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The Fatal Attack on PBR 139

PBR 139 of River Division 532 was hit from the west bank of the Vam Co Dong River with automatic weapons fire, 2 RPGs, and one Recoilless Rifle round. This was about 8-9 klicks north of Tra Cu going towards the Sugar Mill. It was approximately 2300 when all hell broke loose.

One minute everything was calm, except for the gentle hum of the engines, then from the corner of my eye I saw a white sparkle. This was followed by a deafening explosion that literally blew me into the air about 10 feet above the boat. I could not hear anything and time was in slow motion, but I remember the green tracers going by me.

The next thing I remember was being burnt by the engines as I was laying on top of the starboard one. All the weapons had been blown away, but I frantically searched for anything to use to fire back. All during this time, green tracers were cutting through PBR 139. SN Carl Gerkin on the forward fifties was the only person able to return fire. But I noticed he was firing at an odd angle. Then I realized that we were sinking and Boat Captain Bill Akin was transmitting over and over "we are sinking, we are sinking".

After Gunner EN3 Robert Blais was badly wounded and unable to return fire. He had taken the brunt of the recoilless round. Then PBR 139 was under water and going down. The water forced me under the canopy where I became trapped and unable to move. It was DARK, so very DARK, and I could hear the boat breaking up and parts falling off as it went down.

By now I had resigned myself to the idea that I was going to die, and I was OK with that. Then PBR 139 hit the river bottom. I remember being able to get out from under the canopy and get out of my flack jacket. I was wearing the type that had the armor plating in it. Then I began swimming upwards as fast as possible. Then when I thought I was not going to make it, my head was out of the water and I was literally gasping for air. As I looked around, I could not find anyone.

At that moment, I was surprised by the bow of 139 popping out of the water about five feet from me. I figure that was the safest place to be and hung on. For reasons that will not be speculated about, our cover boat then returned and I was pulled from the water by my left arm. That was when I noticed that the pain was bad, especially in my upper left arm. By now, all others had been spotted and one-by-one were pulled into the cover boat. EN3 Robert Blais was in serious condition. We were taken to the Sugar Mill for Dust Off to Cu Chi.

Final casualty count was on KIA (Blais) and three WIA. PBR 139 had been home to the four of us for a long time (Akin, Gerkin, Blais, and myself—Cagle). We had been in several bad fire fights on the Upper My Tho River and even caught a major enemy crossing on August 28th, 1968. It had brought us through TET at My Tho and Ben Tre, It was even used in a Special Operation with the ROKs in Qui Nhon while stationed on the U.S.S. Hunterdon County in March of 1968. Yet on the very last day of January 1969, it was finally overwhelmed by enemy forces on a dark lonely river called the Vam Co Dong near the most hellish place on earth—TRA CU.

More died and were wounded. Boats were sunk. Men lost limbs. Death was always lurking. Purple Hearts were abundant. Awards were constantly given until they were just thought of as something natural. Many did not get their awards because of the intense fighting and the lack of access to TRA CU (by boat or air). But the River Rats struck back with a vengence. We caught crossings, set waterborne ambushes, and had no mercy for them. Many a body would be floating in the river after a successful ambush.

The Vam Co Dong was truly the River of Death and TRA CU was HELL ON EARTH. God bless our fallen shipmates and help those of us who are suffering the experiences of NAM even until this day.

Click for closeup
As my dear friend Ron Laratta always says, "all wounds are not visible". So very, very true.

TWO SURVIVORS OF PBR-139 Paul Cagle (L) and Bill Akin (R) Patriots Point: Charleston, S. C., September, 2000.

This story and picture contributed: Paul Cagle