In 1969-70, I was a Navy lieutenant and senior advisor to River Assault and Interdiction Division 72 (RAID 72). That was a South Vietnamese riverboat force of about 100 RVN officers and sailors operating 21 boats that had been transferred from the U.S. Mobile Riverine Force under the Vietnamization program. These boats were mainly sluggish, heavily armed boats designed to carry troops into battles on the streams and canals of the Mekong Delta.
One of the seven American enlisted advisors who served under me had earned the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry Award. That sailor happened to be temporarily away on R&R when the award was due to be presented.
There was a problem with this award, however. “Must be present to win!” should have been the official caveat for receiving it.
We operated in the Rung U-Minh (Dark Forest) area where there were large forces of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. Aside from mean little people shooting at you and sinking boats with IEDs, life was basically just very uncomfortable there. It was always hot and humid, or pouring down rain. Clouds of mosquitoes, bred in the thousands of water filled bomb craters, swarmed around you at night, making sitting quietly on ambush in the dark absolutely miserable. Personal hygiene was difficult because the only available water was the canal around you, which doubled as a sewer. There was a reason it was called the "Brown Water Navy."
After a few weeks there, fatigue uniforms were rumpled, hair was too long, and bodies were covered in mud. We sought clean streams to wash in, but that required a major armed force to tramp around in the dangerous jungle. Though we were Navy, we wore U.S. Marine fatigues, the cap of which had the Marine insignia front and center. It was exasperating for Marine officers with buzz haircuts, arriving by helicopter in starched, pressed uniforms and shined boots, to see Americans in their uniforms looking more like pirates than sailors.
However, we did our job well, killing many more of the bad guys than they killed of our good guys. One of our best was Gunners Mate 3rd Class Dave Bell (Center of picture with me standing in khakis to his left and Vriesenga in fatigues to the far left). He was no relation to me; his family had changed their name from Bellucci when they arrived from Italy. Dave was popular among the Vietnamese because he had killed six or seven VC in a firefight. His boat had happened upon them while rounding a bend in a stream.
Crossing the stream in a motorized sampan, the VC had not heard Bell’s boat approaching. The noise of their own engine was their undoing. Seeing the Vietnamese navy boat, they had immediately opened fire, but Dave hosed them all down John Wayne fashion with an M-60 machine gun at his hip.
For this action, the Vietnamese recommended GMG3 Bell for award of the Cross of Gallantry. This was a big deal because advisors were not in a good position to gather awards. They operated one American to about every four or five boats. No American was present to observe any heroics by an advisor, only the Vietnamese themselves. The Cross of Gallantry was their highest award and was not given out lightly.
If you were scheduled to be presented the award on a certain day at a certain place, you would never receive it if you could not be there. The Vietnamese made no effort to track you down or to forward the award to U.S. officials. I had personally learned this the hard way by being on my one week of R&R in Hawaii with my family when I was to have received a Cross of Gallantry for a different battle.
I was not concerned. In fact, a U.S. Marine major, a witness to and beneficiary of my actions, had recommended me for a Bronze Star. Being the only American around in his fight, Petty Officer Bell was not so lucky. His only hope of recognition for his bravery and intrepidity was that Cross of Gallantry. However, it was his misfortune also to be on R&R when the award was to be presented at the headquarters of the 21st ARVN Division in Bac Lieu.
What to do? What to do? I ordered another advisor, Engineman 2nd Class Tom Vriesenga, to pretend to be Dave Bell and to go to Bac Lieu to receive Bell’s medal. Tom wore one of my blouses, embroidered “Bell” and “U.S. Navy” over the right and left breast pockets, respectively. No one was likely to challenge his identity wearing that blouse with a 3rd class petty officer insignia instead of my lieutenant bars. He was not impersonating an officer, just a fellow petty officer.
The scheme worked better than I had expected. Petty Officer Vriesenga received Bell’s award from the 21st ARVN commander, Major General Nguyen Vinh Nghi, himself. Tom returned to the operation area and presented me with two properly embroidered blouses, neatly starched and pressed. I asked, “Two!?” Tom replied, “When I got there wearing your blouse, the Army colonel there shouted, ‘You can’t go to an award ceremony wearing a piece of crap uniform like that!’ They gave me a brand new uniform with your name on it.”
We had our own ceremony for Dave when he returned from R&R. I wore a new uniform that I had received from the scam.
I never received my own Cross of Gallantry. Do you think the current government there would track it down for me?