Chapter 3: Tout Acier Américain

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

Reads: 1178

Tout Acier Américain.

“ Ok, listen up! A Mike boat is nothing more that a big steel fucking coffin, for any of you dumb fuckers who don’t pay attention to what I have to say! Now! Get your gear and climb aboard one of the finest little craft ever designed by man!”

Introduction to Mike boats lecture, Norfolk, VA, 1966.


She was born in the Marinette Marine Company yard in Wisconsin when having her steel hull plates cut, and she was one of sixty-five ordered for the United States Navy. Her War service life began in 1966, when designated for landing duties as an ATC, armored troop carrier, in the Southland of Vietnam. As with most of the sixty-five built, she would be abused, and at times miss-handled, in the hands of others during her service.

Although but just one of the many thousands of insignificant landing craft ever built, she would instill an everlasting memory in those who served in her. The little ungainly and even absurd looking craft known as a “Mike” Class LCM, Landing Craft Mechanized, went to war in the November of 1965 with Old Glory Streaming. She was with certainty exactly as her builders claimed on their build sheet, all American steel.

I met her for the first time at dawn, after what had been a night of warm winds and incessant rain in the early spring of 1967 when I had walked past the huts of a fishing-village along a muddy and rutted track that traversed the very edge of a narrow mist covered leg of water that was a side canal. The track and canal led to an old French Colonial boat yard recently converted into a temporary Marine Corps River Detachment base and boat repair facility, that was to suffice until a planned more elaborate and permanent harbor base was constructed.

Even in an early dawn that promised a beautiful day, before insects buzzed, the sun thundered up and its burning rays would press on my shoulders with a fierce dry heat, there emitted from the yards various workshops furious clattering and banging sounds and the hum of machinery that gave the repair yard an impression of hurried activity. The air had that ever-present shipyard stench of diesel and gasoline fumes, sour bilge water, paint, and motor oil, all of which reminded me of the Norfolk Naval facility back in the world. The boat yards concrete hard standing seemed unbelievably cluttered with a variety of war and accident damaged boats, some were no more than wrecks and seemed impossible to repair after receiving what looked like direct hits from Rocket Propelled Grenades and heavy weapons rounds.

Among the boats lay coils of rope, fenders, mooring buoys, anchors, boxes of deck hardware, in fact everything possible to imagine associated with an active boat yard. On its periphery were stock piled  drums of diesel, gasoline ,and motor oil, also deck mounted weapons, outboard and inboard motors, stacks of hardwood boards and lumber, stock steel, cables and wire, and plywood crates ranging from the tiny to the large, packed full of equipment, their contents stencilled upon them. To the untrained eye the boat yard would have looked somewhat untidily cluttered, but by someone carefully mathematically calculating the best use of every square inch of the limited space available it was properly squared off in true Naval fashion.

The base come boat repair facility lay at the head of the oozy mud banked side canal that was backed on one bank by a solid mass of jungle, off a many klicks wide river packed with a multitude of busying vessels of various shapes and sizes. That great river led to the edge of the war, the sun dazzled South China Sea.

Sitting in the rivers tidal shallows were long strings of dumb-barges laden to their gunwales with sand, gravel, other types of construction material, and mysterious equipment hidden beneath tarpaulins, all patiently waiting on the tide and tow boats that would drag them to the Navy Seabees and Army Engineers for the defensive build projects out in the “boonie”.

The little “Mike” was originally a “Rag Top” by having a canvas awning covering her well deck, and now replaced by the boat yard with a solid welded steel deck. Although her hull was heavily bashed and battered, a newly painted covering of “riverine” green, and the bright fresh colors of our national ensign gave her a sort of aging grace, like an elderly lady of means if decked out in her Sunday finery, as she floated there upon the stale, oil slicked, and brown canal water.

In addition to her recently installed steel deck and green livery, she had been fitted with a newer model of flamethrower, this one being turreted with better armor protection. On that turret, some fucking cynical comedian of a yard gook had roughly painted in the French language a graffiti style boat name of, “LA boîte de corps mort”, which I hoped was not some goddamn weird prediction on his part concerning my future.

 The flamethrower is a goddamn terrible weapon that scares the living crap out of anyone on the receiving end of its flaming tongue. However, in the Southland of Vietnam the United States Government was committed to not using mechanical flame weapons “directly” against enemy troops, but if used “indirectly” when denying the enemy cover or driving them out of it was an acceptable collateral side effect of the weapons use in the war. However, a developed innovative tactic to remain within the parameters of the agreed protocal was if the opposition was holed-up in strength along a riverbank do a run “wet-shot”, no flame, drenching the riverbank faunae, and then at the end of the run go “wet-flame jet”, and so igniting the lot.

As for the " Mike" boat's small-arms armaments, there was one “quad-50”, a four-barreled assembly of .50 caliber machine guns mounted aft, and two M 60 standard lightweight machine guns, one each side of the now welded shut bow door on pedestal mounts. These we later changed for twin .50 machine guns with armored gun shields. The design of the shields was such as to resist any straight-on enemy fire from hitting the gunner.

