The Gift of Life

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

In the midst of war, one can still care.

Roger rolled onto his side and flapped the thin sheet covering him. He knew it was going to be a hot, humid day just like all the rest he’d lived through the last nine months. “Another day, another buck two ninety-eight”, he muttered, kicking the covering off and sitting on the edge of his rack. He was a tall, thin young man who had yet to see his twentieth birthday which fell just three days before Christmas—only twenty days off.

Tossing his pillow at his hooch-mate and making a direct hit, he laughed. “Yo! Snitch, my man. Time to hit the deck.”

The mound on the rack opposite stirred, but didn’t comply. “Dodger, if you don’t stop doing that every morning I’m gonna severely hurt you. I’m in pain.”

Well, if you’d laid off the Jack after the movie, you wouldn’t be such a grouse. Come on. We launch in two hours.”

I believe I’ll have my breakfast here in bed. Please inform the staff.”

Taking two steps across the wooden floor, Roger lifted the end of Snitch’s bunk two inches and let if fall. “Raus! Raus! Time for roll call!” he shouted in a fake German accent.

They had seen “Stalag 17” at the base theater the night before and then gone down to the crossroads to do some serious drinking. Snitch, whose real name was Mitch (which he hated), had brought his own bottle of Jack Daniels Black and did a creditable job of emptying it.

Both men were crew members of PBR 32 of the Mobile Riverine Force. Roger was a Gunners Mate Second and manned the forward twin 50-cal machine gun mount which sat on the main deck forward of the coxswain’s flat of their craft. Mitch was an Engineman Second and spent most of his time in the much hotter engine room.

Their captain was a First Class Bosun’s Mate with the unlikely name of Delbert Spicer. He was called Captain (or skipper) aboard ship but Grumpy elsewhere. The last member of the crew was a fresh-faced kid from Alabama, also a Boatswain’s Mate, albeit a Third Class, named Wally (Walleye) Hall.

Another day in their personal hell had dawned just the hour before and the temperature was already above 85 and climbing steadily making everything they touched damp and clammy. Gradually coming alive, the two of them left their Quonset hut hooch and headed for some morning chow.

Hey guys. Wait up!” Walleye called from behind.

They stopped and Roger waved the kid on. “Come on. We ain’t got all day.”

Their breakfast consisted of powdered eggs, reconstituted milk, and manhole covers disguised as pancakes, The Vietnamese cooks had never mastered the art of adding enough baking powder to the mix to make them rise. At the side of the pancakes was something unidentifiable that tasted of bacon.

At least the bug juice is good.” Roger remarked, smacking his lips. “Apple-Lime, I believe. A good vintage, soft on the pallet, and reminiscent of old sweat socks soaked in vinegar.”

Please,” groaned Snitch. “I’m trying to eat here.”

So where will we patrol today? Anyone know?” Wally asked.”

Unknown, Walleye. We might go towards Hua Binh, or maybe a bit further east. But, I’m betting we go downriver,” opined Snitch.

Aw, man. Nothing ever happens that way.”

That is a very good thing, Walleye.” Roger said. “I’m getting short and I don’t want any trouble.”

Short? You ain’t short until you go under double-digits. If I remember correctly, you got over a hundred ten left.”

Yeah, but, just the same, I’m gonna be real careful out there. Eat up and we’ll head for the boat.”

They, along with the crews of other boats, left the mess facility and gravitated down to the docks, filtered aboard their own boats and began readying for their patrols. Clouds of diesel smoke appeared at the stern of the thirty-two boat as Snitch fired up the twin 180 horsepower Detroit diesels and let them idle as they warmed up. Roger settled down behind the twin 50’s in their deck tub and began examining them for defects, knowing their survival could very well depend on them operating properly. Lifting the belts of ammo from their steel boxes, he made ready to thread them to his guns once they left the pier. Behind him, he could hear the Skipper and a chair-warmer poring over a map. He tried his best to hear where they were headed, but the conversation was too soft.

The chair-warmer picked up his briefing materials, gave the Skipper a jaunty wave, and stepped ashore. His crew gravitated towards him unbidden. “So, where we headed, Skipper?” Walleye asked.

