Unruly sailors in a makeshift navy: the war on the Mekong

River Rats, part one

The Benewah was the first ship I had been on since coming to active duty.
  • The Benewah was the first ship I had been on since coming to active duty.

"Serenko, Michael J., Navy!”

“Here, Sir!”

“Your flight leaves at midnight. Get your shots over there!"

"Yes, Sir!"

Yes, Sir, shit! I thought to myself. I took care of it myself while I was on leave, and it's all squared away. Well, I look most of them: yellow fever, plague, typhus, and smallpox vaccination, but gamma globulin I gun-decked. That crap's as thick as honey, and you get two and a half cc's in each cheek. The stuff is so thick, you have to use a big eighteen-gauge needle The guys running this show are army medics, and I’ll be damned if I’ll trust my ass to an army medic.

I got in line and presented my shot card to the spec five. He scrutinized each entry on the record, looked up at me and asked, "What the hell is an HN Smith?"

"A navy corpsman,” I answered. "In the navy, you don't have to be a nurse to give a shot. We train our corpsmen to do that.” At that moment, I was giving a shot to the army. The spec five gave me a real indignant look and called me a smartass. He said if I wanted some more shots, just be a smartass one more time. I kept my mouth shut, and he passed me through.

I spent the next three hours in the terminal waiting room with about 200 other guys: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The date: February 27, 1968. At 11:00, the flight was announced, and we were instructed to line up in front of the double doors that opened to the flight line. When the doors opened, I was surprised to see a commercial aircraft; I expected to fly to Vietnam on a military aircraft, like a C-124 transport, like in the movies. We boarded the plane and were crammed in. The seat in front of me came tight up to my knees. We had stewardesses on the flight, and they served meals and drinks, just like it was a regular civilian flight. All of us were probably thinking the same thing. How many of us would be taking this same flight back a year from now? I spent most of the flight sleeping and looking out the window and wondering what lay ahead of me. It was a long flight to our destination. Ton Sun Nut Air Base in Saigon, but finally a man in back of me said, "I think we're almost there," and a staff sergeant wrinkled up his nose, took a sniff, and said. "Yeah, we're almost there.”

The plane landed, and a feeling of apprehension came over me. "My God, I'm really here." The doors opened, and a surge of hot, humid air filled the cabin. It stank, just like the staff sergeant indicated. I stood up, made my way down the aisle and down the ramp. I was still in my dress blues. It was cold at Travis AFB when we took off. but now my blues were soaked with scat.

I met Heisler in the terminal. We were both corpsmen and were both headed for the USS Benewah. We didn't know where the Benewah was or how to get there and just followed everybody else, like lambs going to the slaughter All the incoming soldiers were wearing summer dress, and the guys in the terminal were in jungle greens.

Heisler was wearing his dress blues, too, and we were standing around looking stupid as hell when this voice came from behind. “Over here. Doc."

I turned around and seen a chief petty officer in khaki. I could tell the chief had been around by the fruit salad on his chest. In the navy, you learn from day one that the chief will take care of you, and if you have a question, ask the chief. "You Docs going to a ship?" he asked.

"Yeah. Chief, do you know how to get to the Benewah?"

"No, but I'm going to the Coloten, so follow me." I was glad to follow and have someone in charge of us. Somehow I felt that just being with the chief, we would be all right. He led us out to the front of the terminal and told us not to wander around.

Heisler and I stood around, having a smoke and waiting for the chief to come back. I was watching and listening to the

Vietnamese talk, and I remember they had a strange voice tone. I’d been around a lot of Oriental people before, but these people talked like they had a mouth full of shit. They were a lot smaller than the Chinese or Japanese, too.

