Vietnam Gunboat Captain’s 1st Hand Account – Night on the River


War History Online proudly presents this Guest Piece from Richard Kirshen

Patrolling the rivers of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam during daylight hours in the late 1960s was dangerous enough but at least we could see. There were no lights at night other than those of the intermittent cooking fires along the river banks. It was like being immersed in black ink – as dark as a dreamless sleep.

This limited our movement after sundown, and we normally tied up at a village or one of the Advanced Tactical Support Bases sporadically placed along the river. We could barely make out the river at night. At least during daylight hours we could see the jungle and the banks; after sunset … nothing. Actually, even if I had had the chance to travel at night, I would not have done so.

The only advantage I could see to traveling after dark was that we would be able to see the enemy’s tracer rounds coming at us and would know where to shoot back. But, I’m not really sure that would have been an advantage. During the day, we just shot into the jungle where we surmised the enemy was attacking. I only knew we had “made contact” when they stopped firing.

Richard standing on my river boat as we go up river

Early one evening, on one of those nights where we had to be somewhere other than where we were, we took a direct hit: two B-40 rockets right at the water-line. The boat filled with water and sunk in a matter of minutes. My crew and I were blown off the boat in the resulting explosion.

We had been cruising on the river – just finishing some C-rations and heading back to Nha Be, home of the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta, and a quiet, restful night in a barracks. Then: bright lights, loud noises, gunfire, an explosion, and screaming; and now I was wet and treading water.

LCM-8 boat

The boat is gone; somewhere on the bottom of the river. I have to swim, but which way? To which shore? It’s too dark; I can’t see.

I had a headache. I was dizzy. My head was spinning. My body ached. My clothes were heavy. There was no more riverboat. There was nothing beneath my feet.

Damn, which way? I have to pick a way and get out of the water.

There were snakes, crocodiles, giant catfish so large that a grown man could stand upright in their open mouths, and huge fanged frogs called Khorat. It was all coming back to me now: the orientation class about the rivers in the Delta that I was forced to take just before they made me a boat captain.

I remembered thinking: “who cares about this? I’ll always be on a boat.” They told us what to look out for and what, besides the enemy, was dangerous. I had to get out of the water and stay quiet. I didn’t know what side of the river the enemy was on.

Hoeneywell grenade launcher

Then: mangroves, just like in the Keys. They’re great for the environment but almost impossible to climb out of. They didn’t need any ground under them. They grew right in the water: slimy and slippery. I couldn’t seem to grasp anything. I needed to get out of the water. My clothes were dragging me down.

I couldn’t tread water with my boots on anymore and my legs were aching. My arms were tired and my head hurt badly. I began to sink into the river. I had to grab something and pull myself up onto solid ground or I would surely drown in this disgusting mire and never be found.

Our river boat uniform patch

This is scary. I seriously don’t want to be here. I can’t see much – too dark. My leg is stuck in a mangrove root. I can’t move. I’ll be here forever … There, free, out of the water.

The darkness was punctuated only by the light of the tracer rounds, and then, with the water clearing out of my ears, I heard gunfire. Different sounds now. Return fire. Some of our boats were still fighting. I recognized the sounds of the .50, and the M-60.  

Firing the .50

My boat is gone, with all my stuff on it. 

Crawling now – on slimy, stinking mud with sharp objects cutting my fingers and my knees – away from the river.

I have to find dry land. I’m tired, I have to rest; I can’t crawl anymore.

Fear encompassed me like Dracula’s cape. I shook.

How am I going to get out of this? Who the hell knows where I am … or even, if I am? I heard noises in the jungle. Oh, tell me it’s not a tiger. I could get eaten by a tiger and no one would ever know. Wait, maybe it’s just a Saola, one of those Asian deer type animals, or an Ibis or crane walking around looking for food.

I hoped for the deer.

LCM-8 boat

Ok, what do I have with me? Not much: just my knife, my wallet, a belt, my jungle boots. My wallet? What the hell do I need a wallet for out here?

Everything is wet and slimy. I have no food or drink; no survival stuff. No gun or ammo. What did survival school teach me? Find protective shelter and hide from the enemy if you think they may be close. Close??? They just sunk my boat. Of course they’re close. Should I seek higher ground? Hide in a tree, maybe? No, I could fall out. There could be snakes in the trees.