The whole area was abundant in canals, with the majority of the terrain surrounding them taken up by old abandoned French Plantations. In their heyday, the plantations produced a variety of agricultural commodities such as pineapples, sugarcane and rubber. As there were few roads, the French set about building canals for the transportation of harvested crops to the main shipping ports on the rivers. Understandably, the canals builders used the classic Western European style of, straight, narrow and deep.

After the French resolved to withdraw from their colonial real estate and plantations both inevitably fell into disrepair. The abandoned plantations, along with the canals, rivers and minor waterways became a supply corridor for the Northern Vietnamese Army and their allies the Vietcong to move supplies and fighting forces from the Cambodian Border to Saigon.

The NVA and VC had nigh-on full control over the Mekong Delta region until 1966, and which was the year our riverine forces started to operate in a much more forceful way. However, by the time 1967 came around, we were starting to dominate militarily in the Delta, designated as the D10 Special Zone. However, there was no way whatsoever, the NVA, nor especially the VC, were about to let us have unfettered access to the waterways, and surprisingly our more determined efforts simply galvanized them into fighting much harder.That made one thing certain; the NVA and VC considered themselves masters of the Delta, and intended it would remain so.

It is said in a well-known cliché that Fire and Water do not mix, but in the Zippo’s case it came to pass that they did, and extremely effectively if out working in tandem with a “Douche boat”. This was another variant of an ATC Mike, and was fitted with a water cannon designed to wash away any enemy defenses that had been dug into a river or canal muddy bank.

I was as fresh to a fighting area as was the paint on the hull of what was to be my first “command”, and having been assigned to the United States Marine Corps River Detachment, I had a classification of (E5) (MOS 0312), and in turn had me serving as a “brown-water sailor”. In essence, I was but one more of many teenage USMC fit-as-fuck “Young Lions”, the “Cherries “, that were full to the brim of boundless enthusiasm, recently trained self-assuredness, and overconfident bullshit.

In fact, it now kind of embarrasses me to think back on how I was in those days, for being a “Young Lion” I roared like one, but that normal feeling of invincibility and misplaced arrogance inspired by the inexperience of youth was soon to evaporate once the gooks started teaching me the true realities of warfare on their terms. Even at times when I thought everything was turning out for the best, that reality would feel as if we were fighting phantoms, and at other times the ruthless barbarian hordes from histories darkest time.

However, I was determined to carry out what I was there for, but I did not know at that time my understanding of the terms of my deployment would prove somewhat over simplified, for although training to be a riverine made someone a “brown-water “sailor, in addition to the former I would have to be a “blue-water” sailor. That duel role revealed itself as the deployment progressed, for we would be ordered out with the Coastal Surveillance Force and their cohorts the Vietnamese Navy’s junk force on some dubious, even considered by some to be ill thought through, endeavor into the South China Sea, with its deep, and crystal clear waters.

There, out on the briny sea, at times we would face tempestuous howling winds and driving rainstorms, both the products of a typhoon or tropical storm. Those winds generated gigantic violent waves that could effortlessly throw even a large ship about dementedly, like a cork caught up in a maelstrom. As those waves neared the shallow waters of the coast, they transformed from enormous rolling monsters to great foaming beasts. The waves roared ashore into the coastal mangroves as a salt spume-topped solid wall of water, at times in excess of thirty feet in height. So when forced against your better judgments to be out in such horrendous weather in nothing more than a glorified flat- bottomed motorized steel box, unlike the Yabuta junks built of Sau wood, and which were designed for use in the South China Sea, then your fate without doubt rested in the lap of the gods.

Although some official weather reports came over the military radio net, they tended in the most part to be unreliable and sketchy in detail. Therefore, we tended to place a greater reliance on our own local weather watch, and when a storm happened to catch us out, we were defenseless against its ferocity. It was simply a case of desperately hanging on to anything available securely fastened, and let everything that was not cascade and smash, whilst cursing all those who had participated in the inhumane order which put us in such a terrifying position.

There we were, trapped in our steel box with no escape possible, and it was akin to submariners being unrelentingly pounded by depth charges, for like them we were forced into listening to the metallic booms, groans, screeches and bangs which reverberated throughout the very fabric of our little craft. With every crashing wave, our little boats welded seams and hull plates tried bravely to resist against the stormy seas, as the weather assault went about doing its absolute utmost to overcome any resistance and send both boat and crew down into the abyss.

Any decision to leave the relatively placid brown waters of the Delta, and connecting canal systems, and then venturing forth into the briny sea aboard an ugly and ungainly craft such as a “Mike” boat, could prove a foolhardy one. Especially with a weapon of ancient concept strapped to her deck plates thus making her inherently unstable, and against her designer’s prudent calculations. Nevertheless, and putting foolhardiness aside, it was certainly at the very least, and probably devoid of reasonable contradiction from most, educational.

Had we at any point lost stern gear, motor power, or rudder control, then it would have been the end for us, and quickly. For our Landing Craft would be at the mercy of the elements and broach, turning beam-on to the mountainous seas, after which she would inevitably rollover and disappear beneath the waves, taking both herself and crew onto history’s long list of vessels classed as missing presumed lost.

