Surfing To Saigon is my memoir of Vietnam. It was published in 1994. It’s a story about my transition as a soldier in Vietnam, from a scared/shell shocked young 18 year old to enjoying hunting Viet Cong. I received the GoodTimes writer of the year award.
A brief synopsis of my book is, my Tour of Duty started with the 1st/16th Recon Rangers, Headquarters Company in Lai Khe, which was north of Saigon in the Michelin Rubber Plantation. My first day I was on point and I was a good point man, but I didn’t last long with them. I had told our platoon leader/Lieutenant he could go fuck himself and that didn’t go over to well since I was the new guy. And then I went in to shell shock. When I came too a week later, I found myself with Alpha Co., who used me as an ammo bearer for the M60. I hated carrying ammo, but being the new guy I was stuck with it. So it took me awhile to get back to point.
With Alpha Co. I saw a lot of combat – soldiers came and went, sometimes quickly. If it wasn’t from heavy contact then it was from sniper fire or booby traps. Since I was the surfer/swimmer it was my job to cross all the rivers and canals first and when we transferred to the Mekong Delta it was all swamps, jungle, and rice paddies. Only in movies do you see soldiers swimming with their rifle and all their gear on, you’d sink so fast you would drown.
I arrived in Vietnam in June of 1968, around September our battalion was transferred to the 9th Infantry Division, Alpha Co. of the 5th/60th Infantry down in the Mekong Delta and this is where we started getting our asses kicked. It wasn’t from us not being good soldiers, it was from the bullshit politicians come up with concerning the Rules of Engagement. In all the wars and non wars that we have fought, the U.S. soldiers have been burdened with rules of engagement by the politically correct politicians, but to our adversaries war is war, there are no rules. We were being shot at and told we couldn’t shoot back!
At the end of 2014, one of the guys I was in Vietnam with, Ray Lynch, sent me some photos of me in VN. In one the photos is Mihn, who was our Tiger Scout. It was on September 26, 1968 and we had been out in the bush for ages and they kept telling us they were going to let us come in for a couple days rest. This is a brief summary of what transpired that day. When I write about VN, it just starts bringing shit back up that’s just best left buried. Unfortunately, it will never go away. And writing about it is a whole lot harder than talking about it.
They told us one more recon and we’ll bring you in. We choppered out to a suspected location and they were no VC, so it was time to go in. As the copters began their decent they suddenly took off, which left me swearing up a storm. A few hours later they returned and as we exited the woodline running thru the rice paddies to get aboard the choppers with me falling twice, the VC hit us from the rear. Luckily no one was hit.
We were in the air a short while when our chopper made a sudden turn – I cursed. We were not going in. Another company had made contact and we were going to help and when I saw where we were going I knew it was Hell. There on the battlefield were shot down helicopters, one looked like it took an RPG in the air. Cobra gunships were everywhere, some were flying off to get resupplied while others were coming. The gunships that were there were all engaged in their own battles. You could lines of tracer rounds being fired at the VC and lines of tracers being fired at the ships. The battlefield had a cloud of smoke from the gunpowder. Soldiers were everywhere. A lot of them dead, they never had a chance. And we were being brought to run a sweep.
We didn’t know it but we were running in to a similar scenario as Delta Co, the difference is that they let our copters land and they waited until we were almost on top of them when they opened up. They were in fortified concrete bunkers shooting at us with anti-aircraft machine-guns. We were wiped out in seconds. Didn’t have a chance. We were all assumed dead and to break their hold our artillery was called in on us that night.
Late that night, the few of us that survived tried to get the wounded out. I stayed with the M-60 machine-gun to provide rear security. When I ran up front to set up, Mihn was shot trying to protect me. When the VC realized what we were doing they came out in to the rice paddies after us using the night as their cover. There’s a lot more to the story, but that’s all I can write; it’s all in the book.
With the 9th Infantry it was no different than being with the 1st Infantry up north, we lived in the jungle. We would be in the jungles for 30 days. Rarely did we shower or change clothes – it was gross. We also worked with the Mobile Riverine Force along the Mekong River – hated it. As a surfer I was aware of tide changes and the Mekong River had them. Our echelon didn’t get it and this put us in some really precarious situations. Tide changes of around nine feet! Not good.
