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Douglas Hlousek

Douglas Hlousek Unnerving. That’s what comes to mind when I think back to what started out as a typical spring day in 1966, and then, as it often does in wartime, turned out to be anything but typical.

It was a clear sunny morning in the Gulf of Thailand and my crew of nine and myself (being commanding officer) were patrolling the west coast of Phu Quoc island aboard USCGC Point Garnet, an 82-foot patrol boat.

We routinely monitored the Army radio while on patrol, in addition to our normal radio, and suddenly we intercepted a call for help from a Green Beret patrol on the island. We were the only responders to take the call and little did we know this would be the ultimate test of trust.

Surrounded by a deep, unforgiving jungle, the Green Berets were only eight miles from their home base when their routine patrol took a turn for the worse; they were suddenly surrounded by the Viet Cong ‒ the enemy! After establishing good communications with the sergeant in charge of the patrol, we agreed to his request to use our 81-mm mortar to provide fire support to guide the men out of the jungle.

Our crew had never anchored to fire before when conducting a gunfire support mission, but as the commanding officer I knew that walking the Green Berets out of their entrapment while underway would not work. Because of the wind and wave direction, we were pitching and rolling. Knowing that it was critical that our fire was accurate, we went in as close as we safely could to the beach, which was enemy territory, and dropped anchor. Then we slowly turned the boat until we could secure the anchor line to our stern. At that point, the 81-mm mortar mounted on our bow faced the shore so we could have a more stable platform.

We told the sergeant that we were ready.

We fired the first round he requested ‒ a phosphorous round, normally highly visible.

The sergeant called out some adjustments and we fired the second round.

The sergeant then informed us that, because of the all-encompassing thick jungle, he could not see any of the rounds fired. However, he was fine with what he was hearing and we continued firing as he called out adjustments after each round, instructing us to drop so many meters and so many meters left or right, slowly walking them toward safety.

My boatswain’s mate used a palm tree on the beach as a target in order for the direction of each round to be consistent. After hearing the sergeant’s adjustment calls, I had to calculate the settings for the mortar before the next shot could be fired, and time my command to “shoot” so that the boatswain’s mate would get his shot off just as the boat reached the top of a roll and was “level.” Fortunately, the stern anchoring reduced the pitch to a non-factor!

At this point the sergeant asked us to fire behind the patrol because he was concerned that the Vietcong were going to close and attack from behind. This was a particularly risky task for us, as the patrol was located a mile inland from us; the mortar fires up in an arch, subject to the whims of the wind which had become blustery and was blowing at an angle to the patrol’s location. We were relying on the sergeant’s ear alone, and we had the movement of the ship to contend with. The situation immediately became more critical, as we did not want any “friendly fire” incidents! The sergeant assured me that he was taking everything into account to make sure the rounds passed over his position, and trusted that we would continue with the accuracy we had been displaying.

After 78 rounds over a period of 90 minutes the Green Berets reached safety, thanks to the sergeant’s fine-tuned ear, and his trust in our fire support abilities. We hauled the anchor and were off, back on our patrol. Almost immediately, our nerves caught up with our activities, and the 81-mm crew and I felt like we had been hit by a truck!

Unnerving; after the fact, when we all realized what had been at stake every time we fired a round!

Once again we came together as a well-disciplined crew successfully performing another job that our extensive training prepared us for. The sergeant trusted us to lead his patrol to safety, because he trusted his ear and knew that the Coast Guard was trained to perform missions under adverse conditions. We did not disappoint him!