Somewhere Along the River

By Sue Mayfield-Geiger

The Nhà Bè River empties into the East Sea some twelve miles northeast of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy assigned PBR (Patrol Boat River) boats to patrol several rivers in Vietnam to protect South Vietnam and its inhabitants from the Viet Cong.

My husband was a PBR captain from 1967-68, and he has spoken many times about his hours spent on the rivers, particularly Nhà Bè. Yes, there was a war going on, and yes, the PBR boats were skimpy, to say the least, with very little protection. The Mark I was a mere 31 feet in length that lacked sufficient armor or shielding. And yes, he witnessed death, injury and was involved in several gun battles.

Yet, when I ask him from time to time if he could go anywhere in the world on vacation, he says, “The Nhà Bè River.”

Many people might think that is a very warped and strange answer, but to me, it isn’t. Mainly because of the stories my husband has relayed to me. When we think of war, we conjure up thoughts of grizzly encounters with the enemy, landmines, bombs, air strikes, death, destruction and unfathomable events – it becomes a taboo subject. It becomes the elephant in the room; the subject to avoid.

The other side of war involves the innocent – those who are just trying to live their lives in peace. Those who are victims. Those who are caught in the middle. Those who are just trying to stay alive. Those are the people my husband talks about the most.

The villagers along the banks of Nhà Bè were the innocents. They lived in pole houses above the river or simply in shanties on the river’s bank. They were primarily fishermen, and their means of making a living for their families had become difficult due to the war.

These villagers were now dependent on the U.S. military (particularly the Navy) to keep them out of harm’s way. So, the PBR personnel were not just fighting for their own lives, but those of the innocent river people who were just trying to live a peaceful existence.

The tropical jungles of Vietnam are actually quite lush and beautiful says my husband. The rivers are full of fish, providing the villagers with an occupation and means to feed their families.

Some of my husband’s most memorable experiences during his time on Nhà Bè were meeting these families who invited him and his crew into their homes for a meal of fish and rice.

Imagine climbing up a ladder into a wooden pole house built above water with a curtain that exists for a door. Imagine walking inside where there is no furniture – just a few thatched mats for sleeping; where there is no kitchen – just a battered wok over a wood fire; where there is no electricity – just a candle and certainly no television.

Yet within the sparsity of that environment, there is a family consisting of a mother, father, grandparents and three to four small children, and they all have smiles on their faces because they are happy to see the boat crew, but more importantly, they are happy among themselves. They have no material accouterments, and they have never once complained about their steady diet of fish and rice.

These are the good memories of war that my husband carries in his heart. These are the memories that sustain him, and these are the memories that he chooses to focus upon. Yes, there is that ugly part of war that lingers in the background, but it is those villagers that kept my husband sane and eager to fight for their rights.

The PBR guys have reunions every two years at various places across the United States. They are getting older now and many of them, who were not killed in action, are battling PTSD and physical ailments. Some have made return trips back to Vietnam, but they say it’s not the same.

For my husband, he has not expressed a desire to return to Saigon or the other major cities that are now pristine with no signs of the destruction from the war era.

But he would like to see the Nhà Bè River and perhaps reunite with a few of the families who may still be there. Because to him, the taste of fish and rice was never so sweet as when he sat down with those families and felt their gratitude. More than that, he says, it was the genuine love they had between themselves as a family who were able to smile and band together in the midst of all the chaos that was happening around them.

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    7 Responses to “Somewhere Along the River”

    1. Excellent piece! And refreshing to have a good memory from an unpopular war. In the end, in any war, there are relationships made, friendships created out of nothing but hope and need.

      Congrats, Sue.

    2. Lovely piece of writinf by Sue Mayfield-Geiger. It brings to min my experience in the Peace Corps in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in the mid 1960’s. The nights beneath a million stars, drinking sweet tea with the beautiful, humble nomads, the sounds of their camels and goats settling down the the night, a thousand miles from anywhere. It restoreth the soul.

    3. kat Joel says:

      Thank you for sharing such insight to a very tragic time. This writers way with words had me visiting the river myself. Thank you. Beautifully written, a beautiful story. May her husband be forever thanked for his missions. Bless you.

    4. Rose Ann says:

      Such a complicated war in our history. Appreciation to your husband for serving our country and his empathy for the innocent. Kudos for being able to “sort out” the beauty of the country and its people at that terrible and heartbreaking time!

    5. Linda O'Connell says:

      What a powerful story this is, shedding light on this portion of the “conflict.” Thanks to your husband, a true humanitarian.

    6. christina smith says:

      What a touching story. Even though I am a foreigner in this country and the Americans bombed our home and we lost everything I am at present out collecting money for Wreath across American for wreath to be places on the graves of
      Americans that died to keep this country free. I am probably one of the best Americans I know, because I can fully appreciate what this country is all about. GOD BLESS AMERICAN AND THE AMERICAN PEOPLE especially your husband who helped make this country great.

    7. Lovely piece of writing by Sue Mayfield-Geiger. It brings to mind my experience in the Peace Corps in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in the mid 1960’s. The nights beneath a million stars, drinking sweet tea with the beautiful, humble nomads, the sounds of their camels and goats settling down the the night, a thousand miles from anywhere. It restoreth the soul.

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