The chief came back, and after an hour of waiting, we boarded an army bus that took us through downtown Saigon. I spent the bus ride watching out the window. I seen men walking along holding hands. I guess it was the custom, but the women didn't do it. There were cabs, cars, and trucks, just like any other city, but most people got around on motorcycles. I even seen one go by with a bunch of cages of chickens stacked about six feet high strapped on the back of a bike. There were shops and little markets, women shopping for vegetables, and children playing. So far it hardly seemed like there was a war at all. The only reminder of war was the military police walking the streets with automatic weapons and shotguns

The bus stopped at a hotel, and die driver yelled. “Navy, out!” Heisler. The chief, and I grabbed our sea bags and dragged them down the steps to the ground. There were two Vietnamese ladies behind a desk in the lobby, talking that shit talk. They looked at us and pushed a card in front of us to fill out. A guy dressed in greens came up and said. "This way." He was navy; he had a third-class petty officer's crow on his pocket. The shirt, though, was green with U.S. Army above the pocket. He had to be navy; he had short sleeves. You give a shirt to a sailor, and the first thing he does is make short sleeves out of it.

By now I felt like I was in a steam bath. My blues were stuck to my skin, and a dusty red dirt was all over me. It was late, and I wanted a rack and a shower. We went to the second deck, and one out of two wasn't bad. We were showed a mattress on the floor and told to rack out for the night. In the morning we'd be heading back to the airport to catch a chopper to Dong Tam, where our ship was.

I didn't give a crap about anything at this point; all I wanted was to get out of those blues and rack out. I threw my sea bag at the top of the mattress to use as a pillow and started to strip. I yanked and tugged my jumper over my head; it was hard to get off because these were my liberty blues, and I'd had them tailored skin-tight. Now they were soaked with sweat, and when I took off my socks, they were soaked as well. I stood there for a moment in my skivvies and tell a breeze coming through the window, and then I flopped down on the mattress.

I laid there talking to Heisler for a while about where and when we went to corps school and our last duty stations, and then he went to sleep. My mind went back to the last time I seen Jo Ann, and I was thinking, what was she doing now. Jo Ann was my girl. She was a corps wave at Naval Hospital Oakland. I met her when I checked in for duty after corps school. She checked in the same day from Great Lakes.

Jo Ann was a real cute girl, about five foot three, blonde, blue eyes, and she was a lot of fun to be with. We had some good times at the enlisted men's clubs at Oakland Hospital; we just hit it off right from the start. It was about a month and a half ago when I made love to her for the first time on New Year's Eve.

Jo Ann was the first girl I had ever made love to. I had done some heavy petting, but she was my first time. I didn't use any protection, and neither did she, and after we had made love, she wanted to know when would we get married. Well, I wasn't ready for that, so I told her that I would marry her when I came back from Nam because I didn't want to leave her a widow. It was a lie, but she was content with it. We went to sleep and awoke early in the morning and made love again.

As night fell, I could hear the sounds of a thump and then another and another, the crackling of rifle shot and the sounds of automatics. I froze, and my eyes were opened wide and staring straight out in the darkness. I could see starbursts in the night sky outside the window. The place was under attack, and I wanted to get the hell out of there and take shelter. It was dark, and I didn't know where the nearest shelter was, so I just laid there, hoping that one of those shells wouldn't come down right on top of us. I didn't sleep at all that night; I just laid there listening to the thumps of the incoming mortars and automatic-weapons fire and watched starbursts outside the window. I later learned that this was the opening of the Tet Offensive.

In the morning I got up, found a pair of jeans in the sea bag, wadded up my blues, and stuffed them in. My skivvies stunk from the sweat and dirt, and I had a jock rash. Heisler, the chief, and I grabbed some coffee and chow at the chow hail, two blocks away, be to re grabbing a bus back to the terminal. We hitched a ride on a chopper to Dong Tam, which was an army base on the Mekong Delta. It was a short ride, only about thirty minutes, over dense jungle and rice paddies, and then we came to the air-strip in Dong Tam. Dong Tam had a harbor and several green boats tied up to a pontoon, and that was navy enough for me. We were walking down a dusty road, and then I heard those thumps again. I knew exactly w hat they were, and I yelled to the chief and Heisler to take cover. We dropped our sea bags and started running with everybody else and ended up in a bunker with thirty or forty other guys. It lasted three or so minutes, and then somebody said. "It's all clear." and we started walking slowly out again.

We came to the pontoon and crossed it to one of the boats and asked if anyone knew how to get to the Benewah. A balding beer-belly third-class, wearing green pants and no shirt, was sitting on the flat-top attached to the Mike Six boat. He answered us. "Yeah, we're going out there in a bit. Throw your gear on." Everyone called him Foxey because of the tattoo he had on his arm of a fox, and I never did learn his last name. Well, a few minutes later, old Beer-Belly Foxey got up and ambled toward the coxswain's flat and fired off the diesel engines, and we slowly pulled away from the pontoon. I remember the sound of those engines and the stink of the diesel smoke, and even today, whenever I smell diesel smoke. I think back to the time I spent on the Mekong Delta.

These boats were not like any other navy boats. They were painted green, army green. They were about thirty feet long, with a well deck that was covered with a green tent. There were two machine-gun turrets on each side of the coxswain’s flat and another aft of the flat. This particular boat had a flat-top; on a boat this size, it would probably be used for landing small helicopters.

As we broke out of the harbor. I could see some ships in the river; they were all painted green, too. One of the ships looked like a houseboat, three decks and a roof — didn't look like anything I'd like to go to sea in. It was an APL and didn't have a name other than the Apple. The Apple was a non-propelled barracks ship; it had to be towed around when the flotilla got under way.

We came up closer to another ship with the hull number 35.

That was the Benewah. our destination. We came around to the starboard side, and the Benewah had a pontoon mooted to it and a bunch of small boats and more green Mike boars tied up to the pontoon. Old Beer Belly handled that boat like a real pro. He slid her in as easy as you please next to another Mike boat, revved the engines, backed her down, and brought her alongside, with only so much as a slight bump. When the lines were cinched down. I thanked Beer Belly, and Heisler and I stumbled over the fantails of three boats to make our way to the pontoon. I made my way up the gangway and the quarter-deck of the Benewah. The Benewah was the first ship I had been on since coming to active duty more than a year earlier. Most sailors go to a ship right out of boot camp, but my first set of orders were to a naval air station in northern California outside of Mountain View. I was a seaman assigned to duty with the Naval Air Transport Wing Pacific. I had hopes of becoming a striker for gunner's mate, but they gave me a choice of pushing planes on the flight line or working as a mass cook. I didn't like either one. Then I met a chief hospital corpsman who convinced me to become a hospital corpsman.

Most young sailors didn't want to become corpsmen because sooner or later you'd wind up with duty with the marines and go to Vietnam. In Vietnam there was a high mortality rate for corpsmen, there was even a rumor around that the Viet Cong would pay a bounty for the collar device of a corpsman. But I Figured my chances would be okay. So 1 worked for about nine months, and when the squadron disbanded. I was sent to hospital corps school in San Diego. When I graduated. I was sent for duly in Oakland, and that's where I met Jo Ann.

So here I was, my first ship. I wanted to make a good impression, and I knew my naval customs. I lopped the gangway, dropped my sea bag, turned toward the fantail of (he ship, saluted the ensign, made a right face, saluted the officer of the day. and said. "Request permission to come aboard. Sir.” Permission was granted, the salute returned, and then I stepped aboard the quarter deck. Heisler did the same. We dug our orders out of the sea bags and handed them to the officer of the day. He ordered the messenger of the watch to take us up to sick bay and kept our orders and records at the quarter-deck. We went forward to a hatch and through the forward and middle mess decks and up a ladder to the 02 level. At the lop of the ladder was sick bay.

There was a corpsman on watch, reading a book with his feet on (he desk, as we walked into sick bay. He introduced himself as HN3 Brikell. Brikell, it turned out, was the type of third-class that knew he was a third-class, and he wasn't going to let any lowly HN's like us forget it. He didn’t know where to put us up, so he told us to rack out onward at sick bay. and in the morning, we'd go down with ship's company. Well, that was all I needed to hear. I was hungry, but I was more tired of the heat, dust, and dragging that sea hag around all day. I stripped to my skivvies, dug a towel and soap out of the sea bag, and headed for the rain locker. Ii felt great. I had two days of red dirt on me that had turned to mud from the sweat and humidity. I soaped up good, rinsed off, put on a clean pair of skivvies, and jumped into the rack.

