BOARDING

By Dave Moyer

 

From The Owasco Chronicles

What I was doing or indeed where I was, I don’t really remember, but I do remember the messenger of the watch tapping me on the shoulder and eloquently relaying the bridge’s message: "Hey, Moyer, they wantcha on the bridge."

My equally eloquent reply probably went something like this: "Oh shit!"

I knew I didn’t screw up on one of my watches because for the first time in a year I had a week underway without standing a watch. All I was doing was some overdue chart corrections and plotting the weather maps, and I knew we hadn’t run aground, and we certainly weren’t in the middle of an unplotted typhoon. I figured I was safe but forgot one of the rules of all servicemen: Never figure on anything.

The bridge activity was as usual—too small for the number of men on watch, and the "Old Man" was hovering over the radar screen, "Conn" was standing over the plot, and the bridge watch was at their usual duties of steering, looking out, and getting coffee for everyone else. The Quartermaster had a pair of binoculars up to his eyes staring out off the starboard side at a mess of sampans, those nifty little boats the Vietnamese are so fond of. They fished from them, traded from them, and something else that never ceased to amaze me—each had a small fire in the middle to heat their tea. No small feat when you consider that these craft were anywhere from 10 to 16 feet long and made of wood. Those damn fires were on flat rocks set directly on the bottom of boats. How they never burned was beyond me, but then most of this area was beyond me.

The Chief Quartermaster saw me staring at the sampans and asked if I would like to get a closer look. "Not particularly, Chief." You see, some of those innocent-looking boats were occupied on occasion by the VC trying to slip in country. Some even held North Vietnamese regulars, who took a dim view to being discovered.

"Well, you’re gonna. Search and seizure—it’s your turn in the boat."

I think I said it again, "Oh shit!"

You see, one of the things we did was lower our small boat, pack it full with eight guys, along with the liaison petty officer, and sail off into this grouping to search each boat and seize anything or anyone who looked hostile or had phony ID cards. My quick mind immediately told me that coming that close to a hostile in a small boat could lead to unpleasant circumstances, and believe me when I say that I had no heroic tendencies. Discussion with the Chief was useless, however.

First order of business was to get dressed for the role. The flak jacket was uncomfortable in 95 degree heat and 100% humidity. Next came the radio and signal flags (I was communications), then came the .45 along with 4 clips. Big deal. My .45 was so loose it rattled. I swear I could have pointed it North and the round would have gone East. I had the Expert medal, the highest award for these things, but this one was useless. Lastly, my knife. Now for that all-important head gear—the standard combat helmet and liner.

As I picked it up, the Gunners Mate grabbed my arm. "Take care of that, it’s brand new." Big deal again.

"I promise I’ll do my best to not get any holes in it," I said. He got PO’d.

"Screw you!" Gunners Mates are also eloquent. "That’s brand-new and I’m responsible for it."

I wanted to say then, "You wear it and get your ass in the boat," but I assumed I’d get the previous response again.

Lowering a small boat loaded with men is no pleasant matter, especially when you’re the loweree. You’ve got to grab lifelines and hold on tight while you’re going down in case the lines slip. Neat, because if they do slip, you end up dangling about 12 feet over the boat, hanging on for all your worth.

Once in the water, the coxswain kicked over the diesel and away we went toward the grouping of sampans. As we approached, we sort of hunkered down behind the Gunners Mate in the bow. That was smart. Even though we were all locked and loaded, he had a sawed-off 12 gauge with a 6 plus shot tube full of double ought buckshot. No dummies, we!

After about 3 hours of harassing these poor fishermen, scaring their kids half to death and then trying to make it up to them by giving each a small packet containing soap, tobacco, fish hooks, and propaganda, all carried out in horrendous heat, it was time to go home to mama. That’s the part I liked, and to make it even better, we weren’t shot at and found nothing out of the ordinary.

Raising the small boat is just the reverse of lowering it, only this time it didn’t exactly go smoothly. First, the bowman missed the line with the bow snap. Unfortunately, the sternman didn’t. This had the effect of spinning us around 180 degrees and almost tossing the crew into the South China Sea.

Once that was taken care of, the raising began. The forward frapping line slipped. This holds the boat tight against the hull of the ship, causing the bow to swing out on the next roll and slam against the side on the reverse roll. Neat feeling.

Halfway up the forward haul line slipped. The stern held, so the bow dropped vertically and suddenly, a full 7 feet, leaving the entire boat crew, including one very perturbed Quartermaster dangling from life lines, while the ship rolled from side to side.

After what seemed like an eternity, the bow was brought up to its proper place and the boat raised to main deck level. Without being asked, this sailor took a long jump back home. Unfortunately, with one hand on the lifeline, one hand holding the radio, and the signal flags in my mouth, I sort of lost my balance. No big problem, except I didn’t have my helmet chin strap fastened. The jolt sent the Gunners Mate’s brand-new responsibility off my head and over the side. Combat helmets sink.

The guardian of this precious piece of war was not pleased. He didn’t buy the fact that I didn’t lose it. I knew where it was—in 150 feet of water in the South China Sea, and as a navigator, I could even give him the exact longitude and latitude if he wanted it. Gunners Mates have no sense of humor.

As soon as I secured my gear and made an attempt at putting my senses back together, the ship’s address system told us that the ship’s store was open for the next half hour. Cigarettes—the crutch of many of us to fight the boredom and to calm our nerves. I needed a carton.

Still trying to unwind from my near water dumps and fear of being shot, grenading, and whatever, I queued up in the line with about a dozen others.

"Carton of Winstons." That’s when I saw the sign, about 3-feet long and 3-feet wide. There was a picture of the ugliest old dude I ever saw with no teeth to go with his wrinkled, prune-like face. In his toothless mouth hung a cigarette, and underneath was a message: CAUTION: CIGARETTE SMOKING CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH."

I pointed at it and the sailor behind the counter read my mind. "New government regulation. Has to be posted wherever cigarettes are sold."

Ironic isn’t it? I wonder why they don’t put a warning on small boats, lifelines, combat helmets. . . .

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