Mekong Delta/Cam Ranh Bay

The remnants of Team 3 were transported several miles down the river from Saigon to Naval Support Activity Nha Be where we would be doing COMSEC monitoring in the large operations center there.  The base was located at the junction of the Long Tau and Soi Rap Rivers that ran through the Rung Sat Special Zone to the South China Sea.  

The work there was interesting because the center was manned by both US and South Vietnamese personnel.  There was a huge map that took up an entire wall of the room and it showed the geographic region south and southeast of Saigon and the disposition of US, ARVN, and known enemy troops.  The map was divided into huge grids with X and Y axis coordinates.   By using the XY references, with three numbers for each axis, you could pin-point the location of anything on the wall.  There was a sort of gallows humor at work in the operations center.  I remember watching a US Army captain wink at a bunch of us as he pretended to talk with an artillery coordinator on the radio.  In a loud voice he recited the XY coordinates that corresponded to a concentration of South Vietnamese forces, and told the coordinator – “You are clear to commence firing, I repeat, you are clear to commence firing on XY563298.”  An ARVN officer casually looked at the wall map, immediately noticed a problem and started shouting “no shoot, NO SHOOT NOO SHOOOT !!!”  At this point the US captain started laughing and the ARVN officer realized that he was the victim of a practical joke.  He flipped the bird to the captain and just shook his head.

One night in the small club at Nha Be, I struck up a conversation with a young lieutenant who turned out to be a PBR boat commander.  I told him that my detachment was on a temporary assignment there listening to their communications.   He ended up inviting me on a routine mission and I jumped at the chance to spend the day on the river.   I met the crew at the pier at 4 a.m. and, with another PBR, we made the dark transit down the Long Tau River to the bay where we were to meet and escort a freighter back up through the RSSZ.  When we entered the bay, the sky was just starting to lighten and I could see the prominent peaks of Vung Tau clearly on the horizon in front of us.   What happened next was one of my favorite memories of my time in Vietnam.  The other PBR pulled up alongside us and the crews lashed the two boats together.   Then the two boat commanders, both lieutenants, brought out their guitars and for the next 30 to 45 minutes they played and we sang as the sun rose over the South China Sea.  I remember singing Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” among others.  We just hooted and laughed like a bunch of young kids – which we were. 

The crew of the PBR was pretty crazy.  Their battle-station helmets were each adorned with stars and they posed for a picture in their headgear.  It looked like something out of McHale’s Navy.  As we escorted the freighter up the river channel through the mangrove swamps, a large barge passed us going downriver.  It was loaded with NVA and VC prisoners enroute to Con Son Island off the southeast coast.  The island became notorious after a July 1970 visit by a US congressional delegation that discovered the terrible conditions at the prison, including the cramped “tiger cages” in which many of the POWs were kept.  The revelations about Con Son added to the growing skepticism back in the US about the wisdom of backing the South Vietnamese government and the war effort itself.

The day was also memorable because of the sunburn I got.  I really made a mistake by not respecting the elements, and that evening I turned beet red.  I had thought my tan was enough to protect me, but the sun was just stronger on the water.   It took me a couple of days to recover, but I was really glad I was able to make the trip.  I gained a lot of appreciation and respect for those PBR sailors who had a dangerous and tough job.  In the weeks to come, whenever I heard the excited radio chatter about a B-40 rocket attack on a PBR in the Mekong, I thought about those fellows with a much different attitude.

