June 14, 1966

Several Problems Need Solving For Effective River Control

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Charles Black, Enquirer military writer who has concentrated his reports on activities of the 1st Cavalry Division in Viet Nam, today begins a series on the U.S. Navy’s work there.  Black has written several articles on Operation Sea Wolf, the Navy’s latest effort against the Viet Cong.)

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

VUNG TAU - Sea Wolf, a project testing some new wrinkles in the age-old business of controlling river traffic in an underdeveloped country’s war theater, won’t work really well until some of these items are taken care of:

1.    Using helicopters to help a river patrol boat caught in a bank ambush or under sniper fire is uneconomical unless a broader mission is also given.

The idea was for the choppers to shoot up sampans in forbidden areas and at night, to make reconnaissance flights and spot hidden sampans and cargoes during the day, and to take care of shooting trouble in narrow canals or creeks where a boat would be a sitting duck.

One of the deliciously contrived controls for operations of this and every other type in Viet Nam has turned the helicopter mission into a frustration.  The control of the operation by a headquarters far removed from the scene has been its most serious shortcoming.

Lesser Top Speed

2.    A bow wave of national publicity on the expensive new river boats gave their top speed as 25 knots.

I witnessed test runs by the score and, loaded for combat as they must be when in operation, the fastest boat of the 12 available (30 are on the way eventually) was 17 knots.  That isn’t fast enough to give it the needed getaway speed if an ambush is touched off.

3.    The same publicity said the boats could operation in mudflats, sandbar areas, etc., because they drew only a few inches of water.  They can float in that environment but the propulsion system which makes such shallow water operation theoretically possible - a jet of water pumped out the back - makes it practically impossible.

When the powerful pumps scoop up water to spurt out the back in these shallow areas, they also scoop up mud which clogs the pumps.  Propellers which would give additional speed aren’t good for bumping over mudflats, but since the jets don’t work anyway in that environment the Navy may end up going back to the old method.

Lucrative Targets

4.    Some of the most lucrative targets found by the helicopters weren’t in the water, they were in the low but above-water areas along canals and the river banks.

Sampans and camouflaged hootches and obvious caches were discovered by low-level flights in the daytime (with sniper bullets adding considerable suspense to the undertakings.)

These weren’t good targets for aerial gunnery.  They needed somebody to inspect them at close range.  An air cavalry unit would have been perfect here for landing a quick, tough platoon by rappelling or troop-ladder into an occasional clearing.

5.    An ambush by one of the Navy special teams set ashore bagged an elusive pair of VC and their weapons with efficiency.  The use of many such deadfalls along narrow canals or channels would give a selective-kill punch to the operation which would make even the most venturesome VC sampan paddler worry about a moonlight boat ride.

Infantrymen Excel

It isn’t likely that the Navy resources can provide a lot of the special teams and it is a gunfighting job at which just plain infantrymen excel.  The addition of air cavalry units would enhance this part of the river warfare concepts.

Until the small network of waterways is controlled by such ambushes and bank patrols, in fact, night patrol of waterways is going to be almost impossible.  In this light, amphibious helicopter for troop landing, recovery, resupply, etc., would be wonderfully handy.

Armed helicopters are absolutely necessary if the patrol boats aren’t to be sacrificed sooner or later and they extend the control where patrol boats can’t go, just as would the foot soldiers, ambush teams, etc.

Interesting Idea

6.    Using the ships for a helicopter base is interesting, it makes a wonderful secure base with air conditioned comfort for the pilots and crews, the ships are excellent as mothers to the patrol boat fleet when they are operating near the sea - but they are completely unnecessary and are going to be hard to justify except as an adjunct when the operation goes into the Mekong Delta.
The boats and choppers may be 200 miles up  a river in such an operation and the ships anchored off the coast are not useful.  In an area such as the Rung Sat Zone where there aren’t any close bases, where the operation is near the sea, and where a permanent force may not be called for, the ship as a mobile base will be necessary.

Specious Definition

When the operation goes on up the long rivers that really count, however, use of “mother ships” seems more designed to give a specious amphibious operation definition to the river war than to serve a practical purpose.

The river war theory would seem to become a combination of air cavalry, such as exists in the 1st Cavalry Division in the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, with organic rifle platoons, scout ships, transport ships and gun ships, and boats with regular air mobile battalions operating in the areas influenced by the river as a means of transportation or livelihood.

But the major and overwhelming problem is an unwillingness on the part of the Vietnamese to enforce an effective curfew on the river, even after it was officially announced, and an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. Naval advisers at headquarters to allow helicopters to shoot obvious targets, or lengthy and unnecessary delays in their decisions which allowed such targets to escape.


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