Classified Information Disclosed for the First Time
The Navy of the Republic of Vietnam
Was Active in the Gulf of Tonkin
The Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) expanded as the war intensified. To keep pace with the developing situation on the battlefield, large warships such as destroyers and cruisers, etc., were added to the fleet and units with special responsibilities were established. These included the Sea Patrol Force as well as the Coastal Security Service with its amphibious forces that were similar to U.S. Navy SEALS. Hundreds of modern PT Boats were turned over by the U.S. Navy so that the RVN Navy could defend the coast from the 17th Parallel to the Gulf of Thailand and also patrol the labyrinth of rivers and canals that crisscross the 3rd and 4th Tactical Corps Areas, which includes all of the land area in the Mekong Delta. Additionally, the RVN Navy undertook special projects in the territorial waters north of the 17th Parallel. The unit that implemented these special activities was the Coastal Security Service. The Sea Patrol Force with the assistance of the frogmen had operational responsibility and it was equipped with the fast and modern PT Boats. Every member of these two units had secret or top secret security clearances. The headquarters of the Coastal Security Service and the bases of the Sea Patrol Force were located at Da Nang, a large city in Central Vietnam.
At no time did the RVN Navy ever disclose any data concerning its operations against North Vietnam. Many intrepid members of the RVN Navy, such as Naval Captains Luu Chuyen and Lien Phong, sacrificed their lives while doing their duty in the Gulf of Tonkin. A number of others were captured and imprisoned by the enemy.
In an effort to record the historic facts surrounding the activities of the RVN Navy so that future researchers will have accurate data on which to base their chronicles, the Federation of Associations of the RVN Navy and Merchant Marine has set up a Commission of Naval History and appointed a former Naval Captain as its first Chairman.
Now as we enter the third millennium, the Vietnamese Newspaper of Florida is very happy to publish an article on this subject by Mr. Tran Do Cam, himself a former PT Boat Commander with the RVN Sea Patrol Force, with historical details concerning the activities of both units that have never before been disclosed.
On the occasion of welcoming in the Lunar New Year, we wish to take a moment to honor the brave warriors who paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect the territorial integrity of the Fatherland and preserve both freedom and democracy for their countrymen. We pray that the homeland will be peaceful and prosperous and that our fellow citizens will escape from the yoke of domination that is the Communist Party and make vigorous progress in the new millennium.
Mr. Chu Ba Yen, Editor
Annual Yearbook - Directory
Florida Vietnamese Newspaper
P.O. Box 277625, Mirama, FL 33027-7625
Excerpted in its entirety from page 80 and translated from the Vietnamese by Donald C. Brewster, May, 2000.
A SPECIAL NAVAL UNIT OF THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM
Tran Do Cam
Dedicated to the Comrades in Arms of the Coastal Security Service
The author reserves all publication rights. Please contact him
on the Internet at: email@example.com. Thank you.
The war in Vietnam between the Nationalists and the Communists took different forms as both sides tried many different ways to gain an advantage and eliminate the enemy from the battlefield. The print media and numerous films have meticulously analyzed and clearly reiterated the famous clashes such as the Tet Offensive and the incursions into Laos as well as the battles at Quang Tri, Kontum and An Loc, etc., in which the combatants of both sides invariably totaled many army divisions. Of course, just below the surface of the conventional war which everyone knew all too well, there was a hidden aspect of which few were aware.
When we speak of what were known then as covert operations we must remember that even those who were engaged in them knew only their duties or the part they played. Beyond being aware of the designation, Special Forces, those who were not directly involved did not have a clear view of what was happening. In general, Special Forces included many of the various military services that made up the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), which sometimes even included civilian personnel. Their duties included raids into enemy territory or behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and attack enemy targets. They also carried out many missions to detain individuals for questioning and engaged in psychological warfare operations among the enemy population. Because these activities were very dangerous and carried out under cover of darkness, the great majority of the Special Forces rank and file were volunteers. We all have heard of the famous flying teams known to the Vietnamese as the Thunder Tigers or Black Dragons and Squadron 219 of the Air Force. Equally well known are the Delta Force and Rangers, etc., who were part of the infantry. In regards to the Navy however, except for the SEALS, all other units remain shrouded in secrecy to this very day.
In every special operation conducted behind enemy lines, especially those that included cross-border missions into North Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, the participants were usually divided into two groups: the operations team which was usually nicknamed the “team” had the duty of actually going ashore to carry out the mission they had been given and the support team, which had the responsibility for providing the transport that would drop off and retrieve the operations team as well as provide fire support when required. Infantry teams did not have an inherent transport or fire support capability by either air or sea and therefore could only undertake duties that fell into the category of the former. By contrast, the Air Force, which did not have its own operations team, could only participate by providing transport and support. As for the Navy, it was unique in that it could undertake both special and support operations because in its makeup was an inherent capability to perform both tasks mentioned above.
The special operations that were carried out by the various teams such as the Thunder Tigers/Black Dragons, Squadron 219 and the Delta Force took place within the territory of the RVN, Laos or Cambodia while the later incursions into North Vietnam were undertaken almost exclusively by the existing units of the RVN Navy. The operational elements of the Navy were the SEALS and a transportation/support unit which was known as the Sea Patrol Force (SPF). In an operational sense SPF was considered a unique unit of the Special Forces that could undertake special missions inside North Vietnam. Those missions included shelling targets on shore, capturing and detaining fishermen to develop intelligence and distributing pamphlets, etc., all without the assistance of any other force. Both the SEALS and the SPF operated under the authority of the Coastal Security Service (CSS).
Before learning more about the organization and activities of the CSS, it will be necessary to clarify a few things in an effort to avoid any misunderstanding. This article is based in large part upon those things that I know and remember from the five continuous years during which I served as an Executive Officer and then a Commanding Officer of a PT Boat in the SPF of the RVN. I participated in more than two hundred missions of every type in the territorial waters of North Vietnam from 1965 to 1970. I learned of a number of major incidents which occurred around this period from the reports of others and gathered some information through recent interviews with those who took part in the missions. Therefore, while every attempt is being made to be objective, time always affects memory to some degree so that errors are not always avoidable. However, it is hoped that well-informed sources, especially the original participants, would happily contribute their thoughts and fill in the blanks so that the veracity of the naval history of the SPF would be ensured. We also wish to clarify that our desire is to present the truth without censure or criticism of anyone, especially those Vietnamese and American authors whom we esteem and admire. They have worked hard to research and collect material on the subject of the SPF and CSS of the RVN. To them we give our heartfelt thanks.
In that the CSS was always an integral part of the Special Forces, we should scrutinize its personnel and organization so that the task of understanding this service will become clearer and easier.
II. The Background of the Various Organizations that Invaded North Vietnam
Right after the Geneva Peace Agreement that divided Vietnam into North and South was signed in 1954, Mr. Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, assigned Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale to South Vietnam to assist Premier Ngo Dinh Diem in consolidating his position in the South and organizing paramilitary units that had been left in place in North Vietnam before the Communists came to power. Colonel Lansdale assumed the post of Deputy Director of the Office of Special Operations that was directed at that time by Brigadier General Graves Erskine. His mandate was to take charge of secret counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam as he had done for Philippine President Magasasay who was successful in exterminating the rebel forces of the Huk Communists during the 1950's. Colonel Lansdale’s organization in Vietnam was called the Saigon Military Mission and it included Infantry Major Lucien Conein, a professional spy who would play a very important role in the political upheavals that characterized the First Republic in South Vietnam.
Just before the North was handed over to the Communists many Vietnamese civilians were recruited by Colonel Lansdale. Most of them came from the Vietnamese ethnic minority known as the Nung and some were native to Mong Cai, which is situated near Hai Phong. Others came from areas near the Chinese border, however, they were all sent to Saipan for training in the basics of counterinsurgency. By the time Vietnam had been officially divided in two, the Nung had been well trained and assigned to small teams. Subsequently, the warships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet put troops ashore near the areas that the Nung recruits called home and ordered them to infiltrate and remain inactive in place until they received further orders. Weapons, radios and gold were prepositioned in secret locations to be retrieved when needed. One of the undercover spies at this time was a man named Pham Xuan An but Colonel Lansdale was not aware that he was an agent of the Vietnamese Communists who had infiltrated our organization.
After the situation in South Vietnam had become relatively stable, President Ngo Dinh Diem organized a special intelligence unit to operate exclusively under his control at the Palace. It was directed by Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, a native of Hue in Central Vietnam. One of the units under the authority of Dr. Tuyen that included guerrilla activity was the Liaison Office which was run by Colonel Le Quang Tung and his Deputy, Colonel Tran Khac Kinh. Captain Le Quang Trieu, the younger brother of Colonel Le Quang Tung, was responsible for recruitment at the Liaison Office and was also the Company Commander for the intra-service company known informally as the Palace Guard. In addition, Presidential Adviser Ngo Dinh Can also had his own intelligence organizations in Central Vietnam.
The liaison office was divided into three parts known as the Northern Operations Service, the Southern Operations Service and the First Observation Group.
1. Northern Operations Service
This service was also called Office 45 under the command of Infantry Captain Ngo The Linh. Although called the Northern Operations Service, this group also undertook covert operations in Laos and Cambodia. Generally speaking the Northern Operations Service shouldered the responsibility for guerrilla activities that took place outside the territory of the RVN.
2. Southern Operations Service
The southern service was also known as Office 55 and was under the command of Infantry Captain Tran Van Minh. It was responsible for guerilla operations within the territory of the RVN.
3. The First Observation Group
In addition to the Southern and Northern Operations Service, the Liaison Office also had a special structure of which only a few people were aware. It was called the First Observation Group and was established in 1956 with the assistance of the U.S. Pentagon and the CIA.
Outwardly, the group was only a regular outfit with a number of administrative personnel but in reality all of its activities were under the disposition of the Liaison Office. The Personnel of this group received special training to infiltrate and lay low in the South in the event the RVN fell into Communist hands after the general elections that were called for in the Geneva Accords. These operational teams of the group remained in place until 1958 and even though the elections were canceled, the teams still buried weapons and explosives as well as radios and gold, etc., in preparation for underground operations when and if they became necessary.
III. The Infiltration Routes
In 1958 when the situation in the South had become relatively stable, President Ngo Dinh Diem officially requested that the U.S. provide assistance in carrying out guerrilla operations in North Vietnam. Therefore, when Mr. William Colby of the CIA was assigned to Saigon on January 1, 1959 to make whatever arrangements were required, the coordination of guerrilla activities between the U.S. and the RVN officially started. In general, operations to infiltrate North Vietnam were carried out by air and by sea.
1. Infiltration by Air
As for the use of air, in the beginning the CIA hired a number of pilots from the China Air Lines Company in Taipei in order to train Vietnamese pilots. Later, the Transport Squadron of the RVN Air Force led by Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Cao Ky, undertook flights that dropped special force paratroopers in the North.
