Swift boats head up the Giang Thanh River along the South Vietnam–Cambodia border toward night ambush spots.
The following is adapted from Swift Boats at War in Vietnam (Stackpole, 2017), edited by Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway.
Swift Boats (patrol boat fast, or PCFs) at the beginning of 1970 appeared to be in reasonable control of their war. Operation SEALORDS had cleared large swatches of the Lower Mekong Delta, forcing the enemy to withdraw to strongholds deep in the forest. Firefights and ambushes had declined, and civilians could move about the region with relative ease. SeaFloat, the Navy’s floating base in the Cua Lon Estuary, was a resounding success, fostering the growth of a substantial settlement where none had existed before, thereby giving local people a chance to earn a living.
Up in the northern Delta, Swifts had joined with PBRs (patrol boats, river) and RAG (river assault group) units to choke off the flow of supplies and men along the Cambodian border. A second detachment of Swifts policed the border from a makeshift forward base at Ha Tien, at the mouth of the Giang Thanh River. Although these efforts proved moderately effective, manning guard posts and night ambushes in the sweltering wilderness was not entertaining work. Swift crews generally were not fond of ritual or routine. Some crewmen found inventive ways to kill the boredom.
I met up with Arnold Horshack in 1969 when I got orders to PCF-12, stationed at An Thoi, on Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Siam. Horshack and I came aboard about the same time. We were the whole crew at that point, as the previous bunch had all gone home. Horshack (not his real name, but close) had already spent several tours in Vietnam. He was a skinny little guy, maybe five-foot, seven-inches tall with black hair, a short scruffy beard and a beaded necklace with a peace medallion that attracted quite a bit of hostile attention from the higher-ups. Horshack didn’t care. I soon learned that Horshack didn’t care about a lot of things, most of them having to do with discipline.
He was the only guy I ever met who claimed that he never went to Swift Boat school. Instead, he told me, the Navy sent him to An Thoi from boot camp. When he arrived, no one knew what to do with him (his words to me). Finally, the executive officer sent him to an LST off the coast of the Ca Mau Peninsula that was serving as a forward base for Swifts to refuel and resupply. He was supposed to fill in as a relief crewman for those who went on leave or R&R, or who went home. After three months of this without a break he noticed that regular PCF crews only had to deploy for 30 days before returning to An Thoi for rest and boat maintenance. Nobody was saying anything to Horshack, so he caught the next boat back to An Thoi to find out what was up.
The next day he shows up at the ship’s office and asks to see the XO, who takes one look at Horshack and lets out a gasp. “Where the HELL have you been?”
“I’ve been right where you sent me three months ago. I need some time off,” Horshack says. “What gives?”
The XO ran to the radio room. “Have you sent out that MIA report on seaman Horshack yet?” he shouts. “Well, if you have, please stop it and change the seaman’s status to present and accounted for!!!”
And now we’re together on the 12-boat. Eventually, the rest of the new crew shows up and then we’re underway for Ha Tien, a port town at the mouth of the Giang Thanh River, which separates Cambodia and South Vietnam near the Gulf of Thailand. Our base is a couple of barges tied up next to some disheveled buildings. Charlie has been using the area forever to smuggle troops, ammo and supplies into Vietnam. We’re supposed to stop him.
Amid riverbank foliage at dusk, crewmen prepare their Swift boat for an ambush.
At dusk the first day we travel upriver for a “night ambush,” a fairly simple op in which we are supposed to find a convenient tree, tie up, kill the engines, douse the lights and wait until bad guys try to cross the river from the Cambodia side to Vietnam. Then we grease them.
We set up, and I’m on watch with Horshack in the bow, trying to keep the mosquitoes from eating me alive on a dark, muggy night. Then Horshack notices something on the riverbank and calls to me to look. I don’t see anything.
“There’s a trail in the bushes,” he says.
“Big deal,” I say.
He says, “I’m gonna see where it leads.”
“You’re crazy,” I say.
He lowers himself to the riverbank, swinging hand-over-hand down the mooring line. Then he disappears into the jungle. I tell the boat officer. He says, “Why didn’t you stop him?” Sure, you bet.
Then I’m back in the bow all alone, hot, sweaty and swatting the mosquitoes. I wait for what seems like most of the night before I hear a voice from the darkness: “Hey, Johnson, can you give me a hand?”
“Where have you been?” I ask.
“Here take this, and be careful. It’s live.” Whereupon he hands me a nasty looking pancake shaped thing with spikes sticking out of it. It’s a land mine.
“Set it down and help me with the rest,” Horshack says. “I’ve got five more.”
“What the hell have you been doing?” I ask.
“Exploring the jungle,” Horshack says.
I remind him that we aren’t supposed to go off on our own.
“Don’t worry so much,” he said. “Nothing happened, and everything is okay.”
Then the sun comes up and it’s time to get back to Ha Tien. We’re going full speed because it’s harder for Charlie to hit us when we’re traveling fast. Horshack is the bow gunner, but pretty soon he’s back on the fantail with a land mine. There isn’t enough room up forward for him, his mines and his machine gun. “I have to do something with them.” He sets the mine down on the fantail and walks back to his battle station to get the rest.
With its night ambush operation completed, a Swift boat returns to its advance base at Ha Tien on the Giang Thanh. (John Yeoman)
Before he returns with the second one, the first one is sliding around the deck every time we careen around a river bend. I am beyond upset. I tell Horshack he’s got to secure his trophies. He piles them in the center of a mooring hawser laid on deck in a circle. Now any incoming can obliterate us with one lucky shot − and me first!
Eventually we slow down and I call Ha Tien and tell them I’ve got a buddy with Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Can he meet us?
He’s standing on the fuel pier when we come alongside: “What’s the big deal?” he asks.
I point to the land mines. The EOD is a warrant officer and a pretty crusty guy, but his eyes almost shoot out of their sockets. “Where in the hell did you get those?”
Horshack is summoned to explain. He retells his tale, with new details. After he jumped off the boat, he followed the trail he had seen for a quarter-mile until it dead-ended in a main road of some kind. That was far enough, he decided, and turned around.
On His Way Back, along the same road, he noticed some spikes sticking out of the ground in the middle of the trail. He had seen a lot of war movies and decided this must be a land mine. He took out his trusty K-bar knife and started probing the mine to locate the edges. Once he accomplished this (like in the movies), he dug the mine out and lifted it from the ground. Then he spotted another one. And another. Eventually he reached the boat with an armload of six. The fact that he had walked the whole minefield outward bound without triggering anything does not seem to concern him.
The EOD guy listens to all this and scratches his head. He doesn’t know what to make of Horshack.
“Somebody get me an empty pallet board,” he says, finally. “Has anyone got some parachute cord?” One sailor brings him a shot line. The EOD guy ties one end of the line to the pallet and lowers it over the stern of the boat into the river. He lies flat on the deck while we hold his legs.
“Carefully hand me one of those land mines,” he says. He puts the first one in the center of the pallet and adds the rest, one-by-one, carefully arranging them so the pallet doesn’t tip over. Then he slowly lets the line out until the river floats the pallet and its cargo downriver about 300 yards. He calls for a marksman to take an M-14 rifle, find a high spot, “and, when I call out, shoot the pallet.”
At this point there’s a big audience. The sailor with the M-14 shoots and misses. Then he misses again. But the third time: BOOM!!!!!!! Great theater. It was like Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.
Then the EOD guy turns to me. Time to cut me a new you-know-what for bringing six live land mines out of the woods, driving them down the river and having them on the fantail when we tie up to the fuel barge. I remind him that Seaman Horshack is the one who did it. He doesn’t care. “Don’t do it again,” he tells me.
“Yessir.” What else can I say? I hand him the bottle of Jack Daniel’s I’ve got stashed in my seabag.
Horshack, of course, skates, beaded necklace and all.
An engineman second class, Paul Johnson left the Navy after Vietnam and served for 30 years as a chief engineer for the U.S. Merchant Marine. He retired in Seattle after working for Washington State Ferries.