Mo took me to meet her Uncle Paul a couple of years ago. She worried that we wouldn’t get along. “He’s sort of conservative,” she warned. And she thought this might be a problem because I’m sort of not.
I assured her I would be OK. What I didn’t know was that I would be mesmerized by the guy.
Uncle Paul joined the Navy in the days of Vietnam because he thought the Navy was a safe choice. Just hang out on the perimeter and avoid the fighting. He said he volunteered to become a swift boat pilot because those guys seemed to spend most of their time along the coast water skiing.
But only weeks after he became a pilot, everything changed. Swift boats became virtual suicide squads. With water skis.
The crew’s new job was to go down the small interior waterways of the Mekong Delta, flushing out Viet Cong and trying to maintain sort sort of supremacy. The problem: The bad guys were able to lie in wait in the heavily forested area along the narrow waterway. One minute, the boat crew was winding lazily down the river. The next, they’re under a fierce ambush, fighting for their lives.
Uncle Paul said that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was turning around. The bad guys knew there was only one way out. They would have hours to set up for the return ambush. The crew would brace themselves for the inevitable barrage, six guys and a couple of .50 caliber machine guys fighting the odds. This was how he spent the war.
As we lingered over our barbecue at dinner with him and Mo’s Aunt Louise, he told us about life in a war zone. The biggest prize for the crews was to capture a Viet Cong flag. Having taken out an encampment once, he had a clear march to the flagpole. His leader wouldn’t let him. Booby traps, he warned. Uncle Paul was crushed. Until he learned that three other guys shortly thereafter were lured by the same flag. They died instantly, killed by an explosive device.
He was the pilot, so he didn’t even get to shoot when they were under attack. He would hunker down in his tiny armored cabin and pray. Somehow, he survived. His only injury was a direct hit to one of the water skis he carried on board.
Oh, and Agent Orange. His crew would find pockets of Viet Cong along the riverways, at which time the planes would be called in to wipe them out. Agent Orange was used heavily to clear the foliage along the shores. The sad side effect: Swift boat crews were indirectly in the line of fire. I guess nobody will ever know exactly how many soldiers were affected by it.
Many years later, he said the guy responsible for pulling the trigger on the use of Agent Orange was asked whether he’d do it again if he knew then what he knows now. Yes, he said, absolutely. It was a choice of whether to have soldiers die immediately or possibly die many years later. He chose the latter. A disclaimer: blah blah no conclusive data to show blah blah Agent Orange blah blah. Uncle Paul had no doubt.
Uncle Paul was in San Antonio that year for a reunion of swift boat sailors. The particular brand of terror they lived through had created a bond that lasted over the years. Every other year they got together to celebrate those who survived, and remember those who hadn’t.
It was a bittersweet affair for him because every year, the numbers got smaller. But he clearly loved going. I guess there are some things that can only be shared by those who know.
The next Swift Boat Sailors Reunion will be on the East Coast in 2015.
Uncle Paul won’t be able to make it. He died last night.
I ran today. I love to run because it’s a time when my mind can just drift. Off to the memories of a young man speeding through a narrow river waiting for an inevitable ambush. Of an older guy sharing a heartfelt salute with a long-ago comrade. Of a leftist pacifist honored to have shared a glass of iced tea with a hero.
Never forget …