Excerpt from When I Was a Young Man by Bob Kerrey

When I Was a Young Man book cover
Photo: Harcourt Books

"The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night. After that night, I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I had become someone I did not recognize. I had been in Vietnam for five weeks and this was my first live firefight. It had not ended in the heroic way I had expected."

When I Was a Young Man by Bob Kerrey

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Vung Tau was another paradise location. It was on the tip of a half-moon bay that opened into the mouth of the Mekong River. The beaches were long and beautiful. Helicopter pilots and other American military came there for rest and relaxation, which meant the town was full of bars and prostitutes. We spent a few days talking to army and navy intelligence officers, American and Vietnamese, but could not find a suitable home for the entire platoon. We took a swift boat up to a barge near Vinh Long that supported the PBRs (Patrol Boats, River) on the Co Chien River. We patrolled and set unsuccessful night ambushes for five days straight before moving to another barge at Ben Tre, where another SEAL platoon operated. I celebrated my first Buddhist New Year on the barge.

Then we went to Cat Lo, a town on the northern edge of Vung Tau Bay, and headquarters for one of the Market Time divisions. The officer in charge had not been informed of our arrival and was too busy with his own patrols to be very interested in ours. He agreed to provide us with boats for operations into an area of Thanh Phu province reportedly controlled by the Vietcong, but he was not willing to back us up with air or naval gunfire support.

Mike Ambrose, who had become my friend in UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) training and was my most trusted enlisted man, advised against going into the area. Mike was from Iowa and had made one tour immediately after Ranger School with an officer who was also a good friend of mine. Mike was quick and nimble on patrol and ran point on most of our operations. His experience made him valuable to me because I could trust him to make good independent judgments.

Mike was against our going into Thanh Phu because our Vietnamese scout was on leave. In the delta, an operation without an interpreter was more risky, and the lack of air support, though not unusual, was dangerous. Mike had also grown very negative about Vietnam. He thought we were wasting our energy because it was only a matter of time before we walked away from the war. This skepticism made survival his most important consideration when he gave me planning advice. So when we were told by the government of Vietnam's district chief that a high-level meeting would be taking place in a village called Thanh Phong in Thanh Phu province, Mike still thought we should pass on the operation. That the district chief said the entire village was Vietcong and that there would be no civilians present did nothing to change Mike's mind.

The district chief was an official of the South Vietnamese government and when he said there were no civilians in this village he made a statement that illustrates the tragedy of guerrilla wars. The government of South Vietnam was fighting against an enemy that included South as well as North Vietnamese. The tactics of the enemy against their own government included a range of activities from terror to simply passing on information about troop movements of the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

So, when the district chief said the entire village was Vietcong, he meant that the men and women of this village had joined the forces of opposition to the government. The men and some of the women were probably part of the enemy's irregular forces that had lethal, though limited, capability. The chief knew there were innocent noncombatants in the village, but he warned us to take great care because the area was considered especially dangerous at night.

In the end I decided to do the operation. As an extra precaution I arranged to fly the terrain in daylight in a single-engine plane to identify the houses where the meeting would take place. That surveillance flight confirmed that there were no women and children in the area. I located the village on a map and then briefed the rest of the squad on the mission. Several hours after sundown we took a swift boat from Cat Lo up the canal to the village. The boat touched its bow on the shore and we scrambled on to the dry land. We waited in silence to make certain we had not been detected. Sweat ran in rivers down my back. Our plan was to move perpendicular to the canal for five hundred meters and then turn right another five hundred meters where we would find the meeting place.

Even without our Vietnamese scout the terrain was easy to navigate and we moved quickly. Along the canals the buffalo grass was high and lush providing dense cover for us and our enemy. Beyond this cover the land opened into rectangular rice fields, which lay fallow and dry. We walked along the top of the earthen dikes that surrounded the fields. Before the war villagers in places like Thanh Phong lived just above subsistence level by growing rice and fishing in the rivers and selling a little of their harvest in good years.

The people lived in thatch houses with bamboo walls and woven grass ceilings. The floors of these homes were usually covered with grass mats though sometimes even this luxury was outside their reach. During the war the people dug bunkers underneath the houses where they would go if there were attacks from the air. They used grass and smaller bamboo mats for mattresses and whatever fabric was available, often silk, to cover themselves at night. The entire family slept in a single bed.

The village and the area around it was described by the South Vietnamese government and by U.S. military as a Free Fire Zone. In essence this meant it was controlled by the enemy at night. In daylight, South Vietnamese forces might enter the area seeking intelligence about the movement of enemy forces, but they rarely went in at night. Thus, we expected to have the advantage of surprise on our side. It was about midnight when I told my point man to head out. The only noises we could hear were a few dogs barking in the distance. The night was quiet and calm.

My point man led the way. He came to a house he said he believed was occupied by sentries. We had been trained that in such situations it would be too risky to move forward knowing that they would warn the men in the village unless we killed them or aborted the mission. I did not have to give an order to begin the killing but I could have stopped it and I didn't.

In truth, I remember very little of what happened in a clear and reliable way. The pulse of my own blood was pounding in my ears. I no longer believed we had the element of surprise on our side, but I was still determined to proceed to the main village. At the village we approached the house where the meeting was to take place. Once again, we had been trained to approach a potentially hostile environment and the patrol required no orders from me. One man entered the building while six others remained outside to provide security from all angles of approach. We waited, spread out with one man on point, and from my position I did not see any security. Our point man came out of the house and whispered excitedly that the men were not there. No meeting was taking place and all the men were gone. He said their sleeping places had been recently abandoned. He went into two other houses and reported the same thing. When he came out of the second one he had a look of real fear on his face.

The women and children in each of the three houses woke, gathered outside, and began to talk loudly in high singsong voices. We knew we were in trouble. The absence of men told us we had been compromised. We were certain there were armed cadre in the village now on full alert. We had two choices: withdraw or continue to search houses in the dark. Before we could make the decision, someone shot at us from the direction of the women and children, trapping them in a cross fire. We returned a tremendous barrage of fire and began to withdraw, continuing to fire. I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat to the canal. We radioed the swift boat and moved quickly but carefully toward the canal. The possibility of being pursued or of being caught in an ambush ourselves seemed very real to me.

We came to the canal and hid in the buffalo grass in a semicircle facing outward for security. We heard the deep-throated boat engines approach and signaled our location with a small, red, handheld light. When the bow of the boat touched shore, we pulled ourselves on board. I could feel the screws turning in reverse and the boat swing out and away from land. In less than an hour, we were back at our base in Cat Lo.

I did not speak of my doubts on the way back to our base camp. Our actions were not considered out of the ordinary for guerrilla warfare where the number of civilian casualties is quite high. We cleaned our faces and our weapons before going to sleep for the few hours remaining in the night. At first light we packed our gear and drove to the port in Vung Tau, where we caught a ride on a destroyer that was heading north to Cam Ranh. Standing on the fantail of the destroyer watching the silvery wake recede behind us, I felt a sickness in my heart for what we had done.

The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night. After that night, I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I had become someone I did not recognize. I had been in Vietnam for five weeks and this was my first live firefight. It had not ended in the heroic way I had expected.

From When I Was a Young Man by Bob Kerrey
Published by Harcourt Books
ISBN: 0151004749
Copyright 2002 Bob Kerrey

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