Three million men served in Vietnam and each has a story to tell. Shore Duty is the unique account from author Stewart M. Harris who served as senior advisor to Coastal Group 16 in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. It is the tale of a small outpost in eastern Quang Ngai Province. From a fort built of coconut logs and mud, four Americans and eighty to ninety Vietnamese operated eight wooden junks in an area surrounded by a local population numbering in the tens of thousands. There were no schools, no doctors, no police, and no customs or civic officials. There was no one except these few Americans and Vietnamese trying to accomplish all of the duties a government should. What makes this story different is that these men were sailors. During the course of the Vietnam War, the sailors who rotated through the four-man team at Coastal Group 16 were awarded many commendations, including the Navy Cross, at least one Silver Star, a half dozen Bronze Stars, and ten Purple Hearts, four of them posthumous. This was not a typical Navy tour.
DUSTOFF “Victor, this is Drafty Lamb Mike. I have a parallel Radium. Over.” Our first medevac. The Vietnamese corpsman said there were five, three of them very critical. Quang Ngai had no air assets, but I had to ask. According to the Army Standard Operations Procedures communications book, this is how you got a medevac, a “Radium” request. I made sure Troung Uy Lang called his headquarters also, though I knew the Vietnamese Air Force did not fly in the dark. Hence, a “parallel” request. “This is Victor, go ahead.” Using the form out of the little book the Army dropped to us once a month, I began. “Radium. Five. Critical. VNN. Area hot.” Five Vietnamese sailors, including critically wounded, and we were still engaged. It was just after midnight. Vietnamese. Sailors. Still hot. It didn’t seem likely we were going to get much help before sunrise. “This is Victor. Roger.” Finished. Back to the bad guys trying to get into our little fort. The casualties had come from the first or second mortar rounds, before anyone had time to get to cover. There had been small arms fire directed at the base from the village to our south, rockets, mortar and machine gun fire from across the river. It was the first real test of the base since the advisors had returned. And it seemed to be just that: a test, recon by fire. The junkies’ fire discipline was excellent. I did not want to reveal the positions of our heavier weapons within the perimeter and the standing orders were no firing without a clear target. Our perimeter held its fire. If the bad guys were probing, looking for strong points where machine guns were located, they would not find out tonight. No targets in the open, no shooting. Our mortar man walked his 60mm mortar down the tree line on the other side of the river, seeking the enemy positions. The Chu Luc stationed in mid stream had put 30 and 50 caliber on the probable sites as soon as the first B-41 had passed overhead. Small arms continued from the ville and some 60mm came in close, but no hits since the first salvo. The village, Phu Tho, was the problem. Ten or fifteen thousand people, supposedly protected by the local militia, an RF/PF platoon, that was usually not where it was supposed to be in the daytime and was never where it was supposed to be after dark. “Militia units are useless in the attack and questionable in the defense” -- George Washington, circa 1780. Still true. But it meant we could not use our mortar in that area. I did not want random firing toward the village. It would be substantially more difficult to win hearts and minds the morning after blowing apart somebody’s house. No targets, no shooting and our perimeter’s fire discipline continued to hold. Same Drink Romeo checked in on the net. A Coast Guard WPB and an 81mm mortar with which they were quite expert. They had seen the firing from their position on the open sea. Nights like this, it was always nice to hear from friends. Lang and I made an educated guess as to where the offending 60mm mortar was and made it a target for the Coasties. When the first round from the WPB exploded, the sound momentarily drowned out the cackle of small arms and even the machine guns as it rolled across the river to us. Hard to believe how much bigger an 81mm is than a little ol’ 60mm. We were not alone and my Vietnamese sailors knew it. So did the bad guys. “Draft Lamby, er, Drafty Lamb Mike, this is Dustoff 26.” The voice trembled as only the vibrating airframe of a Huey could make it. “Roger, this is Mike.” “We’re over Quang Ngai City and turning east. Can you mark your position?” It was less than twenty minutes since I had requested the medevac. Only three days earlier, we had connected the advisors’ generator to four 100 watt red lights, marking the corners of our pad. Coastal Group Sixteen was operating the only electrically lighted helo pad in all of Quang Ngai Province. Time to turn them on and see what would happen. “We have lights. You should see ‘em when you get close.” A pause. “We have ‘em in sight.” Ten klicks from four hundred watts --not bad. “What have you got for us?” “We have three VNs, one critical.” Another pause as the helo checked his notes. “We were expecting five.” And, the sad truth: “Roger. Two became kilos while you were enroute.” A change from wounded in action to killed in action. A sad, laconic, war weary response: “Rodge.” He was two or three minutes out. Time to hustle his passengers through the wire to the pad. I detached the radio from our large, fixed antenna and carried it with a whip antenna toward the pad. Small arms continued from the village, seemingly not very accurate, but we were in the open. To add to the chaos, a 60mm hit just off the pad and an answering 81mm from the Coasties exploded a couple of hundred meters south. Red tracers from the junk in the river converged with green ones coming from the tree line. All this would certainly be quite colorful seen from the air. It was colorful enough seen from the ground. I knew he was going to ask and I had prepared the best story I could. “And what is your situation down there right now?” I started through the litany: “Take the river as running north/south. We’ve gotten small arms from the tree line three hundred meters south. Rocket, mortar, machine gun, and small arms from the other side of the river. Recommend you approach from the west, depart to the north. Be advised, there are obstacles over the base to one hundred feet. When you start down, we will begin fire suppression from boats in the river.” I tried to make an inventory of what I had said from the pilot‘s perspective. The middle of the night. Small arms across an open field from 300 meters. Rockets and mortars and machine guns. Obstacles over the recommended departure route. All this for a bunch of shot up Vietnamese sailors. I know what I would have said. What he said was, “Rodge. Be right down.” And he was. We did our part. The casualties were waiting on the pad. The junk in the river poured thirty and fifty caliber on the opposite shore. In the red light of the Huey cabin, the medic began immediately on the wounded. I had a chance to lean in and give what I hope was a wave of thanks. In seconds, we were done. I leaned into the red light a second time and gave him a thumbs up. The helicopter lifted into the black night and quickly disappeared. We stopped our counter battery fire. The bad guys also had apparently had enough. The Huey was gone. The radio was quiet, the night was quiet and my first medevac was over. There would be many more. But always, the Hueys came. In the dark. Into hostile fire. For my Vietnamese sailors. All they asked was a true picture of what was happening on the ground and a fair chance to pull it off. A lot has been said about the courage and dedication of medevac crews. It is not enough. It could never be enough.
Stewart M. Harris is retired after working more than thirty-five years in national and international sales and managing several electronic firms. He served as senior advisor for Coastal Group Sixteen in Vietnam from April 1968 to April 1969. Mr. Harris now lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.