by Steven Waterman
The Song Ong Doc River runs through the Ca Mau Peninsula, on the Southern tip of Viet Nam. It drains into the Gulf of Thailand adjacent to the South China Sea.
Members of Underwater Demolition Team Thirteen Detachment GOLF, augmented by frogmen from Underwater Demolition Team Twenty-One, were preparing to embark on a search and destroy mission up this slow moving brown waterway of the Mekong Delta.
We were operating from the USS Terrell County, LST-1157. It was anchored at a two–points moor a few miles from the Coast of Viet Nam. A pair of helicopters from Light Helicopter Assault Squadron, #3 (HAL-3), was stationed on board for aerial support. Occasionally a small number of South Vietnamese troops would be billeted aboard the ship. We were all part of the operations.
On this day, in early 1969, we were to travel up the river with a small flotilla of six Swift Boats, take aboard some RFPFs (Regional Forces and Popular Forces, commonly called Ruff Puffs), then proceed further up river in an attempt to locate and destroy bunkers and other structures that could give the Viet Cong cover during attempts at ambushing and destroying American and South Vietnamese Riverine craft.
At approximately 0400 the members of Underwater Demolition Team Thirteen, Detachment GOLF, and six Swift boat crews ate chow, checked gear, and went on deck to prepare for getting under way. Our standard operating procedure was; reveille eats chow, load magazines, and then assist the boat crews in loading demolitions aboard the Swift Boat (PCF). We would carry several cases of C-4, 5.56 ammunition, 81mm mortar rounds, high explosive rounds for the M-79s, concussion, fragmentation, CS, and a few smoke grenades. Usually, at about this time of early morning, a squad of men from SEAL Team One, who were also operating from the Terrell County, would be returning from night operations, often with a prisoner or two for interrogation.
On some other operations, we would bring the Ruff Puffs to the ship and feed them and show them movies at night, etc. None of the Team members had a warm, safe, fuzzy feeling about living offshore on a ship carrying both Vietnamese troops and tons of high explosives. One evening I took a detour through the tank deck on my way to the galley. Our supplies of explosives and ammunition were stored on pallets on the tank deck. I walked along the deck admiring the numerous stacks of ammo and explosives. As I approached the door that led off the tank deck toward the galley, I heard a sound. There was a sailor, supposedly on watch, sleeping on top of one of the pallets of ammo, snoring away. A real confidence builder! This particular time we had Vietnamese troops on board. Any one of them could have been “Nguyen Van Hardcore.” All he would have needed was a length of time fuse, a cap and a match. In a heartbeat, he would have been a hero and we would have been history.
The sun was creeping toward the horizon and the men were anxious to get the operation under way. The boats were loaded and the crews properly briefed. Diesel engines were fired up and the formation of Swift Boats struck out for the mouth of the Song Ong Doc, a few miles inshore from our anchorage.
The two Sea wolf helicopters on the Terrell County would be coming in later. The crews would be monitoring our radio frequencies and wouldn’t take off until after we had left a pickup point with additional Vietnamese troops that would be going with us. No sense orbiting around burning fuel.
The Song Ong Doc was like all Vietnamese rivers: brown, very shallow in depth, and meandering slowly toward the ocean. The vegetation was heavy on both banks. We stopped at our prearranged rendezvous point near a small village to pick up the Regional Forces (Ruff Puffs) who would be operating with us.
Our boat’s skipper pushed the bow onto the mud of the riverbank, and some of us jumped off. The officer in charge of the Ruff Puffs was standing a few yards from our landing point. He motioned for us to get off the boat and follow him. An Army Captain on board our boat, the adviser and interpreter for the Vietnamese troops, turned and told us to come into the village and have a Coke or something. Our OIC, Lt. Bruce Dyer, didn’t relish the idea. The rest of the team agreed with his decision.
The less time we spent screwing around, the less time the Viet Cong would have to set up any surprises for us. The RFPFs, a slack looking bunch, climbed on board several of the boats and we headed up river. They were equipped with World War Two vintage M1 and M2 carbines. Some of them wore sandals and had brightly colored scarves around their necks, a method of unit designation. I got the distinct impression they were not crack troops.