The first flight occurred on May27,1961 when Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Cao Ky himself flew as the lead pilot in a C-47 aircraft. Four members of the team known as Caster were dropped into a mountainous jungle area of Son La, a province not too far from the Chinese border. They were all Nung ethnic minorities who had originated in Son La and were now serving with the 22nd Infantry Division, a unit that consisted mostly of ethnic minorities from the North who had come South. The Caster team was led by Ha Van Chap and had been placed under the authority of the Topography Exploitation Service of Office 45 also known as the Northern Operations Service. After completing the mission the aircraft piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Ky returned safely through the airspace over Laos.
2. Infiltration by Sea
The infiltration of North Vietnam by sea began very early, only a few years after the country was divided in two. Various incursions began in1956 when the Liaison Office needed a number of wooden junks in order to step up the placement of personnel and resupply by sea those teams that were already in place in North Vietnam.
In the beginning there were only six civilians, all of whom were natives of Quang Binh Province and had earlier evacuated to the South. They were recruited in the city of Nha Trang to enter the new ocean going force that had just been established. This early operation into the territorial waters of North Vietnam consisted of a number of short incursions, each of which lasted for only a few days and was accomplished in small junks that looked like all the other fishing junks in the area and thus easily used them as cover. Later as the need for operations increased more personnel were recruited and a number of larger junks were outfitted to accomplish the task at hand. The force that included all of these civilian personnel was a part of the Northern Operations Service which remained under the command of Infantry Captain Ngo The Linh. Captain Ngo The Linh was known affectionately to all of us as Mr. Binh and was generally viewed by all those who came after as the founding father of the Coastal Security Service and the Sea Patrol Force of the RVN.
While support and liaison missions by sea continued, it was not until February, 1961 that the secret service of Dr. Tran Quang Tuyen, with the help of the American CIA, actually put two spies ashore in Quang Yen. Both of these individuals, one who hailed from the RVN and the other, a northerner named Pham Chuyen, landed safely. Pham Chuyen had been a mid-level Communist cadre who rallied to the RVN through its Returnee Program by coming south across the 17th Parallel in 1959. His alias was Ares and proof later surfaced indicating that he was a double agent.
3. Nautilus Fishing Junks
Following the placement ashore of the two agents mentioned above, the junks used in the infiltration of the territorial waters of North Vietnam were given the nickname of Nautilus after the name of Captain Nemo’s mysterious submarine found in Jules Verne’s science fiction classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The missions were also known as Nautilus and during this period infiltration of North Vietnam by sea proceeded relatively easily.
Up until this time the Nautilus operations were all conducted by the CIA. The Nautilus crews were civilians that had been recruited by the CIA but there were also a number of RVN Navy frogmen that had received special training to carry out sapper attacks using explosives. Most of these frogmen were sailors in team 18 that had received special training in Taiwan in August, 1960.
IV Changing Command
In the beginning a number of Nautilus missions to infiltrate by sea produced good results because the enemy had not yet been able to mount a defense or otherwise react to them. But as time went on, the missions were less effective because the enemy increased his shore patrol forces and many of the missions by junk were disclosed in advance by improved enemy intelligence.
The use of junks had only one advantage and that was that they could hide among the local fishing vessels. However, as intelligence was developed by the enemy from the crews of the fishing junks whom we had detained, it appeared that the enemy knew very well the routes that were used for infiltration and it became difficult to avoid contact during the missions. Moreover, the Nautilus junks all had very slow speeds and weak firepower that kept them from protecting themselves when discovered and pursued.
For these reasons, Admiral Harry G. Felt, U.S. Commander in Chief, Pacific, decided that the secret organizations of the CIA did not have sufficient capability to complete their infiltration missions. He proposed that assets of the U.S. Navy be used and suggested replacing the Nautilus junks with U.S. submarines. To find a solution to this problem Defense Secretary McNamara convened a meeting in or around July, 1962 that included the Defense Department, Department of State and the CIA. Everyone in attendance agreed to transfer responsibility for the commando attacks on North Vietnam from the CIA to the Department of Defense. The transfer itself was dubbed Operation Switchback and was to be completed within one year. In December, 1962, the National Security Council’s Special Working Group agreed with Admiral Felt’s earlier recommendation to use PT Boats and frogmen to carry out the infiltration missions into North Vietnam. Of course at that time neither the vessels nor the personnel had yet arrived on site.
Operation Switchback formally began on January 1, 1963. From then on, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) assumed the responsibility for operations along the border that were being directed at that time by CIA Officer Gilbert Layton. Layton remained as Colonel George Morton’s deputy when he replaced Layton and set up Team C of the Special Forces with its headquarters in the city of Nha Trang. As for the activities in North Vietnam, even though they were under the authority of MACV, CIA Officer W. T. Cheney remained in charge. By April, 1963, a Special Forces Training Center had been set up in Long Thanh to train the teams that would be dropped in North Vietnam. Meanwhile, the CIA made preparations to turn over the infiltration missions into North Vietnam to the military authorities.
V. Operations Plan 34-A
In May, 1963, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Admiral Harry G. Felt to prepare a plan to support the RVN’s effort to carry out special operations in North Vietnam. In June, 1963, Admiral Felt and the Joint Chiefs outlined a preliminary operational plan, the strategy of which was to use hit and run attacks against the North Vietnamese in order to compel them to reduce their military efforts against the RVN. According to this plan, ARVN would provide the personnel and the U.S. would supply the transportation and training. The plan was known as OPLAN 34-63 and was accepted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on August 14th with the request that a few small details be changed. Adjustments were made to the plan and it was approved once again on September 9, 1963.
In the Conference on Vietnam that was held in Honolulu on October 20th, William Colby, who had been reassigned from his post in Vietnam to CIA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to serve as CIA Director for all of the Far East, indicated to the Secretary of Defense that based on the experience of the CIA, dropping small teams into North Vietnam would be unsuccessful. However, high placed U.S. officials disagreed arguing that the CIA had failed because it lacked the means and the capability. Therefore, the CIA was ordered to turn over the plan to infiltrate North Vietnam to the Army.
While preparation for the plan was proceeding nicely, an unexpected development occurred that had major consequences for the project. That was the Coup d’Etat against President Ngo Dinh Diem that took place on November 3, 1963. It caused considerable confusion for the Government of Vietnam and affected the implementation of its operational plans. The two people who led President Diem’s secret service, Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen and Colonel Le Quang Tung no longer existed. Brigadier General Le Van Nghiem was assigned to the post of Special Forces Commander and was replaced only a few months later by Colonel Pham Dinh Thu. However, Office 45 or the Northern Operations Service and Office 55 or the Southern Operations Service still remained under the direction of Ngo The Linh and Tran Van Minh.
Even though there were obstacles the guerilla attacks by sea continued. Within the parameters of OPLAN 34-63 and during November, 1963, a number of frogmen who made up the operational teams left Da Nang for training at the Cua Viet Naval Base where they would prepare for a sapper mission to destroy ships in the harbors of North Vietnam just north of the 17th Parallel. One mission which was planned for December, 1963, was aimed at North Vietnamese patrol craft at the Quang Khe Naval Base which was situated at the mouth of the Giang River in Quang Binh Province and was also the location of the Southern Sector Headquarters of North Vietnam’s Navy. Before the mission began the American advisers provided aerial reconnaissance photos of the base at Quang Khe. While underway the mission was scrubbed due in part to inclement weather. One of the frogmen who participated in the raid was Vu Van Guong.
While progress was achieved in training, guerrilla operations did not produce the desired results by the end of 1963. The reason was that the organization lacked structure and most of the civilian personnel did not have the technical training or the discipline of the military. Therefore, the direct participation of ARVN was needed. Both the CIA and MACV ordered adjustments to OPLAN 34-63 and after a time a new plan known as OPLAN 34 A became the centerpiece for infiltrating North Vietnam by sea. The new plan, dubbed Operation Tiger by the CIA was presented to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 15, 1963. A few days before on December 12th, Defense Secretary McNamara advised Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge that President Johnson wanted to emphasize the special operations aimed at North Vietnam and also wanted ARVN with U.S. support, to assume responsibility for them. These operations were designed to subtly inform North Vietnam that the U.S. would not accept the Communist invasion of the RVN and if North Vietnam stubbornly persisted in the use of force, it would be defeated. To summarize, the principal objective of OPLAN 34A was to combine the attacks against North Vietnam with military and diplomatic pressure to serve as a warning to North Vietnam to not increase its activities in Laos and in the RVN. Thus, from a plan that was implemented by the CIA with the objective of gathering intelligence and wreaking havoc on the North, OPLAN 34A had now become an operation that was heavily weighted on the political aspects of the confrontation.
Also on December 15, 1963, in response to high level directives, the U.S. Navy set up a Mobile Support Team in Da Nang. This team consisted of a number of U.S. Navy frogmen known as SEALS, U.S. Marine Intelligence Officers and many American specialists experienced in guerrilla operations. Additionally, two PT Boat crews had recently arrived in Da Nang. The purpose of the Mobile Support Teams was to train Vietnamese crews in how to operate the PT Boats and use them in commando raids by sea. The U.S. would provide maintenance and support services.
On December 19th, the U.S. Army Command in the Pacific asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for permission to implement OPLAN 34A on an experimental basis for a period of 12 months.
VI. MACSOG and the Technical Service is Established
It is worth noting that OPLAN 34A called for the participation of ARVN but since the RVN was not involved in planning for the project, it was not able to make timely preparations. It was on January 21, 1964 that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to implement the first phase of OPLAN 34A. It was not until that time that Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge advised the RVN Chief of State Duong Van Minh about the plan and requested that the RVN cooperate by supplying ARVN manpower. On January 24th, the Special Operations Group was formed with Colonel Clyde Russell as its commander and since it operated under the authority of MACV, this special group became known as MACVSOG or MACSOG. Later in 1964 the Special Operations Group was renamed the Studies and Observation Group to give it a more civilian sounding title but it was still called by the acronym MACSOG. Speaking generally, OPLAN 34A had four main responsibilities: to insert teams by airdrop, provide logistic support by air, conduct operations on the sea routes and engage in psychological warfare. Of all these projects, the “air” teams had the most personnel as the CIA left behind 169 Vietnamese who were still in training at Long Thanh, the majority of them civilians.
On January 28, 1964, General Nguyen Khanh’s takeover of the GVN or as he called it, “reform” slowed down the progress of MACSOG as the U.S. needed the acceptance and cooperation of the new government. General Khanh was a proponent of striking against the North so the Strategic Technical Service was set up on February 12th under the direction of Colonel Tran Van Ho at the RVN Ministry of Defense. Its mandate was to work along with MACSOG. This service was actually the reincarnation of the Topographic Exploitation Service which had formerly been directed by Colonel Le Quang Tung during the time of the First Republic. Its name was later changed to the Strategic Technical Directorate (STD).
As for the command function, Washington maintained total control and was responsible for all operational planning. MACSOG and the Technical Service in Vietnam shouldered the responsibility for carrying out the operations. MACSOG and the Technical Service had almost no voice or any influence when it came to proposing, approving or arranging the schedule for the operations.
