This is a reprint of a chapter I wrote in a book that was recently published about Swift Boats in Viet Nam. I was also able in some small way to help edit the book, “Restoration of a Legacy” Maritime Museum of San Diego. It’s a little longer than most Ted’s Heads. I beg your pardon
What The Hell Am I Doing Here?….
By Ted Kenny
I have asked myself this question several times during my life. I remember asking it on more than one occasion in the surface Navy and probably daily in Vietnam on a floating beer can called a Swift Boat.
I have always loved the water. The year was 1967 and most everyone was serving whether they wanted to or not. The Navy was a natural for me and became even more imperative when I reported to my induction physical at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn . The standard “turn your head and cough” and “bend over and spread your cheeks” routine suggested to me that the Army was not the way to go.
But real fear reared its ugly head when a fellow inductee had an eye exam. The medic shouted over to the sergeant that this guy couldn’t see out of his left eye. The noncom barked if he could see out of the right eye? Affirmative, came the reply. He passed the physical. Oh my God. They are taking any warm body.
Now at this time I was waiting for orders to Navy Officers’ Candidate School in Newport , R.I. It was a race to the finish and I won. I raised my right hand and punched my ticket to Narragansett Bay . At that very moment my induction notice was being delivered to my parent’s house. Thank heavens for small favors.
My first two years as a line officer were uneventful and even offered spare time in one of the country’s best cities, Boston . My ship was in the yards and I decided to put off reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace in favor of cavorting from one end of town to the other with one of my shipmates. The XO actually told me once that he was grateful I had the duty every four days so my liver would hold up until my next duty station.
There in Boston I met the cutest thing, who would eventually become my wife. She was living with four girls I went to Georgetown with. It was love at first sight, but I couldn’t go quietly. I mean I have my standards. Sure enough we had not just a lover’s quarrel but a full blown breakup. It was Dear Ted or Dear Kathy depending on how you looked at it.
The plot thickens. Enter Stage Right, my detailer—the guy in Washington who allegedly looks after you when you need new orders. “Where would you like to go?” Just get my ass out of here, I said. East Coast? West Coast? Just get me out as fast as possible. Long deliberation and thoughtful reasoning hasn‘t always been part of my modus operandi.
Six weeks later I had now made up with my then girl friend now wife and the phone rang in the ship’s office. “It’s for you Mr. Kenny.” Uh oh, the Detailer! He told me I was going to Coastal Squadron One. Hmm, I thought, staff duty. How nice. I asked where this palatial outpost was and got a little queasy when he said in-country, Vietnam . Just what am I going to be doing? You will be an Officer-in-Charge of a PCF. What’s that? Look it up in Jane’s Fighting Ships, he said, and hung up.
Sorry for all the discourse but you all should be aware I didn’t quite volunteer. On the other hand I truly felt that if a guy with a wife and kids was over there it wasn’t my time to bail. But, neither was I running through the door with an M60 in hand and grenades strapped across my chest.
Fast-forward to a Flying Tiger 707 coming into Cam Ranh Bay. We had left Seattle in late afternoon and followed the sunset across the wide Pacific. The planes running lights were darkened and I was now further from home than I have ever been.
As we taxied to a halt, I could feel the oppressive heat even in the middle of the night. Inside the terminal we were briefed and I noticed a chap of Asian descent darting to and fro with an Army issue nine-volt battery strapped to something. Holy Shit! He’s got a bomb and I’m not even here 30 minutes. Of course it was a transistor radio tuned to AFVN. I knew that.
Here was the start of my tour. I had 365 days and a wakeup to go. Start counting. But first I had to make many startling discoveries that weren’t particularly combat-oriented. It was one of the true ironies of modern war.
The beaches were vast and unspoiled. Saigon still had most of the trappings of a slightly seedy, delightfully wicked French colonial port city. Vung Tau, on the sea at the northeast corner of the Mekong Delta, was in many ways a resort. Do fifty or sixty days in the jungles and canals and then have a wonderful dinner with a vodka and tonic.
Yet Sea Float—our Swift base on floating barges moored in the middle of an estuary deep in the Ca Mau Peninsula, offered a totally different reality. Agent Orange rendered lifeless anything from the shoreline inland for 100 yards. No hustle and bustle. We owned 500 yards of water and wasteland in the middle of nowhere. The other side owned the rest. Welcome to Club Dead.
The Brown Water Navy was an apt description for where we were and what we did. Prolific tide changes reminded me of a toilet being flushed. The banks oozed mud and you shook your head as you watched one villager brushing his teeth, another washing clothes and a third taking a dump within shouting distance of each other. I sure hope they switched sides when the tide reversed.
I was 24, “Captain,” “skipper,” “boss” or “Ted” depending on who was talking. I was totally responsible for five crewmen and a 50-foot boat. There were no watches. I was on all the time. 24 hours a day. The guys were great but you were the man. If you caught a catnap you were jolted awake when the engine speeds changed a mere 50 rpm. Guns. Positions. Radios. Code books. Keep everybody up and alert. Ain’t nobody but you holding this thing together.
Train all you want, the most amazing and challenging part was making split second decisions. You tried to skew the odds as best you could, but you realized if you screwed up there wasn’t much latitude. You had a bit of a swagger. You were a Swiftie. But you tried to keep your emotions and arrogance in check. We were playing for keeps.
There were, of course, hijinks here and there. Some planned. Some embarrassing. One of our brethren and his band of merry men had all fallen asleep when they plowed through some guy’s hut from the bedroom to the living room. Although funny at first the reality of invasion of these people’s world was sobering. Sometimes you just couldn’t win hearts and minds no matter what you did. And their lives were changed forever.
I felt for the villagers who had probably traveled to a city maybe once in their lives even though it was only ten miles away. You got the feeling they didn’t care if we were VC or American. Just leave us alone to fish and exist. Over centuries how often were these same thoughts shared by simple people who were just pawns in the battle over power and domination. Tough stuff.
There was a camaraderie among fellow officers and crewmen that can’t be duplicated. We lived on boats, barges and barracks, ate crappy food and laughed and kept each other safe. Arguments were rare. That was the one thing that was probably not healthy for anyone.
Another was that you actually liked a fast pace—several patrols in a 24-hour period—because time passed quickly. And the scariest part was that it did become our home. You fell into a rhythm. A routine. You haven’t lived until you shower with ice cold water provided by a cistern. There were so many mosquitoes it sounded like JFK airport at night.
Every so often you had “Merry Go Round watch”. One boat circled the base and a nest of moored gunboats. They were parked there for the night to get some much needed rest. We continually dropped concussion grenades on our loop to ward off sappers all the while gunners from the base were firing 50 caliber rounds into the woods to keep them low. Not exactly a night at the Ritz but we all dealt with it. Life’s a bitch. Then you die. Hope not.
So many years have passed. Memories fog. We always err on the plus side and embellishment seems to be the order of the day. But my thoughts aren’t on this rice paddy or that. I can’t remember the names of the rivers and checkpoints. To this day I have no affinity for guns or high capacity magazines.
I think I have earned to right to speak of war as a horrendous waste of money and men’s and women’s lives. Not as a Vietnam veteran against the war. Not as a pacifist. Just as a thinking and sometimes sane person who looks at the facts and draws an obvious conclusion about the futility of such folly as the few pursue power and domination. And then once again I have to ask, “What the hell are we doing here?”
Ted Kenny Ltjg. USNR