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The US Coast Guard in Vietnam

[Exerpts from the book, Riverine, A Pictorial History of the Brown Water War in Vietnam, by Jim Mesko.]

As in past wars the United States Coast Guard was called upon to supplement US Naval forces in the war zone. Due to the service's role in coastal patrol and rescue it had a number of craft that were specifically designed for in-shore work. Thus, in the early phases of Market Time the USCG boats bore much of the coastal patrol work until additional USN assets were able to take over the work load. The initial request for USCG assistance came in mid-April of 1965 when the Secretary of the Navy inquired about available assets from the Treasury Department, under which the Coast Guard operated during peacetime. After a series of interviews between the officials concern­ed, it was decided to deploy seventeen 82 foot patrol boat (WPBs) for in­shore work along the coast of Vietnam. By the end of May the boats had been loaded aboard cargo ships and were on their way to Subic Bay in the Philip­pines which was to serve as an advanced training facility to ready the crews for deployment to the war zone. Personnel of the first unit, Coast Guard Squadron One (RONONE), was commissioned on 27 May 1965 at the Coast Guard base at Alameda, California, receiving an intense course in survival training following commissioning, along with instruction on weapons systems, patrol procedures, combat indoctrination, and a variety of other subjects in preparation for their service in Vietnam. Upon completion of this training the officers and men followed their WPBs to Subic Bay where they took part in refresher training and put their cutters through shakedown cruises.

By mid-July, the first of the squadron's two sub-units, Division Twelve, was operational and on 15 July it departed Subic Bay for Da Nang near the DMZ. Division Eleven was ready by 20 July and set sail for An Thoi in the Gulf of Thailand. At month's end, Task Force 115 (Market Time) was of­ficially established and RONONE became part of the organization. To coor­dinate the numerous units which comprised TF 115, five Coastal Surveillance Centers (CSCs) were set up at Da Dang, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, and An Thoi. Working with these centers RONONE cutters were assigned to different patrol stations off the northern and southern ends of Vietnam. At these stations the cutters came under the direction of the minesweeper or destroyer escort that maintained the outer barrier patrol, and which provided the Coast Guard cutters with radar and navigational aids. In turn the USCG cutters provided similar aid to US and Vietnamese units on in-shore patrol, and, if the need arose, also provided fire support.

During this early period USCG cutters intercepted numerous junks and sampans carrying enemy soldiers and/or supplies. Sometimes resistance oc­curred but the cutter's .50 caliber machine guns and mortars were more than a match for the small arms fire they encountered. In addition to these fire fights the WPBs were called upon on several occasions to provide support for US Special Forces and ARVN units along the coast. During these engagements the indirect fire of the 81mm mortar on the bow of these cutters proved to be especially effective in providing fire support and illumination at night.

While the two Coast Guard divisions were doing a good job in their respec­tive sectors, the whole central coast of South Vietnam was uncovered. To alleviate this problem nine additional Coast Guard cutters were reassigned from other duties to form a third division to cover the vital center area. Divi­sion Thirteen was officially formed on 12 December 1965, and ready for duty in early February of 1966. It left Subic Bay on 12 February for Vung Tau and by the end of the month its cutters were on station alongside other Market Time forces.

Throughout the spring all three division had numerous run-ins with small junks carrying contraband, and carried out the occasional fire support mis­sion for troops ashore. In May the action heated up. The cutter Point Grey (WPB 82324) came across a 120 foot trawler near the Cau Mau peninsula which acted very suspicious. When the cutter moved in to investigate, the trawler, in an effort to escape, beached itself. The Grey tried to put a boar­ding party on the ship, but intense automatic fire from the beach forced the cutter away. Calling for back-up, the Grey was joined by the Point Cypress (WPB 82326) and sank the trawler in shallow water. Navy divers later salvag­ed a huge amount of weapons and ammunition.

