Cat Lai and The Pineapples
1099th Medium Boat Company
from Buck Hartman with photos from Ralph Grambo, Armin Schmalz and Peter Bayliss
The Medium Boat Company was the "workhorse" unit for direct support of tactical units throughout the Mekong Delta and other inland waterways of Vietnam. Though smaller than the LCU of the Heavy Boat Company it is faster and more maneuverable. Although designed as an over-the-shore lighter, was used in many other ways on the waterways of Vietnam. It was used as a tanker with rubber tank balloons in the well deck, as an mobile artillery platform with sandbags and howitzers or mortars in the well deck, and also as a tug moving barges.
The 1099th Transportation Company (Medium Boat), located at Cat Lai, illustrates the versatility of the 4th transportation Command to perform assigned missions during this period. The 1099th served a dual mission as the 11th Battalion logistical support unit and also tactically .supported the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. During the last quarter of 1968, two of the unit's LCM8s were employed as offensive tactical craft. One vessel, with a platform covering the well deck, was utilized as a floating helipad for UH-IB and UH-ID helicopter gunships. The second craft was mounted with 105 MM howitzers and 4.2" mortar on the deck. In addition, other LCMs from the 1099th acted as troop carrier for the 199th Riverine Forces and other tactical units operating throughout the vast river complexes of Saigon Port.
Seventeen LCM(8)'s are in a medium boat company. Of these, 16 are task craft and 1 is a maintenance and salvage boat. In addition, one 46-foot picket boat and two 65-foot passenger and cargo boats are provided for the company headquarters.
An LCM(8), is a welded steel, twin-screw craft powered with four marine diesel engines assembled as two twin engines. It is designed and constructed for landing heavy equipment, trucks, trailers, and tanks, and can withstand hard service in heavy surf. It is capable of landing on a beach, remaining tight and upright, and retracting under its own power. An LCM(8} is 73 feet long and draws a maximum of 4 feet 6 inches forward and 5 feet 6 inches aft. When carrying a full load, its cargo capacity is 60 short tons. It can accommodate 200 personnel for short distances. With a full load of cargo, the craft has a speed of 9 knots.
ORGANIZATION A medium boat company consists of a company headquarters, a supply and maintenance platoon, and two boat platoons of two boat sections each.
The fact that the 1099th had 2 boat platoons is about the only similarity to what they thought at Ft. Eustis. The company headquarters was at Cat Lai, (aprox. 12 nau. miles from the center of Saigon) .
Cat Lai had a long history as home to military units, during W.W.II it was a harbor for Japanese war ships and a very active seaplane base. My nav. charts that I used in country showed the location of four sunken war ships in the river in front of Cat Lai. After the war it was retaken by the French and also used as a seaplane base as well as a shipping port.
The river was used as a natural sea port, the river was, as best as I can recall between ¾ of a mile to one mile wide, and the main channel in some places from 50' to 75' deep. The Americans used Cat Lai as the primary Ammunition unloading point in the III and IV corps of Vietnam. The ships were tied to anchorage buoys that were in the middle of the river. The cargo was then off loaded onto barges on both sides of the ships. The barges were then rafted to buoys to await tugs to take them to their destinations. The munitions were handled and off loaded by a "cargo handling company" which was also based at Cat Lai, (which to was a transportation unit), and the entire operation was supervised by the US Coast Guard, who were too stationed there.
Cat Lai also had a detachment of PBRs (patrol boat, river) which were operated by trans. skippers and engineers and manned by MP's They did harbor patrol in Cat Lai to Saigon. The 1099th Medium Boat company consisted of, 1 headquarters platoon, 1 maintenance platoon, and two boat platoons. The headquarters platoon did, headquarters shit, supply, mail, armory, medics, and operations tower and harbor Master. Maintenance platoon had one maintenance boat, equipped with full tools, lots of spare parts ( all except for gaskets, and gasket material well were always asking our families to send us gasket material to us from the States). Maintenance also had a good maintenance truck, fully equipped, and the maintenance building. All these platoons with the exception of the maintenance boat lived in barracks on the base.
Then there were the "River Rats", two platoons of boats, and manned by the biggest bunch of "pirates" since McCale's Navy. Each platoon was run by a platoon sergeant( E-7) and assisted an E-6 . The same problems that plagued other units in Viet Nam we had no supplies. With these problems compounded by the fact that some of the boats were gone for months at a time, left the boat crews to fend for ourselves, trust me we did a hell of a good job of it, we rarely had want for anything and nothing was safe.
