Beach Firefight with UDT-13
by
Steve Waterman
(Published in SOF Magazine, JUL '96 as 'UDT Leica Lurps')

 

During my service in Vietnam with Underwater Demolition Team 13, I worked with most of its Detachments. When I first arrived in Subic Bay, Philippines, I was taken to meet the XO, LT Bob Peterson. LT Peterson had the look of somebody who had lived just a little bit longer than the calendar indicated. He was raw boned and rugged, with steel-blue eyes that would look right through you. He'd operated with Bob Gallagher in SEAL 2 and managed to earn the Silver Star on one of his operations. The guys in the Team had great respect for him. He never joked around much, and took the war quite seriously. He was a shooter.

I was ushered into his office by one of the admin guys. LT Peterson stood up, looked me unblinkingly in the eye and said "Welcome to UDT-13, Waterman, are you ready to shoot pictures on enemy beaches?"

I really didn't have a stock answer for that, so I came out with something that sounded pretty stupid to me when I thought about it afterward.

"Sure am, sir, whatever it takes to keep me off the streets and out of the bars."

He raised one eyebrow and gave me one of those serious looks that told me I probably didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into.

Photographer's Mate First Class Chip Maury, of the Team we were relieving, gave me his Leica and Nikonos cameras and a few rolls of black and white film. I went to the base photo lab up at Cubi Point Naval Air Station and cumshawed some more. UDT had a large budget in those days. We had to steal or cumshaw to get most anything, but most of the guys were pretty good at it.

Except for the advance party, we'd all just flown in from Coronado and were busy getting squared away. Back at the the barracks I grabbed a rack and a locker and stowed my gear. LT George Green, the officer who'd requested a photographer for the team gave me the word that I'd be sailing with Bravo Detachment aboard the USS COOK (LPR-130). We'd be reconning beaches and making charts. My job was to photograph the beach flanks and any obstacles or landmarks that could be used for reference. The skipper, LCDR Jim Wilson, gave us a little pep talk and wished us luck the day before we left.

The next day we found ourselves aboard the USS COOK (LPR-130). There were fourteen of us. LT Paul Plumb, a native of Coronado and a great platoon officer, was OIC. LTJG John Hollow was the assistant OIC. He was not the most popular guy in the Team and, before our tour was over, got drafted into SEAL Team One. Then LTJG Ernie Jahncke, III, took over as AOIC. SEAL Team One was short handed and started taking our people to flesh out a couple platoons. Seaman Hunter, Riter, and Petty Officer Richardson also got orders out.

On days when we had more than one exceptionally long beach, I'd swim with lead line and slate and take soundings with the swimmer line. I could keep up with the "real" UDT guys,but it really made me appreciate what they did every day. The officer in charge usually screwed up and we always had to swim against the prevailing current. We always wondered if they did that on purpose.

One of he guys in Det. Bravo was STG2 Arles "Steve" Nash. I had met him back in 1967 when I'd attended Underwater Swimmers School in Key West, Florida. Nash had been one of the instructors. It was good to see him again. I began to realize how small the world is. Steve was about five foot six and couldn't have weighed more than 130 pounds. He had his own CAR-15 rifle, so he gave me the M-16 he'd been issued by the Team. We were short of rifles, so we didn't get issued one unless we needed it for something, not like the Army and Marine Corps where you have to lug the damn thing around everywhere you go, kind of like dog tags or something.

The first few recons went pretty well. We'd get up early, eat chow, get our gear, climb aboard the LCPR boats and head in for some South Vietnamese beach that somebody at the Pentagon envisioned would be the scene of Normandy Invasion II. We didn't feel this way, but it was a chance for the guys to work on their tans and swim their asses off. Whenever I was on the beach I was always rear security with Machinery Repairman Second Class (MR2) Charlie "Tobacco" Lewis.

Lewis was a grizzled kind of guy who'd had at least one Vietnam tour in SEAL One and had come home and left the Navy. He'd reenlisted a few weeks later when UDT-13 was recommissioned and needed some bodies. One night before we left for WESPAC, we were drinking beer at the Tradewinds, a Team hangout in Coronado. Lewis and I were sitting at the bar. We were getting pretty far along into that foggy fraternal world of intoxication. We hadn't started speaking Igboo (the talk of really drunk people), but we were pretty well on our way. Lewis leaned over to me and shouted, above the blare of Credence Clearwater Revival, "Waterman, I'll never do that again."

I hollered back, "What do you mean? What'd you do Lew?"

He looked me in the eye "Get out of the Navy, Christ I was lost!"

I always looked to Lew for good advice. When we went on recons the little Vietnamese kids came up and tried to hit us up for candy and chow of any kind. We never carried any, but they didn't believe us and would tug at our pockets. I'd heard sometimes even small children would do some pretty nasty things to U.S. troops so, even though I didn't believe everything I heard, I was somewhat concerned about them. I asked Tobacco Lewis what I should do to get them away from me. He squinted at me through bloodshot eyes, with that ever-present tobacco juice dripping out of the corner of his mouth.

"Hit 'em with your rifle butt." he offered gruffly, expelling a large glob of tobacco juice onto the sand. I didn't ask him for any more advice after that.

One morning we went in to do a recon on a short beach. As the boat approached the beach, a single shot rang out a little way inland. I looked over at Lewis.

"What was that?" I asked, apprehensively.

"Warning shot," he spat, "the gooks know we're coming."

"Nice." I thought.

