I made my way to San Diego last weekend. The town bleeds Navy and we gave it one more reason to do so. There was the reunion of the Swift Boat Sailors Association. The attendance of some 250 plus was amazing in that over a five year period from 1965-1970 there were only a few thousand who had received the title of Swift Boaters. The few and the proud does not only belong to the Marines.
It was my first time at such festivities. I made sure friends and family had their phones on for my collect call from jail. Nolo Contendere. Most were in bed early. The fact most brought their wives was a testament to advanced years or maybe everyone had gotten used to short leashes. They made up for it in enthusiasm.
A Swift Boat is a 50’ gun boat. It has a ¼ aluminum hull and a lot of firepower. It had a captain and a crew of 5 or 6 depending on how the draft and the rest of the war was going. We made do with extra flak jackets hanging over the rails for a little more protection. Probably a little more psychological than practical.
We were all pretty irreverent which you know is my style. But the overall persona was wrapped tightly in a thing called camaraderie. “I’ve got your back” was standard issue. But there was something far deeper that was somewhere between PT 109 and McHale’s Navy. No pomp. No circumstance. Just get it done.
I love the sea and was proud to be in the Navy. But for so many of those guys it is their day in the sun. It has defined who they are. They were resplendent in jackets, shirts and old river greens festooned with this patch or that. A few were in full dress and there is nothing cooler than Navy Dress Whites. Women beware. Well, it used to be that way.
As I wandered around the pool or hospitality room I could hear them telling of this firefight or that. Scary rivers and canals with nicknames like “Rocket Alley.” They reveled in the earsplitting cacophony of twin 50’s pumping out a gazillion rounds of hot lead per minute. Or at least it seemed that way. Time has a way of embellishing. Some say they should move on. To me it was oral history. A bit of folk lore. Who cares? It was fun to hear.
It was as if I was watching a movie where at least I had been on the set. I didn’t remember the hull numbers or the names of this river or that. I did remember the fellow skippers who I had not seen in some forty odd years. We seemed to bring up high jinks more than anything else and that was good. To each his own.
For most they have weathered the storm nicely. They had gotten married. Some had kids. Some had become famous in their own right. Most had pursued dreams. All were very human. No hot dogs here. Time had taken its toll but not in a bad way.
There were two things that struck me the most. The first was the ease of communication. To not see someone for 40 some odd years and be able to pick up where we left off in a matter of moments is a marvel of human interaction. There were no jaw dropping revelations. Some waxed philosophically about things like war and life. Neat but not gaudy as I like to say.
The second was more material. There are very few Swift Boats in captivity. The association found one. Where else but Malta? It seems we gave it to the Maltese Navy and they were about to give it up for the scrap heap. Somewhat battered and beaten they took her on ocean going freighters and through miles of government red tape to the Maritime Museum in San Diego.
The boys didn’t stop there. The “Dirty Boat Crew” sanded, filled, painted and rebuilt the engines. All retirees. All for free. There was one fellow who completely rewired the boat. He and his wife lived in Yuma AZ but had been living in motels for a month on their own nickel to get the job done in time.
The before and after pictures are a marvel. The boat? Gorgeous. We all took rides but the best part of all was when they started the engines. They were deep and throaty and the vibration on an aluminum hull came right up through your shoes. It was a feeling out of the past and one a Swiftie can never forget. At least this one won’t.
To my Band of Brothers I say thank you for letting me come back. You all looked great as Navy men do. Thanks also for the persistence in keeping the story going. So many of you busted your butts to do so. Go down to the wharf and think of all things good and bad. Savor the memories and forget the bad stuff. Life is good. Fair winds and following seas to you my friends.
Ted The Great
PCF: Patrol Craft Fast. (Swift Boat) Length 51’. beam 13’7”.
Displacing 17.5 tons light. 22.2 tons loaded.
Power: 2 Gray Marine diesel engines.
Top speed 30-35 knots depending on your engineman
Armament: Forward: Twin 50 Caliber machine guns mounted in a gun tub atop of the pilot house.
Aft: Over Under Weapon with a 50 Caliber machine gun atop
an 81 Millimeter mortar. The strongest guy on board manned this one.
Various other weaponry consisting of officially M60 machine guns, grenades and M79 grenade launchers. Unofficially the strangest collection of sidearms, Uzi’s and AK 47‘s you would ever see. Go for it. Whatever made you happy.
We carried mortar rounds and enough ammunition to do considerable damage. The total cost was around $20,000 in 1970. We used to describe emptying out the various ammo lockers as “shooting up a Cadillac,” which was the going rate for a DeVille back then.
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Swift” class Patrol Boat” />