The great strategic and economic importance
of South Vietnam's extensive inland waterways made it clear from the
beginning of the war that the Navy would be in the front rank of the allied forces. Laced by 3,000 nautical miles of rivers,
canals, and smaller streams, the fertile Mekong Delta south of Saigon, where the largest segment of South Vietnam
population lived, constituted the country's rice bowl. Northward along the coast to the DMZ, sizable rivers stretched
inland past vital population centers such as the old imperial capital of Hue. Throughout the country the road and rail
system was rudimentary while the waterways provided ready access to the most important resources. The side that
controlled the rivers and canals controlled the heart of South Vietnam. U.S. naval leaders were determined that allied
forces would command these waterways when they established the River Patrol Force (Task Force 116) on 18 December
1965. From then until March 1966, the Navy procured river patrol boats (PBR) in the United States, prepared the crews at
the Coronado, California, and Mare Island, California, training centers, and deployed the units to Southeast Asia for
Operation Game Warden. On 15 March 1966 the River Patrol Force was also designated River Patrol Squadron 5 for administrative and supply purposes. By 31 August 1968, the force consisted of five river divisions, each controlling two 10-boat sections that operated from combat bases along the major rivers or from ships positioned in the rivers. The Navy reconditioned each of the ships so they could serve as floating base facilities for a PBR section and a helicopter detachment.
River Patrol Force Dispositions
51 Can Tho/Binh Thuy
River Division 52 Sa Dec (later Vinh Long)
River Division 53 My Tho
River Division 54 Nha Be River
Division 55 Danang
Support Ships -- 1966
Belle Grove (LSD
Comstock (LSD 19)
Floyd County (LST 762)
Jennings County (LST 846)
Tortuga (LSD 26)
Harnett County (LST 821)
Hunterdon County (LST 838)
Jennings County (LST 846)
The PBR, the ubiquitous workhorse of the River
Patrol Force, was manned by a crew of four bluejackets, equipped with a
Pathfinder surface radar and two radios, and commonly armed with two twin- mounted .50-caliber machine guns
forward, M-60 machine guns (or a grenade launcher) port and starboard amidship, and a .50-caliber aft. The initial version of the boat, the Mark I, performed well in river patrol operations but was plagued with continual fouling of its water-jet engines by weeds and other detritus. In addition, when Vietnamese sampans came alongside for inspection they often damaged the fragile fiberglass hull of the PBRs. New Mark IIs, first deployed to the delta in December 1966, brought improved Jacuzzi jet pumps, which reduced fouling and increased speed from 25 to 29 knots, and more durable aluminum gunwales. Task Force 116 also employed the experimental patrol air cushion vehicle (PACV), three of which operated in the Mekong Delta during 1966 and 1967 as PACV Division 107. During 1968, the PACVs deployed to the Danang area as Coastal
Division 17. Although able to move with great speed over shallow, marshy areas, such as in the Plain of Reeds, the PACVs
proved to be too noisy and too mechanically sophisticated for riverine war in South Vietnam. After the Tet emergency,
the craft were shipped back to the United States for reevaluation.
A key component of the Game Warden operation was
its air support element. Initially, the Army deployed detachments of
two UH-1B Iroquois helicopters and their crews to PBR bases and river-based LSTs. Beginning in August 1966, however,
air crews from the Navy's Helicopter Support Squadron 1 replaced the Army personnel. Then on 1 April 1967, the Navy
activated Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron (HAL) 3 at Vung Tau with responsibility for providing Task Force 116 with
aerial fire support, observation, and medical evacuation. By September 1968, the 421-man "Seawolf" squadron
controlled detachments of two helicopters each at Nha Be, Binh Thuy, Dong Tom, Rach Gia, Vinh Long, and on board
three LSTs stationed in the larger rivers of the Mekong Delta. The Bell UH-1B "Hueys," armed variously with 2.75-inch
rockets; .50-caliber, 60-millimeter, and 7.62-millimeter machine guns; grenades; and small arms, were a powerful and
mobile complement to the Game Warden surface units.
The River Patrol Force commander led other naval
forces, including the highly trained and skilled SEALs. By mid-1968, the
211-man SEAL Team 1, based at Coronado, fielded twelve 14-man platoons, each composed of two squads. Generally four
or five of the platoons at any given time were deployed to South Vietnam, where one or two of them served with the
special operations force in Danang and another three operated from Nha Be as Detachment GOLF in support of the Task
Force 116 campaign in the Rung Sat Special Zone. Beginning in early 1967, the Atlantic Fleet's SEAL Team 2 provided
another three platoons, two of which were stationed with the Game Warden units at Can Tho. These units launched SEAL
operations in the central delta area. Although focused primarily on the areas to the south and west of Saigon, the SEALs
also mounted operations in the I and II Corps Tactical Zones.
