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's 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
River Division 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 2)
Comstock (LSD 19)
Floyd County (LST 762)
Jennings County (LST 846)
Tortuga (LSD 26)
Garrett County (LST 786)
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 Sea.
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.
Department of the Navy
Naval Historical Center
901 M Street SE-Washington Navy Yard