GLORIAM DEO • Honor and Praise to the Maker of All Things

GLORIAMDEO.COM • Honor and Praise to the Maker of All Things (701) 588-4541     |    GLORIAMDEO.COM • Honor and Praise to the Maker of All Things  Contact Us    |    GLORIAMDEO.COM • Honor and Praise to the Maker of All Things    |

Military Service

1964-1968 Peacetime Service in the U.S. Naval Reserve

June 12, 1964 was the day I enlisted in the Naval Reserve in Moorhead, Minnesota. At the time, I had just graduated from Moorhead High School, and was enrolled to begin the first year of undergraduate school in the fall at Moorhead State College. As an enlisted reservist, I rose in the ranks, and earned the rating of Radioman 3rd Class. During the summer of my junior and senior years in college, I completed the officer commissioning program at the U.S. Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Upon graduation from Moorhead State College in June 1968, I received a commission as an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and reported for active naval service.

1968-1970 Combat Service in the Republic of Vietnam

After completing training in anti-submarine warfare and naval justice at the U.S. Naval Station, San Diego, California, I reported aboard USS FLETCHER (DD 445) at the U.S. Naval Station, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

My ship deployed to WESTPAC (Western Pacific) to conduct combat operations in Vietnam. Fletcher operated in the South China Sea providing naval gunfire support to friendly forces ashore in South Vietnam, and in the Gulf of Tonkin providing aircraft carrier battle group protection off the coast of North Vietnam.

One night when Fletcher was in plane guard position immediately behind the aircraft carrier USS HANCOCK (CV 19), I was standing midwatch on the bridge watch when a damaged F8 Crusader returning from a bombing run over North Vietnam landed heavily on the carrier deck and exploded in a huge orange fireball right in front of me. There were no survivors. The next morning at first light, we were able to find pieces of fuel cells from the wing tanks and a piece of a flight helmet in the thinly scattered debris floating on the surface of the Gulf of Tonkin.

During our WESTPAC deployment, Fletcher made port visits to Olongapo, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Sasebo-Nagasaki, Japan. In the Philippines, in January 1969, I met with my cousin, Machinist Mate 1st Class Chente Rivera, whose ship, the U. S. Coast Guard High Endurance Cutter INGHAM (WHEC 35), was also making a port visit to Olongapo, Philippines. My cousin, Chente Rivera, was a member of the Ingham crew when she earned two Presidential Unit Citations for her service in Operation Sea Lords and Operation Swift Raider from August 3, 1968 to February 28, 1969 during the Vietnam War.

During World War II, Ingham served with distinction on convoy duty in the stormy North Atlantic, protecting ships carrying vital supplies to Britain, and fighting German U-boats and aircraft. On December 15, 1942, during one convoy crossing, Ingham fought and sank the German submarine U-626. After 1944, Ingham served in the Pacific war.

When Ingham was decommissioned in 1988, she was the most decorated ship in the Coast Guard, the only cutter ever awarded two Presidential Unit Citations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy, the last active warship in the U.S. fleet with a U-Boat kill, and the second oldest commissioned U.S. warship afloat, second only to USS Constitution (launched in 1797) now a museum ship in Boston, Massachusetts. Ingham is the U. S. Coast Guard’s National Memorial to the 912 Coast Guard sailors killed in action in World War II and Vietnam. In 1992, Ingham was declared a National Historic Landmark, and today is part of the Key West Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.

After Fletcher’s return to the United States from Vietnam, the ship was decommissioned in San Diego, California, and the crew was dispersed to other duty stations. I chose to volunteer in the U.S. Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam, and completed counterinsurgency warfare training at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California, before heading back to Vietnam.

Counterinsurgency warfare training was interesting and physically challenging. The final week of training at the U.S. Marine Base at Camp Pendleton, California, concluded with SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training, intended for special operations personnel and military aircrews considered to be at high risk of capture. In recent times, human rights organizations have referred to SERE training as a testing ground for some of the harshest “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorized for use in war.

SERE began when our class of about 200 men was loaded onto 2½ ton trucks, and driven down a dirt road through a forest. Soon, the trucks slowed down, and came to a stop. We were ordered out of the trucks by men wearing black uniforms, and were herded into a barbed wire prisoner of war stockade with watch towers. We were “captured.”

SERE training was the acid test of our ability to keep faith with the United States Military Code of Conduct. The Code addresses how we should behave in combat, how we must attempt to evade capture, resist interrogation while a prisoner, and try to escape from an enemy. The Code of Conduct is part of U.S. military doctrine and tradition, but is not a formal military law like the Uniform Code of Military Justice or the Geneva Conventions.

