PCF 35 crew

 PCF 35 Crew picture: (from left to right) Bill Clark, Rick Gorman, Carl Russell, Henry Inabnett, John Roland, John Pank

A Vietnam Story

     Forty years ago in a war torn country, a not-so-unusual combat action unfolded.  This action resulted in the highest award to be received by any crewman of Swift Boats in Vietnam, not for death of an enemy but for saving lives.  This action and the events leading up to it is told by of a member of the crew, Henry Inabnett.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to John Rogers ROLAND, Jr., Lieutenant, Junior Grade, U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism on 28 January 1970 while serving as Officer in Charge of Patrol Craft Fast THIRTY-FIVE (PCF-35), Coastal Squadron ONE, Task Force ONE HUNDRED FIFTEEN (TF-115), during combat operations against communist aggressor forces in Kien Hoa Province, Republic of Vietnam.

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     The thump of the plane’s landing gear descending and the whine of the flaps lowering on the wings brought Henry’s attention to the window.  As the plane approached the airfield he looked out the tiny window to his left seeing the blinding white sandy shoreline.  The white beaches and blue waters were inviting.  After reading of the violence in this country, he did not know what to expect, but it wasn’t beautiful white beaches and crystal blue waters.  No one on the beach was shooting at each other. 

     The MAC flight touched down at the airfield at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam with the normal screech of the rubber tires on the hot concrete runway operated by the United States Air Force.  Henry had mixed emotions of fear and excitement as he prepared to enter a country with some people that did not want him there and would kill him and all on the plane if they could.  He also knew there were some down there, other than other soldiers from the States, who had asked for help.  But most of all he saw the country as a source of adventure – memorable, exciting, and dangerous.  It would not be the normal ship routine he had already experienced in the United States Navy.

     Henry had led others in exciting expeditions along heavily wooded streams, experienced burning thirst, and swam vast distances.  All of this before he had graduated from high school.  Of course these were expeditions and competitions with neighborhood kids in the forest and lakes behind his house in north Louisiana.  Many of the expeditions were mostly in his mind.

     Henry grew up with television and was glued to the small screen as much as possible.  Through television he learned of the world outside of north Louisiana and began dreaming of visiting far off places he saw on television.  He wanted to learn more about the people living in foreign countries he saw on television.  Through the television programs “The Silent Service” and “Victory at Sea” he began to see the Navy as his best chance of getting out of Louisiana to see far off places and find adventure.

     Henry’s mother died when he was 15 and his father was a state government civil servant with only two years of college obtained at a great personal expense during the depression of the 1930’s and immediately after returning from World War II.  His dad saw the result of a college education for a person’s income and station in life and desperately wanted his sons to have a college education.  He pressured both sons to reach for the ticket he could not have ... a college degree.

     Henry meandered through his education years not really concentrating on school, always with the dream of wandering the world.  He tried to get into any naval officer training program he could, but without better grades or knowledge he soon learned that avenue was not going to be available to him.  While in college he saw a group of sailors in formation outside of one of the buildings.  After investigating, he learned a small naval reserve center was located at the college and he found his opportunity to both comply with his dad’s wishes of getting a college education and attain his vision of adventure.  Henry joined the U.S. Navy and continued his education.  After two more years of college with little interest he finally determined to go on active duty and go after his dream of adventure in far off lands. 

     After spending eight months aboard the USS Chemung (AO 30) off the cost of Vietnam, he quickly learned there was still more he wanted than the routine of ship-board life, there was more to his dream.  One night, after watch in Combat Information Center as a Radarman 3rd Class, he leaned on the railing outside the bridge and looked westward as the ship steamed north to its next rendezvous with a ship needing fuel.  From five miles he could see an outline of the coast as flares fell one after another over what he imagined as a remote village and knew soldiers were in harm’s way.  If he was going to truly experience the adventure he craved, he had to be in Vietnam, not off its coast.

     Henry received orders to PCF’s (Patrol Craft Fast) better known as Swift boats.  He had no idea of the Swift Boat’s mission in Vietnam, but it was his next step to adventure.

     He soon learned the boat was fifty feet long made of aluminum.  The pilothouse contained the helm, small navigation table, navigation radar repeater and depth finder.  There were hatches on each side of the pilot house, the main entrances from the outside.  There was a passageway behind and to the left of the helmsman.  It went into the main cabin, but on the right side of the passageway immediately behind the helmsman was a ladder leading into the “gun tub” positioned on top and just to the rear of the pilothouse.  The “gun tub” was a turret with twin mounted 50 caliber machine guns.

