Ozark Thunderclouds

US Navy Swift Boat PCF 43

by Joshua Heston

The mission was code-named Silver Mace II. The day was April 12, 1969, and the United States was at war in the mangrove swamps and rice paddies of Vietnam. Songs like Hey Jude by The Beatles and Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel blared from the radio alongside Jeannie C. Riley’s Harper Valley PTA and Hank Snow’s Hula Love.

And a young generation of American warriors were stepping into history.

In the South China Sea, just off the Vietnam coast, the morning dawned in “the mellow radiance of the silvery west,” as later recorded by Lieutenant J. G. Peter N. Upton, member of Underwater Demolition Team 13.

The lumbering USS Westchester County, a nearly 6,000-ton landing ship, was stationed near the mouth of the Deong Keo River, support for a flotilla of swift boats.

Designated PCF for “patrol craft fast,” these 50-foot aluminum boats were the mainstay of US and South Vietnamese forces in the war-torn nation’s inland waterways. Originally designed as “water taxis” to service oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, PCFs were formidable when loaded down with three 12.7mm machine guns, an M60 machine gun and an 81mm mortar. Twin General Motors marine diesel engines churned out 480 horsepower each. The boats had a top speed of 21 knots with a range of 366 miles.

Loaded down with South Vietnamese marines, gear and explosives, the mission was simple enough on paper: 13 boats enter the Deong Keo River and proceed, single file, until a point determined by the Vietnamese company commander (and his US advisor). Under cover of the flotilla’s gunners, the Vietnamese marines would disembark.

The Viet Cong were waiting.

Not five miles upriver, a well-armed guerilla force lay protected behind a bunker and trench at the water’s edge. Waiting until as many boats as possible were within the kill zone, the VC opened up with claymore mines, machine gun fire, rifle grenades and bazookas.

The last boat in line, PCF 43, was hit with a claymore mine, 75mm rifle fire and three rockets. The blasts mortally wounded the officer in charge and killed a demolitions team member. Out of control but with engines roaring, the swift boat beached on the mangrove-choked riverbank directly beneath the Viet Cong bunker.

PCF 38 turned back to save the stranded crew but was hit by two rockets and forced to retreat.

Survivors fought to regroup and keep their position from being overrun. The stricken swift boat became a battleground as heavy fire was exchanged. Minutes ticked by and ammunition dwindled. Recordings of radio traffic, punctuated by the sound of chopper rotors and gunfire, convey just a small portion of the hell that took place on that riverbank.

“Forty-three is high and dry one mile back.”
“Provide cover for them, over.”
“We have to have stretchers.”
“Provide cover and we’ll get in to get ’em.”

A member of the underwater demolitions team remembers, “I was on 43 when she got hit. I remember the boats coming back into the kill zone to get us. We were out of bullets. You guys saved my ass.” — CW04 USN (Ret) UDT 13.

Before the Viet Cong guerillas converged on the men in the water, Sea Wolf 14 and 15 (two Huey gun ships) roared overhead, laying down cover fire. A broadside of rockets and M60 machine gun fire from the helicopters breached the bunker and trench. Beneath the cover of air support, PCF 31 pulled in to rescue the survivors.

PCF 43 was left a blazing wreck. Of the 17 on board, two — Don Droz and Robert Worthington — were dead. Twelve more — including Wayne Langhofer of Herington, Kansas — were wounded. The survivors were ferried to a MEDEVAC perimeter where they were loaded into dust off helicopters.

And there it is easy to end the story. A moment of time. A bloody engagement in a faraway nation. A war we never wanted. Veterans would return home only to be cursed. Troops were told to change out of their uniforms before walking through airports.

Young men, unprepared and traumatized by the horror of war, buried the disgrace and tried to cope with domestic life despite post-traumatic stress disorder. Overarching decisions made by politicians and generals became a silent, personal war in the hearts and souls of American veterans and their families.

It was a time of war. A time to defend America against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. Our fighting men and women served with honor.

November 5, 2014

plate 1. Oil painting PCF 43 by Raine Clotfelter of Branson, Missouri.

The oil painting PCF 43 was commissioned by Navy veteran Smokey Stover, originally of Herington, Kansas, now of Cassville, Missouri. Painted by Raine Clotfelter (retired US Navy illustrator draftsman petty officer first class) of Branson, the art was meant for PCF 43 crew member Wayne Langhofer.

Clotfelter notes, “There are certain paintings that I do that one cannot begin to express the honor and the privilege of doing them. I can never give enough thanks and gratitude for those who have served our country like W04 Langhofer.”

Vietnam Veterans

plate 2. Fifty-Caliber Browning machine gun on a tripod. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

“When I first talked to Raine, I wanted to do something for [Wayne Langhofer],” says Stover. “My original plan was to present the painting to him at the Veterans Day celebration in Herington. But I grew up with his wife too. We all agreed it would probably not be a good thing to do in public. Wayne is not a see-me guy. So we did a private deal at his house.

“Raine and I have been friends a long time. I knew Wayne had a picture of the riverboat in his basement. I asked his wife if she could get me a copy and I asked Raine if he could do up an oil painting.

