As If It Were Yesterday!
by Ken Delfino
(Keystone, South Dakota)
WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! The sound of distant explosions interrupted the reverie of my dreams…BLANG! Boy, that one was closer! WHUMP! BOOOM!!!
“Delfino, wake up! Delfino, get the hell up!” Who is this yelling at me I wondered as I groggily tried to wake…it’s just another mortar attack and…WHUMP! BOOM! BOOM! B-r-a-a-a-a-a-k! B-r-a-a-a-a-k! Now the staccato of semi and fully automatic weapon fire shook the cobwebs out of my brain as I realized this was not our normal monthly visit by “Five-Round Charlie”
It was around 0430 on January 31st, 1968 in My Tho (me taw), the capital of Dinh Tuong Province about 45 miles south of Saigon. My Tho was the headquarters of the United States Navy’s River Squadron 53 comprised of patrol boats (PBRs) of River Divisions 531, 532 and 533 and a SEAL team. It also served as headquarter for the Vietnamese Army’s 32nd Ranger Battalion and 7th Army Division.
Of the three river patrol divisions, two were stationed in town and rotated with the third off an LST (WWII Landing Ship, Tank) at the mouth of the Ham Luong or Co Chien Rivers. I was a crewmember on PBR 152, River Division 533 and we were on our “in-town” rotation this morning. Each crew of four was housed in a room in a requisitioned hotel renamed Carter Billet and we were a block east of some of the 7th ARVN HDQ buildings. Around the corner and across the street on Avenue Le Loi was the Khach-San Victory (Victory Hotel) in which was housed our squadron headquarters and officer country. From there, it was eight blocks south on Le Loi to the piers where our boats were. When mortars start falling, the ‘off-duty’ crews are scrambled to the docks to disperse the boats until the attack is over.
On the evening of January 30th I and some fellow sailors visited the villa of the Philippine Civic Action Group (PHILCAG). This was a medical detachment assigned to the province hospital in My Tho. I had met them earlier in the year we had received occasional invitations to come over for some ‘home-cooking’ of tasty Filipino dishes…and hard to come by San Miguel beer!
When mortar attacks would start, the Filipinos had their own procedure and that was the “duty half” of the team got dressed and rushed down to the hospital to await civilian casualties. Their villa was about half a mile from our headquarters at an intersection we called “The Y”. It was the entrance to My Tho on the main highway from Saigon.
With January 30th being the evening of the Lunar (Tet) New Year in South Vietnam, there were several Vietnamese among the guests that evening. The party went on until several of us were reminded we had patrols and other assignments the next morning. We wished each other “Cung chuc may man” (Happy New Year) and returned to our bases. I had several San Miguel beers and had forgotten that it since I had cut back on my drinking while in-country, it didn’t take as many to put me under!
Now as my boat captain, BM1 Jim Hicken and fellow crewmates tried to raise me from the stupor, they gave up and placed the other three mattresses against my bunk between the street and me. WHUMP!
WHUMP!…. ah, it’ll stop I thought…. KABAAAAM!!!!!!…the building shook…crap was flying all over the place and that, along with the close sounds of automatic weapons immediately woke me!
I dressed quickly, flak jacket…helmet or beret??? I chose my black beret for quicker recognition by our guys and grabbed my M-14, extra magazines and bolted outside. It was still dark…I yelled up at the sentry on the roof of our building to call over to the Victory to let him know I was coming. There was no response…it wasn’t until later that day that I heard that the water tank on top of our building had taken a direct hit and the sentry was not up there. GMG2 Glen “Slayer” Slay’s recollection of that morning was the water cascading down in front of his glassless window along with chunks of debris. He went up to see what was going on and found a very shaken sentry. He grabbed his gear, went down to the docks to get his boat underway and cleared the docks just as a mortar hit the dock itself!
I ran to the corner of our alley and Le Loi and took two steps into the street before I heard the unmistakable sound of a .50 caliber machine gun being loaded! I ducked back and yelled, “Delfino, coming over!”…the response was “Who won the World Series?” to which I responded “St. Louis!” and I was cleared to cross the street and enter the Victory grounds. I went to the galley and got a cup of coffee and filled my pockets with pocketable cow and tried to find out what the heck was happening.
The TOC was a beehive of activity as report after report came in about attacks on all province capitals, Saigon as well as nearby towns of Ben Tre and another squadron base at Vinh Long. After looking at the markings of activity on the map around the city, the first thing I needed to get was more ammo! We had a shuttle that went between the TOC and the base and after finding the driver, I jumped in and we took off. While passing the second intersection, we took fire from the west and I wondered, nervous Viets or VC? It was still too dark to tell foes from nervous friendlies. We made it to the base and I stocked up on more ammo and wondered what I was going to do. All the boats had been deployed and extra base personnel jumped at the chance to fill in a spot…and someone filled mine on 152.
The driver was GMG3 Jose Garza, another 533 guy who was ordered to serve as the shuttle driver until relieved. Our adrenalin was pumping and here we were, two sailors like ducks out of water! A call came in for the shuttle and Jose had to return. I told him to wait and went back into the armory. I knew there was an M-3 “Burp Gun” and if I was going to be Jose’s shotgun driver, I wanted a weapon that was easy to use in a vehicle and had knockdown power. I grabbed the M-3 and the five magazines. I also grabbed an M-79 grenade launcher and a belt of 25 grenades…just in case.
