Healing waters: Vietnam river boat veterans find solace in Virginia reunion
By HUGH LESSIG | (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press | Published: September 11, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Ralph Fries choked up as the small boat pulled into the Hampton River. It was the kind of boat he fixed in Vietnam so “the kids” could ride out again and risk their lives.
They called him “Pops” back in 1967. He was 29 going on 30, all grown up.
Tuesday was sunny and peaceful, but as the boat picked up speed, Fries thought of life 51 years ago, half a world away, and how he worked to get those boats seaworthy.
“The hardest thing was cleaning the blood up,” he said. “That was on a daily basis.”
This week, Vietnam river boat veterans have gathered in downtown Hampton for their annual reunion. They’ll share stories, hold a memorial service and show off two restored PBR boats — it stands for patrol boat, riverine — docked at the city marina through Saturday morning.
The public is invited to check them out.
The veterans will be happy to share stories. They are home now, in more ways than one. They find solace in each other’s company and on revisiting those boats while surrounded by brothers in arms who know the dangers of that service. To put it in the parlance of a younger generation, they have found their safe space.
Tom Farrell is the president of the 458th Sea Tigers Association, which organized the reunion. It brings together the Army’s 458th Transportation Company while looping in the many Navy units that plied the shallow, dangerous waters of Vietnam. About 70 people are expected.
“It’s a healing thing,” Farrell said. “This goes back before gray hair, before arthritis.”
The veterans can swap stories and share tips about dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several suffer from complications due to Agent Orange. Others have wounds that can never be seen.
At a reunion several years ago, one veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder climbed aboard a PBR and his face broke into a wide grin, Farrell recalled.
“The big pressure was released,” he said. “He just needed to be back in a comfort zone before things got crazy, before he came home and had to deal with rejection.”
PBRs and their four-man crews conducted independent patrols and supported ground troops. The boats could rest in 2 feet of water and zip along at a brisk 25 knots. They were fragile but nimble. Later models like the one docked in Hampton were armed to the teeth, each with .50-caliber machine guns fore and aft, a grenade launcher, an M60 machine gun and various small arms.
Both the Army and the Navy used PBRs, although the Navy had far more of them, said Farrell.
According to the association, PBRs logged up to 70,000 patrol hours and participated in about 80 firefights per month. PBR sailors are a highly decorated group, including two Medal of Honor recipients and 14 who received the Navy Cross.
Tuesday’s boat ride came courtesy of Dennis Ambruso, a North Carolina resident who purchased the boat at an auction in 1991 and spent years restoring it. Water sprayed as he picked up speed, pulling away from the Hampton Marina Hotel and drawing curious looks from other boaters.
Fries sat down, taking it all in as water sprayed around him. A Navy warrant officer, he served 20 years before retiring in 1977. His job classification in Vietnam was warrant machinist, but he recalled doing more than that. He designed larger ammunition cases for the .50-caliber machine guns so the crews could fire longer without having to reload.
“I keep in pretty close contact with all the guys I served with, so I know their status,” he said. “That year in country never leaves you. It’s emotional. I would never miss something like this. It’s a healing point.”
“I left there 51-and-a-half years ago. What I seen over there, I don’t ever want displayed in this country.”