SemiREMF Stories, Americal Division 69-70
Riptide Beach Party
A loud group of men in faded cutoff jungle fatigues and T-shirts piled into the back of the olive drab (OD) ¾ ton military truck. Most of the men were teen-agers but when you got close and looked them in eye, they all immediately seemed much older. The men were members of the artillery liaison team for the 1/1 Armored Cavalry Squadron of the Americal Division operating out of Chu Lai, Vietnam. I was the officer in charge of the section and the "old man" of the group at an elderly 23. It was late morning on the second day of a 4-day squadron standdown for maintenance and rest. This was the first time in several months that we didn't need to provide round the clock operations in order to control artillery fire in the CAV area of operations (AO). We had worked hard the first day and got our maintenance and preparations for the next mission done, so we had 3 days for rest and relaxation (R&R). As an incentive for this hard work, I had offered to buy the beer, soda, and poogie bait (junk food) for a section get together at the beach the day before. It was a bright clear day and seemed ideal for a little stress relief care of the sand, ocean, and cold beer.
Earlier in the morning, I had made a run to the PX for the refreshments and ice. I had put the sodas and beer on ice in a clean garbage can "borrowed" from the mess hall an hour or so earlier. The sweating can was in the back of the truck and as the men piled in, they loudly voiced their approval. Also in the back of the truck were several cardboard boxes filled with chips, crackers, cookies, cans of Vienna sausages, or other assorted goodies. I was sitting in the driver’s seat, looking back through the canvas flap waiting for everyone to get on-board and safely situated. I usually pulled rank and insisted on driving in these situations. Prior to receiving my commission from OCS, I had been trained as a truck driver for all wheeled vehicles up to 5-ton trucks and then served as a basic training unit company driver. I felt that we faced enough dangers in country without adding the usual foot-to-the-floor driving style practiced by most of these "teenagers".
After a moment, one of the men realized the "shotgun" seat was empty and bulled his way to the front over the good-natured complaints of the rest. I gently eased away from the front of the squadron TOC (tactical operations center) to try to keep the garbage can upright and from sloshing over too badly. I slowly drove through the sandy area that our camp resided in and turned onto the washboard dusty road that ran just inside the Chu Lai main perimeter. I speeded the truck up to the point where it stopped bouncing and began to skim noisily along the peaks of the washboard. After about a mile of this, we came to the main blacktop road that ran through the Chu Lai base camp. I turned on to it towards the west and the ocean on the other side of the base. Once on the blacktop, most of the vehicle noise and dust died away, and the men in the back began talk again. We wound our way across the huge camp and though the heavy traffic of jeeps, deuce and halves (2 ½ ton trucks) and 5-ton trucks shuttling around the massive amount of supplies and equipment needed to keep the division operating.
In about 5 minutes, the ocean became visible across the camp. Having spent my high school years near the waters of the California coast, I always marveled at the clarity and sparkling blue of the Vietnamese coastal waters. This "poor" third world country lacked the industrialization that poured huge amounts of sewage and industrial wastes into the Pacific Ocean and turned our coastal waters, a dark murky green color. The smell of the ocean came in through the open windows on a light, cool breeze. A few minutes later, I turned south on the road that ran along the beach and headed towards a deserted part of the beach off in the distance. I disliked crowded beaches and since I was driving headed so did the rest. After about a mile, I pulled out onto the beach and drove along looking for just the right spot. I stopped a few hundred yards later on a stretch of beach, which was clear of barbed wire, and most of the clutter of the army. I killed the engine and the men piled off with a shout. A couple raced towards the water, peeling off their shirts as they ran and splashed into the mild surf that was lapping on the shore. A couple of the others helped me unload the boxes and our GI ice can/chest in the shade of the truck. The rest began spreading out our camouflage jungle blankets in the sand.
After we had unloaded and gotten everything situated to my satisfaction, I began to slip out of my jungle fatigues. Underneath, I was wearing my surfer baggie swim shorts. Even though I had never really gotten into surfing, motorcycles being my youthful passion, I had grown up in the California surf scene. For me it was the style of the day and what was cool to wear at the beach. When my trucks appeared, howls of derision instantly arose from the men. In order to cover my embarrassment, I immediately launched into loud dialogue. It was replete with the jargon and slang of the California surfer community about the quality of the surf, the weather, etc. I wrapped up with a pronouncement that while the surf wasn’t "primo" it would do just fine for a little body surfing. The looks of puzzlement that my "dialect" had initially elicited had changed to grins towards the end as they realized I was jerking them around. I immediately jogged off towards the water before the ribbing about my swimwear could start again. One man, from Denver, Colorado, who was naturally called Denver, joined me.
