The Death Of PCF 43
April 12, 1969
Dung Keo Canal, Vietnam
This article was supplied by Steven L. Waterman
Between the hours of 1800-1900, 12 April 1969, at a well-camouflaged
sector along the narrow Duong Keo, southernmost in South Vietnam's vast system of
navigable waterways, U.S. Navy PCF's ("swiftboats") then supporting Vietnamese
Marine river operations under the aegis of SEALORDS incurred their most devastating and
demoralizing setback to date. A well-planned and perfectly executed Viet Cong heavy
weapons ambush inflicted heavy material damage to every swiftboat unit involved in the
action and accounted for thirty-nine wounded in action, many seriously and requiring
immediate medical evacuation. Vietnamese Marine casualties were of equal severity.
One of the eight boats involved, PCF 43, was totally destroyed
during the encounter. Its mangled, blackened carcass still rests on the ambush site, a
somewhat grotesque testament and sepulcher to the forlorn events of that bitter hour. Of
her seventeen embarked Navymen, including ten members of Underwater Demolition Team
THIRTEEN Detachment GOLF and one SEALORDS staff officer, two were killed: LTJG Don Droz,
the boat OIC, and HMC Robert Worthington, the UDT corpsman. Only three of the remaining
fifteen escaped unscathed. UDT wounded in action include SM3 Art Ruiz, Seaman Michael
Sandlin, SM3 Robert Lowry, Seaman William Piper, GMG3 Ricky Hinson, and LTJG Peter Upton.
LTJG Upton's story revolves around the thoughts and actions of those fifteen and is intended to stand as a tribute to their raw courage, a reflection of their brute will to survive.
Vietnamese mornings are singularly beautiful and manifest a stark
antithesis to the rather brutal fact that the country is pervaded by deprivation and the
ravagings of war. The morning of 12 April was true to that idyllic form: a typical
golden-hued glimmer emanating from the pastelled East suffusing into the mellow radiance
of the silvery West as the sun and moon exchanged benign glances, then gracefully parted.
However, this morning elegance passed quickly, blending into the searing heat of early
afternoon, when word was passed to UDT promulgating the modus operandi and logistics
requirements for the upcoming three-day SEALORDS operation. Lusty grunting supplemented
the detachments more basic four-letter vocabulary as personal gear, weapons, "C"
rations and over eight hundred pounds of high explosives were then transferred from the
tank stowage deck of the WESTCHESTER COUNTY, LST 1167, onto the fantail of the PCF 43,
assigned to support UDT for the day. It was about 1630 hours when UDT personnel scampered
down the sagging cargo net, consummating the already bulking load.
Rendezvous with the PCF units involved in the mission took place
approximately one hour later, one thousand meters outside the gaping mouth of the Duong
Keo, the watery path which would lead to the day's assigned sweep area. Forty-three
informed the command boat of her special cargo, then took her assigned station as the rear
element of a stately file of eight units. Flak gear was donned and battle stations manned
on the fantail as the boats proceeded to enter the foreboding jaws of this river, infamous
for its demonstrated hostility to allied units who dared venture into her inner reaches.
On this day a Viet Cong heavy weapons company, consisting of approximately seventy-five hard-core guerrillas, was located in the area of the Duong Keo when they received warning through an elaborately contrived signal system that a swiftboat incursion was underway. A well fortified sector, up the river about five kilometers, interlaced with freshly built bunker, trench, and spider-hole emplacements and permeated with thick mangrove vegetation provided excellent cover for their weapons positions. Almost guaranteed of success, the enemy set up and waited. . .
. . . Discipline was perfect: the Viet Cong patiently awaited the
greatest possible number of boats to be encompassed in their kill zone, then triggered the
ambush with a claymore mine aimed at the lead boat. All hell broke loose as a murderous
fusillade of rocket, recoilless rifle, machine gun, and small arms fire ensued. Every boat
in the file received immediate hits and personnel casualties, but each roared back with
her full arsenal of heavy .50 caliber machine guns. One by one the boats maneuvered
upstream, out of enemy range. seeking open ground on which to set up an emergency medical
PCF 43 never made it. Her position as last unit in the file, aggravated by her heavy load, combined to seal her doom. For, as the lead boats were exiting the kill zone and scrambling to safety upstream, the 43 was just arriving; as the first seven boats churned and leapt forward in violent reaction, throttles to the wall, the 43 succumbed to her bulk, falling farther and father behind until she was relatively alone, hopelessly alienated in the center of the kill zone.
Viet Cong gunners then focused on the hapless intruder. Singled out for the kill, the 43 was ripped asunder, inexorably, and with lightning-like quickness: cascading water spouts signaled the near misses, though gunners at point-blank range will miss but once. One B-40 rocket found the fantail, instantly killing Doc Worthington. Hinson and Piper received frag wounds from the blast, Piper's helmet perforated and blown off by a piece of shrapnel. AK-47 rounds raked the deck, one piercing Sandlin's left leg, leaving a clean, though gaping wound. Another rocket exploded in the pilot house, mortally wounding the OIC and knocking the coxswain unconscious for precious seconds. Naked, without a guiding hand, 43 gesticulated wildly and careened into the north bank of the river, coming to her final, alien rest, high and dry amidst the mangrove foliage directly in front of the Viet Cong emplacements.
