The Ambush of PCF-101
March 19, 1969
Narratives by Sonny Barber and Gary Peterson

Music by John Denver©

An Evening on the Cua Dai

I have never recounted this in as much detail before
It sometimes made my heart race as I tried to recall the events.
An even more exciting story would be from those on the 101 and 58
plus those other boats and crews that came to help that night
---- Sonny Barber

{See the next narrative box below for the view from the PCF-101 fantail as experienced by Gary Peterson}

My memory has faded over the years, but it is difficult to forget the events of March 19, 1969 in what became known as "Ambush Alley" on the Cua Dai river complex south of Da Nang. For fifteen hours, Lt Bob Andretta, QM2 Bill Pfeffer and I were MIA's and, at several points during those anxiety-filled hours, I wasn't sure that we would not become KIA's. This is my recollection of that evening and long night. But there are other parts of this story as well to be told that I did not witness.

The other parts of the story contain the real heroes - crew members such as Ron Wood and the others on the 101 and the 58 who saved the 101 from sinking, returned fire and helped rescue the injured. Other crews were also heroes as they were called in to join the fray, risking their lives to lay down fire for many hours that night, either hoping that we were still alive or avenging our possible deaths.

It was mid-March 1969 that my crew was selected to be the first to do a three day stint on the Cua Dai River. The tactic was used to stagger the boat patrol schedule so that there was always a fresh crew patrolling with one that had been there for a day or so.

PCF 58 with OinC Lt Jim Weinandy and crew entered the river, relieved another crew and set up a patrol schedule with my boat, PCF 101. We had already been on the river for a day or two.

The Swifts on the Cua Dai relied initially on Coastal Group 14, located near the mouth of the river, as a base of operations. We wanted to be careful to avoid being caught up river when the tide ran out to sea.

In the late afternoon of March 19, after a run to Hoi An City, the 58 boat, followed by the 101, headed down river toward the Coastal Group. Not far from the shallow intersection of the two Cua Dai tributaries, the 58 boat spotted a fishing net partially across the river and stopped to retrieve it. Lt Weinandy told me to go ahead, so we pushed on with the 58 now following.

On board the 101 were several Vietnamese personnel and Lt Bob Andretta from Coastal Group 14. Recognizing a shallow area of the river, I indicated to Bill Pfeffer at the helm to slow up. He pulled back on the Morse controls and let the engines idle as our wake began to lift and carry us across a sand bar. From this point, we would have turned to the east directly toward the Coastal Group 14 base location.

The 101 at first dragged bottom and then drifted free. Bill quickly pushed the controls to full throttle and prepared to make the turn to the east. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash and heard an explosion. Standing to the left of the helmsman's chair, I felt a blast of heat coming from the main cabin to my rear. I turned to look back down into the cabin and saw flames and smoke belching past me. Ron Wood, located in the peak tank ahead of the pilot house, opened up first with his M-60 machine gun. Then the twin fifties above me began their loud chugging beat followed by the two M-60's on either side of the fantail.

As acrid smoke filled the pilot house, I yelled at Bill to get us out of there … FAST! Bill turned the wheel to port. But nothing happened! We were heading straight for the far bank and the enemy who were manning a 75mm recoilless rifle that had just pumped its first round into the amidships of the 101. Bill pulled back on the throttles and they also would not respond. My eyes were burning from staring into the blast in the instant after the large shell had hit the cabin. I later realized that the heat and flames had seared the hair off of my eyebrows, arms and the front of my head.

Both pilot house doors were closed and smoke filled the space. It was difficult to see and breathe. The 101 was now at flank speed, with no one steering and heading for the south bank of the main channel - right into the fire from a large caliber weapon.

