Navy’s deadliest actions in Vietnam
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The U.S. Navy operated on the blue water ocean, along brown water inland waterways, in the air and on land during the Vietnam War. Along with carrier operations in the South China Sea, its best-known role was played on Vietnam’s rivers and canals.
Riverine warfare required the services of the “Brown Water Navy” consisting of shallow-draft craft to combat the Viet Cong in the McKong Delta. The three Navy Task Forces (115, 116, 117) included the river boat (PBR), fast patrol craft (PCF or swift boat), assault patrol boat (ASPB) providing destroyer and minesweeping functions, mechanized landing craft (LCM-6), monitor, armored troop carrier (ATC), command-and-communications boat (CCB) and the patrol air cushion vehicle (PACV). Naval aviators also flew aerial reconnaissance missions and sailors served in several capacities on land as corpsmen, Seabees, and Seals.
On Feb. 27, 1969, enemy 122mm rockets rained death on sailors working at the Da Nang navel facilities. The first rockets hit the covered storage area, killing three sailors of Supply Operations, Navy Support Activity (Da Nang). Moored at the ramp were LCU-1500 (Landing Craft, Utility) and the YFU-78 (Harbor Utility Craft, Self-propelled). The LCU received a direct hit, detonating the ammo aboard. The explosion ignited a fire, which spread to the nearby YFU. Both ships were destroyed.
The casualty toll was 22 KIA and 37 WIA. LCU-1500 was hardest hit with 12 KIA, followed by the YFU-78 with seven KIA. Stann Hobey was then assigned to the YFU-74.
“I felt the initial explosion at least two miles away,” he recalled. “The attack happened just after 11 p.m., and the fire and explosions lasted close to midnight. The third of three rockets hit the 1500 and both boats went up. The 78 probably had more than 300 tons of black powder and projectiles on board; the 1500 about 200 tons.”
Former Lt. Cmdr. Fred Small responded to the call for medical assistance from the naval station hospital. “The fury of the explosion was awful,” he said. “We went across the bridge on foot. Because of the human devastation, we spent much of our effort identifying what was left of the remains. Walking along the ramp, I came upon a pair of combat boots with the feet still inside.” No other single enemy action caused a greater number of KIA’s for American sailors in Vietnam.
Mines proved as deadly as rockets. The USS Westchester County sustained the highest toll of any single U.S. ship in Vietnam. On Nov. 1, 1968, the LST-1167 (Landing Ship, Tank) was rocked by two giant underwater explosions. Viet Cong frogmen had attached limpet mines to the “Wesco’s” hull. Part of the Mobile Riverine Base Alpha at My Tho, the ship lost 17 crewmembers, one sailor from River Assault Squadron 11, TF 117, five soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division and two South Vietnamese personnel. A command-detonated mine sank the YFU-62 on the Cua Viet River on Jan. 16, 1969. The explosion killed eight men of the Literage Division of the Naval Support Activity.
A mine planted by a VC frogman took out the YRBM-16 (Repair, Berthing and Messing Barge, Non-Self-Propelled) on Nov. 24, 1967, in the middle of the Ham Luong River closest to Ben Tre. Five sailors of River Division 52, TF 116, and two barge crewmen were KIA. Another 14 men were WIA. On March 14, 1968, the Armored Troop Carrier 112-7 was leading a convoy between Cua Viet on the coast and the supply center at Dong Ha. “Tango 112-7” set off a 500-pound magnetic mine while minesweeping the Thach Han River. The boat flipped upside down and threw the crew overboard, killing six men of Rive Assault Squadron 11, TF 117.
Patrol craft Fast Division 101, based at An Thoi, lost four men on the PCF-4 of TF 115 to a remote mine explosion on Feb. 14, 1966. The vessel was patrolling the Baie De Cau River south of Rach Gia near the Guld of Thailand. Another swift boat, PCF-19, officially lost men to “Friendly fire” from a U.S. Air Force plane on June 16, 1968, a half-mile off North Vietnam near the DMZ. But James Steffen maintains that the four sailors of Coastal Division 12, TF 115, who were killed died as a result of hostile fire.
