By Kristi OHarran / Herald Writer
Students in the Mukilteo School District know one of their custodians sweeps the halls, but only the lucky ones also know Tom Restemayer was a hero in Vietnam.
Medals drip from his Navy dress whites when he speaks to classes about the long-ago war that may have killed a friend of their grandparents or hurt those who returned to face the disdain of protesters.
Young ears that close in boredom may snap to attention when Restemayer describes packing a .50-caliber machine gun as an 18-year-old lad fresh from a farm in North Dakota.
He doesn’t know what his draft number was because he joined the Navy to see the world, and he volunteered to serve on river patrol boats, whatever they were, he said.
Visions of Vietnam usually include Marines and Army soldiers slogging through jungles in green fatigues. But don’t forget the Navy Black Berets who served in Naval Task Force 116, known as Operation Gamewarden, making rivers in the Mekong Delta safe for fish peddlers and troops alike.
The Viet Cong called the patrol “crazy Yanks in little green boats,” Restemayer said. The Navy’s mission was to protect boat traffic and halt enemy transport of war goods.
“No Hollywood movie accurately portrays what it was like on the boats,” said the petty officer second class. ” ‘Apocalypse Now’ didn’t even come close to what we were doing.”
More folks will be able to learn a bit about the mission in South Vietnam when boats left behind when the war ended are refurbished in Bellingham. Several boats stored in a shipyard will be put on display with the help of the Gamewardens of Vietnam Association.
Bellingham has a special place in its heart for the boats. In 1965, the Navy awarded Uniflite in Bellingham a contract to build 120 31-foot river patrol boats, called PBRs. As part of their work, PBRs transported doctors and nurses to Vietnamese villages, and the speedy craft were used as ambulances for wounded personnel.
Two Vietnamese babies were born on Restemayer’s boat, Boat 34, during his 18 months of duty. Navy reports say one woman in gratitude named her baby boy Nguyen PBR Dinh.
PBRs had radio equipment used to broadcast instructions to Viet Cong desiring to surrender and to persuade others to defect. They distributed leaflets and essentials such as soap, fishhooks, needles and thread to people living in huts on the waterway.
On typical 12-hour patrols, Restemayer said, sailors ate World War II rations. I thought maybe some nice Navy cook packed tuna-fish sandwiches for the sailors.
There was no restroom except the back of the boat, and with enemy fire coming from the jungle, you’d better be quick in that department.
Shot twice in his hands and arm, Restemayer has two Purple Hearts and several other medals, as well as a Presidential Unit Citation and a citation from the United States Pacific Fleet headquarters of the commander in chief.
Imagine, when he came home, a war protester who had learned Restemayer was a Vietnam veteran went after his candy-red Plymouth Fury convertible.
The only blemish on Restemayer’s record is an assault and battery on the war protester, who learned the hard way that veterans were not responsible for the actions of the U.S. government – and that you’d better stay away from one particular candy-red Fury convertible.
Monday is a special day for the Navy veteran.
“I saw the moving Vietnam Wall in Lynnwood,” he said. “It’s inspiring when you knew the guys.”
He said more than 280 sailors in Operation Gamewarden were killed in the war. Honor them, and all war dead, on Memorial Day.
And honor, and thank, those who came home.
Columnist Kristi O’Harran: 425-339-3451 or email@example.com.