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Oral Histories: Navy Combat Field Historian in Vietnam, 1967-68

Recollections of Commander Anthony R. DeMarco, USN (Ret) who served as a historian with Naval Forces, Vietnam, during 1967-1968.

He was stationed in Saigon, traveled primarily in the Mekong Delta region, and witnessed the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Source: Adapted from draft provided by CDR DeMarco, dated 3 Feb. 2002.

How does one become a combat field historian? You would think the combat field historian would be an individual who had a great love of history, studied history or was a history major in college. Those would certainly be ideal prerequisites in a peacetime scenario when you were searching for the ideal candidate.

However, in 1967 there was a major incident (actually an undeclared war) raging in the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the U.S. Navy was looking for a warm body to fill a non-career enhancing billet. I was a mid-career lieutenant commander, a qualified submariner, and I volunteered to spend a year in 'Nam as a combat field historian. I wasn't particularly motivated to go there; however, I knew I could contribute and possibly improve my chances to change designators.

I really wanted to become a Navy public affairs officer, because I loved to write feature stories. My degree was in psychology with a minor in English, and I was 100 percent confident that I could write "readable" history. The little history that I read in high school was dull and difficult to absorb. It didn't seem exciting, colorful or detailed enough.

After a three-week accelerated training session at the Department of Naval History at the Washington Navy Yard under Rear Admiral Ernest M. "Judge" Eller, Director of Naval History, 1956-1970, I was on my way to Saigon as a combat field historian. I reported to the staff of Naval Forces Vietnam (NAVFORV) on September 28, 1967, about four months before the Tet offensive started. The naval history group consisted of four officers and three enlisted men. The department head was Commander Matt Romano, and the three field historians were aviator LCDR (Lieutenant Commander) Bill Smith, warfare specialist LCDR Tom Volatile and me, a submariner. My predecessor was LCDR Nick Carter, who enjoyed going out into the field to be with the troops.

I was initially billeted in a hotel in the far reaches of Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon and about 10 miles from the NAVFORV headquarters, where our office was located. It was beyond the Catholic cathedral, the location of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's assassination in 1963. The hotel was almost in the boonies, and they jokingly called it "War Zone Charlie." It was really a new experience, living in a hotel with armed American sentries in a cement guardhouse. As a Vietnam novitiate, I slept with one eye open for the first week. It was too far out for the military bus to pick us up for the trip to and from the various military bases and headquarters. Three or four of us would make the daily one-mile trek on foot to the nearest military bus pickup station with one of us always looking over his shoulder. We never took the same route twice in a row and also altered our departure times.

It is hard to explain the initial concern you have to protect your life when you first arrive in-country. Your mind would tell you that every Vietnamese you saw was a potential threat, and you were constantly on guard. Every time a motorcycle would approach with a youngster riding piggyback, you felt that he had a hidden 7.62mm AK-47 assault rifle, and was ready to "grease you." This high state of alert continued for about two weeks. Then you developed a fatalistic attitude and said, "I can't go on this way. If I'm going to get killed, so be it." Your attitude changed, and you went about your job without the added tension. Oh, you're still cautious, but you became almost flippant about it.

During my two-week turnover with LCDR Nick Carter, we spent about 7-8 days in the Mekong Delta visiting PBR (patrol boat river) bases along the Bassac, Ham Luong and CoChien rivers. We also stopped in at Dong Tam, a large Army base carved out of the jungle, near My Tho, in Dinh Tuong Province. The Mobile Riverine Force (CTF117) was headquartered on the barracks ship, the USS Benewah (APB-35), which was anchored off of Dong Tam, circa five miles west of My Tho. We also made helicopter "drop-ins" at Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three (HAL-3) Detachment at Vinh Long, the provincial capital of Vinh Long Province. They were the fearless "Seawolves," who flew overhead support for the PBRs and riverine force assault boats. These aerial marauders bailed out many "Brown-water" Navy men caught in vicious firefights in the Mekong Delta. My hat is off to them!

