Not all experiences during the Vietnam War were unpleasant. There were a few “pleasant” experiences when I was in Vietnam during those days; days that ended on a high note. One might get the idea, from the glut of stories and movies that arose out of that war, that everything which occurred during that peculiar time was either horrific or life threatening. That was not quite the case. There were brighter moments; moments that were still frightening, dangerous and thought-provoking, but in another way.
While stationed in Cam Ranh Bay, I was an LCM-6 boat captain. My chief
function was to transport the local Vietnamese who worked at the Cam Ranh Bay Naval Support Facility (NSF) to and from their village each day. Those were the cooks, gardeners, painters and housekeepers, all of the jobs deemed too menial for regular Navy guys. The few who spoke English worked in the PX or the enlisted club.
It was a 45- to 60-minute ride from the base, across the wide expanse of picturesque Cam Ranh Bay, to the small village of Bagnoi (Bah-Noy). I did this twice a day, every other week; just me and one crew member. We alternated weeks with another boat crew. Roughly fifty workers were carried on each trip. Our morning run was at 5:30 AM and the evening run, to return the workers to their village, was at 5 PM. In the interim hours I was the base diver, doing odd diving jobs in the bay or in the areas surrounding the bay, up and down the central coast of Vietnam.
One day, around three in the afternoon, I was summoned to the infirmary. When I arrived, I was greeted by a U.S. Navy doctor, who informed me that he wanted me to take a young pregnant Vietnamese woman across the bay to her village. He said that it was time for her to stop working at the base, but, “don’t worry,” he said, “she was not due for at least another two weeks.”
I was told to take the Lighter, Amphibious Resupply Cargo (LARC), which was a huge, balloon-tired, amphibious boat/truck, as it would be more comfortable for the woman. A “lighter" is an open barge or boat used to load or unload ships offshore, or to transport goods for short distances in shallow water. I was one of only two men on the base certified to operate it.
I looked around for someone to go with me, as a crewman. The only individual I could find who wasn’t otherwise occupied, was a sailor named Henderson. He was a bit inebriated from hanging around the Enlisted Club all afternoon, but he was available. It appeared to be a simple task, requiring little of him or me; just drive the young lady across the bay, up onto the makeshift road, over to the village medical hut, then return. What could go wrong?
Henderson and I helped the young mother-to-be up onto the LARC and headed down to the waterfront. I drove off the road, over the beach, into the water, and when deep enough, switched the controls into marine mode. This allowed the propellers to turn, instead of the rear wheels, and slowly, the three of us headed across the bay. A LARC’s top speed in the water was close to seven knots, as opposed to my LCM, which could do double that speed.
About a quarter of the way across the bay, I noticed that Henderson was either passed out, or sleeping, on the front seat next to me. The young lady was reclining on the rear seat. Suddenly she reached up and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and her pretty, coffee-colored, almond-shaped eyes stared into mine. In soft broken English, she said to me, “Baby come now.” I didn’t know how to respond, so initially I ignored her. She was determined and quite motivated, though, and tapped me once again on the shoulder. This time, she said in a noticeably louder, more informative voice, “BABY COME NOW!!” with a discernible emphasis on “NOW!”
OK, I admit it, I was stumped. I had no idea as to what to do, or how to react to this situation. So I shook Henderson awake. As he approached consciousness, he looked at me through his scotch-induced stupor.
I said matter-of-factly, but with a slight air of authority, “Henderson, go deliver this girl’s baby.”
Henderson squinted his eyes, smirked and told me to go f*** myself.
I said, “Hey, I’m the boat captain. Go deliver the baby!”
He then explained to me, with somewhat slurred speech, that he should drive the boat, and I should deliver the baby, because he was in no condition to do anything that “technical.” I saw that this was not getting us anywhere, and I sensed that the young lady was becoming noticeably impatient with our bickering, so I relinquished the helm to Henderson, and climbed into the back seat. She was a couple of years younger than me, about 17 or 18, and very slightly built, like most Vietnamese, except for her cantaloupe-sized belly.
I looked around for some blankets or towels, or anything soft, (they always did that in the movies), but all I could find were orange kapok life vests. I spread some of them out on the aluminum seat and helped her lay down. She laid her head back on two more of the vests that I had propped up as a make-shift pillow.
She somehow got across to me, using mostly body language and hand gestures, that she had one child already, and assured me that she had a good idea as to what was supposed to happen. I think that was what she was trying to tell me. I hoped that was what she was trying to tell me. I was counting on her guidance. I lifted her left foot up onto the top of the seat back, and placed her right foot beside the seat onto the floor. I positioned myself between her splayed legs…and, together, we waited. She started to have, what I learned later, were contractions.
Soon, a transformation took place. Her teeth gritted, her eyes closed tightly, her chest began to rise and fall quickly, and she squeezed my hand hard; much harder than I would have thought her small delicate hands were capable of. I watched her push. Low guttural moans emanated from deep within her. Her breathing came in contorted gasps. My eyes were agape. I saw something happening. I saw the top of a baby’s head, or what I presumed and wished was a baby’s head. Then I thought, you idiot, of course it’s a baby’s head. What else could be in there? I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was amazing, creepy, frightening and beautiful, all at the same time. This ethereal, mesmerizing moment was shattered abruptly, though, when a gallon or so of some type of fluid squirted and oozed out of her, all over me and the life jackets. I was disgusted.
A couple of minutes or so after this, the baby’s entire head made an appearance. It was like being in a National Geographic film. I knew enough to put my hands under the baby’s head to catch it. She made another few grunting noises, and only moments later, the baby squirted out of her like a wet bar of soap out of a squeezing fist. I caught it. There was a great deal of blood, and…other stuff. Soon after her initial expulsion (the baby), something else slid out of her, attached to the tube that emanated from the baby’s belly.
Now, at that particular point in my life, I was completely unaware of the existence of placentas. I thought something was going seriously wrong. Seemingly important parts were falling out of her. Was I supposed to try to put them back in? I screamed at Henderson, “Hey, what the hell is this?”
He turned around, gazed into the back seat, held back a gag, and just said, “Oh, shit!”, then turned back around and continued driving the LARC.
I told Henderson to give me his shirt. Without argument, and without turning, he passed it back over the seat. I wrapped the baby, and all of the extra parts, gently into the shirt, and handed the bundle to the mother. Henderson found a relatively clean rag in the front of the boat and tossed it back to me. I soaked it with some of the drinking water we had on the LARC and gently brushed it across the mother’s forehead and face; she was sweating profusely. I gave her a drink, then wet the rag again and took the baby from her. Very tenderly, and very softly, I cleansed the now crying baby as well as I could, and handed her back to her mother.
I asked her if she was all right, using only international body language. I smiled, arched my eyebrows, spread my arms wide, with palms up, and slowly shook my head up and down, hopefully showing her that I expected a response. She dazedly smiled back up at me, with pretty much the same look that Henderson had exhibited earlier. How funny, I thought, to find myself with two people buzzed in such totally different ways, for totally different reasons. Clutching her baby tightly to her chest, she smiled softly and shook her head up and down. I took that as a signal that she was ok, and as well as could be expected, under the circumstances.
Twenty minutes later, we reached Bagnoi and drove the LARC out of the water, much to the shock and amazement of those locals that were nearby watching. They had never seen a boat become a truck and head off down the road. The new mother guided me to the local medical center. We dropped her off and she gave me a soft kiss on my cheek and softly rubbed the palm of her right hand down the side of my face, as she was carried away.
We headed back to the base. Henderson was semi-conscious all the way, mumbling something about me owing him a shirt. I was as high as I had ever felt, euphoric at the thought of new life, in a place where I had witnessed so much life come to abrupt, violent ends. Yes, truly one of the “up” days.