Serving Their Country – in Normandy and Vietnam

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It was truly inspirational to view the ceremony honoring some of the incredibly brave survivors of the June 6, 1944 D-Day assault on the beaches of Normandy. What tremendous courage and heroism! They deserve our everlasting thanks and gratitude. 

And then there are those who did not survive the assault – the thousands buried in the astonishingly beautiful U.S. cemeteries in Normandy. The words adorning a British World War II cemetery elsewhere surely apply to the thousands of heroes killed on the Normandy beaches:

                                                When you go home,
                                                Tell them of us and say:
                                                For your tomorrow,
                                                We gave our today

Watching the moving images of President Donald Trump paying tribute to the World War II veterans who stormed the Normandy beaches 75 years ago, I thought about where I was 50 years ago on that date.

Fifty years ago – on June 6, 1969 – I was patrolling the Cua Dai River in Quang Nam, South Vietnam. I was Officer-in Charge of a Swift Boat (PCF 24) operating out of Danang. The Cua Dai River, which was located about 20 miles south of Danang, though technically in northern South Vietnam, was deep in enemy territory.

Hoi An, the province capital of Quang Nam, which is a city now much visited by passengers on the many cruise ships that go to Vietnam, is situated on the north bank of the Cua Dai river. In 1969, Hoi An was controlled by armed forces of the Republic of South Vietnam. It was relatively safe from enemy attack. For most of the 1960s, the southern bank of the Cua Dai were controlled by the Viet Cong (VC). After Tet 1968, the VC were greatly weakened, and elements of the North Vietnamese Army, coming south on the Ho Chi Minh trail, infiltrated into Quang Nam from the mountains in the west.

In late 1968, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Commander Naval Forces Vietnam, launched SEALORDS – a naval campaign of U.S. and South Vietnamese naval forces to aggressively patrol in the Mekong Delta and rivers of South Vietnam to wrest control of these waterways from the enemy. Although most U.S. naval assets were deployed in the Mekong Delta and other southern areas of South Vietnam, orders were issued for Swift Boats operating out of Danang to patrol the Cua Dai River.

The Cua Dai river basin was extremely shallow, with shifting sand bars and tricky tides and currents. In some areas, the only way to navigate the river was to take the channel less than 50 yards from the southern river bank. This created ideal conditions for the enemy to ambush Swift Boats patrolling the Cua Dai, using recoilless rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. We called this channel “ambush alley.”

During 1969, the VC and North Vietnamese Army did everything possible to keep the Swift Boats from controlling the Cua Dai. Patrol after patrol, our Swift Boats were ambushed by the enemy using highly accurate recoilless rifle rounds and RPGs, and even floating contact mines and command-detonated mines. The first time I went on a training mission on the Cua Dai, our Swift Boat was hit by a 75-millimeter recoilless rifle round that penetrated the starboard side, went through the engine room without exploding, and exited the port side of the boat and exploded in the water, wounding several crewmen. It was only by God’s grace that the round didn’t hit the mortar box nine inches above where the round penetrated the hull, or our boat would have been obliterated.

During the fifteen-month period when Swift Boats from Coastal Division 12 were patrolling the Cua Dai, many Swift Boat crewmembers were wounded, and two officers were killed, all courageously serving their country.

Unlike World War II veterans who were welcomed home with thanks and gratitude for their service, Vietnam veterans came home to scorn and derision. There was never a sense of gratitude or even understanding for what the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam had done to try to stem the tide of global communism.

Personally, I was never thanked – but I would have chosen to be ignored over the name-calling that occurred on more than one occasion. Most of us preferred civilian clothes to our uniforms, as uniforms would often attract contempt, sneers, and worse.  “Babykillers” was a common epithet used by demonstrators.

John Kerry served as an Officer-in-Charge of a Swift Boat for four months before he requested a transfer back to the United States. Then, in an extraordinary example of virtue signaling, he gave his infamous testimony before Congress in 1971, describing the behavior of U.S. soldiers and sailors as “reminiscent of Genghis Khan.”

That’s not how most Vietnam veterans recall their service. Last month, I travelled to San Antonio for the Swift Boat Sailors Association Reunion. It was a wonderful event, though tinged with sadness. The high point was the remembrance of the 400 sailors and officers in Vietnam who were wounded and the 50 men who were killed. Those of us who survived (and still survive) shared our memories and renewed our bonds.

On the way back to Boston, I was on a Delta flight from San Antonio to Atlanta. More than a dozen Swift Boat crew members were on the flight. An alert flight attendant noticed a Swift Boat T-shirt and asked about it. She learned about the reunion and that there were many of us on the plane. Just before we landed, she announced on the microphone that there were more than a dozen Vietnam war veterans on the plane who had just been to the Swift Boat Sailor Association reunion and asked the passengers to express their gratitude for us. The plane exploded in applause.

It was the first time that many of us had ever been thanked. I was not alone in finding my eyes were filled with tears.

When you have the chance, don’t neglect to thank all those who have served America, putting themselves in harm’s way to defend this exceptional country.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3.8 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.