Stories From Cat Lai
There was a Captain Kentucky, not his real name that worked in the Operations center at the Harbor Master office. He was called a "Real Prick!" by the enlisted men and fit the description accurately. One day I had spotted a Catfish surfacing in between the piers in front of the Harbor Master office. The fish was about twenty feet out in front and away from the rock berm that lined the river in that location. I took my M-16 and fired at the Catfish, which turned out to be about two feet long. The Vietnamese janitor, who we called "Ho Chi Minh", asked if he could have the fish. I told him to get it. He retrieved the fish using a long pole.
The unpopular Captain Kentucky came into the Harbor Master office and chewed my ass for firing the shot. He said it might have ricocheted off the rocks and hit somebody. I knew that it wasn't even close the rocks and anybody who had seen the harbor at low tied knew that there was nothing but endless mud at that location. This created a little more dislike for Captain Kentucky. Not only from me, but also from other EM in the office. \
One evening after a real busy day at the Harbor Master office, I had returned to my barracks to go straight to bed. I had been pulling a double shift and had not slept for 24 hours. I lay down on my bunk and started to drift asleep. I heard a loud explosion in the general direction of Headquarters building. The Officers slept upstairs in this building, which had a veranda running all the way around it. I grabbed my M-16 and flak jacket and headed out the door. As I stood on the top of the stairs leading to the second floor of my barracks, I saw all the officers running around the veranda in their underwear. One of my fellow workers came by the barracks and I asked him what had happened. He said someone had thrown a concussion grenade in front Captain Kentucky's door. I asked if they got away and he said they hadn't seen anybody. The unpopular Captain was the one running around the veranda in his underwear screaming at everybody scared out of his wits.
If the guy that threw that grenade reads this, I want to thank you even though I didn't get to do it then.
During TET 1971 an MP came up to the Harbor Master office and stated he was going out in a Whaler to check the buoys in the Harbor. He asked if I wanted to go along. I said sure and after making sure the radios were monitored we took off to check the Southern buoy's.
It was about an hour before dusk and coming back up river we spotted a sampan coming from one of the tributaries that serviced the rice paddies around Cat Lai. There were two occupants, a young girl, and her younger brother (about 10 years old). They were dressed up in what would be considered dress clothes to the Vietnamese. The MP Sgt. stopped them and started yelling at them for being on the river.
There was a curfew that day for being on the river after dark. Remember, It was about an hour before dusk. He made the young boy jump in the river and took a grenade threatening to throw it. I did not know why because they were telling him they were going into Cat Lai to visit relatives for TET. I asked him to cool it and return me to the Harbor Master office. After a minute or so of my prodding he let the young Vietnamese brother and sister continue and returned me to the pier.
There was a young Lt. in the Harbor Master office when I got back. While we were chatting I told him what had just happened on the harbor. He was a Lt. that was very friendly toward enlisted men and who partied with us when the occasion arose. Thinking nothing about relating this story to the Lt. I went back to work. Without me knowing about it, the Lt. had gone up to the HQ. building and had told the CO about the incident. The MP was reassigned to the Security Guard unit which was basically an insult since the Security Guards were made up of all the "heads" who couldn't handle anything more important than sitting on guard all night getting high. As one of them sang after packing his cigarette with "SKAG". "I'm gonna take you higher, higher, light my fire." Didn't do the rest of us much good with him on guard.
The man who had been reassigned saw me later but did not seem to have any grudge to pick with me. I then thought that maybe the Sgt. assumed that the Vietnamese brother and sister had turned him in. Any time I had contact with him he never mentioned the incident. Some things you just leave alone. I want to point out that as far as I know, the MP's at Cat Lai did a wonderful job and were well respected outside of this incident. I am not sure that the Sgt. in this story ever served on a PBR.
I remember the day a three star General came to visit Cat Lai and to review the operations there. The Vietnamese Longshoreman had been on strike and if we wanted anything done we had to use the enlisted personnel to do it. This included off-loading the ammunition off the ship. This was hampering us and not much ammo was getting to the line units that needed it badly.
