Trading Movies
Vietnam 1968

                Life for those of us “River Rats” in the Mekong Delta in 1968 was a contrast in extremes.  We were bored for most of the day and night and then waiting for that one hour each night when the fireworks started.  Most of the time we were bored.  That is what happens when your job becomes a dull routine, even in a war zone. 

River Assault Flotilla One consisted of about five ships.  Sometimes a couple more.  We were a mobile floating base, able to up anchor and take us and our embarked Army troops, and their transport, anywhere in the delta area of the Mekong River. We went where the action was. After the Mekong River flows into Vietnam from Cambodia to the west it forms a delta.  Within that delta there are many rivers that eventually empty into the South China Sea.  Although the river we operated on most of the time was the Tien Giang, I am going to just refer it as the Mekong to avoid confusion. 

There was plenty of action....... at least for the Army troops who took off in their armored troop craft to sweep areas in the Delta.  They would reach their zone of operation by way of the canals and smaller streams that flowed into the Mekong River.  For those of us on the ships it was the same routine, day after day.  At night it was another story.  The Army’s fortified base at Dong Tam came under attack just about every night of the year.  Anytime we were anchored near Dong Tam, which was often, we became part of the action... in a curious way. 

Most of our ships were painted a dark green.  That is quite a contrast from the usual Navy Haze Gray.  The dark paint was so that we would not stand out against the river banks during the night and make us a target.  We were also blacked out at night so we would not alert the enemy as to our position.  When the attack on the Army base started in the early hours before dawn the ship would go to general quarters, or better know to civilians as “battle stations.”  Once at our guns and wearing helmets and flack jackets we waited to see if the enemy would notice the huge darkened target half way between them and the base they were shelling. 

Only once in the year I was aboard the ship did the enemy fire on us at night.  Because of this, even going to general quarters with flashes of exploding mortar and rocket rounds lighting up the Army base became routine to us. 

There was no recreation aboard ship to speak of.  Once a week there would be a beer party on the pontoons alongside.  Those parties weren’t much to brag about.  A few hundred men standing on a scorching steel pontoon with no shade, drinking a couple of beers that soon became warm.  When us officers weren’t standing watch at anchor, which for me was on the bridge, we were doing our daily routine jobs at our work stations, or we were in our staterooms. 

Our only real entertainment, other than an occasional poker game, was watching movies.  The enlisted men watched their movies on the mess decks, the enlisted dining area.  Officers watched movies in the wardroom, the officers dining area.  There were so many officers, Navy, and Army, that we ate in two sections.  The wardroom wasn’t big enough to hold all of us for meals.  It also wasn’t big enough to hold all of us for a movie. 

The senior officers got chairs during a movie.  Most of the junior officers had to stand in the back of the room for the whole movie.  If I was lucky, I got to sit on the trash can in the back corner.  The wardroom was air conditioned, but it wasn’t up to the task of overcoming the body heat of that many bodies, so it was always hot during a movie. 

I remember one night there was a long movie.  When it was over and the lights came on there was an extra can of film next to the projector.  We didn’t even notice the break in the story line.  It was hot enough in there as it was and the projector lamp was adding to the stifling heat.  We didn’t watch that extra reel of film.

There were usually five ships in our flotilla on the river.  Every time a supply ship came up the river we got a new batch of movies.  When we saw all our movies we would swap movies with the other ships.

 Eventually we saw all the movies.  Whenever a Navy ship showed up on the river we would always ask them if they had any movies to trade. 

Twice a day I stood anchor watch on the bridge of the ship as officer of the deck.  Standing watch with me was a signalman, a quartermaster (to keep track of our position and make sure we didn’t drag anchor), and a lookout. The officer of the deck wore a pair of eight power binoculars around his neck. 

Ship’s bridge where I stood anchor watch.  The man on the
 left is standing in between a “big eye” to his left, and the signal lamp on his right.  The same ones used in the story.

On either side of the bridge was a huge twenty power pair of “big eyes,” binoculars mounted on a swivel.  They were so powerful that at night you could count the craters on the moon with ease. 

On one day in particular, I was on watch.  We were anchored next to the base at Dong Tam.  This stretch of the river is wide, but from there towards the sea it narrows considerably and runs straight as an arrow for about five miles or so.  As I glanced downstream I saw something coming our way but too far to see with my binoculars.  I stepped over to the “big eyes” and trained them towards to the southeast. 

LST-902 LUZERNE COUNTY, just like the one in the story.
There, steaming towards us was an LST, a Landing Ship Tank.  LSTs were designed to carry tanks and other vehicles in their large cargo hold.  The ships were supposed to steam towards a landing beach, ground itself, then open huge doors in the bow and let the vehicles drive directly onto the beach.

I once heard that LSTs were disposable, that is, they were expected to only last long enough to make one combat landing like that of Normandy in 1944.  Many of them survived World War II and they made ideal cargo carriers.  Our regular supply ship was an LST like the one headed towards us. 

It was a long ways off, too far to read the number painted on her bows.  In accordance with the captain’s standing orders, I called him on the phone to notify him that a ship was in sight.  He immediately told me to ask the ship if they wanted to trade movies.

The method of communicating between ships that are within sight of each other is to use a flashing light.  This is a twelve inch light with shutters on the front so you can send messages by morse code.

I do remember that it was almost 4:00 PM, because I told the signalman, I think it was McGuire, to send the message to the ship about trading movies.  I never knew what the reply was because my relief came on deck and I went below off duty.  That was the end of that..... or so I thought.  I wasn’t to learn the “rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey would say, for some months.

Signalman McGuire using the flashing light to send a message to another ship.

A few months later, the ship was anchored many miles upstream from the Army base at Dong Tam.  One of our junior lieutenants coming back from R&R (Rest and Relaxation) in Australia or some such place, and had flown into Dong Tam only to find the ship not there.  While he was trying to arrange for a helicopter to fly him to the ship he managed to strike up a conversation with an officer who was from that LST we had asked to trade movies with some months before.  The junior lieutenant was immediately asked to have dinner aboard the ship.  She was anchored at Dong Tam.  Our officer accepted. 

When the junior lieutenant sat down to eat with the LST’s officers they were anxious to talk to him.  They told him that his ship was one “cool customer.”  The junior lieutenant was puzzled by their remark.  They went on. 

They remembered, vividly, months before when they rounded the last turn of the river many miles below Dong Tam.  All at once, they were ambushed by the enemy from both banks of the river.  They received machine gun fire and RPG rounds, rocket propelled grenades, that blew holes in the sides.  The ship went to general quarters as every man manned his battle station.  As they returned fire with the enemy on both banks of the river, and tried to steam away from the trap they had sailed into, they received a flashing light message from our ship wanting to know if they wanted to trade movies.

Tom Sparkman  August 31, 2002