Only seconds had passed since the first hit. Bill and I moved toward the starboard hatch and opened it. We had to get away from the heat and smoke coming from the main cabin. As we looked out the door and aft, flames and smoke were coming from a large hole on that side. Black smoke engulfed us as we stuck our heads out the hatch trying to get air. Then moments later, a second round hit the boat. The concussion inside the boat was like a giant hand pushing at both of us. I fell against Bill, who was holding open the hatch, and we both tumbled over the side into the river. The water at that location was about four to five feet deep.

When I stood up and wiped the mud and brown water from my face, I observed the 101 still moving toward the far bank. Someone was now standing at the after helm turning the boat to port. I later found out it was Ron Wood, who had rushed aft from his position in the bow. Bob Andretta was also knocked off the port side when the second round hit. He had been standing on the catwalk that ran alongside the outside of the cabin area.

The 58 boat raced past us so closely that we could almost touch the hull. We were yelling and screaming, but they did not notice us. They were focused on the immediate task of returning fire and attempting to come to the aid of the 101 boat that was now streaming large amounts of smoke from her starboard side.

(Ron managed to get the 101 down river about a half mile and beached before it sank completely in the middle of the channel. Other Swifts came into the river and helped with the salvage operations. The 101 was re-floated and moved to the Coastal Group base. It was during the offloading and evacuation of the injured (BM2 Pete Peterson and some of the Vietnamese Navy personnel) that it was discovered that the three of us were missing. The search and rescue operations, along with the salvage efforts, ended about 0300 that morning. The March 1969 USNAVFORV summary says that a round hit the engine compartment. This is inaccurate. Both rounds went into the main cabin, as evidenced by the massive damage seen in the after action photographs of the boat. The 101 had sufficient engine power such that Ron Wood was able to jerk the throttles from flank speed ahead to full back in one quick move and take back control of the boat. The cables and connections to the pilot house helm and throttle levers were severed by the first round that hit below the waterline in the main cabin area.)

The three of us just stood there, with water up to our chest, watching the silhouettes of the two Swifts shrinking away into the dimming light of the fast approaching dusk. With the boats gone, the enemy gunners began to focus on US! My eyes were still burning from the smoke and my vision was a little blurred. I felt a sting on the left side of my head and I don't know to this day if it was a bullet graze or a scratch from something in the river when I went in head first. But my hand came away bloody when I wiped my head. Bill Pfeffer had a deep cut on his broken left finger. This caused swelling later that evening around his wedding band.

The shooting continued. We were like targets in an arcade: No where to run or hide. And our only weapon was a K-bar knife that Bill had strapped on. Neither Bob, Bill nor I carried a sidearm. A mistake that we did not make again when on river patrol.

We just had to get away from the hostile fire. I am not sure how Bob and Bill managed to move back toward the near bank, on the opposite side of the river from the ambush. But I dived down and pulled myself along using the roots of the trees and plants exposed on the bottom. I would come up frequently and get a gasp of air. The shots would begin again with splashes all around us.

We finally made it around the bend of an island out of site of the fire. We huddled there for a while, the three of us wondering what we were going to do. One thing was sure. We needed to put some more distance between us and that enemy gun crew. Another island was just twenty or thirty yards away across a channel that appeared to be six to eight feet deep. I was exhausted from the last swim along the river bottom. I was contemplating how I was going to cross the channel when I sensed a pain in my left arm. It was then that I noticed a half-dollar sized hole from the area of the pain. Blood was dripping down mixed with muddy river water.

I cannot remember how Bob and Bill covered the distance across the channel, but I pulled off my boots and strung them around my neck. I took off my pants and made a set of water wings just as we had been taught during the survival swim class at the Swift Training in Coronado. It worked well and I made it. Somehow, in our later movements to find a place to hide, I lost my boots and pants.

We kept low on the banks of this island as the sun set. We heard other Swifts sweeping up and down the main channel with an almost constant barrage of fire from machine guns and heavier weapons. Bob decided to go back around the side of the island facing the channel to try and get the attention of the Swifts.