These elite naval commando units carried out day
and night ambushes, hit and run raids, reconnaissance patrols, salvage
dives, and special intelligence operations. Normally operating in six-man squads, the SEALs used landing craft, SEAL team
assault boats (STAB), 26-foot armored trimarans, PBRs, sampans, and helicopters for transportation to and from their
target areas. Mobile, versatile, and extremely effective in their dangerous work, the SEALs were a valuable fighting force
in the riverine environment of Vietnam.
Mine clearance forces also were essential to the
security of Vietnam's waterways. Nowhere was this more crucial than on
the rivers near Saigon, the country's most vital port. Viet Cong mining of the main shipping channel, the Long Tau River,
which wound its way through the Rung Sat Special Zone south of the capital, could have had a devastating effect on the
war effort. Consequently, on 20 May 1966, the Navy established Mine Squadron 11, Detachment Alpha (Mine Division
112 after May 1968) at Nha Be, under Commander Task Force 116. From 1966 until mid-1968, the minesweeping detachment operated 12 or 13 minesweeping boats (MSB) reactivated in the United States and shipped to Southeast Asia. The 57-foot, fiberglass-hulled vessels were armed with machine guns and grenade launchers and carried surface radars and
minesweeping gear for clearing explosives from the key waterways. The Navy also deployed three-boat subordinate units
to Danang and Cam Ranh Bay. Detachment Alpha's strength increased in July 1967 when the first of six mechanized
landing craft (LCM(M)) that were specially configured to sweep mines arrived at Nha Be.
Game Warden operations got underway in early 1966.
Naval leaders set out to secure the vital water passages through the
Rung Sat and to establish patrols on the large Mekong Delta rivers. On these latter waterways, the Viet Cong transported
arms and supplies brought in from Cambodia, shifted guerrilla units, and taxed the population. The Navy created two
separate task groups to direct operations in the respective areas.
On 26 March 1966, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine, and
South Vietnamese forces kicked off Operation Jackstay, the war's first
major action in the Rung Sat. PBR units (including one section from Tortuga), minesweeping boats from Nha Be, SEALs,
and helicopters operated together to sweep the area. At the end of the 12-day effort, the allies had killed or captured 69
of the enemy; destroyed Viet Cong supply bases, training sites, and other logistical facilities; and, at least for a time,
restricted enemy movement in the zone.
The enemy, however, remained a potent threat.
In one month, August 1966, Viet Cong mines in the Long Tau heavily
damaged SS Baton Rouge Victory, a Vietnamese Navy motor launch minesweeper, and MSB 54. In November, a Viet Cong
mine sank MSB 54. And on the last day of the year, American forces discovered a Soviet-made contact mine in the
shipping channel. The Americans and the South Vietnamese intensified minesweeping operations and the enemy
continued to fight back. In February 1967 Communist recoilless rifle fire and mines destroyed MSB 45 and heavily
damaged MSB 49. By the spring of 1967 the rapid buildup of allied forces in the Rung Sat area, the refinement of tactics,
and improvement of weapon systems began to reduce enemy effectiveness. During the year Vietnamese Regional Force
and U.S. Army 9th Division troops conducted aggressive sweeps ashore in coordination with the helicopter, PBR, and MSB units; the better equipped LCM(M)s augmented the minesweeping force at Nha Be. SEALs began sowing mines throughout enemy-held areas, and both PBRs and MSBs added rapid-fire, 40-millimeter grenade launchers to their armament. From mid-1967 to mid-1968, the Viet Cong continued to ambush shipping on the Long Tau with mines, 122-millimeter rockets,
rocket-propelled grenades, recoilless rifles, machine guns, and small arms. Quick action by allied reaction forces,
however, often cut short these assaults. Thus, ship damage and personnel casualties were relatively light. Other attacks
never occurred because PBR and SEAL patrols upset enemy plans or the MSBs and LCM(M)s swept up mines. Consequently, the Communists were unable to sever the vital lifeline to Saigon, even when their forces were fighting for survival during
the Tet and post-Tet battles of 1968.