We took them aboard and left the village. The sun had broken over the horizon and was beginning to cast its oppressive heat upon us. It reflected off the brown water of the river and made it difficult to see details on the eastern bank of the river. The heat was an omnipresent thing. I never got used to it, I just quit bitching about it. The UDT men wore flack vests and steel pots while on the boat, but when we disembarked, we would shed the extra weight of them.
The stern of the Swift boat was crowded with the members of our Golf Detachment and the crewmembers of the Swift. A fifty-caliber machine gun was mounted on the stern deck and a twin-fifty was mounted in the gun tub topside behind the wheelhouse. I was sitting under the stern fifty with my back against its mount. We were all trying to make believe nobody could see us, that the Viet Cong didn’t know we were coming. It is the most naked feeling in the world to be sitting on the deck of a fifty-foot aluminum hulled boat with two GM diesels screaming underneath, assuming nobody knows you are there.
There’s no place to hide. You try to get real small. We called it the ‘Fishbowl Effect’. You can’t sneak up on anybody. With the noise of the engines, there’s no way you can tell you’re being shot at. Maybe we’d see rounds hitting the water, or catch a glimpse of muzzle flashes. That’s what I thought, anyway.
Without warning, a huge geyser of water erupted fifty feet astern. It was equidistant between us and the boat to our rear. Nearly every weapon on the boats opened up. I didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on, but figured I better get involved.
From where I was sitting, a few feet back from the rail, I didn’t have a clear field of fire, so could not bring my weapon to bear on the riverbank. Suddenly I had a searing pain in my back. I thought I had been hit. The fifty- caliber shell casings were falling down between my flack vest and my shirt. I rolled over and got the vest off rather hurriedly. No harm was done, but I learned quickly why that place where I had been sitting was so readily available.
The skipper of the boat pushed the throttles wide open and the sound of the twin diesels increased from a roar to a scream and the boat surged ahead.
The muddy brown water churned from under the stern in a froth as we sped up river to get clear of the kill zone. We traveled nearly a hundred yards around a slight bend when the skipper throttled back and pushed the bow ashore on the bank of the river.
There were six boats in this formation. Ours was the second boat from the front. When the ambush started, the three lead boats sped upriver, and the three in the rear did one-eighties turning down river.
The boats with Ruff Puffs and UDTs aboard hit the bank in order to insert and encircle the bad guys. Our boat mushed to a halt in the soft mud of the riverbank. Equipment Operator First Class Dean ‘O.D.’ Nelson, on loan to Thirteen from Twenty-One, moved to the bow and told the Ruff Puff’s advisor to get his troops off the boat. They wouldn’t debark, and milled around indecisively, as if they had no direction and were afraid to get off the boat. O.D. then told the advisor he would open fire on them if they didn’t. That was a message they understood and they began to move.
I made a graceful non-Hollywood exit from the bow by jumping down and driving both legs into the soft mud clear up to my knees. Then I fell forward onto my rifle. Normally this fiasco would have elicited laughter, but most of us landed the same way. The humor of it would wait until later. We all piled off the boat, pulled each other out of the mud and tried to move inland as quickly as possible, having no idea what size force we might be fighting if the enemy had not run off.
The Sea wolves were airborne and heading our way. We could hear the Hueys a few minutes before they were within sight. They had spotted some Viet Cong running away from the riverbank. The staccato sound of their M-60 flex guns could be heard coming from the sky as they took them under fire. We watched the smoky trails shooting earthward as they fired rockets at some position hidden from us by the foliage. Over the radio one of the commanders on the ground ordered them to hold their fire unless they were well away from our ground forces, as the flex guns’ brass casings were landing around the troops on the ground. Getting hit by brass dropping from a thousand feet could ruin your whole day.
Paths crisscrossed this swampy area. The one I chose to follow intersected a small stream where tree branches hung low to the ground. I passed under one and it brushed the top of my head and shoulders. Suddenly the back of my neck felt like I had been hit with a bucket of hot coals. I grabbed for my neck and went down on my knees. When I pulled my hand down it came back full of big red ants. Jesus, didn’t that hurt! Those damn things were three quarters of an inch long and at least a third of that length was teeth. I cleared them off, buttoned my collar and sleeves, and packed handfuls of mud around my neck and wrists. Then I smeared the gray mud over all the exposed skin of my face and hands.
