Small Tug Ambushed Towing Ammo Barges on the Dong Nai River

From Rod Mitchell with Ralph Grambo

For more information and pictures of the Small Tugs see ST2110

Join the Army! See the War Firsthand.

Me, Rod Mitchell, standing in front of a water tank used for a shower. You can just see a 45' tug over my right shoulder and the Cogido bridge over my left shoulder. I am on a floating barge that housed about 10-15 of us.

I grew up in Sacramento and graduated from High School in 1965. I was pumping gas at a Shell station, when in 1966 I decided to join the Army and see the War first hand. I did my Basic Training at Ft. Lewis,Wa. Normally people from California went to Ft. Ord which was the most god forsaken place on the planet. After Basic, I went to Ft. Eustis, Va. and was trained first as a seaman, then further trained as a marine engineer and given the mos 61C20. Our class was sent to Okinawa and assigned to a BARC unit with no BARC's. I was later assigned to a Large Tug, approx 150 long and we did several ocean tows to the Phillipines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While in the Phillipines I got orders for Vietnam and was assigned to 4th TC 11th Battalion.

Ammo Operations at Cat Lai

Cat Lai Port Headquarters at the riverfront

I arrived in Viet Nam in May of 1968 and was assigned as a marine engineer to a 65 foot tug working the Cat Lai harbor. We moved barges around the ship, from hold to hold, depending which item was being unloaded. When the barge was full we towed it a short distance and tied it to the full buoy. My tug along with several others did this all night, and the next day we tied 4 loaded barges together, ( I think it was 4), and towed them upriver to Cogido. I can't remember if we had this duty every night, but it seems as though we did. We would get intermittent sleep, I don't remember getting a full nights sleep very often.

Several loaded cargo barges.

At Cogido we were met by 45 foot tugs who would assist us in tying them to the full buoy there. We would then take 4 empty barges back to Cat Lai for reloading. Don't hold me to the numbers, it could have been 2 loaded upstream and 2 empty downstream. It has been so many years. There was no harbormaster at Cogido at that time, we simply changed radio frequencies and contacted the smaller tug. Our 65 foot tug couldn't get under the bridge therefore the smaller tugs were necessary. Of course, leave it to the Army to put the unloading pier on the other side of the bridge.

This a picture of a Philippine tug towing an empty barge from Cogido to CatLai.

We also took loaded fuel barges from the tank farm at Nha Be to off loading sites upriver. As before, we took them to Cogido and were met by the 45's. We were frequently harassed by the VC. I saw several bits of evidence to the reality of it all. On the side of the river, there was some wreckage of a barge that had been blown up. A Philippine contractor tug hit a mine while I was there, and I looked in the crews quarters and it looked like some giant had turned the boat upside down and shaken it. Clothing and personal effects were scattered everywhere. I only know that one man was blown off into the river, I don't know what happened to the rest of the crew, they were all gone and the boat was tied up to the pier at CatLai.

Tugboats as Targets

Tugboats are very slow. The screw or propeller are angled for power rather than speed. When we had a full tow and were going against the tide, we probably only went 4-5 knots per hour. This made us a very east to hit target. Sometimes I felt like we had a bull's-eye on the side of the boat.

One time when enemy activity was heavy, two tugs tied up side by side and pulled the tow upriver. We had two helicopters flying figure 8's over us and two river patrol boats jetting figure 8's around us. I. was just coming out of the engine room, having gone in to check the day tank, when I heard what sounded like a giant sledgehammer hitting the side of the tug tied next to us. At first I didn't know what it was, then I heard it again. After the second RPG, I knew exactly what it was and ran topside and started firing my 50 cal. into an area where I saw some smoke. At about that time the helicopters had sighted in and were firing their rockets into the jungle. What an awesome sight that was. I would have not wanted to be on the receiving end of that barrage. The bep [meaning cook] on the other tug took a hit to the head, but no one else was seriously hurt. The engineer on the other tug took some shrapnel and was medi-vaced to the hospital. After that the skippers of the tugs decided to call the boats Lucky and Charm. We painted the names on the wheel house.

