Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bumming Around Update and Opening Elements of Collection of Stories about the Vietnam War

Note:  Recently I have fallen behind in my blogging.  My last entry was in September.  I got so busy doing many other things related to my adventures in photography.  Indeed, in the coming weeks, there will be an article about my recent photographic trip to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. 

I also, have begun work on several travel pieces most notably, a trip to Rome a few years ago.  In this blog, to date, there has been a couple of travel pieces, three articles about my retirement, and the first of many short stories.  Many more will follow. 

Today, I am posting Mekong Delta a snap shot of a story providing some background information (more exposition then story) related to a series of Navy stories centered on my tours of duty in Vietnam and the South China Sea back in the late Sixties and early Seventies.  I am still attempting to figure out where I want to go with these stories but, I know that it will eventually include Faulty Relay which many of you have already seen in this blog, along with several glimpse into the that period of time and my youth.

Mekong Delta

Changing Mission

The blue foaming water rolled over us and the bow sank deep into the trough left by the rising and surging water.  Every thing stopped moving for a moment, and then the bow rose high up with the stern down as the water rushed back into the void and the wind slammed the ship sideways.  The ship shuddered and rocked back and forth.  Then it rolled over on its side so far that we could almost walk on the bulkheads.  Immediately after that, it rolled the other way.  As the storm raged, the ship continued to roll back and forth and pitch up and down.

       Those of us on the bridge were hanging on for dear life at our watch stations.  We called it the “white knuckles watch.”  Only the shear force of our will to keep standing tempered our fear of capsizing.  We had to hang on tenaciously if we were not strapped down.  The officer who had the Conn sat strapped into his chair, as was the Captain.  The helmsman held taut the wheel as he received direction from the Conn.  He shifted the wheel and the engine order telegraph repeatedly as he struggled to stay standing.  Every move he made was to keep his balance, and ensure that the ship stayed on course through the wide, sweeping peaks, and valleys of the surging waves as the ship pitched and rolled.

          The wind came out of the North and pressed down on us savagely.  It bucked the USS Defiance, a 17,000-ton Amphibious Transport about like a rowboat.  The wild winds of this tropical storm off the coast of China showed no mercy.  It was a good thing we didn’t have any troops on board because there would have been many sick guys.
We had steamed off the Vietnam coast for about forty days.  One day we heard we would depart for a port call in Hong Kong for R&R.  This would also be an opportunity for the ship to pick up some dwindling supplies.  In spite of the storm, we were excited about getting some shore leave. 

We started steaming toward Hong Kong and about day out of port, we received orders to change course for Subic Bay, PhilippinesSubic, as all of us called it, was a large base that supported the Vietnam War effort with a huge Navy Yard as well as a major supply depot.  We were told that we were to get the ship re-fitted and get major repairs before going back to steaming off the coast of Vietnam near the de-militarized zone for another patrol. 

Obviously, we were not going back to the States yet.  We had hoped that we could end our tour of WEST-PAC service at six months as originally defined and steam for home after visiting Hong Kong.  However, this news, even though it meant some liberty, which we all were going to enjoy meant we would not go back to the States for another 3 or even six months.  That was disappointing.  However, spending time in Subic Bay had its rewards.  It meant we could take some shore leave on solid ground with time to see the country, the bars, and the girls.

          On this trip, I was going to take a few days off, since I had accumulated a lot leave.  I decided that I would go up into the mountains of Luzon, Philippines to take photographs and to see the countryside.  I planned to rent a car and a driver for this trip.  I even thought about going south to Manila and into the Bataan area.  If I had enough days off I figured I could also take the ferry to Samar, which was an island southeast of Luzon across the San Bernardino Strait.

            I spent some time laying out my plan while we started toward Subic.  However, suddenly one morning, the Captain addressed the crew over the ships intercom to tell us that again, the ship’s deployment plans were changed.  Incredible as it might be, with equipment needing repair and the ship’s need for supplies; we were going back on patrol up near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  I was bummed the plans were changed and concerned we needed to get some pump and turbine parts for the engine room equipment before spending time along the coast where naval supply ships were infrequent.  In fact, when the storm hit us before our trip to Hong Kong, I was on the bridge talking to the captain about our supply needs.

            Nobody was certain what we were to do for several days.  Then we got word that we would pick up elements of the 101st Airborne Cavalry of the US Army just south of the DMZ.  We were to enter the Mekong River Delta and then to take them up the Saigon River to a place north of Saigon.  We had heard that the allies were considering an offensive into Cambodia to cut off the North Vietnamese Regulars who were using Cambodia to attack South Vietnam south of the DMZ.  We were sure the 101st was going to be part of that effort.

