Charles Hunt, who served on U. S. Navy patrol boats in Vietnam, has written a book, Through the Water and the Fire.
Hunt shares his experiences as aft gunner on a 50-foot Swift Boat patrolling and conducting special operations in the myriad of waterways in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Swift boats consisted of six-man crews, were heavily armed, and gained their nickname due to their high-speed capabilities.
During his yearlong tour, Hunt survived 160 combat missions, engaged the enemy on 13 occasions, and received the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” for courage under fire. In 1970, he returned to his country in turmoil over its involvement in the war. Unlike the negative image of Vietnam veterans cast by the media in the years following the war, Hunt adjusted, married, raised a family, received multiple awards in his trade, and served in his local church.
Of Hunt, editor Laura Gainsborg says, “Within the pages of his books lies not only a true war story but also a history lesson, an autobiography, and a witness to the love and grace of God. Based on his letters and audios sent home during his days serving on a Swift Boat, Hunt allows the reader to glance through a window into the mind, heart, and emotions of a Vietnam combat sailor as well as glimpse his reflections of the Vietnam era as a retired veteran decades later. “
Through the Water and the Fire is available to order from all major booksellers in printed or digital format. More information is online at charleshunt.us.
The following is a compilation of excerpts from his new book, Through the Water and the Fire: A Swift Boat Sailor’s Story:
The flight from Ton Son Nhut air base on a C123 transport plane to Phu Quoc Island was routine until the landing. The airstrip on Phu Quoc Island is located between two mountains Worse yet, in order to clear the first mountain and then get low enough to land, it required the pilot to drop quickly after clearing the first mountain. This dropped us right into the turbulence of the mountains. The plane proceeded to bounce around like a carnival ride. The challenge for the pilot was to keep the plane stable enough to touch down without the plane tilting left or right or having its nose too high or low.
On his first landing attempt, he could not get his aircraft stable enough to land. At the last second, he decided to abort the landing. As he put the power back on and pulled back the controls to climb, the engine just outside the window strained for all it was worth. Now shaking and vibrating were added to the bouncing up and down, left, and right. I had already resolved myself to the possibility that I might die in combat, but I had not thought about being killed in a plane crash. I figured that if we crashed, my body would be strained through this cargo net like dough through a pasta maker.
We cleared the second mountain and circled around for another attempt at getting onto the ground in one piece. Once again as we dropped down over the first mountain. It became a struggle between pilot and nature. As the ground grew closer, it seemed that all at once the pilot must have decided that “it’s now or never”. He dropped us out of the air in a manner that felt closer to a crash than a landing. As we bounced and sped down the temporary airstrip, the pilot reversed the engines attempting to slow and stop before running into mountain #2. Once again, the deafening roar of the straining engine just outside the missing window and the contortions of the wing materialized. Finally, we slowed down and rattled across the metal mats that formed the temporary airstrip and taxied into place. Ah land! Sweet, sweet land. The sea had given me cause to love the land, and now the air had doubled that love. When the motion stopped and the engines wound down, the fear dissipated, and there was peace and relief.
Slightly more than 3000 American sailors served on Swiftboats during the Vietnam War. During the early years of the war, Swiftboats only patrolled the coast, so probably only about half of Swiftboat sailors ever operated in the rivers and canals.1 Seafloat was only a U.S. operation for slightly more than a year starting in June 1969 until it was turned over to the South Vietnamese in 1970. So the number of Swiftboat sailors that experienced this unique slice of combat history in this sometimes apocalypse-like setting may number somewhere around three hundred.
The name Seafloat is somewhat misleading as the only time it floated at sea was as it was being towed through the South China Sea southward along the coast of South Vietnam on its way to its eventual mid-river anchorage smack dap in the middle of enemy controlled territory in the Ca Mau peninsula. But to those sent to operate in the remote rivers and canals of the Ca Mau, the name Seafloat had a very ominous meaning. Rather than the relative safety of a coastal patrol in open water or the routine boarding and searching of water traffic on the larger rivers, Seafloat meant regularly going into the enemy’s backyard and running various types of special operations. Being at Seafloat also meant depending on a highly vulnerable base located far away from any major military assets that could assist quickly in a time of attack. In other words, Seafloat was out in “Injun’ country”.
On March 27, we were probing deeper and deeper into VC territory by means of the narrow canals. I remember one day going deep up one of the northern canals a long way from Seafloat. There wasn’t much depth to the canal, and the banks were high. As we went deeper and deeper, there were warnings for us. Punji sticks could be seen on every square foot of canal bank that weren’t covered with vegetation. Punji sticks are sticks about one or two feet long that are sharpened on one end and forced into the ground, sharp end up, in groups impaling anyone who steps or falls on them. Often they were dipped in human waste to cause infection. There were also signs in Vietnamese that said, “Death to those who enter.” These signs were there to scare us – they worked!