We sped back to the hotel to pick up the passengers and by now dawn was lighting the city. Gunfire was very heavy and too close for comfort. We knew the ARVN had set up a tank perimeter, but we did not know how far from the base. I stayed with Jose and at around 1000 I asked him to go over to the hospital so I could check on the PHILCAG team.
We arrived and I spotted MAJ Manason who was the senior officer. I asked how the team was doing and he told me that the off-duty team was trapped in their quarters! Jose and I raced back to the TOC and found CDR Sam Steed who was the squadron commander and ranking officer. He had been to the villa on a couple of occasions and when I told him I wanted to get some volunteers to get the team out, he said “DO IT WITH WHATEVER YOU NEED!” With his support, we headed back to the base to round up a couple more guys. Two sailors were available, fellow 533 sailor GMG2 Rich Wies and base armourer GMG3 Dennis Keefe. “I have a mission and we need some support” I started out. Halfway through my explanation, Rich and Dennis turned around and picked out the weapons they wanted and started stuffing their pockets with ammo…Dennis took and M-16 and Rich picked a Winchester Pump. We piled into the shuttle truck and headed back up Le Loi. Just past Carter Billet we turned left and headed two blocks later we were in front of a large school that no longer had a roof and whose façade was pockmarked by with bullet holes punctuated by black-rimmed holes from cannon fire. At the end of the street we had to make a right and go two blocks to the team’s quarters.
The ARVN tanks were parked, engines running and I asked for the senior ARVN officer. I was able to tell him in Vietnamese about the Filipino medical team and asked him to move his tanks to give us cover fire if we got in trouble. “Khong duoc! Khong duoc!” which meant “NO, I CAN’T!” He did not want to jeopardize his tanks for an impromptu mission! We were on our own!
Wanting a quick egress, Jose turned the truck around and backed it down the street toward the “Y” as Keefe, Wies and I hugged the buildings. Bodies and debris was everywhere…in the streets, on the sidewalks and in the blasted buildings. We passed the first block and hoped the ARVN officer had let the other roadblock know we would be crossing. We took no fire from the street.
We proceed on…one more block to the “Y” and the villa. Wies was on point and Keefe was covering the intersection ahead. We reached the walls of the villa compound and I immediately went for the bomb shelter only to find it full of Vietnamese civilians!!! Had the team gotten out? The door was closed so maybe they were still inside.
I tapped on the front window rather than take a chance that rounds would be fired through the door if I knocked on the front door. I tapped and yelled out “Myrna! Myrna!” trying to get a response from LT. Myrna Milan. Three shots rang out and I ducked and turned to see Wies’ shotgun barrel smoking…it was aimed at upstairs windows across the street…”Just keeping ‘em honest and their heads down!” he yelled. “I got you covered”…I banged on the window again and yelled Myrna’s name much louder and saw the curtain move and her face appear in the window.
“Let’s go! We’re getting you guys out of here now!” She disappeared and in less than a minute the front door opened and she, CAPT Leonora Gumayagay and a sergeant appeared. We escorted them around the corner and we all loaded up into the truck and took off for the hospital.
When we arrived at the hospital, they were aghast to find that another sergeant was missing! Apparently he had gone back upstairs to destroy the radio so it couldn’t be used had there been a counter attack! We had to go back to get him! Garza, Keefe, Wies and I looked at each other…nothing was said and we all piled back into the truck and headed back. Once again, the ARVN officer would not move a tank, but this time he did have a fire team cover us to the next intersection…but not all the way to the ”Y”. It was on this trip that I took a closer look at some of the VC bodies and noticed a couple in particular that were much larger stature and did not have the harsher VC features…I deducted they may have been Chinese. They were all wearing black and had blue armbands.
My memory’s a bit fuzzy here, but I think it was SGT Salvador who was the commo man and he was very relieved and grateful for our coming back to get him. We got him out and back to the hospital and were happy that not one of the team members was lost.
After grabbing some chow and water, we decided we needed to obtain another vehicle so we could patrol the inner perimeter in two vehicles. We found a blue jeep with USAID markings that was sitting unattended. Someone hot-wired it and it got back to the base where a coat of OD green was applied and a mount for an M-60 was added. Navy markings were added and we were set.
Around 1400 we were in the vicinity of the soccer field, which was across the street from the previously mentioned school. Adjacent to the field were two Army jeeps with one US WIA. They were waiting for a DUST-OFF to come pick him up. There was a helo pad on the west side of town, but units of the 9th Infantry Division had not cleaned out the VC that had taken over that area. We decided to take a break and wait to see the Medevac. As the helo was flaring out to land, the window in the announcer’s booth across the field flung open. Not knowing if a VC was in there with a B-40 rocket, we immediately took the booth under fire…the army sergeant waved off the chopper and they took off.