Three days before I was to go to life guarding school in Saigon, my brother shows up in-country. I would have been a life guard on the beaches of Vietnam, but my brother shows up and they pulled my orders for life guarding and gave me orders to return to the states. I was glad to see my brother, but I was pissed they pulled my orders for being a life guard and when I found out they had orders for me to go home, I told them – NO. My turning down orders to be sent home created dissension with my platoon mates, so I requested to be transferred. My brother and I were sent to Charlie Company of the 3rd/34th Artillery, which was the farthest southern element bordering outside the Plain of Reeds.
The Plain of Reeds was a Viet Cong stronghold. When I was with the 5th/60th, every-time we went in to the Plain of Reeds we came back with less soldiers. Now with Charlie Co. we were out in the middle of a huge rice paddy with six 105 Howitzer cannons, next to a road and about half a mile from one of the Mekong River tributaries.
We were assigned to gun 4, until someone came up with the brilliant idea a week later to have us clear the roads, which meant that at dawn everyday we would be the first to drive on the road to clear it of any mines. If we had found any mines our truck would be blown up. I would go in one direction my brother in the other. Of course we were ambushed and received sniper fire, but I didn’t mind it. Drive all day by myself and not have to listen to any ones shit. I’ll take it.
One ambush happened early in the morning as I came out of a wooded area in to a football field size opening. Looking to my left there were 6 Viet Cong coming from the river and when they saw me they opened up. I stepped on the gas peddle. I was about 75 yards from the wood-line. Because it was early in the morning I couldn’t see in to the wood-line in front of me, so with one hand driving I grabbed my rifle and began firing directly in front of me, thinking there might be more waiting for me. Entering the wooded area and realizing no one was there, I stopped the truck and backed it up, knowing that the VC would not be able to see me. Reloading real quick, with an extra magazine in my hand I waited. On to the road they came, completely oblivious that I was now going to counter ambush them.
Being a combat soldier I knew exactly what they were going to do. After running thru the wet rice paddy, when they got on the road they set their packs and rifles down. Some sat down, others stood, but they were all taking a break and drying out. When they set their rifles down, I unleashed all hell in to them. They didn’t have a chance.
I spent my last months in VN driving off in the middle of nowhere everyday all by myself, and I enjoyed it. I had my ice chest (made from the 105 Howitzer ammo boxes) with Cokes, a radio so I could listen to the Armed Forces radio station that played a variety of music, and lots of ammo and away I drove everyday. Sometimes I would drive the jeep, but mostly it was a 3/4 ton truck and then a few times it was the 2½ ton truck with a large steel bumper and when I drove it, it was on the offense.
When I was with the infantry units, there were times that we would take medics in to remote villages, where they would try to help the people out. When I was with Charlie Co., there were 3 times that they choppered medics out with orders for me to take them to villages in the middle of bum fuck nowhere. The first time it happened I met the medic when he landed and he followed me to the truck and jumped in and off we went. But as I left the compound driving away he asked where everyone else was and my answer was there is no one else. He freaked out but couldn’t get out.
The next two medics that flew out, made the chopper wait and they only got far away enough from the helicopter so that we could talk and their first question was, “where is everyone else?” And when I told them it was just me they ran back to the chopper and left. The third medic told me I was fucking crazy. I guess maybe I was. I drove off everyday by myself with no radio for communications, which meant if I got ambushed or the truck broke down, I was on my own.
It was so fucking hot in Vietnam that I got hooked on ice cold Coke’s and 50 years later I’m still going strong.
In Vietnam, I made the rank of Sergeant, which I surprisingly kept. Beginning with my departure to leave VN, my CO who was an asshole, would not bring a helicopter out to get me to take me to Dong Tam so I could start my out-processing. He made me drive and we’re talking a full days drive all by myself to get to Dong Tam, in which I drove like the devil. I had a couple of bumps in the road during my processing, which made me miss my designated flight home and have to stay an extra day in which I had a friend go thru processing for me. As he was about to get on the plane, I walked up and as I greeted him, we switched places and he handed me my orders and I got on the plane and flew home. Goodbye Vietnam.