This past weekend I attended a reunion in San Antonio, Texas with fellow sailors who spent a year in Vietnam between 1965-1971 serving on Swift Boats. A Swift Boat was a 50 foot aluminum gun boat, very heavily armed but offering no protection against rockets, mines, other explosives, and small arms. There were five coastal divisions, and the Swift Boats were at first assigned to the inner barrier of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand to interdict sampans and junks that could avoid Navy ships further out in order to smuggle weapons and contraband to the Viet Cong. By the time I got to Vietnam in September 1969, Swifts were operating in many of the rivers.
Weather was always a factor in patrolling, particularly along the coast. Several boats were lost to heavy seas along with a loss of life, and a number of Swift Boat sailors were killed early on in firefights with Viet Cong who tried to flee to shore. Riverine operations usually included working with Navy SEALS or Army Special Forces. Some of the canals boats transited were narrower than the length of the boat, and it was not uncommon to find yourself in four feet of water with five feet of draft. Not the most ideal situation.
Everyone at the reunion had his own stories. The vast majority are in their early seventies to early eighties. Only a few are in their late sixties. In talking to just about any Swiftie you learned that he has a presumptive Agent Orange condition, i.e. the Department of Veterans Affairs has identified various cancers and heart conditions to be the result of exposure to this chemical defoliant. It appeared that most wear hearing aids, DVA issued, as a result of damage from the noise of the .50 caliber machine guns, 81 mm mortar, small arms, grenades and other explosives.
Despite the image of Vietnam Veterans being drug users, alcoholics, homeless and misfits, I didn’t see or talk to anyone who fit any of these categories, and none knew of any fellow sailor who did. The men I was with this weekend served honorably, did what their country asked of them, returned to their homes in New York, California, the Dakotas, mid-west, South and everywhere in between, and went on quietly with their lives. You could find just about every job and profession covered ranging from doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, owners of bed and breakfasts, aviators, all areas of law enforcement, and so much more. They married, had children, have grandchildren, and contributed to this great country during Vietnam and afterwards. They asked for nothing upon their return stateside, and today only ask the DVA for help with Vietnam related medical issues that they can’t afford in their old age.
There wasn’t a single political discussion, not one, that I heard, overheard, or was part of over the weekend. Conversations revolved around old times, friends who were not present, friends who left us too early, and those who gave it all over 50 years ago.
Sunday night we had a banquet. It was attended by a few hundred people, to include the wives of some of the Swifties. Before the dinner was served every participant had a glass filled with champagne. From the podium toasts were made to the sixty plus Swift Boat sailors who made the supreme sacrifice. A toast was also made to four sailors who are classified MIA (missing in action). This was probably the most moving part of the reunion.
Time is closing in on all of us. Memories are fading and will soon be lost forever. Fewer are answering the roll call, and for some this reunion will be their “final patrol.” I have never been with a greater bunch of people. It was an honor to serve with them and an honor to be in their company a half century later. Each and every one of us would wear the uniform again if asked or needed.
When I came home from Vietnam in September 1970, I was not spit on or cursed at. Perhaps worse, no one cared. People were indifferent and didn’t discuss anything about Vietnam. So, like almost all veterans, I faded back into society and moved on with my life. But on the return flight from San Antonio to Atlanta, for the first time in all these decades, things were different.
The Delta flight attendant asked about my Vietnam t-shirt. I told her that I was returning from a reunion of Swift Boat sailors. She asked if there were others on the flight who were at the reunion. I said that there could be as many as fifteen. When the plane landed the attendant announced that on board were Swift Boat sailors who served in Vietnam returning from a reunion. The applause from all the passengers was spontaneous. I’m sure each of my fellow Swifties was caught up in the emotion as I was. It was the “Welcome home!” that we never got.