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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Sept. 15, 2023

The Long Blue Line: Villarreal - Silver Star savior of Vietnam 55 years ago

By Engineman Larry D. Villarreal, U.S. Coast Guard, 1965-69 Cmdr. Peter Rascoe, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (retired) William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Atlantic Area Historian, U.S. Coast Guard

During the Vietnam War, the 82-foot “Point”-Class cutters of Coast Guard Squadron One supported small boat missions in Vietnam’s shallow inland waters. These small boat operations often entered enemy-held territory under the watchful eye of Viet Cong guerillas. For small boat crews, these missions brought new meaning to the old Coast Guard motto, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” 

In the early morning of Jan. 22, 1969, Engineman Second Class Larry D. Villarreal and Gunner’s Mate First Class Willis J. Goff were serving as crewmembers aboard Coast Guard Cutter Point Banks (WPB-82327). At the time, Point Banks was based out of Cat Lo, South Vietnam, performing Market Time patrols in the South China Sea. At approximately 1 a.m., the crew of Point Banks received a message stating that nine South Vietnamese Army personnel were trapped on a beach promontory by two platoons of Viet Cong guerillas, who had the friendly forces surrounded on three sides. The plight of the nine men was desperate. They were out-gunned, out-manned and had no landward escape route. 

Known as a “skimmer” by some Vietnam cuttermen, or “bait” by others, the small boats used by the 82-foot cutters were 14-foot fiberglass Boston Whalers the size of a large dinghy. Weapons for these missions included a dismounted M-60 machine gun with bandoliers of extra rounds and M-16 automatic rifles. A well-worn flak vest and World War II-vintage battle helmet provided the only protection from automatic weapons fire or rocket propelled grenades. In addition, the Whaler was powered by a weak unarmored 35-horsepower outboard motor mounted well above the waterline, making it vulnerable to enemy fire. 

What follows is excerpted from a telephone interview with Mr. Villarreal in which he recounted his experiences the night he saved the nine South Vietnamese Army personnel from certain death. The interview was recorded Jan. 22, 2010, by Cmdr. Peter Rascoe, Coast Guard Reserve.

Peter Rascoe: So, there was one mission in January of 1969 at night, and I believe your CO got a call. 

Larry Villarreal: Yeah. We got a call that some Army personnel were stranded on a beach. Actually surrounded. They had no means of escape except by sea, and we were the closest 82 to their position. So, we went up to see if we could help, and it was just too shallow to get the 82 in. Before we arrived, there were a couple of Navy Swift Boats on the scene, and it was too shallow at that particular spot for them to get ashore. And, by this time, it was like - oh, I don’t know - one or two in the morning. So, our CO asked for a couple deadheads to volunteer to get in the small boat and see if they could extract them that way. So, Jerry Goff, who was a gunner’s mate, and myself said, “Oh, we’ll go.” We stuck our hands up, you know, and thinking, oh, gosh, this is—yeah, we can go get them. So, we just hopped down in the small boat. Jerry took an M-60 machine gun with a couple of bandoliers of ammunition, just in case. I was coxswain. I ran the small boat, and we went into the beach to see if we could get them out. 

Rascoe: Could I ask you a question? Going back to the 82, did the CO—I take it, at first, did you think they were United States Army personnel? 

Villarreal: Yeah. At first, we thought they were U.S. Army, and it wasn’t until—actually, we got almost away from the 82 when they told us, “oh, by the way, they’re Vietnamese, South Vietnamese troops. 

Rascoe: Mm-hmm. 

Villarreal: And Jerry and I looked at each other, and we thought, well, okay, I guess, we’ll go get them too. At that time, it was too late to do anything anyway. They had no other way to get out of there, so we went ahead and went on in. Not knowing their position, they were supposed to shine a light. We had radio contact with them, and they were supposed to shine a light to show us their position. And after we got in a ways, I really don’t remember how far off the beach we were, maybe - I don’t know - a couple hundred yards, if that, and they shined a light. And, the Viet Cong, they had them cornered, had lights also, and they shined two more lights. So, we had three lights to pick from, and we didn’t know what to do at that time. And the closer we got to the beach - the moon was out if I remember rightly. I remember we could see a little rock jetty sticking out from the beach, and we thought, well, if we were cornered, we’d be there, as far away from the jungle as we could get from the brush. So, we headed there, to that light, and, fortunately, we picked the right one. 

