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Day in the Life

The Mine Explosion

During the latter part of 1969, several boats in RivRon 15 were to move in to the Song Ong Doc river near the southern tip of the delta. Some were to be transported by LSD to the area and four others (mine included) were to transit the distance by river. One Alpha, a Monitor, a Tango and a CCB made the trip (I can't recall exactly, but I think it was several days). It was slow going because several of the canals were uncharted. We were stuck aground on a couple of occasions at low tide but were fortunate not to have been attacked. We were definitely afraid of the area to which we were going because one Alpha, A-132-3, which had been previously mined, was displayed at the base at Dong Tam. The hull was bent and beyond repair and it was a constant reminder of what a mine can do. Maybe that's why they just didn't salvage and sink her.  Here's what she looked like:

mined alpha.jpg (33719 bytes)

A-132-3 mined on the Song Cai Tu river May 1, 1969 while leading a column of boats immediately behind two Alphas minesweeping, A-132-1 on the port bank and A-132-4 on the starboard bank.  Information courtesy of Keith Phillips (A-132-1).  Photo courtesy of ????.

When we arrived and rendezvoused with the other boats off shore of a Vietnamese Marine Base along the Song Ong Doc we began operations (See this map of the Ong Doc area). It was definitely different down here and you could tell that Charlie was in control and it was much easier for them to transport larger ammo (mines and mortars) than up north toward Saigon. When we would transit a village anywhere else the kids would line the river banks with a hand out. Here the village would be deserted. That was definitely a bad sign.  From a personal perspective it was terrible.  In the north you knew where safe spots were and seldom had to keep that hot flak jacket and helmet on.  Down here you wore it everywhere while under way.   And this place was mosquito heaven!  We drenched ourselves in that smelly, oily repellent and it didn't do anything but add to our own misery.  Around dusk on one particularly hot and humid afternoon, I can remember having to close the lid on my gun mount (we never closed them) and going to war with a million of those little critters.  I thought the heat would kill me.

Another Alpha and our boat went on night ambush when we arrived. In the rivers up nearer to Saigon, Charlie transported ammo, rice and medical supplies usually via a two-man sampan. Covering the sampan with nipa palm and staying very close to the banks they would row silently along to their destination.  Occasionally, PBR's or Alphas would position themselves (staggered) along either bank and if someone came into view in the starlight scope, we'd pop a flare, say lai dai (sorry if I don't have that "come here" spelled correctly), and then open fire if they did not immediately surrender. Because it was relatively easy for Charlie to turn over the sampan and drift by us with the current, it was sometimes easy for him to escape.  So the technique was speeded up so that the whole procedure took about two seconds to open fire.  Hey, anybody on the river at night was considered the enemy.  Night ambush was the scariest operation for us, because our boats sounded like washing machines and to tie up to the river bank in the dark and not be able to see three feet into that jungle, you just knew Charlie was going to sneak up on you and blow you away.  Every sound of a rat or some other critter walking ten feet away would make you freeze. After the first two hours if you hadn't been encountered you had the upper hand.  Down in the canals off the Song Ong Doc, either no one had been doing night ambush or Charlie was just brazenly in control of the situation. They operated their sampans with motors on them and didn't even try to disguise them.  We wiped out eleven that first night! That was a record for us. Normally we'd be lucky to get one.

The next day we were rafted up along the bank near the Vietnamese Marine Base when we came under a heavy mortar attack. The boats quickly got under way and scattered. Rather than go back to that location, we picked up the VN Marines to insert them up one of the canals a few hours away. Before insertion, just as the Navy has down countless times, we prepped the beach with heavy fire power from all of the boats. This insertion happened to be near a village where not one person could be seen (could it be they knew we were coming?) Well, you know it just wasn't 100% American invasion, what can I say?!   Unfortunately, for the villagers, we blew the crap out of every structure, sampan, pig, chicken, or anything else we could make a target out of. Not a proud moment in my memory, but when you put fire power in the hands of a boy that's what you get sometimes. Besides, my favorite weapon was an M79 grenade launcher and when I got more to shoot at than the coconuts in the top of palm trees I was thrilled.  By this ninth month of my tour I was getting pretty good at lobbing those grenades. I can't remember whether or not it was on this insertion or another where I fired a grenade at a hooch too close to the bank and back shot at me a piece of shrapnel that hit me in the left shoulder and severed a small artery. I could remember seeing it coming at me and thought I got a secondary explosion (no one would confirm it). When I looked down at my shoulder pumping out blood in little spurts, I laughed. Why I thought it was funny looking I'll never know. A little pressure and a bandage and it stopped bleeding right away. Thanks to Jerry McIntosh, our engineman, for playing Doc.