Nick Carter was an excellent teacher. He seemed to enjoy the excitement, was fearless, and loved his job. I decided to copy his style and try to "kick it up a notch" by spending more time in the field doing interviews. I wanted to incorporate into the history the "whys and the wherefores" of combat interaction shortly after it happened. I certainly wasn't fearless. I had great respect for the perils of war, and my mettle was tested several times. Thank goodness for the three weeks of counter-insurgency school at the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach, VA. The school gave me a small idea of what it could be like to be in a Viet Cong prison camp.

Different combat field historians had their own methodology for preparing the monthly summaries of Navy in-country operations in Vietnam. It was possible to be a historian in Vietnam and never go out into the field. You could write your assigned summaries based mainly on battle reports, message traffic, intelligence briefings and the daily NAVFORV staff briefings. Tom Volatile wrote the Game Warden (CTF116) monthly summary, Bill Smith prepared the Market Time (CTF115) report, and I compiled the Mobile Riverine Force (CTFl17) battle actions. We also had other Naval activities to cover such as SEAL (Sea Air Land team) operations, Naval Forces Saigon and Da Nang Support Activities, the MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service) office, the Seabees (Naval Construction Battalions), the Naval hospitals, HAL-3 and a myriad of other Navy facilities from Cua Viet, near the DMZ Demilitarized Zone serving as a boundary between South and North Vietnam, to [Dao] Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Siam. Bill Smith and Tom Volatile were both quite active in their field visits and highly effective field historians.

As combat field historians, we had a unique set of military open-ended orders, which authorized us to go anywhere in South Vietnam, where Navy units were located. This covered from the DMZ all the way south to [Dao] Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Siam. Phu Quoc is the home of Vietnam's best Nhoc Mam, a very pungent fish sauce made from fermented fish. We flew in anything that had wings or rotary props, and that also included Air Vietnam, which we jokingly called "Air Nhoc Mam" because of the smell.

Early in my tour, I started "soloing" in the Delta. At that time in October 1967, I was writing the Game Warden summary and visited the Binh Thuy PBR base, about five miles west of Can Tho, in Phong Dinh Province. Captain Paul N. Gray was the commander, and, as I recall, he was referred to as the "Gray Eagle" - apropos for a Navy captain with that surname. I asked to go on my first PBR patrol. The midnight to 7 a.m. patrol was to go between Tanh Dihn Island in the Bassac River and the mainland. Tanh Dihn Island, 12 miles southeast of Can Tho, was a notorious VC (Viet Cong, a derogatory term for southern Vietnamese communist-controlled forces) bastion and labyrinth of sand-bagged bunkers and hootches [huts]. It was well-known as a favorite spot for Viet Cong river crossings, and a location from which the Viet Cong repeatedly shot at Navy PBRs patrolling the river.

When I climbed aboard the 31-foot craft, I met the PBR skipper, Boatswain's Mate Second Class "Tiny" Connor. He was anything but tiny. He stood about 6'3" and weighed in at about 240 lbs. I immediately started my interview. "Were you ever wounded?" He replied with a slight smile, "Yes, sir - three times! Me and my three crew members have eight Purple Hearts [awarded for being wounded or killed in action] between us." I was stunned! "Do you know you can go home if you've been wounded three times," I asked?

His face turned serious. "Commander, I'm in charge of this boat, and as the skipper no one tells me what to do. If I go back to the blue-water Navy, some Naval Reserve ensign, who doesn't know his business, will tell me how to do mine. No thanks; I'll stay right here as long as they allow me."

I looked around and saw only two other crewmen. I asked him where his stern gunner was. He said, "He's in the hospital recovering from wounds; he'll be back in a week or so. Are you checked out on that 50-caliber machine gun back aft?" I told him I could handle it, but I preferred the twin 50 caliber surrounded by the protective thick gun armor gun turret up forward. With a slight smirk, Tiny tactfully replied, "Commander, with all due respect, in a firefight, I really need that guy up forward, and I certainly need the engineer. If you don't want to be the rear gunner, you don't have to go with us." I humbly acquiesced, left my rank behind and cast off the aft mooring line. I was now the expendable stern gunner, who left his LCDR oak leaf on the pier.

