Best Defense

Book excerpt: From the veterans memoirs of ‘Swift Boats at War in Vietnam’

By the time I got to Cat Lo in mid-1970 the Navy was turning over all the American Swift Boats to the Vietnamese.



By Robert O. Lincoln

RD3 Robert O. Lincoln left the Navy in 1972. After a career working in the furniture industry and, eventually owning his own business, Lincoln retired in northern Michigan. He died late last year.

By the time I got to Cat Lo in mid-1970 the Navy was turning over all the American Swift Boats to the Vietnamese. My boat, PCF 54, was badly beat-up and destined for rehab. We swapped it for PCF 87, all shined up and ready for turnover. With so little time left there wasn’t much for us to do except “make-work.” Really nasty make-work, as it turned out.

PCF 87’s last American-crewed mission began Nov. 10, 1970. With three other boats, our assignment was to raid Dung Island, a VC stronghold southwest of Vung Tau, find a large arms cache there and destroy it. To do the job, we were using “Kit Carson Scouts” ― former VC who had come over to our side.

I was bow gunner on the lead boat, but without a gun mount. I had to shoot my M-60 from the hip. This was called “John Wayne-ing.” When you weren’t shooting, you cradled the M-60 like a baby. When you were on full automatic, you hung on for dear life to keep the gun from jumping out of your hands.

We turned into a canal so narrow that tree branches on either side made me sit down. I couldn’t see anything. We stopped, and the Scouts got off the boat. They found the ammo dump, but instead of blowing it up, they returned to the boats carrying armloads of rockets.

What the hell? I thought. Talk about stupid. Why in God’s name are we doing this?

We made it back to the relative safety of the big river just before dark. Listening to the boat officer in the pilothouse behind me, I learned that the big shots back at the base wanted to show off the size of Charlie’s ammo cache. We couldn’t blow the stuff up. We had to bring it home. So instead of an “attaboy,” the big shots told us to go back the next day and pick up more ammo. Are you kidding?

We did it again. The Scouts made trip after trip to the cache, and stacked the ammo high on the boats, so the big shots could eyeball it and take pictures.

Still no “attaboy.” One more time, they told us, and, then finally, you can blow up what’s left. I wondered: Wouldn’t it be easier ― and safer ― to use Black Ponies, Cobras, or mortars? Did the big shots really think Charlie would let us humiliate him three days in a row?

We got in again without trouble. The Scouts blew the ammo dump and came back to the boats. Now all we had to do was get out of there.

We didn’t make it.

PCF 87 was the second boat in the line. Just ahead to starboard was a barren mud field denuded by Agent Orange. To port was dense jungle. Then I heard an explosion. The boat jumped ahead, throttles to the floor. Standard procedure. Get the hell outta here ― clear the kill zone.

Except the helmsman suddenly turned sharply to starboard and beached the boat in the empty mud field at full speed. And then silence. I looked around at the helmsman sitting in the pilothouse behind me. We’ve been hit, he said. The throttle was jammed.

I jumped up and ran the six or seven steps down the port side to the fantail. Then I froze, for five seconds, or maybe it was five minutes… I don’t know.

“Linc!” the boat officer hollered at me as he climbed out the door of the main cabin. “Get blankets over these men!”

I started to move, except there was no place to put my foot. I couldn’t see the metal surface of the boat. A rocket had hit a Scout in the chest and detonated, spraying blood and innards everywhere.

Black Ponies arrived then, and miniguns poured fire into the jungle all around us. Other boats came alongside to take some of the wounded. I knelt beside a young Scout whose dark eyes looked into mine. His body was ripped open from throat to crotch by a gash that looked like it was eight inches deep. I couldn’t believe he was still breathing.

They told us only two people died in that firefight.  Nobody asked me, but part of my soul died as well. I couldn’t figure out why we were sent to Dung Island three days in a row for a job that could have been done another way in a couple of hours. Was it stupidity or arrogance? This type of leadership, I figured, could cost you a war.

PCF 87 was the last U.S.-crewed Swift Boat to be hit and take casualties. Three weeks later we handed it over to the Vietnamese.

Excerpted, with permission of Stackpole Books, from Swift Boats at War in Vietnam (edited by Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway), a compilation of memoirs by those who served aboard U.S. Swift Boats (PCFs — Patrol Craft Fast) between 1965 and 1970.

Photo credit:

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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