Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of troop on troop combat in Vietnam as well as the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Standard Journal is honoring Vietnam veterans throughout the year, continuing today with a Navy veteran from Lewisburg.
LEWISBURG — Not many in the Navy were selected for River Patrol Boat duty. Petty Officer William Geyer, of Lewisburg, was one of the few.
“I got my orders for PBR (River Patrol Boat) and only a few get selected,” remembered Geyer. “I was proud.”
It was during his second tour, one he volunteered for, that he was selected for the duty. Commonly referred to as the “Brownwater Navy” for their work in the rivers, River Patrol Boats were 31-foot fiberglass boats, manned by four — the boat captain, an engineer, after gunner and forward gunner. The boats would patrol two to a team along the Mekong Delta, a dangerous mass of waterways and canals throughout southern South Vietnam. He served with Navy Division 515.
“We lived on the boats,” said Geyer. “We had to patrol for contact for a week to 10 days. During that time, we’d live on the boat. We’d get resupplied by choppers.
“If you got hit, every man would know the other man’s job. There was a patrol officer for both boats. He’d call in air support and whatever else we’d need.”
Geyer served as boat captain and later, patrol officer.
The teams would patrol day and night, attempting to intercept Vietnamese sampans (flat river boats) that would use the maze of waterways to move supplies or slip into the safe haven of Cambodia. It was dangerous work.
“You didn’t get much sleep,” said Geyer. “You had to stay awake at night. Wherever the contact was, we would go. Those boats were fast; man they could go.
“It was either they got us or we got them. They were constantly trying to cross into Cambodia (Americans were not to fire into Cambodia, though on occasion it happened, Geyer said). They knew we’d be patrolling and they’d lay and wait for us. Some of the canals were very narrow and they knew the approximate times of the ambushes.”
Crew members shared a unique brotherhood. They lived in tight quarters, ate the same C-rations, endured the same oppressive heat and humidity day in and day out and lived through torrential monsoons.
“We were close-knit,” remembered Geyer, who was in his 30s by the time he pulled his second tour. “We were really close, the officers, everybody.”
River boat crews wore berets, distinguishing themselves from other members of the Navy. Crew members earned their stripes in combat.
“You never knew how others would react in a firefight,” Geyer said, the emotion gripping his voice. “Once you had a firefight and they’d see how you reacted, you earned your respect. They knew you weren’t a coward.”
Geyer earned the Bronze Star for action Sept. 26, 1970, while serving as senior advisor during a river patrol. A nearby patrol came under attack at which time Geyer directed suppressive fire against 15 enemy. Geyer’s decisive action resulted in an American rout. Most of the Viet Cong were killed, the rest captured.
The citation noted that Geyer boarded and searched numerous sampans, interdicted cross-river traffic, opened fire and coordinated air strikes.
He was also decorated with The Navy Commendation Medal and numerous other medals and citations.
Geyer’s foray into military life began at age 16, when he left school in Milton to join the Navy. It was 1955, and the Korean War was still fresh in people’s minds. By 1966, Geyer got his orders for Vietnam as an E-6, or petty officer first class.
Stationed first in Da Nang, he was among thousands of Navy men at Camp Tien Sha serving in support roles. During his first tour, he was wounded on the wrist and sent to Japan.
Between his first and second tours, he attended Survival School, PBR school and Language School.
Geyer married Mary right out of school. The two divorced, then found their way back to one another and have been married six years since. They have two sons and a daughter.
Like many who served in Vietnam, the return home wasn’t a welcome one. He was advised by officers on his return to U.S. soil to change from his uniform into civilian clothes.
“Everybody looked down on us,” he said. “That was the bad part about coming back.”
Today, Geyer looks forward to PBR reunions each year. He and Mary faithfully attend and look forward to reconnecting with those scattered throughout the country.
The opportunity to share with fellow veterans has been invaluable to those who served in Vietnam, regardless of branch of service.
Four members of Geyer’s division died in Vietnam.
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.