Wounded, Boat Sunk by: Jim Holman I didn’t want to ambush there. My boss Steve had been out all day on Go Noi Island, and boats were on ambush there the night before. I was a new lieutenant j.g. (junior grade) patrol officer. Was going back to the States in a month and a half. Forty-five days and a wake-up, we would say. The first six months had been quiet. The ten river patrol boats I was assigned to the first half of my tour were based at Cua Viet, a Navy base on the mouth of a river five clicks (kilometers) south of the Demilitarized Zone, the border with North Vietnam. These fast river boats, known as PBRs, were encased in 31-feet dark green fiberglass hulls. Twin diesel engines and jacuzzi jet propulsion systems allowed us to go up narrow, shallow rivers. The area near the DMZ had been mostly defoliated, so you could see clearly on both sides of the river. The river was not shallow or narrow. I was involved in only two firefights that six months. The danger was pressure-sensitive mines that the North Vietnamese would walk down and put in the river. Two months before I came to Vietnam, an YFU ( the largest flat-bottomed boats that could make it up rivers), was sunk by one of these mines, and 9 sailors aboard were killed. I remember reading about that incident when I got my assignment to Cua Viet one afternoon after the last Vietnamese language class at the navy amphibious base in Coronado. I thought about those dead sailors. The last few days stateside I dreamt about being vulnerable on this river, exposed to the North Vietnamese. My anxiety turned into bad constipation. The malaria pills we had to take as soon as we got in-country took care of the constipation. On night patrol those first months, the mined YFU=62 projected out of the middle of the river. A ghostly profile on a dark night. One night in September, 1969 the monsoon floods made it so hard to plow upstream, we tied up to the wreck to take a break. Most of those first six months were spent patroling 10 miles of the Thach Han River at night between the base at Cua Viet and Dong Ha, a town with a depot where the YFUs would unload supplies for Marines deployed in this northern pocket of South Vietnam. They were the ones who fought the bloody battle of Khe Sanh. Six p.m. to six a.m. up and down the river, looking out a starlight scope, a two-and-a-half-foot cylinder with a twelve-inch lens on the far end and a one-inch aperture on the other end you looked into. Every third day we had twelve-hour day patrols, six a.m. to six p.m., mostly checking water taxis and sampans. We asked to see IDs. Never caught anyone that way. Once every two weeks or so we took a Navy doctor or dentist to a river hamlet, and inhabitants lined up for the free services. During these Medcaps (medical civic action project – everything had an acronym), kids rubbed their hands on my arms, which were not particularly hairier than a Vietnamese’s. I remember a corpsman showed me how a villager had stuffed spider webs into his wound. One day on what might have been my first day on the river, our boat crew beached on a riverbank near a hamlet and wanted to cook our C-rats over an open fire. A couple crewmen went to a nearby hut and stole a wooden bed, which they chopped up for firewood. I was stunned by the effrontery and evil of the deed. To this day I don’t know why as officer in charge I didn’t prevent this. I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Vietnam. After four years in college never thinking about the military, I went to four months of OCS (officer candidate school) in Newport, Rhode Island, where about 2000 of us were commissioned as ensigns every month. I was one of eighteen ensigns who signed up for the Navy’s new program in Vietnam to give junior officers early command. Ten of us were to get Swift boats (fifty-foot aluminum boats, mostly patrolling the coast), six of us dock or office jobs, and two of us PBRs. I wanted the Swift boat job; none of us could understand why I got PBRs. The other ensign who got PBRs was the son of the Vice-Chief of Naval Operations. Everyone who looked at this guy and me during our training at Mare Island (the Navy base in Vallejo, outside of San Francisco) thought we were way too young to be officers. One of the two firefights those six months I made a stupid mistake. We had landed some U.S. Army squads from our boats on the north side of the river. A half hour later, we were scoping the north side not far from where we thought the army guys were. Through the starlight scope we could see four or five dark forms moving toward the river. Were these NVA (North Vietnamese Army) guys mining the river? Not long before this night there had been a story of U.S. troops shooting U.S. troops in our area. So we called our army friends again to be sure they were not where we saw the dark figures. They assured us that no, they were well dug in. To make sure, I asked Rabbit, our boat driver, to shine a spotlight on the dark figures. Immediately a stream of automatic fire came at us. We gunned engines and got out of range. After we got to a safe distance, we found bullet holes in the pipes holding up our canopy, near where Rabbit stood. Two chief petty officers, a lieutenant, and I shared the patrol officer duties. In retrospect I imagine that the enlisted crew members thought I was such a rube that I was a burden. After six months, I did know how to read the maps, call in artillery, so there was a gradual increase in respect. In-country experience counted more than rank. But there was always a barrier. I think most of them were older – the first class were usually in their thirties, chiefs in their forties. Part of it was that a boat crew stayed together all the time. If they weren’t on the boat, they were at the enlisted club or whoring in town together. I was a little like a visitor. Did have conversations, especially with the boat captains, but they were laconic. Because we were all volunteers, the morale and general behavior was better than elsewhere in the military. I remember one guy when I first got in-country who was a mouthy complainer, but everyone else did his job without bad-mouthing. Now that I think about it, we were a pretty quiet lot. Not sure if it was because were a little scared or because we had to be noiseless on the river. Standard wear for PBR sailors and officers were loose dark olive or green camouflage pants, a loose long-sleeve shirt (which we called a blouse), same color which we wore not tucked in, dark green T-shirt, jungle boots, and - on night patrol or ambush - a helmet. PBR sailors were authorized to wear black beret, but we did only during the day. In November 1969, we got orders to move six of our ten boats to the Cua Dai River, about ten miles south of Danang. This river had a lot of reports of troop movements. NVA troops were coming off the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and using the Cua Dai to move troops up into Danang, perhaps for a repeat of the Tet Offensive in 1968, when North Viet troops infiltrated major cities of South Vietnam. Instead of steaming up and down the river, we would leave our small outpost around dusk and find a place to set ambush, what the reports we had to write up called a waterborne guard post. Seemed as if we had contact almost every night. A couple of our men – Giovanelli and Jackson - were killed in a firefight by a B-40 rocket. One night on ambush, up the Vinh Dinh tributary north of the Cua Dai, we saw a line of regular NVA troops marching about 50 yards from us, right across the Vinh Dinh. We opened fire with our M-60 machine gun and M-79 grenade launcher. I remember the deck was full of spent shells and we could not move without stepping on them, making enough noise to betray our position. My boat captain yelled at me, I yelled at him. We broke ambush. I think that was the night when we were heading back to base that we got shot at by B-40s, but they missed. One night I woke up to the sound of what I thought was incoming artillery. Sappers had somehow placed explosives on one of our boats docked right across the road from our outpost on a finger of the Cua Dai. The boat was blown apart and what was left was upside down. From then on the crews threw concussion grenades into the water around the boats all night. That was about the same time we heard about Army Lieutenant Calley massacring civilians in the province south of ours. Talked to our boat crews how unimaginable that was. The Go Noi Island night, I took three boats. Usually the boat crew consisted of a boat captain, an engineman, a gunner, and a bosun’s mate. The boat captain usually drove the boat and was a first-class petty officer who was in charge of the rest of the crew. The engineman or snipe had to watch the engines but most of the time worried about the jacuzzi pumps that sucked up water from the boat bottom and shot it out the back - providing our propulsion. The jacuzzis would often get clogged and have to be backflushed. The gunner usually sat up in the forward gun turret with the twin 50-caliber machine guns. This did not make a lot of sense, since the range of the 50s was a couple of kilometers, so they were not possible to use in a populated area like ours without special permission. The bosun’s mate was lowest man - in charge of the deck, lines, tying us up. But he was usually at the M-60 or M-79 in the back, and so was I. That night was in February, 1970. It was far enough along in Nixon’s Vietnamization plan, where the U.S. operations and equipment would be taken over by VNs (as we called them), and our crew included two or three Vietnamese sailors. Go Noi was about four or five miles upriver or east of our outpost, so by the time we got near the island, it was nearly dark. I asked the two boats who followed the boat I was on to set ambush 100-200 yards from each other. We were all out of sight from each other, around the bends of the river on the north side of Go Noi. I told each boat captain to stay put until I gave the order to break ambush. Typical practice was to set ambush by shutting off the engines when we found a spot that had some foliage we could hide in. Then take a couple of bamboo poles and plunge them into the mud and tie up our bow and stern. That’s what we did that night. We parked next to a ten-foot bank of Go Noi. I didn’t know until years later that Go Noi had been an enemy stronghold. NVA regiments controlled the island off and on. The Marines swept the area in 1967, 1968, and 1969 and found a mine factory and many enemy bunkers. What bothered me as soon as we set ambush was the number of flares being sent up across the river. Made our boat highly visible. Plus we could hear voices from across the river. I asked my Vietnamese crew members. “Bac Viet,” they claimed. North Vietnamese voices. How much later was it? Fifteen minutes? Thirty? An explosion. I thought someone was shooting from across the river - two hundred yards away. “Engines,” I shouted to the boat captain (I think it was Rabbit again). Engines were dead. “Radio!” I wanted to call the other boats who were near but out of sight. Radio was dead. I looked down. The water was up to my knees. We were sinking. Tore off my flak jacket – too hard to swim with it. Started to swim after the Vietnamese sailors. They had habit of zipping up their flak jackets and that would make hard to pull off the jackets in the water. As if by a miracle, one of our companion boats showed up and picked up what must have been seven of us flailing in the water. Once both companion boats were together, we started firing into the bank next to our sunk boat. We called back to the base, got Puff the Magic Dragon (a plane with high volume machine guns) to come out to Go Noi and fire around the sunken boat. While we moved back and forth, I asked if anyone was hurt. Rabbit and two of the Vietnamese had some superficial wounds. Slowly I realized that my left butt cheek was warm. And I saw a bunch of small tears near the lower hem of my blouse and tiny metal pieces in the torn part of the blouse. An hour later we got back to base. We were examined at our outpost’s sick bay. Had to pull down my pants and shorts and let everyone see my wounds. A helo medevaced us to the Navy hospital in Danang. That night the surgeon made nine incisions to remove the larger pieces of shrapnel. And I had to lie prone for a week while possible infection seeped out of the wounds. Then they sewed me up. A pro football player from L.A. had his picture taken with me. Sent the photo home and wrote that I was slightly wounded. The IV in the picture scared my parents. Later in the day after surgery my boss and the chief petty officer of our river division came to cheer me up. They told me that UDT (underwater demolition team) divers found remains of home-made grenades that blew up our boat. They were North Vietnamese mayonnaise cans filled with plastique. The UDT guys searched Go Noi on top of the bank and found a spider hole with an NVA hat with brain matter and blood on it – about ten feet from where our boat had been. In the water the divers found my glasses, watch, and helmet which had been blown off by the explosion.