In the heat, this mud poultice dried to a concrete-like consistency. I didn’t much care what I looked like, as long as I didn’t hurt. That was my last problem with ants
Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Bob Lewis, nicknamed ‘Machine Gun’ Lewis, from UDT-21, and Hospital Corpsman Third Larry Williams, and I moved out ahead and to the right of the Ruff Puffs. They didn’t have our aggressive attitude, or they knew something we didn’t. We were moving across a small open area when I heard a loud explosion. Apparently, as I learned afterward, a Viet Cong in the bushes to our front had fired a B-40 rocket, which passed harmlessly through our position and hit the trees a number of yards behind us. Nobody was hurt. Lewis opened fire with his M-60. ‘Rambo’ was back in the States then making ‘X’ rated movies, but if he could have seen Lewis with that ’60 on his shoulder and the bandoleers of ammunition crisscrossing his body in Pancho Via style, he would have been inspired.
Doc Williams and I were moving forward on either side of Lewis.
We spotted movement in the bushes, but hesitated for a moment before opening fire. Bruce Dyer was somewhere on our left flank with the Ruff Puff advisor, and Larry Whitehead, Dean, and some others were on the right. We also knew we had three boatloads of good guys coming in from somewhere in front of us. We didn’t want to take a chance on shooting our own men. All this decision-making took place in the course of a few seconds. It didn’t take Doc and me long to realize those movements in the bushes were not friendlies.
The Ruff Puffs were firing randomly past us. Lewis got off about thirty rounds when he stopped firing and went down on one knee. Doc Williams and I were firing our M-16s to cover him, and I moved over, bending down to see what was wrong. I realized he was trying to clear his weapon. The extractor had broken off the end of a shell casing and the brass was stuck in the chamber. He couldn’t clear it and had no spare barrel.
By now, with an injection of courage, the Ruff Puffs moved past our position, firing their weapons sporadically. Lewis gave up on the M-60. By now, the firefight was over. The Ruff Puffs ran by us and into the bushes. As I moved closer, I could see the body of a dead Viet Cong lying nearly hidden in the bushes. One of the little Ruff Puffs ran up to where he was lying and emptied a full magazine into the guy’s chest. They dragged his body and two others out of the bushes. It appeared these Viet Cong were in their late teens or early twenties. There was an AK-47 plus a few magazines lying beside one of them. Beside another was a B-40 launcher and two more rockets. The third Viet Cong had been running toward a small canal when he had been killed. We found more weapons in the canal. Apparently some of the Viet Cong had ditched their weapons there and had made a run for safety. Some of them were killed on the other side of the canal.
As we worked our way down to the riverbank, in a small depression we found two more B-40 rounds and a bamboo frame full of batteries. There were about twelve ‘D’ cell batteries, in series, fitted into a long tube of bamboo strips held together by rubber bands. This source of power was used to fire the command–detonated water mine that had exploded astern of our Swift boat, explaining the geyser we had seen earlier. A pair of wires led into the water and revealed the direction where the mine had been placed.
Apparently the man who fired it had his timing off. Or had made an attempt to fire it but the mine hadn’t detonated due to a bad contact. When he tried again, it did explode, but we had passed over the spot and it missed the Swift boat. Luck was with us on that
Following SOP we got a body count. It is difficult to comprehend how those numbers meant anything. There were actually thirteen dead Viet Cong, but by the time the numbers were added that each separate unit wanted to claim, the total in the message traffic far exceeded the actual number of dead. This was typical, and I believe it was done to make our efforts look more productive than they actually were. Somehow the politicians equated military victory with how many of the enemies were killed versus how many of us were lost.
The captured weapons were gathered up before we slogged through the mud back to the Swift boats. We stopped at the village to drop off the Ruff Puffs. This time we went ashore and drank that Coke. The Ruff Puffs kept the captured weapons. Thinking it over, we joked that we would probably be shot at again with them the next time we went out. Most likely, that would be the case.
As an afterthought, we totaled the cost in ammunition for that day’s operation. As nearly as we could estimate, it came to about $20,000 per dead Viet Cong. If there had been some way to offer those guys a reward just to go the hell home and forget it, we all might have been better off. But soldiers don’t fight for financial gain. Only the politicians reap the rewards from the efforts of their warriors. History will show that damn few conflicts have been fought where the reasons on both sides were born of true patriotism.
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