Finally, we came to a wire cable stretched across the canal in front of us. There was the possibility that it was connected to a mine hidden in the water below the boat, with the mine fixed to be detonated if the cable was disturbed. Lt. Kean ordered one of the crew to cut the cable, so we stopped in the water and cut a cable that could blow us out of the water. This was a true moment of fear that was approaching panic! My body was fighting itself. My lungs were trying to expand far enough to get more oxygen to feed all the muscles in my body while every muscle tensed including the ones holding my lungs from getting enough air in.
The cable was cut, and there was that anxious moment, while I held my breath, braced, anticipating, waiting. Would there be a delayed explosion? Would the boat lift in the air from the blast? Would we be sinking with a hole in the bottom of the hull that we could not patch? Were the VC watching and waiting to attack us after the explosion? If we were blown off the boat, would we have to choose between climbing onto the punji stick–covered canal bank or staying in the water like fish in a barrel? Would our cover boat that was following us be able to pick us up if any of this happened? How long before helos or help could get to us way up here? All these thoughts, conscious and subconscious, went through my mind in seconds that seemed like hours.
There was no explosion and no attack – yet. I exhaled. Now we had truly entered the enemy’s back yard. As we progressed, we came upon sampans and hootches, all of which we destroyed in true style of the old “Sealords Raids” done a year or so earlier when the Navy first entered the Ca Mau. We were creating explosions, fire, and smoke that let all the Viet Cong or NVA for miles know exactly where we were and no doubt pissing them off a bit.
Eventually it was time to turn around and “Get out of Dodge!” as the tide was going out. Even way up these small canals there could be a drastic change in water level, leaving us a big target sitting in the mud with just a couple feet of water around us. Of course by now, any enemy who had not been prepared for our unwelcomed excursion into their domain had had time to collect themselves and their weapons to give us a “warm farewell.” About halfway back out of the canal, a few rockets were fired from a safe distance over top of us. We returned fire but continued our exit, wanting to exit the canal before the water level went down any further.
I have experienced all sorts of fear. I prefer the quick ones that I can do something about right away no matter what the intensity level may be. An example would be being shot at and returning fire.
For me the worst kind of fear is the long duration fear. An example of long duration fear would be the monsoon storm we had ridden through back in November. The intensity level is not as awful as the duration. Fear that lasts for hours and days that you seem to be unable to do anything about is the worst kind of fear. It is debilitating. It sucks the life out of you. Over a prolonged time, a person becomes zombie-like.
There is fear that is right up front that is all encompassing of your senses. There is fear that lingers in the back of your mind or subconscious but influences your decisions, words, and actions. Days and days of combat missions makes a person an expert on fear.
Proud Miserable Vagabonds
Depending on how we viewed our lives in this Brown Water Navy, we could feel like miserable vagabonds or proud warriors and at times a bit of both. We were sent from one forward base to another, never staying anywhere long enough to feel like we belonged there. We operated day or night depending on the operations area and what was needed at the time. Sometimes we were on station for days at a time. Eating and sleeping took a back seat to accomplishing the mission. Sometimes we might come in from being out all night, eat, get a couple hours of sleep, and then be sent right back out again. As we were on the water, the mosquitoes fed on us nightly.
The heat was offensive but made much worse due to the clothing worn at night to keep the mosquitoes from our skin. The helmet and flak jacket added to the heat. Rashes, crotch rot, and athlete’s foot were difficult to stay ahead of given the heat, humidity, and random ability to get a shower.
Life had hours of boredom dotted with instantaneous bursts of excitement and adrenalin.
Underneath of all the annoyances of this crazy existence lay the knowledge that any day on the river could be our last day, or worse we could be severely wounded or captured. All this slowly took its toll on me and I suppose many others.
On the other side of the coin, there were parts of this life that we loved mostly for reasons of feeling special or macho. Being part of the activity at Seafloat and HaTien was exciting. We were where it was all happening. We were on the “A” team now. We were gettin’ it done. We were some tough dudes. We delivered that awesome firepower. We didn’t have to put up with the usual spit and polish bullshit that the regular Navy dealt out.
Then there was the camaraderie like nothing I ever experienced before or since – living together, eating and sleeping together, sharing 24 hours a day together, learning and knowing that your buddy would always cover your back. We functioned in combat as a single unit – boat and men. For a relatively brief period of time, we were a brotherhood living a unique experience unlike any other. Yet in time, all the circumstances and experiences wore us down, and feelings and emotions became more and more calloused. It took time to change us to what we had become, and back home in the states it would take time to get back to somewhere near normal again. Whether any of us is entirely “normal” is questionable. I guess it depends on the definition of “normal”.