie.“

Weapons of your enemy orientation lecture, Port Everglades, 1966.


When going on missions in the Plain of Reeds, our Mike boat normally set out from one of the forward support bases which were some distance away from our main base at the Colonial boat yard. Lying close to our areas of operation, the forward bases were heavily fortified and defended by artillery and mortar capability.

Some of the forward bases were built in the style of the old French forts, which were triangular in shape. The bases perimeters were a mass of barbed wire tangle-foot and razor wire, interspaced with claymore mines. Some had "foo-gas", a mixture of explosives and napalm in fifty-gallon drums buried at the points of their triangles, or a particular strategic point, which would be detonated in a last resort scenario, such as in the event of the base being overrun. When the war visited these forward bases it proved to be medieval in its barbarity.


A couple of Vietnamese teenagers had come to a forward base our boat was operating from with an intriguing story about one of our boats lying empty in the river, and not very far from their village. They were Hoa Hao Buddhists; a sect that was fiercely anti-Communist and so could be trusted. A gunship, armed helicopter, was dispatched on a reconnaissance flight, and true to what the teenagers had said, there she was, lying against the river bank. It required recovering, and our boat pulled the detail.

There had been a thin, mist like drizzle falling from an unexpectedly gloomy sky as we approached the grounded Tango boat. All that could be heard was the rhythmic rumble of our motors pulsing away at the lowest revolutions that could be set. The jungle on each side of us had taken on a look of foreboding, as if it was a haunted house, daring us to enter at our peril.

Hung-up on the riverbank she looked abandoned, and to any landsman would probably seem a wreck, in the way a proud ship would having been caught in a storm and driven ashore, there to be left broken and discarded. The Tango boats’ gently fluttering and wind ragged National Ensign gave off a sense of loneliness, as if she missed her crew who had taken themselves off somewhere never to return.

Stopping our motors to drift alongside we passed mooring lines on to her, tying them off swiftly using half-hitches, easy to put on, and just as easily taken off when in a hurry if any rounds came our way. All the time speaking with low, soft voices, as though desperate not to break an atmospheric spell by any loud talking. Then, exercising great caution we boarded the grounded boat, with weapons off the lock and at the ready, our movements slow and quiet.

What greeted us could not have been expected by anyone, for there was no sign of life and the Tango boat had the look of a homicidal maniac having been let loose on her. There were great pools of semi-congealed blood that moved with feasting maggots, their parent flies rising in buzzing clouds, annoyed at being disturbed when doing their natural work. Her blood spattered mounted weapons were pointing skyward, as when used in an air-defense role, and spent cartridges of varying calibers, by the hundreds, were scattered everywhere. But there was no crew; she was a river Marie Celeste. My mind, although stiff with the mystery that now filled it, knew that it was not possible for all hands to be lost in that area without someone knowing the reason why.

Our boat had been dispatched to recover the Tango boat, not to go traipsing about the jungle looking for her missing crew, but we did it anyway, after spotting what looked like blood trails. We moved through the scattered scrub of the riverside, then thickets of bamboo, and on into the secondary jungle following the recent trodden path. I had felt a wave of nausea sweep over me, for beneath the shadow of some sapling trees we had found them, lying in a rough pile, like cut wood destined for a stove, and naked as when born, other than socks.

Regardless of whoever had stripped them, or why, it was of everything else. To me that pitiful pile bore all the hallmarks of an action by the Dac Cong, the Viet Cong Special Forces, and the Delta District’s Mobile Company, a large and ruthless Viet Cong fighting unit. Both were amongst the most evil minded motherfuckers that someone could be encounter in the Southland of Vietnam.

The cadavers had taken on that gray-green porcelain look specifically reserved for the recently departed when starting out in the process of mortification. The stench of death mingling with the sweet smelling blooms and fungus funk of the jungle made me gag; overpowering aromas never to be forgotten. A head count revealed one man was missing from the crew of the Tango boat, if he was a prisoner there was nothing to be done, if not, and in hiding, or lying dead somewhere, it was beyond our immediate resources to find him. It had to be faced without any feeling of guilt, as I had to concentrate on recovering the grounded boat, and more importantly, the dead.

There were no "glad-bags", body bags, on either boat, so poncho liners were used to wrap them in, and each securely tied off with cut lengths taken from a heaving line. Waving palm fronds to disperse what seemed like billions of flies, all the time retching uncontrollably at the foulness, for even with wetted rags tied around our faces, in such a way to cover the nose and mouth, there was no escaping it, we set about the disgusting work of transferring each dead man from the bloated pile onto a poncho liner.

My conscience, eventually getting the better of me over the missing crewman, made me decide to give the near-area a swift sweep. He had crawled to a tree and lay there, propped up against it and waited for the end. With a terrible wound to the abdomen, it must have taken a heroic effort, and I wondered how many horrors he had witnessed during the deaths of his shipmates as machine guns rattled, and rounds whined and whirred through the air. The Poor fucker looked as if he’d never made it a day past twenty. One long nightmare of pain before dying alone in a stinking jungle at the ass-end of Vietnam, my-oh-my what a goddamn epitaph.

