Hàm Rong, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam
Autumn 1970, another night on the River of Nine Dragons
It is September 1970. At 24 years of age, I am a Lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam. My unit is Giang Doan Ngan Chan bốn mươi mốt (River Interdiction Division 41) of the Vietnamese Navy.
My unit, RID 41, is sent to ATSB (Advanced Tactical Support Base) Vĩnh Gia, a remote Fort Apache kind of forward operating base on the Kênh Vĩnh Tế (Vĩnh Tế Canal), that forms the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. When we were there, I was the temporary officer-in-charge of the base.
At Vĩnh Gia, we were in a serious fight with a North Vietnamese battalion, but that was a few days ago. Something new is happening now.
We have received orders to move south of the U Minh Forest (the “Dark and Evil Place”) to the Cà Mau Peninsula, the southernmost tip of Vietnam. When things heat up somewhere, we go there.
We’re headed for a desolate place south of Năm Căn, to an even more desolate place where Operation Sea Float, called Trần Hưng Đạo III by the Vietnamese Navy, is being built.
Trần Hưng Đạo was a Vietnamese royal prince, statesman, and military commander of Đại Việt military forces during the Trần Dynasty. Trần Hưng Đạo commanded the Vietnamese armies that repelled two out of three major Mongol invasions (1258 and 1285) in the late 13th century. His multiple victories over the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan are among the greatest military accomplishments in Vietnamese history.
The town of Năm Căn and the surrounding area was overrun and occupied by the Việt Cộng during the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) Offensive in February 1968. The people disappeared into the Năm Căn forest.
U.S. Air Force B-52s then bombed the area into the mud, and the area was left to the Việt Cộng until the summer of 1969.
Upon our arrival in late September 1970, we discover that our new operating area is a vast expanse of slimy, gray brown mud, with very few useable roads, bisected by a huge, strongly flowing, very muddy, salt water tidal river.
Trần Hưng Đạo III is intended to project South Vietnamese presence into An Xuyên Province, 282 kilometers (about 175 miles) southwest of Saigon. The idea is to penetrate and hold this remote area, that is now locked down under Việt Cộng control.
Our mission is to help establish the presence of the Republic of Vietnam in this strategic region of the Cà Mau Peninsula.
My unit, River Interdiction Division 41 of the Vietnamese Navy, is part of the spearhead that penetrates this bitterly contested Việt Cộng stronghold to secure the Cà Mau Peninsula for the Republic of Vietnam.
The operation is called Sea Float, because it started as a sprawling collection of 12 large, flat, steel, floating barges tied together and anchored in the middle of the Sông Cửa Lớn (Cửa Lớn River).
This big river flows east and west for 58 kilometers (about 36 miles) across the southern tip of Vietnam. About a week after we arrive in the area, the base is moved ashore. Operation Sea Float becomes Operation Solid Anchor, and Trần Hưng Đạo III and becomes Trần Hưng Đạo IV.
Our new operational area is a sprawling wasteland of miles and miles of slimy gray brown mud, pockmarked with huge bomb craters, filled with perpetually standing, stinking water. The immense mangrove swamps have now become twisted, blackened, defoliated trees, killed by agent orange.
Our base is located on the north bank of the Sông Cửa Lớn (Cửa Lớn River), the southernmost part of the huge Mekong River system, the River of Nine Dragons. Our new home is in one of the most isolated, treacherous, dangerous places on earth. This area is a deadly place for all living things. We are living and fighting in a free fire zone.
The Sông Cửa Lớn is a very big, very powerful, east and west flowing tidal river that separates the very southern tip of Vietnam from the mainland of Vietnam. The powerful current of this dangerous river is very strong.
Each day, this surging salt water tidal river flows east from the Gulf of Thailand, then reverses, and flows west from the South China Sea. Only one or two hours of “slack” water occurs each day, when the current slows down to about one knot, but never completely remains still.
This dynamic tidal river rises and falls several feet each day, with surging east-west currents flowing at speeds of six to ten knots. Really. The Sông Cửa Lớn is a treacherous river that complicates combat operations.
Many different U.S. Navy units operate in this area, including PCF “Swift” Boats, amphibious ships, and support ships. The patrol boat, USS CANON (PG 90), the most highly decorated U.S. Navy ship of the Vietnam War, is here. Here also is a HAL 3 “Seawolves” attack helicopter detachment, as well as SEALs, Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), and Construction Battalions (“Sea Bees”).
Vietnamese Navy units include River Assault Groups (RAGs), PCF “Swift” Boats, Coastal Force junks, amphibious ships, and support ships. Vietnamese Marines and their U.S. Marine advisors are here also, in addition to Kit Carson Scouts (KCS), former Việt Cộng soldiers who are now part of the South Vietnamese armed forces.
Today, three of our “alpha” boats (Assault Support Patrol Boats) conduct a daylight patrol on the river toward a small canal about five kilometers (three miles) east of our base.
To the north on this canal are two small Vietnamese hamlets, Ap Mot (Hamlet One) and Ap Hai (Hamlet Two). Together they are known as Hàm Rong.
Hàm Rong, also known as “the annex,” is a ramshackle collection of bamboo and thatch huts, the homes of very poor Vietnamese crab and shrimp fishermen, and their families. Charcoal production is also an important industry in Hàm Rong.