That evening we went back to the river bank next to the base and rafted up, usually three to five boats together so we could go back and forth, play poker, trade C-rats and LRP's (long range patrol rations that were better than C-rations), etc. This was the pits down here, not only because Charlie was thick in the area, but we had no MRB to rely on for a hot meal.  The next morning, October 23, 1969, brought a much needed mail call.  We hadn't received mail for 21 days, and that meant about ten or so letters from my girl back in San Diego (we fell in love by love letter while I was over there and got married 10 days after I got back and have been married ever since). These included pictures which I carefully laid out on my rack. My rack was one of two exposed racks above the engine covers. There was a metal super-structure on the sides, but a tarp covered the area.  Most of the time I liked having an open-air bunk except that the mosquitoes were tough to keep out of the netting.

One of my favorite retreats was the canvas on top of the coxswain flat.  I could sit there and lean back against my gun mount. My boat captain, BM2 Dale Walker, was up there with me on this hot morning using the radar as an umbrella and leaning against the mast holding it up. Getting up in the air was about the only way to get cool.   Dale was a great friend we enjoyed the slightly cooler temperature perched up there on that tarp in what little shade we could find.  This day though we were deep in thoughts of home and were both writing letters to catch up.  In fact, it was pretty quiet on all the boats with everyone reading mail and writing. Suddenly, a huge explosion rocked the boat!!

After mortaring us the day before to clear us out of the area, Charlie placed a 500 lb. mine just off shore where we liked to beach the boats for the night. The mine was located right at the stern of a CCB and a Tango boat (I've recently learned from Robert Land it was C-131-1 and T-131-5) and we were tied up to the Tango boat's starboard side.  My bell was rung by the explosion and the tarp on which we were perched acted like a trampoline sending both Dale and myself up in the air and into the water. My first memory after the explosion was being underwater with Dale above me on one side and the boat pitching violently on the other, with my toes tickling the mud.  Dale hit the side of the boat coming down and broke a hip.  Fortunately, I cleared the boat with only minor lacerations from junk being blown apart by the explosion. 

It's strange what you recall in such a situation but I distinctly remember Dale moaning when I was under water and I was worried about drowning.  I pushed Dale toward the surface and tried to push myself away from the boat so that it didn't pound me into that mud.  My legs were kicking to beat hell by this point and I was never so relieved to reach the surface and that breath of air as anything before, or since, in my life.  I grabbed Dale, whom I could see was in severe pain, and pulled him toward the boat.  I think it was John McDowell and one of the Vietnamese, Nguyen Van Manh on our boat who pulled Dale aboard as I pushed. They threw me a line and I climbed aboard. Our engineman, Mac, was also injured as was one of the Vietnamese, Phan Thanh Duch.  All three of them would later be dusted off and I would never see or hear from them again.  (I have since contacted Mac, who lives in Florida, and Dale, who lives in Texas).

