Task Group “Sea Tiger”
by Commander Thong Ba Le, South Vietnamese Navy
The Patrol River Boat (PBR) was steaming at high speed toward the base of the Navy Coastal Group 14, which was located at the mouth of the Hoi An, or Faifo, River. I stood at the front of the small boat, holding my Navy hat. The cool morning breeze ruffled my hair and I could see the fog hovering above the trees that lined the sides of the Thu Bon River. In the distance, a few cranes searched for food along the edges of greensward. They paid no attention to the boat's loud engine or to the waves rolling one after the other towards the riverbank.
The water of the Thu Bon River was not as clear as the Perfume River in Hue City. It was shallow, except in the channel, and required skillful sailors who were accustomed to the river's waterways. Only these professional soldiers could navigate safely through the dangerous area located between the Cam Thanh, a Viet Cong secret zone, and Hoi An City.
The Task Group "Sea Tiger" had been organized to conduct the Amphibious Operations in Quang Nam Province, pitted against the local communist forces that operated from their secret zones around the coastal area. The Task Group consisted of the Navy units, including two (2) Patrol Craft Fast (PCF) gunboats from the Coastal Patrol Maritime Group 1, four (4) Patrol River Boats of the River Patrol Group 60 from Danang, and the Coastal Group 14 at the Faifo river mouth.
The Cam Thanh secret zone was in range of 81mm mortar from the Base of the 14th Coastal Group. The second was Dap Lo and the third secret zone was Dong Bo, hidden under the edge of the Truong Son (Long Range) mountains west of the Quang Nam Province. The Communists called these bases the "untouchable zones" and usually launched terrorist attacks against the Vietnamese and Allied Forces in the region.
The result of the enemy's attacks was very critical and created terror in the people who lived in this volatile area. The mayor of the city, who was also the Commanding Officer of the Tactical District of Quang Nam Province, was Army Colonel Le Tri Tin. Recently, the enemy had been launching fierce rocket bombardments every night. They also mined along the main road that connected Hoi An City with High Way One in the northwest. Heavy casualties in both materials and fatal dead had been reported in the last few days.
About one week before I took command of the Task Group, two PBRs were sunk. The enemy had thrown explosives from the cliff that overlooked the Thu Bon River onto their boats. Four sailors were killed; the Skipper was seriously wounded and required immediate evacuation by helicopter to Danang. Lt. Commander Holland, Commanding Officer of the Operations "Sea Tiger", then ordered 2 Phantom F-4 jets to sink the boats before the Communists could occupy them.
I remembered my time two years ago as the Skipper of a Patrol Torpedo Fast Boat (PTF). Twice a week, I faced danger while carrying out special missions in enemy waters north of the seventeenth parallel. Now I faced the Communists again, but in a different battlefield with an unclear line between enemy and regular citizen. There had been incidents of people living normal lives in the fishing villages during the day who became Viet Cong at night. They shot B-40 rocket launchers from their hiding places in the cliffs at the Navy Patrol boats and destroyed them.
I remembered my adventures during my time with the Force, standing on the bridge of the Nasty class mighty Torpedo boat, moving at high speed in the dark of the night in the "Black Sea Zone." I left the Special Maritime Operation Force a year ago and I remembered daily the loss of my dear friends in the war. Since then, I had become bored by my daily activities, surrounded by four walls in my office at Headquarters, dealing with paper reports, briefings, and logistics control. I heard of the increasing levels of the war in the high land and at the Mekong River. It was time for me to take command of the combat unit as I was becoming very depressed in my current office job. But my wife Minh had to deal with being separated from me one more time. As she had many times before, she silently accepted her role of mother to six children. Day and night, she prayed for my safety as I carried out my dream of sailing away and fighting for freedom and democracy in the Republic of Vietnam.
My thoughts were interrupted and I returned to the present with the sound of the footsteps behind me. I heard the voice of my advisor, Lt. Comdr. Holland, as he approached and stood next to me, "Is everything Ok, Commander?"
I turned around, shook the firm hand of the USN Officer, and replied, "Yes, everything is fine. I'm just standing here on this PBR, watching the scenery go by and enjoying the morning breeze blowing from the ocean. It reminds me of the nightly operations aboard the PTF about a year ago. I prefer to serve aboard high speed vessels, so when I stood aboard this PBR, the old feeling immediately returned to me."
