As the nation prepares to enjoy Memorial Day weekend, the story of Chipley resident Eugene Danford's desperate attempts to save his brothers-in-arms during an intense Vietnam confrontation stands as a reminder of why the holiday is a time to reflect on patriotic sacrifice.
Danford, who was raised in Port St. Joe, left the small mill town in 1965 when he quit his senior year of high school to join the Navy.
“By the time I was 21 I had been around the world,” Danford said. “I wouldn’t have never done that sitting here.”
Danford was first assigned to the U.S.S. Annapolis, a spy ship off the coast of North Vietnam, but the young sailor didn’t take to ship life, so he volunteered for the Brown Water Navy.
Mobile Riverine Force
“Nobody had ever seen a boat like this on the rivers,” Danford said. “We had nothing to follow, no doctrine to follow.”
The boat that Danford was speaking about was an Armored Troop Carrier, or ATC.
Slow, loud, and bulky, ATCs were holdovers from World War II that the Navy retrofitted for the riverine environment.
Danford’s boat, A-111-3, was an ATC that had helicopter pad welded to the top, to act as a medical evacuation platform.
“Our job was to take out the dead and wounded,” Danford explained.
The young sailor was part of the Mobile Riverine Force, a joint venture between the Navy and the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division.
The mission was to rid the low lying Mekong Delta of Viet Cong forces.
The enemy would not make the job easy.
Ambush after ambush
“The Vietnamese could hear us coming,” Danford said. “They would set the ambush accordingly and they would try to get our boat because they knew that they carried the medics.”
If someone was wounded during a firefight, Danford would have to leave his weapon station and assist getting the wounded onto his boat. If they could, the crew would try to land a helicopter to evacuate the wounded.
“Once that helicopter got within four feet he couldn’t see the deck, so you had to bring him in and you heard those bullets go by you like a buzz saw.”
With only two medical boats for the four riverine divisions, Danford’s crew was forced to go on operations at a higher rate than other crews.
“We wouldn’t have time to detox or nothing,” Danford said. “We would get right back in line with the other boats fixing to go out right where we just got our butts shot off at.”
In the narrow waterways of the Mekong Delta, the lumbering ATCs were targets that couldn’t quickly maneuver to escape danger.
“The worst part of it all, was when you got into an ambush of our type, you would hear it over radio,” Danford said. “You’re still going into that and you can’t do nothing.”
At times the enemy was so close that Danford was ordered to make ready with a shotgun, in case the Vietnamese attempted to board the boat.
“We were so close to the Vietnamese that you could hear them talking,” explained Danford.
During one particularly tough ambush, the American boats became trapped in a canal when the Viet Cong blew bridges to block their movement in either direction.
“For three days and nights we fought,” Danford said.
Helicopters were able to drop off supplies and ammunition, but the fire from the enemy was so intense that they couldn’t land.
The events from nearly a half century ago still haunt Danford.
As he recalled his time in Vietnam, he paused and fought through the toughest memories.
Particularly of an ambush which took the Americans by complete surprise; an ambush where, for his actions, Danford would be awarded the Bronze Star.
On a patrol, an ATC ahead of Danford’s boat had edged into the shoreline and dropped their landing ramp.
Unbeknownst to the patrol, the boat had landed right in front of a large Viet Cong contingent.
The Vietnamese opened fired on the exposed boat, ripping through the craft and the American servicemen on board.
Danford sprang into action, jumping from boat to boat through enemy fire.
“I remember going across those boats and I could hear those rounds going by my head,” Danford remembered the incident like it was yesterday.
“I get down to the first boat, down into the well deck,” Danford paused.
Danford made his way through the carnage of the destroyed boat and noticed that there was a survivor.
“He was lying on his back covered in blood,” Danford said. “I bear-hugged him and drugged him out of the well deck, across the other boats.”
Covered in the blood of his fellow servicemen, Danford delivered the wounded man to the medic on his own boat.
“He (the medic) wipes off this guy’s face and it was my best buddy,” Danford said.
Danford had saved his best friend, but the enemy had taken out the rest of the crew.
“He lost everybody,” Danford’s thoughts were with his friend.
Although Danford was awarded for his bravery that day, he downplays his role.
“When the crapola hit the fan, then you ran out and did what you had to do,” Danford said. “You had to get those men in safe, and that’s what you did.”
After being extended an extra two months to train-up replacements, Danford was quickly shipped home during the height of the anti-war movement.
“In San Francisco I had to walk a line of people calling me baby killer; they spit in my face. I had one woman come up to me and say ‘I wish you never came back,’” Danford said.
Like many of the Vietnam-era troops, Danford was impacted greatly by what happened when he got back to the states.
“Not getting that welcome home really hurt,” Danford said.
In the rush to get him home his sea bag had been misplaced, so when he arrived in Panama City, still in his fatigues, the mud of the Mekong Delta was still on his boots.
“Now here I am wearing fatigues, one minute you were dodging bullets and the next you were eating ice cream. It didn’t make sense,” said Danford.
Nine months later, after mustering out of the Navy, Danford found himself in the woods of Overstreet.
“I stayed all by myself for a year. I didn’t fool with nobody,” Danford said.
After a year of odd jobs, and spending time with a pet skunk named George, Danford decided to reenlist in the Navy, where he was assigned to an oil tanker out of Mayport.
In 1973, he got out of the Navy again and found his way to Mobile, where he would run supplies out to oil rigs, become a certified welder, and then opened his own supply business; all the while fighting the effects from his time in Vietnam.
Little slice of heaven
Thirteen years ago Danford purchased a small farm just south of Chipley, where he raises grapes and blueberries for a you-pick-it business.
“Once I get back on the farm I don’t leave,” Danford said.
He enjoys the quiet of the place and spends most of the time keeping to himself.
In the back corner of his land he has a small stocked pond where he likes to relax, and in the front yard a flag pole with the American and P.O.W flags flying.
Inside his home he has a room designated as his Vietnam room, where he keeps mementos of his time in Vietnam.
There's a scale model of his boat, a painting of the Mobile Riverine Force in action, his awards and recognitions, and photos of his time in Vietnam.
“My boat was rated as one of the best medical boats because of our crew,” Danford said. “We took care of the dead, and we took care of the wounded.”
Danford stays in contact with some of the men he served with, including the buddy who he pulled from the destroyed boat.
Even though he still battles with the war in his mind, Danford has found a sort of peace in his quiet section of God’s country, tending his plants and spending time with his wife.
Looking out over his land, he takes a deep breath and halfway smiles,
“I’m just as happy as a hog in slop.”
Washington County News editor Carol Kent Wyatt contributed to this report.