The Party

The army helicopter personnel were a happy lot and adjusted to shipboard life rapidly. No friction was evident between them and the LST sailors and a general feeling of camaraderie aided in the maintenance of good morale.

During their first week aboard the ship, the young Army first lieutenant who was in charge of the helicopter unit received word that he had been promoted to Captain. This occasion required a party and plans were made for a celebration ashore, as alcoholic drinks were banned from U.S. Navy ships.

The party was to be held at the Dong Tam base near the LST anchorage, eighty miles into the Mekong area. The base was little more than an enclave surrounding a small man-made harbor dredged out of the side of the river. Supply and medical facilities were spread over several acres of land, there was a base chapel and messing facilities. Recreational facilities were sparse, but there were small clubs where officers and enlisted men could get a drink.

The Dong Tam base was in reality little more than an encampment from which the Mobile Riverine Force operated and conducted raids on the Viet Cong. While the area was officially considered secure, i.e., safe from assault, there were frequent Viet Cong mortar and rocket barrages, emanating from the surrounding wooded areas. Occasionally ships passing the nearby city of My Tho were hit in broad daylight by short intense rocket attacks. The intent was to draw fire into the city with resultant injury to innocent civilians. The patience and restraint needed by navy crews was almost inhuman, as they were fired on with little protection or defense. Returning the fire was impossible without endangering the innocent, and unproductive, as the assailants could not be seen in the jumble of structures rimming the river.

All was prepared for the promotion party and the Captain’s boat, or gig, in navy parlance, was hoisted over the ship’s side for the trip ashore. The Captain, the Chaplain and other officers boarded the boat and left the anchorage area.

From the ship’s anchorage to the Dong Tam boat docks it was only a short trip up a canal lined with whore houses, or whore huts. These tawdry shacks were “out of bounds” to all U.S. personnel, but they did a brisk business despite periodic raids by the Military Police.

The gig stemmed the river current and entered the narrow canal enroute to the party. Eager young officers craned necks and wetted lips in anticipation of their first trip ashore and first alcoholic drinks in weeks. The Captain and the Chaplain leaned against the boat’s cockpit edge discussing recent events and guessing at the future course of the war.

Suddenly a semi-nude body crashed through the straw mat walls of one of the sex shacks lining the canal. High pitched screams in Vietnamese pierced the evening air, as Military Police entered the front of the hut. The soldier crashed through the back wall of the hut, with his shoes in hand and pulling up his pants. He ran along the edge of the canal, crouching out of sight of the MP’s.

Officers in the gig roared with laughter and cheered as the leaping lover made good his escape. Meanwhile, the deserted young woman in the shack detained the military police with further screams of outrage at their ill-timed intrusion.

The Chaplain smiled as several men in the boat gazed his way expecting reproach for their “rooting on” of a now disappearing soldier. The Chaplain’s grin spoke neither of approval or dissent, but of understanding.

The gig entered a small inner harbor which served as a haven for the small boats used to patrol the river. Several other boats were arriving with officers from the other ships and with members of the Army and Navy staffs. The large attendance at the party was not a measure of the magnitude of the event or the popularity of the main celebrant, but merely it was a chance to get on land and have a drink.

The party area was a sand bagged patio adjacent to a small Quonset hut which served as an officer’s club. Green camouflage combat fatigues were prevalent with a mingling of Navy tan uniforms. Navy staff officers attached to MRF Headquarters wore green uniforms similar to the army combat dress. The tan or light khaki were worn by the LST officers.

Charcoal glowed in grills made from fifty-five gallon drum halves, cut long ways and covered with metal screens. Hamburgers and hot dogs were set aside for later. First on the agenda, for most guests, was a cold American beer shipped ten thousand miles from Milwaukee, St. Louis or Denver to quaff the thirst of dry American throats. There was hard liquor available.

The host, sporting shiny twin silver bars on each lapel of his shirt, turned from the bar to greet each arriving senior officer. He had named his party a “wetting down” in honor of Navy mates, in whose parlance promotion parties were called.

The popping of beer cans signaled that most preferred the lighter stuff for clear headedness in the event of emergency. Other hardier souls hit strong liquor with mild abandon. Drinking with restraint was safer in the event of attack.

Army and Navy staff officers asserted their feeling of superiority, by conducting conversations with guarded reference to future plans for the Force. They sought out the officers of the newly arrived LST as proper recipients of their wealth of information and advice. As one LST officer said, “Bullshit was rampant.”

Several of the staff officers gathered around the LST Captain and felt him out, unaware of the fact that he had more time and experience in the Mekong River than they had. The LST though an ocean going fleet unit temporarily assigned to the Mobile Riverine Force, had been in combat in the Mekong the year before. The LST Captain remained silent listening to the advice pouring forth. One of the staff intelligence officers took a patronizing air toward the LST Captain cautioning him in great bursts of “bullshit.” The captain’s mental note was that this intelligence officer’s title denoted his professional function and certainly did not describe a personal attribute.

The crack of an explosion rent the air, and vibrated through the party. The LST Captain winced in surprise. The intelligence officer laughed and said “Don’t worry, skipper. That’s just our own outgoing artillery.” The LST Captain turned to his right and observed another explosion tear a hole in the ground less than fifty yards away. He turned back to tell the intelligence officer that he was “full of shit.” But that expert was already gone, undistinguishable in the herd of green clad asses that were hurtling over the sand bagged walls of the patio, as all party celebrants ran to escape VC rockets.

The ship’s officers ran too, but being wholly unfamiliar with the area they were in greater confusion than the others. The LST Captain, beer can in hand, jumped the sand bag wall and headed for a protective bunker made of steel and sand bags. But the bunker was full of green clad people, many of them nurses, no room for more. Sipping beer as he ran, the Captain approached another bunker but it was full of ammunition, not a good place to hide.

There was no shelter for him. He stood in the open sipping beer and laughing at his ridiculous situation.

The mortar attacked lasted about ten minutes, but it seemed endless. When the bombardment ceased the party guests drifted back to the patio to trade stories. The mood was one of exuberance. No one was hurt or killed, no major damage. One rocket round had hit near the Chapel, but no one was in there.

Further attacks were expected, probably within several hours. The LST Captain finished his beer, then excused himself to return to his ship. In a Viet Cong attack it might be necessary to get the ship moving to evade their fire. Three of the ship’s officers asked permission to stay at the party a while longer. Against the Captain’s better judgement, he granted their request and told them to leave before nightfall when further attacks might occur.

Back aboard the Captain felt more secure. He knew what to do if the ship was attacked, an attack while ashore was something else.

Another bombardment of the base began just before night fall and the three officers received a real “Baptism of Fire” while at the party and while trying to get back to their ship.

The Captain paced the bridge worried, fearing the worst for his young officers. Darkness came and still no sign of the three drinking buddies. The skipper cursed himself for having let them stay at the party, and them for not having left earlier.

After several hours the familiar sound of a papa boat engine penetrated the darkness. It was the LCVP that had been left with the group. The boat arrived and they came aboard. The Captain greeted them saying, “ I am so damn glad to see you alive, I've forgotten to be pissed off.”

As one young officer from North Carolina stated, “There I was, on my belly in a muddy ditch crawling back to the boat, with rockets dropping around me, and I was thinking, ‘My Daddy’s sure gonna be mad at me if I get killed just going for a beer.’”

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© 2005, Alfred Dillon