Game Warden operations in the central reaches
of the Mekong Delta began on 8 May 1966 when PBR River Section 511 of
River Division 51 at Can Tho patroled a stretch of the Bassac River. Soon afterward, other units initiated surveillance of
the upper Mekong and the My Tho, Ham Luong, and Co Chien arms of the mighty river that emptied into the South China
In two-boat random patrols Task Force 116 sailors
checked the cargo and identity papers of junks and sampans plying
the waterways, set up night ambushes at suspected enemy crossing points, supported the SEALs with gunfire and
transportation, and enforced curfew restrictions in their sector, usually no more than 35 nautical miles from the base.
Game Warden operations in the central delta registered
only modest success from 1966 to 1968. Only 140 PBRs were on
station to patrol many miles of river and canal. As a result, they could canvass only the larger waterways. Still, the Task
Force 116 patrol forced the Viet Cong to divert troops and other resources to defense and to resort to less efficient
transportation on smaller rivers and canals. During 1966 the task force refined its tactics, evaluated the performance of
its boats and weapons in combat, and regularized its operational procedures. At the same time naval leaders repositioned
the LSD and LST support ships inland because heavy seas at the river mouths made operations from there difficult. The
year 1967 opened with the accidental loss of a PBR during launching operations from Jennings County and the first
combat loss of a river patrol boat. These events foreshadowed a busy and dangerous year for the Game Warden sailors
who boarded over 400,000 vessels and inspected them for enemy personnel and contraband. In the process, the River
Patrol Force destroyed, damaged, or captured over 2,000 Viet Cong craft and killed, wounded, or captured over 1,400 of
the enemy. However, the U.S. Navy suffered the loss of 39 officers and men killed, 366 wounded, and 9 missing in battle.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 fully engaged Task Force
116. Because of their firepower and mobility, the PBRs stiffened the
defenses of numerous delta cities and towns that were under siege by the enemy. The river patrol boat units were key
elements in the successful allied stands at My Tho, Ben Tre, Chau Doc, Tra Vinh, and Can Tho. The enemy prevailed only
at Vinh Long, where the Viet Cong overran the PBR base forcing the defenders to withdraw to Garrett County. Despite this
and a few other temporary setbacks, Task Force 116 reestablished firm control of the major delta rivers by mid-year and
helped cut short the Viet Cong attacks on Saigon.
The river sailors also gave critical support to
allied forces fighting to contain the enemy surge in I Corps. From September
to October 1967, River Section 521 and Hunterdon County deployed to the river areas south of Danang and to Cau Hai
Bay near Hue. PBR units operated permanently in the northern reaches of South Vietnam after 24 February 1968, when
COMNAVFORV established Task Force Clearwater, under the operational control of the Commanding General III Marine
Amphibious Force. The mission of the task force was to secure the Perfume River (which gave access to Hue from the
sea) and the Cua Viet River. The Task Force eased supply efforts to American forces arrayed along the DMZ and holding
the besieged outpost at Khe Sanh. Home for the task force headquarters was Mobile Base II, a floating barge complex
stationed first at Tan My and later at Cua Viet. Because heavily armed North Vietnamese Army units were presented in
this region, COMNAVFORV strengthened the 20-boat PBR task force with monitors, armored river craft, PACVs, and
landing craft minesweepers. Task Force Clearwater could also call on helicopter, attack aircraft, artillery, naval gunfire, and ground troop support from other units in the I Corps region. Convoys bristling with weaponry were required to maintain the line of communication with forward combat units. The naval forces carried out equally vital minesweeping and patroling operations. During 1968, Task Force Clearwater's support was crucial to the successful defense of Khe Sanh, the recapture of Hue, and the defeat of the enemy offensive in I Corps.
Dramatic changes in the course of the war characterized
1968. The enemy's bloody country-wide Tet Offensive of
February and March and the follow-up attacks during the spring influenced American decision-making in several
important ways. The Johnson administration, convinced that the allied military struggle was faring badly and buffeted by
growing domestic opposition to the American role in the war, ordered the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. At the same time, the administration began diplomatic talks in Paris with the Vietnamese Communist in hopes of achieving a negotiated settlement of the long conflict. U.S. leaders decided that their ability to deal from a position of strength depended on an enlargement and improvement of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces as U.S. forces departed the theater. This "Vietnamization" of the war became the cornerstone of American policy.
For more history go to SEALORDS
These pages of history was downloaded from chapters 3 and 4 of the book: By Sea, Air, and Land; AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE U.S. NAVY AND THE WAR IN SOUTHEAST ASIA BY EDWARD J. MAROLDA.