On an average probably 2/3 of the boats were out on missions at any one time. some boats such as mine were in combat roles and we rarely returned to cat Lai I would stay gone several months at a time. Returning only to pickup replacement crewmen, desperately needed supplies, and on two occasions to take command of new boats to replace the ones that had been damaged beyond repair.
Cat Lai always had one boat which was on a detail called "Cat Lai Static" , You got this duty if you really screwed up. The static boat's duty was to shuttle forklifts and their batteries used on the ships to assist in unloading the ammunition. This boat was on call 24 hours a day until someone else screwed up. Some boats thought it was good duty, they never got shot at . There were boats which drew mostly the same duties all the time. Two hauled cargo from Saigon to Vung Tau and back. A couple hauled ammunition as cargo or pushed barges from Cat Lai to Cogido (the docks for Long Binh/ Bien Hoa complex) The rest hauled "anything, anytime, anywhere".
I enlisted in the Army right after high school because it was the right thing to do. M y father had fought in the south Pacific during WWII, My dad had always said that I should join the Navy because life aboard ship was better than in a foxhole. He had been a coxswain on landing crafts (LCVP) during the invasions of the Pacific islands. You can imagine his surprise when he found out I was skipper of Landing crafts in the Army.
While in basic training at Ft. Knox there was a man in my platoon who had re-enlisted in the Army after a few years out and his MOS was Harbor Craft Operator, so in the Army's infinite wisdom they sent about a dozen others with him to Ft. Eustis.
After completing the basic seaman's course the top ten or so went on to the crewman's course, the rest were done with AIT and went to their duty stations. I graduated in the top ten of crewman's school I went on to Harbor Craft Operators school. This is where I learned the duties of a boat skipper, how to run it , radio operations, navigation, safety and much more. The top 8 of us were selected for a pilot program with the Navy in which we would learn riverine warfare inshore operations at the Naval Inshore Operations Training Center on Mare Island, Vallejo, Calf.
Every second of this course was intense training and it was all real. We learned survival at a seal SEAR training center, how to detect mines, recognize ambushes, ambush counter attack techniques, radio operations medic training, how to set up and execute an ambush (successfully). all of our training was aboard PBRs. I am very sure that I would not have survived my time in Vietnam had it not been for these instructors and this excellent training center. All of our training material came straight from Vietnam on a daily basis, battle plans and after action reports from operation Game Warden and other ongoing operations. When I arrived in country I felt as though I had already been there for 2 months.
I arrived in Viet Nam early in 1969 by the usual way, commercial airliner I can not remember what company though. The plane stopped in Hawaii, then in the Philippines, and on to Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport. I then went by truck through the city of Saigon to Camp Davies (I think that was the name of it) the transportation headquarters.
The ride through the city was a real culture shock for a 19 year old boy from the woods of northern Michigan, where the largest city I had been in was Newport News, Va.
Two days later I went by truck to Cat Lai, the ride through the country side took only a couple hours, it seemed to last all day. Entering Cat Lai compound the war seemed to become more real. The compound was surrounded by old French style wall with rolls of razor wire on top. There were guard towers with sand bags and M60s, manned by solders in helmets, M16s, and flackjackets. Inside there were newer wooden buildings scattered around which seemed to be out of place beside the old French buildings. A large White 2 story Plantation building with a balcony surrounding it on both floors stood as the center piece. The battalion headquarters and the headquarters for the other units were there plus the officers quarters. There was four two story barracks for the NCOs and enlisted men. Looking toward the river was a long one story building which was the headquarters for the 1099th, it was also the supply room, mailroom, and the armory.
Scattered throughout the compound were sand bag bunkers. There were a few old French buildings here and there They housed things such as the NCO club, another the officers club, and another housed the Coast Guard detachment. There also was a medium sized wood building which was the compound's mess hall. Out side the mess hall was a baseball field/helicopter landing pad.