Assessing the situation, I decided I had to take command being the senior uninjured person still aboard. The force of the explosion had taken our boats off the beach and had severed the lines between the Tango and Monitor. The Monitor, which was sinking by the stern, managed to get an engine started I think, and ran herself hard up on the beach. The Tango boat still tied to us was sinking by the stern and her crew was boarding our boat.  Our two boats were drifting away from the bank.  We were also taking on water and getting pretty low on the port side. I looked into the after lazarette and saw the port exhaust boot had been blown off and water was flooding the compartment.  I jumped down in there and started flinging stuff out.  I was able to get the boot back on and stop the incoming water.  After climbing out I noticed the Tango boat was continuing to pull us down.  We had managed to untie the forward line but the aft line had such a strain there was only one way to get it loose.   I told our forward gunner, Dennis, to take the fire ax to the line.  Just as he was doing so it occurred to me that I should have confirmed that all of the other crew was aboard our boat. Too late! Snap went the line and the Tango immediately capsized.  Everyone started yelling for a missing crew mate (Fluentes, according to Dennis Bacon, our forward gunner).   I thought, oh great, I've given my first order as boat captain and would be responsible for killing someone.  We scanned the surface for what seemed like minutes but could have only been seconds and out from under that overturned hull came Fluentes.  I was greatly relieved to say the least. Dennis recalls that the guy told him he was looking for $400 in his footlocker when the boat capsized.  We pulled him aboard and managed to beach ourselves and began the cleanup and dusting off of wounded on the deck of an another Tango boat.

The explosion had blown off the engine covers and my rack. My new pictures of my girlfriend (now my wife of over forty years) as well as half my mail were floating in that bilge water (that oily crud never came off). The sugar shaker for my tea and my radio in my locker had disintegrated, so had my bottle of scotch.  In other words, Charlie had turned my little world upside down and I wasn't even able to shoot at him.  All I could do was shout obscenities at the other river bank where I figure he watched the whole thing with some feeling of great accomplishment.

Here is the paragraph describing the above mining incident from the monthly COMNAVFORV report:

"The enemy did inflict some damage, however, on 22 October {sic} when two RAC (Riverine Assault Craft) assigned to a joint operation at Old Song Ong Doc were mined while beached at the base camp (VR 971 023). An estimated 100 pound bomb detonated between boats CCB-1 and ATC-5 resulting in 15 wounded (none critically). T-5 sank and C-1 was beached sustaining flooding in the engine room. Three other craft in the vicinity were damaged. The incident points out the advisability of greater separation between beached RAC in order to minimize damage from mining attempts."

I sure thought it was a bigger mine than 100 pounds from the damage sustained to the boats and the height which some remember people and boats flying up in the air.  It seems there were times when command tried to minimize what was happening.  Who knows?  At least it didn't kill anyone that day.

The next day (or a few, I don't recall), we headed out of the Song Ong Doc to an LSD or Coast Guard Cutter off the coast for repairs.  When we cleared the mouth of that river some distance off the coast, I swear the water went from it's cruddy brown color to crystal clear blue/green in the distance of one foot.  It was the most amazing transition I had ever seen. There was a kind of yellow algae in that blue water that made it so beautiful.   We were in what seemed to be 10 foot swells but they were wide apart and a light breeze meant a pretty smooth roller coaster ride.  We had not taken much spray over the bow since I was in training at Mare Island. As I was coming down out of my gun mount, I stepped as always across the top of the coxswain flat onto the super structure and from there it was just a step three feet down off the gun stop to the deck. That day, though, there was water on that gun stop and my foot slipped right off and straight to the deck. I ended up breaking one of the bones in my foot. Little did I realize when I hobbled into the Doctor on that LSD (or Cutter?), it would be the last time I'd see my boat.  Back then to Dong Tam by helicopter with a cast on my foot to finish my tour (three months) as a Shore Patrol in the Enlisted Men's club. But that's another story!

And now for the story from Pete Oakander's perspective.  Pete was a radioman on the CCB 1 which sunk by the stern after the explosion.  Pete responds to the article I wrote above which appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of the MRFA's River Currents Newsletter.  Pete writes:

The article in the winter edition of River Currents had the article titled “The Mine Explosion.” Boy, did it bring back memories that I had long since forgotten–like the mosquitoes, the heat and humidity, and the action that those of us there encountered with Charlie. In addition to what was already covered in the original article, here is what I remember.  