     The main cabin was two steps down from the main deck and pilot house, and high enough a person of less than six feet could stand erect inside the cabin.  Along the starboard side of the main cabin were storage cabinets for food and gear.  On the forward end were two radios mounted above the counter top with a chair in front fixed to the floor.  Below them under the shelf was the main operating unit of the radar repeater in the pilothouse.  On the aft end of the storage cabinet was the small sink with a pump handle and below a refrigerator and a freezer.  On the port side of the main cabin were two bunks, one on top of the other.  The lower bunk became the card table and sitting place during the day.  There was a low seat just forward of the bunks at the foot of the steps to the pilot house with a compartment containing all the small arms allotted to the boat.  There were M-16’s, an M-79 grenade launcher, and 38 caliber pistols.

     On the forward end of the main cabin, just to the right of the passageway to the pilothouse, were two steps leading to another sleeping area.  The bunks were angled toward each other at the forward end, separated by a short ladder leading to a square hatch providing access to the bow of the boat.  Being directly below the pilothouse and only about four feet high, you had to always stoop over in the area.  At the foot of the ladder was a sea toilet (that was never used.)

     On the stern of the boat, on the main deck, was a very special weapon.  A tripod fixed to the aft-deck held an 81-MM mortar that could be trigger fired with a 50 caliber machine gun mounted on top.  It was just aft of two large hatches leading to the two diesel engines located aft of the main cabin.  At the very back of the boat on the main deck was a metal chest welded to the deck used for stowing mortar rounds.

     Henry reported to the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California for 9 weeks of training across the bay from San Diego. There he met the crew of the boat with whom he was to share his great adventure.  He was assigned to the crew Lieutenant (j.g.) (Junior Grade) John Roland would command.  Roland was from Georgia and a US Naval Academy graduate.  The Leading Petty Officer was Quartermaster 2nd Class Carl Russell from Illinois who was responsible for the well being of the crew and boat maneuvering.  The rest of the crew was John Pank, Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class of Ohio, responsible for hull integrity, Richard Gorman, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class of Michigan, responsible for the boat armament, and William Clark, Engineman 3rd Class of California, responsible for the engines.  Henry as a Radarman was responsible for communications and electronic navigation.  During the 9 weeks they learned the mission of the Swift Boat in Vietnam, how to handle the boat, each others jobs, the Vietnamese language sufficient to complete the mission, how to shoot and clean all weapons they were to use, how to carry out their mission, and one week of survival training.

     Toward the end of Swift Boat training at the Coronado Amphibious Base, the officers known as O-in-C’s (Officer in Charge) were given choices as to where they wanted to be assigned in Vietnam.  Roland chose the Mekong Delta area thinking it would give them better chances for a greater variety and more interesting missions.   After 9 weeks in training the crew flew to Vietnam.

     Before the crew’s arrival “in-country” in 1968 Swift Boats were assigned to patrol the coast of Vietnam to cut off the Viet Cong supply line of weapons and ammunition from the north.  The boats and combined efforts of other naval forces had effectively stopped the supply line from the sea.  The PBR’s (Patrol Boats, River – made famous in the movie “Apocalypse Now”) had slowed down resupply efforts and insurgency in the rivers of the delta, but needed to spend more time patrolling the smaller rivers and canals.  The war on the rivers and coast of Vietnam was about to change.

     Henry flew from Cam Ranh Bay to Vung Tau in August of 1968 in route to Coastal Division (COSDIV) 13 based in Cat Lo and assumed his duties along with the rest of crew aboard Swift Boats as relief crews.  After several months of normal patrols and fighting the elements more than the enemy, the crew was assigned to river patrols and took over the 35 boat as its primary crew.  Henry got to know the delta tributaries of the Mekong like the back of his hand as they carried out two and three day patrols inspecting shore lines, water taxies, and sampans going up and down the rivers, or highways, of the delta, and the occasional special assignment.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Citation (continued)

Accompanied by PCF-100, Lieutenant (j.g.) ROLAND conducted a daring daylight probe into a narrow canal off the Ham Luong River, deep into enemy-held territory.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

     Lt (j.g.) Gerald B. O’Grady was originally assigned to COSDIV 15 in Qui Nhon reporting there in October 1968.  In December 1968, volunteers were requested to go to Cat Lo and he volunteered as did the crew members who came with him.   They were assigned and sailed the 100 boat from Qui Nhon to Cat Lo, leaving on December 13, 1968 arriving several days later.

     On January 28th the 100 boat served as a blocking force in the area of the canal named the Rach Thu Cuu.  The Army was making a sweep through the area with the 100 boat on the lookout for anyone trying to escape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Citation (continued)

After completing a devastatingly effective gunfire mission, both boats were caught in a deadly cross-fire from a numerically-superior Viet Cong force entrenched in both banks of the canal. PCF-100 sustained two serious B-41 rocket hits which wounded the Officer in Charge and one crew member, and knocked them over the side. The helmsman of PCF-100, blinded by heavy smoke, was unaware of this situation and proceeded out of the canal. Upon observing the situation, and realizing the grave danger of the two stricken men, Lieutenant (j.g.) ROLAND unhesitatingly placed his boat between the two men and the bank in an effort to protect them from further injury. Due to the severity, volume, and accuracy of the enemy fire, he found it necessary to make several passes before stopping and pulling his two wounded comrades aboard PCF-35. Lieutenant (j.g.) ROLAND's rescue efforts were undaunted by the fact that his boat had received a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade round; he directed the operation to a successful climax despite the intense enemy opposition.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

     January 28th 1970 was the beginning of another patrol for the 35 Boat.  Pank cast off the last line at 8:00 AM from the pier at the Cat Lo Vietnamese Naval Base up river from Vung Tau.  Vung Tau was a major seaport where large cargo ships would anchor in the harbor to await an escort up the shipping channel to Saigon.  As navigator, Henry set a course though the awaiting ships for a short trip across the bay at Vung Tau to the mouth of the My Tho River in route to patrol on the Ham Luong River.

     On a previous patrol on the Ham Luong Roland had noticed the Rach Thu Cuu canal on the north bank in an area south of Ben Tre in the Kien Hoa Provence.  The crew had made a brief foray up the canal alone finding an old elevated metal footbridge over the canal further up the canal.   Since there was nothing but dense vegetation and no apparent inhabitants, Roland wanted to explore it further when he could have another boat as back-up.

     The 35 boat arrived at the patrol area at 4:00 PM.  Roland picked up the radio microphone, keyed the mike saying, “Perky Beer Golf one zero zero, this is Perky Beer Golf three five, over.”

     “Perky Beer Golf three five, this is Perky Beer Golf one zero zero, over,” was the response.

     “This is Golf 35, what is your posit, over" and so the rendezvous was established.

     Roland had asked O'Grady if he and his crew would like to accompany us up the canal before heading back to Cat Lo.

     The rendezvoused with PCF 100 was made as they were searching a junk.  While the 35 boat waited for them to finish, an Army advisor came over the radio giving permission to go into an area known to be enemy territory.  Roland laid out his plan to O’Grady with the 35 boat leading the way into the canal.  After the raid the 100 boat was to return to Cat Lo.  O’Grady agreed and readied his crew for the incursion into the canal.

     Roland set GQ (General Quarters) in preparation for combat action and he personally checked the crew.  Everyone on both boats donned their flak jackets and helmets and prepared their weapons.  Henry could hear Gorman overhead pull belts of 50 caliber ammunition out of their metal cans and the slam of the top of each gun as it was closed to lock in 800 rounds linked together for each gun.  The gunner then pulled the lever back twice to load shells and cock the guns.

     Henry strapped on the 38-caliber pistol and readied the M-60 machine gun with 3000 rounds of 30 caliber ammunition linked together in a wooden box holding mortar rounds for shipping.  The ammunition was just to the left of the machine gun.  The M-60 was issued to the boats after they began to enter the rivers.  He stood in the hatchway with only his head and shoulders out of the hatch.  If necessary he could drop back into the compartment easily and continue to fire with only his arms and head exposed.  He was confident of his weapon, his position, and felt ready to face another incursion resulting in only shooting his weapon.

     Clark prepared the over-under fifty-caliber machine gun and 81 MM mortar with five hundred rounds of 50 caliber ammunition ready plus a few rounds of mortar shells placed on the deck next to storage cabinet.  The mortar was seldom used on raids like this.  Pank assisted him and had an M-16 ready.

     Russell strapped on a 38 caliber pistol and took over the helm of the boat.  Roland was armed with an M-79 grenade launcher near Russell in the pilot house doorway.  Henry heard Roland’s footfalls on the aluminum deck as he moved aft to check on the preparation on the fantail.  A short time later he looked around the front of the pilot house checking on Henry’s preparations.  “When we get in, don’t shoot unless we get fired on, or a clear target presents itself.  We’ll really shoot it up on the way out.”  Satisfied his crew was ready, he looked over at the 100 boat and saw O’Grady was ready, giving him a thumb up.  He looked over at Russell and said, “Let’s go.”