I reported straight to the company HQ, after the clerk I reported to the First Sergeant and gave him my orders. He was a typical looking First Shirt, except for a broken arm, bruises on his face and he walked with a bad limp. He read my records and ask me about my assault boat training with the navy, then he went in to talk to the CO. The CO was a captain who had received a field commission in 1966. He too had a cane setting next to his desk, badly scratched face and a bandage on his left arm. He told me that with my special training I would be a valuable addition to the boat group he was assigning me to. He told me to report to the armory and supply directly after chow in the morning. I was introduced to my platoon sergeant who showed me around. He was banged up pretty bad too, so I finally asked what happened to everyone, Thinking the compound had been over run by VC or something like that, he said that during a resent firefight, a couple miles up river, one of the boats had accidentally shot up some water buffaloes. As a good will gesture the company went to an island which held some wild buffaloes and herded some onto a couple boats to give to the farmer. Well, by the time they had some loaded the company had about 50% wounded , Sarg said that the water buffalo were far worse than all the VC in III corp.
As I left the mess hall in the morning a Huey gun ship came in and landed on the ball field. I stopped to look at it, it had miniguns, rocket launchers, door guns, and bullet holes everywhere. The realization of war was beginning to sink in and it was scaring the shit out of me. I reported to the HQ and was issued an M16, ammo, helmet, and flack jacket. My Platoon sergeant told me to gather my gear because I'd be going to my boat. Reporting back and expecting to walk down to the dock, the sergeant said I'd be going abroad the boat #22. I was to Be assigned to the combat boats assigned to the 199th Light Infantry in an area called the "Pineapples" .
I was ordered to the ball field and to report to the crew chief of the Huey and they wound be taking me to my boat. The crew chief showed me where and how to stow my gear and gave me some basic instructions , even though I was an E4 there was no doubt that I was a FNG. This was my first helicopter flight, all the horror stories I had heard about choppers being shot down or crashes came vividly to my mind. At that point I was as scared as I had ever been thus far in my life. We flew over desolate battle torn country side with no sign of villages or houses just dead trees, ground pock marked by bomb craters of all different sizes. We began to circle to land at muddy spot that didn't look as big as a large parking lot.
There were no building, the only features that stood above the ground were the half dozen or so artillery guns. All else were mud and sand bag bunkers, empty arty rounds, ammo boxes, but no boats there was a canal but no boats. As we landed the crew chief said welcome to "Fire Base Barbara". I unloaded my gear, the mail bag, boxes parts, and some other boxes of supplies for the boats then the chopper left. There I stood in the middle of a real fire base 19 years old, alone, and scared. I just sat down on my sea bag held my M16 in my hand and had no idea what to do or anything.
Finally a guy in muddy fatigues, carrying his 16 walked over to me and ask if I was lost. I smiled and told him why I had come and he said the boat was not back from the previous night's ambush, and would be in soon. He said to leave my gear, put on my helmet, pistol belt, flack jacket and bring my 16 and come with him. We stooped at a bunker where some guys were setting, he told the why I was there and to fill me in on the rules of life on a fire base. I wanted to what to do in case of attack and all they wanted was to know what was new " back in the world"!
I was soon beginning to realize that this was going to rank at about "0" on the fun scale. Most of these Grunts hadn't seen a real building or had a meal other than C'rats or from a "Hot Box" in as much as 5 months. These fire basses were as isolated and remote as anywhere in Viet Nam. there was no way in other than helicopter or by boat, there were no roads, and if there were there was no bridges. Most of this area was made up of giant pineapple plantations that were once run by the French. The French dug (with Vietnamese slave labor) an intricate system of canals and waterways that reached from Saigon to the Cambodian Border . The waterways were the only transportation for the plantations for there pineapple, rice and other crops grown in the area.
After the French left, the waterways and old plantations became the primary corridor for the NVA and Vietcong to move men and supplies from the Parrot's Beak on the Cambodian Border ( the Headquarters for the Vietcong was also near the Beak) to Saigon. The Vietcong had control and went uninterrupted until 1967 when the riverine assault forces of the 9th Infantry div. and the navy, to the south along the northern side of the Mekong River, and the 199th Lt. Infantry Brg. and the boats of the 1099th operating from the Rung Sat Special Zone to the east to the Parrot's Beak to the west.
A few hours later a bout came up the canal towards us, the grunts told me that this was my boat they said they would be seeing me soon and good luck. The boat that I saw only slightly resembled the other ones I had seen at Cat Lai. the shack (crews living quarters) was not as tall as the ones I had seen before, this I found out later was so they could get under Bin Dhin bridge and some other low bridges. On the shack roof was a sand bag semi-circle which contained two GI's and two M-60 machine guns. On the Quarter deck stood two 50cal machine guns, camouflage painted armor plating and boxes of ammo. Setting on a short mast above the wheel house was a sun bleached human skull. I sure hope I didn't look as scared as I was feeling at that moment.
The boat beached itself and lowered the ramp, and out walked about 30 grunts who looked as though they had been out for a week. Behind then on the Quarter deck stood the boat crew. the looked the same as the grunts helmets, flackjackets, and tired. the only difference was the boat crew was wearing shorts and sandals. As I looked at these guys I expected to see one of them to have a black patch over one eye and a hook. The tall man in the wheel house said "you must be my replacement FNG, Welcome to the River Rats".
This was not a Mike boat from FT. Eustis. this boat had seen some shit. The outside was rittled with holes from "heavy machine gun" fire and the hull was pock marked with dents from a lot of small arms fire. Then one of the crew said "well get your gear and make yourself at home." I got my gear and helped to load the supplies and parts that had come with me. The engineer acted like it was Christmas. I entered the shack with my gear the skipper assigned me a bunk and showed me where to stow everything. The shack was built of wood. The frame was of 4x4 timbers and the walls and roof 2x12 planks with tarpaulin drawn tight over the roof to keep out the rain. The bunks were also made of 2x12 planks with an army mattress on them.
I found out later that everything inside made of wood because when the wood is hit with a round, it would absorb it and maybe through a few splinters around. If standard metal bunks were used every time rounds hit in the shack the bullets would shatter and the shack would be filled with shrapnel ( not good ). The boats also had no running lights or spotlights because of the shatter affect and because they also would reflect moon light. The bunks were on each side of the shack three to a side with storage under the bottom one on each side. The guys said not to put important things in there because it would probably get shot to hell. The sides and the stern of the shack was open and covered with a loose canvas that was pulled down to keep out the rain, when open it allowed the breeze to flow through. I remember it to be rather comfortable most of the time.
At the back there was a table also built of 1x12 and 4x4s. That was home, 4 guys in one room. There was no galley because the Army thought we didn't eat, but as an after thought they gave us C-rations. There was no "head" (latrine) facilities, just a 5-gallon bucket that you filled with river water and set a toilet seat on for comfort, then it was dumped over the side when done. ( The rule was on our boat that if a new seat was needed it was to only be taken from an officer's latrine.) to shower we stood in the rain, my engineer also had one rigged up in the engine room. That is a little insight into living on Mike boats in the boonies.
The Army LCM-8 was an excellent boat, in my opinion. They were real workhorses. The LCM-8s were about 73' long and 24' beam, flat bottomed landing craft. An all steel hull, bulkheads, and decks made it tough. The boat, dry weight, was aprox. 69 tons. The power came from four GMC 6-71 diesel engines running two 27" screws. The Army told us in school that the Mike-8 was considered as unsinkable because of it's nine water tight compartments, seven forward, the engine room, and the lazarette, and for the most part this was true. I had an opportunity to test this theory on a few occasions, in all but two occasions, they were right. We refereed to Mike boats as having "Great Absorption", These boats would absorb virtually any thing that "Sir Charles" could hit us with, and we would come away, wit mostly superficial damage, the boats were tough enough that they gave us a well deserved sense of security. The 4 engines meant that we almost always had power, if one engine would be become disabled we still had 3 to back up. This also came in handy, especially in a war where the Army felt that it was far better to have engine parts in the supply room and ready for inspection than on the boats. My (and most other) engine crews were great at "pirating and finding" parts, These guys are what kept us running. My thanks to all of them.
The boat crew was made up of guys from many different background, but and usually had nothing in common with each other. We lived in a wooden "Shack" built of 2X10s and 4X4" and only 16'X18'X6'6" , this is where we lived, ate, slept, and everything else for 24 hours a day, and sometimes we didn't get off the boat for weeks at a time.
Our food was not what you would want to serve to company, C-rations that was all. We ate C-rations cooked with C-4 or warmed on the engine manifolds. We also got food from the villages along the rivers, Every village had a bakery and they had the best French bread, we would have the kids who would come to the boats when we'd dock. They would come back with warm bread and bananas for us, at the time it was the same a steak and lobster. We also bought food from the village markets, dry curly noodle soups in packages in the grocery stores, also we'd get live chickens or ducks from the open air markets Sometimes we could get a meal in a mess hall if we were at Cat Lai , we could only rarely get meals at any Army Bases that we went to, If you were not part of their units you were not allowed in their mess halls. The Navy was just the opposite, even though we were Army the Navy couldn't do enough to help us, they would let us have a hot meal, sometimes a shower, engine parts, fuel, and about anything else with in reason. We always had a policy not to steal from the Navy, These guys are Number One in my book, both the guys on the boats, but also the crews on the Barrack Ships in the rivers..