We escorted the soldiers down to the docks and called in a PBR to take him up to the Army hospital at Dong Tam just five miles east of us. The road to Dong Tam was still cut off by VC.
I returned to the TOC and gave CDR Steed and my XO, LT Bob Moir an update on the Filipinos. After hearing the report, CDR Steed told me to invite them to stay at the TOC so they’d at least have some military protection as opposed to the hospital where there was none. Officers doubled up in their quarters and bunked in rooms whose crews were on patrol.
It wasn’t until around 1600 that I went back to my room and noticed a huge hole in the street in front of the Carter. This was the round that had hit and jarred me out of my stupor. We had a deuce-and-a-half stake truck parked across the street and the entire side was shrapneled…as well as the wall protecting the first floor…MY FLOOR of the billet!
As darkness started to fall, we learned more of what had happened. It was a guess that up to three battalions of Viet Cong had hit the town (later determined to be accurate), but were repulsed by an immediate counterattack by the 7th ARVN on the north and west, 32nd Rangers on the east and our SEAL team was wandering through town doing what they had to do to help stem the attack. The 9th Infantry counterattacked from the west toward the ARVN positions, but that five-mile area was to be contested for a few days. The immediate threat to the heart of the city (7th ARVN HDQ and our TOC) had been stopped, but we all were anticipating a counterattack when darkness fell. The daylight revealed several buildings with holes in their roofs where mortars hit.
After picking up the Filipinos and getting them settled at the TOC, we decided not to stay in the Carter, but rather picked a building across the street from the TOC that gave us a decent field of fire over the
approaches to the TOC which was a block away. We supplied ourselves with water, food and plenty of ammo and grenades and settled in for the night.
Though night had fallen, the battle raged on. Twinkling lights in the sky indicated either helicopters or fixed wing aircraft. Several times green tracers of the enemy would reach for the lights only to receive a return of thousands of rounds from a Spooky gunship. Artillery rounds from Dong Tam were landing only a couple of miles away as they supported operations in progress. Gunfire could be heard in the streets, but beyond the perimeters the Vietnamese had set up.
I started dozing off into that mode known as ‘combat sleep’…your body is relaxed, but your mind can separate the distinction between imminent and possible threats. You aren’t really asleep, but you are able to recharge.
When morning came, there still were battles raging in close proximity, but the offense had been pushed to beyond mortar range of us.
Crewmember PBR 152; Boat Captain, PBR 151
River Division 533, RIVRON 5
The events of that morning…that day…that week will live with me forever. I’ve always wondered whatever happened to my Filipino friends as well as my “team”…those guys who did not hesitate to step forward.
Since 2002, I have had the opportunity to meet up with Jose and Dennis. I’ve been in e-mail contact with Rich. A few years ago, with a tremendous amount of help from the former PHILCAG Chief of Staff, I received a letter of verification of the mission from COL Myrna Milan Delena, Philippine Army (RET).
Through her, I found out that COL Leonora Gumayagay is in Las Vegas and COL Estela Casuga is in Daly City…where I went to elementary school and lived when I returned from Vietnam and in the late ‘70s. I spoke with Nora (we called her Mom) and I will attempt to contact Estela.
People have told me I should write a book, but dang, that sure is a lot of work and I don’t know if I’d enjoy writing a book…let alone have it sell! I owe a great deal of thanks to President Fidel Ramos, GEN Jose Magno, Jr. and Ms. Stella Marie J. Braganza who helped me locate members of the Dinh Tuong team.
So this small segment of my life is dedicated to my brothers-in-arms with whom I patrolled the Long Tau, Soi Rap, Co Chien, My Tho and Ham Luong Rivers for 22 months…to my young friends at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, NC (Kim, Sara, Kevin, Chris, Courtney, John, Caitlin, Lauren, Megan, Gessica, Nikki and Alicia) who have been able to pull forgotten memories out of the recesses of my mind…to Dr. Lindy Poling who created the Lessons of Vietnam class at Millbrook…to Ralph Christopher who told our MyTho story in his book “Duty…Honor…Sacrifice” …to Rich, Jose, Dennis and the members of the Dinh Tuong PHILCAG Medical team for a bond that will never be broken…and to my wife Melba who stood by my side and understood the frustration, anger and need for revenge that raged through the core of my body and mind after the September 11, 2001 attacks by those Muslim murderers.
This story was written for you…just as it was…. as if it were yesterday!
Ken Delfino's Military Service:
U.S. Navy 1964-69 (medically retired)
Quartermaster, USS Seminole, AKA-104, Amphibious Squadron V, 8/64-6/66
Crewmember/Boat Captain, River Patrol Force, Mekong Delta, South Viet Nam 09/66-7/68
Honors: Navy Commendation Medal w/Combat V, Navy/Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation
w/1 star, National Defense Medal, Viet Nam Service Medal (1silver 2 bronze stars), Viet Nam Cross of Gallantry, Viet
Nam Civic Action Unit Citation, Viet Nam Campaign Medal, Viet Nam Naval Service Medal
Combatant Craft Crewman badge, Small Craft insignia
May 31, 2015: WWII Normandy Project "Honor Their Memory" with the founder, Ken Delfino (radio interview, 2 hours)