"I understand exactly how you feel because I frequently remember my assignments aboard the warships. My favorite sea duty was serving on the Cruiser--it is neither too big nor too small like the Destroyer. Besides, while serving aboard the Cruiser, I had the opportunity to exercise what I learned from the Academy. Then I accepted going to the "Brown Water" that prepared me for my first tour in Vietnam with the combat units in Mekong Delta. My career has changed since then but even now, I still remember those wonderful times traveling around the world when I was aboard the Cruiser."
I agreed with the foreign officer who had graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. I had heard about him through my conservations with the Senior Advisor of the First Coastal Zone, who had highly commended his junior officer. He said very positive things about Lt. Commander Holland, including his super experience and leadership and incongruous appearance. When I first glimpsed him, I agreed that Lt. Commander Holland, with his thick glasses, looked more like a schoolteacher than a sea warrior.
The PBR continued its journey toward mouth of the Thu Bon River. The high tide from the ocean reduced the boat's speed. In the distance, one could see the brown sails of fishing boats, oscillating on the white-capped waves. Seagulls were in flight, as always looking for food. The azure sky was perfectly clear, the color of the "ao dai" of the beautiful girls of Hoi An City, who could be seen riding their bicycles along the narrow roads of the small town. I did not want to compare the beauty of these local girls to my favorite ones in Hue, my hometown. One could only tell the difference if they were standing side by side. Mine were beautiful in their white long dresses, hiding their faces under their conical poetry thatch hats, which protected their pink skin. The girls in Hoi An had darker complexions, perhaps due to the sea breeze and the climate of this coastal city.
The sound of artillery from the starboard side of the boat pulled my attention from the girls. On the port side of the PBR, there were hunter green rows of palm trees in the distance. The Viet Cong had a secret zone there: Cam Thanh was mined and booby-trapped to guard against the attack of units from Operation "Sea Tiger." This sandy island also produced famous big crabs with meat that was delicious and tender when cooked.
On the surface of the water, there were lines of nets across the river to catch fish. Sea birds that perched on top of the bamboo poles looked at the passing boat that caused long ripples of muddy water. I could see the pier of the 14th Coastal Force appear in the distance in the direction of 10 o'clock. The Skipper of the PBR reduced the boat's speed before he turned the control of the boat over to his seaman. He said to the two Officers standing at the bow, "Commander, I would like to report that Lt. Comdr. Hai, my Commanding Officer, was on the mission this morning. My Executive Officer will greet you both at the pier of the Coastal Force."
"Very well, 1st class Quang, thank you for the report. I spoke to Commander Hai this morning and was informed of the combined operation that took place at Dap Lo. Commander Holland and I want to be at the operation center and follow its progress."
I smiled at the old Petty Officer, whom I knew from Danang, and patted his shoulder. In my mind, the image of Lt. Commander Phan Tu Hai, my classmate at Quoc Hoc High School in Hue over 10 years ago, was still young man who played the guitar left handed. That tiny student had became one of the Navy's most highly decorated warriors who continued to be a threat to the Viet Cong with his excellent leadership and combat experiences. Hai was a graduate of the Class 11 from the Vietnamese Naval Academy in Nha Trang, one class below me.
The NCO navigated the River Patrol Boat alongside the pier of the Base. Holland and I shook hands with Lt. Tam, the Deputy Officer, and proceeded to the operations center to be briefed about the undergoing combined Army and Navy operation, which consisted of a battalion of regional forces and 3 Navy boats from the Dap Lo area, northwest of Hoi An City.
After the briefing, Lt. Commander Holland and I stopped by to say hello to Hai's wife, who lived in the Commanding Officers' Quarters, and then we went down to the enlisted men's living to visit their families. Having seen the military wives and their children who left all of the comforts of the city to follow their husbands to the Naval Base, which did not have proper facilities for their families, I felt sorrow in my heart. Sometimes, the sailors' wives and their children were forced to hide in the bunkers scattered around the compound when the Viet Cong bombarded the Base. I respected them so much for their sacrifice, for their faithfulness and the love that they gave to their husbands, who were courageously fighting, proud soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam.
