RIVER SQUADRON FIVE
FPO San francisco 96627
The time is past due that I write to the families and friends of this unique river squadron, and pass on some news of the exploits of and activities of what clearly is one of the most valiant and elite fighting units in naval history.
The squadron--River Squadron FIVE as it is officially designated-- is the only one of its kind, and it observed its second anniversary this spring. Having started out in 1966 with 11 PBRs (River Patrol Boat), the squadron has grown steadily in size and momentum. We now have 200 PBR's, with 1300 PBR Sailors--officers and enlisted men--operating them. And we're still growing, with more men and boats on the way.
The basic unit of the squadron is the River Section--ten PBR's, manned by some 60 PBR sailors, expertly trained in river warfare operations. We have 20 River Sections operating from a dozen PBR bases doting the map from the extreme north of the Republic to the Mekong Delta in the far south.
What do these PBRs and their crews do? Their primary mission is to prevent the movement, infiltration, and resupply of the Viet Cong, Colloquially referred to as "Charlie", within the rivers and waterways of South Vietnam.
To appreciate how important this mission really is, one has to understand how important waterways are in Vietnam. From the air, the countryside looks like an elaborate transportation system, laced with thousands of miles of roads--except that these roads are canals and rivers, some natural some man-made. Waterways and boat traffic here are as common as roads and autos in the U.S. Roads, on the other hand, are very rare here, perhaps no more common than rivers and canals in the U.S. The average Vietnamese peasant's home fronts on a canal and he has a sampan moored out front rather than a street and an auto.
Every imaginable thing moves by water. with no roads and busses, mass transportation of people is done by passenger ferries and water taxies. Live pigs and chickens go to market in sampans. As a sidelight, in Vietnam the difference between a sampan and a junk depends on its ability to carry a water buffalo. If the craft is large enough the the water buffalo can stand athwartships, or across the breadth of the craft, it is classifies as a junk. If the craft is so small and narrow the buffalo must stand fore and aft, it is a sampan.
Machinery, glass products, lumber, fuel, hardware, fish, rice, bananas, military cargo, medicine--everything--goes by water. Even the doctor makes his calls by sampan. When a woman must hurry to the hospital to deliver a baby, it's by water. Many times, an "about-to-be" mother, realizes her
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time is getting close, and seeing one of the PBRs, has hailed the PBR crew for a "express" ride into town. In most cases we make it; but on four occasions to date, just like the stories of taxi-births back home, Vietnamese babies have been delivered by PBR crews racing against the clock for the hospital. One of these grateful mothers named her child Nguyen "PBR" Xim.
And so it is, that all Vietnamese, whether they are loyal to the Saigon government, or whether they ar Viet Cong or VC sympathizers, rely on these waterways for transportation and passage, just as Americans rely on roads and highways. Our mission in the PBRs then clearly becomes two-fold: to insure that these vial waterways are available for the use of friendly citizens and forces, and to make it difficult as we can for the enemy to use the very same waterways.
Where do our PBRs operate? We operate essentially in three distinct areas of the country. First we patrol waterways in the far north of South Vietnam near the major city of Danang. Many of you will recognize names like Hue, Tan My, Cua Viet and Dong Ha from the letters you have received--places familiar to our PBR sailors, but in many cases so small they won't appear on your maps.
Secondly, there are the waterways near Saigon. For years this area-- called the Rung Sat--was a haven for pirates of all description. Now Charlie would like to make it his haven, and our PBRs at Nha Be are there to help to see to it that he doesn't. And obviously, we want to reserve for allied use, the important water approaches to the port of Saigon.
The third and main PBR effort is in the vast Mekong Delta. The Mekong River starts in China's Himalayas, and journeys 2600 miles, gathering silt and deposits along the way in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia; and over the centuries the Mekong has produced in South Vietnam, one of the most valuable, fertile, and coveted food-producing areas in Asia. Charlie wants this area badly. Accordingly, our PBRs are strategically located along the four main branches of this hugh delta system--My Tho River, Ham Luong River, Co Chien River and Bassac River--names that you may already be familiar with. If you look on a map, these four rivers may remind you of a huge hand, with fingers reaching toward the South China Sea. Some of our bases on these rivers are mobile--ships and unusual floating bases which move up and down the rivers to suit the need of PBR operations. Others are fixed bases ashore--Binh Thuy, Sa Dec, Vinh Long, and My Tho--names of local Vietnamese cities and towns. You may well have become familiar with these names through letters too.
How do PBR crews carry out their mission? It's primarily a matter of establishing PBR patrols on the rivers and canals to intercept and inspect all waterborne traffic, and to enforce a river curfew at night. I'm sure most of you have already been briefed in complete and accurate detail as to what PBRs are like, and why they are so well-suited to this patrol task. Fast--over 25 knots, and they can skim along the surface in 9 inches of water. Compact--31-foot fiberglass hull. Manuverable--propelled by water jet pumps, and capable of reversing course in their own length. Formidable--each bristleing with machine guns, 2 grenade launchers, a mortar, and small weapons.
