Back in 1969, I served as an infantryman—a combat medic—in Vietnam. My unit operated in what was then called I Corps, just south of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a stretch of no-man’s land between the northern and southern parts of a country torn apart by a horrible war. A few weeks into my stint with Charlie Company, First Platoon, a cool thing happened—the brass decided we needed a little R&R and sent us all to a spot at the mouth of the Cua Viet River, just a bit south of the DMZ. Cua Viet was home to a Navy base, with a beach, a mess hall—with food that beat the livin’ daylights out of the C-rations we were regularly feasting upon—and movies on most evenings in a sort of outdoor theater.
There was one catch to the whole deal, however. Every night during our several days of semi-vacation, Charlie company had to supply the vast war effort with a small ambush team, a group of four or five guys who would jump aboard a PBR (Patrol Boat River) in the afternoon and go many miles up the Cua Viet River to a designated destination, jump off the boat into the river’s slurpy mud, file quietly into “the bush,” as we used to call it, and, after a hike of modest duration, set up an ambush site on a trail that, according to the intelligence guys, was being heavily used by our enemy, the North Vietnamese Army. With morning came the return of the PBR and a lovely, long, full-throttle boat ride back down the river where a hot breakfast and a cot awaited.
I went on as many of these excursions as was possible, primarily because I loved (and, of course, continue to love) a boat ride, especially when said ride features a recreational type of watercraft. And the PBR was about as close to recreational as a war machine could get, being 32-feet long, fast (thanks to two big diesels with Jacuzzi water jets), and built of fiberglass by any number of mainstream pleasure boat manufacturers in the good ol’ U.S. of A. An infantryman’s life in Vietnam, after all, was one of sweat, red dirt, and mind-bending heat. Feeling the breeze on your face while sweeping down a smooth brown river was quite another story.
During the years since the war, I’ve often thought about those rides I took on PBRs. And just a while ago, perhaps crazily but perhaps not (and who cares, anyway), I decided I needed to go back to Vietnam and find one of them, so I could reconnect with those long-ago experiences. Or perhaps simply let them go. Anyway, my super-talented buddy, marine photographer Jim Raycroft, who’s also a Vietnam veteran, agreed to come along on my little magical mystery tour, for a variety of reasons.
So now, here we are—smack dab in the middle of Vietnam. And we began our search for a PBR just a couple of days ago by riding a little blue diesel-powered double-ender up the Song Thu Bon, a river in Quang Nam Province.
Jim and I have a guide of sorts on this expedition, or rather a couple of guides. The first is Bill Stilwagen of San Antonio-based Vietnam Battlefield Tours, a non-profit, veteran-operated travel firm that helps veterans return to and travel throughout Vietnam. And the second is Stilwagen’s right-hand man, Nguyen Tan Phuoc, a Vietnamese veteran from the old imperial city of Hue, with a serious handle on culture, geography, and language. During our trip up the Song Thu Bon, all four of us came ashore (see above) for an unscheduled reunion of sorts. With an assist from a Garmin handheld GPS and some old military maps, we were able to precisely locate the spot where U.S. Marine Stilwagen was wounded during a firefight more than 40 years ago. Ironically, corn was growing in the spot when we visited it, and a soft, scented breeze was blowing, almost peacefully.
Having seen nary a PBR on the Song Thu Bon, our next riverine excursion (shown above) took us up the Song Han, a much bigger river that flows through Danang, the large, deep-water seaport in Central Vietnam that’s fringed by what used to be called “China Beach.” We saw some patrol boats along our route but they were all Vietnamese…no PBRs. Next stop Cua Viet and a trip up that same lovely old river I so enjoyed as a young man. Stay tuned.