Hold For Release Release No. 287-69
April 10, 1969 March 29, 1969
Three Years With The
River Patrol Force
There is no cake, no presents are being passed around, and there is no assemblage for the occasion; but today, April 10, 1969, marks the third anniversary that U.S. Navy river patrol boats (PBRs) have been actively patrolling rivers and canals in South Vietnam. In silent remembrance, the men operating the 37-foot boats of the brown water Navy today are recalling the rapid growth that has marked the progress of this unique organization.
The first PBR patrols in South Vietnam commenced April 10, 1966, following the establishment of River Squadron Five, the administrative command for the boats. The operational command, the River Patrol Force (CTF-116), had previously been established and was headed by Rear Admiral N. G. Ward who also served as Commander Naval Forces Vietnam. The mission of the boats, called Operation Game Warden, was to patrol the rivers, estuaries and canals of South Vietnam to interdict the movement of Communist supplies and personnel and to keep innocent traffic on these waterways safe.
The initial eleven river patrol boats – hasty adaptations of fiberglass pleasure craft – encountered many difficulties when they arrived in South Vietnam, March 21, 1966. By no means did the Mark I PBR look optimistic when the boats began patrolling the Long Tau River. The patrols consisted of two PBRs and lasted twelve hours.
Shortly thereafter the Force encountered difficulty with the corrosive metals in the water jet pumps that were to propel the crafts at 25 knots. Stationed on the dock landing ship USS Belle Grove (LSD-2), the men found new types of fenders were required if they were to preserve the fiberglass bodies when tying up alongside the ship.
These discrepancies were soon corrected and the patrols became increasingly more efficient. Adaptations by the four men crews included stripping most of the armor from the forward twin .50-caliber machine gun mount to increase visibility for the boat coxswain; replacing the single .30 caliber machine gun aft with a .50-caliber machine gun to reduce the necessity of varied ammunition and adding the M-18 grenade launcher, a newly adopted automatic weapon. The more serious problems were brought to the attention of the manufacturers and a Navy engineering team.
A New Model
From their wobbly introduction, the river patrol boats were modified to become feared gunships. In September 1967, the force obtained a new, completely modified PBR – the Mark II. The new craft had larger and improved water jet pumps with less corrosive metals, a new system of electrical firing for the forward twin .50-caliber machine guns, more protective armor, and the craft could obtain a much higher speed than its precursor. This craft was specifically designed for the Vietnam riverine war.
Shortly after the introduction of the Mark II PBR, Mark II ALFA boats arrived in South Vietnam with an improved electrical firing system for the .50-caliber machine guns, and styro-foam flotation gear to keep the boats afloat even though bullet riddled.
The older Mark I PBRs were modified with Mark II equipment and still patrol the rivers and canals of South Vietnam while all Mark II PBRs now contain floatation gear.
Today there are 250 river patrol boats in South Vietnam. There are 130 Mark II and Mark II ALFA and 120 Mark I PBRs situated throughout the Mekong Delta, Rung Sat Special Zone and the I Corps Tactical Zone on land bases, mobile support bases, and modified tank landing ships (LSTs), with more than 1600 navymen attached to River Patrol Flotilla Five, the administrative command for the PBRs. River Patrol Flotilla Five, a unit of U.S. Pacific Fleet Amphibious Force was established on September 1, 1968, following the disestablishment of River Squadron Five.
The Mekong Delta is the rice bowl of Vietnam. More than half the population is located here. The area consists of more than 5000 miles of navigable waters and produces fully one half of the country’s food. For these reasons, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces have used the waterways for transporting men and supplies. They obtain food and recruits from the Delta and extort money from villagers.
The River Patrol Force has recognized the importance of this area and keeps most of its patrol boats in the Delta region.
The Rung Sat Special Zone is 406 square miles of dense mangrove swamps interspersed with heavy nipa palm. The northern border is only 15 miles south of Saigon and its southern border extends to the South China Sea. The Long Tau River, the main shipping channel to Saigon, flows through this area giving it much strategic importance.
The Rung Sat Special Zone, or "Forest of Assassins" as it is frequently called, has been used as a refuge area by pirates and assassins hiding from the authorities.
The Vietnamese Navy has been tasked by the Central Government with control of all operations in the Rung Sat. The Vietnamese commander is advised by the U.S. Navy. Patrolling this area are River Divisions operating from Nha Be.
Following the sinking of the American freighter Eastern Mariner by Communist mines on the Long Tau River in May 1966, minesweeping craft were also added to the Force and operate from Nha Be.
There are two River Divisions in the I Corps Tactical Zone; one division stationed near Hue, the old capital of South Vietnam, on the Perfume River; and the other, three miles south of the Demilitarized Zone at Cua Viet patrolling the Cua Viet River.
On February 1, 1967, the River Patrol Force became a separate operational command. Prior to then, the Force had been commanded by Rear Admiral Ward who was also Commander Naval Forces Vietnam. Today the Force encompasses UH-1B: Seawolf" helicopter gunships for close air support, minesweeping craft (MSBs and NSMs), and paramilitary teams of SEALs (Sea-Air-Land intelligence and reconnaissance specialists) trained in clandestine operations ashore.
As the riverine was continued, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers continued to find transporting supplies and personnel on the rivers a near impossible task and they sought other avenues for transporting their materials and personnel. They began using the canals adjacent to the main rivers for movement of war supplies and men in small-motorized sampans and junks. In November 1968, the River Patrol Force began joint operations with the two other Navy Task Forces in Vietnam. Heretofore, the three forces did not operate together regularly, but under the new concept, called Operation Sea Lords (Lake-Ocean-River-Delta strategy) they began joint pursuit of the elusive enemy. The monitors, assault support patrol boats (ASPBs), command and control boats (CCBs), and the armed troop carriers (ATCs) of the Mobile Riverine Force (CTF 117), the swift boats of the Coastal Surveillance Force (CTF 115), and the various craft and helicopter gunships of the River Patrol Force (CTF 116) have made quite a formidable armada pitted against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular forces.
Offspring’s of Operation Sea Lords are Operation Giant Slingshot, Operation Barrier Reef and Operation Tran Hung Dao. These operations, stretching all the way across the Mekong Delta, from Ha Tien on the Gulf of Thailand to Tay Ninh 48 miles northwest of Saigon, are designed to interdict communist infiltration of men and arms into the Mekong Delta and Capital Military District. To date, these campaigns have proven very successful impeding the flow of communist material and men.
Besides the ammunition used against enemy forces, words and deeds are also helping defeat the communists. Using PBRs to transport doctors and nurses, the navymen provide medical attention to Vietnamese villagers, and use their speedy craft as ambulances for wounded personnel. Many times the boats have raced the stork to the hospital and on several occasions they have lost. In gratitude for delivering her healthy son, one Vietnamese named her son Nguyen "PBR" Dinh.
The PBR crewmembers use tape recorders and loudspeakers to announce alterations in curfew hours, promulgate instructions to Viet Cong desiring to surrender (Chieu Hoi) and to persuade others to defect. They distribute psyops leaflets and essentials such as soap, fish hooks, needles, thread and the like to the people they check on the waterways in an effort to encourage the villagers to be faithful to the national government and to advise the Free World Forces of enemy activities and intentions. The PBRs also frequently carry Vietnamese policemen for liaison and interpreting.
This psychological warfare has been highly successful. There have been several hundred Hoi Chanhs (Viet Cong defectors) in the past three years through the direct efforts of the River Patrol Force.
Since the establishment of the River Patrol Force, there have been four commanders: Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward, USN; Captain Burton B. Withan Jr., USN; Captain Paul N. Gray, USN; and Captain Arthur W. Price Jr., USN, the present commander who also serves as commander of River Patrol Flotilla Five. Capt. Price also directs Operations Giant Slingshot, Barrier Reef and Tran Hung Dao which employ naval craft assigned to the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Force and Mobile Riverine Force in addition to his own PBRs.
Since the commencement of Game Warden operations on the rivers and canals of South Vietnam, the men of the Force have killed over 3,000 of the enemy and have sunk, damaged or captured over 6,500 of his boats. Although these statistics are considered significant, of great significance are reports from local officials stating that because of Game Warden’s presence in the Mekong Delta, the villagers are able to move their produce to and from the market places without fear of communist harassment or extortion.
The men of the River Patrol Force have not been neglected for their honorable and heroic achievements. The units of the Force have been awarded two Presidential Unit Citations, one Meritorious Unit Citation, and one Navy Unit Commendation. Two of its men have won the nation’s highest award – the Congressional Medal of Honor. Six Navy Crosses, nine Legion of Merit awards, 69 Silver Stars, 681 Bronze Stars, and numerous other awards, totaling over 6,000, have also been awarded to the men of the force.
As river patrol boats complete their third year patrolling the vital waterways of South Vietnam, the men of the "Brown Water Navy’ anxiously look forward to the victorious and precipitant completion of this war – a war in-which they have written new chapters in Naval History.