for those of us “River Rats” in the Mekong Delta in 1968 was a contrast
extremes. We were bored for most of the
day and night and then waiting for that one hour each night when the
started. Most of the time we were
bored. That is what happens when your
job becomes a dull routine, even in a war zone.
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
to civilians as “battle stations.” Once
at our guns and wearing helmets and flack jackets we waited to see if
would notice the huge darkened target half way between them and the
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
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,
couple of beers that soon became warm. When
us officers weren’t standing watch at anchor, which for me was on the
we were doing our daily routine jobs at our work stations, or we were
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.
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
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.
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.
of the bridge was a huge twenty power pair of “big eyes,” binoculars
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
binoculars. I stepped over to the “big
eyes” and trained them towards to the southeast.
I once heard
that LSTs were disposable, that is, they were
expected to only last long enough to make one combat landing like that
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.
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
They remembered, vividly, months before when
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,
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
they received a flashing light message from our ship wanting to know if
wanted to trade movies.
Tom Sparkman August 31, 2002