Wesco mined at My Tho
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Some 23 Americans (18 sailors and five soldiers) were killed when Viet Cong swimmers mined the hull of the USS Westchester County on Nov. 1, 1968. This was the U.S. Navy’s greatest loss of life from a single ship as the result of enemy action in Vietnam
In the fall of 1968, the U.S. Westchester County was in the middle of its fifth combat deployment to Vietnam, in support of Task Force 117, Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). It was anchored midstream in the Tien Giang River, 3.7 miles southwest of My Tho. The “Wesco” a support/supply/barracks ship with a crew of 132, was serving as the temporary base for 175 soldiers of the third battalion, 60th Infantry, and 3rd battalion, 34th Artillery, 9th Infantry Division and 93 Sailors of Navy River Assault Division 111. As such, it was surrounded by the command ship USS Benewah, repair vessel USS Askari, two large barracks barges, three aluminum pontoon barges and various assault craft.
In the early-morning hours of November 1, the majority of the crew was asleep. Always on guard for a Viet Cong attack, picket boats circled the ships, dropping concussion grenades to ward off enemy swimmers. But at 0322, two mines, each container an estimated 150-500 Pounds of explosives, detonated on the starboard side of the ship, directly under the fuel and berthing components.
George Peters, writing in August 1998 issue of Vietnam, described the carnage: “In the crowded sleeping areas, the blasts rolled entire deck front and back, like the tongue of a shoe, leaving only a cramped crawl space jammed with twisted metal and mangled bodies between the deck and bulkhead.” One artilleryman remembers that night vividly, “I left the card game I was playing and quietly made it to my bunk, said Specialist 4 aboard the ship. I bent over to take my boots off, and then there was a big explosion. I thought we’d been hit by B-40s (enemy rockets). Instead of grabbing my mattress to protect myself, I examined the room. The men I’d just passed who were sleeping were now dead.”
Within the ship, it was mayhem. Sailors jolted awake by the blast rushed to battle stations, most wearing only underwear or less, stopping to help any wounded they encountered along the way. Visibility was zero, as the lighting was knocked out, and clouds of steam and vaporized diesel fuel filled the air. The deck of the sleeping area was blown upward, leaving sailors (many of them wounded) only a tight crawl space to escape. Below, in the Army quarters, river water rushed in through two gaping holes, each more than 20 feet in diameter.
“No one knew what was going on or what really happened,” Peters said. “It was pitch black outside, and people were falling over each other because you couldn’t see anything.” A 2nd class petty officer was working aboard one of the barracks barges (APL30) moored 50-100 yards off the Wesco when the mines detonated. “We felt the wave from the explosion,” he said.
“We soon joined the search for survivors who might be in the water. It was disorienting to see the night sky lit with illumination flares and spotlights from patrol boats and choppers. Soon the MRF (mobile riverine force) ships were firing toward shore with their big guns, which added to the chaos.”
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Bannon knew that to save the Wesco, he had to correct the list.
By using a sophisticated ballasting system to pump out the ballast already held in internal tanks, he was able to offset the water that was flooding the ship through the holes created by the explosion. Every senior petty officer was killed or wounded (their compartment was among the hardest-hit area), so 22-year-old Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Prusset followed precise instructions and successfully righted the ship. Meanwhile, below deck, Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Jake Sullen, himself missing a large hunk of flesh from his leg, responded through the darkness to cries for help from the senior petty officers’ quarters. He found two sailors pinned, one unconscious with a head injury and the other with a large metal hook through his arm. Sullen was able to pry them out and helped evacuate them.
“We didn’t obey a whole lot of first-aid rules on moving victims,” Sullen later said. “At the time, it was just a matter of getting them the hell out of there.”
Only on his way to the bridge to see where else he was needed did Sullen realize his leg was still bleeding and he had no clothes on. After donning pants and shoes, he continued to assist those in need, at one point giving first aid and support to two trapped men for more than an hour until they were freed.
Once it was clear the Wesco was not under attack, men at their battle stations were ordered to assist with rescue operations. But the vaporized fuel in the air hampered their efforts. According to a narrative by a damage control officer, “Investigation was extremely difficult, as lights shone into the heavy vapor were useless until the atmosphere could be cleared.” Also of great concern were the more than 300 tons of explosives and ammunition stored on the tank deck — a flash fire that reached those trapped by twisted metal until the vaporized fuel was cleared out. So, they had to handle for chain falls, pry bars, come-alongs and screw jacks.
In daylight, recovery efforts and damage assessments could begin. Once the sun came up, teams were assigned to get the dead out. There was one 18-year-old kid who had just arrived the day before who I’d helped out. I saw them putting him in a body bag 12 hours later. He chose to beach the ship to better assess the damage.
The crew worked around the clock for 14 days, making temporary repairs, after which they made the 2,500-mile trip back to Yokosuka, Japan, for dry-docking and repairs. Rough seas on the way there cracked and ruptured the temporary repairs, but the crew was ready, and they made it to Japan without major incident.
A retired Army explosives expert called the mining of the Westchester County a “well planned and executed enemy operation.” He surmised that if the cargo had gone “high order,” or exploded, it would have been equal to a small nuclear weapon. This would have destroyed the ship and could have immobilized or destroyed the entire Mobile Riverine Force. He credits the quick thinking and actions of the crew for averting that tragedy.
Crew members received 36 awards and commendations for their actions that day, including a Bronze Star for Lt. Cmdr. Bannon and a Silver Star for Corpsman Sullen. Although the day was still tragic — 17 crewmen, one riverine sailor and five soldiers (of B Co, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry), along with two South Vietnamese personnel, were KIA and 22 WIA (wounded in action) — the crewmen prevailed, saving the Wesco.
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry