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The Big Z – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  November 4, 2017  /  18 Comments


Red on White

Thomas Calabrese….Ensign Charles ‘Chuck’ Ryerson received his orders for South Vietnam and in two weeks he was scheduled to fly out. His background seemed like the perfect resume for the ‘Brown Water Navy.’ Chuck grew up in Bessemer, Alabama on the banks of the muddy Warrior River and he felt completely comfortable in that kind of environment. He graduated from Woodlawn High School then attended Lawson State Junior College before joining the Navy.

Once of his last assignments before leaving for Southeast Asia was to attend a formal dinner hosted by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, creator of the SEALORDS, riverway interdiction strategy. There would be numerous politicians in attendance and Admiral Zumwalt needed the support of Washington bureaucrats for continued funding of the Swift Boat program, so the graduating class of 1968 was given strict orders to be on their best behavior and to quote the Admiral’s aide, ‘impress the hell out of the politicians’. The young officers were also told to study and be completely prepared to answer any questions about the program, the boats, mission and their training,

Chuck Ryerson was extremely proficient in the operation of watercraft and very knowledgeable about nature, wildlife and weapons. What Ensign Ryerson was not very good at were two things, book learning and the social graces. He was just a good old country boy at heart and if it wasn’t for the tutoring of fellow Ensigns, Rod Pickett and Jerry Garrison, he would have never passed the written part of the course.

The formal dinner was being held at the North Island Officer’s Club and the young naval officers were told to wear their dress whites. When Chuck arrived, he made sure that he was seen by his commanding officer, then walked to the most inconspicuous place in the ballroom and stood there. He began repeating to himself, “Please don’t talk to me,” and his prayers were apparently answered and he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw people starting to leave the function. Once he got the word that he was dismissed, he double-timed to the door.

Chuck was only twenty feet from a clean escape when a woman dropped her purse and without thinking he immediately bent down to pick it up. His butt shot out and hit his commanding officer who was standing behind him, who in turn stumbled backward into Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was holding a plate of food in his left hand and a glass of strawberry punch in his right. The plate of food went flying and the strawberry punch spilled all over the front of Admiral Zumwalt’s sparkling white uniform.

Captain Rickard’s eyes burned with rage as he firmly grabbed Ensign Ryerson by the arm and led him out of the club. Once outside, he glared at Chuck, “Don’t say a word, just get the hell out of here as fast as you can!”

For the next two weeks, Ensign Ryerson kept the ultimate low profile and every time he passed a superior officer, he thought that they were coming to take him to the brig. When it came time to board his flight for Saigon, Chuck was the happiest sailor in the fleet to get out of San Diego.

Once he arrived in Saigon, Chuck was assigned a Swift boat; his team consisted of Jim Butler, boatswain, George Parson, engineer/radioman and Dante Bandolino and Steve Wagner, gunners. For the first few weeks in country, things were relatively calm, but once that initial lull passed, things never calmed down for Chuck Ryerson and his crew. The Mekong Delta had 1500 miles of rivers and canals interlaced through ten thousand square miles of marshlands, swamps and forests. Lt. Ryerson felt comfortable in his new environment; in fact there were times that it even reminded him of his Alabama home.

The training for Swift Boat operations for purpose of deployment to Vietnam was originally started in Coronado, California before it was moved to Mare Island in 1969. The boats used the marshland that forms the northern shoreline of the San Francisco Bay that was known as the Napa Sonoma Marshes State Wildlife Area.

The Swift Boat philosophy was conceived in a Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command, titled “Naval Craft Requirements in a Counter Insurgency Environment,” published in February 1965. The Swift Boats had welded aluminum hulls about fifty feet long with a draft of five feet. They were powered by a pair of General Motors Detroit 480 horsepower marine diesel engines with a range of 320 nautical miles at 21 knots. The normal crew consisted of; skipper, boatswain, radio/radarman, engineer and two gunners. The first two Swift Boats were delivered to the Navy in late 1965 and were enhanced with two 50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns in a turret above the pilot house, an over-and-under 50 caliber machine gun and 81 mm mortar mounted on the rear deck.

Chuck Ryerson’s boat, ‘Bama Mama’ was part of a three boat team whose basic duty was transporting Vietnamese Marines and Navy Seals up river on various missions. It was always more dangerous coming down river because the Viet Cong liked to set up ambushes and await the return of the water crafts. Chuck had a sixth sense when it came to detecting these ambushes so he always took the lead. On one return trip, he stopped one hundred yards from a chokepoint in the river and scanned the area. The two other swift boats slowly pulled alongside, “What’s up?” Lt. Matt Gellar asked.

“Could be a problem,” Chuck responded.

“Ambush,” Lt. Mosely guessed.

“More than likely,” Chuck turned to Steve Wagner, “Drop a couple rounds right in that bend in the river.”

Steve took two 81 mm rounds from the ammo locker while Dante Bandolino set the coordinates on the mortar tube.

“When they explode, we’ll make our move,” Chuck ordered.

Steve dropped one mortar into the tube and waited five seconds, then dropped the other. When they hit their intended target, there were several secondary explosions and the three swift boats put their throttles all the way down and raced through the small channel at full speed with their fifty caliber machine guns riddling both sides of the river bank. When one Viet Cong jumped up from his concealed position off the port bow with his AK-47, Chuck pulled out his twelve gauge shotgun that he kept in the wheelhouse and fired two rounds and the enemy soldiers went down. The Swift Boats narrowly escaped the ambush, but in combat, sometimes an inch is as good as a mile.

When the boats returned to home base, Chuck called out to his crew, “Check for damage and make the necessary repairs.”

The boats made routine missions up the river for the next two weeks without making enemy contact. This made the crews extremely nervous because they knew that Victor Charlie always had a plan and if he was holding back for this long, then something was bound to happen.

While sitting on their boat one afternoon, Dante came strolling up, holding a wooden crate with a chicken in it and a small dog following closely behind, “I got both for a case of c-rations.”

They named the dog Roscoe and called the chicken, Lady Bird and they became a part of the ‘Alabama Mama’ crew. Intel or scuttlebutt, it didn’t matter which, trickled down the chain of command that a major attack was imminent and all crews were eventually placed on high alert and told to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Chuck and his crew were doing routine maintenance on their boat when word came down that they had a mission.

Commander Mark Steinwell called the crews together on the dock, “All boats on this one, gentleman. We’re taking Seals and Recon eight clicks up river.  Scouts have radioed that a large contingent of North Vietnamese regulars are heading in this direction. The Seals and Marines are going to get more accurate numbers and if possible they’ll engage the enemy then call in for air support, then retreat back to the river where we’ll extract them, any questions?”

“What are our orders after we insert them?” Chuck asked.

“Find a place down river to hide and wait for the team to radio their extraction coordinates,” Commander Steinwell explained, “You need to make the rendezvous point at precisely the right time, any delays and they could get trapped.”

“The way this mission sounds, they could be dead before we even get back to them,” Lt. Mosely commented.

“That’s their problem, but if they make it out then you damn well better be there!” Commander Steinwell snapped backed.

“Aye, aye sir.”

As usual, Chuck Ryerson’s boat took the lead and nine boats followed him up the Perfume River  This was a major supply route for the North Vietnamese and as they passed various familiar sites, Chuck noticed a 120ft steel hulled fishing trawler, code named the ‘Viper Alpha’ hidden in one of the many waterways that intersected the river. The Swift boats had been looking for this smuggler’s ship for months because it was known to carry as much as ninety tons of weapons and ammunition for the Viet Cong. Chuck wished that he wasn’t already on this mission, otherwise he would have commenced an attack, but secrecy was essential so he stayed on course.

After dropping the Navy Seals and Marines off, the boats made their way down river until they found an inconspicuous place to wait and the crews quickly set up a defensive perimeter, then covered their boats with foliage colored tarps. Roscoe jumped in Chuck’s lap, “Hungry buddy?” Lt. Ryerson opened a can of turkey loaf and set it down for Roscoe, “I hope I don’t get court martialed for violating the Geneva Convention for cruelty to animals.”

The Navy Seals and Marines cautiously moved down the trail with hopes of intercepting the large enemy force. North Vietnamese scouts were headed in their direction and when Sergeant Willie Shepard heard movement up ahead, he motioned for the Americans to get off the trail. When five North Vietnamese soldiers appeared a hundred yards up the trail, the American stayed silent.  Lt. Jake Gilcher designated five men from his recon team to get ready and the Marines pulled out their K-bar knives. When the enemy got close enough, the five Marines struck in unison with the speed of deadly cobras and silently killed the five NVA soldiers with precise knife strikes then dragged the bodies into the brush and continued on their way.

Five hundred meters further up the trail, the Americans saw the long column of enemy soldiers and radioed for aircrafts to get airborne in preparation for the attack. The aerial assault would include Huey helicopters and jet fighters. The Swift boats received the radio transmission with the coordinates and started on their way to the rendezvous point.

The Marines and Navy Seals set up their ambush and were prepared to retreat to the river once the North Vietnamese engaged them. Everything was going exactly as planned except that the Americans had no way of knowing that the North Vietnamese commanders had sent out two heavily armed patrols to the left and right flanks of their column two days earlier and they were now imbedded in the thickly forested area, three hundred meters behind the Americans.

When the Swift Boats started up river, they saw the heavily armed Viper Alpha’ and a flotilla of smaller watercraft going in the same direction. This was the worst case scenario for Chuck and his fellow ‘Swift Boaters.’

Once the American force commenced their attack on the North Vietnamese column, they immediately began taking incoming fire from the patrols on their flanks. Helicopters came in low and strafed the enemy positions while jet aircraft commenced their bombing runs.  While back on the river, the enemy river vessels opened fire on the Swift Boats and Chuck and his comrades had two priorities; fight back against the imminent attack and make it to the extraction point.

The American force were in full retreat and taking heavy fire from three sides as the North Vietnamese soldiers moved to get between them and the Perfume River.

Napalm lit up the late afternoon skies and Chuck saw heavy black smoke in the distance. Two small fishing boats opened fired on the ‘Alabama Mama’ and Dante and Steve sunk both of them with fifty caliber machine gun fire. North Vietnamese fighters were firing rocket propelled grenades from the deck of the ‘Alpha Viper.’ Chuck received  a shrapnel wound to his left shoulder as he weaved through the incoming fire. Two Swift Boats were hit and caught fire as other Swift Boats pulled alongside and rescued the crews.

The Marines and Navy Seals fought tenaciously to reach the river, as the enemy moved closer and the aerial assault increased in intensity.

“We need extraction and we need it now!” Lt. Gilcher radioed then shot an enemy fighter five feet in front of him.

The North Vietnamese knew that they could nullify the advantage of air support if they could get close enough to the Americans’ position so they were relentless in their pursuit.  Lt. Gilcher knew that he was only moments away from calling in air strikes on his own position.

Back on the Perfume River, Chuck ordered Dante to turn the 81mm mortar on the ‘Viper Alpha’ ,”Take out that damn boat, it’s getting on my nerves!”

“With pleasure,” Dante quickly sighted in and started dropping mortars rounds down the tube as quickly as he could and  four rounds hit on deck of the “Viper Alpha’ and it caught fire. An A-4 Skyhawk finished off the job by sending two air to surface missiles into it and left it half sunk in the water as dozens of explosions from the stored ammunition on board rocked the area.

“We’re about to be overrun! We need extraction!!” Lt. Gilcher screamed over the radio as the American began fighting hand to hand with the North Vietnamese soldiers.

Chuck radioed back, “We’re on our way,” then crashed through two fishing boats and fired his shotgun at several enemy fighters trying to board the ‘Alabama Mama’ and they fell back into the muddy water.

When they reached the extraction point, the Marines and Navy Seals rushed for the boats while all the firepower on the Swift Boats was directed at the North Vietnamese fighters. Lt. Gilcher provided cover fire until he saw all his men were on board.  He turned to run and was shot in the leg and went down. He screamed out, “Leave me! Go! Go!”

Chuck saw him crawling down the trail and turned to George Parsons, “Take the helm!” and jumped off the ‘Alabama Mama’ into the shallow water and ran to Lt. Gilcher, firing his twelve gauge as he went. He picked up the Marine and put him on his shoulder ran back and just as he placed the injured Marine on the deck, Chuck was shot through his left side and Steve pulled him aboard and the Swift Boats raced out of the area.

A few minutes later, the call went in for the A-130 gunship, affectionately called ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ and when it was overhead it unleashed its wrath, the 20mm cannons fired rounds that were the size of jumbo hot dogs at the cyclic rate of 100 rounds per second and the 7.62mm mini-guns rained 6000 rounds per minute on the North Vietnamese soldiers on the ground.

Chuck Ryerson was bleeding heavily from his wound and by the time the Swift Boats made it back to base, his bandage was soaked in blood. A group of Corpsmen were waiting for the wounded and began administering medical care.

As one Corpsman removed the old bandage and prepared to place a clean white one in its place, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, The Big Z stepped in and took the thick gauze pad from him, gently placed it on the wound and held Lt. Ryerson’s hand, “Good job, Lieutenant. You’ll be fine, hang in there.”

Chuck wasn’t sure if the Admiral remembered him from the unfortunate encounter in Coronado, but he got his answer a moment later when The Big Z quipped, “A different red on white from the last time we met.”

The End

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  • Published: 1 year ago on November 4, 2017
  • By:
  • Last Modified: November 3, 2017 @ 10:36 pm
  • Filed Under: The Back Page

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  1. Joe says:

    Another great story. Appreciate it.

  2. John Michels says:

    Lots of action a fun story to read with a humorous ending

  3. Pat Madden says:

    Good story. Interesting action.

  4. Pat Madden says:

    As above, “Good story. Interesting action”

  5. Guy says:

    Really enjoyed this story…I didn’t really know that much about Swift Boats…good job Tom

  6. Cary says:

    Another good story of our American military…really liked it

  7. Mona says:

    Good action packed story. I liked the humor at the end.

  8. Janet says:

    Good morning – wow – what a thriller! was just recently admiring pictures of the USS Zumwalt online – The Big Z

  9. Kyle says:

    Tom has a knack of humanizing his heroes to the point where you not only know them ,but take great interest in their success and survival.

  10. Greg says:

    Enjoyed It. Thumbs up!

  11. Josh says:

    Good story and characters…a nice ending too.

  12. Clyde says:

    I know this was a fictional story, but the facts made it seem very realistic .

  13. Mike says:

    This story kept my attention and informed me of a lot of things that I did not know.

  14. Steve says:

    Really enjoyed this story.. thanks Tom

  15. Dan says:

    Good story…I know a little about Swift Boats an the facts are accurate

  16. Tony says:

    This Sunday’s story by Mr. Thomas Calabrese reads more like Non-Fiction then Fiction.I feel certain that any Brown Water Sailor that reads this story will closely identify with the events surrounding their Vietnam experiences. As a Marine I can identify with the combat actions described in this action packed story, ” The Big Z”.

  17. Ray says:

    I can agree with some of the previous comments, I could relate to several of the events in, The Big Z
    Good job, Tom…always look forward to your stories.

  18. Wolf says:

    I enjoyed the story, Liked the ending. Dress whites look great until you spill something. Went thru several while serving in the Corps

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