Heisler and I checked in at the ship's office after morning chow. Heisler got to work in the lab. and I got to work with Brikell in sick call. The novelty of shipboard life on the Delta wore off very quickly and became mundane. It was the same routine day after day: chow, sick call, and shipboard drills. Every night I went to a flick. The flick was either a one-sheet or a two-sheet movie Two-sheet movies were in Cinemascope and required the hanging of two sheets on the mess deck to show the movie on. They hung it in the middle of the mess deck, and you could sit on cither side of the sheet and watch the movie. We also spent a lot of time in sick bay listening to Armed Forces Radio, transmitted from Saigon You got your choice of country and western, some popular, and golden oldies. I remember one song everybody sung along to, especially the chorus. It seemed like the whole ship rang out the chorus of "I wanna go home. I wanna go home. Oh Lord I wanna go home."

I'd been aboard ship about a week when a second-class corpsman named lost Brambila checked in from Naval Hospital Oakland. Somebody started calling him Chinga Loo, which I think meant something in Mexican. Chinga Loo knew some people in Oakland that I'd known, and I asked him if he knew Jo Ann. He was always kidding around and trying to get your goat, and he told me that she was pregnant, and he never cracked a smile once. That preyed pretty heavy on my mind for a few days, and I walked around like a zombie, not saying much to anybody. It was really eating away at me.

After a day or so. I got a chance to get off ship and took an assignment for a MEDCAP at one of the villages. We took along a second-class dental tech and the dentist. We rode Tango 111-3 to a village above My Tho and set up shop seeing the medical problems of the villagers. The boat crew and the chaplain handed out bags of candy, soap, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. Heaven only knows what those people would do with a toothbrush and toothpaste; all the adults chewed beetle nut, which was kind of a red ball of sulfur, and I think it rotted out their teeth. The dentist had a Field day yanking out teeth. We brought along an interpreter who would tell me their medical problems, and I would do my best to take care of them. We gave a lot of shots to the kids, and some oral polio vaccines. I had one lady who was about eighty years old and had a back problem. The interpreter told me she had fallen out of a tree and that the reason she was in the tree was that she was a sniper for the VC. That was when I took down my shingle and closed up shop.

On the way back to the Benewah, I thought about Jo Ann and what I could do to help her out. I thought maybe I would send her money or ask permission to go back and marry her. God only knows I wasn't real vital to the war effort on the Benewah When I got back, Chinga Loo told me I looked terrible and asked me if I'd been thinking about Jo Ann I told him that was all I'd been thinking about since he'd told me about her. Then he said he was just kidding and what a kick he had got out of it. He told me he was sorry, but he still had a big grin on his face.

After about a month of sitting on that tub in the middle of the Mekong Delta, the walls began to close in on me. We hadn't once been under Fire, there were no casualties, only sick call and watching those other damn boats go off on operations and their crews come back with stories about battles. Then Brikell ordered me to paint the head in sick bay. It would take one man with a paintbrush and a bucket of paint about one week to finish the job. And there I was, a corpsman out there on the river, and all over Nam, guys were fighting and dying while I was painting the head I began to feel useless and to wonder what the hell I was doing there. At least let me do something more helpful than painting a damn head on this ship! Then, when the job was done. Brikell decided he wanted a second coat of paint, and that was all it took. I stomped out of sick bay and went to the division officer to demand a transfer to a combat unit. I didn't care where it was; I said I just wanted to be someplace where I could do my job as a corpsman. He called in the Chief Thomas, who was always a pretty square shooter with the guys. The chief told me not to do anything rash, but if that was what I really wanted, he'd see what he could do.