Our laundry was done by putting soap in the pockets and dragging the clothes behind the boat for a couple hours, showers were " natures free freshwater shower" rain or a" muddy water warm shower "in the engine room. We really didn't have a lot of laundry to do, a couple of pair of cut-off fatigues and a shirt we wore when we went ashore. The longer we were there the less we had to wash. Those of us in the boonies would maybe get a shirt or a pair of pants when the Firebase would get its refit supplies, maybe once every couple months or so..
Our living space was small but adequate, so daily life was OK Life aboard my boat was comfortable, as comfortable as we could make it. It was clean, and dry, we didn't have to sleep in the mud which was a big improvement over the guys on the fire bases. During the monsoons when the mud and water was real bad I sometimes would put hammocks in the cargo deck for the infantry guys to sleep, They appreciated it but if anything happened these guys were gone. The Infantry did not feel safe on the boat, when the bullets started flying they wanted off and into the bush where they were safe, They felt we were too large a target, made too much noise and moved too slow. On the other hand we on the boats only felt safe on the boats, crawling in the jungle was not my way of being safe..
The Mike-8 was a good handling ship in the rivers and canals, what they may have lacked in maneuverability they made up for in sheer power, being twin screwed I could merely power it around. The did have one draw back, they traveled at the "speed of darkness" 12knots empty 11knots loaded. This made it hard to out run Charlie's bullets. My boat had for fire power, two .50cal machine guns on the Quarter deck, one port , one starboard. Each was set behind armor plate, and each had armor plate on the gun itself to help to protect the gunners. On the Shack roof there were two M-60 machine guns with tripods, these were protected by sand bags . I also had a M-79 grenade launcher in the wheel house with me, in boxes I had a great assortment of different types of rounds. The M-79 was great, they had many rounds for many things, Flare rounds, HE, thermal, smoke, and best of all was CS gas.
The crew consisted of five and sometimes six crewman. I was the skipper or sometimes called the coxswain, I had the duties of the Captain. The Army played down the fact that our boats were by maritime law, a Ship, to be commanded by a ships captain. By playing this down they didn't have to risk endangering a warrant officer, they felt that loosing enlisted and NCO's was, "no big deal.". My rank was Sgt. E-5. My duties were firstly responsible for the safety of the boat and the crew. I did the operating of the boat, the navigation, radioman, mother, called in artillery and medivacs, medic, and overseer of everything that happened on or around my boat. Later my other duties, I became a convoy commander and river pilot \, these duties put me in command of all the boats that traveled with me.
Next in command was my first mate, he was a E-4, he was learning how to operate the boat and how to handle skipper duties and was my replacement. He had the best job on the boat, he didn't have to do the real shitty jobs associated with ship-board life, and didn't have the responsibility of command.
Engineering was handled by a Chief Engineer (E-5 or E-4) and an assistant engineer. Their official duties were to do "First Echelon Maintenance" only, this meant they were to do only ; check fluids, change oil, clean and paint the engine room, and make a few minor adjustments. At Ft.. Eustis or anywhere in the world and in most places in Viet Nam this may have worked, but not for us. My boat and many of the 1099th boats were always on the go, sometimes in excess of a hundred miles from Cat Lai and away ,for sometimes 3 months or more at a time, our engineers had to do everything to keep us running. The engineers were trained for only four or six weeks in Ft. Eustis, and any of us who were there know how much we were trained for Viet Nam there, so they handed down their skills and know how from chief to assistant for as long as the 1099th was there. Some of these guys were great, almost Geniuses. I've seen engine crews from a couple boats get together, steal the parts they needed and completely tear down an engine repair it and have it running in a few days, often working around the clock. These crews did this out in the bush, on the go, and not because they were ordered by some officer or E-6 or above. They did it because it was their job and we had to keep running. The engine crews also didn't do this to get points or medals from our command, we never told our command because would be Court Marshaled for doing these things, that was the rules in the "book" (AR's Army Regulations) and anyone who was in Viet Nam knows that Everything had to be done "by the book" no matter how many people died.