One evening while on watch in the ops center, as I monitored the sparse activity on the radio circuits associated with the patrols on the Mekong, a Marine came in and picked up a microphone attached to a VHF radio and started a conversation with another advisor with some popular force (PF) elements.  As I sat there, I became flabbergasted when I realized the Marine advisor was setting up night ambush positions for the PF forces out in the Rung Sat Special Zone, but he was communicating that information “in the clear” on an unsecure radio circuit.  The fellow was a big guy and outranked me, but I stood up and asked him why he was passing ambush coordinates in the clear rather than using a secure radio or at least encoding the coordinates.  He told me to mind my own business, but I said that if he didn’t stop I was going to begin monitoring his conversation for the record.  When he continued contacting other PF elements on the radio, I tuned my radio to that frequency and began monitoring the conversation.  While the Marine talked pretty fast, I typed pretty fast, and after a couple of minutes he came over and looked at my log and asked what I intended to do with it.  I told him that I would turn it over to the ops center commander for appropriate action, reminding him that he was putting those South Vietnamese PF troops at risk by revealing their positions in advance.  I said he was violating several communication protocols in place to prevent essential information from being inadvertently passed to the enemy via radio networks.  In disgust, he went back to his radio and began contacting his PF forces to cancel the night’s ambush plans.  The Marine advisor left the ops center several minutes later and he was pissed off.   Our team remained in Nha Be for another two weeks, but I did not run into the guy again. 

A brief skirmish on the eastern side of the river one afternoon gave me a chance to see the Black Ponies in action.  The aircraft flown by the Black Ponies was the OV-10 that was originally built as an observation or forward air control platform, but in Vietnam it was weaponized and used as a close air support aircraft.  A small cadre of VC were flushed into the open mangroves of the Rung Sat about a mile east of Nha Be, and the Black Ponies based at Vung Tau were called to assist.  You could hear the bursts of small arms fire clearly as the OV-10’s arrived on the scene.  As I think back on the occurrence, the Black Ponies resembled  ospreys hovering high above some fish and then dropping almost straight down to the water to make the catch.  The fight lasted no more than 10 minutes, but once again I felt like I was somehow detached from the war, as myself and others stood there cheering the Black Ponies like it was some kind of sporting contest.

Brian’s room

My next destination was the Naval Communications Station at Cam Ranh Bay located on the eastern coast of South Vietnam about halfway between Vung Tau and Da Nang. The “Vietnamization” of the US war effort was well underway at this time as we began to consolidate and reduce our presence, while at the same time turning over more responsibility to the Vietnamese.  The receiver site at Cam Rahn Bay was located on the South China Sea along an isolated stretch of beach.  My roommate from Rota, Brian Bennett, was stationed there performing COMSEC duties also, and when I arrived in late September he was within a month of leaving Vietnam and getting out of the Navy.  The facility was very small and consisted of antenna fields and two or three buildings which housed the radio equipment and the 20 or so sailors who manned the facility.  Brian’s room was decorated with black light posters and I remember how cool they looked glowing like neon signs.  My stay at Cam Ranh Bay was a short one, but for those two weeks I was able to relax and enjoy the beautiful water and weather.  The station had a metal shipping container full of equipment for recreational use, including rubber rafts, snorkels, flippers, and masks.  One day Brian, another fellow and I took the raft out to some rocks two hundred yards off shore and spent the day diving and snorkeling in the crystal clear water.  The water was about 15 feet deep and was full of beautiful tropical fish in every color of the rainbow.  What a magical day that was and I will never forget it. 

RMCS Nicholas and ETN2 Murdock patrolling NCS Cam Rahn Bay receiver site.  Photo from Captain William J. Longhi, USN (Retired)

I took an instant dislike to the senior enlisted person on the base, Senior Chief Radioman Nicholas, and it was mutually agreed with my supervisor that I needed to put some space between myself and the senior chief.   It was September 1970 and I was getting “short” – that is, I only had a couple of months left in country and in the Navy, and my attitude was a little more laid back than that of RMCS Nicholas.  He presided over the small base as if it was in the middle of a combat zone and he had a couple of henchmen who actually believed that an attack on the receiver site was imminent.  They drove around in a jeep with an M-60 machine gun mounted in the back and patrolled the nearby dunes and beach scaring seagulls.  I just didn’t buy the whole GI Joe vibe that he projected and felt that he was a caricature of someone he saw in an old war movie.

Featured Photo: OV-10 Black Ponies of VAL-4 in their revetments at Vung Tau Air Base

Written by Fred Bumgarner