War is a ‘come as you are’ event. War is not for sissies. Even though our SERE training was really just a minimal taste of what to expect if captured, evidently it is difficult for most men who complete the training.

At midnight on the first night of our capture, the commanding officer of our counterinsurgency warfare class formed us up in ranks, and told us in a loud voice, “I quit the program. I resign my command of this class. I refuse to go to Vietnam with you. I turn over command to the next senior officer. I quit the program.”

As POWs (Prisoners of War), we were made to carry heavy stones from a large pile in one corner of the prison camp to another large pile in the opposite corner of the prison camp, and back again. We were beaten and badgered. Some of us were water boarded. Some of us were put into black wooden boxes, like coffins, with the top closed down. I saw a senior warrant officer down on his knees, holding and kissing the boots of a guard wearing black. Some of us escaped. All who escaped were recaptured. One freezing night we were formed up in ranks and hosed down with icy water from a fire hose. We were given no food, but we did have water.

I was interrogated with a group of men arranged in a line. I was asked questions. In accordance with the Code, I answered with my name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I was hit repeatedly on the left side of my head (the guy must have been right handed). I saw white stars on black, really. I was hit some more. A young enlisted man was pulled forward. Each time I answered with my name, rank, service number, and date of birth, the young sailor was hit in the face in my place. Finally, the interrogator moved on to someone else. No one asked me any more questions.

At the end of SERE training, we were shown a very large aluminum cauldron of viciously spicy, habanero-jalapeño soup. It was nearly inedible, but everyone was so hungry, most of us tried it anyway. To me, it was perfect. I think I ate three bowls of fire soup, maybe more. It was good.

As the large crowd was breaking up to get back into the trucks, an officer wearing a black uniform pushed his way through the crowd to get to me. He asked, “Lieutenant Smith? Lieutenant Smith! I just want to shake your hand. You were the only person in this whole class who didn’t tell us a damned thing. I hope you never get captured. You will make them so mad, they will surely kill you.” I said, “Thanks.” I felt terrible.

The day before SERE training, we were given formal, explicit, clear instruction as an assembled class that, above all else, SERE training is intended to teach us to be resilient, to live up to the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, and to survive in an uncertain, hostile environment. Yes, I felt terrible.

This is the United States Military Code of Conduct.

I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.

I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.

If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.

If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information, nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.

When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.

I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.

In Vietnam, my first assignment was as second in command of a four man U. S. naval advisory team assigned to Duyen Đoan Hai Muoui Lam (Coastal Group 25) of the Vietnamese Navy, based at Hon Khoi, a small hamlet north of the city of Nha Trang in Khánh Hòa Province on the central coast of Vietnam. I served at CG 25 from November 30, 1969 to August 14, 1970.

Other friendly forces in our area were the 9th Republic of Korea (“White Horse”) Division, the U.S. Army 48th (“Blue Star”) Assault Helicopter Company, technical assistance teams of U.S. Navy Construction Battalions (CBs, “Sea Bees), Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) units, and “Regional Force” / “Popular Force” (“Ruff / Puff”) small village and hamlet self defense forces of the Vietnamese Army. The city of Nha Trang was the headquarters of the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group (“Green Berets”) during the Vietnam War.

The purpose of Coastal Group 25 was to stop and check people, cargos, and paperwork of coastal ships and river sampans that passed through our area of operations in an effort to interdict the seaborne infiltration of weapons, munitions, medical supplies, and Việt Cộng fighters. We boarded junks and sampans, searching for Việt Cộng infiltrators, deserters, draft dodgers, contraband, weapons and ammunition in the coastal waters and islands off central Vietnam.

We fought alongside local village and hamlet self-defense units, supported by Biệt Động Quân (Vietnamese Army Rangers), Lực Lượng Đặc Biệt Quân Lực Việt Nam Cộng Hòa (Vietnamese Army Special Forces), U.S. Army 48th (“Blue Star”) Assault Helicopter Company, and Republic of Korea 9th (“White Horse”) Division. Coastal Group 25 also carried Vietnamese Army and CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) forces in amphibious operations with other friendly forces.

The most satisfying operations were MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Patrols) in which we brought a doctor, dentist, or nurse to provide a day of medical care to rural people living in small river and coastal hamlets and villages, and remote communities on the outer islands of Khánh Hòa Province.