About a week later, Chief Thomas told me he had got my orders to River Division III — they were only temporary orders, but at least I would get off this ship and into the war. I borrowed a set of greens and drew a .38 caliber pistol and ammo from the armory. I was real excited about going to the boats. I got a medical aid bag and stuffed it with bandages and morphine sulfate syrettes from the pharmacy. With orders in hand. I boarded a Mike boat and took a ride over to the houseboat, the Apple.

I checked in with the skipper, who assigned me to work with a first-class corpsman named Bill Shealy. Bill was an experienced corpsman with a lot of combat missions behind him. He was what we called an independent duty corpsman. which meant he had special training to work without a doctor and to run his own medical department. He really knew his stuff, and he worked real close with me. For the first time. I had a sea daddy.

A sea daddy is an older sailor who lakes a younger sailor under his wing and shows him the ropes and keeps the younger guy out of trouble Bill introduced me as his helper to all the boat captains we met. and he took me down to my boat. Tango 111-3.

Tango-3 was a medical aid boat, which was why we had a flat-top over our well deck; to evacuate the wounded on small helicopters Bill didn’t ride this boat with me; he rode the monitor boat, which was designated Mike-lll-l. The monitor was the lead boat in the operations and had machine guns aft. a 105 Howitzer on the bow. and a mortar pit amidships. My boat captain was a third-class boatswain's mate named Al. Old Beer Belly Foxey was the coxswain. We had three gunner's mate seamen and two fresh-air snipes who manned the .30 calibers in the well deck and worked on the engines. Al was wiry and skinny, and like all boatswain's males, he took great pleasure in talking like fopeye. Foxey — I never saw him do anything but drive that boat, drink beer. eat. and sleep, but he did all of those things better than anyone I’ve ever known.

So this was my boat, and I was part of the crew. The guys didn't accept me right off and didn’t say much to me. so I stowed my gear and figured we would grow on each other, and things would loosen up. After all. these were seven guys who had been through combat together, and in combat, you rely on your buddy, and you get real close to the other guy.

You make good friends whose memories will stay with you for years, and some who will haunt you, too.

I couldn't wait for my first operation and a chance to prove myself. Maybe every man at one time or another needs to prove something to himself. I was nineteen, and I hadn't accomplished much in my life. I had graduated from high school, joined the navy, graduated from hospital corps school, and that's about it. I wanted to come out of this war a hero. I wanted some fruit salad on my chest. Going into combat was my chance to do something that would make a difference to someone. Maybe I would even get a chance to save someone's life. I had always daydreamed of doing something really great, and I felt that here was my destiny.

The guys who rode these boats were called river rats by the sailors on the other ships. This was a different kind of a navy and a different kind of sailor. They were tough guys and at times undisciplined, but nobody ever went to the captain's mast on the boats. If you got out of line, you answered to the boat captain, and eventually you would see it his way because he would put a foot in your rear and take no argument from you. These river rats were the sailors who did most of the bleeding and dying on the Mekong Delta. They played hard, drank hard, and they died hard. The term "River Rat" came from the fact that the boats had rats on them. They lived in the engine rooms, and at night, they were all over the boat.

I didn't have to wait long for an operation; Bill told me we were going out the next morning. The day before, he had been on an operation and boats had been hit from both banks with rockets and automatics, and we were going to lake a couple of companies of the 9th Infantry Division up to the spot again tomorrow.

The next morning, before light, we took out in column formation with twelve other boats to Dong Tam harbor, where we loaded about forty infantry in Tango-3. It still wasn't light yet when we headed downriver, and I began to think of how much noise those diesel engines made and how for sure Charlie would know we were coming. We might as well have had a brass band announce our arrival.

