Chapter 16: Lutte à la Corde.

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

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Lutte à la Corde.

“There is an ever increasing danger of boats being ambushed by the VC. Our main bases are now fairly secure, but that danger will escalate the further out you travel from them. Obviously the best way to avoid such a risk is to travel in convoy as lone boats are a prime target. But since the vast majority of our military operations are a compromise between capabilities, resources and cost, you will just have to accept that risk. “

Mike boat operations oversight briefing, Colonial Boat Yard, Vietnam, 1967.


The laughter was highly infectious as it rippled along the landing stage amongst the other boat’s crews, like a distant ship’s bow wave as it finally reaches the shoreline, for we were reading within the “Stars ‘n’ Bars”, Stars and Stripes newspaper, the latest offering of jingoisms from the politicians, sitting safe, snug and secure within their plush surroundings back in the world, the USA.

Sailing orders had always been a subject up for conjecture by the crew, and that trip proved no different, for uneasy rumors abounded as to where we were going, and what we would be doing when we got there, but three things were guaranteed whatever the truth behind those rumors, there would be mosquitoes, oppressive humidity, and Charlie! There was a nasty feeling in the air that we were about to be sent into harms way on one more seemingly pointless whimsical errand.

The plan was to be a very simple one, and my interest instantly picked up at such a bold claim, for I thought, but hell, are not all military plans supposedly so designed? What concerned me greatest was the part of the briefing which stated that no alternative plan was required. At NCO school, they had told us that when planning any action there must be an alternative plan ready to go, just in case the enemy fucks-up the original plan by doing the complete opposite of what was thought he would. In fact it happened quite often during the Vietnam War, and I never heard of any American military commander truly capable of understanding the oriental mind, as their unpredictability made it quite impossible to know which way they would jump next. Consequently, the western habit of predictability definitely proved to be one great disadvantage in the war.

So, sure, there it was, the errand! Two Mike boats, a “Zippo” and a “Lawnmower”, detailed to escort an iron tug of dubious vintage, which had survived longer than her builders ever intended. The creaking maritime relic, looking as though she had been paroled from an asylum for end-of-life steam tugs, would be towing a dumb barge, packed to the gunwales with construction material, nearly one hundred klicks up a Charlie infested river to one of our furthest out forward operations bases, and hopefully back, without any contingency to back us up.

The briefing officer’s response to the boat commanders’ objections was that our military resources were, as he put it, “required on more tactically important tasks”. However, he did suggest that if things turned bad we should use our initiative and improvise, which we would do anyway. Unfortunately, the ability to improvise was no substitute for reliable military support when such was required.

Everyone serving knew that all military plans must be kept simple, because under pressure men’s minds get tired, and they also knew that there were some real dumb-ass “Butter Bars”, Officers, serving in Vietnam who could take what seemed like a lifetime to absorb even the most basic of plans. Once they did, their enthusiasm for the fight would run away with them by believing that the plan would overcome all difficulties. Unfortunately, most of the time they were proven disastrously wrong in pinning their faith to something that proved no more than false premises and great optimism. Just as an over-complicated plan is more difficult to change, and will usually end in failure, so is a simple one without an alternative written into it.

To make matters worse for our boat, we had been saddled with an overly keen young “Butter Bar”, one of the beardless boy churn-outs from an ROTC College, a real “Shake ‘n’ Bake” type. His grandfather had been amongst the great philanthropists, but that particular inspirational part of his supplied gene-pool had unfortunately been lost to him. However, he did consider himself as being “born to lead”, but such arrogance of self belief could hardly inspire anyone.

On deciding that our Zippo boat was to be his “war teething ring”, as he liked to term it, had taken over the helm, much to the dismay of the crew who reckoned that he wouldn’t be getting many bets on becoming, “The Officer most likely to succeed in the Corps”. A good Officer, amongst other required attributes, leads by the respect from others, “notices” what is going on around him, has an inquiring mind, and can express himself clearly, whereas that guy walked around with a cold-as-ice attitude towards subordinates, and like a horse wearing blinkers saw practically nothing, but thought he already knew absolutely everything, and gave out orders that were muddled and hard to understand.

He soon found out that our particular Mike Zippo was no daddy’s motor boat cruising around on the Chesapeake in the heat of a summer’s day, the subaltern’s vessel and place of previous boating experience, but could be frighteningly unpredictable if not handled with extreme care. She had a general unruliness about her when answering the helm, and a tendency of sheering-off heavily to starboard when going astern, was playfully skittish when making any form of headway, and for no reason, nor warning whatsoever, would decide to sail broadside on when fully laden with flamethrower fuel.

Her stern gear was so temperamental it was liable to fail at the most inopportune moments, such as going alongside a jetty packed with visiting senior ranks. But when handled well she never got into any serious mishaps, and so it came to pass that after a few heart-stopping moments when we nearly ran aground, collided with the other boat, and rammed the barge, our intrepid “Butter Bar”, to our immense relief, and taking the river-Pilot with him, jumped-ship by going over to the elderly tugboat.

Once aboard he caused a furious argument between himself, the tug’s Vietnamese owner, who was also her skipper, and our local river-Pilot, by demanding a right to command, which was firmly and thankfully, declined. No surprises there ,as both had witnessed his distinct lack of prowess at Mike boat handling. But he did win one crucially important command decision, and that was which of the three vessels would be the vanguard, he chose the tug. Up to that point she had been where any escorted civilian vessel should have been, in the middle of the flotilla line, but our “Butter Bar” was obviously one determined to lead from the front.

Fifty klicks, and the halfway mark was reached, then passed, and still no appearance of Charlie. In defiance of the tropical sun, some fingers of low-lying mist still lingered on the river, and settled on any steel surface making it drip with moisture. In the water laden atmosphere helmets and weapons became slick and slippery to the touch, and we uncomfortably clammy and sticky with damp and sweat. Everyone became isolated in their own little oasis of differing fears and apprehensions, as if at any moment they would be delivered into the open arms of the antichrist. More so after reading the note penciled in on the margin of the river chart supplied for the trip upstream, “This river is liable to radically change without warning!”, whatever the hell it meant no one knew, but was enough to get any sailors naturally occurring superstitions fervently active in his mind.

The sun grew hotter, tempers grew thinner, and helmets became like tiny ovens slowly cooking the heads they covered, so to take my mind off the heat-seared irritable crew I settled my interest on the river-Pilot, who now stood on the tug’s wheelhouse roof giving out to the Mike boats helm directions in the way of hand signals, and shouted orders to the tugboat's coxswain as the river rapidly narrowed, and the bottom became shallow and treacherous. Depth soundings bore no relation whatsoever to those displayed on the chart, and in addition mud bars, rocks and snags appeared where clear passage was claimed. Then it quickly deepened again as enormous steep banks rose up forming a previously unknown narrow winding gorge in the way of a mini Grand Canyon, our motor noise bouncing and echoing off its walls.

Ahead, as the gorge fell-away, the country opened up again and we could see a range of low hills off in the distance, at the foot of which lay our destination. A huge detonation quiver was felt throughout our hull, and the deck bucked like a startled colt beneath my feet as the tugs complete bow section flew into the air, amidst a giant water spout, before going through an impressively perfect summersault to land with an almighty crash in a low lying swamp, all as if it was a trick from a conjurer’s grand finale.

The remaining part of the tug sailed on for a moment or two before gracefully sinking, and gently took to the river bottom where it remained upright, as a submarine would on a practice dive. The barge, now securely at anchor using the wreck, sheered around like a nervous puppy on a lead before settling down to the influence of the river current, and quietly lay there peacefully, as a yacht would on her moorings.

It was now glaringly obvious why the VC had let us to sail on in their claimed territory such a distance in peace and without interference. For knowing of the deep gorge and the narrow navigational channel, they had, with joyful minds, placed in the river’s mud a 25 lb bomb converted into a magnetic bottom mine, the type our Air Force seeded in their Northern waterways and harbors, and thus returned it to its rightful owners with spectacular results. But instead of sinking a Mike boat with the bottom mine, thanks to our subaltern, their return for such a grand effort was a floating scrap-heap.

I had an ugly vision of terrified drowning men trapped within the wreck, and in their desperation to escape pounded on iron bulkheads with blooded fists, but there were no trapped men, all the tugs crew had survived, as did the river-Pilot, having been blown from his navigational perch on top of the wheelhouse by the blast. Our “Butter Bar”, well ahead of the splashing mob, was striking for the riverbank using a snappy style any Olympic swimmer would have envied. I watched him with a mix of reluctant gratitude and disdain, being of the certain knowledge that his unwavering demand for the right to command had unwittingly saved us, but would shortly blight our lives once more.

The note on the chart’s margin had proved accurate after all; the river had indeed radically changed without warning, as it now had a fresh wreck completely blocking the narrow fairway. The tugs smoke-stack, black and spindly as was Abraham Lincoln’s "Chapeau", stuck above the surface, pointing towards the heavens like an accusing finger, and for a fleeting moment I though the God of War was roaring with laughter, but no, it was only large bubbles of escaping steam from the now sunken tugs boiler as they burst on the surface, with sounds similar to that of raucous guffaws.

After countless decades of boringly uneventful service, the old, worn-out tug had been destroyed. Not being left to fade away as a river hulk, or at the hands of ship-breakers, she had died with dignity.

Submitted: June 30, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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Add Your Comments:


Areen Abukishek

i love it

Fri, July 4th, 2014 9:02pm

Mike Tevion

Superb writing.

Sat, July 5th, 2014 9:35pm

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