As for organization, the American side maintained a group under MACSOG which was known variously as the Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) or the Maritime Operation Group (MAROPS) that specialized in running the coastal commando operations that had the responsibility for putting guerrillas ashore and carrying out sapper attacks against enemy vessels. In addition to these military operations they also implemented exploratory/survey operations along the coast of North Vietnam. On the Vietnamese side, the Technical Service and the CSS both worked right alongside the Naval Advisory Detachment. These two organizations were often called NAD/CSS and they were headquartered together to facilitate coordination at a place in Da Nang known as the White Elephant. Those in command at CSS coordinated closely with the Naval Advisory Detachment concerning the disposition of personnel and the briefings and after action reports for each mission, etc. CSS also worked very closely with the Mobile Support Teams.
When the coastal infiltration teams operated under the direct authority of the CIA in the past there were a number of RVN Navy frogmen involved but the majority of Nautilus personnel were civilians. But, when Operation Switchback turned the command and control of the special operations from the CIA to the U.S. military, the Nautilus junks were slowly replaced by more modern PT Boats. The Sea Patrol Force was also established to include officers and crew members from the RVN Navy who were especially chosen for this duty. The Sea Patrol Force was placed under the operational authority of the CSS which was under the jurisdiction of the Technical Service.
Most of the CSS personnel were military and the majority were from the RVN Navy. On occasion a very small number were recruited from the Army Infantry. The CSS worked alongside the U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment in assigning the missions to various teams, training and PT Boat maintenance. Administratively, the CSS personnel were detailed to their jobs by the Navy. The CSS commanders were all experienced Navy personnel with long service records and as many as four of them were subsequently promoted to the rank of commodore.
In addition to a number of administrative units, CSS had two principal subordinate parts which were the Sea Patrol Force and the SEAL force, often referred to simply as the SEALS.
1. Sea Patrol Force
The Sea Patrol Force had the most personnel and could be viewed as the nucleus of the CSS yet some of the of its staff, including regular Navy personnel, had seldom heard of the CSS. In reality, the Sea Patrol Force was simply one unit of the CSS as were the SEALS. In order to understand this more clearly it will be necessary for the reader to become familiar with the duties, billets, personnel and equipment as well as the various activities of the Sea Patrol Force.
The principal duty of the Sea Patrol Force was to carry out special seaborne military operations against North Vietnam in its territorial waters north of the 17th Parallel. In this regard, we can look at the Sea Patrol Force as similar to Squadron 219 of the RVN Air Force which undertook infiltration of the North by helicopter. However, in addition to dropping off and retrieving the various SEAL teams in the coastal areas of North Vietnam, the PT Boats of the Sea Patrol Force also achieved many specialized missions. Some of these, which will be mentioned later, included shelling the enemy, confiscating ships in the area and engaging in psychological warfare, etc.
B. Base Locations
The base location of the Sea Patrol Force was right next to the Deep Water Pier and the military harbor complex at the foot of Monkey Mountain on Da Nang’s Son Cha Peninsula. This was also the location where large U.S. freighters offloaded their cargo and U.S. Navy troop transports were docked. This spot was not far from the 1st Naval Coastal Zone Headquarters. To get there from the City of Da Nang it was necessary to go through a control point at Cau Trang, pass the Deep Water Pier on the left and arrive at the Sea Patrol Force base on the right. Somewhat further along was the Headquarters of the 1st Naval Coastal Zone mentioned above.
The base consisted of two long single-storied structures that were parallel to each other and had fibro-cement sheathing on the roofs. The billet which was situated on higher ground at the base of the mountain was reserved for officers and the building on the other side near the road housed the boat crews. The officer quarters were divided into many small rooms to which two men were assigned and every four occupants shared one of the bathrooms. The crew quarters consisted of long barracks in which the crew of each PT Boat slept together.
In addition to the barracks there were also other facilities such as recreation areas and warehouses, etc...
Across a small road directly opposite the base and near the Deep Water Pier was the docking area for the PT Boats as well as the repair and maintenance facilities of the Mobile Support Teams.
From the time that the Infiltration by Sea Teams were first set up in 1956 until the CSS was officially founded at the beginning of 1964, the means of transport changed with the times and according to the requirements of the mission. In the beginning the infiltration teams used regular fishing junks. Later however, more modern PT Boats were used and in the end high speed or fast PT Boats were employed.
- Nautilus Junks
In the beginning, as we well know, the Seaborne Infiltration Force was set up under the direction of the CIA and consisted of Nautilus junks. These were fairly large wooden boats that were enclosed and measured thirty meters in length. They looked like all the other fishing boats that operated in the Gulf of Tonkin. The junks, powered by sails and engines had a top speed of less than ten nautical miles per hour. Armament consisted of a heavy machine gun and the individual weapons that were manned by the crew.
Until the middle of 1963 there were seven Nautilus junks in Da Nang, numbered from one to seven, that were used to infiltrate coastal areas of North Vietnam. They operated under the command of Captain Ngo The Linh who himself belonged to the Special Forces that were led by Colonel Le Quang Tung. Most of the crews of the Nautilus junks were civilians who had evacuated South from the northern provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh or Nung ethnic minorities who were born in North Vietnam. A number of American and Vietnamese officers trained the crews and the infiltration teams. The crews of the various junks changed or were augmented according to the requirements of each mission.
During 1962-1963 many infiltration missions in North Vietnam to resupply, land SEAL teams or carry out raids were successful because the junks could easily blend in with the local fishing vessels in the area. However, the junks were very slow and routinely took 24 hours to travel the distance from the base in Da Nang to the Quang Khe target area situated just south of the 18th Parallel. And, as time wore on improved intelligence sources allowed the enemy to map the routes taken by the Nautilus junks with some precision. For these reasons, the Nautilus program was then being viewed as ineffective. A case in point was the mission to attack the communist naval base at Quang Khe on June 28, 1962. Due to a combination of weak firepower and slow speed a Nautilus II junk was pursued and sunk by an enemy patrol craft. From that moment on, the CIA replaced the Nautilus junks with fast patrol craft (PCF) which were known as “Swifts”. They were much faster than the junks and had more firepower.
- The Swift Boats
Due to the fact that the Nautilus junks had outlived their usefulness in the effort to infiltrate North Vietnam, they were replaced in mid 1963 by three fast PCFs which were known affectionately as “Swifts”. These Swift Boats were relatively small with a range that extended to the Northern seaport of Dong Hoi. Later, during the Vietnamization program, the RVN Navy outfitted many of these Swifts to become units of the RVN Coast Guard.
The Swift was a snub-nosed aluminum PT Boat about 50 feet in length which was manufactured by Seward Seacraft in Burwick, Lousiana. It was a 19 ton vessel with a draft of 3.5 feet and was powered by two diesel engines that provided enough thrust to achieve a top speed of about 28 nautical miles per hour. It was armed with a twin .50 caliber machine gun and an 81 millimeter mortar that was “piggybacked” with another .50 caliber machine gun. The craft was fully operable with a crew of five.
Compared with the Nautilus junks, the Swifts were fast and had a heavy firepower capability but they had a relatively short operating range that allowed them to go only as far North as Dong Hoi which is located about 60 nautical miles north of the 17th Parallel. They were not able to compete against the faster P-4 or the Swatow boats of the North Vietnamese which were equipped with a 37 millimeter cannon. For that reason as well as the tactical requirements of the missions, the CSS was equipped in early 1964 with what were known as Fast Torpedo Patrol Boats (PTF) which were larger, faster and had a greater range as well as heavier firepower. The use of these fast torpedo boats and Vietnamese frogmen was officially proposed by the U.S. Special Operations Unit in a document dated September 27, 1962.
- The Fast Torpedo Patrol Boats (PTF)
There was a total of three types of these fast boats that were used in Vietnam: first, the WW II vintage fast torpedo boats, then the “Nasty” boat that was made in Norway and finally the U.S. built “Osprey”. A special point was made of dismantling the torpedo tubes on all of these boats because the targets in North Vietnam consisted of only small ships that did not require the use of such a weapon. Other armament on board was also modified to meet the specific needs of the assigned missions.
The fast PT Boats were put under the authority of the Mobile Support Team (MST), which at that time in March, 1964 was commanded by Lieutenant Burton Knight and operated under the direction of MACSOG in Saigon. As for the upper level chain of command, MACSOG was responsible to the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities who reported to the Pentagon and Committee 303 at the National Security Council with input from the National Security Administration. Of course, the U.S. personnel in Da Nang who comprised the Naval Operation Support Group placed the base in Coronado, California under the direction of Colonel Phil H. Bucklew. This group had the responsibility for the special activities of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific as well as for the management of the teams that provided the Special Operations Group with the logistics support for its operations in Vietnam.
- Early Fast PT Boats
The first two fast PT Boats that were equipped for the Sea Patrol Force were the type used in WW II and were similar to former President John F. Kennedy’s PT 109. Nicknamed the gas boats they had a Packard engine that ran on airplane fuel. From the beginning, those officials familiar with the missions of the SEALS in Da Nang and Saigon did not approve of the use of these old PT Boats but were under orders from Washington to try them out. For that reason the U.S. Navy, in January, 1963, outfitted two PT Boats, the PT-810 and the PT-811, that had been kept in reserve in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. These were WW II type torpedo boats but were built in 1950. The original equipment included torpedo tubes, 40 millimeter cannons fore and aft, two 20 millimeter cannons and a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on each side.
In contrast to the Nasty boats, these two ships retained their forward 40 millimeter guns and added two .50 caliber machine guns. Both PT Boats were renamed PTF-1 and PTF-2. After test runs both PT Boats ran into quite a few technical problems and were returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for repairs. About this time, the U.S. Navy received two new PT Boats that had been procured in Norway. Known by their Norwegian name “Nasty”, both boats were renamed after they arrived in Vietnam as PTF-3 and PTF-4.
On January 19, 1964, both PT Boats, PTF-1 and PTF-2, were carried by the U.S. warship Pioneer Myth from Norfolk, Virginia and arrived at Subic Bay, the Philippines in February. Some time in March, 1964, they arrived in Vietnam. At this time the Nasty PTF-3 and PTF-4 were already in Vietnam having arrived at the end of February. When PTF-1 and PTF-2 were given dry runs in Da Nang, it was noticed that they were not safe and reliable for many reasons. First, a gasoline powered boat could explode very easily if hit by a round during one of its missions. Second,
the engine backfired very noisily and was loud when it was running and, thirdly, it was very difficult to restart after it was stopped as the engine components seemed to hang up when it was hot. The third reason created a very dangerous situation because it was necessary to shut down the engine to avoid excessive noise when the crew was delivering or retrieving a team but it was also necessary to be able to quickly restart the engine in an emergency. Finally, the engine usually died when the boat was shifted into reverse. However, with all its faults the gasoline powered boats had lots of firepower and a relatively high speed that made them very effective in attack or fire support missions.
In addition to the safety concerns mentioned above, when these older model PT Boats broke down, which they did in short order, it was difficult to procure spare parts for them. Moreover, there was another obstacle to using the PT Boats that had been built in the U.S. and that involved U.S. law according to which the means of transportation and armament that could be used in commando operations could not be sent beyond U.S. borders. To do otherwise would create diplomatic problems.