We slowly motored down the river, then turned off the engines and rode the 4-5 knot current ebbing rapidly downstream toward the South China Sea. During nighttime curfew hours it is very quiet on the rivers because there is no river traffic. The only sounds you hear are the animal sounds emanating from the dense, palm-laden jungle. Floating downriver, south of My Tho and away from the glow of city lights, it was a very dark, moonless night.

Suddenly Tiny ordered his crew into a "battle stations" posture. My adrenalin shifted into overdrive as I leaped aft to man the 50-caliber gun. The small swath of armor around the gun barrel barely covered my girth. The engineer immediately lit off the engines, and BM2 (Boatswain's Mate Second Class) Connor slowly eased the boat toward the bank and into the thick underbrush. He had seen a faint light and was ready for action. We found a small dugout sampan boat with a female and two children cowering around a small lantern. The AR-15 (commercial designation as well as the earlier name for the 5.56mm M-16) automatic rifle-armed engineer meticulously inspected the boat, its occupants and its rice cargo as the rest of us were at the "ready to fire" position, if any opposing arms were brought to bear. The engineer determined that the boat was "clean" and just waiting for the dawn curfew to lift, before taking the rice to market across the river. We all relaxed and continued the patrol.

Later that morning, we patrolled behind Tan Dinh Island. Tiny was warming up to me and asked. "Sir, have you ever been shot at?" I told him that I hadn't, and he replied. "Well, lets see if we can do about that." We slowly patrolled the narrow waterway looking for action, but much to Tiny Connor's chagrin, the rest of the night was peaceful and serene. My first combat experience had to wait for another day. Yes, I was ready to fight, but I wasn't there to earn ribbons or a Purple Heart.

It was much more exciting when I shifted over to the Mobile Riverine Force The staff was headquartered afloat on a barracks ship in the middle of the My Tho River, about six miles west of My Tho. In addition to the CTF117 staff and the River Squadron (RivRon) 9 and 11 officers and boat crews, the barracks ship was the berthing ship for a few hundred U.S. Army troops of the [Second Brigade of the] 9th Division out of Ft. Hood, Texas.

The ship was the USS Benewah (APB-35). Positioning in the exact middle of the approximately 1,000-yard wide river was critical, because the banks and jungle along the river was not free of Viet Cong infiltration. Of course, in South Vietnam nothing was VC-free. The navigator and quartermasters on the Benewah learned their "positioning" lesson well, due to a life-threatening attack on the night of March 20, 1968. Because of suspected underwater sapper (VC intruder) activity, the Benewah had just been moved to what was deemed to be a safer location closer to the large U.S. Army base at Dong Tam, northeast of My Tho. The My Tho River was a bit narrower there, but thought to be safer. I was asleep, and awakened by a loud explosion. It was a little after midnight when the Benewah was struck by two 75-mm recoilless rifle rounds; one below the waterline and the other impacted on the 4th deck portside forward. The armor-piercing shell penetrated through four, steel bulkheads and exploded in the mess hall. The Benewah with its magazines loaded with ammunition and highly volatile fuel storage tanks was a juicy target, but on that night it was spared catastrophic damage.

In one of those miracles or quirks of war, no one was injured, because no one was having midnight rations at that time. This was unbelievable because the duty watch had just rotated, and most sailors usually cycle through the mess decks for coffee or a sandwich. But not on this night. There were no casualties. It didn't take very long to reposition Benewah to a wider and safer part of the river.

The mobile riverine concept of warfare in the Mekong Delta was simple in methodology but extremely difficult to perform effectively. U.S. Army troops would be ferried by Navy armored gunboats down very narrow waterways and canals into the deep hinterland of the Mekong Delta, miles away from the main rivers. There, the soldiers would infiltrate into a suspected Viet Cong-controlled area and conduct a "search and destroy" operation. While en route to and from the strike zone, the soldiers were confined within the relative safety of a steel cocoon - a battle-modified LCM 6 (landing craft motor). Some of these amphibious craft had bar trigger armor mounted around the hull and above the water line and were heavily laden with machine guns and additional special steel plating. Oftentimes, because of the anticipated extreme danger, Army or Navy attack helicopters would provide overhead firepower support for a convoy of 8-10 riverine assault boats. There were a variety of these small amphibious craft; one was an Assault Support Patrol Boat (ASPB) an Armored Troop Carrier (ATC), another was a Monitor. The Monitor was called "the battleship of the Mekong Delta," because of its firepower. There was also a command and control boat. They were all ready for heavy combat.