Bill and I huddled on the river bank for what seemed hours, but Bob never returned. He later told us he had to hide because the VC/NVA soldiers were scouting the area, possibly looking for us. While we lay there partly on the bank and party in the water to keep a low profile, we could hear the Swifts making one run after another firing at the area where the enemy fire had first originated. At some point, an AC-47 Spooky (Puff the Magic Dragon) gunship flew around for a while spraying the area with its lights and tracer fire. Every now and then, we could see tracers flying back up at the aircraft. It was like having a front row seat at a Fourth of July fireworks display with the muzzle flashes and explosions from the Swifts and the gunship making quite a show.

I am not sure how long all this lasted, but when it did subside, Bill and I realized that Bob was not going to return. We therefore needed better cover and moved carefully along the bank until we came to a destroyed fishing bunker. It was really not much more than a deep depression in the sand. We found some vegetation and made what amounted to a blanket with several layers that provided some camouflage but no protection from the bugs or the damp night air. We lay there for some time with our feet in the water trying not to move. It was then that I discovered that I had lost my boots.

Bill and I spoke very little. But I believe we both prayed hard for some divine intervention to help us get out of the predicament we found ourselves in. We had no real ideas other than the hope that we would have a better chance of attracting some attention of friendly forces at first light.

Unfortunately, we did get some attention from our side during the darkness. This came in the form of 105 mm howitzer fire. It may have been that we were spotted moving or perhaps the place we chose to hide in had been a frequent crossing point for the VC/NVA. At any rate, we heard the thud of the howitzer and a few seconds later we saw a splash across the river from our position, a distance of maybe 75 to 100 yards. Then another thud and another splash, this time closer. A few more rounds being fired with each subsequent splash getting closer to us than the last. I cannot recall what went through my mind at the time. But it was possibly terror at the thought of being blown to bits or maybe the fact that we had cheated the enemy only to be killed by our own forces! Whoever was directing this artillery obviously had the coordinates down pat as they carefully walked the rounds across the river. I guess our praying helped because the rounds stopped as the last ones came falling only maybe 30 or 40 yards away. By that time my heart was pounding so hard I thought anyone within earshot could have heard it.

We went back to just hiding and praying. I remember whispering to each other wondering what had happened to Bob. That speculation was a chilling thought.

It seemed like many hours before dawn finally came. We knew it was then time to signal for help. There was an RF/PF (Vietnamese Regional Force/Popular Force) camp just up river from us. This was probably the source of the previous night's artillery fire. We could see the watch tower from our position. So we stood up and began to wave our arms toward it. Someone did notice us, because they immediately began shooting at us. I grabbed Bill's knife, took off my formerly white skivvies and, with my drawers on the end of the knife, waved my Fruit of the Loom surrender flag. This tactic worked and the shooting stopped.

Then we heard the sound of small engines. This turned out to be fishing boats coming down the river from Hoi An and other villages, heading out to sea for their daily task of seeking sustenance for their families. We waved at them, but none would come over to us. We found a log and floated out into the channel, hoping one of the boats would stop.

As we floated in the channel, we noticed another figure back on the bank. It was Bob. He managed to persuade one of the boat owners to pick him up, then come over and take us in also. They approached us and the two of them helped us climb into the rickety craft. We were, of course, elated to both be picked up and also to reunite with Bob. We had seriously considered it very likely that he had been killed.

I sat in the boat shivering and thanking God that I was still alive. We all said a prayer of appreciation that we had survived. I turned to the fisherman steering the boat and gave him my watch. I remember that he smiled, said something I couldn't understand and nodded his head.

Within a few moments we approached the Coastal Group base. Several Swift Boats were there side by side with their bows beached on the white sand. I looked over beyond these boats and there was the 101 lying on its side. Debris was littered all over the fantail and on other external and internal places. There was a huge hole in the side and what looked like hundreds of wooden pegs plugging the many bullet holes. Many of the plugs were just below the starboard pilot house hatch where fifteen hours before Bill and I had made our awkward departure into the river. All around the high and dry Swift were empty mortar round containers, shell casings and quite a number of 50-caliber gun barrels.