That aforementioned was destined to be for our Mike boat her war effort, to go forth plying the rivers and canals that are in essence the very highways of Vietnam, a myriad of waterways and backwaters full of unmarked shoals, mud banks and snags. Such obstacles made a sailor’s life in the Delta area during the war a navigational nightmare, as was going out into the ocean, where many times it proved a very wicked place to be.

There were other hazards that needed taken into account in addition to those of a nautical nature. Mines were the most dangerous to a “Mike” boat, although of that type, a homebrewed black-powder filled “coconut mine” going off under the hull made one tremendous bang when it detonated, and scared the crap out of us. Even more so for anyone who just happened to be aft in the engine space if it detonated anywhere near to the stern of the boat, in which case a clean pair of skivvies was required rather than any first aid.

A “coconut mine” could, and did on occasion, sink the smaller riverine craft, swift boats, the Boston whalers and suchlike, but they did little or no damage to the heavier steel-hulled boats. The damage to a “Mike” tended to be in the most part restricted to perhaps a bashed-in hull plate, or scorched paint from the flash. Other makeshift types of mines could sink us, especially if they were of the type made up by bunching together land mines and hanging them off camouflaged buoys.

An even more disastrous mine to encounter was a “bottom mine”, which was originally deposited by our Air Force in Haiphong Harbor, and many Northern rivers. The mines were aerial bombs with the contact or pressure fuses removed then replaced with magnetic sensors, and when laid on the bottom in the shallow waters of harbors, rivers and canals proved efficiently deadly.

The North Vietnamese had their divers recover some of those mines, after which they transported them south using the “Ho-Chi-Minh trail”. Once there, they re-laid the mines in the canals and rivers of the Southland in use against our boats, and being of the magnetic type any boat or barge with a steel mass quite easily set them off with devastating results.

There were also the more conventional “floating mine”, and although some were tethered, others just drifted around randomly. An unfortunate side effect from mine warfare, either in water or on land, is that it has no consideration as to the status of any potential victim. Therefore, many civilians were killed or wounded, and some dreadfully so, when going about their lawful business on the waterways. Whenever we encountered a floating mine we immediately disposed of it, usually by rifle fire or a good blasting with our quad-50.

Our boating work would entail being in a support role as part of the waterborne operations which came to sport many fanciful names. Market-Time, Game Warden, Bold-Dragon and the ambitious Sealord were but a few. Those operations formed part of the overall Delta strategy, and meant unreasonable expectation fell upon the performance of the little riverine boats and their crews. For they had to cover a phenomenal area as part of a limited in number flotilla made up from what was at times unsuitable to the task small craft, especially as some were no larger than an average two-man yacht dingy. Although the military objective was that the crew of our boat acted in a role of being Marines first and sailors second, there were other crews within the “brown water” forces made up from Navy or Army personnel who virtually did the same job as we. However, our boats crew was always much larger in number than those who were Navy or Army.

Never were we given any of the truly high profile missions of the type read of in novels, or as seen in the movies. Nevertheless, we did take on the gooks in a fully conventional way, for going by the very concept of a “MCRD”  the majority of our work was originally intended to be done on both the water and land in conjunction with various Special Forces and the South Vietnamese, their Navy and Marines.

On the occasion when ordered out on some special scheme or other, and we had the unenviable task of taking to the jungle proper with our “passengers”, our boat had no more than two or three crewmembers remaining aboard to implement our boats defense. The majority of us disembarked, and with varying degrees of reluctance, went forth and engaged the gooks in land battles that could vary from a few rounds exchanged to full-blown warfare. Such operations meant that our fighting commitments took us all over the Mekong Delta, and we ranged all the way from the South China Sea, up the rivers and canals to the Cambodian border.

Unfortunately for we, and all of the other grunts in the Southland, the “Higher-Higher”, the head honchos, were part of a structure never known for its consideration nor understanding of the “lower-lower” ranks found below their Command Staff level.  Nor had they any real understanding to neither the operational suitability nor actual seaworthiness of the flotillas of ugly duckling riverine craft.

That meant the Command structure would simply hatch-out another “boondoggle”, which meant a military operation not completely thought through, or was absurd, even useless.  However, they had every confidence in those phenomenal Military ideas to out-fox the northern gooks General Vo Nguyen Giap. So it was with great gusto they would eventually set out an over complicated on-paper plan, then sit back expecting the little riverine craft to perform like the line battleships of old.

Unfortunately, the “Higher-Higher” proved beyond doubt that they had a tendency to forget, or more probably chose to ignore, the very first principle when making a war plan. That is KISS, “Keep it simple stupid”. The second, but even more important principle for those commanding on the ground to remember is, “After the first round goes off even the best military plans quickly fall apart”. At that point, the ability to think fast and adapt falls to those trying their utmost to implement the planned action. This can mean the difference between an acceptable military success and an unmitigated military disaster.

Factually, this proved to be in our boats case, for within her short existence she certainly experienced to varying degrees both the successes and disasters. However, life it seems never proves to be quite that simple, and in the end, no amount of fast thinking and adapting by the crew could manage to save our boat from a premature demise.



Mike "Zippo" in operation "wet-flame".


Submitted: February 17, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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