I spent about two weeks a month in the Mekong Delta with the riverine force and developed a strong rapport with the RivRon and RivDiv (River Division) commanders; however, I rarely had access to Captain Ben Salzer, the CTF 117/ComRivFlot One commander. Once the commanders, boat captains (all were enlisted men) and river boat crewmembers realized that I wasn't a public affairs officer seeking a newspaper story, they readily cooperated with me. They wanted to be in the history books.

I personally felt that it was very important to get into the field with the men and interview them. I wanted to talk to them, listen to their stories - hear their "whys" and 'therefores," and get some "flavor" into my reports. Oftentimes, the person being interviewed would double check to make sure I spelled his name correctly. After all, they knew that this was official Navy history. Unfortunately, our original "tell it all" writings were sometimes modified by conservative superiors, who felt that some operations were just "too sensitive for explicit details." I felt that the historian should tell it all, and then someone else can label whatever classification on the facts that they deemed necessary. The history summary must be an accurate, factual account based on battle reports and battlefield observations and interviews. The conservative "tell it somewhat like it is approach" usually made the Navy look better and seldom admitted tragic errors.

There were so many hair-raising incidents that occurred I could go on and on. I would feel remiss though if I didn't discuss a few more memorable events. While on a search and destroy infiltration with RivRon 9 under the command of LCDR "Dusty" Rhodes, a highly respected and courageous officer, we were ferrying soldiers of the 9th Division. I don't recall which Army company. (It was either the 3/60th,3/39th or the 4/47th.) I do know they were from the 9th Infantry Division. We were cruising up a long, narrow waterway called the Rach Gia Canal in a convoy of 8-10 small armored boats. The Rach Gia was called "Route 66," and penetrated deep into Viet Cong-controlled territory. I was on the command and control boat with LCDR Rhodes. I was interviewing him with my tape recorder, when all of a sudden, the "fit hit the shan!"

It was twilight, and the already narrow canal became barely maneuverable. We actually ran out of water, and the converted LCM-6 went sliding into the mud. Aground! We started taking enemy fire from the jungle line, and the on-scene commander, an Army lieutenant colonel, flying high overhead in the relative safety of a helicopter ordered us to make the troop insertion immediately. Our Navy gunners put down a withering machine gun cover, and "Dusty" Rhodes called for "Seawolf" (HAL-3) air cover. VC small arms and automatic weapons peppered the boat, but did not penetrate the armor plate. I could hear the bullets pinging off of the armor plate.

The Army troops scrambled over the side and sloshed through the rice paddy toward the jungle line, maybe 100 meters away. A few minutes later, the "Seawolves" arrived and laid down covering fire for the Army troopers. The enemy fire diminished, and we slowly backed the convoy down to deeper water and the nearest village about a mile downstream. I was excited as I hunkered down low with my flak jacket and steel helmet firmly affixed. I had experienced my first intense firefight. I was shouting into my tape recorder so that I could be heard over the noise of the machine guns manned by our courageous sailors. Excited, yes, but I wasn't particularly happy to be there. I eventually accepted that it was my choice, and I learned to live with it. That night, I was my first experience in battle and I began earning my combat pay.

There was something else that I learned about during that firefight -- the total inaccuracy of the highly emphasized "body count." When I returned to Saigon to write my portion of the summary of U.S. Navy Operations in Vietnam, I received the various battle reports submitted by the Mobile Riverine Force Commander, by the Army unit and by HAL-3-- the Seawolf helicopters. Every unit reported some of the same "body count." This was all done in accordance with regulations and on-scene observations, and without any collusion or fakery.

