Chasing the enemy in fiberglass boats powered by Jacuzzi pumps. Deploying dolphins on anti-mine patrols. Dusting off combat tactics rarely used since the Civil War.
This is what the U.S. Navy means when it says it adapted to Vietnam.
While it definitely had carrier, battleship and logistics operations in hand, “the Navy wasn’t prepared for the coastal and inland waterway operations in Vietnam,” says Ed Marolda, the author of five books and other publications about the Navy’s role in Vietnam during his career with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “All the focus at that time was ‘How do we defeat the Soviet Navy?’”
Building a fleet to fit the fighting conditions would have taken years. So the Navy relied on converted pleasure boats and old World War II landing craft for combat that more often took place on rivers and narrow inland canals than at sea. And when the United States departed in 1973, it left South Vietnam with one of the world’s largest navies.
The Vietnam era was also marked by the creation of the Navy SEALs and the long-running battle to keep the 45-mile-long “Forest of Assassins” shipping channel from Saigon to the sea open. U.S. ships provided gunfire support to ground troops. And Gen. William Westmoreland credited the brown-water navy forces with playing a key role in saving the Mekong Delta during the Tet Offensive. All the while, thousands of Seabees built airfields and fortifications throughout Vietnam, and approximately 50 were killed in action, Marolda says.
For all of this, the Navy’s role – especially that of the brown-water navy – went largely unnoticed. “Vietnam was unpopular, so people didn’t want to know much about it,” says retired Lt. Cmdr. Thomas J. Cutler, author of “Brown Water, Black Berets,” who served in Vietnam in 1972. “And it hasn’t gotten much attention in Hollywood. Until America sees it on the screen, it doesn’t exist.”
Beginning to End The Navy first sent advisers to Southeast Asia to help the French in 1950 and stayed to assist the South Vietnamese after the French left.
A dozen years later, the blue-water navy began gathering intelligence off the coast of Vietnam. Soon, newly formed Navy SEAL teams were deployed to Vietnam to train South Vietnamese naval commandos and conduct raids.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense helped send South Vietnamese saboteurs to North Vietnam in Norwegian-made Nasty boats that were valued for their speed, Marolda says. The Navy trained the crews and repaired the boats at Da Nang. Unable to catch the Nasty boats after an August 1964 operation, North Vietnamese boats instead fired on the larger, slower USS Maddox. That skirmish, inflamed by intelligence that suggested another attack on U.S. forces two days later, became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the spark for the official shooting war, Marolda says. Soon Navy ships and airplanes joined the U.S. Air Force in pounding North Vietnam at President Lyndon Johnson’s orders.
Turn by turn, the Navy was drawn further into combat and deeper inside Vietnam. In February 1965, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot discovered a well-camouflaged North Vietnamese trawler unloading arms and ammunition in a South Vietnamese bay. The South’s lackluster response to the Vung Ro Bay incident helped prompt the Navy to launch a major arms interdiction effort called Operation Market Time. The Navy purchased boats designed to ferry workers to drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, added weapons and radar, and used these new swift boats to stop and search junks and fishing boats along the South Vietnamese coast. The Navy also brought in the Coast Guard and its coastal patrol ships and smaller boats to stop the arms smugglers.
The combination worked. “North Vietnamese trawlers usually came down at night, staying in international waters, and then made a dash in when they thought the coast was clear,” Cutler says. Navy destroyers tracked them on radar from afar and alerted the swift boats and Coast Guard cutters, which intercepted the North Vietnamese boats.
Operation Market Time was so effective that the North Vietnamese were forced to find other ways to arm their insurgency, Marolda says. Arms and ammunition were shipped to Cambodia and trucked to the South Vietnamese border, where they were handed off to Viet Cong forces. They were also hauled south along a network of roads, trails and paths collectively known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Brown Water Revival Meanwhile, the U.S. military turned its attention to the Viet Cong-controlled Mekong Delta, which accounted for a quarter of South Vietnam’s geography, half its population and a significant part of its rice production. But the Viet Cong were seizing so much of the crops that South Vietnam was having to import rice, Cutler says.
The Navy had to revive its brown-water forces, used only sporadically since the Civil War, to retake the delta. “To be honest, the Navy got into this reluctantly,” Cutler says. “The brown-water navy is the redheaded stepchild.”