The older model PT Boats participated in quite a few operations but they ran into mechanical difficulties during their activities on July 30th and August 8, 1964. Shortly after, both the PTF-1 and the PTF-2 were replaced with more modern boats that were built in Norway.
There was a total of two older PT Boats that were used in the Sea Patrol Forces. One of the two commanders commented on these “gasoline powered boats” as follows:
“The engine did not run smoothly when idling and made a strange roaring sound. Starting the engine was very difficult. When it first kicked over it belched a large backfire and blew out a large fireball for a distance of a meter and a half. The large propeller churned up the water forcefully so that when the boat was docked or in port it created large waves. The engine only ran well at top speed and easily cut off when it was going slow. It created problems for the mechanics who had to stand over the engine to make sure it didn’t shut down. Once off, the engine was very difficult to start and sometimes drained all the air from the pressure tank which supplemented the battery power. The top speed was very fast at 35 to 40 nautical miles per hour with a full load of fuel and 40 to 45 when it was returning with its fuel tanks near empty. There was not a ship around that would pull alongside or go head to head with us and the commanders of the other boats often referred to us as the pair of sea monsters.
The PT Boats were equipped with two 40 and two 20 millimeter cannons, as well as two .50 caliber machine guns. Our missions were only attack raids and did not involve dropping or retrieving any personnel so they were leisurely and always successful. The missions of the other boats included drops and pickups that sometimes were delayed due to bad timing or other obstacles. Many times the trips were uneventful but there were occasions when long waits were necessary.”
- Norwegian Fast Patrol Boats (Nasty)
Due to the insurmountable weaknesses inherent in the above mentioned “gassers”, the Sea Patrol Force was equipped with the Nasty at the end of 1965. The Nasty was the most modern PT Boat in the world at that time and built jointly by the Norwegian Navy and West Germany.
The architect of the Nasty PT Boat was Jan H. Lingen of Norway who drew up the plans after conferring with officers of the Royal Norwegian Navy and incorporating the best characteristics of both the American built PT Boats and the British Fairmile D. This type of coastal patrol boat could carry a crew of nineteen. The first Nasty PT Boat built for the Norwegian Navy was known by the acronym KNM TJELT (P-343). Norway built a total of 42 Nasty PT Boats which included 20 for itself, six for Greece, two for Turkey and 14 for the U.S. to use in Vietnam.
The first two Nasty PT Boats were turned over to the U.S. Navy in 1963 at Little Creek, Virginia and after testing were named PTF-3 and PTF-4. On May 3, 1963, both ships proceeded to San Diego, California for training. On September 17th, both PT Boats were carried by the warship Point Defiance (Landing Ship Dock - LSD-31) to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and on to Subic Bay in the Philippines one month later. At Subic Bay both ships were fitted with extra fuel tanks in order to extend their operating range. The 40 millimeter gun on the foredeck was replaced by an 81 millimeter mortar with a .50 caliber machine gun which was “piggybacked”. On February 22, 1964, both boats were taken to the USS Carter Hall for transport to Vietnam. However, while being loaded, PTF-3 suffered major damage to its hull as a result of a freak swell and had to return to Subic Bay for repairs. PTF-3 finally arrived in Da Nang at the end of February, 1964.
On February 1, 1964, Norway turned over an additional four Nasty PT Boats at its harbor at Bergen. They were called PTF-5, 6, 7 and 8 respectively. They were loaded on the USS Point Barrow (AKD-1) for transport to Subic Bay on March 3rd. Following their refitting and upgrading, these Nasty PT Boats arrived in Vietnam a few months later.
The Nasty PT Boat had a special laminated wooden hull and weighed 75 tons. It was 24.7 feet wide with a displacement of 3.7 feet in the front and 6.1 feet in the rear. It could carry 18 tons or 6,100 gallons of fuel which at moderate speed would give it a range of 1,000 nautical miles. The British built Napier and Deltic had an 18 cylinder engine that could deliver a speed of 35 nautical miles per hour when it was fully loaded and maintain a maximum tactical speed that could approach 50 when it was not carrying a lot of fuel.
As for weaponry, the Nasty was equipped with an 81 millimeter anti-aircraft mortar with a .50 caliber machine gun “piggybacked” on the foredeck. A 40 millimeter cannon was mounted on the rear deck and each side was protected by a 20 millimeter cannon. Navigation equipment included electronic positioning devices, sonic depth finder and Decca radar that was effective within a range of 50 nautical miles. The main screen was situated in the Combat Information Center (CIC) and repeater units were located on the bridge. The radar was usually used for operations or navigation but the antenna could be tilted to 15 degrees when necessary to use as an air defense mechanism. Although the radar was up to date at that time the electronic circuitry used light emitting diodes that easily became loose or burned out in rough seas. The radio system also included voice as well as a conventional signal system.
A special feature of the Nasty was the ease of handling which allowed the ship captain to control the engines from the bridge without having to pass along an order during a tactical operation or in an emergency. The bridge was uncovered without a place to sit and relatively low so as to offer less wind resistance. When navigating at high speed the front half of the ship often came up out of the water and when it hit a wave going in the opposite direction it rose and then slammed down as if it were galloping. Anyone on the bridge had to assume a defensive position and be prepared to roll with the ship in order to prevent himself from being soaked by the splashing waves. The laminated hull of the Nasty was tough and able to withstand the rough seas without breaking or cracking. With these special characteristics, the Nasty PT Boats were well liked by their commanders and became the backbone of the Sea Patrol Force.
- PTF Osprey
In order to replace a number of Nasty PT Boats that required long term repairs or were damaged while carrying out their missions, the Sea Patrol Force received a number of U.S. made fast PT Boats known as the “Osprey”. These boats, of which we received six around the middle of 1968, were built by John Trumpy and Sons of Annapolis, Maryland.
The Osprey was modeled after the Norwegian Nasty except that the hull was constructed of aluminum instead of wood. The Osprey was air conditioned and well suited to the long missions it was undertaking. Although it was rumored that the aft section of the Osprey was prefabricated in Norway, its hull was made of aluminum so that it remained heavier than the Nasty. It did have a speed that was about five nautical miles slower than the Nasty and it rode somewhat higher in the water. While the armament was the same on both ships the aluminum hull of the Osprey could not withstand the wear and tear of bad weather. It was usually carried high by the waves and then slammed down with the result that cracks appeared in the hull after only six months in operation. For that reason four of these PT Boats were brought to Vietnam for testing but were subsequently returned to the U.S. and became PTF-23, 24, 25 and 26 in the Navy.
Before getting into the special and more important aspects of the manpower that made up the Sea Patrol Force, it is necessary to mention the earlier sea invasion teams that could be viewed as the forerunners of the Sea Patrol Force and the Coastal Security Service
According to superficial World and American public opinion, special forces operations aimed at North Vietnam were wholly organized by the RVN itself and the personnel involved were all Vietnamese. However, in reality there were a number of Taiwanese and third country personnel that were recruited by the CIA and participated in the program in its early stages. Just as the CIA hired Taiwanese personnel to pilot the planes that dropped special forces in North Vietnam, it also hired third country personnel to be used for commando raids that originated in Da Nang.
In the beginning while Nautilus junks were in use and the crews were all Vietnamese, the majority originated from the provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh or were Nung ethnic minorities who had come South as refugees. The Nautilus junks were disguised to look exactly like North Vietnamese fishing junks and in order to infiltrate among them the crews were Vietnamese who looked like the local fishermen. The majority of the landing teams were also Vietnamese. However, in spite of that, there were some early missions in the Mong Cai area near the Vietnamese/Chinese border that utilized frogmen from Nationalist China but they may have only participated in actions that actually took place in the territory of China.
Later, due to mission requirements, the CIA replaced the Nautilus junks with Swift patrol boats but because they were new and modern the civilian Vietnamese were not qualified to operate them. So the CIA hired a number of third country personnel to serve as commanders. According to U.S. documents and a recent interview with Sven Oste, a Swede, all the Swift commanders were Norwegian nationals. (Mr. Oste interviewed two of the Norwegians, each of whom had served as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam). In addition to the Norwegian commander, each boat had three Vietnamese civilians; a helmsman, a gunner and an interpreter. The three Norwegian commanders were often referred to in a joking manner as the “Vikings”. They were recruited in Norway in July, 1963 and completed their final mission on May 27, 1964. They left Vietnam in June, 1964 when their contract expired. The consensus was that the Norwegian commanders were relatively capable and effectively carried out their assigned missions.
After the contract of the Norwegians expired in June, 1964, a number of Chinese were recruited as replacements but by the time their training was completed, the Swifts were no longer being used in missions north of the 17th Parallel.
In the beginning, the landing teams had a number of third country nationals, such as the Nationalist Chinese, who participated in early missions near the Vietnamese/Chinese border. However, following that all personnel were SEALS, the majority coming from the ranks of the frogmen of the RVN Navy.
Early on the CIA hired German nationals to be trained as skippers for the PTFs which would then operate with Vietnamese personnel and Nung ethnic minorities in support positions. However as time went on the Germans were dismissed because they were usually inebriated. The Germans were under contract and used that as a basis for objecting to the dismissal but the CIA made a cash settlement and ended the matter amicably. The German group did not carry out even one mission with the PTFs. The first operations, which were undertaken in July and August, 1964, were all under the command of RVN naval officers. The great majority of those in the landing teams on board the PTFs were Vietnamese nationals and a few Nung ethnic minorities.
From the moment that the Coastal Security Service and the Sea Patrol Force were officially established, the crews of the PTFs and the Swifts were all military volunteers from the Navy of the RVN. Because the number of volunteers always exceeded the actual manpower requirement, selections were made very carefully and based on the operational experience, esprit de corps, physical condition and tactical ability of the applicant. Security background checks were also very rigorous as clearances were required at the secret and top secret level. Once selected every recruit had to sign a six month contract. When the volunteer signed the contract he enjoyed a salary level equal to all others be they officers or enlisted personnel. Additionally, each individual received a bonus for every mission north of the 17th Parallel and an allowance for food. The budget for this was provided by the U.S. Government. Each volunteer also drew his regular Navy salary on a monthly basis.
As for the volunteer selection process, an officer who served many years in the Sea Patrol Force put it this way:
“...Inasmuch as our lives were inextricably involved with the fleet we were greeted one day by one of our superior officers who came down to talk to us about recruiting a number of young naval officers to carry out a special assignment aboard a PT Boat. While an adventurous lot we were also admirers of the heroic image of President Kennedy when he was the commander of PT-109 during WW II. Therefore, it didn’t take us long to leave the fleet and take up this new challenge. Our class included six officers who when added to our six colleagues from Class 11 became the first young officer group for the Sea Patrol Force”.