I liked to be the first guy off the boat. My theory was the VC would draw a bead on me and as I ran out of his sight picture, he might nail the guy behind me. By the time the boat ramp was dropped I would be breathing pretty hard. I finally figured out I was probably scared, but I didn't think that was it. I asked one of the other guys if it happened to him. It did.

We jumped down into the shallow water off the boat ramp and ran up the beach trying to zig zag. I'm sure we looked foolish, but thought it would help. Maybe the VC were laughing so damn hard they couldn't fire, I don't know, but Lewis and I ran up to the top of the berm. We dropped down in front of the bushes there to catch our breaths for a second. Then Lew stood up and I was just starting to stand when he opened fire at something inland.

"Get the hell out of here!" he shouted as he cranked off more rounds on semi-automatic fire.

I turned and made the nearly vertical run back down the sandy berm to the beach in about five steps. By then the rest of the beach party had moved to the water's edge. The guys on the beach party that were armed dropped down into a defensive position - if you can do that on a white sand beach in broad daylight with no cover or concealment. They would wait until the rest of us were on line with them and we'd all swim off the beach together. Nash had forgotten his fins that day, so he had to drop all his magazines so he could swim. I made it back to the boat before I realized I hadn't even put my fins on. Adrenalin will do that, sometimes. We never took a round that I know of, so we went back to the COOK and ate chow. Lew told me he fired about five rounds and finally hit one of the two armed guys walking toward the beach. The range was long and I guess, with the sun in their faces, the bad guys couldn't figure out who was shooting at them. The second one dived into the weeds before Lew could hit him.

That afternoon we went ashore on another beach. This time a Marine corporal, a sleazy looking kid about twenty-one with long hair and beads, and a crusty old Chief Corpsman met us when we waded off the boats.

"What're you guys doing here?" the marine asked.

"Gonna recon the beach." I told him.

"What for?"

Had me there, so I made up some story about the Navy wanting to have charts of the area so after the war all the retired admirals would know where the choicest beach front property was so they could invest in hotels.

The corpsman asked Lew and I how far down the beach we were going to go. LT Paul Plumb came up and answered the question for us.

"You see that point down there? Well, we're gonna go clear past the beach on the other side of it."

The corpsman just looked at him quizzically, and walked away.

There were six armed men on the beach. Lew and I both had M-16s and were on rear security, so we were the last ones down the beach. Doc said he'd go a ways with us, and as we trod down the beach, I began to ask him about his Naval career. Seems he'd been with the Marines in Korea, had caught the tail end of WWII and been in Vietnam a couple tours. He had five or so purple hearts and a silver star and countless bronze stars, all tolled. He looked like it, too.

"I'm still alive 'cause I try not to do stupid stuff. You guys can go all the way down this beach if you want to, but I ain't gonna go all the way with you. I'll see you later." he said, finally, and turned and walked back up the beach without looking back.

I glanced at Lew. He just shrugged, turned around and kept walking. Until now I'd been walking on the beach about five yards from the water's edge. Now I was ankle deep in the water. Lew was ahead of me a few yards and slightly out of the water. Nash and the rest of the beach party were ahead of us and up on the sand closer to the treeline. I kept eying the bushes, just feeling somebody had a bead on my chest and was about to snap an AK round right through my little, gray, UDT life vest. All of a sudden shooting started. I couldn't tell where it came from, but as I looked further down the beach I could see Nash firing into the bushes. He and the other guy on forward security were shooting hell out of something in the bushes. Everybody on the beach part who was unarmed ran for the water. The rest of us started firing randomly into the bushes at the edge of the beach. I didn't see anybody, but thought I might keep their heads down if they were there. I could hear the rounds snapping by and zinging off the sand. A few of them kicked up little spurts of sand off to the right and up the beach from where I was kneeling in the water.

The beach party withdrew into the water while keeping up the fire. We wanted to get out into the sea quickly and swim offshore. Then the boats could fire their fifties and thirties over our heads into the treeline. I managed to get out to about nipple deep water when a swell caught me and rolled me ass over head. I came up and cleared my weapon of water - I thought. I hauled back the charging handle, cleared the rifle, and shook the water out of the chamber. Then I chambered a round and pulled the trigger. I guess there was water in the buffer spring housing because the damn rifle blew up. The bolt came part way back and split off the extractor. I got powder flecks stuck in my contact lenses and the receiver split under the rear sight assembly. That took me out of action. Lewis, LT Plumb and I started swimming for the boat. Nash was down the beach further in the water with the rest of the beach party and they were also heading to sea.

About this time the fifty caliber machine gun opened up on one of the boats. The rounds were bouncing off the water, some of them narrowly missing us swimmers. The LCPR came along and quickly hauled us into an IBS (Inflatable Boat, Small) tied alongside. By now a couple Seawolf Hueys were hosing down the area inland from the beach with rockets and M-60 fire.

LT Hollow was on the boat that picked up Lew, Nash, LT Plumb, and me. Hollow had ordered the gunner on the boat to fire. Nash started really chewing out Hollow for opening fire with us in the water. Hollow told him he couldn't talk to him like that. Nash told him he just did and after that stupid stunt he ought to kick his ass. LT Plumb calmed him down and they forgot all about it.

Our boats made the run back to the COOK and we climbed aboard. The CO of the COOK had the cooks prepare a special feed of lobster tail, steak and baked potato. I thought, "If this is war it sure as hell feeds well."

The skipper of the COOK, LCDR Bruce Taggart, walked up to Nash as we sat eating our meal.

"Understand you got a couple today, Nash."

"Yes sir." he answered.

"Good job." he said, and walked away.

END

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