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Patrolling with the Brown River Navy

By STEVE RANSON NEVADA NEWS GROUP

The humid steamy jungles wrapping around Mekong River overshadowed the continual fighting in South Vietnam during the late 1960s for many military veterans.

Picturing small patrol boats and ATCs (Armored Troop Carriers) maneuver their way up Asia’s seventh longest river, taking fire and returning fire to an enemy hidden along the banks. Listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival music as a backdrop as sailors tightly gripped their weapons. Feeling the sweat dripping off bodies in a sultry atmosphere more than 7,800 miles from the shores of the United States.

Such was a wartime life then 22-year-old Robert Kermen endured during his tour in Vietnam from 1968-1969 as a .20 mm gunner with the Mobile Riverine Force, River Division 112, a formation suited more to the Mekong Delta. He and thousands like him who served in the Mekong Delta were part of the Brown Water Navy, a term which refers to operations being conducted in the inland rivers that carried silt and sediment produced from either runoffs or flooding.

TOUCHING DOWN

The days were long and hard like the 11-weeks of training that Kermen, a Navy Junior ROTC instructor in Fallon, experienced. First came riverboat training at the former Naval Inshore-Operations Training Center at Mare Island, Calif., and the nearby Suisun Sloughs  followed by a week of gunnery school at Camp Roberts, Calif., and one week of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) near Warner Springs north of San Diego. SERE, a required course for both soldiers and sailors assigned to the Mobile Riverine Force, taught them about evading capture and being held captive by the North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong.

“We trained as a crew but were broken up soon after our arrival in Vietnam,” recalled Kermen, who grew up in Northern California and enlisted in the Navy 53 years ago. “Four of the original seven were still together by the time we turned over the boats to the South Vietnamese in 1969.”

Kermen said the crew’s friendship made them act more like brothers in harm’s way than shipmates. Once they left California and arrived in South Vietnam, they boarded a DHC-4 Caribou rugged “bush” cargo plane, touching down on a steel mat runway at Dong Tam, a former base in the Mekong Delta. After receiving a welcome and listening to the mandatory lectures, they grabbed their sea bags and walked toward the boat basin.

“To our surprise, we spotted a brand new ATC getting our number painted on it by a scruffy looking ‘River Rat,’” Kermen said. “He explained the original ATC-112-7 was sunk by a mine recently, killing all aboard. Pretty sobering thought for all of us.”

The ATC or Tango became the primary boat to take the war to the enemy by carrying a fully equipped platoon of 30 to 40 soldiers throughout the Mekong Delta. Kermen said some crews individualized their boats by adding state flags or a cartoon character drawn by Charles Schultz, the originator of Peanuts and Charlie Brown. For the most part, Kermen said officers showed tolerance to the personalized additions to the ATCs, but occasionally the top brass lowered the hammer, and the Tango crews repainted their boats.

Kermen described the ATC as a modified LCM-6 (landing craft mechanized) with added armor protection and a full weapons suite. One inch of armor plate, two-feet of Styrofoam and a cage of rebar attached on the outside protected the hull. He considered the rebar — or trigger bar armor — as an essential piece of defense that cause RPGs (rocket propelled grenades to detonate before slamming into the ship’s armor plate

“This saved many lives as most RPGs could penetrate one inch of plate,” Kermen pointed out. 

LIFE ABOARD THE TANGO

For the year Kermen spent in South Vietnamese, life aboard the Tango was grueling, especially with the tight quarters. Fighting for control of the brown water became a game of cat and mouse with Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas. Each boat crew consisted on two boatswain’s mates, one engineman, one gunner’s mate and three seamen, who serve as gunners. Kermen said either a first or second class petty officer served as the boat’s captain. Arriving in Vietnam, Kermen was a seaman, but he passed the advancement exams to become a Journalist Striker (JOSN), and then a Journalist Third Class manning a .20 mm Honey-well belt-fed machine gun after Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., Chief Naval Forces, field promoted all eligible sailors.

“We lived on the boat 24 hours a day,” Kermen recalled. “Our bunks were metal frames with canvas stretched across them and air mattresses on top. Food consisted of Korea War-era C-rations and LRRPS (long range patrol rations), which were dehydrated meals much like today’s MREs (meals ready to eat). This food was sure good once you developed a taste for it.”

Another part of the diet, explained Kermen, was taking malaria pills and salt tablets. In addition to carrying 20 to 30 cases of rations, each ATC also hauled several hundred gallons of drinking water.

Kermen said daily life aboard the ATC consisted of long periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of terror. Most missions carried soldiers, primarily from the 9th Infantry Division and the South Vietnamese army, into search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong throughout the delta. Most landings occurred after sunrise. Since the ATCs needed at least five-feet of water for navigating, Kermen said landings fluctuated based on the tides.

“After we had offloaded them, we would exit the canal and move around to retrieve them when they exited on another canal,” Kermen said. “In this way we also served as a blocking force. Once the 9th ID embarked, we returned to the Mobile Riverine Base (MRB).”

