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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.