Us, 47, 33, and 55 will be heading downriver towards Tan Thanh on interdiction duty. Two-boat teams. We’re paired with 22 because the skipper is a newbie. He’s supposed to stick with me. Roger, I want you to help me keep an eye on him and let me know if he drifts off-station.”

Okay, Skipper. Can do.”

The radio sputtered and then came alive with the order to move out. Motioning for Walleye to cast off, the captain eased the throttles a little and they began to move through the brown water, trailing dirt gouged up from the bottom with their pump-jets. Clearing the small lagoon, all four boats formed up into a trailing line and cruised downriver towards their patrol area.

Roger had now charged his guns and was ready for the word to test them. When it came, he gave a short burst into the muddy embankment to port. There was firing from the other three boats also and then the jungle noises resumed.

Think we’ll see anything, Dodger?” Walleye questioned from under the brim of his too-large helmet.

Yeah. Probably a few sampans and rafts. All in a day’s work, my man.”

They cruised slowly along, two boats on one side of the river and two boats on the other. They kept a decent distance between themselves so as to present four individual targets instead of two pairs. Bunched together, a lucky mortar or rocket round could take them both out. The further from base they got, the more aware they were of their surroundings.

Skipper!” Roger called. “Twenty-two is drifting center-channel.”

I see him.” Captain Spicer picked up his mic and hailed the other boat, ordering him to get back over to the side.

Up ahead was a sharp turn in the river and all four boats slowed to just maintaining steerageway as they crept around it. Seeing nothing immediately ahead, the 22 boat began picking up speed towards a distant group of four sampans. Roger noted 22’s movement toward them and alerted the Skipper again.

Damn it,” groused the captain. “I told you to hold up, 22!” he yelled into the mic.

Just as the boat ahead of them passed between two sampans, there was a blinding flash of light and an accompanying blast of smoke. Pieces of the boat’s bow flew lazily through the air and began landing on the water amid large splashes.

Roger quickly found his voice and yelled, “Mines! Mines ahead! Come right, Skipper!”

Depressing the triggers, his 50-caliber began spitting rounds at the nearest sampan. As their boat turned, the side-mounted M-60, manned by Walleye, did the same. Hit by their fire, four figures rose up and fell overboard as their craft was riddled and began to sink.

In rapid succession, three mortar rounds impacted in a direct line between 22 boat and Roger’s boat. He was thrown to the left as Spicer heeled the boat to starboard and gunned his engines. The fourth round hit exactly where they would have been if they’d kept going straight. It was a perfectly planned ambush.

Following SOP, the two remaining boats opened up their throttles and began circling back to assist the two under fire. A rocket hissed from the far bank, but went wild and rose almost vertically before plunging down into the water with no explosion.

Roger shouted, while continuing the deadly rain of rounds into the sampan, Xin Loi, Charlie. Didn’t keep your powder dry!”

A devastating blast erupted behind him and the breath flew from his lungs as a second rocket impacted amidships. He tumbled out of the gun tub, landing hard on his shoulder and neck. The last thing he remembered was Snitch shouting something at him as he attempted to drag his body overboard before the boat sank.

 

Hurt! Oh, how he hurt. His eyes had some sort of covering over them and he couldn’t see. It was quiet—too quiet—and he began to get nervous. “Water,” he croaked.

The tip of a straw slipped past his parched lips and he tried to sip, but ended up taking too much water and coughed. Hurt! His chest hurt. The rest of his body seemed encased in something he couldn’t identify by feel. Spitting out the straw, he managed “where” before darkness enveloped him again.

The next time he woke, his eyes had been uncovered, but his vision had gone fuzzy on him. He blinked and that seemed to help.

He found his voice. “Where. Where am I?” he whispered.

There was movement to his side and the sound of a door opening. Quick footsteps faded away. Time passed, but Roger didn’t know how much until a face appeared over his bed.

How are you feeling Petty Officer Allen?” The face asked. “You’re in the hospital in Saigon.”

Bad. Hurt all over.”

Not surprising considering the beating you took. You’ve been in and out for two days.”

How many?”

Excuse me? Days?”

No. How many made it?”

From your boat, just you and Petty Officer Berger.”

Snitch made it?”

The face nodded. “Yes. He’s right next to you in the other bed, resting.”

He got hit?”

No. He broke his arm badly abandoning ship, but he’s okay. He gave you blood. We set up a transfusion when you weren’t responding to plasma. Good thing you both matched.”

Nobody else made it?”

Two of the boats sank, but the crews made it to shore and held on until a slick came in and evacuated them. The other two provided covering fire, driving the Cong off. Now, I want you to lie back and take it easy, Petty Officer. You lost a lot of blood and a good chunk of your right leg when you got blown out of the gun tub.”

Roger lay back, exhausted, trying to comprehend what the face was saying. His right leg? Why couldn’t he feel it? Turning his head to the left, he saw a lump in the bed next to him, the familiar buzz-cut of Snitch’s hair atop his head almost hidden by a sheet.

Snitch! Yo, man. You awake?”

I wasn’t until you yelled, man. Whatcha want?” Snitch said, rolling over to face Roger.

Thanks, man, for what you did. You saved my ass.”

Nothing you wouldn’t have done for me, Dodger.” He held out his hand.

Roger grasped it and they remained in that position for several minutes. A black hand and a white hand, giving strength to one another in the midst of a war they both hoped they wouldn’t be in much longer.

End

 

Glossary:

 

Bug juice Flavored powdered drink mix

Chair-warmer support group personnel who never go out

Charlie Viet Cong guerillas

Coxswain’s Flat Engine and steerage control area

Hooch Living quarters, such as a Quonset hut. (Also, Hootch)

Mic Radio microphone

Newbie Recently arrived from the States

PBR Patrol Boat Riverine

Rack Bunk, bed

Short Nearing time to be sent back to the States.

Slick Unarmed helicopter

SOP Standard Operating Procedure

Xin Loi “Sorry” in Vietnamese

 


Submitted: December 15, 2014

© Copyright 2021 B Douglas Slack. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:

Comments

BethanyBeckyBooks

I really liked your story! I felt like you described everything so well. Keep up the good work! And good luck!! xo, Beth

Mon, December 15th, 2014 3:18am

Author
Reply

Thanks, Beth. A lot of it was from memory.

Mon, December 15th, 2014 7:42am

Mr Watson

Excellent Tom, being there and seeing what friends and colleagues had to go through day after day, Hell you should be proud.

Wed, December 24th, 2014 9:51pm

Author
Reply

And I am. My area of operations was mostly out to sea on an intelligence ship, but I did get to Saigon many times to deliver classified stuff. I had a close friend down in the Delta that I visited many times. Thanks for reading.

Wed, December 24th, 2014 1:57pm

Chris Green

I've not been in the military, Tom so I'm pleased that you included the glossary but this story put me right in the action like the very best Vietnam war films do. Very moving.
Regards
Chris

Thu, January 1st, 2015 4:37pm

Author
Reply

Thanks for the compliment, Chris. Conveying action like this to others who haven't "been there" is sometimes very hard. I included the glossary because the terminology would have just confused more than enhanced the story.

Thu, January 1st, 2015 9:20am

Whiskey Charlie

Great story, but I have a couple questions.

You say the boat engineer was a Machinist's Mate. I find that rather odd (but not impossible) since those boats were diesel powered and MMs are steam propulsion specialists. Every diesel powered boat and ship on which I ever served had Enginemen for engineers. Plus, my best buddy on Operation Sea Dragon was a fellow MM2 on a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club. He was turned down for brown water duty specifically because the was a Machinist's Mate rather than an Engineman.

I saw your "fruit salad" on your profile and am wondering why no Combat Action Ribbon?

Anyway, from one 70+ year old Navy vet to another, "Well done."

