Dark and Stormy Night-II

Copyright 2003.  Stew Harris.  All rights reserved.

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Abstract:  This “Evening Out” occurred sometime in February/March ’69, a few weeks after a sweep of the Batangan Peninsula (eastern Quang Ngai Province) by units of Americal.  An area bordered by the South China Sea, inland along the Song Tra Khuc about four miles and northeast perhaps six miles to the sea was cordoned off.   Any civilians who could be located were air lifted to a refugee camp in Quang Ngai.   The approximately twenty square mile territory was then pounded by fixed wing, helos and artillery for five plus days.  Ground elements were then introduced along the western and southern boundaries of the area with the intent of sweeping toward the Batangan Peninsula, hoping to corner and engage the 48/84th Main Force Battalion.  The heaviest contact was expected near a village area then known as “Pinkville.”  The village of My Lai was later to become infamous as the scene of the “My Lai Massacre.”

After ten days, the operation ended having had no significant contact.   Casualties were light, mostly due to mines.  When Americal withdrew, there were no friendly forces between Highway 1 and the sea, a distance of about eight miles.  With the exception, of course, for Coastal Group 16, a few hundred meters south of the mouth of the Song Tra Khuc.

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night….

The monsoon season had only started and it would get much worse.  That night, we had only a light and steady drizzle.  A solid overcast blocked a full moon, giving the clouds a slight luminescent glow.  There was enough light to see shapes on the river but to be seen on the banks, someone would have to move.

The Chu Luc was sluggish against the current.  The modern Grey Marine diesel rumbled easily from deep inside the ancient design, turning the shaft slowly and providing steerage way.  The soft rain muffled the sound as we moved north at less than the pace of a man walking, trying to see and not be seen.

A sailor was forward at the fifty caliber machine gun.  A second stood near me with a rifle. A third was at the tiller, adjusting our slow movement on the river.  The fourth man was at the thirty cal, just behind the helmsman.  We moved slowly and watched.  No one was supposed to be on the river.

Not anyone.

The Song Tra Khuc ran down from the mountains, across the fertile coastal plain of Quang Ngai province and into the South China Sea.  We approached the river mouth from the south on what we called a river although it was really only a large tidal lagoon.  On the north shore of the Tra Khuk was a newly created village of about 2000 miserable souls.  The village had come into being a few weeks earlier, precipitated by an Army sweep of the Batangan peninsula that forced many thousands from their homes.  Most of these displaced people had been evacuated to some nameless central refugee camp near Quang Ngai City.  But these two thousand or so had either escaped the cordon or the refugee camp and now clustered on the river bank, earning their meager keep, some by fishing and some by walking back into the interior each day to tend their farms.

The entire area was a free fire zone.

The “Rules of Engagement” that governed the war said we could shoot them all on sight.

As we joined the river, we could either turn right toward the sea or inland into the Tra Khuc and toward the new village.  In the best of times, the Chu Luc was awkward in the open ocean.   Fifty eight feet long, made of a wood so dense that a splinter torn from the side would not float and under powered, the junk had some utility on the river but would wallow in the open ocean to the point it was difficult to stand.  And, although the monsoon had not yet reached its full force, chancing the weather in a marginal craft at night was not appealing.  We turned up river toward the new village.

The fact that we were entering a free fire zone did not figure much in my planning. The Air Force rarely flew at night, the Army seemed shy in both darkness and rain. My main concern was that some anonymous Army spotter somewhere would see us and call in artillery.  A junk moving on the river at night in a free fire zone. Just the way for some trigger happy new guy to get his first medal.  They were supposed to call us before firing into the tiny grids that composed “our” AO, but you never knew for sure . . .

I could not know the politics of the people we were approaching but I felt I could make a good guess:  20% pro government, 10% hostile, and 70% who just wanted to be left alone by both sides.  It was that 10% “hostile” I was worried about. That would be some 200 folks.  One American and four Vietnamese sailors on a wooden boat were about to bring a kind of law and order to this little corner of the war.