Rounding out the crew was the lowly seamen E2 or E3 , we had always one and sometimes two of them. No crew is complete without seaman and deck hands, someone had to do the work.
This has been a little insight into our lives as a Mike Boat Crew in Viet Nam. Life was a little different with each boat crew and what types of assignments the boats did. Because we had no one higher in command on any boats it allowed each boat to reflect the personality of their crews. Though our living conditions were not to bad for us on the boats, 1099th boat crew was not a place for the "weak at heart". Traveling ranged from scary to terrifying beyond comprehension. The dangers were every where, we were on a target 73' long and stood 10' above the waterline, and as I said before "traveled at the speed of darkness". We were targets from, well planed ambushes, one shot Charlie, Stumbling into river crossing by NVA regiments, snipers, Command detonated mines, and any thing Charlie could think up, and he was smart.
The 1099th and 1097th boats, for the most part were in the middle of a lot of shit, most of the time, we took a lot of hits and returned a lot of fire, and became the most decorated Transportation company in all of Viet Nam, we sustained very few causalities thank God. In some of the areas we worked, on my boat we started the morning knowing that we would get hit at least once by the next morning, and we knew that Charlie was not going to hit us unless he thought he would win. When Charlie ambushed us, he would have us out gunned and some tricks up his sleeve or he wouldn't take the chance, because we could ,and did give back a lot of shit.
I find myself very proud of what we did, I give a damn less about the war or the government, but proud of the help and support we gave to the combat units we worked with, supported and protected.
The 1099th had a reputation of always being able to carry "anything, anywhere, anytime and under any conditions". And we all tried to live up to this reputation. I am afraid that our reputation as "Pirates", and "River Rats" was far better known. The Commitments, as they were called, varied a great deal, but basically meant taking two or more boats to a place load up and take it somewhere and off load it and return. These missions were any where from Tan An to the north to the Gulf of Thailand in the south, from the South China Sea in the east to inside Cambodia to the west.
Our missions could take from a day or two to several months. The primary function of the Medium boat Companies was to haul general cargo, and about half of the 1099TH boats did that, the thing that separated the 1099th from other boat companies was where and under what conditions we hauled this cargo. Unlike other Medium and heavy boat companies the 1099th was a "combat boat company" we were engaged in direct combat support. The 1099th was the only "direct combat support company in the 1st LOG Command. The 1099th and the 1097th ( they worked solely with the 9th Infantry Division in the Delta) were the most decorated companies in Army Transportation. Our missions ranked about a -10 on a scale of 1 to 10 If it was safe and easy someone else did it. We moved JP-4 (aviation fuel) to remote places through waterways too narrow and small for another boats to travel, hauled ammunition to Fire Bases too remote and inaccessible for any other forms of transportation. Ferry crossings were a common commitment for us, some times we would travel several days to a remote location to ferry men and equipment across rivers or canals. (Charlie always seemed to know that these units were stuck there and that our boats were the only way these units could move, so it seemed that they were always ready and waiting for us, no fun).
As with all other things in Viet Nam nothing was ever the same for any two assignments. The 1099th had a lot of different missions to perform and many of the boats settled into a routine of operating different commitments. For some of the commitments the boats had evolved to match there particular type of mission that they worked. These boats and their crews became specially adapted for their tasks. The captains and crew gained local knowledge of the routes that they traveled, their ports of call the support units in their area of operations (Air support, artillery support, Medivacs, ect ), knowledge of how to handle their unique cargoes. These commitments were good or bad ones. Hauling beer from Saigon to Vung Tau was a good one, hauling rubber bladders of JP4 from Nha Be to remote locations near the Cambodian border every day was a bad one.
There were two boats that primarily hauled JP4. they would pick up the bladders in the Navy fuel Depot @ Nha Be and transport them up river (Song Vam Co Dong) to Tay Ninh, Bao Trai and many other LZs along the rivers. They also hauled up the Song Vam Co Tay to Moc Hoa. These trips would take 3 to 4 days up, a day to get off loaded and three to four days back, wait a couple days and load and do it again. Often on these missions when more than 20,000gal were needed they would assign a couple of more boats to go with them. I had the opportunity to do it a couple times and I was scared to death. One spark and the boat would become Viet Nams only active volcano. My crew and I all agreed we would rather be back in the boonies with the infantry.