The General, I think his name was Wainwright or something similar, came to the Harbor Master office accompanied by the Commanding Officer and every high ranking Officer that was able to get their nose up the Generals ass. The Commanding Officer was briefing the General. The General turned toward me and asked what my responsibilities amounted to. I informed the General of my job instructing tugs to maneuver around the harbor moving barges and mooring ships. I then told him of the bottleneck created by the Vietnamese Longshoremen going on strike. The CO apparently had not wanted the General to hear about this. I never saw a General escorted out of an office so quickly. I expected to receive a visit from one of those Officers after the General left. I never received my visit. I think I was up for promotion to E-6 that I did not receive as well.
One day while working in the Harbor Master's office at Cat Lai a Cobra gun shop flew to a hover over the river in front of the office. Suddenly my radio squawked and the pilot called to say he had extra ordinance left over from his sortie. He said there was some brush on the East side if the compound and would it be allright if he cleared it out with the ordinance. I told him to go ahead. What did I care. The Cobra turned and maneuvered his position next to the compound and let loose with a series of rockets. Scared the hell out of me. I didn't think the perimeter was as close to me as that. I waited for the CO to call me on the field phone but nothing happened. Got lucky that time.
There was a time when we did not have any ammunition ships in the harbor. If an ammunition ship was in the harbor a ship with any other type of cargo was not allowed to enter the harbor. The day the buoys were empty an Australian Navy ship was allowed to moor while waiting for a berth in Saigon. The Captain of the ship appreciated being allowed to moor in the harbor and invited all the people working in operations to come to the ship for dinner. We all went out to the ship and met the Captain and his crew. We were served a wonderful meal and some liquor to go with it. After a few drinks some of the crew wanted to trade uniforms and hats with us. So we accompanied the crew to their living quarters and we exchanged uniform shirts and hats with them. I wasn't willing to give up my uniform jacket (didn't have enough as it was) so I traded my hat for the Australian Navy hat. The hat was ruined by mud and water when my sister's basement was flooded during a spring storm. I lost my uniforms and medals in storm as well.
One night while watching a movie in our makeshift movie theater. One of the heavy drug users sat down beside me. He wanted to know how long I had been with CID. I told him I had never been with the CID. He said I had to be with the CID because I never smoked "skag" or marijuana. I told him that I thought I was stupid enough without letting drugs making me any dumber. He looked at me with a strange look and got up and left. I steered clear of him from then on. During those evening movies jets would fly over taking pictures of the terrain to see if there was any movement or who was running around out there. The explosion from the flash was always heard first and would make you jump out of your boots. It sounded as if the Headquarters building had just been blown to hell.
I was directing tugs around the harbor one day. Captain Goode, the Australian officer Attached to the unit was in the Harbor Master office. I had been talking to one of the tugs and the gruff Captain of the tug was doing the talking on the radio. I had always thought this guy to be someone I didn't want to know so I was not too friendly to him. I had asked the tug to do a detail when I saw it pull up to the pier.
The Captain came off the tug and was walking toward the Ops building. I didn't think anything of it. I thought maybe he was going to pick up cigarettes or something. A few seconds later the WO was standing at the doorway to the HM office. He started jumping my ass about the way I talked on the radio. He felt that I was demanding instead of dispatching and that I should be a little nicer on the radio. We both had words with each other and stated our positions. Captain Goode just listened. After he had his say the Tug Captain left. Captain Goode was still there.
I asked Cpt. Goode what that was all about. He told me that I could be a little more courteous on the radio. It wasn't something I was conscious of but I had bad radio manners. I tried to improve and as time went along the tugboat Captain and I became good friends and his crew invited me to take trips to Newport with them and gave me lessons on running the tug.
I ended up liking that Captain and his crew as well as I liked anyone at Cat Lai. I went with one of his crew to retrieve an empty barge that had broken loose and floated up one of the rice paddy canals. We took a 25-foot tug and got the barge. After mooring the barge the crewman told me to take the wheel. When we got to his tug the Captain laughed and said he wondered who was steering that tug zigzagging down the river and laughed out loud. We all had a good laugh and I learned a good lesson from that old tug Captain about how to treat people on the radio.