There was no doubt that there were some bad folk among these villagers.  They had been chased out of the Cape Batangan area by Americal.  The Army had spent a week sealing the area, helicoptering out and relocating as many Vietnamese as they could muster, another week shelling their intended assault zones and then swept the area.  During each day of preparation, they pounded the ground with artillery and tactical air.  Each night, helicopters flew over at 1500 feet, spitting machine gun fire into the darkness.  At that altitude, they were safe from ground fire.  And their targets on the ground -- whatever they saw in the darkness -- where mostly safe from them.  The red tracers marked the slow progress of the gunships through the night sky as they criss crossed the intended battlefield and their gunners unloaded such ammunition as they had.  The tracers curved toward the earth and finally went out.   The 7.62mm rounds continued unseen into the darkness, landing where ever gravity dictated.

On the ground, elements of another army, widely scattered, watched where the Americans were firing and bombing.  They concluded these would be the landing zones whenever the hated helicopters came.  They marked the logical paths these troops would take from the LZs to the nearest probable objective.  Along those paths they positioned their best weapons: mines.  Some home made, some made in China, some in the Soviet Union, but all effective.  Each day, the only task of this army was to survive the steel rain.  Each night, new calculations were made as to where the Americans would land and more mines were placed. 

Night after night, day after day, artillery, air strikes and machine gunning from the sky continued.  We watched from our base a mile south and knew that, eventually, the Army would sweep the area, declare “Operation Whatever” a success, the folks in Saigon would list the area as sanitized and everyone would go away leaving us alone with the 48th VC Main Force Battalion.  They would not be good neighbors.

And it had come to pass just that way.  After five days of bombardment, the appointed hour arrived and Americal sent in helo after helo, company after company to locate the enemy.  They killed everything they could find.  And they found almost nothing.  They stepped on mines and booby traps.  They claimed more enemy killed than they suffered, but the “weapons captured” numbers made their accounting suspect. On the final day, some general flew out to congratulate some other general, the Army declared a victory and they all went home.

The 48th VC battalion remained.  They had taken casualties, lost some weapons, some supplies, but they were still there, alone now, on Batangan.  The Americans were gone.  The nearest ARVN force was the 2nd Division, ten miles to the west in Quang Ngai City.  The junk base with sixty Vietnamese sailors was two miles south.

The people of this new village on the north shore of the Song Tra Khuc were the fractional distillate of this cauldron.  They had drifted out of the immediate area of the battle as soon as the Americans left.  Others had come back from Quang Ngai, choosing not to accept the charity of the Saigon government, preferring to return to lands they had known all their lives.  Too afraid to return to their villages in the interior and without papers to move anywhere else, they clung to their new homes and hoped things would get better.

They lived in a free fire zone in a village that had not existed six weeks prior.  Many had been inside the Army ring of fire and endured it, some because they would not or could not leave their homes, some because they were the true targets of the bombardment.  These people were not happy, patriotic citizens of a free and democratic country.  They were bitter, suspicious, mistrustful.  They had lost their homes, farms, chickens, rice, friends and family.  And among these unhappy people there were true enemies.  But we had inflicted a truce of sorts for the past month.  We allowed them to camp on the southern edge of the free fire zone, create their village, fish and farm, as long as we could find no signs of hostile activity.  We regularly checked their papers, searched junks and worried a lot, but I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot them.  I had lived among these fishermen for almost a year; there had been days when I know I would have taken up arms against the American Army and its incompetent Saigon assistants.

As we closed the north bank, we had many options.  The “Rules of Engagement” would allow us shoot up the junks, sampans, and bum boats, report a hundred or two hundred enemy water craft destroyed and leave these poor people much poorer.  We could even shoot up the village.  Most people were asleep, we wouldn’t draw much in the way of return fire.  Probably kill fifty or a hundred “suspected VC.”  Or we could really raise hell by calling the Army and have them drop a few hundred artillery shells on the place.  Then we could claim killing hundreds.  We would, in fact, kill hundreds.