In 1970 the 1099th annexed a boat company from Vung Tau, these boats had only one mission, that was to haul gravel. These guys had had the life of ease living in Vung Tau and hauling gravel for the Army Corps of Engineers, to be used for building roads, bases, ect. They also weren't considered as a big price for Charlie, so they very rarely if at all had been ambushed. These boats had a giant pan constructed in there well deck, allowing cranes to dump the gravel in and then for off loading The ramp would be lowered and large payloaders would drive aboard and scoop out the gravel.
There was also a Saigon shuttle boat which ran from Cat Lai to Saigon. It would go every day do what ever shuttle boats do. This boat was one of the "pretty boats" because it represented the Co. There was a unanimous decision that my boat didn't qualify as a "pretty boat" by any stretch of the imagination, so I never had that assignment.
Another primary duty of the 1099th was the transporting of munitions. Each Mike boat could haul 65 tons of cargo and that is a lot of bullets. There was two boats that that was all they did they hauled to Bien Hoa, Saigon, all over the delta. They too would often have additional boats traveling with them. Much of there mission was to re-supply Fire Bases and helicopter bases. They primarily carried armed 2.75 rockets and mini-gun ammunition for the helicopters and artillery shells for the Fire Bases. This was a big job and we all hauled ammunition at one time or another. The 1099th had a very important mission throughout its tour in Viet Nam ant that was the combat support of the ground troops, both American and ARVN.
The 1099th didnt have the high profile missions of the 9th Division or the Navys brown water navy but we truly kicked some ass. The majority of our work was with the 199th Lt. Infantry. The 199th AO covered all of the northern Mekong Delta from Cambodia to the South China Sea. This area was all criss-crossed with canals and no roads. Most of it was plantation land, rubber, pineapple, sugarcane and rice. These were old French Plantations which were abandoned. These were designed with water as the primary means of transportation. These canals were hand dug by Vietnamese slaves for the French over a century ago, they were straight and deep. The width varied but many were only about 50 feet wide (Mike Boats had a 24 beam). These narrow canals made for up close combat. Some of the bigger canals such as the Kinh Bac Dong stretched for 60 miles in a straight line. The only place that we were able to turn our boats around in an emergency was either at the intersection of 2 canals or to nose into one of the many B52 Bomb craters that doted the river banks. Trust me these places were few and far between and Charlie knew them too.
9th infantry division : The operations of the 1097th Med. Boat Co. have by far been the most written about, their operations with the Navys Brown Water Boats, Navy Seals, and the 9th Div.s high profile operations made them well known. Based in Dong Tam on the Mekong River These boats pushed Artillery Barges and carried ammunition in support of the ground assaults. Their operations centered on the Mekong river and its tributaries, down to the South China Sea, they also took the first troops into the Ron Sat Special Zone to secure the shipping lanes into Saigon and the ammunition port of Cat Lai. I was only around the ninth div. Once to assist in their withdrawal in the summer of 1969. 199th Light Infantry Div. The boats of the 1099th dad a long and distinguished history with 199th in Vietnam. The 199th , by nature was a fast moving mobile strike force in reality the ideal strike force in southern Vietnam. Their AO extended from the Ron Sat Special Zone and Highway 15 on the east to near the Parrots beak on the Cambodian border, I dont know exactly where the end of their Area was on west, it extended past the French Pineapple plantations on the Song Vam Co Dong river and Doc Hoa. I know that it extended west into the "No Mans Land" west of the Vam Co Dong river.
As I have mentioned before the area directly west of Saigon to the Cambodian border was the main infiltration and supply routes for the NVA and the VC. This area purposely had very few roads and an intricate network of canals and rivers. The French built this system in the 19th and early 20th century to work their many Plantations in the area. The water ways were ideal for the "Bad Guys" and left many a West Point graduates scratching their heads for many years (Id say that some are still dazed and confused on how to operate in this area). The mentality of conducting military in the southern part of Vietnam was the same as they used in the central highlands and up north, plan and skillfully execute large, multi-branch, well planed operations, involving thousands of men, helicopters, artillery, air strikes and weeks to plan. These operations worked in WW1, WWII, Korea and every where throughout history and it didnt work in southern regions of Vietnam. The 9th Div. Conducted these type of operations in the Delta with the Navys riverine assault forces and were moderately successful, primarily in the early years of the war when the enemy was in large units and had control of the area. These missions meant that first someone would have to find Charlie, then the ground troops had to be organized, the navy boats had to be organized and moved into position near the strike area, the Navy Seals moves in, Coordination between air strikes. Artillery, medics and we cannot forget the reporters and film crews contacted and they get their authorization move to the AO. All this would take several weeks and done in secrecy (HA HA) Then the mission could be launched. By the time that all this had taken place many of the Bad Guys had gone on R&R, retired, their wives had had kids and they already knew more about the operation than the average man on the ground. I do not ever want to sound as though I am taking away from the devotion and courage of the troops and what they did on the ground during the years of the Vietnam war. I hope that some day the combat troops, the 18,19,20 year old boys who really did the fighting get the recognition and in the history books reflect how they, and not the high ranking officers fought and gained all the successes in the War.
