The Story of U.S. Riverine Forces in Vietnam
By John Prados


The scout mission up the Ham Luong River, an operation like thousands of others in the Mekong Delta, began smoothly. It was late August 1968. An eleven-man platoon of U.S. Navy SEALs was loaded aboard a landing craft. Two armed craft known as PBRs (Patrol Boat, River) escorted the ship. The river craft reached the landing point in the dark of night.

Gunner's Mate Barry W. Enoch remembers the sensation of feeling just how dark it can be at night on the water. Enoch brought up the rear as the patrol moved out overland. Briefly held up by Viet Cong mortar from a small nearby unit, the SEALs made for their objective: a bunker that was to be destroyed because it dominated a neck in the river. Enoch wired the place for demolition and blew it efficiently. Only then did the SEALs begin to take fire in earnest. Several men were hurt, not by gunfire but by Viet Cong
booby traps. The patrol called for extraction. The mission was over less than six hours after it began. No one was killed. 

This patrol up the Ham Luong typified a style of warfare in the Mekong Delta and the coastal rivers draining into the South China Sea.  In this arena, boats and gun ships often were more important than artillery and armored personnel carriers.

This conflict was very different from the war of the big battalions, or the set-piece battles that took place just below the Demilitarized Zone. The war in the Delta was an affair of small groups of Americans who often worked directly with the South Vietnamese. 

The Delta war also became a Navy war, not the Navy of huge aircraft carriers on Yankee Station hurling deck load strikes at North Vietnam or the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or destroyers and support ships lending their cannon fire to engagements along the coast. This was the Brown Water Navy, named for the muddy hue of the water in the many canals and waterways in the Mekong Delta. Riverine Forces began with the French. Initially in Tonkin and later in the Mekong, the French organized naval assault divisions (Divisions navele d' assault, or Dinassauts). In the late 195Os these were revived by the
fledgling South Vietnamese Navy as River Assault Groups (RAGS). By the end of the Eisenhower administration, there were five RAGs plus a riverine transport group, in all perhaps a hundred assorted types of landing craft and patrol boats armed to fight in shallow waters.

The RAGS worked with a battalion of South Vietnamese Marines functioning as a landing group. Together these components made up the Vietnamese Navy River Force. By 1961, there were forty-five U.S. advisers, all from the U.S. Navy or Marines, working with the Vietnamese Navy, some with the River Force. Several factors limited the capability of the River Force. The Navy remained the poor sister among the Vietnamese armed services, and the River Force was the poorest of the poor. Until late 1963, the riverine units were
consistently undermanned, often by as much as 30 percent. Much of their equipment dated from the French. When a sixth RAG was formed in 1962, more than half its ships were French leftovers. 

On a typical day in 1963, when the riverine forces had about 150 vessels, barely a dozen were on operations, while nearly fifty worked as utility craft in various ports. In addition, as with ground troops, provincial leaders in the Mekong successfully demanded that ships be assigned to them for static, local defense purposes. Citing poor use of existing units, Washington rejected assistance for the formation of a seventh RAG (although President Johnson approved help for a seventh RAG in the spring of 1964). American advisory aid to the Vietnamese Navy continued apace. In 1963, when Captain Joseph B, Drachnik headed the naval advisory group, 145 Americans worked with every Vietnamese level of command down to the RAGS. But while six to eight months were necessary for an adviser to adjust to the Vietnamese system, tours were reduced in the early l96Os to twelve months for a seaman in the field, fifteen for a single person at base, and up to twenty-four for those accompanied by family. 

Drachnik opposed shortened tours but was overridden up the chain of command. Cultural differences and the propensity of some Americans to try to command the Vietnamese posed additional obstacles.  Effectiveness also was hampered because the U.S. Navy had little interest in brown-water operations, which it did not train for or teach officers to conduct. Riverine works became totally improvised. 

Under the circumstances, perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Brown Water Navy gained as much notoriety as it did. But the riverine forces were popularized at an early date by journalist Dickey Chapelle (who was later killed in Vietnam on Nov. 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine Platoon during Operation "Black Ferret)  who published lush accounts of their exploits. [added 09/11/16 by JDT]

One article, which appeared in National Geographic in February 1966, featured the brave actions of Navy Lt. H. Dale Meyerkord, a senior adviser with River Assault Group 23 who was killed in a nasty canal action on March 16, 1965. Chapelle called the RAGS "daring gunboat forces," and Meyerkord a leader and teacher of men, dead of a bullet in the brain on a muddy canal. Americans continued to believe the rivers could be interdicted better by U.S. forces than by Vietnamese. By September 1965, with the war heating up, a command conference of top Navy officers including representatives from the Pacific Theater, the Pacific fleet, and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, recommended that an American river patrol be created with more than 120 vessels based on the rivers, using large Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) as accommodation ships.  The initiative led to the formation of Task Force 116 on December 18, to carry out Operation Game Warden.  There were one hundred patrol boats, twenty landing craft for troops, and LST, and even larger  Landing Ship Dock (LSD), and 8 helicopters for spotting and air attack.  Later, the accommodations ships were replaced by four specially equipped LSTs, each a base for thirty patrol boats. 

The mainstay of the U.S. effort in the Mekong Delta was the Patrol Boat, River (PBR).  Vietnamese RAGs relied upon landing craft and small boats locally converted into scout boats, monitors, command ships, and fire-support ships.  The PBRs were modified sport boats built by United Boat Builders of Bellingham, Washington.  Much faster than the Vietnamese craft (at 25 knots), the American boats used a propulsion system of vectored water jets.  They therefore had the critical advantage of lacking rudders or propellers that could be fouled by river detritus or shot away. 

Drawing less than two feet of water, the PBRs could maneuver in all but the most shallow places.  Because the hulls were made of fiberglass, Viet Cong armor piercing ammunition went right through the boats without detonating.  The PBRs were armed with three .50-caliber machine guns, plus a 40-mm grenade launcher.  The first was delivered in early 1966, and the full contract of 120 was completed later that year.  Forty more were ordered as replacements and for training in February 1966.  Eighty improved Mark II models were ordered in 1967. 

PBRs were intended to patrol in pairs and call on the more heavily armed RAGs and similar U.S. strike units when necessary.  Night patrols were three times more frequent than daytime ones. 

A heavier strike force, called the Mobile Riverine Force, was created in mid-1967 to supplement the Vietnamese RAGS.  It comprised a two-battalion brigade, the 2nd of the 9th Infantry Division; more than fifty landing craft; over thirty assault support boats; and sixteen assorted Landing Craft Medium (LCMs) modified to be monitors, command ships, and refuelers.  An air component, the Army squadron HAL-3 ("Seawolves") flew UH-IB ships in gunfire support and light lift roles. The air component also included the Navy's Light Attack Squadron 4 flying A-37 jets.  A true multidimensional force had been developed in South Vietnam. Seamen on the PBRs joked about their Brown Water Navy being the "Pabst Blue Ribbon" force, after a popular beer of the time.  River Division 512 actually modified the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo as its unofficial unit patch.  With their water jets, the PBRs were more silent than the bigger vessels and better able to infiltrate and recover the SEALs.  The security system for the Mekong Delta became a combination of local militia (RF/PF), who had their own boats; South Vietnamese army garrisons;  the PBRs and SEALs as disruptive elements;  and the Mobile Riverine Force and RAGs in large-scale operations. 

During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Brown Water Navy was heavily engaged throughout the Delta.  The Viet Cong attacked many places, including the river towns My Tho, Can Tho, Vinh Long, and Chau Doc.  Afterwards, and on into 1969, the Mobile Riverine Force took part in a series of operations that came as close to a campaign of amphibious warfare as South Vietnam ever would see.  As Task Force 117, the Mobile Riverine Force remained a separate part of Naval Forces Vietnam, the top naval command. 

Located at Dong Tam, on the My Tho River, the Task Force 117 base was quite extensive.  Aside from the boats and their tenders, there was a land cantonment, which Army troops first occupied in early 1967, and an airfield, which later in the year became the base camp for another battalion of the 9th Division.  When not out with the river assault units, the Army patrolled around Dong Tam itself, a high-priority target for the Viet Cong because of the damage Task Force 117 was inflicting on them.  By the fall of 1968, there were sufficient water craft to constitute two full river assault groups, which allowed the task force to conduct large operations simultaneously. 

Combat action for the Mobile Riverine Force began with small-scale activities in the spring of 1967, mostly in the Delta or Rung Sat, the swamp area along the coast.  The first larger operation came in May upriver from Dong Tam against the Viet Cong 514 Battalion.  A Rung Sat Foray was conducted in mid-June.  In July, Task Force 117 suffered its first naval fatality:  a monitor captain was killed by a rocket during a thrust into Long An Province.  By fall, there were constant engagements. An intense battle around Dong Tam in September resulted in 3 dead and 77 wounded, against a claimed 213 Viet Cong killed.  Army losses are unreported.  The Tet battles of 1968 consumed everyone's attention.  The greatest loss in a single situation came in November 1968 when Viet Cong sappers attached mines to the hull of an accommodation ship, the Westchester County (LST-1167).  The detonation of the explosive charges killed 18 American sailors, 5 soldiers, and 2 Vietnamese. 

In the fall of 1968, Vice Admiral Elmo R.  Zumwalt took command of Naval Forces Vietnam.  With him came a new strategy for the Brown Water Navy.  Zumwalt credits his intelligence chief, Captain Rex Rectanus, with the idea. Thomas J. Cutler, a naval historian, credits Captain Robert S. Salzer, leader of Task Force 117, whose briefing to Zumwalt advocated a fresh approach.  The Vietnam naval commander also felt that a more offensive strategy would lift the sagging morale of sailors, who saw themselves taking a back seat in the war. 