But my plan was much less ambitious.  We would swing in close to the beach and just be nosy.  All the boats should be out of the water.  No one should be around.  We would check it all out, break the monotony of being on the river in the rain, and return home, having made a few hundred meters of the river safe for democracy.  At least for the night.

It was not quite midnight and we were soaked.  The helmets dripped on our noses.  We tried to creep up into them, not to be safe but to keep our ears and neck and shoulders out of the rain.  It did not work.  Tropical or not, the rain was cold.  I used hand signals to direct Ha Shi Kim to swing in close to the shore, toward a small beach used by the fishermen to draw their boats out of the river at night.  Most were so flimsily that they would have sunk if left in the water for 24 hours.  These were very poor people in a very poor country.  I intended to go in close to inspect the area.  There should be no one about, certainly no one on the water.  If there was someone, we would have to make more choices.

As we closed the beach, there was no talking.  That was partly because none of the Vietnamese spoke English and my Vietnamese was weak.  But the main reason was that we all knew what we had to do and what was going to happen next.  Very few instructions were required.  And part of what had to happen was to listen and watch for anything.  Any sound where there should be none.  A movement where there should be no movement.  A sudden flash in the darkness.  Ten eyes and ten ears were searching.

Ha Shi Kim had his bearings correct.  He chose the correct moment to turn the junk in toward the beach from mid river.  The fishing village was to our right, not clearly visible in the darkness, but we could smell it.  Smoke floated through the gentle rain, betraying cooking fires but no light could be seen.  We crept in as best as we could in our slow, heavy junk with its diesel engine.  But the river and rain covered some of our sound and by coming directly into the beaching area, no one nearby could see us approach.  Only someone in the area of the junks on the beach could have seen us.  And, in the murk of the night, they would not see us until we were very close.  Besides, there was supposed to be no one there.

At about three knots, it was hard to characterize our turn toward the beach as running in, but that was what we were doing.  I walked forward to stand behind the man at the fifty.  We both peered into the darkness, barely able to tell the difference between the black river and the slightly blacker shore line.  He moved his arm from right to left to show that he could see a difference.  I saw nothing but nodded that I understood.  He checked the belt in the fifty to make sure the ammunition would flow freely.  There was no need to chamber a round; that had been done.

I looked back to make sure everyone was alert.The man aft on the thirty was crouched behind the weapon but looking forward.  Ha Shi Kim was peering over the deck house, trying to make out the approaching shore.  The sailor amidships still stood with his carbine at the ready, not sure what to do.  I returned to the bow and looked again toward the shore.

And, suddenly there it was coming out of the darkness.  First just a change in texture from solid black to spots that were darker.  Nothing in the center of the eye, always a shape in the corner or off to the side.  Our fifty eight foot boat was barely more than a hundred feet from shore.  I signaled Ha Shi Kim to make a turn, pointing to the left.  The junk made no turn.  The gunner joined me in waving to Kim, both of us afraid to cry out for his attention.

Finally, Kim saw our wild gestures and the junk began to swing to port.  Had this been a real ship in a real navy, the command would have been, “Stand by, surface action starboard.”  But this was a Vietnamese junk on a river in a rain storm.  Both the fifty and the thirty trained out to starboard without the need of a command.  For no good reason, I crouched down and cradled my rifle across my knees.

By now we were within twenty feet of the beach, closer than I had intended, and parallel to it.  The water could not have been three feet deep.  Ha Shi Kim slowed the engine and the inertia of the Chu Luk carried us.  The basket boats and sampans drawn up were clear.  Slowly we eased past them as I looked to make sure there was nothing obviously amiss.  No one there.  No movement.  No suspicious supplies piled about.

