They answer to “river rats.” And to “brown water sailors.” But truth be told, they are the unsung heroes of the Vietnam War.
And today, they go by the title of Gamewardens.
Floating along the rivers of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam from 1966 to 1970 and some beyond that date, they were charged with interrupting the supply lines of the Viet Cong. That was their official role as warranted by the Pentagon, who, by the way, named them: Navy Task Force 116: Operation Gamewarden. But as Steve Summrall, Robert Brower, Al Stephens and Jan Gilbertson tell, they did much more than that.
In their high-speed fiberglass Mark II PT boats, they patrolled the rivers, looking for anything that seemed out of order. It could be fire fights with the North Viet Cong, or interrupting South Vietnamese men fleeing from having to serve in the war, or even villagers needing help.
“They were really unique boats for their time,” said Summrall. “They were light weight and they could travel in shallow water. These rivers were shallow at spots and because some of the channels were only about as wide as the boats were long, they needed to be able to more fast. These boats could turn around on a dime.”
The Mark II followed the Mark I, the original boat used by Operation Gamewarden. They were fitted with guns and grenade launchers and their engines were converted with jet drives.
Each boat had a crew of four, and they only traveled in pairs, but they were on the water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The crew would serve 12-hour patrols for three nights, followed by three day time shifts. They patrolled 4,000 miles of the Mekong Delta. About 4,400 Navy and some Army served in the operation and there were 1,200 casualties and 500 killed.
Summrall, Brower, Stephens and Gilbertson can tell tales of how they were fired upon, how those serving next to them were injured, about grenades launched by the enemy landing in the river boats. But some of their favorite stories were about the “good works” they were able to do.
“We befriended the villagers, so that they trusted us and would share information,” Summrall said. “We were called the ambulance on the river and we transported villagers to nearby hospitals. And we took nurses and doctors to the villages to give medical help.”
He recalled an ambush where 34 children in a village were injured and had to be transported to the hospital via boat.
While the four men didn’t know each other when they served, they are now all members of the Northwest Chapter of the Gamewardens Association. The chapter is one of five throughout the U.S. that are dedicated to preserving the work and the memory of those who served as Gamewardens in Vietnam, and beyond.
The group has about 35 active members and is based in Chehalis where they keep the river boat that they have restored by hand. The group takes the boat out to share it with the public in parades and at events. They will share it in the Armed Forces Day Parade this year, as they have in past years.
Keeping history alive and creating monuments to the work they did is part of their mission. But as Al Stephens said, there’s more to it.
“For years, I didn’t talk about what I saw in Vietnam,” he said. “But when I found this group, I met others who saw the same things. I was able to talk about it with the guys I met in the Gamewardens.”
And, when he recently lost his wife, his fellow Gamewardens were there for him.
Summrall was with Navy River Patrol Sec 532, FTG3, from February 1967 to March 1968. He kept all the guns on the boats operational and went on 226 patrols, was under fire 19 times and did 36 medical evacuations.
Brower was with the 458th Transportation PBR Co./ Cat Lo RVN, boat captain from 1969 to 1970. He was one of the Army soldiers who served in the task force and escorted boats in and out of the area. He also was assigned to the removal of land mines.
Stephens was with the NAS Binh thuy VN Group 212, YRBM 20, EN2, 1969 to 1970. He worked as a mechanic and kept the boats operational. But he also spent time on the river patrols.
Gilbertson was with the River Division 532 Mekong River December 1967 to December 1968. He was a senior patrol officer and scheduled shifts that would be on the river.
The organization also does charitable work through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They meet monthly and they are working to restore another river boat.
The group accepts members from the Vietnam War-era to the present, including those who served on the Tigris River in Iraq. And there’s an associate membership for those who support the organization, but who didn’t serve.
Besides promoting the organization, appearing in parades is important to the members for another reason.
“When we came home from Vietnam, we weren’t greeted very well,” said Brower. “There was no celebration.”
Summrall added that by being in the parades, they are finally getting a public “thank you.”
“People yell up to us ‘Thank you for your service. We love you,’” Summrall said. “It’s brought me to tears. It’s an acknowledgment of the sacrifices we made. We’re finally getting some appreciation.”
Information about the group can be found at www.gamewardensnw.org.
Leslie Kelly is special sections editor for Sound Publishing’s Kitsap News Group.
This story originally appeared in the Armed Forces 2017 Festival Guide, a special section published on May 19 in the Bainbridge Island Review.