Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta

 

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In his 1961 minor classic, Among the Dangs, George P. Elliott tells the story of an anthropologist who becomes a member of a primitive jungle tribe. The anthropologist’s deep immersion in the tribe’s culture ends when he realizes If he “had stayed there much longer I would have reverted until I became one of them until I had lost myself utterly.”

Eight years later, U.S. Navy Lt. Bob Andretta brought much of that fiction to life for himself as an advisor to Vietnamese Coastal Group 14, stationed fifteen miles south of Danang.

In six months with the Group, Andretta was struck by lightning, shredded by shrapnel, blown off a boat, and shot through both legs. After receiving his third set of wounds, he turned down a third Purple Heart and forfeited an opportunity to leave Vietnam early. His desire to help the Vietnamese outweighed all other considerations.

Andretta relates his Vietnam War experiences in Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force (CreateSpace, 428 pp., $20, paper; $8.75 Kindle). Many of the operations he writes about were new to me.

As the leader of three Americans assigned to Group 14, Andretta immersed himself in the war and Vietnamese culture. He participated in practically every search and destroy mission; observed every social custom; doctored children infected with boils and other illnesses; and built a maternity ward and a two-room school for the hamlet of Doi.

Along with South Vietnamese sailors, Andretta worked closely with Ruff-Puffs—Regional Forces (RF) and Provincial Forces (PF). The Navy delivered Ruff-Puffs to coastal or waterway sites where they patrolled on foot. When possible, everyone engaged the enemy with firepower from water and land.

Despite the depth of his involvement, after a few weeks or so, Andretta said, “I felt so isolated; like I had gone to a different world.”

Andretta writes in a straightforward, conversational style that gives the book a humorous tone. He does not hide his feelings, and it is easy to relate to him. His knack for depicting personality traits brings characters alive. His scenes of the aftermath of battle clearly support his transition from a dedicated warrior to a man who abhors war.

He learned by doing. While hospitalized at Danang with an amoebic abscess of the liver, he helped unload CH46 helicopters overflowing with Marines killed and wounded in the A Shau Valley. Even though he had already been seriously wounded, the carnage shocked him.

Shortly after, following another Group 14 “great victory” at “ambush corner” on the Thu Bon River, he saw the napalmed remains of enemy soldiers (men, women, and children) and experienced an epiphany: “Suddenly I hated the country. I hated this place. I hated the war. I hated the people. I wanted out.”

After six months of search and destroy missions, he understood that his men “were just the bait. The artillery and aircraft had done the rest.” Only the body count mattered to his superiors, he decided.

Andretta He accepted a transfer from Group 14 to ragtag Group 13, north of Danang. Group 13 saw little action. Nevertheless, Andretta worked hard to improve a dismal area. From that point, the book resembles an interesting travelogue more than a combat saga.

Ignoring his antiwar sentiments, Andretta connived to participate in a final sweep with a nearby Army unit; the helicopter in which he rode was shot down. He said, “It did not take much reflection to conclude that I was more than just a bit crazy.”

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Then he accompanied a SEAL team on a “special patrol” that ended in a shootout. “There was no time to be frightened; only to shoot well,” he said. Outnumbered, the SEALs fled: “That was probably the fastest I have ever run,” Andretta noted.

After he completed his tour, Andretta flew to San Francisco, and encountered a “not very pleasant homecoming, and that’s an understatement” from war protesters.

By remembering his Naval Academy classmates killed in action, Andretta repeatedly conveys the remorse felt by  survivors for friends who died in the war. He recognizes that many survivors never achieve release from their sorrow.

Andretta enhances his narrative by blending an excellent collection of photographs with the text, rather than lumping them together in the middle of the book.

After retiring from the Navy in 1972 due to combat-related disabilities, Andretta became a lawyer and then a judge. He stepped down from the bench in 2007. His wounds still cause him problems that require surgery.

—Henry Zeybel

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