We realized this would be our first real exposure to the river war.  A friend of mine, stationed on a Swift Boat Unit as part of the Mobile Riverine Force, wrote me occasionally.  He told me his group patrolled the Mekong Delta from the mouth of the river all the way all the way up to Saigon.  He wrote that the North Vietnamese forces controlled the river by night and the allies controlled it by day.  He said the worst firefights were at night. 

We quickly learned that we would be steaming up through the Delta starting at night so we could arrive near Saigon during the day.  Then we would be berthing there to disembark the Calvary and their equipment.  We would stay overnight before we made our return trip to the South China Sea so we could transit there during the day as much as possible.

For me this trip meant long hours for my department in the engine room.  The Defiance was a deep draft ship.  That meant the fully loaded ship extended 23 feet below the water line.  The Mekong River was very wide and deep.  In fact, even further north into Cambodia the Mekong is as deep as 72 ft in most places.  However, the Saigon also feeds into the Mekong Delta.  Its depth is about 25-30 feet deep during most the run up to Saigon.  Beyond Saigon, it gets shallower.  This would challenge my engine room crew.

Of course, with a couple feet to spare, there was little chance the ship would run a ground, however there were other serious issues, which could disable the ship quickly if not handled effectively.  The ship’s engine room used cooling water to run through heat exchangers.  Each of the heat exchangers that serve the steam boilers, evaporators, pumps, and turbines had clean out strainers that trapped any foreign material passing through the pipes to avoid fouling the equipment.  If the strainers were clogged, water would not flow.  Usually when the ship was at sea, we had a regular maintenance procedure, based on weekly and monthly schedules to open up the strainers and clean them out.
During this trip, we alternated major equipment so we could clean the strainers every hour or sooner, if we saw strainer differential water pressure start to rise.  This meant that we had to shift the electrical load to another unit by shutting down one steam driven electric generator, and starting up another generator.  We had to do the same sort of continuous work for various other pieces of equipment that used seawater.

Author is 22 in this photo 

One of the most important machines located in the engine room was the fresh water evaporator.  This machine was a large heat exchanger designed to turn seawater into fresh water for the engine room boilers and the crews drinking usage.  This unit had multiple strainers.  The sailors who watched over this equipment had even a harder time, since they had to clean strainers on the fly.  We only had one evaporator that had to run continuously.  This meant they had to very rapidly isolate the strainer, pull it, and clean it without shutting of the evaporator.  There was always the chance of the water flow vapor lock if air got into the system during this process, and stopped water flow.  The locations of the large water intakes for the evaporator were highly vulnerable to picking up sediment.  Therefore, during the trip up the river, no sooner then the last strainer was cleaned; the process of cleaning the four strainers had to start all over again.  When we arrived in Saigon, we got some respite from the strainer cleaning as we sat at the pier.  The bottom of the berthing area was dredged very deep so we had little problem. 

The 24-hour trip back down the River became one of the longest trips we were to take.  After our visit to Saigon, the Viet Cong increased there assault at a number of river force boat bases in the Delta area.  There were Swift Boats to escort us down the river.  However, we still needed to make sure that we didn’t loose power, water, or engine cooling or we would be sitting ducks for the Viet Cong.  Already other ships had discovered the peril of war on this river.  As we would soon learn, our plight was even worse as we moved into the Delta.

Our Peril

At first, the trip was uneventful.  Then one of our major riverboat bases called Windy Port came under strong attack.  Several Zippo boats, PBRs, and Swift boats were destroyed.  At once, the riverboat assault groups attempted to go on the offensive.  Thus, our patrol boat escort services were eliminated.  They were needed to defend some key canals around the Delta as well as support the counterattack.  This meant there was an all out offensive by the River Assault Groups to chase the Viet Cong out of the delta area.

Now we were even more vulnerable to enemy swimmers intent on placing mines on the ship as it lumbered through the Delta at a slow speed to avoid shifting sand bars as spotted by the river pilot.  We knew there were anxious hours ahead of us until we reached the mouth of the river.
The ship went to general quarters.  Then, each division officer selected some number of men, that they felt were not needed unless, the ship came under direct attack.  Those men reported to the Gunnery Division to receive weapons.  Once each man received a weapon, he went to the main deck to man-the-rails with either side arms or rifles at intervals of ten feet apart around the entire deck.  For the next 10 hours as the Defiance steamed down the Mekong, these men kept watch on the river in the moon light to make sure that no swimmers approached the ship.

Finally, the ship got to the mouth of the river.  A boat approached and hailed the Defiance to pick up the river pilot.  Then, shortly, we were back out to sea in safe waters to continue our designated patrol.  While we had managed that peril, we soon would learn far more about what was in store for us.

To be continued!

Author's note:  The images attached to this piece for scenery and historical perspective and are readily available stock photographs from the Internet.  None can be attributed to the author.

October 20, 2011 by John D. Roach

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