Once a volunteer signed a contract to enter the Sea Patrol Force he was no longer under the control of the Navy. He had become a member of the Special Forces and was not required to wear his Navy uniform except for flag raising ceremonies on Monday mornings or when high ranking personnel came to visit. While on base most of the volunteers usually wore the uniform of the RVN infantry and then donned the simple black outfit of the local peasants when they went on a mission. They also changed their identity and used an alias. As for mail, that was received through a box number that was used for the entire force.
In the beginning the landing teams fired time delay rockets at their targets. These were in addition to the regular armament with which each PT Boat was equipped. However, because the rockets were lacking in accuracy the teams subsequently used 57 millimeter recoilless rifles for fire reinforcement. These mobile recoilless gun nests could be set up anywhere as they did not need a permanent mount. They were usually placed on the deck at the base of the 81 millimeter mortar whenever a target on shore was being shelled. The entire landing team also practiced firing the 57 millimeter recoilless rifle from the shoulder position so that it could be used from a small inflatable boat. In addition to the 57 millimeter recoilless, there were also 90 and 106 millimeter weapons but they were not used on a regular basis. There were also many types of time-delayed mines that were used by the SEALS in various sapper missions. As for personal weapons, the landing teams used the AK-47 of the Communist Bloc or the Swedish made submachine gun, also known as the K-gun.
F. Intelligence and Aerial Photography
Before setting out on a mission the boat commanders and the landing team leaders usually received a briefing on the enemy situation and also examined the latest aerial photographs of the target area. Intelligence was often provided by prisoners or local fishermen who had been captured for that purpose. Most of the aerial photos were taken by the top secret U-2 aircraft whose high altitude put it well beyond the range of North Vietnamese planes or anti-aircraft fire. The U-2 planes usually took off from Bien Hoa near Saigon or from Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
Two U-2 spy planes were permanently based at the Bien Hoa airfield. U-2 aerial photography was the principal source of intelligence for OPLAN 34A. Typically, a U-2 would photograph the target early in the morning when a mission was scheduled. By noon the photos were in the office of MACSOG in Saigon. Sometimes the aerial photographs were made at lower altitudes by a pilotless drone or taken by planes that flew at night and used radarscope photography.
G. Esprit De Corps
Naturally there was an inherent danger each time the 17th Parallel was crossed to carry out a mission. However, any worry or uneasiness was not caused by the presence of enemy forces but by the feeling that it was very insecure to operate behind enemy lines. During the first missions, even though we followed a sea route, everyone became tense when we entered the territorial waters of the enemy by passing the imaginary 17th Parallel. By contrast, when we returned to our own seas everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Over time familiarity with the missions made the operations less stressful. Moreover, compared with the patrol boats of the North Vietnamese, the fast PT Boats of the Sea Patrol Force had greater fire power and faster speed which always provided us with an advantage.
So, early jitters dissipated over time but we still had to be very cautious and focus on achieving the mission. Having served in the River Assault Group (RAG) in South Vietnam we observed that cross border missions in the North were a lot less dangerous. The various operations in the narrow canals and streams of South Vietnam made our boats good passive targets for the enemy since he could hide in the brush on both sides of the waterways and ambush us at any moment. Conversely, the modern PT Boats of the Sea Patrol Force were out on the open seas and always maintained the offensive.
Every mission across the 17th Parallel was a great adventure as well as a challenge and each of them was relatively short, seldom exceeding a 24 hour period. With appropriate compensation and not really a lot of danger, the esprit de corps of the Sea Patrol Force remained extremely high. Proof of this lay in the fact that lots of crew members volunteered to serve with other crews that were short handed, even though it may not have been their turn. These volunteers often went on two or three times as many missions than they would have had they simply stayed with the crews to which they were assigned.
2. Navy SEALS
A CIA directed base was established at My Khe beach in November, 1962 so that American SEALS, an acronym that stands for sea, air and land, could provide training for the landing teams. While the base was under the authority of the CIA until 1964, the training was done entirely by the SEALS
My Khe is located in the eastern part of the Tien Sha Peninsula which runs north from the base of Monkey Mountain to Marble Mountain, both of which the local inhabitants know by Vietnamese names. The Tien Sha Peninsula is part of a larger area east of the City of Da Nang. All of the SEAL bases were located along the beach at My Khe. The SEAL teams lived and trained in individual camps which were relatively small and accommodated up to no more that about 30 or 40 trainees. There was one camp known as Romulus that was reserved for SEALS who were recruited from infantry units and another called Vega which was used exclusively for SEALS that were formerly Navy frogmen and a third that provided training exclusively in underwater demolition. In addition there was one camp reserved for the Nung ethnic minority contingent that served as guards at the camps.
Sometime in 1964 a team of U.S. Navy SEALS began training Vietnamese SEAL teams under the command of Captain Cathal L. Flynn. The various SEAL teams were trained in the techniques of paddling an inflatable raft, landing on the beach, swimming underwater and using explosives, etc. They were also provided at the outset with arms training that consisted of using the 3.5 inch time-delay rocket which was furnished by the CIA. In principle, a team could land near the target, fire a rocket and then beat a hasty retreat back to base before the time-delay fuse detonated the round. However, this type of rocket was ineffective because it was not very accurate. The time-delay system often malfunctioned and the fact that it could explode unexpectedly made it especially dangerous. This rocket was used a few times in North Vietnamese landings but was later sidelined as ineffective in favor of the 57 millimeter recoilless rifle. This weapon was a light cannon that directed the explosive blast out the rear instead of requiring that it be set firmly on a base to absorb the recoil.
In March, 1964, Navy Captain Trinh Hoa Hiep of the Frogmen Unit of the RVN Navy was assigned to command the Vietnamese SEALS at My Khe. This team was very effective and
produced excellent results.
VIII. Some Activities
During its approximately ten year period of operation, the Nautilus junks and the PT Boats
of the Sea Patrol Force as well as the SEAL teams carried out thousands of assignments of every variety. Following are those missions worthy of mention.
1. Nautilus Junk Operations
Although the Nautilus junks were in operation since 1956 their first assignments were supply trips in support of the underground teams in North Vietnam and they occurred only rarely, perhaps once or twice a year. Later, in 1962 and 1963 Nautilus operations became more regular and had more positive objectives. Following are a number of activities that are representative of those undertaken by the Coastal Security Service and the Sea Patrol Force teams during this period:
Mission of Nautilus I, January 12, 1962
At 5 AM on January 12, 1962, Nautilus Junk I left Da Nang on its way to North Vietnam to carry out a liaison and supply mission for the operatives who were underground in the North. After a trouble free two-day trip in the Gulf of Tonkin, Nautilus I arrived at the point of contact at Hon Gai. Shortly before arrival an agent known as Ares requested many essential supplies including a radio. Except for the Captain of the Nautilus, the crew was very young and not clear about the purpose of the operation. Not long before that, under the authority of the agency for coastal penetration, Nautilus I put a person named Quang safely ashore at Ha Tinh near Deo Ngang. Other crew members also went ashore a number of times to mingle with the local fishermen for the purpose of gathering information.
When it arrived at Hon Gai, Nautilus I anchored near a small island and pretended to be fishing as it waited for nightfall. After dark the Nautilus I followed the secret signal of Agent Ares and when it arrived at the specified location it was ambushed. The junk and its entire crew fell into the hands of the enemy. Agent Ares was never heard from again!
Nautilus II Operations
On June 28, 1962, the crew of Nautilus II left Da Nang to undertake a special mission north of the 17th Parallel. The objective was to put four frogmen ashore at the mouth of the Gianh River where they would place mines to destroy the Swatow ships of the Communists at the Quang Khe Naval Base which was located nearby. Their names were Le Van Kinh, Nguyen Huu Thao, Nguyen Van Tam and Le Van Chuyen. All four were members of the first team of frogmen of the RVN Navy that totaled 18 and had received training in Taiwan in August, 1960.
After arriving on site, the frogmen, who were part of the underwater demolition team, prepared to put the mines in place. No one knew why, but unfortunately, a mine exploded prematurely and fatally wounded one of the frogmen. The explosion alerted the Communist Coast Guard and one of its boats gave chase. The Nautilus II headed back to the 17th Parallel at full speed but the Communist patrol boat was faster and managed to catch up and sink the Nautilus II near the 17th Parallel. CIA personnel in Da Nang had heard voice communications among the Communist vessels but did nothing to come to the aid of Nautilus II.
The result was that the team leader of the frogmen, Le Van Kinh and one other named Nguyen Van Tam were captured. There was only one person who escaped from the Nautilus II by hiding under the sail of the sunken ship and he was later picked up by a rescue mission that originated in Da Nang.
A Mission in July, 1962
In this mission an agent named Nguyen Chau Thanh was successfully landed in the area of Ha Tinh. According to the plan, the crew of Nautilus III was assigned this mission but at the last minute it was given to the crew of another vessel.
Mission of Nautilus VII
In July, 1963 the Dragon Team consisted of six Nung ethnic minority personnel under the command of Moc A Tai whose mission was to land in the area of Mong Cai, which is located on the Chinese border with North Vietnam, and proceed to destroy a coastal radar facility. Additionally, the Dragon Team was given unlimited authority in this area that was heavily populated by the Nung and therefore well-known to all of them. They were to contact some former soldiers who had served in the 22nd Infantry Division of the RVN under the command of Colonel Woon A. Sang and had remained underground in the North since the evacuation to the South in 1954. The Topographical Service had contacted Colonel Sang to learn about the status of these former soldiers who were still underground in that locality. If they were located by the Dragon Team they would be used as guides and for other tasks related to the mission.
The junk Nautilus VII had the responsibility to transport the Dragon Team to the drop off point. The crew of the Nautilus had been warned to be careful in following a prescribed sea route in order to avoid being picked up by the radar station on Hai Nam Island and thus be discovered invading the territorial waters of North Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the Nautilus was discovered when it reached the drop off point and the landing team had gone ashore. Nautilus VII later returned to Da Nang but a number of the crew and all of the landing team had been captured. One of those who had been captured related the following:
“The missions to invade by sea were very successful. The proof is that I completed eleven assignments before being caught. Our operations could be divided into three categories which were: observation runs to gather intelligence, trips to drop off commandos and destructive raids on enemy targets. We had a total of seven junks and the crew members were always rotating. For example, in the beginning I was with the team of Nautilus II and then served with Nautilus IV and finally went with Nautilus VII when I was captured. Nautilus IV invaded the major North Vietnamese port of Hai Phong twice and returned safely both times. Though our missions were often in distant locations such as at Mong Cai near the Chinese/North Vietnamese border and in the area of Deo Ngang which is located in the province of Ha Tinh, we successfully completed them on numerous occasions. As far as I know, Nautilus II was the only junk that was lost during its mission to transport frogmen to lay mines at Quang Khe in June, 1962".
2. Operations of the Fast Patrol Boats
There are no documents concerning the activities of the Swifts and the fast patrol boats prior to 1964 when foreigners from Germany and Norway served as boat commanders under the direction of the CIA. However, many successful missions were carried out after 1964 when the CSS was established and the PT Boats were operating under the command of the RVN Navy. It is also necessary to add that all the MACSOG missions were of a strategic rather than a tactical nature. Therefore, emphasis was not placed on destroying targets or neutralizing lots of enemy soldiers but on gathering intelligence, psychological operations and creating havoc behind enemy lines.