Rascoe: And what were the seas like during that time, Larry? 

Villarreal: The seas were fairly rough. It threw the little 14-foot Boston Whaler around pretty regularly. I don’t know. It probably had maybe a foot-and-a-half, two-foot breakers hitting the beach, maybe a foot and a half, but rough enough to slam us up against the rocks pretty violently. 

Rascoe: You mentioned the Swift Boats, and, of course, the 82 was there, and was there air cover as well? 

Villarreal: Not at first. The air cover came—oh, if I remember it rightly, it came on the second trip. We had to make two trips because we just couldn’t get them all in the small boat. But there were two Navy Swift Boats, and they had armament of .50 calibers, twin .50 on a mount above their little bridge, and .50 on the fantail. And, of course, we were - the 82 was sitting there parallel to the beach. So, there were three .50s pointing at the shore from our boat and the other two Swift Boats, and they were providing what they called “cover fire.” [Laughter.] I don’t know what they were shooting at, but there was a lot of .50-caliber traces going over our head, just feet above our head. Sometimes it felt like inches. So, there was a lot of gun fire from our side, and I was practically more afraid to get hit by one of them than the small arms fire that we received from the beach. I’d rather get hit by a .30 caliber than a .50 caliber. [Laughter.] That scared the pants off of us. So, we got down as low as we could and hit the beach, and all of them came running out from what cover they had, trying to get in the small boat. Of course, there were no means of communication with them because, obviously, they were Vietnamese, and Jerry kindly - kindly helped as many in the boat as we thought we could handle. 

Rascoe: Now, you say kindly. Tell me - 

Villarreal: Kindly, like over his shoulder. He would grab them and just basically throw them over his shoulder to get them in the boat, so we could get out of there as quick as we could. We didn’t want to make a big fancy boarding process. 

Rascoe: Now, let me ask you about that, though. You couldn’t communicate with them, but, obviously, half of them were standing there. Was there any panic, or were they trying to get on the boat regardless? 

Villarreal: They were all trying to get on the boat, yeah, of course. We just had our bow into the jetty, into the rocks, so we wouldn’t get swamped sideways. So, they all couldn’t - you know, they couldn’t get on all at once. They had to sort of line up, but they were pushing and shoving, and we got in as many as we thought we could carry, which is I think we got five of them the first trip. And that made seven of us in the 14-footer, and that was - that was four too many, as far as I was concerned. It just about swamped us, and Jerry had to push the rest of them away, so we could back out. And that was - backing out from the jetty with that many people in the small boat and the seas that were there, it just practically swamped us. On the way back out to the 82, it was a long process because it was - we could have almost rowed that far, that fast. It was a very slow trip because we just were way overloaded. Actually, it did swamp us, but, fortunately, that’s unsinkable. 

Rascoe: One last question about Jerry. Did he have to show force to keep them back? 

Villarreal: Yeah. Yeah. He had to physically show some force, and I don’t know - I think he might have picked up his M-60 and kind of let them know that that was enough. 

Rascoe: Okay. So now we’re almost back at the 82 with a fully loaded 14-foot Boston Whaler. Seas are about a foot and a half, 2-feet, and there’s still fire going on overhead. 

Villarreal: Still fire going on overhead, more so because they knew where we were - I mean our boat knew where we were and where we picked them up. So, they could kind of steer their fire not right on that spot, in other words. 

Rascoe: Mm-hmm. 

Villarreal: But they were still - they still firing over our heads to see if they could, you know, push back some of the small-arms fire coming from the beach. 

Rascoe: So, what happened when you got back to the 82? 

Villarreal: We got back in and got them out of the boat, which was pretty well swamped, and Underwood hollered down at us to get out of the boat and come back on board. He said he didn’t want us to go back in and - I don’t know. We, Jerry, and I looked at each other and thought, you know, boy, those guys are pretty well stuck, and we kind of, sort of communicated to them we’d come back. So, we just decided to go back in, and Underwood really didn’t want us to go. He said this is enough. He says that’s too big a chance to take because they know where you are and they know you’re going to come back, and we want - we want you here. But we went back anyway. 

Rascoe: At this point, did you notice any air cover? 

