Chapter 20: Avenir Précaire

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

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

Reads: 914

Avenir Précaire

"It never pays to be sentimental about war. Even if you end up with a row of medals and a few dog-eared photographs it would be best to just place them in a cigar box for your grandchildren to find, and forget how you came by them in the first place, or risk being constantly struck by painful memories that your mind will be desperate to turn away from. Then, when you die, your family can pin your medals on your chest, place the cigar box between your feet, and bury you like a Crusader!”

A Royal Marine, USO, Saigon, 1967.


It was a perfect time to be in Saigon, the whole city breathed of spring, and the CIA proved they were quite capable of magnanimity whenever the mood took them, in that they gave out on loan a truly magnificent Citroen built limousine, with a hood as high as an elephants eye, doors which closed with a massive comforting clang, like the closing of a submarine’s hatch, white-walled tires and was painted in a black that could have rivaled the finest of jet.

I drew in a deep breath, experiencing one of life’s supreme pleasures, that of the opulent aroma which accompanies any quality car’s interior that is filled with hand-tooled leather, walnut and ivory. I turned the radio on and tuned into Saigon radio where some colossal prick had “Yankee Doodle” on his turntable, blasting it out over the airwaves like some goddamn cripples victory march. I couldn’t bear the pain of listening to it so quickly tuned into Charlie’s propaganda station, which was always good for a laugh, and wasn’t let down, for some crazy duo were rendering the gook version of the Beach Boys "California Girls".

The very thought of tanned girls wearing bikinis on a California beach, or for that matter any beach back in the world, started to irk me, for instead of sitting on my ass listening to a couple of crooning zipper heads waggling their tonsils I had planned to be splashing and cavorting around in the tepid waters of the South China Sea at Qui Nhon Harbor, catching some rays on its “American Beach”, and trying to capture for myself one of Vietnam’s version of a California Girl, then a few days propping up the bar at Tante Bees “cabaret club".

“It takes all sorts to make a Marine, which includes those who will push their responsibilities onto someone else, and blame everyone else for that which befalls them, but that type never lasts long in any Marine Corps”. So said a Royal Marine of 3 section, Special Boat Squadron, during a conversation about our respective Corps as we sped along the highway in style, heading for the ARVN Ranger training camp North-West of Saigon.

The Royal Marines SBS had been fighting a Riverine War for years in Malaya and Borneo against insurgents, as had their British Army cousins the SAS, Special Air Service, and in the Spirit of Cooperation that tightly binds both Marine Corps, they had come along to give our own Riverine force the benefit of their vast experience, which had been generously offered, and without hesitation quickly accepted, for many a US Marine and Navy SEAL envied them their service.

So, whilst the CIA acted as host to members of Britain’s Military intelligence and Special Branch, I found myself, on what was supposedly to be my long overdue in-country R-n’-R, detailed off to chauffeur Royal Marines in a limousine on what was officially described by our Embassy, and the British Consulate, a “Fact Finder”. Unfortunately, such welcome details never lasted any length of time, for sure as hell it didn’t take long before some REMF, rear echelon mother fucker, decided to fuck it all up by finding something more unpleasant and risky for you to do. Many of them didn’t have the slightest idea what was expected of us, and didn’t give a damn anyway even if they did, for if we ended up full of serviceman’s cynical bitterness at losing the boat for some futile reason, and having to swim for our lives, it made absolutely no difference to their own survival.

Acting true to form a REMF had given us an “urgent” marked sailing order, and in growing darkness I could see that it was going to rain, for the sky in the east was changing to a deep violet-gray. Within an hour the first spots of rain were falling, and a long deep swell was forming, the heralding signs of a tropical storm, but there’s a quadrant in every storm configuration you must steer for to keep out of trouble, and we headed for it at full speed.

When forced to face such weather it leaves you feeling very small and helpless, so to ride out a storm you need a reasonably safe haven, and the only one I knew of within that quadrant was a break in the dense mangrove forest, a narrow entry to a lagoon shaped bay, which had a right angled dog-leg to port, and ran inland for well over a kilometer.

Once past the six fathom line of the approach there was no survey information nor aids to navigation to rely on, and working on a lesson covering “sailing in uncharted waters”, as was taught during the boat handling course, in that sometimes it pays to think precisely like the ticking of a ships chronometer, I crossed off in my mind each nagging doubt as they were resolved, and it was with infinite care we crawled forward at a snails pace to face the unknown navigational hazards of the narrow entrance and the deep bay beyond.

It has been said that a sailor only truly knows his ship if he joined her on a wet and windy slipway when she is about to be born, just piles of uncut lumber or rusty steel, boxes of fastenings, rivets or welding rods, and then to watch her grow from an imaginary conception, represented by blue-print drawings, into a solid entity. But I never had such a luxury, just had her handed to me as ready made, and left to find out her handling qualities in confined waters for myself. I felt a strong rush of relief as our Mike finally slid without mishap onto the peculiarly sour smelling ooze that shelved up to form the head of the dog-leg within the mangroves, and then I ordered her motors cut, waiting in funeral silence for whatever the future may bring.