Zumwalt conceived what he called the "South-East Asian Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy,"  or SEALORDS.  The concept provided for a shift from a simple effort to interdict waterways in the Mekong to a more complex selection of specific canals and rivers whose blockade might create a barrier against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese infiltration across the Cambodian border or from the sea.  This concept was formalized in Operation plan 111-69 of Nov.  5, 1968. 

Zumwalt consolidated the various components of the Brown Water Navy to carry out SEALORDS.  The River Patrol Force contributed 258 vessels and 25 helicopters.  The Mobile Riverine Force added 184 monitors and assault boats.  Even this did not seem enough.  One Zumwalt innovation in SEALORDS allowed coastal patrol ships to participate on the inland waterways.  The change added an additional eighty-one Swift boat patrol craft, twenty-four U.S. Coast Guard cutters, and thirty-nine other vessels.  The new group became Task Force 194 with Captain Salzer its first boss. 

The Navy, however, quickly decided this command should be an admiral's slot, and before then end of 1968, Rear Admiral W.H.  House, Zumwalt's deputy, assumed the command.  The SEALORDS' boss, in a conscious play on the British title for their senior naval officer, was called the "First Sea Lord."  The practice was discontinued when Navy messages to Task Force 194 began being mistakenly routed to London. 

Half a dozen independent barrier operations comprised the SEALORDS initiative.  The intent was to block a Viet Cong supply flow estimated at 175 to 200 tons per month.  The Americans had great success, but their overall impact remained difficult to gauge.  In one of the operation's deemed most successful, Giant Slingshot-an attempt to isolate the Parrot's Beak section of Cambodia, phased out in May 1970 after the invasion of that country, an enormous effort was made by fifty or more PBRs.  A typical sailor assigned here logged 172 ambush missions during his Vietnam tour.  Total seizures in Giant Slingshot came to 150 tons of ammunitions and 400 more of other material, compared to an estimated Viet Cong supply flow (November 1968 to May 1970) of 3,300 to 3,800 tons.  Lt. John F. Kerry, a Swift boat commander at Phu Quoc Island in 1968-69, recalls, "You'd randomly stop a boat among the dozens that were going up and down.  But for the one or two you stopped, hundreds of others went by, and you knew weapons were slipping by you." 

SEALORDS took its toll on Americans, as well.  Lt. James Morgan, a patrol commander and later an operations officer of River Assault Squadron 593, lost his best friend in a Slingshot mission in January 1969 on the Vam Co Dong River. Another petty officer in the 593rd got through the missions fine but had to go on tranquilizers at base between each cruise.  One of Morgan's finest boat commanders, a man awarded the Silver Star, went berserk after a night ambush.  He had to be sent home.  And Admiral Zumwalt'' son, Elmo III, contracted lymphoma and died from exposure to the Agent Orange that was used so liberally along the riverbanks. 

Then there was Lt. Thomas G. Kelley, a 30-year-old from Boston who led River Assault Division 152.  In an operation on the Ong Muong Canal in Kien Hoa Province on June 15, 1969, Kelley led a column of eight craft trying to extract a rifle company from a tough firefight.  The ramp of one of his troop carriers failed just as the Viet Cong opened fire from the opposite bank.  Kelley got his boats to form a protective cordon around the disabled ship while the sailors tried manually to raise their landing ramp.  Kelley's own monitor engaged the enemy directly, and he suffered severe head wounds from the shrapnel of a Viet Cong rocket.  Lt. Kelley was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading his crews out of danger despite his wounds. Meanwhile, in line with the Vietnamization program, Adm. Zumwalt accelerated the transfer of American missions and equipment to the South Vietnamese Navy.  This process had yet to be completed when U.S. and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in May 1970.  In connection with that incursion, the largest river flotilla assembled (140 assault craft) worked its way up the Mekong and Bassac rivers.  The vessels came under fire less than two miles from the border. 

A couple of weeks into the operation, Adm. Zumwalt handed his command over to Vice Admiral Jerome H. King, Jr., who would have the task of closing out U.S. Navy involvement in the Vietnam War.  The last Coast Guard cutters were transferred to the Vietnamese on August 15, 1970.  In December 1970, the last of the brown-water boats were handed over.  The Army's 9th Division had pulled out of the riverine business and left Vietnam on August 27, 1969.  The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard contributed greatly to America's effort in the Vietnam War.   On the rivers, they disrupted Viet Cong movements and supply columns and added significantly to the capability of the South Vietnamese Navy.  With Adm. Zumwalt and his fresh strategy, the Navy probably reached its peak efficiency. But the job was inherently difficult, and a perfect brown-water blockade never could be achieved.  Still Americans and South Vietnamese tried, and some of their work was quite impressive.

Article courtesy of Larry Greenhaw RM3 (69-70)