Barge of Ammo on Fire

After the attack, and after we had cleared the area, we looked back and saw that one of the cargo barges was smoking. remembering the twisted wreckage of an old cargo barge on the bank of the river, we feared that the smoldering wood ammo boxes might catch fire and explode. The tug which was later to be named Lucky, broke away from the tow and started its fire nozzle pumping and went back to put out the fire. We were all pretty nervous and everyone was looking for a sharp knife in case we needed to cut the tow rope. Fortunately the fire was extinguished. It is hard to say what hit the cargo but someone speculated that it may have been the handle of an RPG that missed and went over the top.

The Vietnamese fellow who was hit was the cook. We had a civilian crew consisting of 3 or 4 seamen and sometimes we had a cook. I never understood that, because we rarely had anything to cook. We were given additional pay for "rations not available" so we ate a lot of rice and begged and traded for fresh food.

I did this for approximately 6 months, towing barges from Nha Be and CatLai to Cogido.

Delta Riverine Duty

Just a sampan. I don't know where it was taken, but we saw lots of these.

I also spent about one of those months down in the Mekong Delta doing some work down there. I remember going into the harbor in Can Tho and all the civilian traffic in the river and thinking, If we ever got hit here, we couldn't even return fire. There were ARVN boats that patrolled the small inlets off the main river. One day we got a distress signal from one of them. They were receiving automatic fire from the bank and were sinking. We rushed to their aid , (4-5 knots per hour) and by the time we got there, they had beached their craft and the VC were gone. We just kept going upriver as there was nothing we could help them with. We would have given them additional fire support for the short time we were in the area, but having the barges in tow precluded us from stopping. One time a Mike boat visited with us for a while. They had a squad of LRPS on board and were going to let them off in the jungle when it got dark. They were all painted with camouflage paint and were very quiet, already in their jungle mode. They were sitting apart from one another, not being "chummy" Presumably they were getting psyched up to spend a few days in the jungle.

Harbormaster at Cogido

One of my buddies and his buddy, with the Cogido bridge in the background. In the background, there are two ARVN boats tied together. On the very far left is a PBR. An American combat watercraft. These boats used to give us escort up river. The new building in the back is a mess hall/bar that we were building.

In the fall of 1968 I was assigned full time to the Cogido area. A barge with a hooch and several beds was towed and secured to an area near the bridge. The fellows on the 45 foot tugs had previously been living on their respective tugs and were now given a new home. I was the new harbormaster. There was not much to the job, and we didn't keep many records, only a small log book. We had 3 or 4 45 foot tugs and one Philippine tug called Badger. We met the tow coming up from CatLai and assisted them. There were 4 unloading berths up river of the bridge and a fuel unloading berth near the air base at Bien Hoa. I would get a call from the unloading berth saying that a berth was now occupied by and empty barge, and to please remove it and replace it with a specific barge number. I would then assign 1 or 2 tugs to do the work. The same thing happened for Bien Hoa. We would get a call saying a fuel barge was empty and to replace it with another. It was all very simple and didn't require much record keeping.

This is the deck of a mike boat with a 45' tug tied next to it. They are building a 4 man hooch in the well deck.

After my tour was over, I was discharged. I had less than 90 to serve and was given an early out. When I got out, I got a job with a trucking company. I drove truck for a year and then took a couple of years off and availed myself of the governments money under the GI bill. I got a total of two and a half years of college. I went back to truck driving and then became a manager and managed for several years. About 8 years ago, I went back to driving and now driving for Safeway.

Here I am on our floating home. As you can see my left hand is bandaged. I got a puncture wound that developed into blood poisoning. I awoke one morning with a soreness under my left arm. I looked down to see a red line running up my arm. I didn't need an M.D. degree to know what it was, so I went to the Long Binh dispensary and a medic cleaned out the wound.

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