The cloud base was low and thick, then there began a faint flickering of lights searing the sky below it, and we could hear the dim thudding of thunder, a sound full of menace, like the distant rumbling of artillery guns, and we knew the storm was about to arrive. Shortly, the accompanying wind would quickly increase to a full gale, then above to storm or typhoon force, at times screaming like a banshee, then dropping between gusts to a tormented howling moan, as if it were a trapped soul in hell! The first of the tremendous frothing waves would rush in carrying all forms of sea trash with it; penetrating deep into the mangroves, there to suck all the trash out again with the undertow, where it would wait swirling and dancing in the violent current produced maelstroms, for the next crashing wave to repeat the process.

The tide was near full by the time our boat was made secure within her storm haven, and scanning the area with binoculars I spotted a fairly large column of men in single file, keeping proper fighting patrol spacing, moving along the far edge of the mangrove root tangles, their feet splashing in shallow water, and holding their weapons at the ready as if suspecting an ambush. The lead man seemed irritated by mosquitoes and the smelly, stuffy heat, for although warm, tropical rain was now lashing down, the storm driven winds had not yet arrived to blow the insects and funky air away.

Undoubtedly, it was always extremely difficult to distinguish Dac Cong from any run-of-the-mill Viet Cong, for like the VC they wore standard peasant’s garb, of Ao Ba Ba, the mythical “Black Pajama Uniform”, synonymous with the Southern rural region, and operated from local command decisions rather than by waiting for higher authority to give orders. Also like the standard VC their team numbers would be small, only thee men, termed “cells”. Each larger formation was also built upon the “Three” principal, as in three cells would form a squad, and three squads formed a Platoon. However, in normality they operated as a single cell, other than when a large or special target was singled out, and then a number of Platoons would combine.

Special operation teams could range from just a single cell up to as many as thirty cells, and were always guided by a Vietnamese who was local to the area. Their advisers and trainers were in the most part Soviet Spetsnaz, from whom they took the practice of killing their own wounded, and ensuring that the fate of anyone they captured was beyond description. However, members of the North Korean SOF, special operation force, reputedly also took part in their training, but that was never officially confirmed by anyone, even though North Koreans had been killed or captured.

It was incredible they hadn’t spotted our boat, but the storm cloud gloom combined with torrential rain drumming down must have acted as a form of camouflage curtain. My heart skipped two beats as the lead man held up his hand in the universal military field signal for stop, turned his head and stared straight at me! In doing so it gave me a chance to confirm my worst fears, for those guys were without doubt members of Charlie’s Special Forces for none wore the leather wrist band used by the “normal” VC, but I suppose there was no need for they never recovered their dead.

Although the area was within the VC’s 9th division stomping ground, everything about them said Dac Cong, from their up-to-date Soviet and Chinese weapons and gear, which included many B-40 and B-50 rocket launchers, to their obvious military bearing and self assurance. They were men who would be splendid in their military skills yet terrible to encounter as their ruthlessness had become quite legendary, and I cursed my own stupidity in assuming that the enemy would be hunkering down in preparation for the weathers onslaught.

A second later slots of light whizzed past on either side of me as I stared straight into the muzzle flash of a medium machine gun. But it was not a pre-attack burst of fire; it was just recce by fire, a probe, designed to see if it received a reaction, and I realized just how well the rain, gloom, and our boats Riverine green livery against the mangroves and nipa palm overhang hid our true shape.

I prayed to a god I didn’t actually believe in that our gunners would hold fire, and wait to see if Charlie had any true battle advantage, for if he had it was pretty well guaranteed he would kill everybody on board. My heart was thumping in my chest, and my breath seemed to gag in my throat, as I thought of what would happen if one of the crew suddenly lost his nerve and fired, for a returning volley of RPG rounds at our Mike Zippo would have ripped her apart, and most likely ignited our flamethrower fuel for good measure! After which all that would be left of us being floating ashes, and our names typed out on a zulu, a casualty report, lost amongst the thousands of others somewhere in Da Nang.

Going over our options again and again there was no easy way out, with the tide falling, the storm about to descend upon us, and a mass of Charlie’s most dedicated lined up along the mangrove forest, the weight of responsibility for both boat and crew on my young shoulders and mind was starting to crush me, just a very short time away from my last year of being a teenager a feeling of complete nervous weariness swept over me. But I knew that Charlie had exactly the same pressures to contend with, for in the main we were teenagers fighting teenagers.

What the Royal Marine had said came back as blindingly true, for after receiving a sailing order, and once pulled away from the jetty, at that point every decision you made had a direct bearing on the survival or not of that and those placed under your command. There would be no one to blame, no one to push responsibility onto, or acceptable excuses to give if you fucked things up! Anyway, attempting to do so would have been a hard slap to the face for those who had put their trust in you, and the scandal of disgracing yourself so could never have been lived down.

Therefore, allowing your boat to be caught moored-up in enclosed waters by the enemy was but only one of such serious fuck-ups classed as militarily beyond the pale. Then, as if to prove anything can happen in war, and that no enemy attack was imminent, without explanation the lead man stood up, looked to the heavens through the downpour at the scudding dark clouds overhead, gave the signal for “follow me”, and the column moved off along the stagnant mud beach a distance before disappearing into the mangroves, and my head spun with the sheer relief of it.

Everything had altered, for now the attack would come from a potentially more destructive force, the weather! As the first blast of brine and rotting wood smelling wind, carrying an assortment of plant foliage with it, screeched its way through the mangroves, we wondered if our boat would ever again sail upon a placid sea under a smiling sky.




USO Saigon

Submitted: October 14, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:

More War and Military Books

Other Content by Sergeant Walker