Bill Schwartz was a “River Rat.” He was a brown water sailor who skippered a PBR patrol boat in the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
When he arrived in ‘Nam he was a 1st Class Signalman attached to the 593rd Boat Division as the skipper of a PBR 32-foot fiberglass patrol boat. These boats were light, fast and lethal.
“I could turn a 360 on a dime in my boat,” the 78-year-old former Navy man explained. “We had twin .50s up forward, an M-79 grenade launcher amidship along with an M-60 — .30-caliber machine-gun — on a stand there, too.”
These boats ran 30 knots full throttle and once on a plane they could speed along in 4-inches of water. They could almost chase the VC and the NVA troops into the woods.
One incident he was involved in during his first tour in Vietnam has haunted him for decades.
“We had gotten an intelligence report that upwards of 1,000 VC were coming through the jungle into our area at night,” Schwartz said. “The report said there was a main body of VC, about 500 troops, preceded by two groups of 100 VC each.
“We snuck into the area aboard two patrol boats and covered ourselves up pretty good. We sat there for several hours and waited for them. Then all of a sudden our white mice, our interpreter, said, ‘Okay guys, lock and load.’
“He told me before he got up and walked toward the two lead figures in the jungle, ‘If they start to lift either arm, shoot ‘em!’
“I didn’t know it at the time, but two 16-year-old girls were leading the VC into our area. Our interpreter turned a Q-beam (light) on them. When they started to lift their arms I emptied the 20 rounds in my M-16 (rifle) on ‘em,” Schwartz said.
Then all hell broke out from above. Three Huey helicopters, with infra-red equipment with them had been tracking the enemy soldiers from overhead. They opened up on the troops in the bush with their Gatling-guns.
“The next day we found about two-thirds of the VC soldiers dead in the jungle. They had been killed where they stood from the withering Gatling-gun fire,” he said.
“After I killed the two girls our white mice walked up to their bodies lying on the ground and cut open their blouses with his knife.
“’I want to show you why you had to do what you did,’” he told Schwartz.
“On their breasts were hand grenades with partially pulled firing pins. A wire on their arms was connected to the pins. If they lifted their arms that pulled the pins and when that happened they blew up and my white mice and I would have been blown away too,” he explained.
The drill: the “River Rats” were on patrol in their boats for 12 hours at a time. A crew of four: consisting of a skipper, two gunners and a mechanic manned a PBR patrol boat. A two boat team would search the Mekong River or wherever for enemy trying to infiltrate the area or move equipment through.
When they weren’t on patrol they were sleeping or chowing down aboard the LST “Hornet” docked at the big Navy base on the Delta in South Vietnam. After 10 days of constant patrolling they’d get a little time off. If they were lucky they would go to Bangkok, Thailand for R and R.
One night when they were in the lead patrol boat, the second boat was hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that didn’t explode.
“It hit right near where the boat’s captain was standing. They had to helicopter in a demolition expert to extract the RPG,” he said. “After that the boat continued on its way.”
Occasionally Schwartz’s boat crew would dream up some shenanigans on its own.
“We were out in the ‘Horseshoe,’ in the Delta doing some patrolling with another boat when one of my guys said, ‘I’ve got my water skis on the boat.’ Seemed to me like a good time for us to go water skiing,” Schwartz said with a grin. “I asked the j.g. aboard and he agreed.
“We were out there skiing in the Mekong River when a helicopter flew over and ordered me to pull the boat up to the bank. The chopper landed and out stepped Gen. (William) Westmoreland (commander of all troops in Vietnam),” he recalled.
“We got our tails chewed out. He wanted to know who the boat captain was. I told him it was me. Then he wanted to know: ‘Who authorized you to water ski?’ I said, ‘He did’ and pointed to the j.g.
“Okay, you people better get back to patrolling. I never want to see any more water skiing,” the general admonished.
Then he flew off in his chopper.
With 30 years of Naval service under his belt, a crow on his shoulder and gold hash marks up to his elbow, each signifying four years of service, Chief Bill Schwartz retired. It was October 1978 and his wife, Althea, was on his arm as they were piped over the side in a retirement ceremony at the San Diego Naval Base. The couple moved to Port Charlotte that same year where they have lived ever since.
Name: William I. Schwartz
D.O.B: 26 August 1931
Hometown: New York, NY
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 12 October 1948
Discharged: 24 April 1978
Rank: Chief Petty Officer
Unit: 593 Boat Division
Commendations: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, 2 National Defense Service medals, Good Conduct Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Mekong Delta
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, August 6, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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