And, then I saw the first one.  It was just about the same time he saw us.  He had been crouching, working on something.  He stood bolt upright, paused and dashed toward one of the sampans perhaps ten feet from him.  And twenty feet from us.  He must have called to a companion, for a second shadow appeared, also paused to look at us and then dove toward the same sampan.  The first man pulled something out of the boat and crouched with it in his arms.  I couldn’t see clearly, but it was long and slender and he cradled it across his knees.  With his right hand, he was trying to chamber a round.  It was an AK-47.

Why I didn’t yell, I do not know.  In a loud stage whisper, as if I was afraid to startle our new acquaintances on the beach, I said, “Ban dau!  Ban dau!”  Literally, I was saying, “Shoot here!  Shoot here!”  Fortunately, my sailors knew the difference between here and there.

The fifty erupted immediately.  The first rounds were high and the AK-47 did fire, but its sound was lost in the roar of the heavy machine gun.  The thirty back aft joined quickly and the tracers from the two machine guns met at the small sampan.  And it exploded.  The white yellow flash lit the scene and the sharp crack covered the sound of hundreds of pieces of shrapnel reaching out in all directions.  The second man disappeared in the blast.  The first jerked back as the fifty hit him and then the thirty raked his lifeless body.  “Het roi!  Het roi!” I yelled.  Done already.  I turned to Kim and he knew that was his signal to get out of there.  He gunned the diesel.  The Chu Luk shuddered and began to accelerate.  At six or seven knots, we turned back toward the main channel.

We paused when we reached the middle of the river to look back.  The fire on the beach was lighting the entire area.  Whatever had exploded was being dramatically consumed.  But no one was at the scene.  In a village of 2,000, not a soul came to investigate the shooting.  There was no need.  They knew what had happened.  For most, they had survived another encounter with the war and were none the worse for it.  For some, one taxing authority had killed some rival tax collectors.  To a very few, two comrades were lost and must be avenged.

We headed back to the base and out of the rain.

The whole incident had lasted only seconds.  No one was on the river.

Not anyone


Administrator’s Note:

Stew appended the following in response to my questions on the above story, and you may find his answers as interesting as I did.

You asked why there was only one US sailor on the patrol. With a four man team, we were a little short handed at best. Since everybody rated three days a month in Da Nang, we were quite often a three-man team and I was adamant that we would maintain a 24/7 radio watch. I made a rule that gringos could go out by themselves on the boats, but land ops required at least two. The theory was that there then would be at least someone to drag you back. I violated this rule a couple of times by going out by myself, but never allowed anyone else to do it. Frankly, most nights on the boats were a lot like a night off.  On balance, we rarely went out-operationally-in the daytime and going out on the junks was not that common.  Nighttime ambushes along approaches to the base and the village were the most “normal” projects. Your US Navy at work! Huh?” Some time I’ll tell you about Major Green, battalion advisor to the ARVN. He called us his “Navy LRP Team.” ... I kinda liked that.

You also asked about air cover for our river patrol. Never had it. Never heard of air support in Quang Ngai Province after dark, except for organic elements of Americal.  Never.  And this was a a time when there were 540,000 Americans in country. Being ‘supported’ by ARVN 2nd Division was a lot like not getting any support at all. Once we had a full battalion of the enemy in the open (right outside our wire) at five in the afternoon. Got air support a little after ten the next morning.

As an aside, the first day of Americal’s troop insertion, we (Coastal Group 16) were tasked with blocking the river (not much of problem, a junk with a 30 cal could keep stragglers from crossing, anymore and we’d have a problem) AND joining USN elements with blockading the coastline around Batangan. I wanted to see “my” Navy, so I rode the lead junk going out in the early morning. Imagine my surprise when a brand new Navy patrol boat showed up, drew down on me with his three inch and then had the good graces to call me on the radio and request permission to engage an ‘armed junk’closing him.  Permission denied.  Thank God he had the OpOrder and the right call signs.

But good ‘ol Americal did not even bother to ask.  We got two ranging shots from 175s before we got that shut off.  Didn’t know you could pile water that high.

“Just another day at the office.”

Copyright 2003.  Stew Harris.  All rights reserved.
No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in
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