Chapter 29: Drapeaux de mes Frères

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

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Drapeaux de mes Frères.

“ Welcome to the Navy’s Riverine course. Your only concern will be to absorb vast quantities of information within as short a time scale as possible, and hope you have the mental ability to retain it. This course will require of you a determined state of mind, but on the final physical test, nearly fifty percent of you will fail! “

Navy SEAL training team leader, Port Everglades, Florida, 1966.


Riverine operational task areas were designated by three color coded zones of blue, green and brown. Blue represented the ocean, green the coastal waters, in the region of twenty-five klicks out from the shoreline, and brown being associated with the estuaries, rivers and any inland water within the possibility of navigation. Needless to say, blue and green’s weather conditions could at times cause serious sailing difficulties regarding the smaller of our craft, and made all operational sailing orders, just as it would for any cruising yacht, very much conditional upon it, as no sailor ever wants to be caught off a lee-shore during a storm.

The main boating dangers for any coasting Riverine boat came with the monsoon of South Vietnam, which is split between an early “Northeasterly,” November to February, and a later “Southeasterly”, May to October. When the monsoon struck it brought with it an air thick with the stinging taste of sea salt, lashing rain, and unpredictable roaring tropical storms, that battered the South China Sea coast with white crested rollers. Later, it thunderously crashed into the Gulf of Thailand shores, driven on by fierce storm force winds.

Added to the weathers wild rides was Charlie, who went about the business of screwing-up with alacrity all sailing orders so carefully designed by the battalions of “REMFs,” rear echelon motherfuckers. Those guys worked out of “MACV”, Military assistance command Vietnam, facilities in Da Nang and Saigon, and who, to the resentment of those out in the boonie, sat on their asses all day in air-conditioned offices, when wearing carefully tailored uniforms purchased in Hong Kong's Kowloon district with the combat pay they unashamedly drew. However, they were quite entitled to do so, as it was simply another crazy fact of the war, for there was no actual “forward area” with South Vietnam being designated as a fighting area in its entirety, therefore, everyone received the enhanced combat rated payment.

All sorts of wondrous war things were dreamed up by those people in offices for the Riverines and fighting grunts to enact upon the enemy, in the belief that a futile war could be won. However, by 67 every grunt in the boonie could have told them what the end result would be, but their opinions were never sought after. Instead, they were expected to do their duty, and carry out orders, which they did, but the majority did so with great military cynicism for those who had done the ordering.

The U Minh Forest had been considered by MACV a reasonably quiet backwater sector within the Rung Sat Zone, but Charlie changed that status when he began night-raiding and ambushing in large numbers, which not only wasted their lives, but ours also, as there appeared to be no logical reason for the raids and ambushes as the sector held no real military significance. Especially since the forest was difficult to penetrate on foot, and near impossible to access by vehicle. However, it did have a few deep water rivers and canals which were used regularly for moving personnel and gear around.

Nevertheless, the VC always had a damn good reason for attacking, and it was proving impossible to figure it out. Their main objective was the same as ours, the destruction of the enemy, his intention was also the same, to attack whenever possible, day or night. Also, again like ours, the element of surprise was his key strategy when raiding and ambushing, but where he differed was that his troops were inculcated with the belief that they must obey all orders that meant a guaranteed certain death when doing so. Such an enthusiasm for wanton sacrifice made them unpredictably dangerous, especially for any boats which plied the waterways alone.

The sun’s morning face was still in hiding below the horizon as we breakfasted early on lurp rations, freeze-dried precooked meals, which were vastly superior to the C rations that everyone detested. It was one of the up-sides that came from working alongside the Special Forces, as they were issued with those rations due to the sheer weight of having to hump enough cans of “C” into the bush on a “LURP”, long-range recon patrol, or any other mission associated with their clandestine operations. The watchword for Special Forces operations is mobility, from the first step, to the last. Everything taken has to be cut down as low as possible to facilitate any need for rapid marching. Unfortunately, the lurp rations required a great amount of precious clean water to re-hydrate.

After breakfast, I watched as a damaged Tango boat had been warped in alongside the jetty. She had taken three mortar hits when attempting a “lone boat” resupply run to an “FOB”, forward operating base, upriver. One mortar round had started a fire after hitting sacks of mail, making us wonder how many of the dreaded Jody letters had been destroyed. Although there had been some casualties among her crew, none were serious enough to get them out of the shit, much to the great annoyance of those who had been wounded,and were arguing furiously with the corpsmen to be allowed a trip to Saigon for further treatment.

