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.”

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

I Must Survive by Harry Simpson

Harry Simpson served in the military form 1964-1966, and “experienced the constant fear of becoming part of the Vietnam Conflict and having to choose between killing and being killed.” Did Simpson serve in Vietnam, and if so, in what branch?  He also tells us that his novel, I Must Survive (Tate Publishing, 248 pp., $18.99, paper), “is a work of fiction.”

The novel is told in chapters that go back and forth in time between the boyhood of main character Brad Howard and his time in Vietnam, briefly aboard a PBR (Patrol Boat, River) and then evading capture by the enemy. Most of the boyhood chapters take place in small-town Colorado in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and deal with boyhood stuff:  school and bullies, baseball games, rodeos, playing in the snow, and Boy Scout camp.

Brad’s boyhood is lived on the economic margins as his World War II veteran father loses job after job. There is hardship, including contracting polio, and his father having a heart attack. These chapters are well-remembered and well-voiced from the point of view of the child Brad.

It is easy for the reader to believe the life lived in barely heated, shabby rental houses and wearing worn-out, patched clothes. This is different from my boyhood during the same period, but similar enough to recognize the author’s honesty and familiarity with this experience.

The other chapters deal initially with the brown water navy, which for Brad was a “four-man unit who crewed a thirty-one foot Mk 1 fiberglass PBR with two 220 horsepower Detroit Diesel 6V53N engines that drive a Jacuzzi Brothers water jet.”

The PBR adventure is soon over. A new lieutenant takes over and insists on changing things that have worked for eight months. He wants to take it to the enemy by going far, far up the river. The men get there and are shot to pieces by a VC patrol. Only Brad survives.

Brad Howard’s attempt to get back to safe territory from “Indian Country” is the preoccupation of the rest of the Vietnam War chapters. He has little in the way of training or equipment, but often compares this experience with his fight to survive his boyhood. He believes that being a Howard and not a quitter will get him through the ordeal. He eats bugs, snakes, stolen rice, and whatever else he can. He loses a lot of weight, and stumbles lost in the jungle, hoping that he’ll be delivered.

Harry Simpson

His boat was destroyed in mid-September 1966 and he’s still alive, barely, in the jungle four months later. I was beginning to think he’d still be there for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

I won’t give away the ending of the book, but I will say that it held my attention—both the Vietnam War chapters and the Colorado boyhood chapters.

I have no idea if the author had any Vietnam War jungle experience, but those chapters are as convincing as the Colorado chapters are. Maybe he did his research well for both.

Perhaps all that matters is that Harry Simpson has written an excellent, spell-binding adventure story. I highly recommend it.

—David Willson

The Exec by Robert J. Moir

 

Robert Moir graduated from the University of Virginia in 1964. He attended on an NROTC scholarship, and entered the U.S. Navy after graduating. After being promoted to lieutenant, Moir received orders for PBR (Patrol Boat, River) training. It was 1966 and he was trained to patrol the rivers of South Vietnam on a heavily armed boat. He arrived in South Vietnam in March 1967.

Moir spent his tour of duty doing something I was completely unaware of when I was in the war zone. My only exposure to the rivers of South Vietnam was when we had water skiing parties. I noticed no PBR’s on those junkets.

It never occurred to me while I was in Vietnam that the U. S. Navy was patrolling those rivers. I thought the Navy was confined to large ships miles offshore, with the men safe and sound and eating great meals three times a day. Every page of Moir’s  book, The Exec: A Vietnam Memoir (Carolina Time Press, 226 pp., $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper), ruptured that ignorant point of view.

The book is organized into long chapters, but is dated like a diary and often reads like one written by a literate and questioning young man with a fine education. “Our mission as I understand it, is to make our assigned waterways secure for friendly vessels and to deny the enemy their use for transport of weapons and combat supplies,” Moir writes.

I was amazed at how often Moir bumped into men he had known in college at the University of Virginia. The Vietnam War was a small world for U-Va. grads.

Moir makes a few trips to Saigon to do administrative errands and  banking. His descriptions of the hotels and bars on Tu Do Street are so accurate they made me nostalgic for Saigon circa 1967. The writing is lively and fun—except when the war intrudes.

The most interesting part of the book begins with the chapter call “Backstretch” when Moir returns to My Tho from his R&R in Bangkok in November 1967, and My Tho comes under attack.  The next chapter, “Tet—War Up Close,” is even more exciting with lots of gripping combat scenes.

I’ve read a few PBR books and this one is as detailed and exciting and well-written as they get. Moir works in an office for part of the last section of the book, but gets dragged away from the paperwork during the Tet Offensive. There they were, “sailors about to be overrun by main force VC troops,”  he says. “Half the city was in flames.”

Moir ended his tour as the exec of River Section 533. He was responsible for “533’s personnel, patrol scheduling, assigned patrol areas, experiences with river traffic and hot spots, boat readiness, weapons inventory and logistic support.”

His fine writing makes all of this interesting and easy to read. From the sections about remote duty on the Co Chien to his very different duty in My Tho, the author finds reasons to comment on the war. He quotes Eisenhower saying that the United States should avoid a ground war in Asia unless our survival is at stake.

“The VC seem so embedded,” he writes. “Can we really hope to stabilize this chaotic place enough to foster democracy and help improve their standard of living? Even then, how long is it going to take?’’  Good questions.

Moir’s mission to deny the enemy use of the waterways to supply arms for attacks on South Vietnam’s cities was shown to be a failed one when the Tet Offensive blew up. The mission had to be radically redesigned after that event. By that time, though, Robert Moir was done with his tour of duty and had happily left South Vietnam and the war behind.

I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to know the role of the PBR in the Vietnam War and the impact of the war on a well-educated and perceptive young man.

—David Willson

Muddy Jungle Rivers by Wendell Affield

VVA life member Wendell Affield joined the Navy in 1965 when he was seventeen to escape a tumultuous life at home in northern Minnesota. He arrived in Vietnam in February 1968 and served as the cox’n of Armor Troop Carrier 112-11 with the Mobile Riverine Force. “Afe” Affield tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty deftly and readably in his memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boar Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home (Hawthorn Petal Press, 319 pp., $19.95, paperback).

Affield uses lots of reconstructed dialogue in this memoir, most of which rings true and provides the book with its immediacy. Affield’s tour ended in August when he was wounded when his gunboat was ambushed while on patrol on the Hai Muoi Tam Canal in the Mekong Delta, as the seven-man crew was part of Task Force Clearwater.

Here’s his evocative description of what happened after he woke up following his first in-country operation. “In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. Watering eyes stared at a bruised, puffy face with burned-off eyebrows. My gown fell open and I looked down. I was peppered with hundreds of small bits of shrapnel just below the skin. A few larger pieces had been lodged in my left leg and right arm. Those had been removed along with bone chips and damaged tissue.

Wendell Affield

“The fifth rocket, the one that had penetrated the armor two inches above my right hand, had caused the most damage. The back of my head and neck hurt where several small pieces had entered when the molten steel had richocheted. I was covered with a burning, itchy rash from crawling along the riverbank [waiting for the Medevac chopper], sliding through large patches of brush that burned like nettles. The right side of my face was sore. I tongued my mouth and discovered several broken teeth. Pink fluid drained from my ears and everything had a haze to it. My eyes felt as though somebody had thrown a handful of ashes in them.”

Later, he writes, Affiled watched as a medic scrubbed him “with brown solution using a soft brush, working out the bits of shrapnel near the surface. ‘You’ll be picking bits of iron out for the rest of your life,’ he said.”

Affield recovered from his injuries, battled–and overcame–PTSD after returning home, had a career, retired, and today lives with his wife Patti on a farm in northern Minnesota. His website is http://www.wendellaffield.com

—Marc Leepson