The bewildering, awesome reality of the situation was beclouded by
momentary shock. The enemy, probably in a similar state of amazement, did not organize
directly and afforded the 43's survivors invaluable minutes in which to orient themselves.
LT Lomas scurried into the pilot house and aided the wounded there. Sandlin's pain was
eased by a quick shot of morphine and a battle dressing. The sporadic shrapnel wounds of a
minor nature were of no immediate concern. Survival, and survival only, was paramount, and
to live, the survivors knew they had to fight. To this end, a hasty defense perimeter was
formed. Campbell, with Piper and Broderick on the fantail, maintained constant M-79
grenade fire into the north bank. Luckily, the 43 boat canted toward the river and
provided some natural cover for them. Crew members, discarding the .50 caliber weapons as
useless, grabbed M-16 rifles and set up firing positions covering the south bank, thereby
providing the stricken unit with a 360 degree perimeter.
Simultaneous with these actions, Ruiz and Lowry found the
detachment's M-60 machine gun, and, using the 43's hull for cover, slid past the bow in
order to set up a firing position in a natural emplacement ten meters away. Sandlin, ready
to go, was given a rifle and carried to this frontal position thereby supplying additional
Concussion grenades were also used to supplement these basic weapons
in the forty minute effort to ward off any attempts of an enemy assault. The foliage
proved indeed provident, absorbing much of the enemy fire while precluding his use of
rockets and heavy rounds altogether. Though continuous, the resulting incoming fire was
relatively ineffective. Only Ruiz was seriously wounded in the ground action as a Chinese
hand grenade exploded next to his M-60 firing position. Heroic acts became well-nigh
routine as 43 was transformed into a blazing bunker: some fired while Hinson passed
ammunition and loaded M-16 magazines; weapons jammed and were replaced; hand grenades were
exchanged with the enemy but twenty meters away, a diabolical chess game, one Viet Cong
spider hole checkmated by Lowry's accurate throw. As a result of this aggressive perimeter
action, the necessary volume of fire was sustained and the enemy never risked a frontal
Thoughts gravitated toward rescue: where in almighty hell were the
other boats? 43's radio was destroyed beyond repair and the backup PRC-25 unit set up by
LT Lomas and the SEALORDS staff officer lacked the transmission power to break into the
net already froth with urgent traffic. PCF 38, seventh boat in the file, was just heading
out of 43's sight when she realized her trailing sister was missing. Brazenly, she
attempted to implement rescue by reentering the ambush site. Thirty-eight's bravery was
thwarted by a rocket round which slammed into her pilot house, severely wounding the OIC
and rendering her steering useless. The coxswain's skillful manipulation of the twin screw
throttles enabled the boat to limp out of the kill zone without suffering further damage.
Upon reaching the medevac area, 38 passed the word of distress,
thereby galvanizing the command boat, PCF 31, and a cohort, PCF 5, into swift action. Both
boats entered the kill zone with guns roaring and arrived intact at the scene of battle.
Thirty-one maneuvered into a position adjacent to the wreckage while 5 poured out covering
fire. Long prayed-for extraction became a euphoric reality as dead and wounded persons
were passed up, and finally, the perimeter was withdrawn, exhausted and unbelieving. The
evacuation completed, 31 and 5 raced to the medevac perimeter where the dazed men of 43
joined the somber procession, ferrying the wounded to the dustoff helicopters,vainly
trying to collect and convey their thoughts of the past hour. l he air was heavy with a
pungent haze of disbelief.
Meanwhile, only twenty minutes after her crew and UDT had been
evacuated, 43's fate was sealed as over a thousand pounds of high explosives and mortar
rounds concocted an eruption of cataclysmic intensity, hurling a spuming vortex of flame,
smoke, and twisting metal over five hundred feet into the air-her twin diesels could not
be halted during the fight, had overheated and ignited fuel, thus starting the irrevocable
chain which ended in her ultimate destruction.
Wisely, the boats refused to risk a night transit and bivouacked in the river, tethering to mangrove stumps within the reinforced defense perimeter. Few of the 43 boat's survivors could muster the strength to close their eyes; frozen to the decks of their new homes, they gazed into the starry firmament, wondering, reckoning...
. . . First light of 13 April manifested typical magnificence;
lacking, however, were contemplative spirits necessary for the breathing in of such
grandeur. Following the sumptuousness of mawkish tomato juice and canned scrambled eggs,
orders were barked and the perimeter troops reembarked in order to proceed with the days
schedule of sweeps. The buzzing activity provided a well-needed elixir, forcing wretched
visions of the previous day's ambush into realms of temporary obscurity. Towards nightfall
the sweeps terminated and the Marines formed protective enclaves for the night's rest. The
swiftboats, released from support duty, then formed the classic file and headed to sea and
safety, retracing the path of the tragic twelfth.
Short minutes after getting underway the boats passed the still-life remains of the 43, an aesthetic aberration suspended on the north bank of the Duong Keo, simply out of joint with her surroundings. Looking at her bow, bending towards the azure heavens in a searching gesture, one could almost feel motion, a groping for the malignancy which was the cause of her agonizing death. The uninitiated might further try to recreate the essence of the once pulsating holocaust which presently stood calmly before them. The vibrant sensations of that enormity-the anguish, the torments, the frustrations, and the ecstasy-however, will forever remain an esoteric fact, privy to the surviving fifteen: no effort of meditation could possibly reveal those secrets.
By LTJG Peter N. Upton