Vietnam: Two Views: God Be Here

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U. S. Navy

Despite all the action that the lieutenant had seen, the enlisted men in River Section 511 liked to have him along as patrol officer on their patrols. He was a "cool head" in combat, and as a "mustang"—an enlisted man who had worked his way up through the ranks—he knew what enlisted men were all about and how to look out for them. There was another reason they liked having him as patrol officer. Sailors are by nature superstitious, and men in combat are often more religious than they were back home. So the sailors liked having the lieutenant along because his name was Dick Godbehere, pronounced exactly as spelled: God-be-here! It was not uncommon to hear someone say, in a play on words that had a measure of seriousness, "I'd rather have Godbehere than anyone else."

The year was 1968, two days before the start of the Vietnamese holiday called Tet. Lieutenant Godbehere's patrol had been assigned a psychological operations mission, one designed to get information to villagers about the government and the war effort. The PBRs were good vehicles for these missions because they could get close to the people in the delta by traveling the rivers and canals. Godbehere's PBR was rigged with a tape recorder and large speakers to broadcast their message, an appeal for the South Vietnamese Government's Chieu Hoi (open arms) program—the amnesty program that promised protection, money, clothes, and food for any VC who wished to change sides. A sign on each side of the PBR said in Vietnamese, "This is a Chieu Hoi Rally Point. You will be welcomed here." Godbehere looked at the sign and wondered if any ralliers (called Hoi Chanhs) would turn themselves in to him that day. That had happened to otherPBRs on patrol, but so far never to Godbehere. He hadread a report somewhere that said 28,000 Hoi Chanhs had rallied in the previous year. He had also read that the estimated cost of the Chieu Hoi program was about $150 per Hoi Chanh— compared to the unofficial estimate of$9,000 worth of ammunition expended per enemy killed.

The two-boat patrol got under way and headed down the Bassac River toward the major delta city of Can Tho. Godbehere disliked psychological operations patrols because the PBRs had to move slowly in order to allow the messages to be heard, which made them very vulnerable to attack, and because listening to the taped messages over and over challenged his sanity. 

After about 20 minutes, the tape recorder was switched on and the crew settled in for what promised to be a boring patrol. The pre-mission brief had predicted a quiet run. Just a few weeks back, General William Desobry, U. S. Army, upon being relieved as U. S. military advisory chief in the delta region, told reporters that the Viet Cong were "poorly motivated, poorly trained" and that the South Vietnamese Army "has the upper hand completely." The area around Can Tho was considered relatively friendly.

But as they plodded along, Godbehere had been scanning the banks, and the hair at the back of his neck was beginning to prickle. He had seen the grass-covered huts along the banks with chickens clucking and strutting in front. Tools rested against thatched walls and fishnets were piled or strewn about. An occasional water buffalo would swing its massive horned head in their direction to detect the source of noise as they passed, and the grunting of pigs could sometimes be heard over the rumble of the engines. Rice baskets swayed on hooks in the breeze and hints of incense tickled the nostrils every now and then. It was a pastoral scene except for one element: not a single human being had been in sight for the last several miles. Godbehere had been around long enough to know that this usually spelled trouble.

"I don't like the looks of this, Boats," he said to the boat captain.

"I know, sir. Too quiet," came the reply. The boat captain had one hand resting lightly on the reined-in throttles. "Gunner, get your helmet on," he called forward to the third-class petty officer lounging in the gun tub.

The rest of the crew fastened their flak jackets and warily watched the banks.

Godbehere said to no one in particular, "Charlie's out there. I can feel him."

Seconds crept into minutes as perspiration flowed down tense brows into anxious eyes. The minutes grew into hours that seemed like days as they droned along, the taped Vietnamese voice appealing to unseen ears. Twenty-eight miles passed and nothing happened, yet the tension remained. Something was unquestionably wrong.

As they turned about for the return trip, the boat captain said, "Maybe it's got something to do with this Tet holiday thing. Maybe that's why nobody's around."

"Maybe," Godbehere said, not believing it.

The return trip was more of the same. Everything looked normal in the villages except for the absence of the people. The Americans passed from hamlet to hamlet feeling as if they were the only humans left in the world. Only the infrequent passage of a plane or the distant whop-whop of helicopter blades occasionally dispelled this sensation. Godbehere couldn't shake the feeling of being watched, of believing that at any moment all hell would break loose.

But it never did. The patrol ended at last, and Godbehere and the others returned to base trying to work the knots of tension out of their muscles. They were exhausted.

That night after Godbehere had filed his patrol report and turned in, he lay under his green mosquito net watching the geckos patrolling the walls of his hootch in search of insect prey. He wondered what the strange day meant. The signs were there for trouble—the situation had "ambush" written all over it. And the PBRs were so vulnerable at the low speed required by the mission—Charlie could have hit them if it had in fact been an ambush. But he didn't. Why? Maybe the boat captain was right: maybe it had something to do with Tet. Maybe the villagers had all gone to their temples or something…No, the animals wouldn't have been left to wander and the tools would have been put away. There were people nearby; he was sure of it…But why were they hiding? If Charlie was there, why hadn't he ambushed the PBRs? …

Godbehere mulled over these possibilities for a long time before he was able to go to sleep.

Two days later, Dick Godbehere had his answers. The enemy had chosen the Tet holiday of 1968 to launch a coordinated, country-wide offensive within South Vietnam. Thirty-six of the 44 provincial capitals, five of the six major cities, and many district capitals and hamlets were attacked by communist forces. In the Mekong Delta, the attacks involved 13 of the 16 provincial capitals, including Can Tho, the city near which Godbehere's patrol had been. Four days before Tet, the enemy troops had moved into the hamlets around Can Tho in preparation for the assault. Godbehere had been right: Charlie was there when the PBRs had come through. He had apparently refrained from attacking the small game of two PBRs in order not to reveal his presence before the large-scale attack on Can Tho scheduled to begin in unison with the other attacks throughout the country on the first day of Tet.

The battles of the Tet Offensive raged for 77 days. Game Warden units played a significant role in reversing the tide of battle in the delta. By chance, some units happened to be in the vicinity of the city of Chau Doc, involved in a planned interdiction operation called "Bold Dragon I," when the Tet Offensive began. These few Game Warden sailors and the SEALs on the operation with them played a major role in the defense of the city. The VC battalions assigned to capture Chau Doc, told that they would be met with waving banners and open arms, were quite surprised when met by the resistance led by the Game Warden sailors. PBRs and Seawolf helicopters also provided the firepower that held the enemy at bay in Ben Tre until reinforcing ground troops could arrive to drive the attackers out of the city.

During February, Lieutenant Godbehere was involved in a few skirmishes on the periphery of the major battles, but nothing terribly significant. This proved to be a lull before the storm for Dick Godbehere.

Lieutenant Godbehere's two-PBR patrol left Binh Thuy and headed southeast on the Bassac River en route to its assigned patrol area. The sky was growing dark, and the air was cool for a March night in the Mekong Delta.

Signalman Third Class Jere Beery, the after gunner on the PBR carrying Godbehere, politely looked away as one of the other crew members squatted over the rail of the boat, paying the price for having indulged in a local village's culinary delights. Privacy is one of the casualties of war—particularly on a 31-foot boat with no head.

Beery looked down at his own tailor-made camouflage uniform, but the sky was too dark for him to really see it. He had just bought the outfit from a local Vietnamese seamstress and was wearing it for the first time. His shipmates had teased him about it, saying, "Hey, Jere, where are you? I can't see you with those camis on," or "Look at the walking tree."

The PBRs passed by Can Tho. Most of the city was quiet and dark, but the distant rattle of a machine gun could be heard from the far side. Some weeks back, Can Tho had been enveloped in artillery fire and exploding aircraft ordnance as the allied forces fought to dislodge the Viet Cong from the university there. Beery had heard that the once beautiful Faculty of Science building had been reduced to smoking rubble, but he hadn't seen it.

A reporter who had come along for a story bumped into something in the dark and cursed the offending object and its ancestry. Beery remembered another occasion when a pair of reporters had talked Beery's boat captain into taking them into an infamous area known as the Ti Ti Canal. One of the pair was a large-framed man, wearing brand-new fatigues, who had told the section's commanding officer, "We need to show the people back in the States exactly what our boys are going through over here." The other was a man about half his companion's size. They had lugged several cases of camera equipment on board for the patrol. On the way to the canal, the big man was standing on the engine covers with his 16-mm. motion-picture camera on top of the boat's awning. As they neared the canal, Bailey, the boat captain, had hollered back to Beery, "Tell that son-of-a-bitch to get down here and put on a flak jacket and helmet." Beery relayed the message (in more polite terms), only to be rebuffed. "I can't maneuver the camera with all that stuff on," the big reporter had said. No sooner had he uttered those words than automatic-weapons fire erupted from both banks. The 16-mm. camera flew up into the air as the big reporter dove into the coxswain's flat, landing right at Bailey's feet. The boat captain kicked the reporter and yelled, "You better get up there and get your pictures, you son-of-a-bitch, we ain't comin' through here for you again!" The reporter's camera had been broken, and the only things to show for their efforts were a few still photo graphs taken by the little reporter and 136 bullet-entry holes in the hull of the PBR.

The two PBRs passed the upriver end of Cu Lao Mae Island. It was totally black on the river now. Only the radar could see.

A sudden flash of light appeared in Beery's peripheral vision over his left shoulder. He turned and realized that it must have been a BAD rocket, for a second one had just emerged from the darkness of the island. Both rockets were well off target.

Beery could hear Lieutenant Godbehere on the radio—"Red Rose, this is Hand Lash Delta"—checking to make sure there were no friendly units in the area. All gunners were holding their fire, not only because of the possibility of friendly units but because the flashes from their weapons would give Charlie something besides sound to aim at.

Godbehere got the clearance he sought from "Red Rose" and ordered his patrol units to start a firing run. The PBRs swooped in toward the island and hammered the darkness from which the rockets had come. Flames of small-arms fire and machine-gun bursts flickered in the trees on shore as the boats roared in.

Beery squeezed off about a hundred rounds and then leaned down to open another canister of ammunition. Two fireballs burst out of the trees as he bent over. Beery recognized them as B-40 rounds but was certain that they would miss. He was wrong: one of the rockets struck the gunwale on the starboard quarter and exploded.

At right: Brown water sailors liked having Lieutenant Godbehere along as patrol officer when they worked their way along the Delta's Cong-rich canals. He was a mustang with 60 firefights under his belt and a piece of sharpnel in his jaw, and the men figured his name would shield them like a St. Christopher's medal. 

Lieutenant Godbehere was just aft of the coxswain's flat when the rocket hit. As he saw the reddish-orange rocket explode, he felt a blast of heat and pieces of shrapnel tearing into his legs. A few moments later a second rocket found its mark, this one detonating against the grenade locker on the starboard side. Godbehere, thrown to the deck by the blast, climbed back to his feet and looked about, trying to assess his situation. A gunner named Sherman had been standing near Godbehere before the hits; now he was gone. Godbehere thought he had been blown overboard, but soon he appeared next to the lieutenant, a steel fragment protruding from the back of his arm and another lodged in his foot. Aft, Godbehere saw that Beery was still standing at his gun but wasn't firing. "Go see what's wrong with Beery," Godbehere told Sherman and then turned his attention back to the battle that was still raging.

The other PBR in the patrol had been hit many times, and the damage to both boats was too severe to warrant any further engagement. Godbehere ordered the boat captains to retire to a safe location so that they could evacuate their wounded.

Sherman reappeared and said, "Beery's hurt bad, Mr. Godbehere."

Godbehere moved aft. Every step was painful; clearly, his legs had taken a lot of metal. When he got to Beery, the young gunner was still standing and holding on to his weapon. "Where're you hit?" Godbehere asked.

"In the gut," Beery rasped.

Godbehere looked down. To his dismay and horror, he saw that Beery's abdomen had been sliced open by the exploding rocket: his intestines were trailing down to a grisly heap on the PBR's deck.

Godbehere grasped Beery firmly by the shoulders and, with Sherman's help, laid him down on the deck, then carefully piled the moist entrails onto Beery's abdomen. With a large battle dressing he cautiously covered the hideous mound. Sherman cut away Beery's trousers; the new camis were full of shrapnel holes, and his right leg and hip were a mess. A large piece of shrapnel had penetrated Beery's stomach and was protruding from his back. Godbehere doubted that Beery was going to live.

While Godbehere and Sherman worked, trying to dress Beery's many wounds, Beery tried to speak but didn't have sufficient breath left to be heard above the PBR's engines. He pulled Godbehere down and whispered in his ear. "If I don't make it," he said so softly that Godbehere could barely hear him, "tell my mom and dad what happened."

Godbehere said, "You're going to be all right. Your intestines just fell out. They can put 'em back for you. They do it all the time. You'll be okay."

Beery shook his head slowly.

Godbehere yelled, "Goddammit, Jere, you're going to be all right!"

The two PBRs were out of the firefight by this time, and Godbehere ordered them to head for Tra On village on the east bank of the Bassac River opposite Cu Lao Mae Island. Godbehere had visited several of the eight U. S. Army advisors there, and he knew the village pretty well. It was the nearest place he could think of to effect a safe medical evacuation. As the two boats headed downriver toward Tra On, Godbehere told Bailey to get on the radio and call for "Pedro," the Air Force medical evacuation helicopter. For the rest of the run into Tra On, Godbehere knelt next to Beery in a pool of their mingled blood, ignoring his own wounds and trying to soothe the mangled man's fear and despair.

At the village, the Army advisors loaded Beery onto a stretcher. As they started to carry him off the boat, Beery smiled weakly and said, "I don't know how those guys managed to hit me." He held up a tattered remnant of his brand-new camouflage shirt. "I thought I looked like a tree."

Neither Lieutenant Godbehere nor Petty Officer Beery ever fought in Vietnam again. Dick Godbehere's wounds were serious enough to cause his evacuation for recovery and reassignment. He eventually retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander.

The same spirit that had permitted Jere Beery to make a joke about his camouflage uniform in his hour of crisis got him through a long and trying ordeal of recovery. He lived and went on to become a motion-picture stunt man.

Commander Cutler served as an in-country naval advisor to South Vietnamese forces from January to December 1972, taking part in numerous river and harbor patrols, coastal surveillance operations, and Vietnamization projects. He also served on the staff of the U. S. naval advisory group in Saigon. He now teaches history at the U. S. Naval Academy and writes the monthly "Books of Interest" column for Proceedings.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This account is an excerpt from Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, due to appear from the Naval Institute Press next month.


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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