A staff car met my helicopter and took me to the nearby Dong Tam field headquarters of Major General George G. O’Connor, Commander of the 9th Division, our main force attempting to defeat the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta. In that productive, densely populated part of Vietnam our highly motivated, well trained enemies repeatedly had demonstrated their capability to punish U.S. forces and keep us largely on the defensive. American commanders were looking for ways to improve the effectiveness of their units.
My meeting with General O'Connor was brief and to the point. I explained that my job for the next few days was to learn what simple types of equipment, that perhaps could be supplied within the next few months, were needed in the Delta to improve the combat effectiveness of U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) troops. The first need that General O’Connor expressed was “...for some way to keep my men from drowning. During the past 12 months the 9th has lost 10 men, mostly good swimmers.” Ladened with arms and ammo, when they stepped or fell into water over their heads they often drowned. Among the other needs he expressed were black belt buckles to replace the standard issue, shiny brass buckles — eye-catching targets for the Vietcong.
General O'Connor, like almost all of the officers with whom I talked in Vietnam, did not know that in World War II American jungle infantrymen had Flotation Bladders, which also served as multi-quart collapsible canteens. (Bladders which met the same needs, the 5-qt. Flotation Bladders/Collapsible Canteens that were produced very late in the Vietnam War, are pictured in Fig. 1-1.) Nor did he realize that a belt buckle that holds much more securely than the shiny dress buckles then being worn by his men in combat would be needed if multi-quart flotation bladders, designed to be attached to a swimmer’s trouser belt, again were produced and issued. (The securely holding “mobilization buckle” is described in Chapter 12. Over a million were warehoused in the United States but could not be issued because mobilization had not been ordered!)
Fig. 1-1. Two 5-qt. Flotation Bladders/ Collapsible Canteens, which were breath inflated and could be attached to a swimmer’s belt by their belt loops. A third is held, folded into its attached filling pouch. Most soldiers could button their shirts or coats over at least the lower parts of their attached bladders. My coat was left open to show them. This model weighs 0.53 pound and was produced too late in the Vietnam War to be of much use.
Thanks to General O'Connor, that afternoon I was taken by launch to the USS Benewah, the unique floating barracks ship of a battalion of the 9th Division. Once aboard, I talked with infantrymen much experienced in facing problems they were poorly equipped to surmount, including getting across canals, swamps, and streams in the Delta.
The air conditioned Benewah had just steamed to a new anchorage in the Mekong, one of the world's great rivers. About 15 reluctant-looking infantrymen were on deck in formation. Their sergeant was checking their M-16s, Claymore mines, and other gear. They were preparing to be taken by launch to one bank of the Mekong, to guard against the danger of a night attack on their battalion’s mobile floating barracks. Then, burdened with weapons and ammo, they filed down a steel stairway on the ship’s side and stepped onto a launch that pitched in the river’s swift tidal current. Those soldiers had no flotation gear. If one had tripped or slipped, he would have gone down like a rock in the swirling muddy water. I kept wishing that they had individual flotation gear like the best issued to our jungle infantrymen during World War II: individual Flotation Bladders inflated and attached to trouser belts in front, and Jungle Packs, made buoyant by their closed Waterproof Pack Liner Bags, attached to trouser belts in back. Thus supported front and rear, even a non-swimmer was kept afloat and could swim a little.
The Waterproof Pack Liner Bag, which was issued for use with the Jungle Pack, was a modernized, much lighter version of the waterproof bags used by canoe-culture natives of the Orinoco and Amazon jungles in which I had worked before Pearl Harbor.
The natives made a waterproof bag by repeatedly coating a cylindrical cotton-cloth bag with latex from wild rubber trees, and curing the rubber coatings over a smoky fire. When the bag’s mouth was folded and tied shut in the way described later in this chapter, it served to keep a native’s hammock, dried foods, and other possessions dry even when a canoe capsized in rapids.
If the 9th Division infantrymen from the USS Benewah approaching a bank of the Mekong had had individual flotation equipment, their launch could have nosed into the little mangrove trees growing out from the water’s edge. They could have lowered themselves over the bow, first to swim a few feet if the water were too deep to wade ashore, and then to wade through the trees to dry land.
Unfortunately, those burdened men had to go ashore at the one treeless, open part in sight on that bank, cleared where Vietnamese boatmen landed — an obvious place for booby traps.
For the next 15 minutes or so I figuratively held my breath, while learning from infantrymen aboard the Benewah more about their operational problems and needs. Meanwhile the men ashore about a quarter of a mile away moved very slowly from the open landing spot, looking for booby traps. Then BOOM! Word from their sergeant by radio: “Booby trap, 105 [the caliber of the American shell used by the Vietcong booby trapper], one casualty.” A couple of minutes later: “Casualty dead.”
While for want of individual flotation equipment Americans drowned or were killed by being forced to go ashore in obviously dangerous places, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese swam safely across rivers and canals. Even while transporting mortars, heavy Chinese Claymore mines, or Russian 120 mm rockets! Our resourceful enemies were able to swim with their weapons and ammo both because they were experts at improvisation and because some carried breath-inflated flotation gear.
A Vietnamese individual flotation tube, taken off a dead Vietcong shortly before the Tet Offensive, is pictured in Fig. 1-2. A typical Vietnamese fighter was small enough to slip into this breath-inflated ring and wear it under his armpits while swimming. His AK-47, ammunition, grenades, waterproofed gas mask and other gear were undamaged by immersions and were stably supported by his swimming tube.
Fig. 1-2. North Vietnamese/Vietcong flotation tube. The Vietcong from whose body it was taken had written on it in Vietnamese, “On to attack the area of Saigon,” “Democracy of South Vietnam,” and other slogans.