The American flag again shows itself on the Saigon River
Sam Houston, a sister ship to Stonewall Jackson
This article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Professional Mariner
On Christmas Eve, 1996, the Waterman Steamship Company LASH vessel, the S.S. Stonewall Jackson, Captain Dennis O'Laughlin commanding, dropped anchor near the port of Vung Tau, Vietnam, only the second American vessel to do so, as far as I know, since the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. The author, who was serving as third officer on board, had once called Saigon his home port.
On the 18th of December, while working cargo in the Hugli River just south of Calcutta, the rumor had been confirmed -- we received official word that we were to call at Ho Chi Minh City to load sixty LASH barges which had belonged to a Russian ship recently acquired by the company.
I had more than just a casual interest in the prospects of visiting Vietnam. I'd been a spectator of the Vietnam War from start to finish. My first Visit to Saigon had been as a navy sailor in 1962, when the American military presence there was still of a very low profiled nature, and most Americans had never heard of the place. I was a Quartermaster striker on the USS Seminol, (AKA-104) and our cargo for Saigon was said to have consisted of "art treasures" being returned to their home after having been on loan in the United States.
Eventually, after leaving the navy and becoming a merchant seaman, Saigon became my most frequent port of call. I visited Saigon and many other Vietnamese ports on a number of vessels. One of the more memorable visits had been when I was there on the MSTS Far East command knot ship, the USNS Muskingum, during the rather exciting Tet offensive of 1968. On Tet eve the city skyline had glowed orange and resounded with the reports of millions of fire-crackers going off in celebration of the lunar new year. During the night the fire-works underwent a transformation, and we awoke to the sounds of automatic weapons fire and the realization that the war had been brought to the heart of the capital.
By the mid-sixties, Saigon had become a port where a foot-loose sailor, especially one with a license, could hang out and get a berth on a freighter, or an in-country towboat, just about any time he chose. If he chose to sail deep-sea, he could usually get a ship that shuttled in the Far East and thus be spared the long, tedious Pacific crossings -- back and forth to what American G.I.'s referred to as "The World." There were always American ships discharging cargo alongside the docks in Saigon, and most of them during that period were short a third mate. Having adopted what was then generally referred to as the Far East "beach comber" life, the U.S. Consul's office in Saigon had become my hiring hall.
Thus it was that I had joined many other expatriates, including construction workers, retired military men, and many other intermittently beached merchant seamen, in gravitating to, or staying on, the scene of an ongoing tragedy in an otherwise exotic and charming country. The war drew us there because it made Vietnam a place where we could find jobs -- and good paying, sometimes out of the ordinary, jobs. Unlike most of the American military personnel, and the "regular expats," who had come out as government employees or employees of various defense contractors, who usually couldn't wait to get home, many of us were there because we shared a love for the Orient or a desire for exotic adventure. This group of expatriate renegades included in its ranks some of the most notorious riffraff to be found anywhere in the world, as well as some truly professional gentlemen of several callings. I suppose I might have been categorized, along with most others, somewhere in between those two extremes.
Of course, most of us contributed to the war effort in our various capacities of employment, and felt that we were performing a patriotic duty that justified our voluntary presence on the scene. Like so many of the American G.I.'s who fought and often died in Vietnam, few of us questioned the moral basis for our military involvement so far from our own shores. For those who did have reservations, the need to support our troops, regardless of all other considerations, was justification enough for taking part. For some it was "God and country right or wrong," and for others it was strictly a mercenary affair, sufficiently justified on the basis of the war-inflated salaries and bonuses. For a few it was the opportunity to profit by hook or crook from the chaos of war, just as it was for the several major defense contractors that provided employment for thousands of American civilians throughout the struggle. For all of us, it entailed a life-style a little more interesting and less humdrum than the average.
So, even in its agony, and in spite of attendant war risks, Vietnam had become my home base. This eventually led to my marriage to a Vietnamese lady, my wife of 28 years now. Our two children, a son and a daughter, were born in Saigon in 1969 and 1974 respectively, and I had figured they would grow up there in what I had come to consider my adopted home.
I had last stood on Vietnamese soil on the 21st of April, 1975, the day South Vietnamese president Nyguen Van Thieu had resigned. His resignation signaled the final collapse of the South Vietnamese government that we had supported for so long at such great cost -- and it signaled the close of a painful era of American history, and the beginning of an even longer era of national recrimination and self-doubt. In only a few short days North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops would make their long awaited triumphant entry into Saigon.