     The canal itself wasn’t very big or impressive; the water was dark and wide enough to maneuver.  The vegetation grew right down to the waters' edge on either bank of the entrance.  Just as the 35 boat entered they saw a turn in the canal about 200 yards down.  This prevented them from seeing very far ahead.

     Henry could only hear the rumble of the engines and smelled the strong sulfurous diesel exhaust.  He meticulously scanned the thick brush at the base of the coconut trees looking for any unusual action or for any small boat, called a sampan, hidden along the bank or under the brush.

     On making the turn, Henry could see about a 1000 yards.  The bank, where the vegetation didn’t obscure the land, fell sharply at the waters' edge so the canal was deep only inches from the bank.  Henry watched both sides of the canal while his weapon rested on its bi-pod directed toward the port side.

     Several targets came into view as the boat slide down the smooth surface of the canal.  Sitting untouched, in a small clearing was a straw thatched house.  A fire pit was smoldering near the huts.

     Roland gave the order for Russell to bank the boat.  O'Grady's boat and crew would provide cover, while the 35 boat started to nose in toward the opening.  Henry knew they were going in.  He pulled himself out of the hatch, holding the M-60 at his hip.  He turned to Roland and in a poor imitation of John Wayne he said, “We hit’n the beach?”

     “Yes,” his only word in answer.

     Henry sat the M-60 down on the bow and moved to the pilothouse.  He grabbed the M-16 out of the window inside the starboard side of the pilothouse.  Scooping up several incendiary and percussion grenades, hooking them on his belt and slipping extra clips of M-16 ammunition into his flak jacket pockets he was ready to go ashore.  Clark came forward, similarly armed.  The boat’s bow eased up to the bank of the canal.  The boat shook as the bow hit the bank.  Roland, Clark and Henry jumped off the bow onto dry land to begin the search of the area.

     Walking over to the hut they found nothing more than a rice straw thatched roof and three walls with a large opening.  On the south side, in the open area near the edge of the roof, was the open fire pit.  After fast look around, and they climbed back aboard the boat.

     The boat engines began to rumble louder and lurched as it backed away from the bank.

The boats proceeded further up the canal until they were blocked by vegetation overgrowth in the canal and a collapsed metal footbridge.  Roland spotted a group of huts 50 to 75 yards from the bank in a clearing under a copse of coconut trees.

     Roland turned to Henry and signaled him to get ready; we were going to go ashore again.  They armed themselves as they had before and jumped down from bow of the boat.  Henry didn’t think much about the danger of walking 50 yards from the canal to the group of houses, but all of his senses were alert, though, looking for any signs of booby traps on the trail leading to the huts.

     In the clearing was a group of small straw huts spread out behind one large hut.  It appeared to serve as a meeting place.  It had an open front facing the canal.  It was evident a number of families were living in the clearing, but nobody was seen.  Behind the huts, not visible from the canal was a large rice paddy.  On the north side a mound of dirt was evidently a bunker due to the small opening in its side.

     Henry walked over to the opening of the bunker and pulled the pin on a percussion grenade.  Releasing the handle, he threw it into the opening of the bunker.  After the muffled explosion and several failed attempts to light the thatched walls with a cigarette lighter, incendiary grenades were used to burn the roof and the walls of the hut.

     A search of the area was made as they moved back in the direction of the canal.  After boarding the boat, they began moving back down the canal with the 100 boat in the lead.  Later it was determined they were within 100 yards of where men lay in wait to attack the boats.

     Both boats fired aimlessly into the underbrush as they passed down the canal.  Then Henry saw and heard smoke and a deafening roar of machine gun fire came from the 100 boat.

     “Machine guns going off on the 100 boat,” Gorman shouted to Roland.

     “What the hell’s going on up there?”Yelled Clark

     “Don’t know, guess there’re shooting up a bunker,” Gorman replied.

     The 100 boat started turning toward the bank, then straightened up.  “Hey there are two guys in the water,” Henry shouted to Roland as he came forward to get a better look.  The 100 boat had pulled further down the canal.

     Roland saw grey smoke from the explosion on the 100 boat.   “Start putting some fire in the banks on the port side.”  That was the direction we had just come from and not too far from where the huts were located.”

     Engineman Gary A. Helvey saw the rocket fired and hit the forward part of his boat from his position on the fantail of the 100 boat.  He directed the fire from his M-16 toward the source of the rocket hitting the person