I was on the CCB mentioned–although it wasn’t CCB-152-1; it was CCB-131-1 (Webmasters note:  I've since changed the numbering of the boats in the article).  I, Pete Oakander, was the radioman onboard. The Boats was Frank Dettmers, the Gunnersmate was Jim Lierman, the Engineman was Jim Zervos, and our Coxswain was Bob Land. We had some others but their names escape me now. I do remember the long transit down canals and jungle no one had gone down before. We were not sure if we could make it. One of the events that I do remember once we got on station was running into a modified tango boat that the Seals had. They were operating down in the Song Ong Doc by themselves–mixing it up with Charlie–a ballsy bunch of guys– and how they got down there only they know. It was the first time I had ever seen a mini-gun in action. They had this three barrel mini set up in a turret amidships of their boat and gave us a real show by letting it rip. Down in the Song Ong Doc, every direction was a free-fire zone so it was just point and shoot. The other thing I will never forget is their liquor supply. I don’t remember how that subject came up but we swabs do like our booze and the selection they had was like going to your local liquor store. We didn’t indulge as we were on patrol and it was during daylight which doesn’t make sense now–but hey that was 40 years ago. 

That fateful day - October 23, 1969 - when the mine went off. Here is what I remember. There were about six or seven boats. We were all beached bow forward and all lined up in a row next to one another as the original article pointed out so that we could walk between boats and stay off the beach and out of the mud. The Mike boat was on our portside and the Tango on our starboard. It was mid-day. Charlie boats were the only boats in the force that had air conditioning that I was aware of. They were there to keep the bank of radios and the officers happy. Each Charlie had two Lister generators whose sole purpose was to keep the air conditioners running. The below deck operations compartment had four air conditioners. One of the Lister’s no longer worked and the remaining one was on its way out too. It only had enough power to keep one of the air conditioners running–barely. But down there in that heat and in the middle of the day, it was a real bennie.