Our Coastal Group 25 “Yabuta” junks were gray wooden boats with large red and yellow bordered panels with gray and black eyes painted on the bows so we could find our way. Each “Yabuta” had a large yellow panel with a big red X painted on the roof of its deck shelter to identify it to friendly aircraft. Our “Yabuta” junks were powered by Gray Marine 6-71 diesel engines, exactly the same Gray Marine diesel engines that powered LCVP landing craft carrying U.S. soldiers to the beaches of Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The main armament of the little boats was a single .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a shielded stanchion bolted to the forward deck. The crew was lightly armed with ordinary small arms, M16 rifles, M79 grenade launchers, and M1911 Colt pistols.

Every night was filled with the sounds of artillery and machine gun fire. Parachute flares lit up the night. Sometimes, groups of Vietnamese regional force soldiers would come down the peninsula road, carrying stretchers on their shoulders. I would get on the radio and call “Blue Star Ops” for the “dustoff” (helicopter medical evacuation), and a U.S. Army 48th Assault Helicopter Company HU-1B helicopter would show up, the pilot calling me to verify that the chopper would not receive ground fire from the area around the “dustoff” site (within our Coastal Group 25 base perimeter). Soon the chopper would be loaded with wounded, lifting off through a cloud of dust, heading east to the field hospital at Ninh Hòa.

My boat has been fired upon by artillery. My jeep has been hit by small arms fire. A Việt Cộng prisoner awaiting transport to higher authority the next day sat next to me the night before, eating ice cream and popcorn and drinking Coke, while we watched a John Wayne movie in our hooch (living quarters). My boss, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, who had a Vietnamese girlfriend in the hamlet outside the base gate, shot a light switch off the wall of our hooch with his .45 while I was standing next to it, and a Vietnamese Navy Lieutenant nearly shot his private parts off while jumping onto his motorcycle.

It was a dangerous bunch of desperadoes that I lived with at Coastal Group 25, a little bit of MASH here, a little bit of McHale’s Navy there, with unrelenting war and capricious death swirling all around.

Korean 9th Division soldiers, driving “deuce and a halfs” (2½ ton trucks), were in the habit of racing through the small villages and hamlets of the long peninsula that led to our base, scattering pigs and chickens and people like blowing leaves. The coastal group senior advisor liked to get in front of these Korean convoys in his jeep, and creep slowly through the little villages and hamlets as slowly as he could, waving cheerily to the Vietnamese villagers and lighting up the crowd with laughter, while the Korean truck drivers followed behind, furiously blowing their horns.

In late July 1970, with eight months down and four months to go before my service in Vietnam would end in November, I arranged for a chopper flight down to Saigon and got myself transferred out of Coastal Group 25 into a “heavy unit anywhere in the Delta.” At the U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam headquarters in Saigon, in a very large, safe, comfortable air conditioned office with 150 or more cubicles, I signed the transfer papers. As I walked across the room, eyes followed me, and heads shook slowly in disbelief. Smiling quietly, I gently closed the door behind me.

Well, all right then, so my new unit was to be RID 41. I would be serving as an advisor with the men of Giang Đoan Ngan Chan bốn mươi mốt (River Interdiction Division 41) of the Vietnamese Navy river forces. RID 41 was then “somewhere in the Delta” on their way to ATSB (Advanced Tactical Support Base) Vĩnh Gia, a “Fort Apache” kind of base on the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

ATSB Vĩnh Gia was straight west of Saigon, between Châu Đốc, a city in An Giang Province, bordering Cambodia to the north and Ha Tien, on the Gulf of Thailand to the south. ATSB Vĩnh Gia was on the Kênh Vĩnh Tế (Vĩnh Te Canal) next to a Vietnamese Special Forces base, and just across from a very small rural commune on the Cambodian side of the canal.

ATSB Vĩnh Gia, is in the middle of nowhere, right in the middle of a very well established North Vietnamese Army infiltration route from Cambodia into Vietnam in the very remote back country of Indochina.

Knowing the story of a place makes it personal. Construction of the Vĩnh Te Canal was started in 1819 by the Nguyễn Dynasty Emperor, Gia Long, and was completed in 1824 by the Emperor Minh Mạng, who named the canal after Châu Vĩnh Te , the wife of its builder. Digging the canal resulted in the deaths of thousands of Khmer (Cambodian) workers who died of brutal exploitation and disease during the canal’s construction. In the Cambodian mind, the Vĩnh Te Canal is a notorious symbol of Vietnamese mistreatment of the Cambodian people. In the 1970s, the Vĩnh Te Canal was used by the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists, in anti-Vietnamese propaganda.

Before returning back north to Coastal Group 25, I decided to visit a river assault unit similar to RID 41. I went to Ben Luc, a Vietnamese naval base on the Sông Vàm Cỏ Đông, (Vàm Cỏ Đông River) a branch of the Đông Nai River system in the Mekong Delta.

Based at Ben Luc was the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division, the “Old Reliables”, part of the Mobile Riverine Force, operating deep within Viet Cong areas on the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta from 1967 to 1972.

That night in the bar, I was invited to participate in two different operations planned for the following day and night.

First, I was invited by Major Barry Francis Graham, officer-in-charge of the 39th Cavalry Platoon of the 9th Division to go on a night operation with him and a group of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Rangers. We were to take an Air Cushion Vehicle (ACV) out onto the Vàm Cỏ Đông River the following night.

The 39th Cavalry Platoon (Air Cushion Vehicle) was an experimental unit, part of the 9th Division, that used specially designed hovercraft to patrol marshy terrain, like the Plain of Reeds along the south Vietnam-Cambodia border. There were only three Navy ACVs and three Army ACVs in the entire Vietnam War, so this was an extremely rare opportunity to see and do something completely different.

I met with Major Graham in his office early the following morning, August 3, 1970, to verify times and places. The image I remember most is the gold finished metal picture frame on Major Graham’s desk, holding a photograph of his wife and children.

Second, I was invited by a senior naval officer to fly to Cambodia to observe a planning and coordination conference for a combined arms, amphibious operation, involving Vietnamese and U.S. forces operating in Cambodia.

Early the following morning, after meeting with Major Graham of the 39th Cavalry Platoon, I climbed on board a “loach” (LOH, light observation helicopter) with the naval officer who invited me to the planning conference, and we flew west to Cambodia.

The conference in Cambodia lasted longer than expected, and the light observation helicopter had to fly against a strong east wind on the return flight back to Vietnam. Because of the head wind, we were late arriving over Ben Luc, and the day was growing dark. Down below me, through the open right side chopper door, I saw two ACVs heading out onto the darkening green river through the gathering gloom of night (sundown that night was 7:17 pm, local time). I had missed my rendezvous with Major Graham of the 39th Cavalry Platoon, and the ARVN rangers.

Later that night in the bar, a 9th Division soldier saw my Navy insignia, and asked me if I was Lieutenant Smith. The soldier told me that the ACVs carrying the ARVN rangers had been ambushed, and that Major Graham’s ACV had been blown up by an improvised explosive device. Major Graham and two other 9th Division soldiers had been killed.

My name was listed on the operation manifest, with Major Graham and the other men on board the destroyed ACV, but my body was not found among the dead and wounded at the ambush site. I was reported MIA (Missing in Action). Immediately, I went to the base duty office to report that I was not missing in action. Because of the strong headwind, the helicopter returning from Cambodia back to Ben Luc did not land at the expected time. I was not able to meet up with Major Graham and his men to go out on the river that night.

I found out later that, besides Major Graham, two other 9th Infantry Division soldiers, were killed, SP5 Larry Joe Meador, and SP5 Kent Carter Wolf. Eighteen ARVN rangers were also wounded.

Major Barry Francis Graham, from Jersey City, New Jersey, graduated in 1961 from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation. He arrived in Vietnam on May 2, 1970. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Armored Reconnaissance Unit Commander (1204). He was killed in action near Ben Luc, Long An Province, Republic of Vietnam, on August 3, 1970 at age 31. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia (Section 35, Grave 3098). His name, BARRY F GRAHAM, is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Panel W8, Line 79), one of 58,307 names on “The Wall” in Washington, D.C.

SP5 Larry Joe Meador, from Carmichael, California, was drafted into the U.S. Army through the Selective Service system. He arrived in Vietnam on January 14, 1970. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Armor Intelligence Specialist (11D40). He was killed in action near Ben Luc, Long An Province, Republic of Vietnam, on August 3, 1970 at age 21. He is buried in Mount Vernon Memorial Park, Fair Oaks, Sacramento County, California. His name, LARRY J MEADOR, is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Panel W8, Line 79).

SP5 Kent Carter Wolf, from Boone, Iowa, enlisted in the U.S. Army. He arrived in Vietnam on April 7, 1969. His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Armor Intelligence Specialist (11D20). He was killed in action near Ben Luc, Long An Province, Republic of Vietnam, on August 3, 1970 at age 21. He is buried in Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery, Gilbert, Story County, Iowa. His name, KENT C WOLF, is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Panel W8, Line 81).

That day, Monday, August 3, 1970, an eastern headwind was the breath of life for me. The wind slowed my return from Cambodia to Vietnam. I was prevented from going out on the river with the ACVs of the 39th Cavalry Platoon. I would have been out on the river with the U.S. soldiers and ARVN rangers who were killed and wounded in combat that night. Their ACV was destroyed by an unexploded 500 lb. bomb, used as a command detonated mine.

Out loud, I speak to the Maker of All Things, “My Lord, why do you do this? I don’t deserve any consideration at all. I am the least of your creation, and yet You are always so generous with me. I don’t understand, but I know it’s You. It’s always You.”

It is a rare thing to be with the truest, most honorable people you know, and keep them near, even if only in memory. It is a rare thing to reach a moment with your guys, when eyes meet eyes, when you know for sure, you are exactly where you belong. It is a treasure, forever.

Many times, seemingly for no reason at all, I stop what I’m doing to remember family and friends, and whisper a quiet prayer about my time in Vietnam. I think about my guys and the mud marines and special forces soldiers who were my friends. Their faces pass softly in front of me. I am humbled and grateful to have once been in their company.

The 3rd day of August, each year, marks one of those days that I should have been killed, but just didn’t die. On that day, I am reminded of the U.S. soldiers and ARVN rangers of Ben Luc. I hold them softly in my mind. I honor them, quietly, with profound reverence. I can’t help but hear the words of Alan Seeger’s poem, “. . . I’ve a rendezvous with Death at midnight in some flaming town, when Spring trips north again this year, and I to my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous.”

Having researched the history of the U.S. Army 39th Cavalry Platoon, I have learned more about my rendezvous with death that day. This is what I have discovered. In 1970, the U.S. Army 9th Division left Vietnam and returned to the United States, except for the division’s 3rd Brigade, which kept the ACV experimental unit, and renamed it the 39th Cavalry Platoon. The unit—also known as the Air Cushion Vehicle Test Unit—patrolled the Mekong Delta and conducted attacks on suspected Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese Army base camp areas. The platoon inserted special operations forces into enemy territory and set ambushes for enemy troops.

The platoon’s ACVs were scary to the enemy, because they were so loud, and then could suddenly make no sound when their engines were turned off. One minute you could hear them, then suddenly they were silent, and they were difficult to locate. The ACVs could quickly reach deep into remote enemy areas, power down into silent ambush position, and suddenly attack from deep within enemy controlled areas. To the Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese Army, American ACV hovercraft were quái vật (“monsters”).

In Vietnam, mines were the deadliest threat to U.S. and South Vietnamese surface craft, including our own RID 41 boats. The ACV of the U.S. Army 39th Cavalry Platoon, attacked on August 3, 1970, was destroyed by an unexploded 500 lb. bomb, used as a command detonated mine. The platoon ceased combat operations just 27 days later, on August 31, 1970, and left Vietnam in September. The platoon’s only surviving ACV was returned to the United States from Vietnam, and is now on display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Before returning to Coastal Group 25, I took one more day to visit my friend LTJG Bill Applegate, who was advisor to Vietnamese naval forces at Nhà Bè, in the Đặc khu Rừng Sác (Sác Forest Special Zone), also known as the Đặc khu Rừng Sát (Forest of the Assassins). This military region of salty water tidal mangrove swamps and interconnecting rivers south and southeast of Saigon was the defense area of the Lòng Tàu River, the main shipping channel from Vũng Tàu north to Saigon. Bill Applegate could speak Tagalog, the language of most people in the Philippines, and he could speak Vietnamese also. He was my roommate during counterinsurgency warfare training at the Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California.

After returning to Coastal Group 25, I welcomed my replacement a week later, and left the central coast of Vietnam to join my new unit in the Mekong Delta. RID 41 sailed bar-armored river boats in the winding rivers, narrow canals, and mangrove swamps of the Mekong River Delta, the Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long (“River of Nine Dragons”), as part of Operation Sea Lords. We fought alongside Vietnamese and U. S. Army Special Forces, Nùng “montagnards,” Vietnamese Marines and Rangers, Civilian Irregular Defense Group units, and all kinds of other “special warfare” small units. I think of these guys with the greatest respect for their completely breathtaking bravery, unbelievable daring, and remarkable success.

At ATSB Vĩnh Gia, we were supported by the U.S. Army 268th Field Artillery Radar Detachment (“Night Eyes”), and a Beach Jumper Unit “Duffel Bag Team” that planted and monitored vibration-activated and body heat-activated sensors on the Cambodian side of the Vĩnh Te Canal that tracked the movements of bad guys (and sometimes water buffalos and “just folks” in sampans). We had the good fortune to be supported by “Seawolves” of U.S. Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 and “Black Ponies” of U.S. Navy Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4.

In September 1970, while our RID 41 Vietnamese sailors were operating in Cambodia, we U.S. advisors remained behind in Vietnam. During this time, I was appointed officer in charge of the Advanced Tactical Support Base at Vĩnh Gia on the Vĩnh Te Canal, which forms the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.

When I arrived at ATSB (Advanced Tactical Support Base) Vĩnh Gia, a lot of new challenges presented themselves very quickly. There had been no officer in charge of the base for some time before I showed up. Enlisted men were on their own without any command structure. Some sailors were using drugs. Others were malingering and insubordinate, refusing to obey the men appointed over them. I relieved one man of duty and made him go away by sending him up the chain of command for further disposition. A group of sailors decided to shoot and kill a dog at long range with their M16 rifles inside the base, endangering the safety of others. That was the first day.

Then there was the first night in which I slept on a smelly, damp, filthy mattress in a drenching, greasy sweat in a fiercely hot, humid bunker in a humming cloud of vicious mosquitoes. Overall, I was grateful for the soft mattress.

The toxic, chaotic culture of indiscipline and disorder among the men in this exposed and dangerous active combat area was a serious risk to the security of the base. I thought, “How could this level of indiscipline have been allowed to develop? How was I chosen to enter this hornets’ nest of potential disaster?” I sat down with the men. We talked. I asked questions. They offered suggestions. We made decisions. Things began to improve. Ultimately, it was the North Vietnamese Army and Việt Cộng who pulled the men together to protect and defend each other against the common enemy.

One day, a U.S. Army Special Forces airboat detachment, composed of Nùng soldiers and two Special Forces officers, arrived and began operating from ATSB Vĩnh Gia. The next night, these Special Forces soldiers made contact with a North Vietnamese Army battalion that had crossed about two miles into Vietnam from Cambodia.

The Special Forces airboats tested and probed in the darkness at their enemy, like an encircling war party of Sioux warriors, harassing, herding, assessing, measuring the size and strength of their NVA enemy. Within minutes, Special Forces radios were calling for other friendly forces to join the fight. Soon “Seawolves” of U.S. Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 and “Black Ponies” of U.S. Navy Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4 arrived on scene, and became involved in the battle, unloading ordnance on the NVA battalion now trying to break up and disperse from under relentless pounding from above.

During the running battle, “Seawolf” attack helicopters landed on the ATSB Vĩnh Gia helicopter pad half a dozen times to refuel and reload rockets and machine gun ammunition before returning to the fight. Eventually, the battle slowed. Finally it was called off. Special Forces radios called us for illumination to guide their airboats back home through the dark. Our guys fired 81mm mortar parachute flares to provide them with safe passage. The next day, the Special Forces airboat soldiers prepared to move to a larger base to seek medical care for their wounded. The Special Forces captain asked me for ammunition to rearm his airboats. I gave orders for our sailors to open the ammunition bunker and help the Special Forces soldiers rearm with whatever ammunition they needed.

The captain told me that his Nùng soldiers had invited me to a formal honoring ceremony to give thanks to the “war lord” for the successful fight they had fought with the NVA the night before. The Special Forces captain told me that to be invited by Nùng soldiers to an honoring ceremony for helping in a fight was an extremely rare and unusual honor.

The Nùng soldiers had chosen a bunker for the ceremony. Two U.S. Army Special Forces officers ushered me inside and asked me to sit down on a reed mat at the open end of a rectangular gathering of about 30 Nùng soldiers sitting on reed mats. We regarded each other, their eyes measuring my worth.

The Nùng chief came forward, and sat down in front of me. Small white porcelain cups of a strong alcoholic drink were placed in our hands. The Nùng chief and I crossed our hands at the wrist, and leaned forward to drink, eyes to eyes, nose to nose. This is the Nùng way of showing personal trust and respect. A plate holding the cooked, blackened, hardened head of a chicken was handed to me. The expected, proper response is to take a bite, which I did, to the smiling, nodding, appreciative murmurs of the Nùng soldiers gathered there.

In memory, I see the faces of these exceptional warriors, descendants of an ancient race of “montagnards” (mountaineers), little tough guys from the high border country of North Vietnam and China. God works in mysterious ways to have chosen me to be there with them. I think of these Nùng soldiers with deep respect, and I often wonder where they are now.

The badge on the green beret of every U. S. Army Special Forces soldier carries the Latin words “De Oppresso Liber.” Loosely translated, the term means “to free the oppressed.” I am grateful to have been in their company.

Knowing the story of a people makes them personal. The Nùng people are a Chinese ethnic minority who live in the northeastern mountains of North Vietnam in the provinces of Cao Bằng, Lạng Sơn and other northeastern mountain provinces on the North Vietnam border with China. The Nùng are culturally similar to the T’ai, Hmong, and Mường peoples of the northwestern mountains of North Vietnam, China, Laos, and Thailand.

When the French left Indochina in 1954, Nùng people fled from the Communists in North Vietnam and joined the great exodus of more than one million North Vietnamese refugees who fled to the south and resettled in South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Nùng soldiers operating with U.S. Army Special Forces were highly regarded as fearsome of warriors, and were known for their loyalty to the Green Berets.

When Saigon fell to the Communists on April 30, 1975, Nùng people again became political refugees, and fled South Vietnam as Boat People to refugee camps in Malaysia and Hong Kong, eventually resettling in the United States, Canada, France, and Australia.

A few days after the fight with the NVA battalion, RID 41 received new orders, and moved south of the U Minh Forest (the charming “Dark and Evil Place”) to the Cà Mau Peninsula, the southernmost tip of Vietnam. Operation Sea Float, later called Solid Anchor, was where I was destined to remain for my last two and a half months in Vietnam before returning home to Fargo, North Dakota in November 1970.

Operation Sea Float (called Trần Hưng Đạo III by the Vietnamese) was established June 25, 1969. Sea Float was intended to project U.S. and South Vietnamese naval power into An Xuyên Province, 175 miles southwest of Saigon. The idea was to penetrate and hold this remote area that had long been under Việt Cộng control. The task was to establish the presence of the Republic of Vietnam, and extend South Vietnamese control over the city of Năm Căn and the strategic region of the Cà Mau Peninsula.

River Interdiction Division 41 was selected to be part of the spearhead to penetrate this bitterly contestedViệt Cộng stronghold, and secure the Cà Mau Peninsula for the Republic of Vietnam. The operation was called Sea Float, because, at first, the base was started as a sprawling collection of 12 large, flat steel barges tied together and anchored in the middle of the Sông Cửa Lớn (Cửa Lớn River) that flows east and west for 58 kilometers across the southern tip of Vietnam.

In mid-September 1970, about a week after my unit, RID 41, had arrived in the area, Sea Float was moved ashore and became Solid Anchor (called
Trần Hưng Đạo IV by the Vietnamese). I remained with RID 41 until about November 30, 1970, when I left Vietnam to return home to Fargo, North Dakota. The Solid Anchor base was heavily rocketed and mortared in late January 1971. The base was formally turned over to the Vietnamese Navy on April 1, 1971, and the last Americans left Solid Anchor on February 1, 1973.

This operational area was a sprawling wasteland of miles and miles of slimy gray brown mud, pockmarked with huge bomb craters filled with perpetually standing, stinking water. The dead mangrove swamps were covered with an endless scattering of twisted, blackened defoliated trees killed by agent orange. We were living and fighting in a free fire zone.

The river current here is very strong, between six and eight knots. The Cửa Lớn, B Đ , and Đ m Dơi rivers, being connected to the South China Sea on the east and the Gulf of Thailand on the west, are powerful salt water rivers with a strong current reversal because of the tide. The strong east-west current reversal and widely fluctuating tidal levels complicated combat operations. During the Vietnam War, this area was a dangerous place for all living things. Our home was one of the most isolated and dangerous places on earth.

Many different U.S. Navy units operated in this area, including amphibious ships, support ships, PCF “Swift” Boats, the patrol boat USS CANON (PG 90), which became the most highly decorated U.S. Navy ship of the Vietnam War, a detachment of HAL 3 “Seawolves” attack helicopters, SEALs, Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), and Construction Battalions (CBs, “Sea Bees”). Vietnamese units included amphibious ships, support ships, River Assault Groups (RAGs), PCF “Swift” Boats, Coastal Force junks, Marines and their U.S. Marine advisors, and Kit Carson Scouts (KCS) , former Việt Cộng soldiers who were now part of the South Vietnamese armed forces.

One day, three of our boats conducted a daylight patrol to the big north-south canal just east of the Vietnamese village of Hàm Rồng (known as the “Annex”) about five kilometers from Solid Anchor. During that patrol, a Việt Cộng sapper (engineer) unit exploded a command detonated mine intended to explode underneath and sink one of our RID 41 boats. The mine exploded behind our boat, after it had passed over the underwater mine, and detonated directly beneath a group of civilian sampans that had clustered around our boats for protection. A huge upheaval of water, splintered sampans, and dead Vietnamese villagers shot up into the air and fell back into the canal and onto the river bank. One of my guys said, “Mama sans were falling out of the sky.”

Late that night, I was with our night patrol outside the mouth of the big north-south canal where it empties into the Cửa Lớn River. The strong river current was 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 began to see bodies of dead Vietnamese villagers floating in the strong current on the surface of the river. Gases within the bodies of these people, who had been killed in the mine explosion earlier this morning, had lifted them to the surface of the water.

Some of my men asked, “Should we try to recover the bodies?” I replied, “No. They might be booby trapped. I don’t want any of you guys to be hurt.” I did not want any of my guys bending down into the black water, trying to lift potentially booby trapped, broken, mangled corpses onto the deck, and then afterwards try to avoid stepping on fifteen or twenty dead people. No. My guys were really good men, and I didn’t want to make some stupid decision that would endanger their lives or their mental health any more than being the spearhead of a brutal war was already doing. Also, slowing down in the strong current to recover bodies would cause us to drift closer toward the river bank, and make us vulnerable to potential attack by rockets or RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). No. This was a Viking funeral. Leave it alone. Let it be.

A new surprise happened to me at the end of the patrol, in the early morning when we returned to our base. As the boat was being tied up to the dock, I was suddenly blinded by the bright flash of one of our base perimeter lights. Standing among my men on deck, thinking we had pulled up tight against the pier, I stepped off the boat deck and dropped straight down into the Cửa Lớn River. Instantly, on both sides of me, two pairs of strong arms reached down into the black water, grabbed me by my equipment, and pulled me back up on deck just as the boat slammed hard into the pier. I lost my brand new helmet in the river. In half a heartbeat, my guys had just saved my life. We looked at each other. No one said a word. We walked wearily back to our quarters, and went to bed.

Why does God do this? I know it’s Him. It’s always Him. I don’t deserve any consideration at all, and yet somehow He is always generous with me. Evidently, He’s just not finished with me yet. My purpose in this world is not yet fulfilled.

One night, I found myself in the middle of a wide circle of Vietnamese sailors and marines with weapons drawn against each other . . . with me in the middle. Men were shouting at each other in Vietnamese, and I didn’t understand what the yelling was all about.

Evidently, the Vietnamese Marines were angry about having to eat boxed field rations, when Vietnamese sailors were eating hot cooked food. Somehow, Vietnamese sailors and marines had decided to level their weapons at each other, and the confrontation was hot.

No RID 41 sailors were involved. Soon U.S. Marine advisors arrived on the scene and the confrontation settled down and finally ended. Surely there was more to this volcanic eruption than appeared on the surface, but it started so fast and ended so abruptly that I never did find out.

Days of more death and devastation passed, until a day in November came when I received orders to leave Vietnam. The day I left my guys at RID 41, the weather was cool and overcast over Solid Anchor. I said my goodbyes with my men, and picked up my weapon. One of the guys carried my duffle bag as a group of us walked together to the helicopter pad. A bag of mail was loaded onto the chopper. We shook hands all around and wished each other well. I climbed aboard and buckled up.

The engine choked into life, and whined as it gained power. The chopper blades began to whirr, whup, whup, whup. The bird lifted off the ground, circled the helo pad once, gaining altitude. I waved to my men who were waving back to me. Three dark green, rubber body bags lay beside the helicopter pad. The chopper leaned into its northwest heading and flew straight toward Tân Sơn Nhứt airbase near Saigon.

Flying over the gray brown mud of An Xuyên Province, the words of the 1969 Simon and Garfunckle song, The Boxer, flooded my thoughts. “In the clearing stands a boxer / And a fighter by his trade. / And he carries the reminders / Of every glove that laid him down / And cut him till he cried out / In his anger and his shame / ‘I am leaving, I am leaving’ / But the fighter still remains.” . . . the hammering music sounded like a door slamming, over and over again.

Every Veterans Day, I stop what I’m doing to remember family and friends, and say a prayer about my time in Vietnam. I think about my guys and the mud marines and special forces soldiers who were my friends. Their faces pass softly in front of me. I am humbled and grateful to have once been in their company.

On such occasions, a gentle voice speaks softly behind me, whispering the same words every time, “Love is patient, Love is kind . . . Love . . . never . . . fails.” It is a rare thing to search out the truest, most honorable people you can find, and keep them near, even if only in memory. It is a rare thing to reach a moment with your guys, when eyes meet eyes, and you know for sure, you are exactly where you belong.

1971-1990 Peacetime Service in the U. S. Naval Reserve

Division Officer, Department Head, Executive Officer, Commanding Officer of various Naval Reserve units for nineteen years.

Retired from the U. S. Naval Reserve in 1990 with the rank of Commander.