The Mobile Riverine Force

by Tom Hain


This isn't a novel or even literature, as far as I know. It is what I remember of my time in the Army in Vietnam. Until I wrote this I hadn't met another vet that had the same experiences that I did. I don't think that too many people know about the Mobile Riverine Force or how the Army and Navy worked together in the delta.

1) Getting there

I arrived in Vietnam on 9 April 1968 aboard a pink airplane (Brannif Airlines). The pilot made a very steep approach over the airport to avoid small arms fire from outside the wire. This was a good idea as far as I was concerned but they didn't tell us about it beforehand. Suddenly we were plunging toward our apparent and premature deaths, in a pink airplane! Shit! But the plane landed like a feather and I can only assume that the pilot got a great kick out of scaring the snot out of me.

The temperature at Tan Son Nut that day was 114 and the humidity was well over the survivable level. The landing didn't kill me but the heat was too much to bare. I wanted out and I knew I would never adapt to that kind of weather. But I had a year to try.

After spending some time at Long Bin in-processing and a week of KP at a mess hall somewhere in Saigon, I was sent to the 9th Infantry Division base camp at Bear Cat in the rubber plantation country northeast of Saigon for In-Country training. We learned to fight in the hills and groves of some very pretty French owned land. When I finished training I was sent to Dong Tam in the delta and never saw another hill or rubber tree. It's not that the delta wasn't pretty in its own way, but it wasn't what I was just trained for.

I was assigned to 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon, Company B, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry. They were living on a barracks barge on the branch of the Mekong river called the Song My Tho (pronounced Me Toe). I was now part of the Mobile Riverine Force, an Army/Navy cooperation, the likes of which had not been tried since the Civil War. One of the boats the Navy used was even called a Monitor because it looked like its century old namesake. There were a lot more waterways than roads in the delta so boats made sense to me. At any rate, this was home for a while.

2) The MRF

There hadn't been a need for a force like the MRF for 100 years so the tactics we used were developed on the job. The Navy did the most in terms of development of equipment and how to use it. The Army did the same old stuff, only wetter. We went to war in boats and then got out and walked, waded, wallowed, swam, crawled, or ran until we were picked up again.

The most often used tactic was to run us up and down a river or canal until we were shot at. The fire power of the Brown Water Navy was a thing to see when they returned fire. Then the boats would beach and we would go and chase them. Sometimes when the boats would just drop us off somewhere, we wouldn't see them again for days, but we were never far from where they could. The delta was laced with waterways, natural and man made. You couldn't dig a hole more than 2 feet deep without hitting water. The bad guys used the waterways too, but we had bigger boats.

We did a lot of helicopter insertions too. I got an air medal for the time I spent in choppers durring the first 3 months I was in country. I loved helicopters. I loved sitting on the floor with my feet hanging out the open doorway at 3500 feet. I loved going 100 mph at tree top level. I hated some of the places that the choppers took us but getting there was great fun! I learned to get away from them quickly when they're on the ground and I went through an "unconventional landing" too, and two that I had just gotten out of didn't take off again, but I still loved choppers. The VC and NVA didn't share my love for choppers, because they didn't have any.

The flotilla of ships that made up the base of the MRF included LST (Landing Ship, Transport) class ships, some of which were converted as troop ships. I was assigned to both the USS Colleton and the USS Neuasas at times during my stay there. They were nice to come home to because they had hot showers and tile floors and they weren't covered with dust like everything on shore was. They were never shot at and never mortared and it was easy to feel save, until one of the unconverted LSTs was sunk by a command detonated mine that swimmers attached to the hull. After that the Navy tossed hand grenades over the side every so often to discourage swimmers. The explosion would ring through the ship like a bell and made sleeping a challenge.

A large pontoon was tied up along side each of the ships and they moved with the ships when we moved anchorage. On the pontoon were the Army supply shacks and storage and the staging point for the squadrons of converted landing craft and fast boats that would ply smaller waterways. They would tie up 6 or 8 abreast and that would sometime mean walking from one boat to the next to get to the last one in line. The crews of the landing craft lived on the boats and it seemed like jumping a bunch of fences into different back yards on a city street some place. The Army kept a couple of fiberglass fishing boats with big outboard motors tied up to the pontoon too. The Army designation for them was PAB or "Plastic Assault Boat", a name designed to inspire confidence no doubt.

The ships would anchor at a different places along the river. We would be near My Tho one day and near Dong Tam or Ben Tre (ben tray) the next. The Navy took us to where the war was. The plan worked very well but it could only work in a war or a place like Vietnam.