The coxswain's flat was buttoned up at the side and in front with a one-inch armor plate, with just a slit to look through to drive the boat. Al sat behind the flat between the gun turrets, behind a .30 caliber machine gun. The gunners' mates were in their turrets, and the snipes were on the .30 calibers in the well deck. All the troops in the well deck were checking their weapons and locking in magazines into their M-I6s

We came off the main river, and Foxey throttled back the engines. We were headed down a canal. Brow n water had changed to thick mud. and the boat slogged along a waterway that was about twenty feel wide, with thick jungle on both banks. I could swim faster than this boat was slogging through the mud. We were sitting ducks, no way to maneuver if a rocket was fired at the boat.

Along the banks, you could see flattened-out beer cans, with Viet Cong flags painted on them, nailed to the trees. This was Charlie's way of telling us that this was his part of the jungle. Charlie used beer cans that we threw in the river after beer call. Somebody once told me that they were booby-trapped and not to try to get one off the trees, and I never did. None of us said anything; we watched and waited as the boat slugged down the canal. My eyes were bulging out of their sockets as I scanned the tree line for movement, and my hean was pounding. I was crouched down so low, only my eyes were over the top of the well deck, and I had an eerie feeling that some Charlie was out there looking down a rifle barrel at my forehead. Tango-3 was in the middle of the column of boats. Ahead of us were the Alpha boats. They were smaller, with aluminum hulls, and were much faster than the Tango. Behind us. we had another Mike-6 with two turrets on the front. Wc called the boat a Zippo because it had napalm flame-throwers.

I didn't see or hear a thing, but suddenly, all guns opened fire, and hot, expended cartridges were falling all over me. I jumped to the side to get away from them and looked out over the well deck to see what they were shooting at, but I still couldn't see anything — just more jungle I figured they were just trying to scare the hell out of Charlie while we landed the troops. Our boat hit the bank, the ramp dropped, and the troops came off screaming and yelling like the Devil himself. But then one man fell back on the ramp.

He got hit right in the face: half of his face was blown away, and his whole head was covered w ith blood I dropped my rifle and grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back into the well deck. I knew he was dead, and I just sat there, with his blood all over my hands. When he fell, he didn't yell or scream, so I think it was quick for him. I will always remember that moment, which was the first of many horrors to come and the cause of many sleepless nights.

Foxey backed us into the canal and beached Tango on the opposite side of the waterway, with our big guns facing the invasion bank. Someone yelled to me, "You're needed on Tango-6!" and I grabbed my bag. jumped to the bank, and ran until I reached a boat with T-6 on the bow. A man was lying in the well deck, yelling to the guys who were standing around him. He was a boat captain and had got riddled with fragmentation wounds on his arms and legs. I knelt down and quickly applied dressings to his wounds to stop the bleeding, and I injected him with morphine. Two crewmen helped me load him onto a litter, and we carried him back to Tango-3. I had twelve bottles of ringer lactate on the boat to stan intravenous therapy. I'd never started an I.V., but I'd seen doctors in hospitals do it plenty of times, so I went ahead and did it, and then I left him in the care of the snipes.

I headed down the bank again to an Alpha boat that was hit and had run aground. I made my way to the top hatch and saw three men lying on top of each other.

No signs of life. I stepped down into the coxswain's flat and had to step on one of the men. but he didn't even budge. I knelt on top of one man. dug my arm under another, gave a tug, grabbed his belt, and lifted him up to the crewmen above. They lifted him the rest of the way out of the hatch. I did the same with the second and third man and then came out myself. We checked, but none of them were alive. The boat had taken a direct hit from an armor-piercing heat round in the coxswain's fiat, and there was a four-inch hole in the side. We put the men on litters, covered them with ponchos, and carried them back to Tango-3. Then Foxey backed the boat back into the canal, and Al popped a smoke grenade on the flight deck for an incoming chopper that would pick up the litters. When the chopper came, the crew helped me hump the litters to the flight deck. We had lost the crew of the Alpha boat, and the army had lost one man. Charlie? Well. Charlie had got away into the jungle.