Throughout approximately eight years of operation, the fast patrol boats and the Sea Patrol Force accomplished about 1,000 raids into the territorial waters of North Vietnam, most of these occurring during the five year period from 1965 to 1970. Of special interest was the fact that during the period when U.S. aircraft were bombing North Vietnam, naval crews were undertaking six or seven missions per month.
The Sea Patrol Force had 12 teams which were simply numbered l through 12 and each crew consisted of 19 people. There were also 12 fast patrol boats so that theoretically each boat had its own crew. Therefore the first boat was sometimes referred to as the first crew and vice versa. A fast patrol boat of the Sea Patrol Force never operated alone north of the 17th Parallel. Every mission included from two to four fast patrol boats depending on the importance and location of the objective. Every crew was assigned to a particular boat but when it went on a mission only the best boats were utilized. Therefore, it was quite routine for the crew of one vessel to on occasion man another.
Following are a number of typical operations that took place in June, 1964.
- On June 12th, two boat crews dropped off landing teams at two different locations in the Tonkin Gulf. One team landed in the area of Cua Ron which was located in the province of Ha Tinh and the other landed further north in the province of Thanh Hoa. The group at Cua Ron used a 57 millimeter recoilless rifle to destroy a North Vietnamese military outpost at Hai Khau. The team at Thanh Hoa used explosives to destroy the Hang River Bridge. All 26 of the team members returned to the PT Boat unharmed.
- In the early morning of June 27th, a group of seven demolition experts worked together with a 24 man support team to blow up a bridge on National Route I near the province of Thanh Hoa. They killed two soldiers who were guarding the bridge and four other North Vietnamese troops. The team suffered no casualties.
- At dawn on July 1st, a team of about 30 used a 57 millimeter recoilless rifle to destroy a building that housed the water works at the mouth of the Kien River which was located near the coastal city of Dong Hoi. Sometime just after midnight Fast Patrol Boats 5 and 6 landed a party by inflatable raft. As the landing team made its way back on board the enemy opened fire. The two patrol boats came in close to the shore to provide fire support with their 20 and 40 millimeter cannon. Two of the landing party were lost but the others captured two enemy soldiers. Later, the North Vietnamese let it be known that one of those captured was a commando who confirmed that his landing team had indeed destroyed the Hang River Bridge on June 27th. He also said that all of the commandos were well trained and familiar with the technique of having a force land to destroy a target and then beating a hasty retreat by returning to the boats with little difficulty. Finally, he stated that the commandos preferred going ashore by sea rather than being dropped in by air because it was safer and the support was more effective.
3. Psychological Warfare Operations
In addition to the missions to drop a team that would destroy a target or capture North Vietnamese cadre or soldiers, the fast patrol boats undertook missions on the high seas that did not require a landing party. These operations included searching for enemy documents on the fishing junks and capturing a few local fishermen for interrogation, shelling targets on shore and dropping psywar leaflets on the coastal population centers, etc.
Leaflet drops usually took place in the highly populated areas south of the 18th Parallel. Large quantities of them were placed in the shell of an 81 millimeter mortar that was fired into the coastal villages and communities from the fast patrol boats when they were 1,500 to 2,000 meters offshore. The shell would explode overhead like a flare and the leaflets would flutter down from the sky. Sometimes the fast patrol boats also distributed radios wrapped in waterproof plastic in the villages along the coast so that the population could listen to South Vietnamese radio stations such as the Voice of Freedom, Mother Vietnam or the Sacred Sword of Patriotism.
Missions to capture fishermen for the purpose of indoctrination began on May 27, 1964. In this operation a fast patrol boat and a Swift captured a fishing junk in the waters off Dong Hoi. Six fishermen along with their junk were brought to a place called Cu Lao Cham Island which was located off the coast of Da Nang. In an effort to win their support, the fishermen were treated very kindly and were well fed. On June 2nd, the fishermen and their junk were returned to where they were captured and they brought along with them the various gifts of cloth, food and plastic utensils, etc., that they had been given during their stay.
The PT Boats captured three more junks on July 7th and an additional two on July 20th. Following this the Swifts did not undertake any further missions north of the 17th Parallel and the task of observing and capturing the fishermen was taken over exclusively by the fast patrol boats. However, these boats were faster than the Swifts and when towing them in to Cu Lao Cham without a crew they were often swamped and sunk. So for that reason the crew was transported on our boats but the junk was left behind. When the fishermen were returned, small bamboo rafts were brought along and the fishermen were released on these tiny craft in the area where they were captured.
Sometime later there were American documents alleging that the junks left behind were rigged with explosives and left as floating booby traps. This allegation was baseless. The fact that the junks were not towed was really a decision that was based on the practicalities of the matter and not on any desire to inflict harm on the enemy. The people who depended on fishing for their livelihood eked out an existence under the Communist regime and were very poor. As a consequence their junks were very fragile and very primitive. They had to be kept relatively close to the shore and used only on those days when the ocean was calm. For that reason, even the Swift, which was a small patrol boat, had to be very careful when towing a junk and could not exceed ten nautical miles per hour to avoid sinking or otherwise damaging the fragile vessels. The people who lived in the area of the 17th Parallel such as the inhabitants of Dong Hoi and Quang Khe at least had junks to fish with though they were quite rudimentary. Further north in the area of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An the fishermen were so poor that they had no junks at all. They had to use a type of raft made of large bamboo logs which were lashed together with a fiber of split bamboo. Naturally, these rafts had no engines and were powered by sail or oars. No fabric was available for the sails so they were made of palm fronds or a sort of woven bamboo and the mast was made of a large tree trunk. Fishing with one of these rafts meant that those on board were always wet because while the raft floated on the surface it sank ankle deep in the water! Even if one wanted to tow one of these rafts it was not possible. If they were lucky the fishermen had clothes with untold layers of patches and the majority had a coat like covering made of palm fronds that were tied together. Their very modest fishing gear consisted of droplines and hooks.
We recall once searching a junk near the estuary known as Lach Truong which is the opening to the Sam Son Beach near Thanh Hoa. It was a December day with a steady drizzle and a cold north wind. As we approached one of the fishing rafts described above we saw a half dozen or so fishermen dressed in cone hats and wearing palm frond overcoats which they held tightly around themselves. They were huddled in one corner as if to protect each other from the cold. As they looked somewhat suspicious those who conducted the search from on board the PT Boat used a megaphone to order the fishermen to stand and raise their hands. The fishermen seemed embarrassed but when they saw that guns were aimed in their direction they complied with the order. Everyone on board the PT Boat was astonished because when the palm frond overcoats were released they fell to the deck revealing the completely naked body of each fisherman. Under the palm frond coats, they had on not one stitch of clothing. When they were brought on board and given a solid meal we learned that each citizen of North Vietnam was allowed to buy only two yards of cloth per year from the regime’s monopoly and they did not have the money necessary to make a purchase on the black market. Therefore, whenever they went fishing the lucky ones wore old patched rags while the majority wore only a coat of palm fronds to provide some protection from the elements. Whatever attire they may have owned was set aside to be used for important occasions only.
As for psychological operations, an experienced commander of the Sea Patrol Force gave the following account:
“During 1967 we undertook a special psychological warfare program. For a period of almost three months we captured more than 300 fishermen in the area from Dong Hoi to Thanh Hoa. We took two individuals from every village. After delivering them to Cu Lao Cham we made sure that they were well fed. Each person ate a half chicken every day and after three months was plump and had a healthy complexion. We took them back, each to his hometown, to see what the reaction would be both locally and by the regime in North Vietnam. It came as no surprise to us during the next six months that when we tried to capture the same individuals again, they were nowhere to be found. After almost nine months had passed we finally captured one fellow who sighed: ‘You folks hurt us. When you released us the local government officials noticed that we were fat so they put us in the thought reform camps and just released us”.
IX. The Fast Patrol Boats and the Tonkin Gulf Incident
At the time that the Maddox, a U.S. Navy Destroyer, was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, its mission coincided with the operations of the fast patrol boats of the Sea Patrol Force. Because there has been much speculation that the fast patrol boats and the Destroyer Maddox were coordinating their efforts to provoke North Vietnam into making an attack at sea so that the U.S. would have a pretext for bombing North Vietnam, we are summarizing herewith some of the events related to this matter so that the reader can find out for himself what really happened.
1. Operations of the Destroyer Maddox
Early on July 31, 1964, the Maddox, a U.S. Navy Destroyer arrived in the coastal waters of Vietnam just off the 17th Parallel to begin patrolling the coastal waters of North Vietnam. Its mission was known as Operation De Soto.
At noon on August 2nd when the warship was located about 18 nautical miles offshore and approximately 10 nautical miles away from Hon Me, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats marked T-333, T-336 and T-339, fired torpedoes at the Maddox. The result of the encounter was that the North Vietnamese boats were heavily damaged while the Maddox remained unscathed.
On the morning of August 3rd, the Destroyer Maddox received orders from Admiral Johnson, Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet to continue Operation De Soto but this time the Destroyer Turner Joy would join the mission as a reinforcement. According to a U.S. Navy report, at 9:34 PM local time on August 4th, both warships reported that they were under attack by North Vietnamese ships and commenced firing at 9:39 PM. At that time the target was 8,000 yards away. Later many people said that the second confrontation had never occurred.
2. The Activities of the Fast Patrol Boats During Operation De Soto
On July 22, 1964, four PT Boats including PTFs 3, 4, 5 and 6, were preparing to go on an operation to land commandos who would then attack various military outposts and a coastal radar facility near Vinh. However, the missions were scrubbed at the last minute because aerial photography taken that morning by a U-2 spy plane showed that two enemy Swatow ships were spotted in the area of Hon Nieu and three others were observed near Hon Me which was about 50 nautical miles north of the target area. Naturally, the fast patrol boats undertook another mission to patrol the coast and prepare to do battle at sea with the North Vietnamese ships in the area instead of dropping off SEAL teams on the shore. It was not clear whether the enemy ships simply slipped away but we did not intercept them on that day.
On July 27, 1964, two fast patrol boats were providing support for two Swifts that were searching fishing junks in the waters off Vinh Son when enemy Swatow boats appeared. They may have come from the Quang Khe base that was located near the mouth of the Gian River. Under orders to be on guard for enemy ships that attacked unexpectedly from the front, the fast PT Boats that were escorting the Swifts proceeded quickly to open water and prepared for battle but the North Vietnamese Swatows dared not chase after us. Because the main mission was to search fishing vessels and not attack enemy ships, the fast patrol boats returned to base without incident.
On July 30, 1964, a group of four PT Boats including PTF-2, 3, 5 and 6, went out on an operation. The objective was to land teams on the islands of Hon Nieu and Hon Me for the purpose of using sapper charges to destroy various military positions. Hon Me was located about 12 kilometers from shore and around 19 degrees North in the open sea off Lach Tray, also known as Sam Son. Hon Nieu lay further South and only about four kilometers off Ben Thuy Harbor that is located at the city of Vinh in Nghe An Province.