Sun, January 4th, 2015 1:07pm

Author
Reply

I was acquainted with a few MM's that had this sort of duty. It was only granted upon request and usually for areas close to Saigon. It allowed MM's the opportunity for a taste of riverine patrols. But, you are right. Normal enginroom staffing was with EM's. AH, the good old Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club. I have a patch for that and wear it on my dungaree jacket all the time. It's rather threadbare now, but still visible. My rating (CTR1) was rarely allowed into combat situations. If we were to deliver cryptographic materials or classified docs we usually had a platoon of Marines watching us like hawks over chicks. We won a slew of NUC's and MUC's, though. I was on the destroyer Turner Joy during the Tonkin Gulf Incident up in a comm van stuck between the stacks. Hearing "torpedo in the water' over the 1MC increases the pucker factor nicely.

Sun, January 4th, 2015 7:58am

Adrian Hunt

This is good stuff, Tom. As a reader with no military background I was still able to get it (the glossary helped)! Your descriptions put very vivid images in the mind and the interaction between characters portrayed that comeraderi that us civvies never get to experience. Enjoyed it!

Sun, February 1st, 2015 7:03pm

Author
Reply

Thank you, Adrian, for your comments. I do have a question, though. I published this on another site, and one of the reviewers though that I should have identified all the military nomenclature 'in-line' (that is, in parenthesis after I'd used it). They also suggest I might put it at the beginning of the story. I felt that doing this would give away some of the story, and dilute the suspense and action. Would you please leave a comment on my home page with your opinion on this? It would help a great deal if I do another military story. ~Tom

Sun, February 1st, 2015 12:28pm

drcommonsense

I was in the Navy and was assigned to a boat crew. Your story definitely brings back memories. Thanks for helping keep that alive. Great Job!!!

Sat, February 7th, 2015 2:16am

Author
Reply

Thanks, Dr. CS. I do my best. ~Tom

Fri, February 6th, 2015 7:17pm

Vance Currie

Hi Tom. I have 'met' you many times while commenting on other people's stories; but for some reason, it has never occurred to me to read one of your stories. I suppose I have been too busy with other things. I should have known from your comments that you would be an excellent writer, and I am not disappointed. This is a truly gripping story of a military action with a heart warming twist at the end. I have never been in the military but your story was entirely credible. I could deduce the meanings of most of the nomenclature from context. I am glad that you did not define it in line. I have seen that done before and it is annoyingly distracting. It would have ruined the mood of your story. ~ Joe

Tue, April 14th, 2015 9:19pm

Author
Reply

Thanks for the compliment, Joe. Once in a while, I will equate foreign words (most notably Japanese) with a quick translation, but I really try hard to do that with context. It annoys me too, so I don't like to do it. There are times I might do something like "National Security Agency" in one sentence and follow it later with NSA, knowing that the reader will make the connection. ~Tom

Tue, April 14th, 2015 3:02pm

LeeSchneider

I consider myself very hard woman, but this is the only story on Booksie, that took my heart. When I read your story uncontrolled tears rolled down my cheeks, tears of joy. I don't remember honestly when such thing occurred to me. I'm sincerely grateful to you!

Wed, April 15th, 2015 5:20pm

Author
Reply

I am highly honored to hear that, Lee. They say to write what you know best, and I try very hard to stick to that. Thank you very much for your comment. ~Tom

Wed, April 15th, 2015 10:56am

Jason Crager

Even if this was not based upon real experience, I would assume that it was. Very good writing.

Wed, July 1st, 2015 4:59am

Author
Reply

Thanks, Ronin. It was actually related to me second-hand by a very good friend who was in the firefight on another boat. I appreciate the read. ~Tom

Wed, July 1st, 2015 6:14am

M K Brown

Great read, well described and the simplicity is beautific. No wordy drama which packs far too much into such a short period of time, it was real, fast and devastating showing how a sedate, standard patrol can go to shit in the blink of an eye. Loved it.

Thu, July 14th, 2016 8:10am

Author
Reply

Many thinks, MK. Things do happen quite fast in those situations. Luckily, I spent the majority of my 5 tours onboard a ship, but those short temporary duty stints (usually 30-90 days) at places like DaNang and PhuBai were a bit dodgy. This story is true, having been related to me by a good friend who made it through the madness and got back to the World in one piece, although missing a pint or two of blood.

~Tom

Thu, July 14th, 2016 7:16am

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