I turned 21 years old in Vietnam - a night that I will never forget. Our boat was anchored in the middle of some river whose name escapes me. We were conducting what was euphemistically referred to as a "Water Borne Guard Post", or WBGP. What it really was, though, was an ambush - in fact, a few years earlier, before we became kinder and gentler and started trying to win their hearts and minds, that's what it was called, an ambush. But now, because we don't conduct ambushes, we were sitting in a WBGP.
As I said, we were anchored in the middle of the river, in the dark of the night with all lights extinguished. Our mission was to interdict any traffic moving up or down the river. No one was supposed to be moving at night, so if they were, they must be the bad guys. Our job was to keep the bad guys off the river.
I was on watch in the pilothouse, while the rest of the crew was in modified watch at their gun stations. Modified watch meant that they could relax at their weapons station, trying not to snooze (it was hard not to). It was about midnight-thirty when I realized I was in the first hour of my 21st birthday. At the same time, I realized that sitting in the dark in a hostile river, swatting mosquitoes and not knowing when or if the shit would start, was not where I really wanted to be at that moment. I knew that I wanted to celebrate, and in a big way.
After a quick look in the radar tube to make sure we were still alone on the river, I crept aft on the boat to the pyro locker. I picked out 3 pop flares, one white, one green and one red. I grabbed a roll of duct tape, and fastened them together. Then I went to the side of the pilothouse, and very deliberately smacked the caps, sending all three flares to the air at the same time.
Needless to say, the noise of the flares and the bright sky got everyone's attention. They found me laughing my ass off, watching the flares lazily floating down towards earth, lighting the whole area in a weird combination of colors.
To say my OIC (Officer in Charge) was pissed off is an understatement. He yelled, "What the fuck are you doing?" All I could do was laugh and keep repeating "It's my birthday" over and over. After a bit, OIC calmed down, and began to see the humor in the situation. He said, "Since the ambush is blown anyway, we may as well get out of here." So we hoisted the anchor and headed downriver. About 5 klicks down was a friendly village, with an ARVN base on the opposite shore. Seemed safe enough, so we dropped anchor and sent our Vietnamese crewman ashore to buy some beers. When he returned, he had a box of warm "ba mui ba" and we proceeded to get mildly, pleasantly drunk to usher in my 21st birthday.
Oh yeh, I forgot. We were supposed to report in to the TOC every 30 minutes with an update. I have to say that we did not forget. We diligently reported our position as required, however, due to some unfortunate navigation error, our reported position may have been approximately 5 kilometers off our actual location the entire night. But hey, no harm, no foul - we probably did more winning of hearts and minds by buying that case of beer than we ever would have anchored in the dark all night long.
*Acronyms and terms used in this story
WBGP - Water Borne Guard Post
Pyro locker - where we kept the pyrotechnics, such as flares, etc.
klick - kilometer (5 klicks = 5 kilometers)
ARVN - Army of the Republic of Vietnam
ba mui ba - literally translated is "33", the brand name of the best (only?) local beer.
TOC - Tactical Operation Center
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