To keep the generator from having to work any harder than it had too, I made sure that the hatch for access topside was dogged down good and tight. I personally took a sledge hammer to it to keep it shut because the crew kept trying to access the compartment through that hatch and let all the cool air out. The only other way was to access it via the coxswain flat or from the engine room–both of which were usually avoided. It was noonish–I was sitting on the raised supposedly concussion-proof platform on the deck of the compartment, listening to a little East West by Paul Butterfield on my headphones and just beginning to write a letter home when BOOM–all hell broke loose. There were a bunch of us down in there taking advantage of the cool air the air conditioners were providing. It was weird because the compartment went pitch black and yet I could see everything and everyone. The blast pitched me into the air and head first into a single side band radio that was on its way to the deck. I got to my feet and went to the dogged-down hatch and through the dogs open by hand and pushed like hell to get the hatch open. Up top it was havoc. There was a bunch of stuff piled on the hatch and bodies lying everywhere. We had a contingent of Vietnamese Navy guys who were onboard as a part of the Vietnamization program. I worked my way to the stern of the boat and the force of the concussion caused all the fire extinguishers to release. Too bad because as I worked my way to the stern to look down into the engine room. I passed some fires that were ignited and the engine room was a cauldron of smoke, water, and battery acid. The 671’s (diesel engines) were split in two at the transmission. The batteries were all split open. The magazine was wide open and ammo was everywhere while water was pouring in. Within minutes, the stern was on the bottom. We got the fires out and then turned our attention on the Mike boat and the Tango. It was the Tango that was in the most trouble. I remember the Tango being tied on to our boat and it was starting to turn over onto its port side. Guys were down in the well deck and scrambling like crazy to get out. I remember one of the guys who didn’t make it out when the boat turned over. We were all yelling like crazy and then his head popped out of the water. The Mike boat took a big hit too but it being so heavy it held its own, although it did sink stern first too. It was amazing that no one got killed because as I remember there were people in the water. But after reading the original story–the guys I saw in the water were probably Dale Walker and Don Blankenship who got pitched in. There was a lot of confusion. One of the first things we had to do–and it wasn’t our radios on the CCB that were used–all junk–was to call the hit in and get some helos down there and set up a perimeter. Charlie had to be sitting out there somewhere watching the show. The Doc who was with us started gathering those that needed to be medivaced out and pointed at me to get in line. My reaction was why? He says–don’t you know. I say–know what? He says–the back of your head is split open and you need attention. I say–can you do it–I don’t want to leave the boat. He says–yea and stitches me up. My adrenalin was going strong enough that I didn’t even feel the stitches. Once the helos arrived and got all those needing to get the injured out–the rest of us got to work doing what we could do to get things back together. The sunken boats–Tango, Charlie, and Mike–weren’t going anywhere. We got through that night and the next day one of the boats made its way down the Song Ong Doc to the coast where either the repair ships Satyr or the Askari were anchored in support of our operation. To get us all afloat was going to take a bunch of pumps and the plugging of a bunch of holes. We got Charlie 1 floated and watertight enough to get us towed down to the repair ship where they immediately lifted us out of the water and put us on a barge. The ship’s crew welded up all the holes and buttoned up the boat. This is when we learned that the possibility existed that Charlie 1 and its whole crew were going to be sent to Subic to get the ship repaired. For the time being, they put Charlie 1 back into the water and hooked her up to one of the intercoastal resupply ships for a tow back to Vung Tau. I don’t know the name of the ship. The whole crew went along for the ride, and it took a couple of days to get around the tip of Vietnam and back up the coast to the mouth of the Mekong. We arrived there during an afternoon and the ship anchored there for the night. We of the crew had to maintain an anchor watch on our boat. I happened to be on watch that afternoon and noticed that the bow of our boat started to lift out of the water. I ran like hell up to the bridge to report the situation and then the Captain and I ran back to the stern. We got there just in time to see Charlie 1 sink–with only its bow sticking out of the water. It was decided that an air pocket was keeping the bow above the water line. Now what to do? Well a bunch of messages were sent back and forth, and the decision came down to cut Charlie 1 loose and leave her there. I think we may have put out a marked buoy and then we headed to Vung Tau. That was the end of the story. They helo’d us back to Dong Tam – no trip to the Philippines–and the crew was split up to man other boats. I ended up becoming one of the staff radiomen for RivRon 13 and was stationed in Dong Tam for a while before they moved the squadron headquarters out to the Benewah. I stayed there right up until the day of the invasion into Cambodia when the Benewah and all the boats headed up to the border to go after Charlie. 

There were actually two lessons learned with this event. The original article mentioned one of them–the spacing of beached boats–the further apart the better to avoid mine damage. The other and even more important was the fact that the squadron made the error of beaching in the same spot twice. The mine must have been placed after the first night beach. Had to be or Charlie wouldn’t have known where to place it. He did so on that assumption and hope that we would beach again at the same spot. He lucked out or Charlie had some swimmers who somehow got the bomb in place while the boats were in place. I gotta believe that that could never have happened.

As one of the staff radiomen, I was privileged to see a lot of radio traffic come across our desk. Months later while on the Benewah, two messages came across about Charlie 1. The first was that it was determined by EOD that it had to be at least a 100 pounds of explosives to do the damage that was inflicted to the boats. I agree with Don Blankenship though–it sure seemed like a lot more than that to lift the sterns of a Tango, a Mike, and a Charlie boat clear out of the water. And cracking a 671 diesel in half is quite a feat. The second was that the Navy sent a group of divers down to check Charlie 1 out and they couldn’t get a good look as a family of Moray eels had taken up residence and they decided to leave well enough alone. That was the last I heard of her and to this day she may still be a navigation hazard at the mouth of the Mekong. I don’t know what medals those of us who were there got–but once I got back home and was attending reserve meetings–I think a lot of us on the boats were reservists – especially radioman – I was notified that I was to receive the Purple Heart and the Navy Commendation Medal for my services. I am more proud of having received them today than I was then–back then all I wanted was out and to get on with my life.

Thanks Pete for your great memories of that fateful day we both experienced many years ago.


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