After resuming my Command of the Task Group "Sea Tiger", I accompanied Lt. Commander Hai everyday on the PCF (Swift), Ferrous Cement, PBR or Thien Nga junk boats to visit Navy units that were on patrol along the Thu Bon River or on the reconnaissance missions. Two weeks went by before I decided to pay visit to the Mayor and Quang Nam District Commander, Colonel Le Tri Tin, a well-known and good Army officer. I invited him to accompany our unit on the next mission that was to deploy sensors to the south of the Dong Bo area. The US Marines were clearing that dangerous jungle for the mission. Colonel Tin accepted my invitation and promised to give me all the support that I might need to do my job. I sincerely thanked him and left his office to prepare for my first operation as the CO of the Task Group "Sea Tiger."
Two days later, it was a beautiful morning; the foggy air still hovered over Hoi An City. The operation consisted of 4 junk boats, 4 PBRs, 1 platoon of reconnaissance and 4 members of the sensor team. We picked up Colonel Tin and his staff at the pier in Hoi An and then proceeded toward the west of the city. Lt. Commander Holland, Hai and I were with Colonel Tin aboard the Command and Control boat. We took turns briefing him about our responsibilities and our plan for the day's operations. Lt. Commander Hai also let him know the strategic areas along the river that we needed to control as the boat passed those locations. His voice could hardly be heard over boat's engines. The Thu Bon River became narrower when we reach to the westernmost portion of it. On both sides of the river, there were steep cliffs, a combination of clay and rock walls that lasted for miles, and the slow current reflected images of green shady trees on top of the cliffs.
We were passing a small inlet near Dap Lo; there was a platoon of regional forces guarding the area. When they realized that Colonel Tin was aboard our boat, some soldiers hurriedly jumped out of the hammocks that hung between the pine trees and saluted him. We saluted back and waved to them and continued our journey toward the operating area that was located about 4 kilometers west of Dap Lo.
Suddenly we heard a big explosion behind us, from the direction of the platoon. Lt. Commander Hai immediately used his PRC-25 to communicate with the operation center and reported back to us that a grenade booby trap had exploded when a soldier, finding a place to relieve his bladder, stepped on it. He was badly injured and the District had sent helicopter to evacuate him to the military hospital. Mines and booby traps were the Viet Cong's most advantageous weapons in the Quang Nam Province. The Viet Cong had used these weapons to destroy Government soldiers and allied troops that tried to penetrate their bases.
The sun had risen above the cliff and burned off the fog. Its beams pierced the shady trees and brightened the remote areas of the land. At first glance, one would never know that a war had raged there for years and that death might happen at any moment to the sailors and soldiers of the task group. In the distance, I heard the sound of a motor, perhaps from the US Marines' bulldozer, echoing along the high walls of the cliffs. I decided to send two junk boats to the north to protect the group and ordered another 2 boats to anchor in the middle of the Thu Bon River. Then I told the Skippers of two PBRs to navigate towards the sandy beach in front of the Marines' area. The other PBRs continued to run back and forth to provide gunfire support in case we came under enemy attack.
The beach that stretched between two oak trees was an ideal spot for landing. So without hesitation I held my M18 rifle and jumped onto the sandy beach from the low bow of the boat, followed by Lt. Commander Holland, Colonel Le Tri Tin and Lt. Commander Phan Tu Hai.
The operator of the bulldozer, a young US Marine, was sweating under the hot summer sun, bareheaded and clad only in camouflage pants. He steered his bulldozer back and forth to clear the bushes and small trees to make a road toward the jungle ahead. The landing party waved at him as they went by on their way to the Command tent of the US Marines Corp.
In the meantime, the four members of the sensor team started their job without delay. They picked up their electronic devices, hefted their weapons on their shoulders and disappeared behind the row of big trees. They were professional US Navy technicians; their task was to plant sensor equipment in the enemy operating routes. The new technique of using listening devices and shelling accuracy had caused heavy casualties among the Viet Cong, who moved their troops at night through the trails along their secret zones. Each time their ground movement activated the electronic sensors, the signals alerted the NCO on duty at the district operation center, who concentrated on the noises coming through his earphones. He in turn gave the coordinates to the artillery unit who in turn bombarded the Viet Cong.
