Chapter 9: Des morts en sursis.

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

Reads: 783

Des morts en sursis.

“Yup, you boat grunts are crazy fuckers for sure! Sitting on a target filled with inflammable and explosive shit, and sailing around inviting a response from Charlie! Ok bud , 10000 rounds of mortar HE for delivery, and 4000 in AP, tracer and ball for your boats BB guns, coming right up.”

Ammunition loading port, from USN Ammo handler to Riverine,  South Vietnam, 1967.


It was intended to be our boats maintenance slot, but the Mike boat detailed to run munitions and supplies up to an F.O.B, forward operating base, had been ambushed. She had been hit by rocket propelled grenade and recoilless rifle fire, which resulted in her receiving severe structural damage. One of her crewmen being killed and another three wounded.

Making water and listing badly, she had barely managed to limp home as dusk fell. Had they been ambushed in a canal instead of the river, I doubt they would have managed the return. You simply couldn’t turn a Mike boat around in a canal that was half, at times even less, a boat’s length wide. If ambushed in a canal all that could be done tactically was to run the gauntlet of fire, and return same.

We were ordered to act as her replacement on the same detail as she. No crew ever wanted their boat to act as replacement for a damaged boat, because bad luck always tended to come in a group of three. It was hard enough trying to survive in the boonie without increasing the risks, by being ordered to take on the bad karma of others.The land grunts were in no way different to us when it came to that way of thinking.

Our military boating, in the practical, was no different from someone doing civilian boating; other than we had the added hassle of weapons, tactics, and of course water mines to contend with. Then there was at times an unpredictable enemy to consider. Following the standing order that our boat had to be in a constant “ready-to-go” state was one thing, but our own enforced protocol of checking everything at least twice still applied.

Get caught out in the boonie with no machinery power, or out of ammo and supplies, and then you were, using the most used “in-country” word of the time, fucked. Sure, a dead-in-the-water boat could technically be used as a fighting platform, but it wasn’t really that enthusiastically recommended. However, if one did, and rescue didn’t come quickly enough, either by another Riverine boat, or more preferable in the shape of a helicopter, then the boat would need to be abandoned, and the long walk home would begin. At which point you would end up being at the mercy of whatever the fates, jungle, but more importantly the enemy, would throw in your direction.

 Then there was capture to consider, a frightening prospect in itself, and needless to say one best to be avoided at all cost. So, regardless of anyone or anything, orders or otherwise, we stuck doggedly to our double-check protocol.

Checking, and checking again, turned what was a normal boring chore into a crazy rush as we prepared for the task we had been given, and this made the crew irritable. I was also in a crap mood, so came down hard on their bitching. Finally firing-up the boats motors we were rolling within an hour of receiving the order, everyone was pissed off, with none of the normal joking and friendly banter going on, just sullen faces.

Once maneuvered out of her berth into mid-stream, and heading down river towards the estuary at cruising speed, with the big diesels gurgling away happily, the crew resorted back to some normality. Everyone loved a night run out on the river, regardless of any lurking dangers. On a clear night, such as that was, there was always the stunning view of a blanket of stars over the silvery sheen of the moonlit river surface, and if a warm jungle scented breeze was blowing it could be quite beguiling. Had it not been for the war factor, we could easily have had a tranquil rhythm of life in the Mekong Delta.

The threat of ambush for all boat’s crews was of a constant concern. They ranked well above the water mines on our list of “biggest dangers manifesting” when out boating in the Southland of Vietnam. It was always a strain, for encounters with the enemy were seldom planned. They were normally unexpected and tended to be fleeting by nature.

We had just turned off the river and into a side canal which led to the F.O.B when a B-40 rocket, a rocket-propelled grenade, sailed through the air, bounced off the flamethrower turret and exploded very close to us, with pieces of shrapnel striking the full length of the hull. By instinct, we flung ourselves down, and as we did so, there was a clattering bang as a second rocket hit, but this one failed to explode.

We had no time to go peering about in the darkness of the well deck to see where the damn thing had gone, due to some shadowy figures starting to fire at us out of the canal bank reeds. Ball rounds and Tracers flashed across the boat without hitting, and we could clearly hear dull thuds as they struck trees and bored into mud on the opposite bank.

Our only available tactic was to open the throttles to their maximum and charge forward, like cavalry of old. At the same time “Fire-Trash” with multiple small-arms the reed beds, including bringing into play our aft “quad 50,” whilst getting the flamethrower clicked-up and ready to burn-out the reeds. A few quick squirts of the flamethrower’s red and orange flame towards where the firing was coming from settled the issue by putting an end to the firing.