Vietnam Veterans

plate 3. Air bursts. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

“Life expectancy on a swift boat was similar to that of a chopper pilot. It wasn’t very good.

“I’m not a political guy but I don’t like it when people who have never served are the ones pushing guys into stuff. I don’t think they understand the long-term effects. Wayne was diagnosed with PTSD and it’s for real. He still goes to the VA once a month. He won’t open up about it [but he has said] he still wakes up in the middle of the night with a VC in pajamas at the bottom of the bed.

“You think about that. That’s been since ’71. I used to mistakenly say, ‘After so long, you need to get over it.’ He told me one time, ‘Unless you’ve been there, you don’t really know.’”

Vietnam Veterans

plate 4. Light infantry brigade fords a stream during a sweep. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

Smokey Stover served in the US Navy from 1967 until 1973 as fire support aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Berkeley and aboard a destroyer tender. Afterward, he served 37 years in the fire department before retiring to Cassville. He remains active in helping fellow veterans and is a regular at Branson’s veterans task force / homecoming events.

“Places like Branson are places of healing. I think the town has gone over and above. Now we have all the guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and who knows where we’re gonna send guys next.

Vietnam Veterans

plate 5. Calling for air support. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

Since 2004, it is difficult to discuss Vietnam swift boats without embroiling Langhoffer in the John Kerry / Swift boat controversy. “Wayne is a personal friend of John Kerry,’ notes Stover. “He served with Kerry and he campaigned for him.

“Wayne has had people confront him about the Swift boat thing and Wayne’ll tell them straight up, ‘I was there. I know what happened. What you’re gonna print is probably different than what I’m gonna tell you. John Kerry earned what he got. He was a good commanding officer.’”

Vietnam Veterans

plate 6. Huey gun ship. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

REFERENCES:

Mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats/pcf43.htm, The Death Of PCF 43

PFC45.com, Patrol Craft Fast — A Tour on Board a Swift Boat, Vietnam

Artwork courtesy of Raine Clotfelter, America’s Muralist

Historic photographs courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, PA.

dogwood petal Honor America

Honor America

(Point Lookout, MO) “Honor America, for us, is more than a Fourth of July. It’s a time of festivities, of getting together with family and supporting our veterans. We have four [veterans] with us today,” Nichole Vazquez [pictured below], a second-time visitor to Branson, described excitedly.

“We’re having a family reunion today, about 30 of us, and we wanted to be here because our family is very interested in the values of this college. They are the same values we were raised in.”

The Vazquez family (originally from Puerto Rico), like many others, enjoyed a grand celebration of old-fashioned barbeque , upbeat music from a variety of artists, and — the grand finale — fireworks!

Honor America

With a golden sunset and cool winds, thousands of guests flocked through the ‘Gates of Opportunity’ Sunday evening.

Along with blankets and lawn chairs in tow, guests showcased their patriotism and showed support for our country’s veterans.

Entertainment included songs by Nashville recording artist Kimberly Patrick, songs “throughout the decades” by Red, Hot…&Blue! and the powerful harmonies of AYO Voices of Glory.

Before fireworks began, the Hard Work U Concert Band performed a patriotic program. When the night sky was lit with sparks and pops, the band provided a choreographed musical backdrop. This was the 26th celebration of Honor America at College of the Ozarks.

Article and photos by Tiffany Lyle

FOR contact information go to Links Page. For all news articles listed, visit the News Directory.

Vietnam Veterans

Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial

(Point Lookout, MO) “We are honored to build this memorial on our campus,” said College of the Ozarks President Jerry C. Davis. “The fallen and their families, along with the Vietnam veterans, deserve a proper thank you.”

The official Missouri memorial on the campus of College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri took place April 22, 2015, with thousands of family, student and staff present. The dedication began with a “Call of Remembrance,” the music of a single bagpiper playing Amazing Grace in the distance.

Over 1,400 natives of Missouri who gave their lives during the Vietnam War had their names engraved on two walls of granite divided by a bronze statue representing the Vietnam War Veterans who returned home. The walls were unveiled by dignitaries during the ceremony who then placed wreaths at the base of the memorial. A 21-gun salute followed to signify and honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Opportunities for prayer and reflection were provided during the ceremony, musical numbers from the College’s choir were performed, and kindergartener’s from the S. Truett Cathy Lower School placed roses in front of the Vietnam Veteran Statue to commemorate the living.

“We want our younger students to understand the service and sacrifice of those who went to Vietnam,” Sue Head, dean of character of education said. The speaker for the ceremony was former U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, author, columnist and combat-decorated Marine.

Alumnus from the college and Vietnam veteran General Terrence R. Dake also addressed those gathered. At the ceremony’s end, family members of the fallen, and others who wanted to show their respect, placed single roses at the base of the walls. A reception immediately followed for those in attendance at the Keeter Center.

The Missouri Vietnam Veterans Memorial is open daily until 10PM and is located near the entrance of College of the Ozarks.

FOR contact information go to Links Page. For all news articles listed, visit the News Directory.

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