This was a very desperate mission fraught with danger because commando teams were to be dropped off deep in enemy territory and intelligence as well as aerial photographs indicated that enemy ships were laying in ambush in the target area. For that reason, the crews of the fast patrol boats had all been carefully selected on the basis of each member’s time in service and his combat experience.
Just before midnight on July 7th, at 11:15 PM to be exact, the fast patrol boats arrived at the final rendezvous point Southeast of Hon Me. The coordinates for this position were 19 degrees North and 106.16 East. At this location the PT Boats split up into two pairs. The Northern two included PTF-3 and 6, which headed toward the target on Hon Me, and the Southern pair, which was made up of PTF-2 and 5, started moving toward the objective at Hon Nieu.
The Northern PT Boats reached their target that was located in the Southern area of Hon Me at 9:00 PM on July 31st. While it is called an island, Hon Me is really a mountain that rises out of the sea. It is covered with large trees and dense vegetation that make it very difficult to observe what is happening on the island, especially at night. At the summit of Hon Me, which is 500 meters above sea level, there was a North Vietnamese artillery emplacement. Intended for coastal defense, it could hit targets on the high seas within a radius of 15 nautical miles.
Both PT Boats cautiously proceeded to the target according to the prescribed formation, one boat providing cover as the other moved to the drop off point, about 2,000 meters offshore. The landing team was making preparations to go ashore with explosives to blow up a lookout tower and various other military installations on the island. As the SEAL team was preparing to drop its pneumatic raft, a Swatow was spotted close to the shore by one of the crew looking through binoculars. At that moment the enemy ship opened fire first with a 37 millimeter cannon and a heavy machine gun. Although attacked first the PT Boats returned fire and effectively silenced the enemy after engaging him for only a few minutes. The appearance of the enemy ship at Hon Me came as no surprise to the crews of the PT Boats. It merely confirmed the intelligence they had already received.
Having been discovered, it was now imperative that the landing be canceled but the fast patrol boats switched to an alternative plan and shelled coastal targets with their regular armament which included 20, 40 and 81 millimeter mortar. The landing team’s 57 millimeter recoilless rifle provided an extra degree of firepower for the bombardment. This shelling was the first time that targets on shore were hit by the fast patrol boats within the framework of OPLAN 34A. In a period of only about 20 minutes PTF-3 and 6 laid down a deadly wall of fire that completely destroyed the designated targets as well as many machine gun nests. Having completed the mission, the two PT Boats left the area shortly after midnight. According to later U.S. reports, a Swatow identified as T-142 had come to assist the force defending Hon Me and did its utmost to follow the activities of the fast patrol boats but dared not engage in hostilities. Documents captured by the Americans noted that the ship in question made up an excuse when reporting to the enemy high command that it had to quit the chase because the fast patrol boats traveled at such a high rate of speed. It is possible that this particular Swatow may not have been discovered by the fast patrol boats because it was hiding near the shore.
At the same time that the hostile action at Hon Me was unfolding, the two boats that made up the Southern pair were only 800 meters from their objective which was a radio installation on the island of Hon Nieu. However, perhaps because the enemy at Hon Me had sounded the alarm, the defenders at Hon Nieu were prepared for an imminent attack. Realizing the disadvantage inherent in landing a team under these conditions, the officers in charge decided to scrub the landing in favor of shelling the target from the two fast patrol boats that comprised the Southern pair. Because of the clarity and relative closeness of the target, the radio station was destroyed by the first few volleys. After that the fast patrol boats turned their weapons on secondary targets such as military and defensive installations. After more than a half hour of destructive fire, throughout which the enemy did not respond, PTF-2 and 5 left the area and returned to base.
The Northern pair arrived back in Da Nang around 10:00 AM on July 31st and the Southern pair arrived a little later about 11:00 AM because PTF-2 had developed engine trouble during the long journey.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, four PT Boats PTF-1, 2, 5 and 6, left the base at Da Nang to undertake a mission. The objective was to destroy various targets along the North Vietnamese coast in an area known as the Cape of Vinh Son and Cua Ron which were located near the city of Vinh approximately 70 nautical miles North of the 17th Parallel.
PTF-2 developed engine trouble again and had to turn back. At approximately 11:00 PM PTF 1 and 5 directed their fire on the radar facility at Vinh Son for about 20 minutes. PTF-6 remained alone at the mouth of the Giang River firing at various targets on shore and a group of North Vietnamese tropedo boats that were docked at the Quang Khe Naval Base. A North Vietnamese PT Boat left port to give chase to PTF-6 but returned after about 40 minutes because it was unable to catch up. When the mission was completed all the PT Boats returned safely to Da Nang.
In the attacks that took place on Hon Ngu and Hon Me during the night of July 30th and the dawn of July 31st, North Vietnam did not let it be known that the warship Maddox had been involved. But in the attack that occurred on the night of August 3rd and into the dawn of August 4th, North Vietnam clearly indicated that the attacking force included four PT Boats from Da Nang and two American Destroyers. One of the reasons that North Vietnam did not know exactly how many ships were engaged in the attack was because the radar station at Vinh Son had been heavily damaged by the fire from the PT Boats and was knocked out of commission.
X. North Vietnamese Defense Capability
The North Vietnamese coastal defense system included naval ships and specialized junks. It also included radar facilities and artillery that were placed at locations all along the coast.
North Vietnamese Navy: North Vietnam’s naval ships could only operate in the shallow coastal waters. Based on the intelligence that was available at that time, the North Vietnamese Navy had four SO I escort vessels, 12 P-4 torpedo boats and a number of Swatow PT Boats.
The SO 1 escorts weighed in at about 250 tons and were provided by the Soviets, two in 1960-61 and two in 1964-65. They were 140 feet in length and 20 feet wide. With a diesel engine and a crew of 30 they had a top speed of about 28 nautical miles per hour. Their armament included two 25 millimeter cannons mounted on the bow and behind the bridge. There were also four positions where depth charges could be launched against submarines. On February 1, 1966, one of the SO 1 vessels was sunk by an American plane. The remaining three were broken down or otherwise unfit for service as they were not observed on the scene at the time. As for the patrol boats which were lighter, they were very old and while their firepower was heavy their speed was relatively slow so that they were not a cause for concern.
The P-4 torpedo boats could be seen as the most effective weapons in the arsenal of the North Vietnamese Navy as they were capable of inflicting heavy damage on their enemy. These boats were small with a gross weight of about 50 tons. Diesel powered with a length of 85 feet and a width of 20 feet, they had a top speed of about 40 nautical miles per hour. Their armament included one heavy machine gun mounted behind the bridge and a torpedo tube on each side. Each torpedo had a warhead equal to 550 pounds of TNT which could sink a large warship. However, the effective range of the torpedoes did not exceed one kilometer. They were also equipped with a 253-type radar that had a range of 15 nautical miles in good weather. Normally, the P-4 would have to travel at high speed to launch a torpedo but when traveling very fast the radar antenna would have to be folded down to reduce wind resistance and to avoid damage from the heavy sea. Although the P-4 had a fairly high speed it was far inferior to the speed of our fast patrol boats. Also, the radar range was very limited and its firepower consisted of only one machine gun. For these reasons the P-4 was not a real contender against our fast patrol boats. American planes during their air raids against North Vietnam sank the majority of the P-4 boats.
The Swatow PT Boats had a displacement of 67 tons, were 83.5 feet long and were 20 feet wide amidship. They were equipped with two double 37 millimeter cannons. These Swatow ships of the North Vietnamese were fairly equal contenders with our fast patrol boats but our ships were faster and the Swatow had a difficult time trying to keep up. American planes also sank a fairly large number of the Swatow boats.
During the years when our fast patrol boats were active, direct contention with the coastal defense vessels of the North Vietnamese were very rare and only a few instances of such confrontations were ever known to have occurred. This was due partially to the fact that small North Vietnamese vessels did not dare to go far from shore because they were afraid of an air attack and partially because they were painfully aware of their inferior capability. A fast patrol boat commander gave the following account of one such rare occurrence:
“In five years of operation we only came face to face with a North Vietnamese patrol boat once in early 1965 in a joint mission with our two sister ships. While enroute to Mui Dao which is north of Dong Hoi at about three in the morning the radar picked up the echos of three vessels speeding toward us from shore at high speed. Immediately after notifying the U.S. Seventh Fleet, we formed into a battle formation and increased our speed to 55 nautical miles per hour. In keeping with standard naval tactics we attempted to form into a T-formation in order that our weapons would begin firing together. The enemy also jockeyed for position. In the end we faced off in an irregular position. The enemy opened fire first but we refrained from shooting until they were about 1,000 yards away.
In the skirmish that followed one of our ships was damaged lightly by an enemy shell and a number of personnel were wounded. Our two ships that were escorting the third returned safely. In the days that followed our intelligence reports indicated that the enemy force received fairly heavy damage because they commenced firing too early and concentrated their fire on only one target. They received direct hits from our other two vessels”.
Decoy fishing junks: Having seen the fast patrol boats searching fishing junks and detaining the fishermen, the Vietnamese Communists took advantage of what they saw as an opportunity to arm fishing junks with both weapons and explosives. Thus disguised, they waited in ambush among the other real fishing junks. When the fast patrol boats approached the enemy opened fire unexpectedly with a B-40 or tossed explosives onto the PT Boats. While this technique caused damage on a few occasions, all of the crew of the decoy vessels were killed and then each junk was sunk on the spot.
Coastal radar defense: North Vietnam placed a number of radar stations along the coast in order to monitor the activities of the fast patrol boats that operated out in the ocean. However, as time went on, all of the radar stations were destroyed or under constant air attack which rendered them ineffective.
Coastal artillery defense: This consisted of artillery emplacements that were located on the peaks of the islands or on the high rocky outcrops along the coast in order to fire out to sea. The range of the artillery was quite far, about 15 nautical miles, and even though they fired on a fairly regular basis no fast patrol boat was ever hit. At times the enemy would place a fairly large junk in position as bait. They then would predetermine the coordinates and wait for a fast patrol boat to approach before opening fire. However, even this tactic did not produce an optimum result. They were never able to hit a PT Boat but they did hit a number of U.S. warships which presented them with larger targets.
Throughout the eight years that it was in operation, the Sea Patrol Force suffered negligent enemy damage.
As for the PT Boats, not a single one was ever sunk by enemy fire and only a number of them ever sustained light damage. Of course, there were a number of PT Boats that ran aground. This was easy to understand because most of the missions were carried out at night and close to shore in areas that were unfamiliar. All of those that ran aground were subsequently bombed and destroyed by U.S. aircraft to keep them from falling into enemy hands. There was also one case when a PT Boat was sunk by mistake by an American plane.
As for personnel, enemy impact was very light. There were only about 30 or 40 casualties that occurred during the thousands of individual missions that were carried out. The heaviest personnel loss occurred when one of our boats was mistakenly hit by friendly fire during a skirmish and two officers were killed.