3) My part of this story

New guys were assigned to older guys for OJT and I know the guy they assigned me to resented having to drag me around with him. When my time came around to nurse a new guy through the first few weeks I hated the job but I liked the guy. I don't think my mentor ever liked me. I made some friends and at least one enemy and one guy broke my nose because he was drunk and I guess he just needed to do it. I never got the chance to ask him why, but that broken nose eventually paid off for me.

I spent a lot of time in the field and I saw and did a lot of stuff. Some things I remember in every detail. Some things I remember clearly up to a point and then it's blank. It's easier to remember the good parts.

I was sent to Saigon to take some special radio training because I was on light duty with a broken nose (lucky break) and I was available at the right time. The equipment that we learned about was a scrambler call a KYB6. I met up with another guy that was going to the same place at the airport in Dong Tam and we stayed together until we got back to our units 60 miles south of where we left them. The training lasted 4 days and in that time the MRF flotilla made a major move to Can Tho (pronounced "can toe"). We were left to our own devices to get there from Dong Tam and we had 3 days to report. The trip included land, air and water transportation. The guy I was traveling with spoke Vietnamese very well and I learned a lot about the people we met and how to get along on our own in a war zone. The radio training paid off again later.

I started carrying the squad radio when the guy who had it was killed. My call sign was Bravo 2 - 2 Oscar, meaning B company, 2nd squad, 2nd platoon, operator. I moved up to platoon radio operator soon after that when that job became available. I found something I did well. RTO's were preferred targets but we didn't walk point or probe for booby traps. I spent time with the brass and I was first to know what was happening. I was still out there and I was carrying more weight on my back, but I was moving up.

My next break came from having taken the radio training and from knowing how to type.

There was an opening in the battalion Tactical Operation Center for a radio operator who could keep a typewritten log of all the traffic on a number of radios. A friend at the TOC told them about me and the training that I'd taken, and I got the job. I still had to go out in the field with a radio on my back but now my job was to stay with the company commander. Later I was rotated between the field, the TOC, a forward command post on a CCB (Command & Control Boat) or at a fire support base. The CCB traveled with the men in the landing craft (tangos) and was positioned to relay communications between the men in the field and the operations center. It was the best place to be if you wanted to know what was going on but it was hot and hectic when the action started.

There was an officer and at least two radio operators on the CCB and sometimes up to 6 radios would require attention at the same time. Sometimes lives depended on our quick action. We arranged for resupply, fire support, dust-off choppers, and transportation as well as command communications. Quite often we would be right where the action was because the antennas made us a preferred target. On one mission the CCB that I was on was hit by two B-40 rockets from close range that should have sunk us. Yelling over the noise of battle was common. We sat deep inside the boat with no windows to see out, but I knew what was going on around us from the radios.

When I was out in the field I learned how to be efficient on the radio and all the things I needed to stay alive. Whenever trouble started, the radio man was the focus of attention. While the riflemen did their jobs by returning fire, the radio guy had to keep his head and collect the information that the commanders used to make the decisions that meant peoples lives. Then the commands had to be relayed to the proper places. That's not easy when you are afraid for your life. I remembered that when I was on the other end of the connection and I did whatever I could for the guys at the company level. Once I sent $5.00 out to a guy on the resupply chopper so he could spend some time with a young lady from the local talent agent. I hope he would have done the same for me.

I talked to a guy at Brigade for 3 months before I met him. He didn't look anything like his voice. I figured I knew him very well from having shared a part of the war with him, but he was much shorter than I pictured him to be. He was from Texas and he sounded 6 feet tall. I don't know how important that is but I thought it was interesting.

I extended my tour by 36 days to take advantage of the "early out" program that went into effect shortly before I was to be sent home. I was going to be a civilian 5 months earlier that way. I reported to Long Bin for the trip home on 15 May 1969 and I left Vietnam two days later. I had been there for 13 months, 6 days, 5 hours and 20 minutes. The plane ride home lasted 26 hours and out-processing took 19 hours. I was given a steak dinner with all the trimmings (that made me sicker than a dog), a new uniform, $630 and the final, futile re-up talk before I was released form Oakland Army Terminal at 12:00 noon on 18 May 1969.

I had to spend 12 hours at the airport in San Francisco waiting for a plane home. A bunch of us new civilians spent the time in one of the bars where I enjoyed some real (not 3.2) beer for a change. I went on a short recon mission to sober up; and I was approached by a lady who went out of her way to say, "I hope you're not proud of yourself. You're just a murderer."

I was too stunned and drunk to reply, and she just walked off. Welcome home. I would like to meet her again.

Copyright © 1996 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved