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Tarnished Hero

This is the chapter where Tim Kelly's three friends are killed by, so-called: "friendly fire."

“A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, There was a lack of woman’s nursing, there was dearth of woman’s tears; but a comrade stood beside him, while his lifeblood ebbed away.” –Caroline Norton

CHAPTER FIVE

The Coast Guard C-130 made a flawless landing and taxied to its assigned parking apron on Da Nang Air Base in the Republic of South Vietnam.
Da Nang was the largest and most northern military base in South Vietnam, and home to a veritable hodgepodge of air, ground, and naval units of which Coast Guard Squadron One, Division 12 was only one.
At 1420 local time, the crew chief activated the hydraulic controls dropping the plane’s rear load ramp onto the steamy tarmac.
Kelly gathered his gear and stepped off the ramp, immediately hitting the wall of heat and humidity characteristic of a typical day in Southeast Asia.
Sighing, he stretched his sore muscles cramped from attempting unsuccessfully to grab a little naptime on the trip over from Coast Guard Air Station Barber’s Point on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Never mind. He was finally in country. That was the only thing that mattered.
He had gone about ten yards when he heard his name shouted above the sounds of aircraft taking off and landing.
Turning, he saw that the caller was Coast Guard Lieutenant Junior Grade Mike Rossi whom Kelly had known since they went through boot camp at Cape May together in 1957.
“Would you just look at you? The Coast Guard must really be hard up if they made you an officer. How the hell are you, you old seadog?”
Kelly shouted over the sounds of idling aircraft engines while flipping his old friend a semi-military salute.
“Not bad for an old dog. Anyhow, that’s no way to talk to your new XO. That said, it’s great seeing you, Tim. Welcome to sunny Vietnam. I’m sure your grandma always told you, keep your powder dry and take your Malaria prophylaxis.
“Speaking of prophylaxis, follow the advice of our Surgeon General and always, always wear your rubbers. Or was that galoshes when it rains? Which it does every day over here.
“I get confused sometimes.”
“You’re really my new XO?”
Kelly feigned a look of shock and disbelief.
“You see before you the proud second in command of the eighty-two foot Coast Guard patrol boat Point Deception. The best damn boat in Patrol Squadron One Division Twelve Da Nang South Vietnam.”
“You’re serious? Well, congratulations, I think.”
“Thank you. When I saw your name on the replacement list, it cost me some serious booze to convince the chief yeoman over at personnel that you and the Point Deception belonged together.
“No mean feat, considering there are no billets for a radioman on the WPBs. However, we do have a billet for an ET, and that slot is vacant.
“So you, my fine-feathered radioman, are the boat’s new electronics technician, who just happens to know Morse code. Not that you’ll have need of that particular skill. Besides, nobody else on the boat plays cribbage as badly as you.”
“Isn’t there something in your officer’s guidebook that prohibits the taking advantage of enlisted personnel? Even by a lowly jay gee like yourself?”
“That’s old school. New wisdom says it’s okay to take advantage of the likes of a little shanty Irish boy from Texas like you.”
“Yeah? Well I hope you’ve been saving your money because cribbage lessons from me can be very expensive.”
“You wish. If bullshit were dollars you’d be a millionaire.”
Rossi grinned like a first time father.
“No brag, just fact.
“It was a long dry trip. Any chance of getting a cold one around here?”
“No problem. We’ll swing by the club on the way back to the boat.
“Throw your gear in the back of the jeep, and we’ll get going.”
Kelly followed Rossi into the Doom Club, one of several clubs on the sprawling base. It didn’t seem to matter that the club was an officer’s open mess. Anyway, he was Lieutenant Rossi’s guest, if anyone cared to ask.
Mister Ng, the barman on duty, greeted Lieutenant Rossi with a toothy grin.
“For long time now no see Di Wee Rossi. Where you go?”
“Di Wee is Vietnamese for captain. Every American regardless of rank is Di Wee to Mister Ng,”
“I’ve been super busy, Ng. You know how it is now Di Di Hai Biere LaRue, quickly, two Tiger beers, Ng. My friend has traveled a long way, and he’s very thirsty.”
“Okay, Di Wee Rossi. You numba-one with me.”
Both men were laughing when Ng returned with two ice-cold one-liter Tiger beers, and joined in their laughter.
“You American Coast Guard all Dinky Dau.”
The two old friends sat at the bar consuming three or four Tigers each while reminiscing about old times.
It had been years since they’d seen each other and when Kelly filled Rossi in on all the details of the sign and the prison cabbage patch, Rossi doubled over with laughter.
“Stop. Oh please stop. I’ve got a weak bladder, and I’m about to piss myself.
“Describe to me again the look on that jackass Gunderson’s face when he looked out of the day room window and saw his precious sign in the middle of the prison cabbage patch.
“Wait. I’ve got to go piss before you do, or I’ll wet myself for sure.”
Rossi returned from the head and reclaimed his seat at the bar.
Kelly, shifted the direction of the conversation.
“Okay, Mike, tell me. What’s the skinny over here?”
“Well briefly, the Coast Guard is over here in support of the Navy’s Operation Market Time. The boat has fifty Caliber machine guns along with a piggyback eighty-one millimeter mortar with both manual and electric trigger firing options. Additional armament includes two M-Sixty machine guns.
“Our usual patrol area is the waters near the mouth of the Cua Viet River south of the Demilitarized Zone along the Seventeenth Parallel.
“Our mission varies from interdicting Vietnamese fishing trawlers suspected of running guns. Insertion and extraction of special operations teams and providing covering fire as necessary for the grunts, and just about anything else that you could think of, including search and rescue missions when pilots from the Navy Marines and Air Force find themselves in the drink.
“Right now, you’re a newbie. But you’ll be an old hand soon enough.”
Lieutenant Rossi pulled the jeep up more or less in front of the Division 12 headquarters hooch.
“Let’s get you signed in, and you can meet the skipper, if he’s in.”
Lieutenant Junior Grade Donald C. Broadwick Coast Guard Academy Class of 1963, looked up and smiled when Rossi entered the hut with Kelly bringing up the rear.
“Hi, Skipper.” Rossi said. “This is our new radioman slash electronics technician, RM One Kelly. He’s replacing ET Two Simpson.”
Smiling, Lieutenant Broadwick extended his hand.
“Welcome aboard, Kelly. Mike has been singing your praises ever since he heard you were coming out.”
“Lieutenant Rossi and I were in the same company in boot camp and I can attest to the fact that, if given half a chance, he’ll tell you a sea story in a heartbeat.”
“Well, I trust his judgment and if he says you’re okay, that’s good enough for me.
“You look familiar, Kelly. Have we served together?”
“You look familiar to me too, sir. I noticed your class ring.
“Class of sixty-three.
“I was on the Absecon in sixty-one when we deployed on the annual cadet cruise. Some of you guys had to ride with us instead of setting sail on the Eagle.”
Lieutenant Broadwick smiled.
“That’s right. You were a radioman second then. This is really a small Coast Guard.
“Mike, see to Kelly’s in processing. We shove off at zero five-hundred tomorrow. Should be a routine patrol. Come back and see me after you get him squared away.
“Again, glad to have you with us, Kelly. We’ll talk later.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m glad I’m here.”
“Right, boss. I’ll be back in a few.” Rossi said.
Rossi escorted Kelly out of the headquarters hooch.
“Come on, Tim. Let’s get you checked in, then I’ll introduce you to the rest of the guys.”
Rossi introduced Kelly to the crew including Engineman Second Class Gerald Peters, whom Kelly had served with on the Coast Guard cutter Absecon. Then Lieutenant Rossi excused himself.
“I’ll leave you guys to get reacquainted. I know you’ve a lot of catching up to do.
“Jerry, finish getting Tim settled in and I’ll see you in the morning. We’re getting underway at 0500.
“Welcome aboard, Tim. It’s really great having you here.”
Rossi shook Kelly’s hand and left the two of them to catch up.
The Coast Guard is a small service complete with the same types of gossip and rumor mills found in any comparable small civilian community and Kelly wondered if there were any rumors circulating about him and Linda Gilmore, but didn’t mention it.
The next morning the Point Deception got underway at 0512, just as Lieutenant Broadwick promised.
Kelly was excited to the point of not being able to sleep his first night in country. This patrol would set the pattern for subsequent patrols, right up until the day the unthinkable happened.
Later that evening the Point Deception participated in the destruction of a North Vietnamese fishing trawler.
In addition to the Point Deception, the mini battle group was comprised of another WPB, a Navy swift boat, and two Army helicopter gunships.
When challenged, the trawler opened fire.
If this had been a one-on-one encounter, the Point Deception would’ve been badly outgunned.
However, the combined firepower of the American vessels and helicopter gunships quickly turned the tide and after sustaining countless hits, the trawler full to the gunnels with contraband ordinance bound for North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong troops in the South, exploded in a giant fireball.
All of the American vessels, while showered with debris from the trawler, sustained no significant battle damage and miraculously no American personnel were injured.
Kelly’s skin tingled. His mouth was dry and his pulse was racing at over 100 beats-per-minute. The side effects of an adrenalin rush, the likes of which he had never experienced before.
For some people adrenalin has an addictive potential far greater than any known opiate and Kelly discovered he was firmly hooked on the so-called fight-or-flight hormone.
The feeling exhilarated him, and like any addict he craved more.
This was Kelly’s first taste of combat, and he loved it and why not? There were no wounded or dead and it felt like the books he’d read said it was, and the standard John Wayne war movies he’d grown up with.
The smoke that burned his eyes and the battle noise that left his ears ringing all stimulated his senses and the acrid smell of gunpowder sent the mucus membranes of his nostrils into spasm as it penetrated deep into his sinus cavities.
***
It was now several months after that first patrol and as Lieutenant Rossi had prophesied, Kelly was now an old hand.
Lieutenant Rossi started his four-to-eight watch on the Point Deception’s bridge. It was a quiet predawn morning and the boat was patrolling somewhere just south of the mouth of the Cua Viet River.
Rossi was halfway through his first cup of bitter tasting black coffee and he felt at peace with the world. This was his favorite time of day, awake and alive while the rest of the world slept.
The cool offshore breeze blew through the open pilothouse window, bathing his face. It felt refreshing. The sea was calm and it had been a quiet patrol so far.
Noting the parachute flares and flashes of exploding ordinance just beyond the landward horizon, he remarked to his helmsman QM2 Mike Malone.
“Looks like the flyboys are kicking some VC ass this morning. Man, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of all that.”
“Yeah, Mister Rossi, those air dales have it dicked. Fly over the enemy and drop their bang-bang toys, and then head back to the club for a nice cold beer. Where, a boom-boom girl tells them, ‘I love you for long time. No shit, GI’. Meanwhile we bob around out here sweating our asses off, boarding junks and sampans, never knowing if some VC in black PJs is going to trigger the bomb that will blow us to hell and gone.
“Yeah, they got a hard life for sure. Even their enlisted clubs have music piped into the heads.
“Can you imagine that, Mister Rossi?”
“Don’t be too hard on the flyboys, Mike. Think about what it must be like to have your plane shot out from under you, after which you’re captured and trussed up like a chicken in a bamboo cage, and pelted with mud rocks and God only knows what, as you pass through a blur of villages on your way to the zero-star Hanoi Hilton.
“Not something I’d like, for sure. You ask me, those jet jocks deserve all the perks they get, just for doing that job with even the remote possibility of getting shot down and captured.”
Before Malone could answer his lieutenant, two-parachute flares from an Air Force C-130 flare ship, part of the Air Force’s forward airborne, air control program, generic call sign, Blind Bat, illuminated the Point Deception and surrounding waters.
It was common practice following a mission for U. S. combat aircraft from all services to check in with Blind Bat for possible targets of opportunity in order to unload left over ordinance on their way back to their home bases.
This morning Blind Bat identified the Point Deception as a hostile target thought to be steaming south from the northern side of the Seventeenth Parallel—DMZ.
That meant the Point Deception was fair game for the B-57 commencing the first of three gun runs.
Moments after the flares lit up the Point Deception the B-57 swooped in for the kill, its four 20 mm M39 cannons spewing death and destruction.
Built for a maximum speed of 16-17 knots the patrol boat’s light steel hull and aluminum superstructure offered no protection for its crew.
The first attack ignited an oil drum lashed to the Point Deception’s stern and turned the aluminum pilot house into a Swiss cheese pattern of jagged holes, giving rise to multiple pieces of secondary shrapnel. One of them penetrated lieutenant Rossi’s right thigh, shattering his femur and shredding his femoral artery. The sudden massive blood loss sent Rossi’s heart into the chaotic bag-of-worms rhythm known officially as ventricular fibrillation, followed by full cardiac arrest.
While not instantaneous, Rossi’s death occurred so quickly, he probably hadn’t felt any pain.
The B-57’s second pass killed EN2 Peters as he came up on deck from the engine room where he had been on watch and on the next pass, a 20 mm projectile passed through lieutenant Broadwick’s torso, blowing out his heart and lungs and killing him instantly, as he reached the door to the pilothouse.
The boat’s senior enlisted man, BMC Paton, rushed to the bridge stopping just long enough to put out the fire on the boat’s stern.
Almost tenderly, he moved his skipper’s body in order to gain access to the pilothouse. Stepping inside, he slipped in the sticky pool of blood lieutenant Rossi was lying in.
Rossi, a look of surprise on his face, gazed up at him with sightless eyes.
Malone, ignoring his own bleeding right arm and shoulder wounds, was attempting unsuccessfully to do CPR on his lieutenant.
“Damn it, Mister Rossi. Don’t you dare die on me. You hear me?”
Tears streamed down his cheeks and as they fell, they mixed with Rossi’s blood already covering a large portion of the deck.
Chief Paton gently removed Malone’s hands from Rossi’s chest.
“He’s gone, son. You can’t help him now. Our concern is with the boat and the rest of the crew. Let’s take care of your shoulder and figure out what we’re goin’ to do.”
As he spoke, the chief tore open the OD Green plastic cover of the standard military battle dressing to bind Malone’s wounds.
“There you go, Mike. Now make a quick tour of the boat and report back here with a damage assessment.”
It was eerily quiet once the B-57 broke off its attack and headed back to its home base at Da Nang.
Malone returned to the bridge.
“Chief. In addition to Mister Rossi and the skipper, EN Two Peters is dead and almost everyone else has minor flesh wounds.
“I didn’t see any holes in the hull, but I thought I heard water sloshing on the other side of the hatch leading into the chain locker forward.”
“Thanks, Mike. That’s helpful.
“I thought she was feeling a little heavy in the bow, but I can’t tell without rudder control.”
Two more parachute flares lit up the sky and two F4 Phantoms attacked the Point Deception.
While both planes made bomb runs, they only managed to score an indirect hit, which caused no significant battle damage.
Their ordnance completely exhausted, they headed back to Da Nang for debriefing, hot showers, clean clothes, and dinner and drinks at the O’ Club.
Chief Paton, after Malone’s report of hearing water sloshing in the chain locker, believed that the boat was sinking and decided to run the cutter aground and abandon ship.
“Malone, I want you to get everyone together and prepare to abandon ship. I’ll pass the word on the One MC when we get close enough to shore.”
Seven short rings of the general alarm bell, followed by one long ring, preceded Chief Paton’s order.
“Now here this. All hands abandon ship. Abandon ship. Man the life rafts.”
Kelly helped get the rafts into the water and helped the wounded into them. Then he removed one of the M-60 machine guns from its swivel mount and grabbed a metal box containing eight belts of ammunition.
Chief Paton remained on the bridge continuing to maneuver the Point Deception as close to shore as possible.
The two rafts began to receive small arms, machine gun, and mortar fire from both north and south of their position.
As Kelly’s raft touched bottom, he and a few crewmembers not wounded in the attacks, jumped out to pull the raft onto the beach.
Grabbing the M-60 and the 800 rounds of ammunition, Kelly said, “Ross, get the wounded over to that berm line and take cover.”
Once he was satisfied that the rest of the crew was safely undercover, Kelly moved forward to establish a covering field of fire with his M-60 that put him between the advancing VC and his shipmates.
He set up the M-60 on top of a fallen palm tree adjacent to a shallow gully carved out of the sand by the runoff of countless monsoons. It was a perfect natural redoubt providing maximum cover and a 180-degree field of fire.
Kelly finished the setup of the M-60 as the VC began a soft probe of his position.
Three VC were off to his right, wearing the traditional Non La conical hats and loose fitting black pants and shirts called PJs by the American troops.
“Okay it’s show time,” Kelly said to himself.
He fired two short bursts in their direction and the figures disappeared.
The next probe came from head on and this time there were four, possibly five or six skirmishers.
Two more short bursts from Kelly’s M-60 and these shadowy figures dispersed.
The M-60 machine gun has only one fire setting—full automatic and it will fire just over five-hundred rounds per minute. However, this firing rate is slow enough to allow for the firing of five-or-six-round bursts and Kelly resisted the temptation to hold the trigger down and spray the field with rounds that inflicted little if any harm on the enemy. Instead, he maintained his sequence of effective short bursts of fire.
This time when the VC retreated into the jungle, they left a number of their comrades behind.
Even though he tried to be careful and fire short bursts, Kelly had expended almost four-hundred rounds of ammunition. He readied another ammo belt for a fast reload and waited for Charlie’s next attack.
The VC attacked Kelly’s position several more times and he beat them back each time, but his ammunition was becoming critically low with only two belts of one-hundred rounds and an almost expended belt remaining.
Seeing that another patrol boat was now close in to the beach next to, the Point Deception, Kelly said, “Hey, Ross, get our people back into the rafts and out to that other boat. I’ll stay here and cover you.”
Ross signaled his understanding with a thumbs-up and as he began moving the men back to the beach and into the rafts, the VC began another attack on Kelly’s position.
Kelly watched as the first raft reached the newly arrived patrol boat. A minute later the .50 Caliber machine guns from the new boat started firing into the jungle over his position.
***
The Point Deception’s wounded were Medevac’d to the Air Force field hospital at Cam Ranh Bay by Air Force rescue helicopters affectionately nicknamed Jolly Greens. Coast Guard pilots attached to the Air Force 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron piloted some of them.

About the author:

Jim Gilliam ran away from home just before his 14th birthday, lying about his age, he joined the Coast Guard. He renounced his medical retirement to become an Army airborne combat physician assistant going on to retire from the U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command in 2010 with 28 years of service to our country. He lives in Warwick, NY where he continues to write novels with a military and law enforcement theme.

Read more: http://www.pointdeception.com

 

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