But as you can imagine, searching junks and sampans becomes dull work, after the first few hundred. Hardly glamorous. Our PBRs search thousands every week. In most cases, no irregularities are found. The routine of a typical 12 hour patrol often drags into monotony and boredom. Waiting...drifting...searching...checking documents and ID cards...putting on the rain gear...taking off the rain gear.
Sometimes one almost forgets that this tedious routine is paying real dividends in forcing Charlie into hiding and into taking dangerous chances. As the days become weeks, and the weeks become months, the PBR sailor suddenly realizes, "I've inspected this sampan before!" Some Vietnamese faces become familiar--"regular customers". Some Vietnamese are recognized by name, and some friends are made. But still it's a lot of waiting...drifting...searching...putting on the rain gear...taking off the rain gear.
Occasionally, the routine is broken up by an unusual incident. Last month a large 10.000-ton merchant ship, bound for Saigon, miscalculated a bend in the river, and went aground in the mud. Two approaching PBRs observed the distressed merchantman, offered their assistance as "tugs" and succeeded in refloating the ship.
There are also the occasional "MEDCAPS", a short term for Medical Civil Action Programs operations. PBR sailors proceed with volunteer doctors and nurses with medicine to selected native villages. A clinic is set up to diagnose and treat sick and injured inhabitants. Much good will is generated this way. The Vietnamese see the American in a very favorable light...cheerful, compassionate, and generous.
That this pays dividends can best be exemplified with this illustration. Three weeks ago a Viet Cong soldier, discouraged with the way the war was going for him, swam out to a PBR in the river and gave himself up. When asked why he surrendered to the PBR, he replied that he "had heard from local people that PBR sailors would not kill him, but would treat him well."
All of this PBR presence on the river has served to put Charlie on the defensive. He doesn't want to get caught red- handed on the river, and he would rather not have to fight his way to his destination. His tactic has become one of moving his troops, weapons, and supplies quietly at night when no PBR is in sight, perhaps just after a PBR patrol has passed, and before the next one arrives on the scene. To catch Charlie in this environment, stealth is necessary; and when he is caught, or thinks he is caught, he fights back fiercely. Moreover, when he fears our PBRs might seriously jeopardize his operation, he may set up an ambush-- and desperately bring all his available fire power to bear against the passing PBs.
It is particularly in situations like these, often at night, when the skill, courage, and professional fighting ability of PBR sailors has been put to the most exacting of tests, and have been second to none. Repeatedly, Charlie had been turned back, and his encounters with PBRs have cost him severely. By the same token, it is a deplorable fact that Charlie has taken a toll from our ranks. Several have fallen in combat, having made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and for the ideals of freedom and democracy. But sheer courage, coolness under
fire, concern for shipmates in trouble, and unqualified patriotism of these PBR sailors--your husbands, sons, friends--is awe-inspiring. I have witnessed these characteristics first hand, and I am involved in the process of recognizing heroic deeds and meritorious service in the form of medals and awards. Already, in the short history of this squadron, it has become the most decorated organization in the Navy. Your PBR sailors have earned two Congressional Medals of Honor, a Navy Cross, 43 Silver Stars, 260 Bronze Stars, over 400 Navy Commendation Medals, over 500 purple Hearts and scores of other medals, including the Legion of Merit and the Navy Marine Corps Medal.
Such an assemblage of outstanding men will unquestionably leave an indelible mark. They are writing, by their actions, important passages in naval history on a daily basis. Just as the submarine came into its own during World War I; as air and amphibious forces dominated the scene during world War II; and as the minesweepers earned everlasting fame in Korea; I am confident that the key figures in this war will be recorded in the history books by these sailors, on these rivers, now. Literally dozens of the names of PBR men--many of those that are here right now--will be listed among the leading naval heroes of the war in Vietnam.
In closing, I must tell you how greatly I appreciate the high calibre and the loyalty of these men who are your husbands, sons, and friends. I thank you for the support you give them, and for your sacrifice and understanding in being separated from them for so many long months. I join you in praying for the safe return of everyone. You have so much justification to be proud of their contribution to this important effort. And I can assure you that they themselves are deeply and seriously proud of the work they are accomplishing here--both from things they say and from the way they deport themselves. For example, PBR sailors all wear a distinctive French type black beret while assigned to this duty; it's the adopted symbol of assignment to the River Patrol Force. It is worn with quite a rakish flair. I have never seen sailors wear any item of uniform apparel with so much pride and dignity. I wish you could see them.
As is apparent from the length of this letter, I
like to write about the exploits and activities of the men of this squadron.
I would also welcome a chance to hear from you. If you have any questions,
or comments, or if you are just interested in the squadron, do write.
(Signed) S. A. Swarztrauber
S. A. SWARZTRAUBER
Commander, U. S. Navy
Commander, River Squadron FIVE