Shore Duty by Stewart Harris

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MWSA Review

In this superb account of an American Navy lieutenant's mind boggling 1968-69 tour of duty, Author Stewart Harris recaptures his experience as senior advisor, Coastal Group 16. He leads a small "junk force" of wooden boats and Vietnamese fisherman turned Navy. They are tasked to stop the flow of weapons and material down the river in a free fire zone considered under the control of the enemy VC.  Everyone knows the three senior advisors ahead of Harris were killed and that the base, protected only by coconut logs and wire, was overrun. In this memoir, Lt. Harris choppers in to reopen the base and serve in a far different role than his "Destroyer Driver" past. There is no electricity, water, local government or police, and supplies have to be scrounged. Security "outside the wire" must be established through patrol and ambush skills that are developed to survive.  Harris, three other American advisors, and Vietnamese counterparts are surrounded by the VC Forty-Eighth Main Battalion. Coastal Group 16 gets no external support - except once; thirty ARVN assigned are massacred the first day on patrol. Friendly artillery shelled the base the first night the author arrived. His chopper ride home was hit.  But, after seventy-five firefights and gun battles, Stewart Harris lived to write about it. From cover to cover, I gained significant insight into history, culture and neglected military operations. I will remember the perseverance shown and consider it as an example when life takes a pivotal change for the worse. I literally recommend Shore Duty to everyone as a "must read."   Without a doubt, I've never read a better book. 

Reviewed by: Hodge Wood (2010)


Author's Synopsis

Coastal Group Sixteen was one of two dozen bases scattered along the coast of South Vietnam. Originally staffed by local fishermen impressed into the Navy of South Vietnam, they were charged with preventing infiltration by sea of men and supplies. The boats were junks, some still without engines, armed with whatever could be found. The original bases were isolated and Spartan. By 1968, however, there were 540,000 Americans "in country" and another 40,000 or so sailors off the coast. They had begun to displace the Vietnamese in their own country, in their own war. The seas were clogged by carrier battle groups at Points Yankee and Dixie. Closer in, Navy Swiftboats and Coast Guard WPBs searched the coastal waters and barely acknowledged the Vietnamese presence at sea.  

Most of the coastal groups had been markedly changed by this influx of Americans.  Coastal Group Fifteen had started out as a base in a swamp and by 1968 shared that "swamp" with 10,000 Marines.  They called it Chu Lai. Coastal Group Twenty Six was housed in a chateau on a small island in Cam Ranh Bay, an area so secure that both Johnson and Nixon visited. 
     
Coastal Group Sixteen was different. The eighty of so Vietnamese plus four American sailors acting as advisors were alone in sixty square miles of country side with no other friendly forces near.  The closest ARVN forces were nine miles away in Quang Ngai city. The nearest Americans were twenty five miles north at Chu Lai. The village of My Lai was a mile north. The first three American sailors assigned as senior advisor at Coastal Group Sixteen were all killed in action. I was the fourth and this is the story of that year.