The 199th had a different plan which worked far better. All through the areas of operation the 199th had small fire bases strategically located through out the region. Each base had a few of artillery guns on it and a Company or two of ground troops. Each Firebase operated independently in their own area but all the firebases were all within the same unit so they would also operate as a single force on very short notice. Many of the firebasses were located on the rivers and many canals and these were assigned Mike Boats from the 1099th. Each base had one or two boats working with them. The mission of the boats was a vital part of their missions, and provided the key to their success. "Light infantry" was the key. Our bouts were able to carry 100 to 150 men and equipment according to the Army, but realistically we carried up to 75 comfortably. Each boat acted as a floating APC (armored personnel carrier) with a lot more fire power. Mike boats were better than an APC in my opinion because we were a lot bigger, this made for a larger target in the bush, a trait that didnt set well with the infantry dudes, but on the other hand we did carry an nearly unlimited supply of ammunition, rations, water, medical supplies and what ever they needed. Each boat had a cargo capacity of over 60 tons which is a lot of ammo. This all added up to what the guys in the bush didnt have to carry with them on their backs. The boats also acted as the CP (Command Post), fire support (2 -.50cal machine guns, 2 -M60 machine guns, M79, clamors, LAWS and a unlimited supply of ammo), field aid station (that had communications, security, and could move to a secure location for "dust-offs". What more could a guy want in combat. Our "Mike" boats had one very distinct advantage over helicopters and air Mobil, and that was we could stay and fight it out. If we were making extractions of troops we could, and did stay as long as we had too, to get everyone out safely. We stayed minutes hours, or even days if needed, to finish what we started. The fact their was always that refuge near by produced a physiological advantage and some sense of security to the guys.
Missions were conducted on very short notice. We were said to be able to put a company of troops on Charlies ass in as little as an hour from the time that Recon made contact. Often one boat would insert troops behind the VC and another boat would go around and establish an ambush and cut him off. This worked too! I am very proud to say that I never had any members of my crew killed or seriously wounded during my entire tour. The crewman on all the boats, for the most part were the very best. They always maintained a high state of moral under some very trying conditions. We lived on the boat , having to make our own living conditions, we were by our selves on the rivers and canals, often in areas we didnt know.
The Army in there wisdom felt that an E-5 was all that was needed to command these boats so that meant that I was the highest in command on our boat of the boats that ran with me. I was 19 years old, trained as a boat operator, and thought inshore warfare, but nothing of command. I, even now have to deal with the guilt and plaguing memories of having the responsibility of the men and the boats and not knowing what the fuck I was doing. We survived by improvising, determination and sheer luck. I had no one above me to go to for advice, counseling or support, for one they just weren't there, they were in Cat Lai and we were 75 miles away, and on occasion when I did see them, it as like we spoke two different languages. They spoke Army talk and I spoke "the way it really was". Since they were officers and I was a Sergeant, you can figure out who was right.
We learned to take care of ourselves for everything we needed to live and accomplish our missions. We were on the river for as much as 3 months without contact with our command. This is stress that no one should have to deal with, least of all 5 nineteen and twenty year old kids. And all the time every where we went Charlie tried very hard to kills. Our combat was a frequent occurrence, being ambushed, and mines in the water were our biggest dangers. We much of the time had to do our own repairs from the rocket, and mines (most of the time I was there we had no maintenance boat, it had been mined shortly before I arrived) we did this by coning people, lying, stealing, buying parts with our own money, or any other way possible. This is why I feel the boat crews of the 1099th are some of the true heroes of the War.
My special thanks to: Dave Obreg - mentor
Mike Lynch - Engineer
Bruce Easter - Engineer
Holmes - Seaman
Larry Cook - Pirate
Larry Avery - Pirate
Buck Hartman RiverRat
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