A Personal Collection of Vietnam War Poems (2024)

Photo by Mike Warlick

Here’s a collection of several short poems by a Brown Water Navy Lieutenant summarizing his year-long tour. Poetry is new to this website, so I’ve added a dedicated category to the main menu where you’ll find this post and others in the future. Worth a look!

Paul F. Bolinger was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy on the U.S.S. Brule AKL-28 homeported in Nha Be, Vietnam, in 1971. Nha Be was in the Rung Sat special zone. During the Vietnam War, the Rung Sat Special Zone was a strategic location due to its proximity to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and its challenging terrain, which made it a natural stronghold for the Viet Cong. The dense mangroves provided excellent cover and were used extensively for guerrilla warfare. It was an area where Agent Orange was heavily employed to move the jungle back from the river.

The Brule, part of ‘The Brown Water Navy,’ was a small transport that carried supplies up the Mekong River, stopping at outposts along the way. The ship traveled alone and spent nights along the river during its trips.

Nothing moved at night on the river unless it was trouble. To ward off swimmers with explosives, anti-swimmer grenades were constantly deployed all night long.

No poem from a sailor about Vietnam would be complete without thoughts on the river itself. The river, the delta in particular, was the focus of the in-country Navy operations. Of course, there was a considerable fleet offshore doing aircraft carrier operations and gunfire support. In-country, there were not that many Navy personnel.

The river was huge and spread out in the delta.

A River

The river is brown and flat and slow.

It seems to barely move, but that’s because it is so big

and so brown all over.

The river is longer than the Mighty Mississippi but

the Mississippi pours out more water than this river.

The Mississippi is cleaner

because it does not have all that sewage

and those floating bodies.

Let’s face it, the Mississippi does not have any dead water buffalo in it.

and fewer dead people.

This river is like the Mississippi, but it isn’t.

It is in the wrong place.

I don’t like it here.

They say PTSD can be the result of stress, significantly prolonged stress. I probably had PTSD, but we did not know that term until years after I got back. But I was stressed and afraid, as you see in this poem.

Afraid

Is it wrong to be afraid? Is it weak to be afraid?

Should I be embarrassed?

Not the kind of run-and-hide ‘til it’s over fear. That kind is visible. Palpable.

This is the ‘waiting on pins and needles every moment of the day and night because something might happen’ kind of fear.

Nebulous and surrounding.

Somebody wants to kill you.

Fear hangs on you like ill-fitted clothes in the humidity. Sticky and clinging. Nasty.

You want out.

Somebody wants to kill you.

Does it erode you from the inside?

Can this hurt you? Just the fear itself?

Somebody wants to kill you.

Guess time will tell.

When we were in the relative safety of our home base at Nha Be, sleep was no issue. But on the river, we tried not to sleep because we did not want to be surprised. It is tough to stay awake for several days. Daytime is OK, but at night, it is tough. They did have speedball pills that kept you awake, but once they wore off, you slept for a day or more.

Sleep

How the hell am I supposed to sleep when you keep throwing grenades into the water?

The speedball pills they give me help a lot, but I sometimes do just want to close my eyes for a while.

Do you really think someone is going to swim out and try to sink the boat?

I guess I do, too.

I hate the night.

Throw another grenade, just in case.

The river itself was pretty wide down in the delta. But there were canals we used to transit from one main river channel to another. These were narrow and damned scary. We would go to general quarters as we transitioned the canals, which meant we were topside, at least I was, and fully exposed. The canal could be as narrow as 100 feet, meaning you were standing about 40 feet from the bank as you moved through.

Canals

When does the river become a canal?

Why are the canals so narrow?

Why are the banks of the canals covered with jungle?

I’s scared when we go through the canals, and I must stand fully exposed, looking at the wall of

jungle on either side.

But you don’t think there is anybody in there do you?

Peek-a-boo with the pajama man.

Can’t we find another way back?

It is difficult to explain how brown everything was except the green ribbon on either side of the river.

Ground Zero

One good thing about the Navy and the river is there is no ground zero.

In fact, there is no ground at all.

On the river everything changes all the time.

But if that is true, why is everything so much the same here on the river?

I guess it is difficult for green and brown to become anything else.

Except maybe when they explode.

I did a stupid thing one day. This poem is about that stupid thing. After standing for an extended period with this thing on my shoulder, I gingerly tossed it over the side. Nothing happened.

A Rocket

There was this shoulder-fired rocket hanging on the bulkhead and I knew it had gone way past its use-by date.

Seemed like a fun thing to do – take it down and fire it.

Nobody behind me.

I took it off the bulkhead, set it up, put the safety off, got it onto my shoulder, pointed it over side above the river and pulled the trigger.

No joy. No sound at all. Nothing.

Now what do I do?

I can’t stand here all day.

Crap, crap, crap this was stupid.

In Saigon, there was a pier where larger ships could come in and load/offload. On one pier, there was a gigantic pile of broken vehicles of all sorts—trucks, jeeps, and other junk. It was supposed to be returned to the US, but I wonder.

Amazing Stuff

Where did all this stuff come from?

Broken trucks, broken jeeps, even a broken tank.

A pile of junk reaching higher than anything else around it.

It can’t get higher, so it has to get wider.

Like the United States box of broken toys. Overflowing.

What will happen to all this stuff?

I guess they want it back, but why?

There was a wreck in the river. Actually, more than one. But the one I remember was The Golden Dragon. Of course, we wanted to avoid hitting something like that or, worse yet, becoming something like that.

The Golden Dragon

Always a foreboding sight to round the bend on the Mekong and see the Golden Dragon

on the river bottom.

Abandoned and rotting. Her name still visible.

Even resting on the bottom, she could ruin a ship that ran into her in the dark.

Why there?

How? Who?

A landmark.

Go up the river until you see the Golden Dragon, then you’ll know you are getting close.

Turn left at the Golden Dragon? Turn right at the Golden Dragon?

Turn around at the Golden Dragon and go back to where you came from.

It made me shiver to see her and wonder and then be thankful it was not us

left to rust out alone in the muddy water.

The was a snake man with a huge snake, probably a boa, around his neck. He had no legs, which was fairly common; at least, it was common to see one-legged men. He sat on a roller board and had wooden knuckle guards he used to push his conveyance along the ground.

The Snake Man of Vung Tau

On the street outside the bar.

The bar where the Americans drank. Probably the French before them.

On a board that had wheels.

No legs. But knuckle boards ready to propel.

A huge snake wrapped around his neck.

Moving and flicking its tongue.

Have your picture taken with the Snake Man?

An excuse to give him money and preserve any dignity that was still there.

Would you kneel beside him for a shot?

Maybe stand behind him?

Which side did he consider to be his best side?

There was a surprise drug test required before anyone could leave the country. It was a requirement because of all the junkies that had returned to the US from Vietnam. The problem was, what do you do with someone who has a drug problem? The obvious answer years later was “not enough.”

Drug Test

What do you mean I have to take a drug test before I can leave Vietnam and go home?

There wasn’t one required before I came here.

Do you think something happened to me while I was here?

Did I start using drugs here?

Of course, you don’t want a bunch of drug-fueled vets on your streets at home.

They’re useful here, but I see your point.

That could cause problems.

*****

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A Personal Collection of Vietnam War Poems (2024)
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