No one of a right mind wanted to stay out in boonie for one second longer than was absolutely necessary, making many take drastic action just to get a few days respite. Some guys tore at their wounds to make them worse, or infected, others opted for dysentery by drinking river water laced with koolade to kill the taste, and others drank masses of grape juice to give them the less dangerous chronic shits. The really desperate breathed in the smoke from the burning of C4 plastic explosive, which we used at times for heating C-rations. Any inhalation of the smoke made you desperately ill, but if not extremely careful, it could also destroy your brain cells faster than a 9mm round to the skull, and consequently, as with a severe dose of Saigon syphilis, an early case of dementia.
Regardless of the attack on the lone Tango, the FOB still required to be resupplied with stores. So a sailing order had been rapidly drawn up for a flotilla of five boats to take over the delivery, and I mean many tons of the stuff, not just a few boxes of C-rations or ammo that helicopters could deliver. Two “Tangos”, standard cargo humpers, had been loaded to their maximum capacity with everything it would take for a large FOB to fight and survive for a month or more. Artillery, mortar, and small arms rounds, mines, barb and razor wire, fuel and food, generators, medical supplies, radios, weapons, various spare parts, and the mail. In fact, they carried all the back-up crap it took just to keep fighting grunts effective when in the field.
The flotilla consisted of two “PBRs”, patrol boat river, for fast support, the two Tangos, and our better armed and armored Mike boat, out front to act as the vanguard. We had the unenviable task of drawing any initial fire, therefore giving the lightly armed and more vulnerable Tangos time to get out of the way, and allow the PBRs to get stuck in as required.

At least that was the plan, but nothing can test a planned tactical movement, and command and control, better than sailing a small group of boats, that had surprisingly little time to prepare, up a river and deliberately into a recently proven hot area. Especially when the general feeling of “the fucker factor” among the crews of those boats being that Charlie was still there, waiting for the next set of boating fools to try their luck.

Sailing upriver over a sheet glass like surface, and holding to midstream away from the mosquito infested riverbanks, our churning props attempted to keep time with “Psychotic Reaction”, that blasted out at full volume from the boats portable turntable. Curiously, you could always tell if a guy was a bush-beast or a REMF simply by his music preferences. The beasts went for what they termed the “Fuck it!” tunes, those with driving, heavy beat rhythms, whilst the “back in the rear” types seemed to have preferred something a little more on the “softer” side. However, the black guys were a law unto themselves when it came to music, and shied away from the “rabbit”, white guy, preferences.

Not one person on the boats saw the sudden flash of a well concealed artillery piece on the left hand bank that started the action, they only heard the screeching-cough of it firing, and a resulting thunderous bang as its heavy round smashed into the second in line of the two heavily laden Tango boats, directly amidships.

The gun sounded like an old French “75”, and as it had been fired at such a close range the Tango seemed to bend inwards with the impact of the hit, then sank immediately. As the stricken Tango’s crew splashed around in the river, Charlies machine guns, situated very low in long grass, about 200 meters from our boat, started ripping into them, and we looked on helplessly as some threw up their arms with hands clawing at the air, before disappearing below the surface. Being shot through the chest and lungs by high velocity bullets had made their bodies lose natural buoyancy, so down they went.

We had been well and truly caught out, and with that realization came the gut-churning sickness which you feel in war on the expectation of having great violence done to you by others. However, once you have squeezed a trigger mechanism, it readily converts itself to battle euphoria. But when under great pre-combat stress things start to slow down, and it is funny the way how clearly precise your thinking can become when it does, and at first, like us, the remaining Tango and the PBRs appeared shocked into inaction. However, that only lasted for a second or so before the training kicked in, and they started reversing at speed to get out of the killing area. leaving our boat to keep the VC busy until a called air-strike arrived to blast them out of the way.
To achieve an effective reduced target size our boat had to be maneuvered so as to face bow-on to Charlies positions, but there was no way, even with our mortar, she had sufficient weapons-punch available, so the forward fifties fired quick bursts in the hope it was enough to put Charlies machine gunners, and a recoiless rifle that had joined the attack, off their aim. However, it was really a waste of ammunition as there was nothing to see, nothing to aim at, and gave an impression that our weapons were firing without meaning or purpose. Unfortunately, Charlie just wasn't the kind to be so easily put off, and to prove it turned his unwelcome attention on our Mike.

Our boats forward weapons ammo quickly started to diminish, and consequently so did our firing, requiring that the boat once again be turned to bringing the aft quad fifty into play, and retain some form of fire momentum. Once the forward fifties had reloaded, we turned back with the bow towards the riverbank, in what was a most dangerous moment for Charlie had also quickly reloaded, and began hammering at us with even more determination than before.