Over the course of the war, an estimated 3,500 “Swifties” served in Vietnam, with 52 being killed. PBR-101, operating out of the River Section/Division 531 (TF 116) base at My Tho, was hit on May 24, 1967, ambushed on the Ham Luong River, a VC 57mm recoilless rifle round killed four crewmembers. Riverine warfare was a unique combat experience. “Sailors played a vital role in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere,” said another who served aboard the USS Benewah, flagship of TF 117. “Though relatively few in number, riverine Navy personnel left their stamp on the war effort.”
Operation Market Time provided surveillance of the South Vietnamese coastline and helped halt seaborne infiltration. Among the aircraft employed were P-3 Orians based in U-Tapao, Thailand, and Sangley Point, Philippines. The P-3s patrolled the Gulf of Siam. On April 1, 1968, an unarmed P-3B from Patrol Squadron (VP) 26 was hit in the starboard wing by fire from a .50-caliber anti-aircraft gun. It was mounted on a landing craft manned by the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communists) near Hon Doc Island.
“I saw the P-3 flying rather low and burning — it appeared the right wing was on fire,” recalled a Gunner Mate onboard a patrolling swift boat that day. “The P-3 either exploded on impact or completely broke apart as the wreckage showed complete destruction and there were no survivors. It was rumored at the time that a Cambodian gunboat had shot the plane down.”
An engine had caught fire and the plane crashed near the island of Hon Vang while attempting to land on Phu Quoc, less than 10 miles from the Cambodian coast. “Suddenly, abruptly, the wind tore off between #3 and #4 engine, and the aircraft tumbled uncontrolled as it plunged into the sea,” wrote an eyewitness. All 12 members of Crew One perished — the largest single hostile aviation loss for the Navy during the war. (Crew Eight of VP-26 was most likely lost due to autopilot problems, on Feb. 6, 1968. These 12 aviators also died in the Gulf of Siam. However, some believe an anti-aircraft round hit the plane’s #5 tank).
Navy in-country personnel peaked at 39,265 in October 1968. That number included gunboat crews, naval advisors, medical corpsmen, Seals and Seabees. Seabees suffered the second highest fatal hostile Navy casualties in one engagement on the ground (other than Navy corpsmen). Detail Echo, a 180-man detachment of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 9, was assigned to develop a quarry on Hill 494. It was located between Phu Bai and Phu Loc in I Corps. Then on March 31, 1968, an enemy recoilless rifle round struck a berthing tent on the hill, wounding seven men. One died of massive head wounds while being medically evacuated. Five hours later, two 82mm mortar rounds made direct hits on the No. 2 mortar emplacement. Five Seabees were killed instantly. (Five Seabees, of NMCB-74, also were KIA in an ambush along the Kinh Thot Not Canal on Dec. 31, 1970).
“It was like a nightmare.” HM2 Fred Kessem said. “The mortars shook the ground under us and littered the air with smoke and debris. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, like in a bad dream.” Seal teams operated primarily in the Rung Sat Special Zone; a thick mangrove swamp crisscrossed by rivers in the Mekong Delta. Their hunter-killer teams consisted of only three to seven men, so large-scale, single-battle casualties were not possible. Only on tow occasions did a team lose up to three men in a hostile action. These were on April 7, 1967, in a river ambush and on May 7, 1969, when a mortar round hit their position at Kien Giang. In both cases, those killed were members of Detachment Golf, Seal Team 1.
At least 32,238 Navy corpsmen served in Vietnam during the entire war. Some 638 were KIA and 4563 WIA. Their single greatest daily loss was on July 2, 1967. Eight corpsmen of H&S Co, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, were KIA in an ambush on Route 561 northeast of Con Thien. Typically, 53 corpsmen were assigned to an infantry battalion, serving with rifle companies, one or two per platoon of about 40 men each. Four Medals of Honor, 30 Navy Crosses and 127 Silver Stars attest to their bravery in the heat of the battle.
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry