Thursday, February 7, 2019

"Such Men": A Vignette of Vietnam

Editor's Note: The Hampton Roads Naval Museum possesses several of the works of illustrator Joe Hinds, who passed away on April 22, 2012.  He got his start in the profession after enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1965, drawing mechanized vehicles and small arms for training manuals.  A keen observer, Hinds also gave descriptive treatment to his human subjects as well.  He drafted the following passage in South Vietnam after watching an after-action briefing for river patrol boat (PBR) crewmen in 1969, which to our knowledge has never been published.  

They go out night after night, these men. Out to meet an enemy wise in the ways of war on rivers and canals. Most of them are afraid. Most of them are superb.

Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Earnest McGowan sits in the gun tub of the twin .50-caliber gun mount on a new Mark II river patrol boat (PBR) on January 13, 1968.  Many of these newer PBRs saw action during the Tet Offensive.  On the Mark II, the ".50s" are electronically fired and sit low on the deck.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

Their job? Stop the VC from moving along and across the waterways, which have been his for a lifetime. How? With glass boats, with guns, with air support–with guts. Who are these men who man this PBR tonight? A year ago the Boat Captain was a Boatswain’s Mate on a cruiser. The Engineer was a Machinist Mate on a Carrier. The other two were in high school.

Who are they now? They are River Rats.

Engineman 3rd Class Ronald Bartamel takes aim with his M-60 aboard PBR 374. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

The two-boat patrol leaves the fragile security of its base an hour or so before darkness. They leave literally in glass boats armed with twin 5O cal machine guns, two M60s and maybe a mortar. In addition, they carry with them the one indispensable ingredient they know will bring them back alive–trust. Trust in their weapons. Trust in their air support. Trust in their Officer Patrol Captain. But most of all, trust in each other, for there is no place to hide in a 31-foot fiberglass boat. Each man must stand his ground and protect his shipmate with his weapon and, if it comes to that, with his life. 

Soon after leaving their base they ate some "River Stew" which had been cooked on the small unauthorized stove most boats have tucked away somewhere. Now, however, they are approaching their objective: A position on a canal near where intelligence reports indicate that the VC are crossing as part of a weapons infiltration route into Can Tho. Guns are checked. Flack jackets double-checked and a casual wave given to the Patrol Officer in the "Cover Boat" as it moves toward its position a little farther down the canal. 

They are alone. As darkness comes the boat engines are cut and the PBR slides silently into position on the bank of the canal. Every one is alert. If "Charlie" knew you were coming...... . But you are in. Perimeter security is set using Claymores and GSIDs [Ground-Emplaced Seismic Intrusion Detectors]. Now comes the waiting, the night noises, the fight against those most persistent enemies; boredom and mosquitoes. 

It is black! There is no moon. The kind of night "Charlie" likes to move. Someone knocks over a canteen. The Boat Captain curses. It doesn't seem possible but it seems to be getting darker and the mosquitoes are getting bolder. The boat engineer, now manning an M60, figures it must be near midnight when watches will be set and one or two of the boat crew will try to catch some fitful sleep. (No snorers allowed out here!) Unbelievably, his watch tells him it is only 2100. Mosquitoes get bolder. Eyes get heavier.
River Boat 117 Under Attack at Night, an acrylic by John Steel, 1966. (Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection)
The kid up forward says be hears a noise on the beach. The Boat Captain asks what it is. "How the f--- do I know," comes the succinct reply. Eyes are strained. Ears are turned to try to put a name to the noise. Now they all hear it. Just as reported, it is a "noise,” nondescript and frightening. A man? A sapper? A pig? The aft gunner realizes that he has been holding his breath and be is sure the explosive exhale can be heard in Hanoi. After notifying the Cover Boat by a whispered radio message, the Boat Captain takes his M-79, clicks off the safety and puts both rounds on the "noise.” A grunt, and the noise stops.

A few caustic comments about "chalking up another VC water buffalo" are answered with appropriate obscenities. My God, it is only 2210
!! Time drags. It gets darker, if that is possible. Finally it is midnight and two men stretch out on the engine cover for some fitful rest.

About a click up the canal a fierce firelight breaks out. The light snap of the M-60 is backed up by the heavier, ever more comforting bark of the 50 cal. From the banks come the staccato sound of an AK-47 and the white streak of a B-40. The Boat Captain nervously fingers the engine starter buttons, ready to render aid. But none is requested, for soon the Sea Wolves are overhead. Their long, teeth-grinding gun and rocket runs bring the firefight to an abrupt halt. Suddenly the night is again filled with silence, darkness and mosquitoes.

In his painting Looking for Trouble, artist R.G. Smith depicts two OV-10A Broncos from Light Attack Squadron (VAL) 4 on the prowl for targets. (Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection)

Just as the watch changes at 0200, the familiar, comforting sound of the Black Ponies is heard. Looking up, their recognition lights are clearly visible. You relax–just a little. They will be overhead for awhile. You know it. "Charlie" knows it. He doesn't like the "Ponies". You love them.

Unbelievably the eastern sky seems a shade lighter. Everyone is awake now. All eyes and ears again straining. Inexorably the sky lightens but with the light comes the rain. At least it keeps the mosquitoes down.

Covered by the 50 cals, two men carefully go out to retrieve the perimeter security devices. Just as they pass an area that had not been completely defoliated, one yells and jumps back. Every man dives for his weapon. But the men holler back that all is clear and wave for the Boat Captain. When he arrives he finds last night's “Noise”: A small man wearing only shorts, a green shirt and flip-flops is lying in the mud. In his hand clenched in death he still holds his only weapon: a Chinese grenade. A radio report is made and soon the Patrol officer is on scene and the squadron commander and some Army Intel types are on the way. The boat is told to return to base.

Engineman 3rd Class Harold Butler works on the diesel engine of PBR 037 between patrols.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

The rain stops. The knowledge of how close death was keeps chatter to minimum on the way “home”. Upon arrival at their base, reports are made, the crew debriefed and a good breakfast is eaten. Then the dog-tired men---return to their boat to clean weapons, maintain engines and generally clean up. By mid-morning the work is done, the sun is hot and it is time for a cold beer before catching some sleep. The patrol briefing is at 1700. For these men will go out on to the waterways again and again and again until their year is up, or until they don't hear the "noise”.
A Mark Two PBR makes a high-speed run along the Long Tau River, the main shipping channel from Saigon to the sea.  The water jet propulsion system delivers a speed of up to 30 knots and a draft of 9 inches, giving great maneuverability on the shallow rivers. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

Where do we get–"such men!"


Unknown said...

I served on a PBR as a gunners mate 1968. Reading the story brought back memories and old feelings. Thank you

rural88jean said...

Absolutely wonderful. JH

Ray Lazo said...

My Dad served alongside these amazing Men from January of 1968 through March of 1969 Flying attack helicopters UH-1b Huey's out of Vinh-long for Ha(l)-3 Det-3 The Navy Seawolves who flew cover for the PBR'S and SEAL's. They too would sometimes just roam the skies in conditions that other pilots wouldn't dare to fly in just to look for those green tracer rounds coming at them. They would drop a flare where the gunfire was coming from and my Dad, the fire team leader and his companion Huey would clear the area. Whenever a Riverine Unit would call the Seawolves they would Scramble from a dead sleep to both being loaded fueled and airborne in less then 3 minutes. They all worked so well together my Dad says and were always into something especially the year of the first Tet-offensive. My Dad did 1 tour as a Seawolf and 2 more in the Gulf of Tonkin, either flying in country or out to sea to save downed pilots and many other things.
Proud Navy Brat for 23 years.

The Red Man said...

Been there done that 66-67.

Unknown said...

Such Men. Earnest McGowan (Pee Wee) He was my Boat Captain on PBR-726, River Division 535.

I joined the crew in July 1968 and served on the 26 Boat until July 1969. Earnest McGowan was

a Great American Hero and a Giant of a man. I'm proud to have served with him.
William C McCabe
Engineman 2nd Class
Boat Engineer PBR-726, Riv. Div.535