June 12, 1966

Hunting VC on the Waterways
Black’s in the Delta Navy, Choppers Teaming Up To Patrol Viet Nam Rivers

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Charles Black, the Ledger-Enquirer’s man in Viet Nam, has spent most of his time there writing about the Army. For a change of pace, Black now moves into a new phase of his war corresponding career:  He’s writing about the Navy.  Staring today and continuing this week in The Ledger and The Enquirer he writes about Operation Sea Wolf.)

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

VUNG TAU - About the first week of May the Pentagon began talking publicly about a concept of river warfare aimed at accomplishing a mission in places such as the Mekong Delta area of South Viet Nam, 14,250 square miles of manmade flood zone where rice paddies, canals and rivers form a confusing network of obstacles to surface travel.

The new concept was essentially a U.S. Marine Corp idea.  It envisioned the use of river patrol boats, helicopter reactions teams flying from ship platforms, a ship as home operations base, and specialized teams of surface troops to control the banks and the tributary entries into main streams.

As is usually the case, at about the time the Washington “concept” talk was going on, the U.S.S.Tortuga was relieving the U.S.S. Belle Grove, which actually started the operation in the Rung Sat Special Zone, in conjunction with some spanking new Navy river patrol boats  (RPBs) and two pairs of armed helicopters drawn from the various companies of the 145th Aviation Battalion.

Helicopters, boats and men can control an area where river and canal traffic is the primary method of transportation, as in the Mekong Delta or the Rung Sat zone.

Sound Idea

The idea is sound, even though a lot of the details are still to be worked out before the new methods become really effective. 

I spent nine days on the U.S.S. Tortuga, anchored a mile or so from Vung Tao and cut off from everything except the tight little universe of the men engaged in the operation.

Each night I flew with a helicopter crew on patrols of the rivers or in answer to calls from the river patrol boats when they received fire from the banks of the waterways in their patrol areas.

Sometime I would mix up this schedule with a daylight run in the choppers.  I made a wearying and spooky 14-hour patrol with one of the little fiber glass RPMs.  They carry a four man crew and are just off the drafting boards.  They have a future which may be quite exciting for the sailors aboard.

Risky and Costly

It was costly in time and it got risky now and again, but as the pattern of the operation became more familiar each day, the problems began to be identifiable and it is in this area that the new idea for river warfare must meet its toughest test.

The Viet Cong won’t really be able to cope with it if it is properly developed and used.  If it doesn’t work, it will be because human and mechanical problems of a friendly nature keep it from doing so.
First, the area involved.

The Rung Sat Special Zone is a sector running from the bay here at Vung Tao, where the Saigon River empties, to near Saigon and it looks as if it were designed by hobgoblins for the entertainment of alligators and cottonmouth moccasins.

Muddy and Swampy

It is muddy, full of mangrove swamps, cut by twisting little channels through the major marshes.  Some areas have heavy tree growth and there are limited zones around villages where the land isn’t partially underwater.

Canals, creeks, and the multi-coursed channels of the rivers winding in almost table flat terrain (except for occasional humps and hummocks) provide a Vietnamese boater’s paradise.

The Viet Cong have used this area as a secure base and a way station, as an area to store supplies being transported to other areas.  Sampans ply almost every inch of the waterways.

The people in this area are fishermen and woodcutters who have legitimate business back in the dismal swamp stretches and along the canals.  The whole mode of life is centered on water - the sea and the rivers - and sampans.

Split Kind of Warfare

Americans patrolling the rivers have many new things to learn in this split-personality kind of warfare.  Somehow they have to check all suspicious traffic, attempt to stop Viet Cong from intermingling with legitimate sampan movement and do it in a manner which doesn’t make enemies.
A Coast Guard Swift boat which was on such a patrol recently had an experience which illustrates the problem beautifully.

The crew on the 82-foot patrol boat saw a big sampan sailing briskly for an isolated village and overhaul it.

The two Vietnamese were awed by all of the weapons the boat and its crew carried and there was always a language problem, but one thing was very clear, the sampan was in trouble.  It was practically awash with water.

Pump Boat Dry

The Coastguardsmen hurriedly threw a pump into action and had the boat pumped dry in a few minutes.

The Vietnamese advisor each of these Coast Guard boats carries for such problems was not available just then, but when he came back aboard the crew told him what had happened.
He then told them what had really happened.

The sampan was hauling fresh water to the village.  Most of the settlements can’t get water to drink in their area and depend on sampans which sell loads of stuff from upstream (the river is salt near the sea) and the rescue operation had just about cancelled a week’s work for the sampan crew.

Solution Presented

Somebody came up with the solution to how to stop VC from using the channels, however and this is the basic idea as it was being used in the Rung Sat Special Zone in its first test.

The boats have now moved to the more stringent problem of the Mekong area now and the concept will become operational, but the test was based on these considerations:

1.    A curfew would be placed on river traffic, all legitimate boatmen would travel only at day and tie up in specified anchorage at night.

2.    Certain areas of the zone, known Viet Cong-controlled areas, would be taboo for legitimate traffic at any time.  Any boat in those areas would be fired on as a Viet Cong transport.

Daytime-Controlled Traffic

3.    Daytime traffic would be easily controlled and checked by the RPB crews.  Their new boats draw only a few inches of water.  The fiberglass hulls are unsinkable.

The new engines, a twin jet of water pumped by big diesels, were quieter than most boats.  Tests had indicated a speed of 25 knots.  They would carry three .50 caliber machine guns, two forward and one aft, and the crew would have M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers with an M-60 machine gun which could be moved as needed.

4.    Because the high banks - especially at low tide - would give advantage to snipers and ambushers, even more protection would be necessary.  Helicopter gunships would provide this by being on 24-hour alert, flying from an LSD and an LST fitted up with flight decks.

Call in Boatmen

5.    The helicopters would fly armed reconnaissance along the river areas as well as be on call to assist the RPB crewmen.

Because the entire Sea Wolf project was part of a continuing operations called “Game Warden” they might be called on to shoot for patrolling troops in the area and to support special Navy units, called SEAL teams (Sea Air Land Teams) composed of underwater demolitions team specialists organized into ambush squads.

The idea for using shallow draft boats and boat-landed ambush squads and patrols is not new.  The French did it, Americans have been doing it.

The broad scope of traffic control and the application of armed helicopters is new.  Missing is a helicopter reaction force which could bring troop units in a hurry, something the original concept and something which became obviously desirable as indicated by the facts of the days spent with Sea Wolf pack.

In fact, the problems to be solved became very simple to list and documented themselves with events.


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