War is a terribly personal thing. The impression on the soldiers, their combat experience, their friends and fellow soldiers who did not return. The grief and sorrow from family members of the fallen. The nightmares that haunt the living, and the guilt of those who returned, forever questioning, “Why did I survive? When so many in my platoon had their lives cut short, forever young in our memories?”
Vietnam is very personal to me. I remember watching the evening news and the nightly body counts, knowing that if the war continued, I would soon be old enough to serve my country. Freedom has a price that countless Americans paid for me. Is it my destiny to join the list of the killed in action, that is carved into the grave pillars of my small town’s war memorial? Silently standing guard at the cemetery – with only the snap of the flags breaking the silence?
The war ended before I was old enough to join the armed forces. I did hear the call to do my part. My part is to honor those who served. First, through my volunteer work Monona’s Memorial Day parade; second, through my efforts to help construct the Veterans Monument in Ahuska Park.
The Vietnam veterans hold a special place in my heart. They fought two battles. One, the enemy in the jungle 3,000 miles from home. Two, hostile and hellacious discrimination upon their return home. They deserve the respect, admiration and appreciation of all veterans.
Early on, Americans determined that Vietnam would be a different war, where the conventional rules would not apply. As the late President Kennedy articulated: “Another type of warfare – new in intensity, ancient in its origin – war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins – war by ambush instead of aggression – seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.”
And yet, some aspects of war remain the same: Armies need supplies. Sever the supply lines, and you sever the enemy’s ability to fight. This was true for Alcibiades in the Peloponnesian War, Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan in our own Civil War, and also true for Vietnam.
General William C. Westmoreland estimated that prior to 1965, 70 percent of the supplies required by the Viet Cong came from sea and river traffic. By the end of 1967, the Brown Water Navy cut that to a trickle. The Brown Water Navy refers to small gun and patrol boats that are used on rivers, which can maneuver rapidly in shallow water. Those boats are designed for deep penetration in the murky inland waterways, which are too shallow for the Blue Water Navy.
The Brown Water Navy was first used in the American Civil War. The South needed supplies. The North was determined to sever the supply lines. The Union constructed armored gun boats, which could not only stop and sink Confederate supply ships but could lay siege to river forts.
Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote command the Union gun boats and attacked and captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Shortly after that, Admiral Farragut captured New Orleans. On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg, the “Gibraltar of the West,” surrendered, allowing President Lincoln to declare, “The Father of Waters goes unvexed to the sea.”
Waterways are superhighways for moving supplies, and supplies vital for the Viet Cong. On Dec. 18, 1965, for the first time since the Civil War, the Brown Water Navy was reactivated for Vietnam.
The mainstay of the Brown Water Navy vessels in the Mekong Delta was the patrol boat, river (PBR). These boats were propelled by water jets, allowing them to operate in less than 2 feet of water, without the need for rudders or propellers. Another advantage of the PBRs were their fiberglass hulls that allowed the Viet Cong armor-piercing ammo to pass right through the boats without detonating. With their water-jet propulsion, the PBRs ran nearly silent and were ideal for night operations, making deep infiltration search and destroy operations possible.
The other main vessels were small, fast, patrol craft (PCF), aka “Swift” boats. Swift boats had twin V-12 Detroit diesel engines with a top speed of 28 knots and could operate in less than 5 feet of water. These boats presented a formidable fighting force. They were equipped with twin .50 caliber machine guns in a tub above and behind the pilot house. On the fantail, there was an 81 mm mortar and a single .50 caliber. Additionally, they carried an M-79 grenade launcher with fragmentation, incendiary and concussion grenades. M-16s, shotguns, and .38 and .45 caliber pistols were also on board.
American military planners knew the tactics to defeat an enemy waging a guerrilla war: Isolate him, cut off his supplies, and destroy him. The Brown Water Navy was an effective tool.
The following mission highlights the effectiveness of the Brown Water Navy’s ability to deny the enemy his vital supplies. PCF-79 (swift boat) joined three other ships in intercepting a Viet Cong supply ship. The enemy contact, codenamed Skunk-Alpha (skunk is an unidentified surface contact, alpha is the first contact of the day), changed course and was attempting to escape up the mouth of a river. PCF-79 asked permission to engage the target. Shortly after permission was granted, PCF-79 scored a direct hit with a white phosphorous round on the starboard side of Skunk-Alpha’s pilot house, causing the ship to run aground. Skunk-Alpha contained 90 tons of deadly enemy supplies, including 700,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammo, 5,753 rounds of 12.7 mm ammo, 1,000 82 mm mortar rounds, 1,000 AK-44 rifles and more ammo and guns destined to be used against American forces.
The Vietnam War is full of heroes, and the Brown Water Navy produced two who were awarded the Medal of Honor.
– Seaman Davis G. Quellet: While patrolling the Cua Dia tributary of the Mekong River, a Viet Cong fragmentation grenade landed in the cockpit of the PBR. Seaman Quellet dove on the grenade, absorbing the blast and undoubtedly saving many of the crew.
– Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams: Boat captain of PBR 105. On Oct. 13, 1966, Williams’ boat was taking fire from the river bank. When confronted by superior forces, Petty Officer Williams engaged the enemy with all available firepower. After a three-hour battle, Williams’ patrol accounted for the destruction of 65 boats. His heroism and fearless fighting spirit enabled his patrol to defeat a larger enemy force.
I want to end this article with excerpts from a letter from Lt. William Roark, USN, to his wife before he flew from his carrier for the last time. He was lost in combat over North Vietnam.
“I don’t want my son to fight a war I should have fought. I wish more Americans felt that way. I’m not a ‘warmonger,’ it will be me who gets shot at. But it’s blind and foolish not to have the courage of your convictions. I will not live under a totalitarian society, and I don’t want you to, either. I believe in God and will resist any force that attempts to remove God from society, no matter what the name. This is what we all must do if we believe in what the Founding Fathers stood for.”
This article is dedicated to Uncle Paul, Brown Water Navy, 1967-71.