22 May 1966 Sinking of PCF 41
Four PCFs were patrolling the Rung Sat Special Zone on the Song Dinh Ba River, probing four clicks up river from its mouth, during "Operation JACKSTAY", 22 May 1966. The river, snaking its way through thick, triple canopy jungle not too far from Saigon, separated each boat from the sight of the others. It was the perfect setup for an ambush.
At the aft steering station, LT Alex Balian kept a sharp eye for any movement along the shore; dusk was quickly approaching. BM2 Raleigh Godley, a forty-ish petty officer, and by far the oldest member of the crew, manned the wheel in the pilothouse seat. Beside him on his left stood RM2 Robert Lee Keim, scanning the shoreline with binoculars. In the turret above the pilothouse, his legs propped up from the well, which extended down into the pilothouse cabin, EN3 Charlie Barham carefully observed both banks from behind the twin .50 caliber machine guns. It was hot and muggy on the river that day, and the port hatch stood wide open.
"Keep a close watch," LT Balian warned. "Charlie's around here somewhere."
"Charlie" certainly was. From deep inside the thick jungle foliage along the shore came the muzzle flash of a 57mm recoilless rifle. It was a knockout punch. The world suddenly turned red for Radioman Keim, as he blacked out. The explosion ripped the aluminum hull of PCF 41, flashed upward, burst into the pilothouse, and killed BM2 Godley at the wheel. Shrapnel slammed into the bulkheads, shattering the windows and ripping into the guntub, where, fortunately, EN3 Barham still had his feet propped up out of range of the flying shards of jagged metal. Other than feeling the concussion of the blast, he wasn't hit and immediately turned his guns towards the shoreline, raking the jungle foliage from which the tiny pinpoints of muzzle blasts could be seen.
RM2 Keim was hurled out of the cabin by the blast and came to on the tiny catwalk that ran alongside the pilothouse. Unaware that he was severely wounded, he groggily pushed himself to his feet and staggered back into the pilothouse where Godley's body lay sprawled on the deck. The young radioman reached for the wheel. It had disappeared. The instrument panel had also been demolished.
Meanwhile, the swift gathered speed and raced along the river out of control. In reconstructing the action, it was believed that Godley might have shoved the throttles forward as a dying gesture to take PCF 41 away from the ambush. But there was no time to assess damage. Keim staggered from the pilothouse and pushed himself aft.
"Controls shot out!" he shouted aft. "Godley's hit!"
LT Balian grabbed the aft wheel just as another explosion rocked the swift a near miss. The crew was showered with river water.
On the aft deck SN Ralph Powers and GMG2 Glenn Greene were busy readying the 81mm mortar. Keim finally made his way back to the aft deck, raised an M-16 to his shoulder, and fired short bursts at the gun flashes from the tree line. Suddenly there was a lurch, and the boat crashed to a halt, aground. Out of control and careening at nearly full speed, there had been no opportunity for the young skipper to avoid the tight turns, where the river snaked sharply beneath the thick overhanging jungle canopy.
The crew was thrown off their feet by the sudden, sharp halt in the boat's forward motion. The skipper quickly reorganized his men. The boat was a sitting duck. Surely the Viet Cong would try to assault the beached swift boat.
"Keim, get on the radio!" LT Balian hollered. "Powers, break out some more rifles," he added as an afterthought. "We can hold them off until one of the other boats comes up here."
But the swift boat behind PCF 41 was not coming to their rescue. The thick jungle and the tight turns of the river blanketed the sounds of the ambush from the other boats.
Keim scrambled from the aft cabin, reporting that the explosion had knocked out the radios. It was while he was trying to get the radios to work that he felt the dampness on his neck, which he believed was only sweat. He wiped it away and discovered that his hand was covered with blood. He had been struck on the head by shrapnel from the explosion that had gutted the pilothouse. A second chunk of steel was embedded in his right leg. Darkness was fast approaching, but it was a different kind of darkness for Keim. He had lost a lot of blood without realizing he had been wounded.
When the VC attacked the boat, the crew of PCF 41 was ready. Barham on the twin 50's, along with Powers and Greene on the mortar and aft .50 caliber machine gun, sprayed the jungle where the firing was coming from with increasing intensity. Keim and LT Balian added their own fire support from the rifles they carried. Then the heavy weapons stopped firing.
"Ammo expended, sir," Greene reported.
"I'm cleaned out," Barham added in a low voice.
There was only one thing to do...abandon PCF 41. The skipper told his men the only way out was down the river and through the enemy lines.
They could not paddle; the noise would alert the VC. "We'll have to drift down," the skipper whispered. "Let's get the raft over the side." They loaded their rifles into the raft. Keim stepped onto the raft and lay down, weakness and pain fighting to overcome his consciousness.
"Let's go, and be quiet," LT Balian added. The tide was running out, and its current caught the tiny raft, upon which one man lay wounded, and the four men who clung to it. Godley's body had been left behind. It was to be a journey the men of PCF 41 would never forget.
Every one of the crew knew deadly sea snakes slithered in the river and that crocodiles were not strangers to the tropical river waters of South Vietnam. If this was something to worry about, it was quickly forgotten. As the raft drifted down the river, the voices of enemy guerrillas could be heard as the raft passed patrols and outposts.
Keim kept his pain to himself. He hurt like hell. The throbbing of one of the other swift boats could be heard coming closer, but LT Balian didn't dare flash his red signal light, as it would certainly be spotted by the VC. If the swift came to the rescue, it too might be ambushed by the same deadly recoilless rifle fire, but the engine noise died out in the distance as the swift turned away.
The crew of the 41 boat was once again on their own. The moon broke through the clouds and the skipper whispered for Keim to get off the raft, where he was being silhouetted by the ghostly light coming down from above. Strong arms gripped the wounded radioman and eased him into the water.
"Hang on, Bob," LT Balian whispered, gripping the young sailor with one hand, while hanging onto the raft with his other.
Then came a new horror. Waves of pain shot through the bodies of the five men, as they clung to their slowly drifting raft. Their cries of anguish were stifled so the VC would not hear them.
Their raft had drifted into a school of poisonous, tropical jellyfish. The poison spread through tired bodies, causing arms and legs to swell. Still, the men clung to the raft. Keim, despite his wounds and the painful jellyfish stings, held on for dear life, and kept his hurt to himself.
A while later the raft drifted through a second school of jellyfish, and once again the poisonous tentacles spread pain and terror through the crew of PCF 41. Finally, the sound of another of the swifts was heard again. Barham held up his rifle, and the radar aboard the boat picked up the weapon and finally their raft. After running the gauntlet of human and natures dangers, they were rescued.
LT Alex Balian's PCF 41 was reached by a salvage team the following morning. The body of BM2 Raleigh Godley was recovered. When PCF 41 was pulled off the beach, the jagged hole in the boat's hull caused it to sink into the mine-infested river waters.
Swift boats were considered too valuable a commodity, not to be recovered or salvaged when knocked out by enemy action. This was true even if the VC, who hated the swifts with a passion, launched a major effort to prevent their recovery. The hulk of PCF 41 was later salvaged, but it was never returned to service.
Story based on: "SEA RAIDERS" by Ed Hymoff, SAGA Magazine
Commander Coastal Squadron One, Command History 1966
Commander Coastal Squadron One, After Action Report, dated 1 January 1967
Various communications with involved parties, as related to and retold by Larry Wasikowski
Coronado, CA newspaper article about the sinking of PCF 41 on 22 May 1966
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This page was last updated on: April 26, 2008 at 23:52