The Special Zone

Nothing was ever ordinary in the Delta! One day we might be escorting a barge up the river, we might be inserting a SEAL team the next. We may be doing night ops the following, and if we were lucky, we might even get a couple of days off now and then.

One of our missions, in addition to winning their hearts and minds, was what we affectionately referred to as "Peace through superior firepower." Someone in some tactical think tank somewhere came up with the concept of a "Special Zone." A "Special Zone" was essentially a free-fire zone in which everyone was considered the enemy. Somehow, through leaflet drops or loudspeakers or osmosis the word was put out that a particular area had been declared the enemy's turf and all inhabitants had to leave or risk being destroyed. Then, the area was routinely patrolled, looking for anyone stupid enough to stay there. If any were located, they were killed and their equipment was destroyed. A few trips through the zone, and all you could see from the banks of the river to about 100 yards inland was mud and a few stumps sticking up. The patrols (and agent orange) had pretty much annihilated everything else.

Personally, I thought that whole concept was sort of pointless, but what did I know? I was just a three-stripe Seaman, who (naively) thought that the war was being run by tactical thinking warriors who knew what they were doing.

Anyway, one day we were tasked to lead a three boat patrol up some canal into some "Special Zone." Our mission was to seek out and destroy the enemy - anyone we encountered in the zone. We usually enjoyed our forays into the Special Zone, because we got to use up a lot of the rusty and corroded ammunition shooting up the trees, bushes and occasional wild pig we encountered. In fact, in the previous three trips through this particular zone, we had never encountered a human being, and relatively little animal life.

Okay, about this particular trip. It was pretty routine; lead a patrol through the zone and back, blasting the shit out of everything that was left over from the last trip through the zone. What made this one different, though, was that we were carrying a guest on board; A US Army Captain. Apparently he was some kind of Ranger or something, and wanted to do a look/see mission into the zone. I think he wanted to make sure it was safe enough for his boys to do a mission there.

Well, an Army Captain is an O-4, and a Navy Ltjg is an O-2, so this guy outranked our skipper. Normally this would not be an issue, but as you will soon see, it became one.

About half way through the zone, the forward gunner spotted something in the water, and gave the signal to stop. I was in the upper gun tub, and grabbed the bino's for a closer look. It looked like a fishing stake in the center of the channel, and it appeared to have a person hanging on to the stake. Further inspection revealed it was just that - someone had tied their sampan to the stake while fishing, and apparently flooded it trying to get untied. Now they were stuck, arms and legs wrapped around the post, holding on for dear life.

About this time, the Army dude grabbed the bino's from my hands, and after a quick look, he started screaming at me to shoot. Well, a whole bunch of things flooded into my brain about this time. First and foremost, I decided that I didn't work for this guy, so I just stopped listening to him rant and rave. Secondly, I realized the person on the pole wasn't an immediate threat - it appeared he had his hands full just staying above water.

Shortly, I heard a commotion going on below me, and looked down to see the Captain and my OIC going nose-to-nose. The Captain was pushing his rank, and the OIC was pushing back - letting him know in no uncertain terms who was in charge of the boat. Finally the Captain tells the OIC that he's going to report him to command if he doesn't open fire, at which time the OIC said firmly "I don't give a fuck what you do, just do it later, we're a little busy here."

He then directed our coxswain to proceed toward the person, very slowly. He told me to keep the twin 50's trained on him, and gave me guns free to shoot if I saw anything out of the ordinary. The OIC called our Vietnamese crewman to the bow, and told him to find out what was going on. We stood off about 30 yards, and the two yelled back and forth for a couple of minutes.

Turns out it was not a man at all, but a woman and her baby. She had the baby holding her neck between her and the fish stake. They had been fishing, and when she heard the boats coming, she accidentally swamped her sampan trying to get away so she could hide. We pulled the boat up alongside her, and after satisfying ourselves she was not carrying explosives, we pulled her and her baby onboard.

According to our interpreter, she had been living in the zone for her whole life, and didn't leave when she was told. She would fish for food, grow her rice, and when she heard our boats coming, she would hide behind a mud wall bunker until we went by. This time, she took a wrong step while untying her boat and swamped it. Her only choice was to grab the pole and hang on, leaving her there for us to find.

We gave her some food, and took her back downriver to the nearest village and turned her over to the village chief. I doubt she was the enemy, but the Captain (remember him) - well the Captain was in a total rage over the fact that we took her onboard, and then didn't interrogate her to "gain enemy intelligence." The consensus among us boat guys was that she wasn't the enemy, just a woman doing the best she could to get by with her baby in the middle of a war she didn't understand.

So it seems that we started on a search and destroy mission, and ended up winning another heart and mind. In my opinion, that patrol was one of the more successful ones ...
the day we really did something special in the "Special Zone."

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