It was on that gut-wrenchingly tearful day, after bidding an emotional farewell to my wife's parents and brothers, that I herded my fledging and anxious little family aboard an imposing looking U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter -- one of many which, together with C-130's, for many days literally provided a continuous air-bridge between Saigon's Tan San Nhut airport and Clark Air Force base in the Philippines, ferrying tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees toward exile in alien lands. Among them was a smattering of expatriate Americans, like myself, leaving with Vietnamese wives, girlfriends, children, and sometimes extended families -- many of whom, only months, weeks, and sometimes only days or hours before, had never entertained the slightest thought of leaving their country. Most had been confident until very near the end, as I had once been, that the United States would not -- could not -- conceivably allow Saigon to fall to communist forces.
So, almost twenty-two years later, when I heard the news that the S.S. Stonewall Jackson would call at Ho Chi Minh City, I was delighted at the prospect of the unexpected visit. After calling at Port Kelang, Malaysia, where we discharged most of our cargo barges to make room for the ones we were to pick up in Vietnam, we set sail for Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived off Vung Tau at dawn Christmas Eve morning, and dropped anchor to await clearance and pilot.
Flying from our starboard-most signal halyard, in the courtesy position, flew an unfamiliar flag comprised of a single yellow star on a red field -- the national colors of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I couldn't help dwelling on how strange it now seemed to behold the stars and stripes fluttering at the stern and that red flag on the yardarm of the same vessel. Who would have dreamed it twenty-two years ago, or even a year and a half ago? I'm sure the Vietnamese pilots and officials must have had similar thoughts.
I wasn't sure how Vietnamese officialdom felt, but I know that even now there remains much bitterness in many American hearts over our current official rapprochement with our former enemy. Given the inevitable legacies of war -- most especially a war fought and lost for what, in the final analysis, given the final outcome, was a catastrophic mistake -- and the fact that 58,000 young Americans lost their lives, and some two thousand MIA's remain unaccounted for, this is quite understandable. For those families who continue to harbor hopes that their loved ones are still alive, (and thus still captives of the Vietnamese) and many who know their loved ones are gone, the war is not yet over. For many, perhaps, the war can never be over.
I had spent many days, often weeks at a time, at Vung Tau many times before, awaiting a pilot for the forty-five mile river transit to Saigon. Often there would be a hundred or more ships waiting their turn to go up river. During the initial large American military build-up, before additional docks had been constructed in Saigon, the wait for a berth could last for weeks.
Known as the Riviera of the Orient during French colonial times, Vung Tau is a small resort town near the mouth of the Saigon river. My wife and I had purchased a beach-front property there in 1973, at what was called "Back Beach," so I had spent a considerable amount of time there aside from at the anchorage aboard ships. Vung Tau had always been a relatively peaceful enclave in the midst of the war. It was used as an in-country R & R retreat for allied forces. Because it was seldom threatened or attacked by communist forces, it was also rumored to be an R & R center for the Viet Cong. However, to give credit where perhaps credit is due, the Vung Tau perimeter was defended by the Australian contingent of the allied forces -- for it must be remembered that "our" Vietnam war was in fact, at least officially, a United Nations "Police Action."
At any rate, Vung Tau was now much more peaceful and serene than during my previous visits. For if Vung Tau was spared frequent direct attack, evidence of war continually surrounded it. Now the several anchored vessels were no longer laden with bombs, artillery shells, C-rations, and Budwieser, but with the goods of peaceful commerce with friendly nations. Now there were no American naval ships offshore lobbing projectiles inland towards suspected enemy troop concentrations. No distant thuds of bursting shells and exploding bombs. No hovering helicopter gunships. Nor did the sounds of intermittent machine gun fire waif across the waters. The guns had fallen silent over twenty years before.
Vung Tau had not changed much as viewed from the anchorage since I'd last viewed it. The dual peaks, and the coconut tree shaded beach, where I had consumed many a beer in times past, still looked pretty much as I remember them. Some new buildings were apparent, including what will probably be a high-rise hotel, but nothing had radically altered the general appearance of the shore during the intervening years.
The most notable man-made landmarks ashore were two imposing white stone sculptures facing seaward from each of the two hillsides, one apparently Buddhist, and the other apparently Christian. These very prominent religious symbols, (one, I understand, is actually a war memorial) on display at the very seaward gateway to Ho Chi Minh City, seemed rather incongruous with the presumed coldly atheistic nature of communist Marxism.
Always before, when I'd been here, a heavily armed contingent of G.I.'s had boarded with the pilot after the long wait. They would ride the ship up river, standing watch on bow and stern as we proceeded upstream, ready to return fire from the mangrove covered river banks, or dispatch possible "swimmers." Occasionally they would throw a concussion grenade over the side to break the monotony of their long vigil. (Another anti-swimmer measure.) Bristling "Swiftboats" would often pass, providing additional security. Many ships' bridge wings were sand-bagged to protect the bridge watch personnel from possible hostile fire. And hostile fire was not all that uncommon. Many a merchant ship docked in Saigon pockmarked with numerous marks of small-arms fire. Standing orders were that all personnel remain below and not expose themselves on deck. Several ships docked or anchored in Saigon with gapping mortar holes through the hull and superstructure, sometimes with fatalities and wounded among the crew.
