How a submarine sailor ended up on a patrol boat in Vietnam
During my tour on the USS Piper, the war in Vietnam escalated and became evening news. My next duty station was the USS Croaker, another GUPPY conversion. GUPPY stands for Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program and was initiated by the United States Navy after World War II to improve the submerged speed, maneuverability, and endurance of its submarines. (The “Y” in the acronym was added for easier pronunciation. Slightly different than the Piper, the Croaker had three General Motors diesel engine generator compared to the four sixteen cylinder Fairbanks engines on the Piper. The Fairbanks were opposed-piston engines. They ran forever but were hell to work on. The sixteen cylinder General Motors diesels were built like an automobile V8 engine. They constantly leaked oil from the valve covers but were a lot easier to work on. If you had to replace a piston, you only needed to pull one instead of two like on the Fairbanks.
But the GM engines presented other problem too. Half of the sixteen pistons were inboard and easy to get to. The other half were outboard and hard to get to. At my 160 pounds and slim build, I was the only one able to work comfortably on the outboard pistons.
So, by this time, I was a seasoned qualified sub sailor and engine throttleman. I took a lot of pride in how quickly I could go from cold iron to fully running engines. Also, how quickly I could shut them down when we submerged or fire them up for snorkeling.
During one cruise across the Atlantic we blew four pistons, one inboard and three outboard. This repair caused me to work six days and nights without sleep. Pure adrenaline kept me going. When the engine was successfully up and running, my adrenaline level was still so high, the corpsman had to give me a shot to put me to sleep.
Diesel submarines, unlike nuclear-powered boats, had a very low underwater capability. They were basically surface craft with the ability to submerge. We were submerged for over 36 hours one-time conducting submarine rescue operations and the air had gotten so bad, you couldn’t even keep a cigarette going. The heat was so unbearable that we stripped down to our underwear.
With my first marriage going south, I volunteered for Vietnam. Being young and stupid, I fantasized about the action going on over there. Remember, I grew up watching John Wayne movies like “Back to Bataan”. My request was denied because they weren’t yet taking married volunteers.
Finishing my tour on the Croaker, I was transferred to the USS Sam Houston, my first nuclear submarine, and one of the fleet ballistic missile boats. That was my first disappointment since although the Houston had an auxiliary diesel engine, it was operated only by the nuclear-trained personnel as a backup generator for the reactor. With all my diesel engine experience, I wasn’t allowed to touch it. However, during one refit, the nukes were having problems getting the engine to run. They had gone through all the procedures in the engineering manual, cranked her up and she would run for a minute or two and then shut down. Finally with our underway deadline approaching, they “unofficially” asked for my advice. I had the engine up and running steadily in about ten minutes.
My marriage was going even further south, so I volunteered for Vietnam again. Then I was told that they wouldn’t send submarine sailors into combat zones. I understood that. I had a top-secret clearance and could have information valuable to our enemies, especially the Russians.
When my tour on the Houston came to an end in 1968, I waited eagerly for orders to my next submarine although I had only a year left on my enlistment. Then, one day the yeoman told me my orders had come in. Yay!
Only my orders were to PCF 38. I immediately called my detailer. The navy detailer is the nut in Washington that decides where to send navy sailors. He said it’s a patrol boat. “What?” “Where the heck is this patrol boat?” he replies “well, it’s kinda at the base in Cat Lo”. “And where the f—k is this Cat Lo?” “Well, it’s kinda in Vietnam”.
Well, I had been closely following the war on the nightly news ever since I had volunteered the second time. Things were heating u very quickly and it was beginning to look like a place I really wanted to avoid. The news started showing pictures of dead marines every night and posting body counts.
Just why am I getting orders to Vietnam when I have only a little more than a year left on my enlistment? I asked my detailer. “Well haven’t you volunteered before? And besides, they need trained enginemen on those boats”. I won’t repeat the profanity I used before our phone conversation ended.
That’s how I ended up riding a patrol boat on the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam. I must have been the only submarine qualified jerk on a river that had no submarines. I don’t regret it though. Luckily, we didn’t see any bad action ourselves. We did lose a boat from our squadron to an RPG attack. A young sailor fell overboard and drowned, a few 7.63 rounds buzzed close enough past my head to make me realize my mortality. Early on, we patrolled the main rivers where we had room to maneuver. Then Zumwalt, or whoever, got the bright idea to have us patrol the inner river canals and we lost that one great advantage. The VC or NVA would watch us go up river, mostly in patrols of two craft, then they’d set up their ambush for our return trip attacking the lead boat to hopefully block us from getting out. What the NVA didn’t know was that we usually operated with helicopter gunships that were only a radio call away.
I think I maintained a certain bravado during that short tour. Facing gunfire and seeing the dead, caused me to grow up quite a bit. But, even facing death, you never think that you’re going to be the next one. You just do your job to protect those you serve with. Although my primary function was as the engineman, we were also trained on other duties. My secondary duty was on the aft over and under .50 caliber machine gun – 81 mm mortar combo. I returned fire many times, so yes, I must have killed people. The VC would sometimes line up innocent civilians in the brush near the river bank. I don’t like to talk about that part or even much more about my time in Vietnam.