While we waited for the sensor team to complete their task, we exchanged pleasantries with the US Marine Officers and soldiers operating the mission, then attended a briefing conducted by Lt. Commander Hai, under the shadow of a big oak tree. During the briefing, I recommended starting an ambush plan that would deter and possibly eliminate the Viet Cong's efforts to frighten people by shooting mortar rounds and rockets nightly at Hoi An City. According to my plan, every night the Task Group would send PBRs, PCFs and junk boats to carefully selected points close to the enemy's secret zone and any place that could be accessed from their safety areas. With the firepower and the capability of the River Patrol Boats (PBR), I would send them to the more distant locations that might be used by the enemy to launch their rockets. The Swift Boats (PCF) would be deployed to ambush those enemy guns that were aimed at our bases. Finally, the junk boats would be used at the positions closer to the city and the base of 14th Coastal Group. Our main goals were to react in a timely manner whenever the enemy started shooting their first rounds and to use our Naval gunfire power to stop the bombardment and destroy the enemy.
The ambush sites would change every night and troops would accompany the boats from time to time to reinforce the boat crews if I received reports of heavy enemy activity in the area and ground combat would be needed. After being briefed of the plan, Colonel Tri was very encouraged; he complimented the Navy for coming up with ideas that he thought would successfully put an end to the Communists' nightly bombardment.
The planting of sensors and electronic devices were completed without incident in little over an hour and the sensor team and the party retreated back to boats and we began our return to the District in the afternoon. Upon our arrival at the District, Lt. Commander Holland went to the US Operation Center located inside the compound. Minutes later he rushed over to me and let me know the terrible news that the young Marine who operated the bulldozer was killed after we left the site. His bulldozer ran over a 250-kilo bomb booby trap while clearing the jungle and was completely destroyed, along with the driver's body. We had been so lucky not to be killed that morning when we walked alongside the bulldozer. I believed that destiny had saved my life as it had so often before, when I stayed alive in near death situations while engaged in nightly combat at the "Black Sea Zone", north of 17th parallel.
About two months had passed since the day we planted the sensors in the Dong Bo Viet Cong secret zone. Our new nightly operations had been effective; the result was reduced artillery bombardment from the enemy. Before, they launched three or four 122mm rockets almost every other night, shot 5 or 6 rounds of 81mm mortar from their positions northwest of Hoi An City. Later, as soon as they shot their first rocket or mortar, our boats immediately returned fire upon their hidden locations with our powerful batteries and shut them down. Nights after, they were too scared and just prepared the sites, shot one round and then ran away when our units started firing at their positions. Later they only launched one rocket a week. Last week was the first time the citizens of Hoi An City had a good night's sleep; they were not awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of rockets and they did not have to carry their children to the bunkers.
On a moonless night in May 1969 at about after midnight, Lt. Commander Holland, Hai and I conducted an operation to launch a Navy blockage around the Cam Thanh Island that we knew was the safety base of the Viet Cong in that region. They had used this mined and booby-trapped muddy island as their hiding place and shot 81mm mortar shells at the South Korean Green Dragon Division's units and at the Vietnamese Navy. The operation consisted of two PBRs, one PCF, two Chu Luc junk boats, two Thien Nga boats and one US sniper.
We arrived at the ambush position south of the island and set up the formation to prepare for the attack. The sniper was ready with his long rifle and aimed in the direction of the water palm trees and bushes at the riverbank. We believed that the Viet Cong had built bunkers along the riverbanks to man their weapons and shoot at VNN patrol boats. The sniper adjusted the infrared scope mounted on top of his gun and concentrated on the left side of the boat. I looked into my infrared binoculars and moved them in that direction. Suddenly, from below the water palm trees, a shape rose—it was a tall body holding a rifle. Lt. Commander Holland observed the moving shape through his binoculars and tapped the sniper's back to signal the approval of execution, which the sniper acknowledged. I heard a low "pup" from the long barrel of the rifle, and the shape fell backward onto the ground as the Viet Cong was hit and his head was opened wide by the bullet. We heard sound of shooting coming from the fallen Viet Cong's rifle. The enemy reacted by shooting at the unknown targets on the river, the "tac tac tac" sound breaking the silence of the cool night and water spraying the air. Immediately all of our boats returned fire with all of the power of the Navy guns mounted aboard the vessels.
The noise of the 12.7 mm machine guns blended with the "pup pup pup" of the 81mm mortars the "tac tac tac" of the automatic rifles. The dark night was lit with flares and illuminated tracers. The Naval gunfire continued for about half an hour and destroyed the enemy's bunkers and gun positions along the riverbank. The bodies of the Viet Cong were scattered on top of the dirt constructions and hanging over branches and reeds. I ordered all units to stop firing when the enemy defense grew weaker and all boats returned to the Base.