DANGER ON THE MEKONG

Needless to say, the time of carrying troops and offloading them became dangerous for every Tango crew.

“Getting to and from these insertion points were the most dangerous times,” Kermen recalled. “The VC loved to hit us going in because they knew we were carrying troops by out draft. They could inflict the most casualties at this time because they could control the timing of the attack. Coming out with troops was not quite as bad because they had generally been pushed out of the areas by infantry sweeps and helicopter gunships supporting the operations.”

The Tango’s crew periodically came under attack, but on one occasion, the Vet Cong launched a B-40 rocket that hit Kermen’s boat, spraying many of the sailors with shrapnel.  Small pieces wedged in Kermen’s arms outside his flak jacket. He and other sailors aboard the ATC received Purple Heart medals.

If the ATCs were ferrying troops, Kermen said the boats hauled supplies, patrolled or provided security for the Army’s artillery barges, usually six of them together. Every night an ATC would patrol the area around the barges. Every night before sunset, the MRB consisting of at least five ships anchored to prevent the Viet Cong from easily targeting the vessels. From time to time, Kermen said the MRB security also included circling a ship during the night and dropping grenades to take care of unwelcomed swimmers.

“The VC liked to swim up and plant mines on our boats,” Kermen said. “Usually, they attached them to the tires we had hanging over the side of the boat as fenders.”

Every night the two-boat patrol alternated their security duty every four hours. Having the ATC caused another series of problems for the boat’s crew, rats scurrying on board to share living quarters.

“They would run around at night,” Kermen remembers. “Sometimes, they ran right across your chest while you were sleeping. This provided another recreation. We would remove the bullets from out .38 shells and push the case into a bar of soap thus producing a ‘soap bullet.’ Great for short range, and they did not ricochet. Many rats ‘bit the bullet’ every night.”

FUTURE AFTER VIETNAM

In July 1969, Kermen reported to the Commander Naval Forces Vietnam as an assistant to the Force Historian, and four months later, he left South Vietnam for the cruiser USS Saint Paul (CA-73) to become a photojournalist/writer. Once he completed his enlistment, Kermen returned to Chico, Calif., entered Chico State University where he graduated in 1974 and was commissioned as a naval officer later in the year at Newport, R.I.  He continued with his military service in the U.S. Navy Reserves, retiring as a captain in 2006.

Kermen also embarked on a teaching career in his home state of California beginning as an agriculture instructor and FFA instructor at Hemet and Yreka high schools, and a U.S History and A.P. History instructor at Yreka for five years. After Kermen retired from education, he couldn’t stay away from the classroom.

“I had retired from teaching and did some subbing for my son in U.S. History,” he said. “The ROTC teacher at the same school found out I was a retired captain and asked me to be guest inspector at their AMI (Area Manager Inspection). When the other instructor had to leave mid-year, they (school district) offered me the job.”

He was a Navy Junior ROTC senior naval science instructor from 2009-2011 at Oroville’s Las Plumas High School. The U.S. Navy, though, shut down that JROTC program and 40 others nationwide because of budget cuts, but Kermen became more determined to keep teaching.

“Later, I saw Fallon was open and applied here. “I’ve been here eight years. I love our program and the great kids.”

In looking back at his military service, and especially Vietnam, Kermen said spending the year in the Mekong Delta shaped him as a person.

“During my tour on the rivers, our boat participated in many varied assignments. Most of our time was spent in the Delta, but we did go up to the ‘Parrot’s Beak’ on Operation ‘Giant Slingshot’ as a support for the PBRs. We were stationed at Tra Cu and Go Dau Ha. This is the only place we saw blue, clear water.

“I have never regretted this experience as I feel I have become a better person for it. This experience was the turning point in my life. The term ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ has a different meaning since Vietnam.”

FACTBOX

Brown Water Navy

The Brown Water Navy was created by Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt when he served as Chief Naval Forces in Vietnam.  The U.S. Navy had for several years provided fire support from off shore, delivered supplies to various outposts, sent advisors to work with RVN (Republic of Vietnam) personnel and patrolled off-shore to foil enemy attempts to supply forces inland.  What needed to be done was secure the delta, once a rice bowl for much of Southeast Asia but at the time heavily occupied by the Viet Cong. 

Zumwalt had several types of shallow-draft craft modified for duty on rivers and canals in the delta.  Those forces, augmented by Navy helicopter gunships, provided fire support to U.S. and Vietnamese ground forces, delivered supplies, interdicted enemy resupply attempts, inserted friendly ground forces and generally reproved the fact of physics that two elements cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  The men of the Brown Water Navy served bravely, their exploits and successes being legend. 

This description of the Brown Water Navy was provided by Jim Falk of Fallon. Falk, a Navy veteran, served in Vietnam as a journalist and spent 16 days with a patrol for an article he wrote for Stars & Stripes newspaper. His article from Sept. 14, 1969, appears here: https://www.stripes.com/news/the-brown-water-navy-1.277669. A profile of Falk’s service can be found at https://www.nevadaappeal.com/news/lahontan-valley/vietnam-in-photos-and-words/.