Reviving the brown-water navy also came with a boat problem. The Navy didn’t have a vessel for charging up the rivers and canals that fed the Mekong Delta. So it again turned to the consumer market, this time buying shallow-draft leisure boats powered by Jacuzzi pumps. Called PBRs, these were fast and highly maneuverable but lacked armor because it slowed the boats too much. “These things were fairly vulnerable,” Cutler says. “They made up for it with firepower – machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers.”
The return of the brown-water force was a success, Cutler says. The Navy retook the delta’s major rivers.
The brown-water navy was joined by a newly created Mobile Riverine Force that used World War II landing craft to take soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division to the fight.
The slow, loud boats made for mixed success, historians say.
Some landing craft were outfitted with rounded bows, cannons, machine guns and mortars, and deployed as “monitors” that covered troop landings up and down the delta. Others were outfitted with tiny flight decks for helicopters, which made them the world’s smallest aircraft carriers, Cutler says.
Landing craft equipped with cannons that fired napalm 200 yards into the jungle were nicknamed Zippo boats, Marolda says. Those outfitted with water cannons for washing away enemy fortifications were nicknamed Douche boats.
The only boat built from the keel up for the brown-water navy was the assault support patrol boat (ASPB), a scout boat and minesweeper that supported the main force. “They didn’t have enough time to test them,” Marolda says, “and if they turned too quickly, the wake could swamp and sink the boat.”
SEALORDS By the time Adm. Elmo Zumwalt took charge of the Navy in Vietnam in 1968, the brown-water navy had done such a good job of retaking the southern part of the Mekong Delta that brown-water duty was downright boring, Cutler says. But the Viet Cong had simply moved their arms smuggling and insurgent operations into smaller waterways. Zumwalt’s answer: Operation SEALORDS (Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River and Delta Strategy).
This all-inclusive approach meant that swift boats were moved from the coast and joined both the River Patrol Force and the Mobile Riverine Force to go after the Viet Cong in the remote reaches of the Mekong Delta and other waterways. “Casualties went way up, but morale also went way up,” Cutler says.
SEALORDS resulted in more injuries and deaths than any other Navy duty in Vietnam. Still, cooks, yeomen and all other manner of naval personnel vied for brown-water duty even though it wasn’t always good for career advancement.
“It was just plain sexy,” Cutler says. “It doesn’t get much more adventuresome than going up a river firing weapons.”
Dolphins and whalers In major harbors such as Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay, meanwhile, the Navy and the Coast Guard worked to keep enemy swimmers from planting mines on the ships that supplied U.S. forces. Cutler spent part of his tour with a team that ran Boston Whalers around the harbors at night, dropping grenades in random patterns. Dead enemy swimmers periodically washed up on shore the next morning, confirming the need for the patrols.
The Navy also used dolphins for this anti-mine duty, Marolda says. Outfitted with special canvas nose covers, the dolphins were trained to hit suspicious swimmers with their snouts.
Finally, the Navy was tasked to patrol the 45-mile stretch of river and swamp between the South China Sea and Saigon. Officially called the Rung Sat Special Zone and unofficially known as the Forest of Assassins, it was a narrow, meandering channel infested with Viet Cong who mined the waterway and fired on passing ships. “We would have had a hell of a time keeping South Vietnam supplied if they had closed that,” Marolda says.
Late in the war, the Navy mined Hanoi and other major enemy harbors as part of the U.S. effort to get the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table with Operation Linebacker. “No ships entered or left those ports from May 1972 until after the Paris Peace Treaty was signed in 1973,” Marolda says. The following spring and summer, the Navy went back and cleared the mines as part of the final peace deal.
When the Navy departed in 1973, it left South Vietnam with more than 1,100 vessels, making it one of the largest navies in the world, Marolda says. Thirty of those ships helped thousands of South Vietnamese naval personnel escape to the Philippines after their country fell in 1975. And the Navy’s last act in Vietnam was evacuating U.S. diplomats, South Vietnamese and Cambodians who served with U.S. forces, Marolda says.
The Navy’s Vietnam experiences informed future conflicts. Many of the Navy officers who led U.S. naval forces in Operation Desert Storm had Vietnam combat experience. And when the Navy decided to reactivate brown-water squadrons in Iraq, it went to the Naval History and Heritage Command to find out what the United States had done in Vietnam, Marolda says. “We still had the operational plans.”
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.