I walked, crouched over; my eyes searched the darkness for anything recognizable. I moved slowly now, sloth like, listening to every noise. I was totally aware of my surroundings – tuned into my environment. An uncomfortable truth was now settling on me like a shroud … I am alone. The jungle abounded with noises at night. I categorized them as either friendly or harmful. The ground was harder now; my boots squished. I had mud everywhere.

Riverine Patrol Boat in Vietnam.

The situation was distressing. This never happened to me back in Miami. Nothing there ever frightened me. Thinking back now, I can’t remember ever being scared before I came here to this nightmarish place. Maybe just that one time I wrecked my dad’s car while he was watching.

Damn, was he pissed. Then another realization came like a fist knocking the wind out of me: I’m in a jungle, surrounded by things that want to either eat me or just kill me. I sat under a tree and listened. The gunfire began to ebb and, finally, halted altogether.

Escorts UP the River

Did we win? How many of our boats were sunk? Did anyone die? What am I going to do?

I heard voices and strained to make them out.

Let the voices be English. Let it be a platoon of Army guys.

But no, the sing-song sounds of hushed Vietnamese. Fear compressed me like a vice, but I knew I had to act. I lay down and quickly pulled palm fronds over myself. The voices got closer as they walked through the jungle. There were no sounds of machetes cutting anything.

They must be on a path. I lay still. Insects devoured me. Gnats or flies, or who knows what else lived out there, in my ears, my nose, and my eyes. Something crawled up my leg. The footsteps moved closer; sandals broke small branches and crackled on the dead fronds. The path was nearby. Like a marble statue, I lay motionless, barely breathing, on the verge of screaming. They had to hear my heart beating.

A “Zippo” boat using its flame thrower against the enemy

They passed by, whispering, walking one behind the other, mere feet from where I lay frozen in this humid, infested, wretched place. I didn’t move, but I began to breathe again. I kept still for hours, like a never-ending MRI, becoming a home to unseen mites and insects. I felt stings, like the fire ants back in Florida.

Things crawled across my face, and still, I didn’t move. Night encompassed all. The jungle was a dark room full of deadly creatures and beings. It was pitch black with barely a scattering of twinkling stars visible through the canopy of trees. I looked through a break in the vegetation covering me … and then I sunk into sleep like a rock dropped into a well.

Daylight. Birds chirped; something large bellowed in the distance. I inched the fronds slowly and carefully from my face and furtively moved my head back and forth. I saw nothing – only golden strands of sunlight filtering down through the tree tops. I listened and heard nothing. I slid the vegetation away and stood up.

Giant slingshot patch

The mud was dried and caked on me; it had protected me from some of the insects while I slept. I brushed myself off and headed back toward the river. I smelled terrible. I wanted to wash everything off of me but thought about the camouflage that the dried mud offered and reconsidered. I sat on the bank of the river and waited.

I was thirsty, my throat like sandpaper, and hungry for something … anything. My neck and face itched; my body ravaged and abused. I was cut and bleeding. My head throbbed. I was sure I had suffered at least a minor concussion in the boat explosion. I needed food but most importantly: water. A man could only survive about three days without water

I shouldn’t drink the river water. The locals drink it, bathe in it, wash their clothes in it; and use it as a toilet. Would I drink it as a last resort? Yes.

MRF Patch

In a few very anxious hours, I heard engines and hid behind a tree. The throaty roar of the diesel got closer and I saw small brown/green fiberglass boats – Navy River Patrol boats (PBR’s) heading right into the ox-bow in the river where I had secreted myself. As they closed in on my position, I waded out to waist-deep water, put my hands above my head, and began waving and yelling. They saw me and aimed all of their weapons at me.

I yelled in English and they closed in. I recognized the boat captain. We had arrived here about two weeks apart. I exhaled loudly as he saw me and came in to pick me up. He barely recognized me: muddy and bloody, disheveled arms and face covered with bites, open wounds, and streaked in dry blood.

Heading back to Nha Be, now sated with water and C-rations, I learned that the other three on my boat had been picked up. Two were wounded but no one had died. I was presumed captured, dead, or lost. A search party was sent to look for me.

On the way back, I went over my ordeal in my head: the gamut of emotions I ran through in such a relatively short time. The overriding emotion was fear. It was a fear of what nature had to offer in its basest form. But beyond nature, it was the fear of being alone that dominated: the fear of not being found.

Read another story from us: Respecting Our Soldiers – How Vietnam Changed U.S. Perceptions of War at Home

Richard Kirshen has written a book Vietnam War River Patrol with his personal experiences from his time on the rivers of the Mekong Delta, and as a US Navy Diver during the war.

The book cover
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