The difference was that Kerry, who had tactical command of that particular operation, had talked to Droz and me beforehand about not responding the way the boats usually did to an ambush.
We agreed that if we were not crippled by the initial volley and had a clear fix on the location of the ambush, we would turn directly into it, focusing the boats' twin .50-caliber machine guns on the attackers and beaching the boats. We told our crews about the plan.
The Viet Cong in the area had come to expect that the heavily loaded boats would lumber on past an ambush, firing at the entrenched attackers, beaching upstream and putting troops ashore to sweep back down on the ambush site. Often, they were long gone by the time the troops got there.
The first time we took fire—the usual rockets and automatic weapons—Kerry ordered a "turn 90" and the three boats roared in on the ambush. It worked. We routed the ambush, killing three of the attackers. The troops, led by an Army adviser, jumped off the boats and began a sweep, which killed another half dozen VC, wounded or captured others and found weapons, blast masks and other supplies used to stage ambushes.
Meanwhile, Kerry ordered our boat to head upstream with his, leaving Droz's boat at the first site.
It happened again, another ambush. And again, Kerry ordered the turn maneuver, and again it worked. As we headed for the riverbank, I remember seeing a loaded B-40 launcher pointed at the boats. It wasn't fired as two men jumped up from their spider holes.
I don't think this war-hero stuff should bear that much weight in our voting decisions. But it is pretty exciting!
Update: Just gave a little grad-student-sized contribution to America Coming Together... as I said on Matt Yglesias' site, Kerry has ordered a "turn 90", and we can all be gunners on this boat.