“No one can tell how much future they may have, so if you are killed or wounded the next rank in line will take over. There is no need to be a hero, just do your duty, nothing more is required of you,” had said a barnacle of a Chief Petty Officer during a lecture on marine craft operation. Well, the sailor propped against the tree had done his duty and was killed doing it, but there were no ranks on his boat to take over, that was for sure, the next rank in line had to come from our boat.

Searching for, and recovering the Tango boats’ crew meant I had taken, by far, too much upon myself by irresponsibly placing my boat and crew in what could be claimed at a later date as unwarranted harms way. For during the Vietnam War everything had to be done exactly by the book, grunts had been court-martialed for even a minor deviation from orders, or the Rules and Regulations, and ended up in the stockade at Long Binh. Regardless of what may have come later, the decision had been made.

When in the final stages of loading our cargo of dead brothers-in-arms onto our boat, laying each one down in the well-deck, with as much respectful deference as could be mustered, considering the stomach churning stench, there came from far off, deep within the jungle, the unmistakable sound of a 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine gun being fired, accompanied by muffled, undetermined excited shouting, and the sharp barking of a dog.

An aircraft with its motor giving off an unstable sound, and oily black smoke dribbling from behind the propeller, came barreling over the river from the direction of the firing. It was a Skyhawk with South Vietnamese Air Force markings, the “Crazy Water Buffalo” as their pilots called them.

We could clearly see the pilot staring down at us, and lifting a hand in the form of a salute. There were holes in the fuselage made by large caliber rounds, then the dribble of smoke burst into a flame-studded swirling cloud as its’ motor gave one noisy cough and stopped. Heading off in the direction of the coastal airstrip, it glided on out of sight, a few moments later there was the thump of a small explosion, and a sliver of ochre colored smoke rose in the distance.

The crashed aircraft was the herald for an urgent departure, flushed with success upon success, Charlie would be hunting for new victims, possibly by blocking the river where it narrowed a couple of klicks up from where we were by using a makeshift log and chain boom, it had been done before with stunning results. A couple of PBR’s, Patrol Boat River, had struck one when traveling at speed. Being hung-up on the boom and unable to break free Charlie had set about chopping them into chunks with recoilless rifle fire, and although giving a spirited defense the majority of their crews were either wounded or killed.

If a Mike boat hit such a boom I knew there need be no fear of the result, because its mass alone would probably break the chains. However, as the Tangos motors would not start-up, our Mike, acting in the way of a towboat, would make hitting one a completely different ball of wax. Quickly readying for the tow, a bridle was fastened onto the bow cleats of the Tango boat and a heavy steel-wire towing warp shackled onto the centre of the bridle, and made fast to our boat.

Then, with our hull shuddering and shaking under the strain, we hauled her out for the hopefully event free long run home. But along came a disaster, when there was an ominous loud “twang”, accompanied by the clang of metal being struck, and the hull lurched with such force it made me stagger, for as in some farcical sketch the wire towing warp had parted, allowing the Tango boat to shoot-off on its own. Carried along by the strong river current she grounded hard on a mid-stream sand bar before our boat could catch up with the runaway, and refused all our efforts to pull her off.

Outwardly I gave the impression of sheer frustration at not being able to recover her as ordered, but inwardly I was jumping for joy. I couldn’t believe my luck at the parting of the tow wire and the Tango deciding on going her own way. No towing meant a faster run back, depending on Charlie not screwing it up. The only chores left were to remove her weaponry, and flood out her motor room by cutting the main cooling pipes. Eventually, she would be either salvaged or destroyed by aircraft targeting, either way, we were done.

As some of the crew took a “Gods Shower” in what seemed as the never ending rain, I stood at the stern of our Mike next to the crewman on the aft quad 50’s watching the now half sunken Tango fade into the misty distance, the boat looked even more forlorn, for not wanting to give Charlie a war trophy the crewman tasked with retrieving her weapons had also removed her ensign. I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a small pack of blood smeared letters from home. On my final quick look around onshore I had found them lying next to the river’s edge. The first few lines of the top letter told me they were from a mother to her son.

I pondered on the faceless admin officer who would write to, and forward the sons personal effects to his mother. He would write using melancholy words, saying that her sons place in the military would not be easily filled, and expressing manifest feelings of sorrow over his untimely death. Even though he had never known of his existence he would act as if he had served with him. I dropped the blooded letters into our churning prop-wash. The quad 50’s gunner caught my eye, and gave a little nod of approval.

My thoughts then turned to a very dangerous subject, because I started to wonder who would write such a letter to a dead VC’s mother. Thankfully, my training took over and I immediately rejected such foolish thoughts, for we had been taught in the Marine Corps that to give a human face to the enemy seriously reduced your ability to kill him, and therefore, by that measure, increased his ability to kill you.





Submitted: May 27, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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