In the days after, we began our barricade with all available vessels of the Task Group "Sea Tiger" and surrounded the Cam Thanh Island to isolate it until the Quang Nam District launched their "sweep, search and destroy" operation with two Regional battalions along with Naval gunfire support. The Army landed and moved further inland without minor injuries and successfully completed their mission the first week of June 1969.
I still remember another event that happened on a warm summer afternoon. On that day, Lt. Commander Holland and I were reviewing a report from the sensor team. They were failing to receive signals from the electronic devices that they had planted two months before. We were interrupted when the operation officer of the 14th Coastal Group came in and reported that Lt. Commander Hai needed assistance and that he was waiting on the PRC-25. We rushed down to the base's operation center and spoke to Hai via radio. We were told that his boats were facing strong enemy attack and the Chu Luc junk boats were running aground when navigating and returning enemy fire. We told Lt. Commander Hai that we would be there in a short time with four PBRs to assist him.
Two snipers, Holland and I ran to the pier where the PBRs were ready to depart and arrived in flank speed at the battlefield about 15 minutes later. The South Korean Marines were engaged in combat with enemy ground troops on the other side of the riverbank. Rounds of mortars fell around the Chu Luc junk boats as Lt. Commander Hai passed the towing line from his Ferrous-Cement boat to pull the grounded Chu Luc junk out of the shallow water. Four PBRs started shooting their twin 50-caliber machine guns that were mounted at the bow to cover Hai's boats. The sounds of gunfire, "tac tac tac," and mortars exploding, "boom boom boom," disturbed the long-necked cranes that were walking on their skinny legs, searching for food. They hurried to whisk out of the reed-covered field and flew away under the summer sun.
After about 20 minutes, the Viet Cong withdrew, leaving behind the bodies of their fallen comrades, which floated among the watercress on the surface of the muddy water.
On the night ambushes with the crew of PBR of the 60th River Patrol Group and PCF of the First Coastal Patrol Maritime Group, I acknowledged the effectiveness of these vessels. With our new plan and by using the speed as well as the powerful, superior gunfire of these boats, the Task Group "Sea Tiger" had stopped the enemy's bombardment activities from first week of June to the last week of September. The young and skillful officers of the Republic of Vietnam Navy, skippers of the Patrol Craft Fast (PCF) or Swift boats, had led me to believe that our Navy was in good hands. For example, Lieutenant Junior Grade Trinh Thieu Sinh, a talented and courageous combat skipper, very handsome with his Clark Gable mustache, had gained the admiration of his peers with his leadership and career knowledge.
There were many nights when I accompanied them on mission, uncomfortable in the small flak jacket and helmet, holding my personal M18 rifle. I had time to share my experiences and my viewpoints of this war with the young skippers, the new graduates from our dear Academy in Nhatrang, and to also carefully listen to them talking about their future plans and their devotion to defend our Motherland. Hearing them talk would have made the founder of the Republic of Vietnam Navy, Lord Tran Hung Dao, very proud of his followers.
During the 2nd week of August, Lt. Commander Holland and I continued to receive reports from the sensor team that they had problems gathering signals from their planted electronic devices. The sensors were either damaged or running out of batteries and needed to be replaced. I met with Colonel Le Tri Tin to inform him of the situation and let him know that we would launch an operation in which I would personally command 7 vessels, one platoon assault team of the Coastal Group and a sensor team with new equipment. In order to protect our troops, I requested that Col. Tin keep this information confidential and only prepare a plan for artillery support in case we came under heavy Viet Cong attack. I also reported to him that Lt. Commander Holland had been approved by US Headquarters in Danang to provide 2 F-4 Phantom jets and a reconnaissance aircraft for air support of the operation.
Very early on the appointed morning, 4 PBR gunboats, one PCF Swift boat and 4 Yabuta junk boats got underway from the pier of Coastal Group, traveling upstream of the Thu Bon River. We decided to use the Dap Lo passage to avoid being detected by enemy intelligence around Hoi An City. The sun was still under the horizon when we left our base, the North Star was bright and a crescent moon was hanging in the dark blue sky above the convoy of gunboats. At about 0600 hours, when the sun started rising from the east and the first light began creeping over the water, we heard the sound of the reconnaissance aircraft above us. Lt. Commander Holland communicated with the pilot to update the situation and to coordinate the operation plan. He let me know that two F-4 Phantom jets were on standby on the runway in Danang's airbase and were ready for take-off when requested by us. I felt more comfortable having such air support for a dangerous operation like this one. We were entering the untouchable secret zone of the Viet Cong in Quang Nam District, a place that had never before been under attack by the South Vietnamese troops, neither by the Army ground forces nor the Navy units throughout the Thu Bon River.
We passed check point "Alpha," the furthest that the Swift boat might navigate, so I ordered Lieutenant Junior Grade Hoa, Skipper of the PCF to anchor in middle of the river and to be ready to provide gunfire support with his 81mm mortar and 12.7 mm machine guns when we retreated. His gunboat also maintained communications with the Operation Centers in Quang Nam Province and Navy Headquarters in Danang during the operation. General Quarter condition was set from that time on; all gunboats were ready in combat situation in the column formation or "Formation India," steaming toward the river of death. From the cliffs on both sides of the river, tall trees overhung with shadows reflecting on the calm surface and covered the hilly edges above; there were no birds flying, no sound except the noisy engines of the gunboats. This place would be an ideal position to set up ambush site to attack the gunboats below.
The Thu Bon River made a left turn as it neared the mountain. The sounds of the PBRs engines were heard echoing from the dirt and rocky cliffs. These gunboats could run as fast as 25 knots when engaging the enemy, with its twin 50 caliber machine gun at the bow and a single in the aft, these mighty river boats were very effective in riverine combat. We passed the area where two of Lt. Commander Holland's PBRs were sunk by explosives prior to my command of the Task Group "Sea Tiger." The reconnaissance aircraft followed the convoy from overhead and continued to relay information to Lt. Commander Holland through the PRC-25. With my previous experiences from the period when I was Captain of a PTF boat, I was pretty sure that the enemy would attack our boats after we completed our mission and were on the way back to our base. They thought that because we were tired after a long and stressful voyage, perhaps we would not be in combat readiness and slow to react to the attack and would make it easy for them to destroy our boats. I shared my expectation with Lt. Commander Hai and Holland and they both agreed that we should pay attention, be ready and cautious and have a good plan when we returned to this curving, hilly site.
The Yabuta junk boats, equipped with a 60mm mortar and 50-caliber machine guns, also transported a platoon of experienced sailors who, with their individual weapons, would be more than capable of defending themselves against enemy forces.
The Navy convoy continued toward its target as the summer sun almost reached its zenith and the wind blew from behind, from direction of the city that we just left this morning. I was imagining the unexpected events that might happen anytime from this point on. Lt. Commander Holland kept himself busy talking with the Marine pilot, standing to my right aboard the Command and Control gunboat.
Lt. Commander Hai reported that we had reached the landing beach and requested permission for two Yabuta to debark the reconnaissance platoon immediately to protect the sensor team. I granted permission and ordered the PBRs to drift north and south, along the landing site to provide cover. I observed their progress through my binoculars while giving instructions to my units to execute my orders. Four members of the sensor team rushed into the greenery of the jungle about 100 meters from the landing at the riverbank, at the edge of a dirt trail wound along the Thu Bon River. According to the intelligent reports that we received from the First Coastal Zone in Danang, this would be the main trail used by the Viet Cong's troops between their bases,
The sensor team planted their new and upgraded electronic devices along the trail and finished in very short time. I was pleased with the progress of the mission, but uncertain about the return trip home through the winding river with its high cliffs on both sides. Those curving turns were perfect for a Viet Cong ambush, with their B-40 rocket launchers ready to destroy the convoy.
The landing teams re-embarked the vessels when I was talking with the two combat-experienced Lt. Commanders and laid out our retreat plan. I wanted to send two PBRs up front and with the recommendation of Lt. Commander Hai, who had experience in combat in this area, two Yabuta junk boats would follow, then two other PBR gunboats would cover the rear of the convoy.
Lt. Commander Hai also requested my permission to shoot at the suspected sites on both sides of the river. I agreed with the plan and we began to pull out. The convoy moved downstream toward Hoi An City while Lt. Commander Holland radioed the aircraft flying overhead and alerted the two Phantom jets in Danang to be ready for take-off. I called to LTJG. Hoa, skipper of the PCF, to retract the anchor and be ready to support us.
Once again, the convoy was in "India" formation and traveled full speed to the south-southeast. The distance between the gunboats was about 75 meters. The Yabuta's speed was slower than the PBR's and light black smoke came from the boat engines and flowed with the wind in that afternoon in the last days of the summer of 1969. When we reached the portion of the river that was flanked by the high cliffs, the atmosphere was so tense, I felt like I was running into the "Valley of Death," like in the Western movie filmed in the desert mountains of Arizona that I had seen in Danang long ago.
The sunrays penetrated the branches of pine trees on the hills that shadowed the gunboats below. The voice of Lt. Commander Hai brought my thoughts back to the present, "Hai Au, this is Kinh Ngu. I began to release battery at starboard, 2 o'clock high, hill direction. Over."
I acknowledged his report, "Kinh Ngu, this is Hai Au. Roger, start shooting, all units. Out." Then I ordered the skipper of the Command and Control PBR in the second position to also begin shooting. The sounds of gunfire from six gunboats broke the silence of jungle in a remote and isolate area, the gun smoke and the smell of gunpowder put everybody in the mood of combat. Birds from the trees were scared and flew in all directions. Dirt, wood and broken branches scattered all over, flying in the air when bullets hit the unknown targets. There was no reaction from the enemy, and worried me greatly and I called for the soldiers to cease firing. We were almost to the area where the two US Navy PBRs were destroyed before.
I radioed to all gunboats to remind them of the dangerous turn that we were going to pass. Everybody had to be alert and careful, ready to return fire and maintaining position while engaging the Viet Cong. I believed that our plan would succeed and with the combat experience of Lt. Commander Hai, if we came under enemy attack, his troops would be able and capable of overcoming the Communists.
From our starboard side, in front of the bow, the Thu Bon River curved to the right with the dreaded cliffs on both sides. The trees and bushes that would provide such perfect cover ran for almost 2 kilometers along the site of the destroyed PBRs. I radioed ahead and ordered the two Yabutas to shoot 4 rounds of 60mm mortar toward the cliffs. After the sound of firing there were explosions and dirt flew into the air.
Two months after the mission, I received an order from the First Coastal Zone to assume the command of Danang Naval Base and Lt. Commander Phan Tu Hai became the CO of the Task Group "Sea Tiger". The change of command between two high school classmates was witnessed by our counterpart, Lt. Commander Holland, who stayed with Hai for another month before returning to Danang and back to the United States for a new assignment. Lt. Commander Hai, my dear comrade-at-arms, continued to fight as a good warrior to stop the aggression of Communists in Quang Nam Province, to protect citizens and to provide security and safety in the vital waterways surround Hoi An City, FaiFo river mouth.
On a stormy afternoon during the last days of autumn, a lightning drew tracks in the dark sky. I sat in the passenger seat on my military jeep, my luggage consisting of a small bag of personal belongings, my helmet and my M-18 rifle. For the last time, I looked back at Hoi An City, smaller than my hometown of Hue, where I had spent the last six months fighting and surviving beside my friends and my soldiers. I realized that although I might never return to this place, the memory of this watery battle zone would never fade from my mind.
I would not be able to forget the night ambushes when life and death were so close. I would remember the rainy evenings sitting next to Hai in a well-known coffee hut. Two classmates, two sailors enjoying the taste of well-prepared cups of French coffee, Hai closing his eyes and inhaling smoke from his cigarette, then holding the guitar on his right arm, playing a tune with his left hand. His voice rose and fell with the melody, " Mua Thu Chet - The Dead Autumn," his favorite song that broke the hearts of many girls. Outside, the rain continued to wet the skirts of ao dai, worn by the beautiful dark skinned young schoolgirls who were pushing hard on the pedals of their bicycles.
I remembered the party thrown by our Army friend at his "Vong Nguyet Lau- Moon Observatory Palace," as the rooftop veranda was named by Hai. We enjoyed our camaraderie and comrade-at arms by sipping cognac and talking, debating about different topics in life, of the war and of course about our commitment to fight for freedom, for democracy and for our beloved Motherland. At that time, Hai and I forgot everything, including the worries in life, the dangers of the battlefield, everything but the sweetness of the cognac and the friendship of young soldiers who had given their lives to the ideal of patriotism. That ideal, the one we risked our lives for, was to protect the yellow flag with three red horizontal stripes across its middle, the National flag of the Republic of Vietnam. This was the flag that Hai and I had used many times to sadly cover the coffins of our fallen comrades-at-arms who had just died and lay forever in the warm arms of the Mother Vietnam.
Updated Virginia, Summer 2016