Gunboat Jockeys

by Dave Payson 1964-68

During her ’67 Market Time patrol, the Wilhoite served as "Mother Ship" to two patrol craft fasts (PCF)s—or swift boats as they were called. These 70-foot-long, steel-hulled, heavily armed, twin-engine gunboats (another name for them) were deployed in Vietnam to stop weapons infiltration via coastal waters and the river estuaries.  Swift-boat sailors fought the war right up to the beach and even ventured up the rivers on occasion. As crewmen on the Wilhoite, we thought they were crazy, but in an envious sort of way. We admired their machismo. What set them apart from us was that they were always spoiling for a fight, overloaded as they were with that hormone known as "kick-ass."  The war we waged from the Wilhoite, on the other hand, was conducted in the relative safety of deeper water. Our philosophy was that the fewer bullets and bombs directed our way by the enemy, the better our chances were to survive the war. This didn’t necessarily put us on opposite ends of the spectrum with the swift-boat sailors, just down the scale a ways, I suppose. While we had our moments of excitement, too, in these troubled waters, they were nothing so daring-do as the "gunboat jockeys" experienced on a daily basis.

As one of the USN warships assigned to Operation Market Time, the Wilhoite’s primary job—which was very similar to the swift-boats’ mission—was to patrol the coastal waters of South Vietnam and stop weapons infiltration via trawlers, junks, sampans, or anything else that floated and propelled itself across the water. Consequently, a substantial amount of our patrol time was spent with our motor whaleboat in the water, boarding and searching the indigenous junk fleet in the coastal waters for weapons, etc. Of course, that wasn’t the job of the radarmen, which is what my rating was, but it was the ship’s job in general. "Scope Dopes," as the radarmen were sometimes called (but not usually to their faces), didn’t envy the boarding party’s job, because it could get pretty tense out there in the motor whaleboat, searching junks, etc. for weapons and other contraband that were being smuggled; our men never knew what they would encounter on those inspection parties, facing an incredible assortment of Vietnamese (and quite often their animals, typically goats and dogs) crammed into those boats. No, we did just fine, thank you, in the comfortable and friendly confines of CIC (Combat Information Center, as the radar room was called), conducting our radar surveillance in the eerie green glow of the radar room.

But on this particular day in 1967, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to spend time on a swift boat, on an actual patrol. The swift-boat’s crew was armed to the teeth and hell-bent on finding, engaging, and destroying the enemy, while I was hell-bent on getting back to the Wilhoite in one piece, where the biggest worry I had was tracking radar contacts on my radarscope in CIC. I didn’t find myself in this predicament because of any kind of "Band of Brothers" bonding thing between the gunboat jockeys and the Wilhoite sailors. No, I got stuck on going on this patrol because of a so-called "exchange program" between the Wilhoite sailors and the PCF sailors. Obviously this program had been dreamed up by the officers because no enlisted men could have dreamed up with such an idea. For their part in the deal, the gunboat jockeys got three "squares" a day, hot showers, and a rack to call their own, while we got the "thrill" of experiencing the war "up close and personal" by accompanying them on their patrols into the No Man’s Land—patrols where the enemy actually shot at you. I can’t remember all these years later how I was so lucky to be selected as the designated Wilhoite crewman to go out on the gunboat patrol I describe here, but I imagine it was OI Division’s turn to provide a "volunteer" for the swift-boat patrol, and I must have drawn the short straw. No way in hell would I have volunteered to do it on my own. Nor do I remember even one time when a Wilhoite officer participated in the swift-boat patrols. So much for leading by example!

Funny thing, though, when I first got out there, clipping along on that gunboat on a glass-smooth sea at 30-plus knots, hugging the coastline like an afternoon shadow, I actually liked it for a while.  The white beaches stretched on for miles as we paralleled the shoreline, skimming, almost flying above the water, it seemed, looking for action. Exhilarated, I got caught up in the moment and even started thinking like a gunboat jockey for a short while. But once the shooting started, my thought process went from Oh, what a glorious day it is to be young and alive in Vietnam! to Oh, please, Lord, I'm too young and alive to die in Vietnam! The small-arm fire kicked up waterspouts all around us, and in response we shot out to deeper (and safer) water, I hoped.  Then, without warning, the gunner in the crow's nest above me opened up with the fifty-caliber machine gun, firing red tracer rounds at an unseen enemy on the beach. Shell casings rained down upon me, and the air was heavy with the pungent odor of gunpowder. Instinctively, I hugged the deck, showing as little of myself as possible. The noise became deafening the rest of the gunboat sailors opened up with their own weapons. By then, the only two people not firing weapons on the gunboat were the ensign (the "Officer-in-Charge"—OinC, they called him), who was otherwise occupied piloting the boat, and Yours Truly, the reluctant passenger.