XII. A Number of Mistakes and Disputed Facts Concerning the Sea Patrol Forces
Because it was an irregular unit that was cleverly disguised, only a few people really knew the backgrounds of the personnel who made up the Sea Patrol Force. It was not uncommon for even those who served together in the various naval units to be unaware of a comrade’s origins except when the mission took place in the Da Nang area. The PT Boats of the Sea Patrol Force are also a source of much heated debate, especially among authors and people who are not familiar with the Navy.
The war ended almost 30 years ago but there is still much misinformation and considerable controversy concerning the Sea Patrol Force. Some falsehoods and misconceptions are still propagated by personnel who served with MACSOG as well as by American writers. This is not because there is a deliberate effort to distort the truth. It is rather the nature of classified operations. Each individual is aware of only a part of the missions on a “need to know” basis. Therefore only a very few had a broad and complete view of the entire program.
Following are some “truths” concerning a number of disputed facts and mistakes that are known to us and can be found in American and Vietnamese books written on this subject.
In President’s War, the author Anthony Austin writes that while there were Vietnamese on the various PT Boats there were no RVN Navy personnel. All of the crews consisted of “direct hires”.
A MACSOG document entitled Maritime Operation stated that RVN Navy personnel were not recruited during the period prior to the beginning of 1964. Therefore, civilian personnel had to be hired.
In his book Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, historian Edwin Moise of Clemson University, wrote on page 15 that: “There is good evidence that the Nasty boat crews belonged to the South Vietnamese Navy and wore uniforms while on operations”. Professor Moise also wrote on page 15 that: “The RVN Navy had said it was assigning the cream of its men to this program and the officers in particular were convinced that they were the cream”.
The Truth: From the moment that the Sea Patrol Force was founded, the crews of the PT Boats were all RVN Navy personnel. However, they were not in uniform when they went on missions. Professor Moise was right when he wrote that all of the officers were: “the cream of the crop”.
The Equipment and the Mission
In his book, The RVN Navy Goes to Sea, author Diep My Linh wrote on page 69 that the “PT Motor Torpedo Boat was about eighty feet long with a composite/plastic hull. It was built in Norway, ran on fuel oil and had a top speed that exceeded 50 nautical miles per hour. The various PT Boats of the Coastal Security Service were nicknamed Nasty and Swift. Every PT Boat was routinely equipped with an 81 or 130 millimeter rotating mortar located behind the bridge; two .50 caliber double barreled machine guns mounted on the sides and an automatic 40 millimeter double barreled anti-aircraft cannon”. The author also wrote on page 69 that: “After returning from a mission in North Vietnam our crews were tired and exhausted in both body and soul. The patrol forces of the RVN were often stopped and hit by the patrol forces of the enemy at Hon Cop. MIGs that flew in pairs discovered the boats with radar and then attacked them with heat seeking missiles. The Vietnamese Communists usually used the Kronstad PT Boat that had a top speed of 35 nautical miles per hour and the P-4 which had a top speed of 65 nautical miles per hour and was equipped with six .50 caliber double barreled machine gun positions with which to attack the PT Boats of the RVN.
The PT Boat hulls were constructed of laminated wood or aluminum, not composite/plastic.
Only the Norwegian built boat was known as a Nasty. Swift was a nickname used by the Sea Patrol Force.
The fast patrol boats only had an 81 millimeter mortar that was mounted in FRONT of the bridge not behind it and did not have a 130 millimeter gun at all. It was another type of boat that had an 81 millimeter mortar mounted behind the bridge.
The PTF had 40 millimeter single barreled, not double barreled, cannon. Our crew members were tired after a mission that kept them up all night but not to the point of “exhaustion”.
Our PT Boats were not routinely stopped and fired upon by enemy PT Boats at Hon Cop because most of the North Vietnamese PT Boats had been sunk. Those ships that remained stayed close to shore as they dared not to engage our patrol boats that had more firepower and were faster. Moreover, our PT Boats could call in U.S. air support when necessary. We recall operation Double Tango in which our fast patrol boats blockaded and shelled Hon Cop continuously for a full month and never observed a North Vietnamese PT Boat offer any resistance. Throughout the five years of experience with the Sea Patrol Force that included over two hundred missions, we never saw a North Vietnamese PT Boat with the naked eye. We also never tracked one with radar at night. According to our experience in thousands of missions there were only a few instances of confrontations between our fast patrol boats and North Vietnamese PT Boats. The North Vietnamese refer to Hon Cop Island by another name; Con Co Island. Speaking of this location a PT Boat commander said: “North of the 17th Parallel and about 30 nautical miles off Vinh Linh is a small island that Radio Hanoi continuously praised as the Con Co Island of heroism. The island was home to a North Vietnamese naval base and an artillery emplacement that was used for shore defense. It was a sad situation for the comrade troopers on the island who had to maintain an alert status for months on end because every time we went past we would receive an order to lob in a few rounds to wake them up. American planes also used this island to drop whatever extra ordinance they were carrying before returning to their bases.”
Under ideal conditions the Kronstad boat had a top speed of about 28 nautical miles per hour and it is not certain that the enemy even had this type of craft. As for the P-4, its top speed was 45 nautical miles per hour.
There are no reports confirming that there were ever more than a very few attacks on our fast patrol boats by North Vietnamese planes. Their airborne heat seeking missiles were only used for targets they encountered in their dogfights in the air or for targets on the ground such as tanks. As for targets at sea the MIGs routinely used air to surface missiles.
Equipment and Training
An article entitled, The SEALS and Sea Patrol: the Battle With Communist Troops Along the Coast, was published in the Vietnamese newspaper, Economy, on December 3, 1999. Its author, Vuong Hong Anh wrote that: “...SOG naval advisors modified 12 Swift river patrol boats to be used in secret missions. With a top speed of 80 kilometers an hour the PT Boats were armed with 40 millimeter cannon and various light weapons. SOG took the boat crews and SEAL teams from Long Thanh to be trained to go ashore and attack targets along the coast. These teams were trained at a secret base in the South near Saigon. The boat crews were trained to go out into the high seas of the South Vietnamese coast from 100 to 110 kilometers and then head into North Vietnamese waters from the open seas. Such a tactic would be necessary because the coastal waters were crowded with boats and rafts making it difficult to slip by undetected and avoid pursuit or discovery.
The Truth: The Swift is not a river patrol boat but a coastal patrol boat. A river patrol boat is a small boat with a fiberglass hull. An ocean going PT Boat may operate in a river but the reverse is not true. If a river patrol boat were to venture out into the high seas it could be capsized by a large wave, especially if it is 100 to 110 kilometers offshore. The crews of the fast patrol boats and the Swifts were all trained in the waters off Da Nang. The mission routes usually took us along the coast of North Vietnam and we were very seldom 100 kilometers away from shore.
Communist Naval Base
Writer, Vuong Hong Anh, also wrote about the mission to attack and destroy boats belonging to the North Vietnamese Communists at Hon Cop as follows: “The first mission was undertaken by a SEALS team that secretly attacked and destroyed a North Vietnamese Communist vessel at Hon Cop...”
The Truth: The North Vietnamese Communists did not have a naval base at Hon Cop and that island did not have a beach or a place to drop anchor. The North Vietnamese Communist naval base closest to the 17th Parallel was at Dong Hoi. Based on our knowledge of the situation, the mission was directed at the Quang Khe base that was located at the mouth of the Gianh River.
The Boat Crews
Did American personnel who trained the boat crews actually go on missions north of the 17th Parallel? Although strictly forbidden, was this policy absolutely observed? According to Colonel Bucklew, Chief of the Support Group for Naval Operations who was also responsible for the Americans serving with MACSOG, the prohibition was habitually violated. Historian, Edwin Moise, also interviewed Colonel Bucklew concerning this matter and wrote on page 16 of his book as follows: “Indeed, he is not aware of any cases in which the PTFs from Da Nang went on combat operations without American personnel on board. His recollection is that the Americans were running the boat with the Vietnamese along in what was essentially an apprenticeship role. He states that there were suggestions during 1964 that Vietnamese officers and men be given actual responsibility for handling the boats on combat missions, but that these suggestions had been opposed on the grounds that the Vietnamese did not have the skills”.
In an interview conducted by historian Moise on March 10, 1988 with Vice Admiral Roy L. Johnson, who had served as Seventh Fleet Commander starting in June , 1964, “Johnson recalls that the Vietnamese crews proved unreliable. When sent out on an operation against the North they sometimes just cruised around in circles for a few hours off shore, and then filed a false report that they had conducted the assigned operation. Admiral Johnson is “pretty sure” that American crews were used on raids against the North Vietnamese coasts by August 1964; if the change had not come by this time, it came soon after”.
The Truth: There were never any Americans that went along on the missions that were conducted in the territorial waters of North Vietnam north of the 17th Parallel. The belief that American crews took the fast patrol boats into North Vietnam only exists in the imagination of the Seventh Fleet Commander because he has always believed that only his crews were reliable. There were many practical cases that serve as proof that an experienced commander of a PT Boat is much more well versed in naval warfare and more reliable than the “advisers” who were still wet behind the ears.
Moreover, when the PT boats went out on a mission they followed an established route that required them to check in at certain points and times so that friendly forces would not mistake them for the enemy. Therefore, there never was any cruising around in circles.
On this subject of “Americans”, a commander that served for many years in the Sea Patrol Force said the following:
“The Sea Patrol Force was probably the only unit in the armed forces of the RVN that in eight years of fighting in enemy territory was never accompanied by an American adviser. Our naval advisers were only responsible for providing support, i.e., intelligence, logistics and maintenance. They had a profound respect for us. Occasionally a few officers or noncoms would joke that somehow they were going to accompany us on a mission but no one believed that the joking would ever come to pass. On one mission that consisted of two ships, I took the second position. After crossing the 17th Parallel, two U.S. noncommissioned artillery officers suddenly appeared on deck and cheerfully volunteered to serve under my command while on that mission. Somewhat shocked I asked the commander of the lead boat for a decision. He then reported to our operations office and within ten minutes we received an urgent request for the joint mission to return to base.
When we returned to our base we saw an armored vehicle that whisked these two adventurous American friends away to the airport for an immediate trip home. We were happy that this incident only happened once”.
We hope that the foregoing, though far from complete, will cast a little light on the truth connected with the Coastal Security Service and the Sea Patrol Force. The purpose of this article is to also commemorate and show our gratitude to those warrior SEALS who responded to the call of their homeland and did not hesitate to charge into the waters of North Vietnam.
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This article was excerpted in its entirety with the permission of the author and the publisher from pages 80 to 107 of the Florida Vieät Bao Directory Yearbook, 2000 c/o Mr. Chu Ba Yen, Publisher, P.O. Box 277625, Miramar, Florida 33027 - 7625
Translated from the Vietnamese language in June, 2000 by Donald C. Brewster, Frederick, Maryland with the able assistance of the author, Mr. Tran Do Cam of Austin, Texas. This translation is a result of our joint effort and In the process of working together we became good friends during this Spring of the new millennium.