I remember several crewmembers from all the boats coming up, yelling and grabbing us. It was bedlam for a few minutes. But we were safe!

We went inside the Coastal Group compound for a while, and then Bill and I rode back to Da Nang on one of the Swifts. We received some medical attention, a shower and put on some clean clothes. Bill had to have his wedding band cut off since his finger was too swollen to otherwise remove it.

After an uncomfortable night's sleep, my now smaller crew and I were sent out on patrol the next day to relieve another boat which had gone into the Cua Dai. No rest for the weary. The 24 boat had just been hit by two recoilless rifle rounds while patrolling with the 99. Déjà vu all over again.

Ron Wood received the Silver Star for his actions that day. Pete Peterson never returned to my crew after being medevaced. Bill and I did visit him at the 95th Field Hospital however. By the end of my year long tour on Swifts, all the boats had been turned over to the Vietnamese. Only RD3 Larry Linkous and I remained from our original crew. We were the only U.S. personnel on several Vietnamese Navy crew patrols in those waning weeks of U. S. Swift Boat presence in I Corps.


Gary Peterson's Remembrances of March 19, 1969

My name is Gary Peterson, the date is December 16, 2005 and I presently live in the Imperial Valley of Southern California. But on the 19th of March 1969 I was a 22 year old BM3 assigned to CosDiv12, PCF 101 patrolling in the Cua Dai River, South Viet Nam. And even though this may not be as accurate as a sniper rifle, this is the way I remember that day.

Weather wise it was one of those perfect days. You know the ones. The sun was out, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was perfect. We were on the second 24 hours of a 48 hour patrol. The first boat to pull a two day patrol like that and we had gone up river to get some intel and passengers to bring back to Coastal Group 14. The other boat that had just arrived for it's first day was, I believe, the 58.

This is a list of personnel and their positions on that day: This is a list of personnel and their positions on that day:
Ensign R.R. Barber, OIC (aka Roof or Sonny) Pilot House
QM3 William Charles Pfeffer (aka Fife) Pilot House Helm
EN2 Ronald Lee Woods (aka Woody) forward M-60 bow gunner
RD3 Larry Gene Linkous (aka Link) aft .50 cal/ 81 mm mortar
BM3 Gary Leland Peterson (aka Pete) aft M-60 gunner

Our original Gunners Mate was a sailor by the name of Carroll E. Browning, GMG3. He went through training with us at Coronado and was with us on patrols until he was sent back to the States for medical reasons prior to 19 March. Rumor has it that he had cancer, but I never did know for sure. He would have been on the "twins" that day and it shames me to admit that I do not remember who was his replacement. But whoever it was I am sure he had the two 50 cals singing. (Maybe some one can find out who he was and where he is at or what ever became of him)

The 101 boat was in the lead as we eased down river toward Coastal Group 14 with the 58 boat behind us about one to two hundred yards. We also had passengers on board: four SVN Navy in the cabin area and three US Soldiers on the stern with Larry and I. One was a 1st LT. The main bank of the river was on our starboard side and we had islands to port. We were about to pass the islands, which would bring us to the mouth of the river and in view of Coastal Group 14, when someone on the crew noticed we had just gone over a fishing net strung across the river. As there was no fishing in that area and the net had not been there earlier when we had gone up river, we notified the 58 boat to stop and pick it up. We throttled back to a slower speed, but kept on going. We were keeping an eye on the 58 boat as she stopped, knowing that it could have been a ambush, when - and this I will swear too - I saw two bright red dots coming at us from the bank of the river. It happened so fast that I could not even react or comprehend what they were.