These figures weren't accurate but here's how it worked. The Army guys counted 8 bodies in the field; the Navy RivRon sailors believed that they killed (or at least saw them dropped in the field) 5 VC; and the Sea Wolves rocketed and strafed the area and visually counted 6 or 7 bodies immobile on the ground. The body count counters at NAVFORV headquarters counted 19 dead VC, after totaling them up. I wouldn't be surprised if the USARV (US Army, Vietnam) counters also counted the VC the Army soldiers claimed they had killed. The real irony is that the body count was a farce and unreliable because the Viet Cong almost always carried their dead away. The only accurate body count was of the U.S. Army/Navy men who were killed or wounded on that night! We discovered our losses when we extracted fewer soldiers than we inserted. The dead and seriously wounded were lifted out by "medevac" helicopters.

On January 29, 1968, two days before the lunar New Year (Tet 1968 Offensive), one of the other historians and I went on a boondoggle trip to Vung Tau, a beautiful beach resort on the South China Sea, roughly 40 miles southeast of Saigon. We went there under the guise of writing about the Market Time unit operating out of a South Vietnamese Naval facility there. The Coastal Group 32 base was at Cat Lo, near the entrance to Vung Tau Harbor. We also intended to do a historical summary of the small naval unit at the Harbor Entrance Control Point (HECP) high atop a mountain peak overlooking the harbor. It was the primary waterway to Saigon, which was several miles upriver.

After a day of lying on the fabulous beach, looking at the bikini-clad French-Vietnamese maidens who frolicked at the well-known resort, we felt we had to return to work. The rumor was that the Viet Cong also used Vung Tau as a rest and recreation (R&R) base; therefore, there was never any fighting or insurgent activity there. Neither side wanted to ruin a good thing.

We did a quick wrap-up interview with the Navy guys at the HECP, and then went out on a nighttime patrol of Vung Tau Harbor on a U.S. Navy Swift boat. This was a high-speed, 65-foot boat, the kind used primarily in the South China Sea to intercept Chinese and North Vietnamese/Viet Cong (VC), small coastal freighters and junks, which were transporting ammunition and supplies to the VC in the South.

During the night, there suddenly erupted several explosions and tracer fire in the mountains surrounding the harbor. The South Vietnamese liaison officer explained that it was only the local [South] Vietnamese Army (ARVN) or regional force soldiers shooting their guns in celebration of Tet. Wow, what a mistake that was! No one suspected anything differently because the war had never been fought in the Vung Tau area before. We routinely continued the otherwise uneventful patrol of the massive harbor and returned to the small base about five hours later.

Upon tying up at the Ammi pontoons [90x28-foot barge developed by Dr. Amirikan after World War II for rapid construction of piers, bridges, small craft facilities etc.; it could be moored in water ranging from 3 to 40 feet in depth], I was stunned to discover that the pier and pontoons were littered with shell casings. I said to myself, "They've been fighting a battle here," and that's exactly what had happened. The next day we hopped on an Army medevac helo [helicopter] back to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. The helo pilot had to make a high-level approach to the airfield and suddenly drop down onto the center of the airstrip because the field was taking heavy mortar fire from several locations near the end of the runways. It took about six hours and an armored personnel carrier (APC) escort to get our military bus safely downtown to Saigon. I remained there for two or three days, before I could return to battle-tested Cholon and my own hotel room. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had brought the battle to the cities of South Vietnam, and I realized that I felt safer out in the field.

Living in Cholon was a very special adventure all in itself. Not far from my hotel was a hovel of ramshackle structures that allegedly housed many Viet Cong and their Chinese sympathizers. Cholon was a hotbed. The area was reportedly undermined with several tunnels. One evening, the ARVN decided to burn out the VC from the nearby shantytown of tin-roofed dwellings and suspected VC hideaways. After patrolling the edges of the enclave with a large contingent of ARVN soldiers, they used bullhorns and ordered all the innocent civilians to evacuate the area. Along with several other officers, I was perched ringside with binoculars on the roof of our hotel about five or six blocks away as propeller-driven South Vietnamese aircraft bombed the area and started the whole place burning. I don't know the results of this raging inferno, but it was an intense fire and a very memorable event.

