PARK CITY, Kan. (KSNW) — Like his father and grandfather before him, Max Slieter would join the U.S. Army when he was 18 years old.
It was March 1967, and with the Vietnam War raging on overseas, Slieter would find himself in advanced training at Fort Eustace, Virginia, specifically, in amphibious warfare.
A year later, his training would be put to the ultimate test as he flew out to Vietnam as part of the 1099th Boat Company, more commonly known as the “River Rats.”
“I flew into Biên Hòa Air Base, which is close to Saigon, and then I went to a place, a little town called Vũng Tàu,” Slieter said.
It was there Slieter would begin his first tour of Vietnam with the 1099th “River Rats.” His unit of 18 men going on dozens of missions up and down the treacherous Mekong Delta, stretching for hundreds of miles (and at various points as wide as the Mississippi River).
“We were hauling ammunition and bombs down deep into the Mekong Delta down the rivers at night, and then the night’s the worst time to be on the rivers, ‘cuz that’s when the enemy hits,” Slieter said.
The journey down would take 20 hours both ways, primarily because Slieter’s U-boat could only reach a top speed of eight knots per hour.
“You’re a sitting target out there,” Slieter said. “It’s not very fast. We’d all pray and everything before we left or were assigned, and hopefully, we’d all come back in one piece and let God be with you.”
Primarily, Sleiter was tasked with maintaining the engines and operating radar at night.
“I was good on the radar,” Slieter said. “The skipper always had me run the radar, and, and I’d talk to him ‘cuz you could see the fishnets, fishnets are huge — you run into them with a boat, you’re done.”
However, the slower U-boats weren’t the only ones the “River Rats” would operate.
“Sometimes, they didn’t need that many, that much stuff moved, so they would put us on the PBR boats,” Slieter said.
The “PBR” boats, also known as Patrol Boat Riverine, were equipped with two powerful machine guns that Slieter would operate.
“I mean, you could mow down trees on the shoreline just like [that]. Palm trees would just fall down,” Slieter said.
As time wore on, the task at hand became just as dangerous on land as it was in the water.
“We had a beach that we would land on, and they had a big forklift that unload the stuff, and we would get mortared very often,” Slieter said.
During one mission, Slieter says a mortar went off just 10 feet away from where he stood. The blast knocked him to the ground, and he was injured by nearby shrapnel.
“Because of the flash, your pupils, they go shut,” Slieter said. “And all you can do is lay there, and [say] ‘well, I hope the next one was going to be three clicks that way in,’ and it was. And you just lay there for two to three minutes until your vision comes back.”
Slieter would return to the states after a year in Vietnam, but he wouldn’t stay home for long. Three months later, he put in a request to his company commander to return to the “River Rats.”
“He says, ‘why would you wanna do that?'” Slieter said. “‘I wanna go back because the new guys that showed up, they need more training,’ he said, ‘Pack your bags, Mr. Slieter. You’re going to be leaving in three days.'”
Slieter would spend another nine months on the Mekong Delta, turning new recruits into fully-fledged “River Rats.”
“Every job’s got their ups and downs, but mine was pretty much the ups … the upside … so, it was all good,” Slieter said.
Slieter would retire an E-5 and be honorably discharged in March 1970. He would go on to become a truck driver after the war.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at firstname.lastname@example.org.