On the way back to open water and the base in Dong Tam. I sat in silence in the back of the well deck, lit up a smoke, and In up another. My hands, boots, and pants were covered with blood. I doused a battle dressing with water and started scrubbing my arms and hands. Most of the blood came off. except for the dried blood under my fingernails and in (he cracks of my skin. As we hit the main river. I was a little more at case. The column headed straight for the middle of the river, and the banks were far away. 1 felt comfortable enough to sit on top of the flight deck with my legs dangling over the side and smoked another cigarette. I sat there for a long time smoking and washing my hands and arms over and over again. It was like there was no way I could ever get them clean.

Back at the pontoon in Dong Tam, we offloaded the troops and cleaned up the mud off the well deck and picked up the spent cartridges. We shed our shirts, smoked cigarettes, and broke out ' some C-ration$. 1 didn't feel much like eating, but I made myself some coffee. I heated up the water with a chunk of plastic explosives. C-4. Everybody was doing it. and we weren't getting blown up. so I used it, too. We had lots of C-4, but we never used it for anything but cooking.

My sea daddy, Bill Shealy, came aboard and asked me about the wounded and where my stuff was, and I knew I had screwed up somewhere. I didn’t keep any records of who I treated. He raised his left eyebrow and said, "I'll talk to you tomorrow, we got beer call on the pontoon."

I joined the rest of the guys on the pontoon, made my way over to the issue point to get my two beers. Sure as heck. Bill was right there, handing them out and sucking them up at the same time. Next to him was a first-class boatswain's mate named R.D. Sullivan. R.D. was a typical boats — what he didn’t know, he'd bullshit. He always had a tale (hat would top anyone else's. Boatswain's mates take great pleasure in calling corpsmen "pecker checkers." a term we got in the old navy when we had to do short-arm inspections after a weekend liberty. I used to get pretty mad. but not anymore. When you hang around sailors long enough, you realize that's just the way they are The black shoes rib the airdales. the snipes get it; and we are not immune. I was waiting for R.D. to say it. but he only handed me a beer and told me to come back when I wanted more. He even called me Doc.

When I finished my beer, one of the snipes threw his arms around my neck and poured his beer over my head. "Seen you out there. Doc," he said, "and you're all right!" A bunch of the other guys came over and did the same, yelling. "We’re baptizing you. Doc! You're a river rat!” R.D. shoved another beer in my hand, and I realized they had accepted me. We drank beer for hours.

Up to now, I wasn't a big drinker, being under twenty-one. I was only into this about six beers, and I was beginning to feel pretty drunk. In no time, I was yelling my head off, like everybody else.

I staggered back and forth to R.D. to get more beers, and each time I'd go past Bill, he'd look at me with the raised left eyebrow. Then R.D. would look at me and tell him, "Your son is screwed up here." and Bill would just say. “Yeah. I'm going to kick his ass in the morning."

Each boatswain's mate would try to gross out the other or try to top the other's story. Once in a while, some guy would try to be a bad ass and grab another guy's shirt. They'd push each other around a bit and throw a punch and come up laughing. They weren't mad at each other; they were just letting off a little steam and having fun. But nobody could compare to R.D. He'd open up a package of anchovies, wad one up, and shove it up his nose. Then he'd walk around with those green slimy things up his nose and search (he crowd for someone to gross out. If there was a young officer around. R.D. would stand in front of him and snort it out.

The officers left early, but we kept drinking, and when the beer ran out. we decided to go to the army club in Dong Tam. We'd hardly walked into the club when some sergeant tried to throw us out. But R.D. walked up to him and spit in his face, and the fight was on. I took it early. Someone hit me in the face, and I went down. I heard. “He hit the Doc!" and that was it. The next thing I remember was two guys dragging me out by my arms and being laid in the dirt. I lay there face-up and spread-eagle in the din. and my head was spinning. I turned my head to the side and vomited. Another guy got thrown out of the club and came stumbling over me, kicking me in the side. I was beginning to understand what it meant to be shot at and missed, shit at and hit. I'd had enough. I got up. staggered back to the boat, and fell asleep on a litter.

This is the first segment of a two-part article

Read River Rats, part two

Read River Rats, part two

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