Vietnam-era river boat restored as tribute to fallen crew

Camouflage green, with guns mounted on its bow and stern, the 31-foot vessel pulled alongside the Port of Everett fuel dock Tuesday morning. In a marina filled with cabin cruisers and sailboats, this boat stood out.

“We nicknamed ourselves, ‘Have boats, will travel,’” said Tom Restemayer, 65, of Camano Island.

A Navy veteran, Restemayer was a forward gunner on a river patrol boat just like the one he and two other Vietnam veterans were aboard Tuesday.

All three were once crew members on a PBR — “patrol boat river” — the same type of craft featured in the movie, “Apocalypse Now.”

“I operated all over the Mekong Delta. I spent 18 months on the boat,” said Restemayer, who served in Vietnam in 1966 and ‘67. “I turned 19 and 20 in Vietnam,” he said.

For about six years, the men have been restoring the boat as a tribute to crewmen who died. As an entry in Everett’s July 4th parade, hauled behind a truck and with the men on board, the vessel drew cheers from crowds along Colby Avenue.

And Tuesday morning, the boat known for brown-water river duty in Vietnam took a saltwater cruise. From the North Marina, powered by two Detroit Diesel marine engines, it left Port Gardner on a sentimental journey intended as an escort for the USS Ford. Aboard were retired Navy Capt. Stephen Morrison, former rear gunner Don Allen Dennis and Restemayer. They were joined by a sailor from the USS Ford, Petty Officer Second Class Caleb Hutchinson.

“The new and the old,” Restemayer said before the river boat was launched using the port’s boat lift.

The Ford, a frigate based at Naval Station Everett, took a “tiger cruise” Tuesday, a daylong trip for friends and family of the ship’s crew, said Kristin Ching, a base spokeswoman. The frigate is named for Patrick O. Ford, a gunner’s mate killed in 1968 on a river patrol boat in Vietnam.

A battery problem meant a late start for the river boat, but the men planned to catch up with the Ford.

This particular boat, built in 1973 by United Boat Builders, Inc., in Bellingham, never saw action in Vietnam. The boats were Uniflite 31 hulls equipped for military use. Ordered before the end of the war, the boat was put to use at the Navy’s Mare Island facility in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Restemayer said it is owned by the Naval Heritage Center, part of the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. The organization here got the boat from a veterans group in Southern California, he said.

The men on the boat Tuesday are members of the Northwest chapter of the Gamewardens of Vietnam Association — which is unrelated to wildlife. During the Vietnam War, the river patrol boats were part of Task Force 116, Operation Game Warden,which included Huey helicopters and landing craft. Another type of vessel used in Vietnam, the 50-foot Swift Boats, were dubbed “Operation Market Time,” Restemayer said.

River patrol was deadly duty. With 50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers, the boats targeted Viet Cong guerrillas who would ambush them from shore. Many U.S. soldiers died in the mission to keep the waterways passable. Restemayer said one area, the swampy Rung Sat Special Zone, was called “the forest of assassins.”

Restemayer said life on the river wasn’t much like “Apocalypse Now,” the 1979 film set largely on a river patrol boat. “We had no drug problem at all, and we didn’t shoot up friendly villages,” he said.

Dennis, 65, lasted just two months on a boat, but he’ll never forget it. He carries the scars.

“I got wounded bad enough they retired me out of the Navy,” said Dennis, who grew up in Monroe and now lives in Portland, Ore.

“It was the night before Thanksgiving 1968. We were in a canal of the Mekong and got hit by a B-40 rocket. My whole side had shrapnel,” Dennis said, showing deep scars on one arm and shoulder. “I was fortunate. Our boat captain was killed that night,” he said.

Bernard McVay was never in the military, but has helped with the boat project for years. The veterans found his Marysville business, McVay’s Mobile Welding, in the phone book when they needed work done on the boat.

McVay offered his free services when the boat was stored at Naval Station Everett and at the Navy’s Jim Creek radio transmitter facility. The boat recently has undergone work at a shop in Kent. “I do what needs to be done. It’s a labor of love for me, out of respect for what these guys did,” McVay said. “They are the bravest people I ever met.”

With a Herald photographer and me aboard his own boat, McVay shadowed the river vessel during Tuesday’s sea trial.

The river boat has been in parades as far away as Albany, Ore. And a child with the Make-A-Wish Foundation took a ride in the boat on Lake Washington.

Restemayer, an E4 petty officer in the Navy and later a truck driver, remembers the first time he rode on the boat in a parade.

“I was glad I had dark glasses on, so they wouldn’t see the tears coming out of my eyes,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

For more information about the restoration of the Vietnam War-ear river patrol boat: www.gamewardensnw.org

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