Rounds ricocheted with a whirr off the reinforced bow, whilst others splattered themselves on the forward fifty's gun armor, like bugs hitting a car windshield. Incredibly, and to our luck, his “75”, for whatever reason, was having a hard time ranging, and kept on switching targets from our mike to the other boats, which were now nearly a klick away downstream. Then Charlies small arms fire, in an instant, became a near overwhelming blizzard, and it was a flurry of rounds so fierce that we were forced to turn away and increase speed. Unfortunately, as we did so, a couple of rounds hit one of our guys, spinning him around and onto his side, an arm totally destroyed.

He had lain there quiet, and at first I thought he was dead, but he started wailing in pain, proving he wasn't. The usual voracious blowflies appeared, and descended on his shattered, bloodied arm like a swarm of locust upon on a ripened crop. There was no good reason why the sight of him waving his now one good hand, trying to shoo away those flying black monsters made me burst out laughing, but there are sights in war enough to make anyone lose their self control. However, military humor can be a spontaneous, and strange phenomenon, for service people will laugh at things that leave civilians quite shocked.

A Mike boat was no sprightly PBR by a mighty long way, for akin to a lumbering leviathan it took an agonizingly long time just to turn the beast. Like a grossly overweight ballerina attempting to pirouette, each added second taken to complete a sluggish turn increased the risk of a debilitating hit by an artillery round, or recoiless rifle fire. But she made the final one without receiving much in the way of damage, other than a few bullet and shrapnel holes in her thinner steel plates, and at full throttle we retreated back the way we had come, with tracer darting after us. Even so, we were not out of trouble by any means, for Charlie was scoring well aimed hits on our stern at an alarming rate, making it just a matter of time before someone on board would be mortally wounded, or killed.

Our aft quad-fifty gunner, having finally run out of ammo, and with no intention of leaving to get some, and no one being foolhardy enough to run a gauntlet of fire to deliver any, was keeping low behind its armor shielding as rounds terminated on it with a clang of doom. He had an expectant look on his face, like a condemned man would in front of a firing-squad, when resigned to being struck at any moment by a death dealing round. Which, had it happened, wouldn't have surprised me not one little bit due to Charlies superbly accurate shooting.

As we retreated, the PBR’s, in a bold attempt to give our boat some covering fire, tore past on our port side, close together, going flat-out in a battle run with all guns blazing. Their pristine American flags, colors brilliantly clear in the gleam of the sun, were proudly snapping full and stiff on the halyards. It was an inspiring sight those little boats charging forward, and was just as stirringly patriotic and brave as it was perhaps dangerously foolhardy.

The VC instantly diverted their attention from us, and towards the new threat of racing high speed patrol boats skimming over the river. Then the boats seemed to stagger under numerous hits that chewed bits of fiberglass and deck fittings from them. However, regardless of being under such punishing gunfire, the PBRs did not falter in their resolve to keep a ferocious returning fire on the hidden Viet Cong positions, and therefore giving us sufficient time to get out of gun range. 

Once the PBrs passed beyond the “EFL”, effective fire line, of the ambush, they turned for a return pass, and as they did so the requested air cover, in the shape of Skyhawk aircraft, eventually appeared. Unfortunately, as the planes tilted steeply their attack seemed indecisive, and initiated at a much higher altitude than was normal, making their bombing of Charlies positions prove inaccurate.

Several of their finned bombs landed in the river directly in front of the returning patrol boats, where they detonated with a muffled boom, and did no more damage than saturating the VC. However, their poor aiming gave over one memorable moment, when a PBR, with hull nigh on airborne, and weapons muzzle flashes sparkling, shot out of the middle of a massive column of boiling, bomb blast water, and had that precise moment been caught on camera it would have made one of the great classic images of the Riverine war.

I certainly cannot be claimed as being an advocate for gung-ho, for good training is so designed that it drives such foolish notions out of you, but if ever there was a time when I could openly admire it, those PBR crews had seized their moment in the sun with a furious flair.

Undoubtedly, they had not been driven by a lust for battle, far from it, theirs were unselfish actions to assist brothers-in-arms during a time of need, and had it been within my power to do so I would have decorated every man crewing those boats. But alas, it was not, therefore, my only accolade available to give for their bravery is as written here.

By sheer tenacity Charlie had won the day, and that left us with litte choice other than to head back downstream with the mission abandoned. Then, on navigating a bend we happened upon the drifting figure of a VC grunt, face- down as if inspecting the river bottom, the flotsam of war. However, some things about him seemed obvious in that he had joined the ranks of the unknown, was probably near forgotten, and had attained peace with death.





Submitted: June 05, 2015

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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