Forty years after rockets rained down on their Tango Boat operating in South Vietnam’s Cau Lon River delta country, killing or wounding all seven crew members, Soan Ngo, skipper of the beleaguered boat, and Jim Milstead, his American advisor, were recently reunited in Venice, Fla. thanks to the efforts of a friend and the internet.
It was Jan. 4, 1971 at 5 a.m. and their unit, River Division 41, Tango Boat-1277, was making an enemy sweep. It was part of a dozen-boat convoy in the Nam Can Delta area when 11 rockets struck their armored personnel carrier watercraft.
Soan, the 20-year-old South Vietnamese captain, was in the wheelhouse above the deck steering the boat and Jim, who was also 20, was on deck near the boat’s radio when disaster struck.
Their 73-foot armored personnel carrier was a steel tank-like vessel with a heliport on its bow. The crafts were equipped with an arsenal of high-powered, fast firing weapons: 30 and 50-caliber machine-guns, MK-19 rapid fire grenade launchers, and 20-millimeter cannons. They were used to transport the Riverine Infantry throughout the delta, interdict enemy guns and food transported by civilian river boats and on search and destroy missions.
The U.S. Navy was in the process of turning over all the boats in River Division 41, including Tango-1277, to the South Vietnamese Navy. The American crew was replaced by Vietnamese sailors except for one American advisor. Jim was the U.S. advisor on 1277.
Soan, who was a petty officer 2nd class, became skipper of the boat. Jim, who had been the boat’s original skipper, also held a 2nd class petty officer’s rating and served as radio operator on the craft.
“Jim and I got along with a little broken English and a lot of hand signals. Jim was very patient with my poor English,” the 62-year-old Venice steakhouse owner recalled with a smile. “During the summer and into the fall and winter of 1970 the two of us went on river patrols together.”
“In early January 1971 we went on a 12-boat operation down the Cau Lon River. Our boat had two Navy Seals aboard with explosive packs that night. Right before sunup, about 5:30 a.m., I distinctly remember two terrible boom, booms–rockets hit our boat.,” Jim said as he retold his Vietnam War story while sitting in Soan’s Venice restaurant.
“Out of the 10 on our boat that night, only one of the UDT (Under Water Demolition Team) guys wasn’t killed or wounded. I sustained superficial shrapnel injuries to my head and leg that looked a lot worse than they were. After the rockets hit our boat I had real trouble hearing.
“I got on the radio and told the control officer I needed a medical evacuation helicopter right away or people were going to die,” he said. “By then two gunships had already been scrambled, but a Medevac ‘copter was 30 minutes away at best.
“One of the gunship guys said, after he expended his ammo, he would land and take out our wounded. He hovered over us firing his Gatling gun at the VC (Vietcong). The empty shell casings from his gun bounced off our steel helipad.
Then he landed.
“All I remember is the rockets hitting while I was steering the boat. I fell down on the deck. The next thing I know is I can hear the helicopter landing on our boat. I asked for my glasses and after that I fell asleep again,” Soan said.
“The two UDT guys and myself loaded the wounded, including Soan, onto the helicopter with the help of the door gunner,” Jim explained. “Soan’s face was swollen and bloody. He had bad shrapnel wounds up and down one side of his body.
“Soan lost his glasses and asked for them. I found then and handed them to him as he was lifted into the helicopter. The door gunner took one look at him and shook his head. It was obvious he thought Soan wasn’t gonna make it.
“The next day, after I was stitched up and sent back to the boat, I asked about Soan. I was told none of the Vietnamese crew survived the rocket attack. I thought Soan had been killed and didn’t know differently until he called me 40 years later,” Jim said.
Soan spent the next two months recovering from his injuries in a South Vietnamese hospital. He had sustained 70 shrapnel wounds in the boat attack. He was discharged from the navy, because of his injuries, a year later and went to work for the Saigon Water Company until the end of the war.
“Then the Communists took over the country in 1975 and I was sent to a concentration camp,” Soan said. When I finally got out of the camp I could see my family had no future under the Communists and I started making plans to escape the country.
During his first escape from Vietnam he took his two oldest children with him. On the third attempt I took my wife, Hana, and our youngest child out of the country. We ended up in a Cambodian refugee camp for four months while my paperwork was being approved.”
Because of his military service and serious wounds sustained during the Vietnam War, Soan and his family qualified for refugee status in the U.S.
“On Sept. 24, 1981 my family and I flew from Singapore by Southwest Airlines to the U.S. and on to New York City where we lived to start. With welfare assistance and the job I got working at a Chinese restaurant in New York’s China Town we survived,” he said.
Through hard work and ability he became a chef in the steakhouse. A short while later, in 1988, he decided to move his family and take a job working as a chef at a Japanese steakhouse in Sarasota. When that restaurant was sold two years later, Soan took the plunge in 1990 and opened his own restaurant in Venice: Shogun Japanese Steakhouse.
Soan had tried to locate his friend Jim Milstead, his old navy buddy, in his spare time with no success during the 30 plus years he’s lived in this country. On several occasions he told his Vietnam story about trying to find Jim to Jack Gang, owner of Brand Realty in Venice. They become friends. Jack is a frequent guest in Soan’s restaurant.
“I told Soan one day last year to write everything down about Jim he could remember. With that information I began to search for him on the internet, but had no luck either,” Jack said.
He broke off his quest until one day last December when he got bored watching a football game and started more computer checking. Jack found a clue, someone named Jim Milstead was helping sponsor a golf game in North Carolina for “Wounded Worriers.”
“I got this phone call from Jack who said he was a Florida Realtor who was calling for a friend who served in Vietnam in 1970-71. He wanted to know if I served in River Division 41 on Tango Boat-1277 with a guy named Soan Ngo? If you’re the guy, Soan wants you to know he’s been looking for you for 40 years.
“I told Jack to give Soan my phone number. A few minutes later my phone rang, but I couldn’t pick it up,” Jim said. “Then it went to voice mail and I heard Soan’s voice for the first time in decades.
“I was speechless. I called him back. We had a nice little 10 minute talk after all these years. I can’t explain how I felt about all this,” Jim added.
“On Christmas Day I called Soan again and we agreed my wife, Cathy, and I should drive down to Venice on Presidents’ Day Weekend and see them.”
For 48 hours two old sailors relived a bygone war fought when they were both young petty officers on the other side of the world. In between reliving their military adventures half a lifetime ago, they checked out the sights the Venice-Sarasota area has to offer.
Both say they won’t wait so long to get together in the future.
Sean added, “I owe America a lot of things: My wife, my kids. America is a wonderful place to live. And the best thing is my freedom. Whatever I talk and I can talk, and whatever I think I can do.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 and is republished with permission.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.