Villarreal: At that point, they finally did arrive. It was a - I believe they called them like a “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It was a DC-3 with a [M-134] Minigun [mounted] in the side door. I had never seen one of those before or heard of them. They circled overhead as tight a pattern as they could fly, firing this minigun down practically on top of us after we got into the beach, because, you know, from several hundred feet - I don’t know how high they were, but they were sort of guessing, I guess. On the way in, I just remember the tracers out of that minigun. It would fire thousands of rounds a minute, and, of course, every third or fifth round was a tracer. And it just looked like - it just looked like a laser beam coming down, and I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that. 

Rascoe: Now, you pulled up to the jetty again? 

Villarreal: We pulled up to the jetty, and the seas must have picked up a little bit because, in trying to get in through the rocks, it washed us sideways and washed us up on a big flat rock. And we were - I don’t know. We bottomed out on it, of course. The top hit this rock, killed the engine, and we just kind of sat there on top of this rock. So, Jerry was busy shooting into the beach with the M-60, so I jumped out and fortunately was able to wait for a next wave to help float it off and pushed it off the rock. Hopped back in and restarted the engine, thank heaven, and made it over to the jetty where the other four were. 

Rascoe: Did you ever think that the engine might not start? 

Villarreal: [Laughter.] Yeah. After about the fourth or fifth pull, I’m thinking - I’m thinking maybe [Cutter CO] Underwood was right, we shouldn’t have done this. I had the fear that when he hit the rock the shear pin had broken in the propeller to the shaft, and the engine might start but might not go anywhere, because when it hit, it really made a loud [noise]. So, fortunately, it started, and I shoved it up in gear, and it took off. And we headed back around to the side of the jetty, out to the front, because we had been kind of washed towards the beach from the jetty. We weren’t very far from the beach, maybe 50-feet, and we took back off up and went around the side and up to the point of the jetty to get the other four. They came running out to where we were after we got there and threw down their weapons and whatever they were carrying and scrambled onto the boat and practically swamped us again. Obviously, there were six of us in there. We backed out and got out of there as quickly as that little 35 [horsepower] would carry us, which wasn’t very quick. 

Rascoe: And still tracers going overhead, right? 

Villarreal: Still tracers, yeah. I don’t know how many rounds they went through with the .50 calibers. I just wouldn’t even hesitate to guess. Practically constant fire. By that time, of course, the .50 calibers, you fire them too long at one time and it will heat the barrels. 

Rascoe: Mm-hmm. 

Villarreal: And once they got a little hot, they would practically warp. They would expand and actually warp a little bit. And when the projectile come out of the muzzle, they might want to go sideways or we could see them picking up circles, like zoom this way and zoom that way, going every which way. And I’m thinking, oh, as long as they zoom up, we’ll be all right, because they were just barely over our heads. Boy, I was really afraid that we were going to get hit by our own friendly fire. 

Rascoe: One last question about the fire, were you still aware of fire from the beach at this point? 

Villarreal: Oh, after we got back, maybe halfway, we never looked back. 

Rascoe: Uh-huh. 

Villarreal: If they were firing, I don’t know. 

Rascoe: Okay. 

Villarreal: I just wanted out of there in a big way. But I don’t know. I doubt that they were. They couldn’t have carried that much ammunition with them, I wouldn’t think, to be able to fire that long. 

Rascoe: Okay. Do you recall coming up to the 82 after that second trip? 

Villarreal: Yeah. Well, I must have. I don’t - I really don’t recall anything after getting away from the beach. In a big sense, it was just get me out of here, I want out of here. Obviously, we made it back. One of them had a leg wound. 

Rascoe: How about the 14-footer, did it take any hits? 

Villarreal: There was some bullet holes in the boat and one nick in the engine, went through the cowling and nicked the spark plug, which gave us a little misfire. So that took the 35 horsepower down to about ten, I think. It was bad. [Laughter.] 

Rascoe: Wow! 

Villarreal: Yeah, it was -  

Rascoe: Wow! 

Villarreal: It was one of those things I just didn’t think we were going to - we just weren’t going to survive, we just weren't going to survive, it was just too much. 

Rascoe: How about Captain Underwood? Did he say anything to you when you all got back? 

Villarreal: Might have, but I don’t know what it was. 

Rascoe: Okay. 

Villarreal: My knees were shaking so bad; I could barely climb up and get on board. I just - I don’t remember even climbing out of the boat. I really don’t. 

Rascoe: Do you recall going back to base after that? 

Villarreal: No, I don’t. I mean, obviously, we did, but I really don’t remember.