Battles not yet over for these Sea Wolves
Ralph Christopher and Art Schmitt didn’t know each other in Vietnam, but they were part of a one-two punch battling the Viet Cong in the watery world known as the Mekong Delta.
Christopher was a gunner on a PBR – better known as a swift boat. Their job was to patrol the Mekong River and the thousands of miles of tributaries and canals that stretched from the Cambodian border to the Pacific. Once they found the enemy – usually when they were fired at, he says – they’d call for the Huey gunships piloted by U.S. Navy officers, including Schmitt, who would bring their firepower to the fight.
Both men say it was a dangerous, dirty war fought against a tough, courageous enemy. But they say the war in the delta is little remembered by most Americans.
Unlike most who served “in country” in Vietnam, they were in the Navy, not the U.S. Army. They were members of a naval group known as the Sea Wolves. Schmitt was a pilot, Christopher was a River Rat – which is the title of his book detailing his time in the Mekong Delta.
The Sea Wolves held their annual get-together last week at Reno’s Peppermill Hotel-Casino to share stories, remember friends, and celebrate still being alive.
For Schmitt, it was a long trip from Charleston, S.C., where he is now a psychologist. But for Christopher, it was a pretty quick trip from Las Vegas, where he is a professional bass player.
Schmitt has also written about his experiences. He’s awaiting publication of his third book, and is working on a fourth.
The men write to preserve what they say is a relatively unknown story about Vietnam; hence, the name of Schmitt’s first book: “A War With No Name.”
They also write to help other Americans – including their own grandchildren – understand what happened in the delta war.
They share one other reason for writing – therapy. Both men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Schmitt says one of the memories which still wakes him at night is seeing blood staining the river after they returned fire, killing several Viet Cong in a sampan boat – the first time he was responsible for someone’s death in Vietnam. It’s partly why he became a psychologist.
Christopher has similar memories – including, he says, hundreds of bodies floating down the river after the Khmer Rouge began slaughtering their fellow Cambodians.
Both say their service in the war was honorable. And they reject the idea that it was the soldiers who lost the war in Vietnam, saying it was lost in Washington, D.C.
“These guys were our heroes,” says Christopher of the gunship crews. “They were the cavalry whenever we got in trouble.”
Schmitt says the thing he’s most proud of is that he never lost one of his crew, despite hundreds of combat missions, being shot down twice, and having the helicopter shot up dozens of times.
Two of his former door gunners were at the Reno meeting this week.
Schmitt and Christopher say Vietnam was a dirty word for years after they returned.
“Hollywood always portrayed World War II vets as heroes. In movies, we were always killing innocent people, smoking dope – bad guys,” said Christopher.
“It took years before people wanted to hear our stories,” said Schmitt. “And years before we started to realize we had PTSD and begin to deal with it.”
They warned the nation to be prepared for the same problems in a new generation as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It may be even worse because some of them are serving two or three tours,” said Schmitt.
Christopher, who was in the house orchestra at the High Sierra and lived in Carson City 10 years, spearheaded the drive in 1991 to create the state’s veterans memorial wall outside the new state museum and library building. He said the wall honors veterans of all services and all wars.
And he worked with Sen. Richard Bryan to pass federal legislation guaranteeing that families of men still missing could get their loved ones’ full records.
He said it’s another way of trying to tell their story and the story of other veterans who served in time of war.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.