We didn't have to wait for days or weeks for a pilot this time. Nor did we have an armed guard. Two unarmed guards came aboard to provide security, and by one in the afternoon we had already proceeded, under the direction of two cheerful Vietnamese pilots, some thirteen miles up river, and re-anchored in the designated LASH anchorage.
Upon observing the anchorage, all hopes I'd had of being able to get ashore were dashed. We were in about as isolated an anchorage as could have been imagined, between mangrove covered banks. Vung Tau was thirteen miles downstream, and Ho Chi Minh City over thirty miles further upstream.
Shore passes weren't even issued. There was no village on the river bank, no roads, and obviously no easily obtained local boat service. The land on both sides was comprised of low-lying islands, cut off from the mainland by detached river channels that made the delta area a mosaic of various sized islands. The only sign of human habitation on the bank was a single red tile-roofed customs house and small landing. On the same side of the river the mangroves were broken some distance inland by a few scattered rice patties, and the thatched roofs of a isolated dwellings could be seen. Beyond, was water. The other side of the river presented an unbroken thicket of mangrove cover with no sign of human habitation.
Aside from the agent and custom's boats, the only boat to approach our ship was a lonely sampan loaded with fruits, vegetables, and fish. The sampan, occupied by a couple with their young daughter, stopped for a few minutes in hopes of selling some of their goods before proceeding down stream to better markets. About twice a day a rocket-shaped hydrofoil zoomed past enroute to Saigon and Vung Tau.
Later, during my mid-night to four anchor watch, I reflected upon the last time I'd spent the night in an isolated place in this river. It had been in about 1965, and our Victory ship, the USNS Phoenix, had grounded hard at a place called the Banc de Coral, only a few miles up from our present anchorage. After spending the hours of the afternoon and evening with two tugs frantically, but vainly, trying to pull us free, we settled in for a night fast aground to await the morning tide. And a long, harrowing night it had turned out to be. Before sunset helicopters landed troops on both adjacent banks -- Americans on one bank, and South Vietnamese troops on the other. That gave us a little feeling of security initially. But then, after dark, the shooting started. Parachute flares lit up the sky and all hell seemed to break loose. I never did find out whether either force came under enemy fire, but there was an abundance of automatic weapons fire throughout the night from both banks. Tracers could be seen arching over the ship. Of course, you can only see tracers going away from you, but it looked uncomfortably like they were coming toward us. For all the world, it seemed like a battle was raging between the two river banks, with us caught in the middle. Christmas Eve, 1996 was quite a contrast. It was quiet. Very quiet.
This had been the Russian LASH anchorage, a wide and deep spot in the river, where Soviet LASH vessels had been calling regularly perhaps for the last twenty years. The isolated customs house had apparently been constructed there for that single purpose. Official communication between it and the ship, Ho Chi Minh City, and Vung Tau, was by speed-boat. Apparently the Russian LASH service to Vietnam had been unprofitable and had ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and now we were there to pick up the empty barges they'd left behind.
When I inquired who had selected the LASH anchorage, thinking maybe it had been especially selected by the Vietnamese to keep us Americans isolated and out of local public eye, I was surprised to learn that it had been selected by our very own company in the early seventies, when LASH service was first introduced to Vietnam. Perhaps the custom house had been built at that time too. LASH ships were then a new and innovative type of vessel, especially adapted for self-sustained loading and discharging of cargo barges in isolated locations where modern port facilities were not available.
Something else struck me as being rather peculiar as we prepared to load those barges that had, until recently, been the property of our cold war arch-enemy. Certainly it was more than coincidental that the Russian barges were exactly the same size as American barges. Since LASH ships were an American innovation, (especially developed with an eye toward their military utility) how was it, I wondered, that Russian LASH ships were near duplicates of American LASH ships, and their barges an exact match to ours in every respect? I wondered whether this "coincidence" was the result of cold war military or industrial espionage, or a case of far-sighted collusion between the two global rivals?
The answer, I was given to understand, was the latter. And to that we can attribute the happy fact that our loading operation was accomplished with surprising dispatch without any equipment compatibility problems pinning or stacking the barges on board. It was as if the barges had been made from the same plans as ours. Indeed, they had! So things worked out rather well.