A month later, on 20 June, a 98 foot trawler was spotted by the Point League (WPB 82304) near Vung Tau. As the cutter approached, she came under fire from the trawler. The Point League returned the fire forcing the trawler to turn shoreward in an attempt to escape. Hearing the cutter's call for assistance, the Point Slocum (WPB 82313) and Point Hudson (WPB 82322) soon arrived, by which time the trawler had been forced aground. After being boarded, the ship was refloated and towed back to Vung Tau where several tons of arms, ammunition, and medical supplies were un­covered in her holds.

The rest of the summer saw little action with the enemy but a case of mistaken identity resulted in a tragic incident. During routine night patrol near the DMZ in August the Point Welcome (WPB 82329) was illuminated by friendly aircraft. Despite attempts to identify herself, the cutter was attacked by the aircraft and received a number of hits. Burning, the cutter was beach­ed and the crew abandoned her in the face of continuing attacks. When the action was finally over, two Coast Guardsmen were dead and three were wounded. The Point Welcome, severely damaged, was eventually refloated and towed to Da Nang for repairs.

During the remainder of 1966 and the early part of 1967 no significant ac­tion occurred with communist trawlers. The three divisions continued to in­tercept small coastal junks, and, in addition, rescued a number of downed aircrews and Vietnamese sailors from the South China Sea. In March, a 120 foot trawler attempted to run the patrol barrier near the DMZ. Various Market Time forces, including the Point Ellis (WPB 82330) shadowed the vessel until it neared the coast. Realizing that they were trapped, the crew ran the trawler aground after a short firefight. The enemy crew was "able to destroy some of the cargo, but a large part of it was subsequently recovered after the vessel was towed to Da Nang.

This shadowing and interception brought to light the serious shortage of forces which still faced TF-115. A large number of surface units had been in­volved in the operation and as a result, some sectors were left unguarded dur­ing the chase. Early in 1967, the Navy had requested the Coast Guard to pro­vide five high endurance cutters (WHECs) to supplement Market Time units. With the March interception still fresh in their memories, Coast Guard of­ficials organized Squadron Three (RONTHREE) at Pearl Harbor on 24 April 1967. It left Pearl two days later and arrived at Subic Bay on 10 May. By month's end the five cutters were on station with TF 115 which assigned them, because of their shallow draft, to the Gulf of Thailand. There, the squadron worked

  the outer barrier patrol and provided fire support with their five inch guns. They also served as logistic bases for the WPBs and Swift boats of the in-shore patrol force. Often the WHECs carried a replacement crew for the Swifts so that the small craft could stay on station for extended periods of time. In turn the Coast Guard cutters were usually re-supplied by the oilers, ammunition, and supply ships of the 7th Fleet. This allowed the cutters to stay on station for long periods of time, docking only when repairs were necessary or to give their crews a short break from sea duty.

Throughout the remainder of the summer of 1967 few major contacts oc­curred. The most significant came in July when the Point Orient (WPB 82319) ran a 120 foot trawler aground and captured a large amount of weapons. However, a major change in operational procedure occurred early in the fall when TF 115 decided to take advantage of the ocean going capabilities of the WPBs and have them alternate their patrol stations with the PCFs. This alternation was based on weather conditions, which allowed the 'Swift' boats to operate far more effectively since they could not function in heavy weather. Though not a popular change with Coast Guard personnel, it was accepted as just one more duty they had to perform.

The beginning of 1968 saw the largest battle of the entire war for the bar­rier patrol when North Vietnam made a desperate attempt to infiltrate men and supplies during the end of February to bolster their failing Tet offensive. Near Da Nang the cutter Androscoggin (WHEC 68), along with the Point Grey (WPB 82324), Point Welcome (WPB 82329) and a PCF spotted a trawler close inshore. After challenging the intruder, the force put the ship under fire and drove it aground, where its crew destroyed it with explosives. Further south, near Nha Trang, another trawler was spotted by Naval and Coast Guard units which also forced her ashore. As these units closed in on the trawler, heavy defensive fire was encountered. Pulling back beyond range of this fire, the cutters opened up with 81mm mortars, scoring several hits which destroyed the vessel. A third trawler was encountered off the Cau Mau peninsula by the Winona (WHEC 65), Point Grace (WPB 82323), Point Marone (WPB 82331), Point Hudson (WPB 82322) and Swift boats. Taking heavy fire, the trawler exploded and disappeared from the radar scope. Another trawler, spotted by the Minnetonka (WHEC 67) just beyond Viet­namese waters, decided to play it safe and fled back to safety. During the course of just one evening, three trawlers were destroyed in the biggest single engagement of the war by Market Time forces.

