As the ship entered the lake at Vinh Long a pall of smoke hung over the city. Fierce fighting had torn the place apart. All the cities of the Mekong Delta had been under siege for several days. The Viet Cong were on a rampage. Earlier in the day we had seen the smoke of five burning cities.

We anchored the ship for the night in the wide lake at Vinh Long, a safer place than the narrow river which was very dangerous during the night.

“Small boat to starboard, sir,” the lookout’s report turned our eyes towards a small boat approaching from the city. Two Americans stood waving and requesting to come aboard. A Viet Namese man in the boat’s stern nervously guided the boat alongside. A ladder was lowered to receive the visitors.

The first to come aboard was a short, broad-built middle aged civilian, followed by a tall, thin U.S. Navy lieutenant junior grade in his twenties. On reaching the main deck they were met by the ship’s executive officer, who conducted them to the ward room where the Captain greeted them.

After an exchange of greetings the Captain and the two visitors settled down with cups of coffee.

“I’m Grogan, USAID man at Vinh Long. This is Lieutenant Burch*, head of the Navy Detachment”, said the civilian.

“We’re sure glad to see you.” Said the LTJG . “We were afraid you weren’t going to stop, Captain,” said the lieutenant. Who looked tired but excited.

“We’ll stay anchored here overnight and head up river in the morning. What happened here? The city looks pretty beat up,” replied the Captain.

“Just a little Viet Cong action,” replied the civilian.

The Lieutenant stirred excitedly. “Little! Christ, I thought it was all over. Last night it was like the movies. We were surrounded, down to our last ammunition, I thought we were finished. Then a company of army troops got through to help us. The VC bugged out. But it was close.”

Grogan sat quietly, allowing the excited Burch tell of their narrow escape from death or capture at the hands of the Viet Cong. The city had held out for several days against continuous attack. A few beleaguered Americans and Viet Namese had defended the city until relieved by Army troops.

When Grogan saw the Captain was sufficiently impressed if not awed by their story he made his move.

“The city is in bad shape, Captain. We’re short of food, but we can make it. Our big problem is water. The water purification system has been destroyed. The people are getting sick from drinking river water. We need hoses, pumps and valves to set up a pure water system. I’m ex-Navy and I know the kind of Navy equipment that will work. That is if you can let us have it.”

The Captain recognized Grogan as the kind of old timer who was used to rigging up working systems out of unlikely parts. Grogan didn’t fit the mold of those in his type of job. The men of the aid agencies, like USAID and the Peace Corps, were usually pale despite Viet Nam’s abundant sunshine, thin, despite adequate food. They were nervous, ascetic looking, young men surprised and disappointed to be engulfed in a war. Grogan, was short, swarthy, tanned and smiled easily. He was in his late forties and seemed at peace with all. The harrowing action of the past few days had left him calm and unruffled.

Grogan continued his pitch, “I know that most of the gear we need is required to be held tightly accountable, but we’d get it back to you when we get our own system repaired. Here’s a list of what we need.”

The Captain scanned the list of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Regulations prohibited loaning or giving away such material.

Grogan was an expert CUMSHAW artist, Navy parlance for a type of con-man. The Captain recognized that he had been had. How could he refuse people in such a mess?

An ex-Navy man, Grogan had been in submarines during the World War II. He learned the art of CUMSHAW, which is the extra-legal acquisition of needed supplies or equipment without red tape and outside of regulations. CUMSHAW artists, by begging, borrowing, bartering, bribing or burglarizing, are the unofficial suppliers of their ships. They provide supplies and equipment by circumventing the system. Every good ship has at least one. If there are two on board, the competition between them provides a cornucopia of needed and even unneeded supplies. The needed material is used immediately, sometimes to cover up its illicit procurement. The unneeded is stored for future transactions to be conducted with CUMSHAW artists of other ships.

Grogan left the ship with all that he had asked for, plus a boat load of other supplies.

We later heard that the people of Vinh Long had good water again. Grogan had succeeded.

Weeks later the ship stopped again at Vinh Long. Lieutenant Burch came to the ship alone.

Grogan was dead, killed by the Viet Cong.

*Fictional names

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© 2005, Alfred Dillon