One evening during the longshoremen strike we had barges breaking loose and didn't have anything but a 25-foot tug at the pier. The tug was manned by Vietnamese who sympathized with the longshoremen and went home until the strike was over. A couple of men from operations and I decided that we would retrieve the loose barges. We took off and started the tug. I had ridden along in the tugs several times and had received a little bit of information from some of the crews. I started the engine and headed out to the southern buoys to retrieve the barges. Some of the guys in the Mike boats were looking at the tug trying to figure out who was on it knowing that the Vietnamese were not. We got to the barges and after banging against them a few times and almost knocking the man on the bow into the river, he got the barge tied to the tug after multiple tries and me bouncing the tug off the barge. We took the barge to the buoy and tied it off as best we could. That was enough of my career as a tugboat Captain.
When the United States decided to implement the Vietnamization program, I had to be at Cat Lai. The ARVN soldiers were brought into operations and it was our job to train them.
The ARVN were given a 45-foot tug as well. Soldiers manned the tug that appeared previously never to have seen water. Oh well, we would do what we had to. The Vietnamization wasn't going smoothly. We had a problem when the ARVN tug would disappear from noon to three o'clock and the ARVN we were training in Operations was disappearing with them. They wouldn't respond to radio calls and could not be found when we sent another boat to look for them. This caused some resentment from the American side and we had just about had it with the ARVN. American tug crews were taking up the slack and nobody was happy.
One morning the Vietnamese tug was assigned a tow to Cogido. I called for a bird dog and told the ARVN that worked with me to assign the barges and get the tug started upriver with the tow. After the tow was assembled and on its way, the radio was squawking like the whole North Vietnamese army was attacking the base. My ARVN counterpart was on the radio seeming to have everything in hand. After talking to the tug for what seemed an extremely long period of time, the ARVN turned to me and said the ST-2525 (not sure the designation is correct) was on fire. I asked him what kind of fire and if they had equipment to fight it. He said they advised him they had a small fire in the engine room and had fire extinguishers. I told him to tell them to use the fire extinguishers and put the fire out. Each one of these conversations seemed to take forever to translate. He assured me everything was under control. I was sitting in the chair at the desk in the harbor master office and the window was a little above my head. I decided to stand for a while until my ARVN counterpart advised me the status of the tug.
I stood up with my arm resting on the windowsill. I looked up river and saw a column of smoke rising in the North at the edge of the harbor. The tug was engulfed with flames and smoke. I yelled at the ARVN and asked him why he hadn't told me about the level of the emergency. He said they were going to take care of it. This would have been a difficult job for the New York Fire Department let alone the ARVN who had no experience even operating a tugboat. After all this was their first tow.
I had one tug in the harbor manned by an American crew. I think it was the ST-2110 but it has been a lot of years. Anyway the American tug had fire-fighting equipment and headed up river to the ARVN tug. The PBR were on site and informed me that when they arrived the ARVN were not fighting the fire but cowering on the bow and jumping in the river when a PBR got close enough for them to be plucked out of the water. I heard a lot of small arms fire and a few larger booms from the direction of the tug. I called the PBR's and asked if they were taking fire. They informed me that the ammunition storage locker along side the stack of the tug was on fire and ammunition stored in the boxes was going off. Some of the men from the American tug and the PBR's jumped onto the ARVN tug and started throwing what ammo that had not gone off into the water. I thought they were crazy but appreciated the gut's it took to dump that ammo. They may have saved some lives. Who knows what direction that ammo was going to discharge toward. This guy's might have been heroes.
The fire was eventually put out due to the assistance of the American tug ST-2110 and it's firefighting equipment. (If I have given the wrong tug number. I hope somebody can correct me.) The fire destroyed the tug. It was towed to the left pier and the 50 caliber machine guns had barrels that were curved like a banana from the heat. The crew was standing outside the operations building and their CO was screaming at them at the top of his voice. I told someone standing next to me that they were in a lot of trouble. He replied "No they aren't. That CO is just doing that to try and impress the Americans who were watching." Turned out later he was right. No disciplinary action was taken against the ARVN. They ended up being given another tug and we were back at it with Vietnamization. .
We were required to turn over all of our boats with American plates and utensils. The ARVN never used utensils they preferred chopsticks. During the investigation as to the cause of the fire it was determined that one of the ARVN crew had gotten a parachute flare off one of the barges. He had wanted to take the parachute home to his children. While trying to open the flare to get the parachute he caused it to ignite. They had been storing fuel in drums in the engine room and the ignited flare ignited the fuel. What a war.