Lest We Forget

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

At 0515, three contacts glowed bright green on the lead boat's radar screen. The engines throttled up from a monotonous rumble to a full-throated growl, and a pair of spotlights mounted to the twin-50s up forward winked on. In the bright glare, three motorized sampans suddenly appeared-at the very least they were curfew violators, at worst. . . .

A muzzle flash from one of the sampans cued the Americans manning the various weapons on the boats, and there was a sudden cacophony of gunfire as machine guns and AK-47s traded fire in the night. Heavy gunfire erupted from the mangroves nearby, and the second American boat concentrated its fire there as MacLeod's craft continued to engage the sampans.

Calmly inserting a 40-mm round into his hand-held grenade launcher, MacLeod took careful aim and fired. One of the sampans disintegrated in a quick pyrotechnic flash. Taking advantage of their shallower drafts, the remaining two sampans disappeared among the mangroves, and soon the firing from the shore subsided as well. It was over.

This night action was far from unique. During the Vietnam War. U.S. Sailors fought many battles with the Vietcong in the Rung Sat Special Zone, in the nearby Mekong Delta, and in other parts of Vietnam. What made this engagement unusual was that it was not fought from the decks of PBRs, those specialized fiberglass patrol boats that came to be associated with the so-called "Brown Water Navy." MacLeod's Navy consisted of two amphibious landing craft-LCPLs-that they had converted into diminutive "warships" to be among the very first Americans to take the fight to the enemy in the inland waterways of Vietnam. This was 1965 and the venture so new that MacLeod had needed to have a local dressmaker make the American flags to fly from his craft.

These pioneering efforts by MacLeod and his men did not go unrecognized. He received a Bronze Star that acknowledged his "over 20 combat night operations." He also received a letter from a concerned citizen that said, "Congratulations on your decoration for cowardly heroism in Vietnam. . . . Killing unarmed people on unarmed fishing junks should be worth the Congressional medal."

It was a different time. . . .

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets.
 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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