The people of Hàm Rong began to form their community soon after the Solid Anchor naval base was built. Originally, there were 47 people, but within a year, more than 10,000 people had gathered there. They just came in, out of the forest.
A small “Ruff/Puff” (Regional Force / Popular Force) self defense militia unit is stationed in a nearby triangular fort to protect the people of Hàm Rong. In reality, the Việt Cộng own the night.
During our patrol, a Việt Cộng sapper (mine laying) unit command detonates a mine intended to explode in the canal underneath one of our RID 41 “alpha” (Assault Support Patrol) boats. The mine explodes behind our boat, after it passes over the underwater mine.
The mine detonates directly beneath a group of Hàm Rong sampans that have clustered behind our boats for protection. A huge upheaval of water, splintered sampans, outboard motors, wooden planks, cooking utensils, clothing, vegetables, market sale items, and dead Vietnamese villagers shoot up into the air and fall, plop, smack, plop, plush, back into the canal and onto the muddy brown river bank.
Eyes wide, one of our guys exclaims, “Holy shit. Mama sans are falling out of the sky.”
Late that night, I am with our night patrol on the black water, outside the mouth of the Hàm Rong canal, where it empties into the Cửa Lớn River. The strong river current is pulling water out of the canal and into the eastern flow of the river in the direction of the South China Sea.
In the sheen of silver moonlight, we begin to see many bodies of dead Vietnamese villagers floating in the strong current on the surface of the black river. These are the bodies of people who had been killed by the underwater mine explosion earlier this morning. Gases within these bodies have lifted them to the surface of the water.
All eyes turn toward me. My guys ask, “Should we try to recover the bodies, sir?” Instantly, I think ahead to the possible consequences. I know it’s possible that unfriendly eyes are watching in the dark, waiting for us to take the bait.
The lives of the unfortunate Vietnamese victims, now floating in this powerful, fast moving black river, are far beyond our aid. We cannot help the dead, but we can protect the living. I am surrounded by my guys, all of them better men than I, their eyes on me.
In a flash, I consider the wisdom of moms (all kids know that their moms are the most watchful creatures on earth). I sense that the moms of my guys are closely watching me, call sign “Charlie Brown,” and all of us out on the black river this night. My own mom is one of those moms . . . watching.
I feel our moms watching, evaluating, measuring my worth in this matter, hoping, trusting, for wisdom in this situation. As a unified force, I feel each mom willing me to exercise the good common sense and thoughtful judgement they know we have all learned, from them, at home.
Within a heartbeat, I reply, “No. They might be booby trapped. I don’t want any of you guys to be hurt.” Each mom relaxes a bit, smiling quietly to herself. Our moms exchange nodding, knowing looks. “Can it really be? Our teaching is actually working.” Reason has prevailed, at least for now, in this very small moment on the river.
I love my guys. They’re more than friends.
I cannot ask my guys to bend down blindly into the black water to lift heavy, water soaked, potentially booby trapped, broken, mangled corpses onto the hard aluminum deck of our “alpha” boat, then afterwards, try to avoid stepping on fifteen or twenty dead people.
No. My guys are the best of men. I don’t want to make some stupid decision that would unnecessarily endanger their lives, or do any more damage to their mental health. Being the spearhead of a brutal war is already doing enough of that.
Slowing down, holding steady in the strong current to recover bodies, will take a long time. It is definitely not smart to remain dead in the water at night in this very dangerous neighborhood.
If the strong current pushes us close to the river bank, we are vulnerable to attack by automatic weapons, rockets, and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).
No. Hell no. This is a Viking funeral. Leave it alone. Let it be.
Eventually, we complete our patrol, and begin our return home. But there is more to come. A new surprise awaits at the end of this night patrol, as we return to our base.
Our “alpha” boat glides in toward the dock, to be tied up. Suddenly, I am blinded by the bright white flash of one of our base perimeter searchlights. Standing among my men on deck, worn out, and thinking we had pulled up tight against the dock, I step off the boat deck, and drop straight down into the Cửa Lớn River. My helmet disappears into the black water.
Instantly, on both sides of me, two pairs of strong arms reach down into the black water, grab me by my flak jacket and equipment, and pull me back up on deck, just as our boat bumps heavily against the dock.
In half a heartbeat, two of my men have just saved my life. We look at each other. No one says a word. We walk wearily back to our quarters, and go to bed.
Some time later, when my mind settles down, I speak to the Maker of All Things, “My Lord, why do you do this? What are you trying to teach me this time?”
“I don’t deserve any consideration at all. I am the least of your creation, yet You are generous with me. I do not understand, but I know, for sure, it’s You. Oh, yes, I know it’s You. It’s always You.”
I remain with my RID 41 guys until November 30, 1970, when I leave Vietnam to return home to Fargo, North Dakota.
Months later, I find out that our Solid Anchor naval base is heavily rocketed and mortared in late January 1971. The base is formally turned over to the Vietnamese Navy on April 1, 1971. The last Americans leave Solid Anchor on February 1, 1973.
The Republic of Vietnam falls to the North Vietnamese two years later, on April 30, 1975.