The VC were completely terrified of a Mike Zippo, for they knew that if we set fire to a reed bed in which they were hiding, they hadn’t a hope in Hades of outrunning the ensuing wildfire created. To escape the inferno, they either had to jump into the canal, and take their chances against our small arms fire, or toast. Either way, it would have been a devils choice for anyone to make.

The obvious advantage to this enforced cessation in hostilities, was that we could thunder off just as fast as or propellers could shift us. This was no time to go worrying about possibly fouling a propeller, so off we went with motors racing and exhausts blaring. Like a farmer spraying cattle slurry, a mix of foul smelling canal water and bottom ooze shot out in twin jets from the rear end of our boat.

There was one draw back, as normal we were traveling at the "speed of a crippled snail.” It was enough, and sometimes enough is all that is required in life. Charlie, having to fight his way through a near solid curtain of reeds, couldn’t keep up, even if he wanted to.

Protesting furiously at being ordered to do so, our engineer, using a flashlight, found the unexploded ordnance. It had lodged itself tightly under the well deck edge, and was bent almost double, its fuse housing distorted; hence it's failure to explode. We had no choice but to leave it resting snugly and take it with us, praying that it didn’t change its mind and decide to detonate.

In the direction of our intended destination we could hear a small arms battle raging. Then the night sky lit up with arc lights, colored flares, and bursts of “Willie-Peter”, phosphorous. These produced a glittering shower, similar to a fourth of July firework display; pretty to look at but deadly to be anywhere near, for once adhered to flesh it would burn to the bone. A fantastic amount of ammunition and pyrotechnics could be fired off by both sides during nighttime battles. Strange as it may seem the casualties tended to be light on either side.

Overhead, and flying high, passed a flight of “Fast Movers”, Phantom jet fighter-bombers of the tactical air support fleet. A few minutes later a group of helicopters, made up of “Slicks”, UH-1H, Hueys, used for transporting troops in tactical assault operations, headed towards what appeared to be a quick heating up battle area.

The fast movers dropped 25-lb bombs. We felt the jarring vibrations, and heard the thumps of their detonations, then a none-too-gentle slap to our faces as the blast waves reached us. Shortly after, came great slow rolling balls of black tinged fire, accompanied by a strong smell of gasoline, Napalm. Hideous stuff in the extreme, even the water surface of the swampy ground and canal would be on fire. Like the various colored defoliant agents, napalm destroyed everything it happened to came in contact with.

As there was no way on earth we were going anywhere near that battle, we set about making the boat secure in what was now a guaranteed hostile area, and wait for the fight to die-down to an acceptable level. This decision was not made through any battle reluctance; it was made through good practical thinking, in that a slow moving Mike boat and her crew wouldn’t last even five minutes in that hells cauldron. All it would do was present a mad-moment fun target for the FOB’s attackers.

The battle din crescendo reached a deafening peak, and then slowly tapered off in the night, and the deck watch heard movement along the opposite canal bank from where we were moored up. On hearing this activity they had frantically awoken me, I said “no contact”, deciding it was better to keep silent and not compromise our position. Whoever it was hadn’t seemed particularly concerned about their own safety or security, as they had made no effort to keep their voices low, but we could hear the lilting tone of Vietnamese being spoken. So off they went unmolested, for we were in no position to encourage any form of a fire-fight with an unknown enemy strength.

By the time there was enough daylight for us to clear away our standard make-shift camouflage of reeds, and get the boat moving again, the battle had faded out to an occasional pistol round going off, which we discounted as the VC dispatching their more seriously wounded. Charlie always knew exactly when to press the fight, and when not too. Something our own people in Da Nang and Saigon took a long time in learning.

As we eased our boat along-side the FOB’s half destroyed landing stage we could finally see the battle damage. It was a scene of mass destruction and desolation, Charlie had pressed the fight home and hard for sure! The FOB no longer existed, for practically nothing stood above ground level; it was just a smoking ruin of its former self. All of the plant life had been destroyed, leaves covering the ground in a dense carpet, branches and wood splinters lay everywhere. Here and there the remains of fire damaged helicopters poked up, twisted into strange obelisk like shapes.

Grey faced, smoke blackened, helmeted Marines, who never said a word, started to appear. Arising out of the green carpet of leaves like the dead from their graves. They just stared at us with dull, near lifeless red rimmed eyes, as if we were aliens from another world invading theirs. A Marine Staff Sergeant, who had been tasked with going around any badly wounded VC giving them the coup de grâce, fired his last pistol round. Then complete and utter silence descended, as if a thick cloak had been thrown over the land and thereby shutting out all sound.

Submitted: March 02, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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