The first installment of the sixty empty LASH barges we were to load, about twenty of them, could be seen nearby secured to a mooring buoy. Much to our surprise, (for we had suspected that we were about to pick up a bunch of battered and rusty Russian junk) the barges had all been newly sandblasted and painted, complete with our company barge numbers, and New Orleans as their hailing port, neatly welded and painted on their sterns. Our Vietnamese agents worked well with us, and the Vietnamese boatmen and barge hands proved themselves remarkably adept at placing the barges in the loading bay, despite their truly ancient and dilapidated tugs.
Before mid-night Christmas Eve, however, we ran out of barges, and the rest were not due to arrive until morning. Oh, oh, we thought, here is where the hang-up and a delay comes in. We figured we'd be lucky to see the rest of the barges before noon Christmas Day, and this would delay our sailing. We had to sail by about 1700 or spend another idle night at anchor in the river awaiting the combined requisites of daylight and a favorable tide. But, again to our surprise, the rest of the barges arrived at dawn. "There really is a Santa Clause!" we joked on Christmas morning. We resumed loading barges at 0800. In spite of the eight hour delay, twenty-four hours after loading the first barge, we loaded the last of the sixty barges and were ready to put to sea.
It was 1700 hours on Christmas day, (1996) when we completed cargo operations -- just in time to make the tide. Within less than half an hour our anchor was aweigh and we were headed down river. We disembarked the pilot and agent at Vung Tau just at dusk, and I went on deck to gaze upon Vung Tau in the gathering darkness. We were only a couple of miles from shore and what we used to call Front Beach. Had I been able to get ashore, in fifteen minutes I could have walked to the place my wife may still technically own -- and which is still occupied by one of her nephews and his family. One of our agents, upon learning of this, had eagerly volunteered to hand-deliver a letter I'd hastily prepared to send them -- a Christmas greeting of sorts, and one which I'm sure unexpectedly brightened their when it was delivered.
How did the former enemies get along? I'll have to admit that we didn't rush into each others' arms on arrival. There was certainly no apparent predisposition to "like one another." Everybody was initially more or less reserved and proper. But the Vietnamese, with the exception of one glowering young customs officer, whom I never saw crack a smile, were very cheerful and friendly in their reserve. Obviously, there was also no artificial barriers in place on their part predisposing them not to like us, as one might have imagined.
During my after noon bridge watch, soon after anchoring on Christmas Eve, I had found myself confronted in the pilot house by one of the two guards assigned to provide vessel security. He was a young man, neatly dressed in what appeared to me to be an olive-drab army uniform. He spoke a little English, and explained that he was a policeman, rather than a soldier, when I inquired. He was quite formal and none too friendly at first. Then I tried a few words of Vietnamese on him, telling him that my wife is Vietnamese, and that I used to live there during the war. That broke the ice, and he seemed both amazed and pleased. His coolness and stoic reserve, which I had taken to be an official determination on his part not to be friendly, evaporated into an unaffected amicability. We shook hands warmly and properly exchanged names. Before long, I honestly felt we were friends. We spent the better part of an hour together -- me brushing up on my scanty Vietnamese, and he practicing his English.
As is always the case when cargo delays occur, especially on LASH ships, relations between the ship's officialdom and the local agents became increasingly strained. The captain glowered, suspecting trickery when we ran out of barges. The agents fretted and paced the deck worriedly. But that strain eased considerably when the barges arrived exactly as promised, and cargo operations resumed. As operations continued without a hitch, and the day progressed, the tension eased further. By the time it became apparent that we would make our scheduled sailing, ship's officers and agents were in a buoyant mood. Then, when the chief mate and agents finally exchanged compliments on a "job well done!" it was as if we had been long lost relatives all along, and a mutual bond seemed to have been cemented.
When I handed one of the agents the letter for my nephew-in-law, just before arriving at Vung Tau outbound, he and the guards sincerely urged me to come back to Vietnam with my wife for a vacation -- we'd be most welcome, they said. I told them that I hoped we could do that someday. Our parting, in spite of the brief duration of the acquaintance, was as if we were long lost friends, parting once again for an indeterminate period of time.
The chief mate, Jerome Dorman, expressed a similar impression. "It was incredible," he told me soon after escorting the pilot and agents to the gangway for their disembarkation. "It was as if they didn't want to leave the ship, or they wanted to take me ashore with them to celebrate or something. They seemed like they wanted to hug me when they left. I couldn't believe how emotional the parting was."
Soon the engines began to throb, and the ship gathered way toward the south. As Vung Tau gradually receded astern in the gathering darkness, the town's many lights twinkling on as if in gay farewell. Christmas Day, 1996, was drawing to a close. It had been a good Christmas -- that is, as good as Christmas 12,000 miles from home can be.
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