A few months after Tet, the Mobile Riverine Force decided to send a division of riverine boats (a unit of RivRon11) up north to be temporarily stationed at Cua Viet, in Quang Tri Province. Cua Viet was a small fishing village at the mouth of the Cua Viet River, which went inland to Dong Ha, a large U.S. Marine Corps supply, ammunition and fuel depot for Marine Corps operations in I Corps (northernmost military region of South Vietnam). Navy LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) would offload fuel, ammo and supplies to support this effort at Cua Viet and smaller LCM-8 landing craft would bring the supplies up river to the base. Cua Viet was only about four kilometers from the DMZ, so the North Vietnamese would regularly fire heavy artillery rounds at the small naval activity trying to hit the ammunition depot and the rubber fuel bladders at the fuel farm.

The LCM 8s, transiting the Cua Viet River without armed escort, were experiencing heavy casualties from VC fire from concealed bunkers along the waterway. Therefore, riverine force armored units, under the command of CDR R. H. Sullivan, were sent there to protect them. They did their jobs very well, and I decided to fly to Cua Viet. to include their role in the Navy historical summary.

Upon checking in at Cua Viet, the Navy yeoman assigned me to a hootch (sleeping quarters); told me where the mess hall was located; and then pointed out the command bunker. He strongly emphasized that the command bunker was the most important thing to remember, because they expected to be shelled by the North Vietnamese. He got my attention by saying the North Vietnamese shelled the base every other night, and tonight was the night. I went to sleep that evening in a mosquito-screen, enclosed structure with a tin corrugated roof overhead. There were about 10 officers sleeping there. I was asleep in my skivvies with my flak jacket on and my combat boots and steel helmet alongside my canvas cot. Suddenly I awoke to hear my "hootch mates" running out of the building. Someone screamed, "Incoming." I didn't hear any incoming shells, but I immediately jumped in my shoes, grabbed my helmet and ran out the door in my skivvies. I was now fully awake.

I had forgotten that the hootch was built on stilts and about four feet off the ground. I went sprawling off the platform and landed spread-legged onto the soft sand. It was like a Mack Sennet comedy, except that there were artillery shells exploding a couple of hundred yards away and I certainly wasn't laughing. Crawling like a turtle at the speed of a rabbit, I scurried on my hands and knees to the command bunker, some 100 feet away.

The opening to the heavily sandbagged bunker was protected by a T-entrance, which prevented shrapnel or flying debris from entering the fortified structure. I crawled across the grate to enter the bunker, just in time to answer "Here" in response to the muster call. The hospital corpsmen approached me with a serious look of concern. "Commander, are you alright? I think you've been hit. Look at your legs." Looking down, my legs were covered with blood. I was startled. "Oh my God, I've been hit." The corpsman cleaned the blood from my legs and discovered several razor-like cuts on my knees, caused by crawling across the steel rebar grate. The grate was designed to keep sand out of the bunker. I felt no pain because my adrenalin was working overtime. The corpsman laughingly advised me that this minor injury did not qualify me for a Purple Heart. I wasn't disappointed.

After a day of interviewing the Navy men at Cua Viet, I boarded and rode an LCM 8 loaded with ammo up the river to Dong Ha and later flew south to Danang, a municipality bordered by Quang Nam Province and the South China Sea in central I Corps, to do a write up on the Danang Naval Hospital. It was there - in a large triage field tent - that I witnessed the real carnage of this miserable war. I watched and spoke to several doctors, who were deciding which of the seriously wounded stretcher-laden Marines would receive immediate care and who was beyond care. It was a memory that I tried to wipe from my memory bank. I did until now.

From there it was back to Saigon and more of the same. After awhile, I became a bit jaded to the sights and sounds of war. It seemed to become routine. I experienced many memorable events and moments, but these were among the most interesting. One last thing. During my last week in Vietnam, I again become very cautious, went back into survival mode and discarded the fatalistic attitude. I stayed close to my office and anxiously looked forward to the "Freedom Flight" departure from Tan Son Nhut to Travis AFB [Air Force Base] near San Francisco

So ends the recounting of my one-year adventure as a combat field historian for a year in South Vietnam.

7 May 2002


Published: Wed May 05 12:34:16 EDT 2021