This battle was the high point of the Coast Guard's effort in Vietnam. Dur­ing the rest of 1968, only an occasional contact resulted during the numerous patrols carried out by the WPBs and WHECs. The larger cutters, with their heavier armament, participated in a number of fire support missions for US Army and ARVN troops, particularly in the Cau Mau peninsula area. These missions provided the only instances where the large cutters actually en­countered the enemy. Rarely during their daily patrol operations were any of the small craft found to be carrying weapons or supplies. Following their heavy losses in February, North Vietnam opted not to try to run trawlers through the barrier patrols. The Coast Guard crews settled into an almost peacetime routine, occasionally rescuing downed aviators and fishermen in trouble, or providing emergency medical aid for allied personnel when the need arose. Some of the cutters carried out hydrographic surveys of un­charted areas but on the whole the .remainder of 1968 was a quiet year.

The year 1969 saw a number of changes for Coast Guard forces engaged in Vietnam. US authorities decided to turn over a greater share of the war to the Vietnamese, and as part of this program the Coast Guard was instructed to begin training Vietnamese sailors so that eventually they could take over the 82 foot cutters of all three divisions. This transition began in January and by the spring of 1969 the training program was well enough along to transfer the Point Garnet (WPB 82310) and the Point League (WPB 82304) over to the Vietnamese. During this period, the first of a new class of cutter, the Hamilton (WHEC 715), arrived off the coast to relieve the older cutters which dated back to World War Two. With more modern armament, radar, and flight facilities, these new arrivals soon showed how superior they were to the older vessels.

One result of these new additions was the decision to transfer a number of the older cutters to the South Vietnamese Navy to give it more depth for off­shore patrolling. In early 1970, two more cutters, the Bering Strait (WHEC 382) and Yakutat (WHEC 380) were selected for transfer to the Vietnamese. Eventually two more cutters, the Castle Rock (WHEC 383) and Cook Inlet (WHEC 384) were also transferred to the Vietnamese Navy; The turnover of Coast Guard assets to the Vietnamese continued throughout 1970, with the last of the 82 foot cutters being officially transferred by 15 August 1970. This also marked the formal disestablishment of Coast Guard Squadron One as a part of US forces in Vietnam. The larger cutters, however, stayed on duty for a while longer and were involved in two more battles with trawlers. On 20 November 1970, the Rush (WHEC 723) and Sherman (WHEC 720) destroyed a trawler with gunfire after it failed to stop. The following spring, on 11 April 1971, the Rush, in company with the Morgenthau (WHEC 722) sank a trawler near the Cau Mau peninsula. However, these were the parting shots for Coast Guard operated cutters. By the winter of 1971, only one USCG ship, the Cook Inlet was still patrolling off Vietnam under Coast Guard con­trol, albeit with a largely Vietnamese crew. It was officially turned over to the Vietnamese Navy on 21 December 1971. A short time later RONTHREE was officially dissolved, thus ending another chapter in the annals of the United States Coast Guard history. As in past wars, their performance had been outstanding, but it had not been without cost. Seven Coast Guardsmen lost their lives and an additional fifty-three were wounded. Over one thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Gong were killed or wounded in actions with Coast Guard units while over ten thousand were detained for questioning by South Vietnamese authorities. By their actions off the Vietnamese coast, the Coast Guard helped stop the flow of arms, men, and munitions into South Vietnam and undoubtedly saved the lives of countless thousands of allied soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. No matter what the conditions were, these men carried out their assignments. No more can be asked of a fighting man than that.