The next thing I became aware of was that the guns were firing and the boat was ablaze. Crazy stuff started racing through my head: "Jesus, what is going on and what has happened. Fire! Where did that come from and why are we at full throttle? What the hell is going on? Where is my 60? Got to put out out the fire. There is smoke and fire everywhere and I need to find the fire extinguisher by the steps leading into the aft cabin hatch. But all I come up with is the handle and about three inches of what is left of the bottle. Where the hell is the rest of this thing and how can we put out the fire with this?"

As my thoughts began clearing, Woody was standing there excitedly asking me questions: "Why aren't you at the aft helm?" "Where is Roof and Fifer?" "Why are we headed full throttle for the bank?" Woody grabbed the throttles and went full reverse and the 101 vibrated like crazy and started going backwards. Then he slammed them full forward and spun the wheel full left and we started hauling ass out of there. He was saying something about a sandbar and how we were going to beach her there. Christ we were on fire and smoke was everywhere as we went full out away from that bank. One thing for sure, Woody had those Graymarine 12V71's tuned up right. They never missed a beat and were running like gang busters. Got us out of trouble real quick. THANKS WOODY. You knew your SHIT.

Woody drove the 101 onto the sandbar and we started gathering up what we could before going over the side. The life raft, for whatever it was worth, went into the river and we started loading it up with the wounded SVN's. Those that could swim carried as much as possible: M-16's, bandoliers of ammo, anything else we could get our hands on. Then we abandoned the 101. The water there was only about waist deep and easy enough to walk in. But the 58 boat was standing off, not wanting to get hung on the sandbar. And the way the 101 was burning and rounds cooking off, they didn't want to get too close. The closer we got to the 58 boat the deeper the water got and some of us wound up hanging onto the life raft, because we couldn't swim with all the extra gear. I was one of those.

We got on board the 58 boat and were sitting aft of the main cabin with our backs to the life lines when someone, I don't remember who - maybe Link - looked at me and said "You're bleeding" and I looked down and said "Where?" There was blood on my right boot, my left pants leg at the thigh and my left wrist area. I didn't feel any of it, so I felt that I must be all right. Adrenaline can do wonders.

The 58 boat beached at Coastal Group 14 and we started to get off the boat. Once on shore the drama was not over. It seemed that everything was going nutty. People running around, "dust off" was coming in, and the far bank where we had just been was getting hammered from somewhere. As we made our way toward the path leading through the trip wires at Coastal Group 14, I told Link that I didn't think I could make it. The next thing I know, he picked me up and started carrying me to the helo with the red cross on it.

I again fell into a dream world: "Now I am in the helo and the thing is going up. Hey this is cool. I have never been in one of these before. Look at the ground, it's all full of big holes and rice paddies. Hey we are going down. Looks like a hospital. People are hurrying toward us. I am out of the helo and looking at the sky. People are talking, but I can't understand what they are saying. We are inside the building and headed somewhere. Where the hell is my crew and why am I here? What happened to Roof and Fife? Is the 101 going to be OK on that sandbar? What of Woody? Everything is very confusing. These stupid people are jabbering about something and (shit) they are cutting my camo's off. Don't they know how hard it is to get these things. Hey, not the boots. I don't feel any pain until they start poking a needle between my toes." That's when I woke up to what they were doing and used some good ol' fashioned sailor words on them. Guess the 95th Medevac staff had never heard a sailor swear before.

I had been at the 95th Medevac for about two days, when I received a visit from two people that I thought were dead. In came Ensign Barber and QM3 Pfeffer. I know that I wanted to cry when I saw them and my eyes are tearing as I type this. You all know the way crews were over there. We were family then. And for those of you that read this now know we always will be.

I have tried to give you the best of what I remember. It's my story and I am sticking too it! To ALL my Brothers who were in the "BROWN WATER Navy in Country:" Noth'in but LOVE for ya Baby.

Respectfully submitted this day … Gary Peterson

This web site is Copyright © 2002 by Robert B. Shirley.
All rights reserved.

Click on image to return to the homepage