The men who had initially splashed into the water had already had enough and headed back towards the beer and food except for a tall, powerfully built tow-headed guy from Baltimore. He was called Fat Charles for some unknown reason, as there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him anywhere. I could see by the way he handled himself in the water that he must have spent a lot of time in the Atlantic Ocean, as he was a strong, accomplished swimmer. Having spent a lot of time around the ocean as a cultural thing, I was a competent swimmer myself. Instead of surfing as was the rage, I had briefly tried snorkeling and had come face to face with a small shark one time. It was a harmless coastal sand shark but had instilled in me the real knowledge that there really were things in the ocean that would be perfectly happy to eat me. As a result, in spite of the low odds of it happening I always felt uncomfortable in the ocean and I preferred inland lakes and rivers for swimming in.
As Denver and myself entered the water, we could see Fat Charles about 100yds out swimming in the waves. We splashed out to where the water was thigh deep and then swam together out about 50 yards and caught the first wave of any size and rode it in about 20 yards. The clear water, bright sun and surf were exhilarating. We stood in the chest high water grinned at each other and turned around to catch another wave. As we swam out, we could just see Fat Charles in what appeared to be some heavier sets of waves that were out about 150yds. At about this time, I noticed that we were moving out much faster than before. As we reached about 75 yards, it suddenly occurred to me that the nature and movement of the water had changed drastically. We were being rapidly sweep along out to sea by strong riptides and undertows that had suddenly appeared. "Riptides, we gotta head in now", I yelled to Denver. He looked at me quizzically and I could tell he didn't really understand. I swam over towards him and said," we're being swept out, we get out of the water". My words finally sunk in and we both started stroking hard for shore.
The in-going waves had become very small as we swam towards the beach. We were out at about 100 to 125 yards from shore by that time. We would swim hard for as long as we could and make about 25 yards progress towards the shore and then when we eased up a little to rest, were swept back out 35. After about 15 minutes of this, it occurred to me that Fat Charles was out even farther than we were. I waited till we were on the top of a swell and looked back out to sea for him. I couldn't see any sign of him and had a sinking feeling that he was a goner. I decided to keep it to myself as I could see that we were both tiring fast and seemed to be loosing our own battle with the ocean. I began to talk to Denver between gulps for air; "This isn't working, we gotta do something else". After some thought I said, "Lets try swimming against the tow and to see if we can keep from loosing ground and then try and ride the incoming wave crests as far as we can". He nodded yes saving his breath. So for the next 10 minutes, we tried this and were able to make about 25 yards of progress towards the shore using this method.
We were both very tired by this time and we still had about 75 yards to go. I think that the fact we were making progress and weren't alone kept us going. "Lets just rest every other inward wave", I said and in the next 15 minutes we managed another 15 yards in. We were learning how to make the most progress with the least expenditure of energy. In this painstaking way, we slowly worked our way in towards the shore. After about another 20 minutes, we had reached a point where I could touch the bottom, but the undertow was so strong I couldn't get a purchase with my tows, but I knew we had made it. I told Denver," we got it made, I can feel the bottom". He was a little taller than I was and I saw him reach for the bottom with his toes but he couldn't get a hold either. On the next wave, we both expended what was just about the last of our energy and made another few yards. We were then both able to stand and walk in again the powerful undertow. Sucking for air and totally exhausted we had finally made it.
As we reached the shore, I turned and desperately swept the ocean for signs of Fat Charles. " I think Fat Charles is history", I gasped to Denver. A couple of the guys on the beach walked over to us and it was obvious that they were completely unaware of our close brush with the inevitable. As soon as I could, I told them to tell everyone to stay out of the water as strong undertow and rip tides had come up. I also, told them I thought Fat Charles had drowned. They looked at me like they thought I was joking, so I growled at them, "no bull shit, do it". They ran over to the rest and passed the word. I stumbled over to the truck and sat on the running board wondering how I was going to explain Fat Charles' demise to my superiors and his relatives. After a while, I heard a yell from one of the men and looked up. He was pointing up the beach. When I looked up I could see a man about 500 yards down the beach trudging our way. When I was finally able to make my eyes focus, I could see it was Fat Charles and a powerful sense of relief swept over me. I just sat there and worked on keeping my emotions in check, as I liked the kid from Baltimore a lot.
A few minutes later he trudged up with a crooked grin on his face and said. "Man, that rip sure was a motherfucker, huh Dia Wei". I responded in a low voice," Ya, man I thought you were history". Denver and I just barely made it in from where we were at and you were twice as far out. You are one hell of a swimmer". He nodded and coolly said, " this kind of stuff happens a lot in the Atlantic, it was no sweat". After a few moments of silence, I said, "Man, even the ocean around here is VC". He nodded and said quietly," There it is Dai Wei". Just then an MP jeep drove up through the sand and an MP corporal, yelled at us, "Hey, this beach is off limits, a guy drown about a 100 yards from here about hour ago". We all groaned and I said, "Thanks a lot corporal, we just figured that out the hard way ourselves. You better post someone here or put up some signs ASAP". I turned to the men and said, "Lets load up and get the hell outta here, this place sucks. Lets head back over to Sand City and finish off our shin dig there". As they moved to collect our stuff and load up, I looked out to sea and the irony of the situation flooded over me. I had survived 9 months in country and then come closer to death trying for a little R&R on the beach than on any mission. I never went near the ocean for the rest of my tour.Back