The OinC brought us full around and then headed us straight for the beach, our guns blazing, throttle wide open, and I hung on for dear life. Everything they said about these guys was true, I decided. They are crazy! In maybe twenty seconds we were right in on the beach, close enough to reach out and grab a handful of sand, it seemed. And when I dared to sneak a peek, I realized the crew had ceased firing, and were studying the sand dunes, looking for VC in black pajamas to shoot at. To my relief, they found none. Whoever had fired on us was probably in Cambodia by now. The gunboat crew cursed up a storm when they realized their fun was over, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, I counted my appendages to make sure everything was still there.

After that, we ran up and down the jagged coastline for a while in search of targets but finding none, to my relief. Then the ensign told the men it was time to go ashore at Cam Ranh Bay, an army base built on a wide expanse of the beautiful coastline, to refuel. When we pulled in to the refueling pier, army grunts about my age, obviously dog-tired from humping it in the jungles, were sprawled everywhere on the incredibly white beaches, enjoying some R&R, swimming in the surf, catching a few rays, and just generally taking it easy in the hot afternoon sun. Even here they packed their M-16s.  In country you don’t go anywhere without your piece, even in a well-secured place like Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam’s largest R&R center. Many of the grunts, I noticed, displayed that thousand-yard stare, that war-hardened look, I’d read about. It made you wonder what they’d been through, what they’d seen, to cast their expressions like that. Enjoy this brief respite from the jungle while you can, they seemed to be saying, because soon enough you’ll be back out there, where Charlie awaits. Charlie doesn’t get much R&R.

Later that night, topped off with fuel, we were back out on the shallow coastal waterways, picking our way through the fishing junks along a several-mile-long stretch of the coastline.  It was a typically hot tropical night, and we were on what they called "silent" patrol—that is, our engine was throttled down to reduce noise. Most of the weapon smuggling along the coast took place after dark, so we hoped to take advantage of our element of surprise as well as our stealth. PCFs have a small radar set in their pilot house and the crew uses it to help pick their way through the fishing boats, boarding and searching them as they go.  The little bit of bravado I had managed to muster during the daylight hours had turned back to fear by now. We searched several sampans but found nothing suspicious. Then, having some "fun" with me, I suspect, the OinC" sent me up in the crow's nest to man the fifty-caliber machine gun. I straddled the the powerful weapon very tentatively, to say the least, terrified of the prospect that I might actually have to fire it. 

Up there, practically fused with the cold steel of the fifty-caliber, it seemed inevitable that my moment of truth would come. And so it did when we intercepted and boarded a large fishing junk that was overloaded with Vietnamese peasants and their animals.  Nervously, I stared down at them from the gun platform.  Semi-blinded by our searchlight, which was trained directly on them, they fearfully looked up at me, the operator of the Big Gun. Several of the women and children shook noticeably as the gunboat jockeys pawed through their personal belongings, indiscriminately casting some of it into the water as they went. The Vietnamese men looked defiant, but they didn’t challenge us.  Years later, after seeing an eerily similar scene to the one I describe here in the movie Apocalypse Now, in which the swift-boat machine gunner did open fire on the Vietnamese below, I can easily imagine one of the gunboat jockeys saying something like, "Payson, if one of them sons-a-bitches so much as even looks at you cross-eyed, blow 'em away!"  But that didn’t happen. Thank God.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to me up in the crow’s nest on that machine gun, the PCF sailors completed their search, and finding nothing suspicious, we cast off to continue our patrol.  I will never forget the look of fear and relief in those peoples’ eyes when they realized we were going to let them go.  Shortly thereafter, the OinC said I could come down from the crow’s nest. Evidently, he must have figured I’d had enough machine-gun "training" for one night. I noticed then that a few of the gunboat jockeys were glancing at me, giving we quick looks, but I couldn’t read them, which is probably just as well. They were friendly to me, but in a strange kind of way. I sensed some resentment. Perhaps they felt the Wilhoite sailors were intruding on their little fraternity of war fighters. I’ve explained how different we were from them. But that’s okay. We didn’t make the rules.

At dawn's first light, much to my great relief, we headed back to the Wilhoite.  For a short time, I remember, we ran alongside a large sea loon as it gracefully winged its way across the glass-smooth water, headed for its own home base.  When we reached the Wilhoite, Vietnam's countryside and coastal waterways, peaceful and serene in the morning setting, were cast in copper shadows by the rising sun, making it a picture-perfect setting. Could there be a war going on out here? Surely, you jest! The moment we tied up alongside the Wilhoite, I scrambled off the swift boat as fast as I could. In celebration of my safe return, I felt like dropping to my knees and kissing the deck. But I didn’t. Not with the gunboat jockeys watching me. They looked almost as happy as me to get back, I thought. And who could blame them? Waiting for them on the Wilhoite was a hot breakfast, a hot shower, and a comfortable rack. Without much adieu, we shook hands and went our separate ways. Like I said, they were friendly enough. But still . . .

1967 was the only year the Wilhoite played "Mother Hen" to the swift boats.  She would serve one more year in Vietnam, but by then I would be gone, mustered out of the Navy.

The End