The Brown Water Navy in Vietnam


Robert H. Stoner, GMCM (SW)(Ret)


The naval war in South Vietnam during the years 1964 to 1975 was very dynamic.  For the Americans aiding the South Vietnamese, the effort was several fold: (1) build and equip a capable Vietnamese Navy; (2) teach the new VNN how to fight; (3) how to keep itself supplied; and (4) how to keep itself operational. 


At the same time, the United States Navy found itself embroiled in a war that was fought at first, off the coastal waters of South Vietnam, and then in the river deltas, smaller waterways and canals of the country.  To combat North Vietnamese infiltration of men and supplies by sea, three Task Forces were formed: TF-115 called Operation MARKET TIME; TF-116 called Operation GAME WARDEN; and TF-117 called the MOBILE RIVERINE FORCE (a joint amphibious Army-Navy riverine operation).




Operation MARKET TIME was the U.S. Navy’s effort to stop troops and supplies from flowing into South Vietnam from North Vietnam by way of the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand.  MARKET TIME origins began when a North Vietnamese trawler was intercepted landing arms and ammunition at Vung Ro Bay in northern Khanh Hoa Province, RVN, on 16 February 1965.  This was the first evidence of a dedicated North Vietnamese supply operation and became known as the “Vung Ro Bay Incident.”


Below: Smoke rises from a Chinese-built, North Vietnamese-manned trawler run aground in Vung Ro Bay while trying to land arms and ammunition on 16 February 1965.  Combating these arms smuggling trawlers was a very laborious business.  [Photo: US Department of Defense]


The “Vung Ro Bay Incident” led to the establishment of Operation MARKET TIME by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.  [Other on-going Operations were SEA DRAGON, SEALORDS [Southeast Asia Land, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy], and Naval Gunfire Support.  There was some overlapping of duties by the ships, aircraft, and small boats involved.  With the exception of SEALORDS, these operations are outside this discussion.] 


MARKET TIME was a blockade by USN and VNN naval units of the extensive South Vietnamese coastline against infiltration of troops, armament, and supplies from North Vietnam.  The most common infiltration craft were trawlers that could blend easily with the coastal ship traffic along the coast of South Vietnam.


The typical North Vietnamese trawler was about 100 feet long, was a Chinese-built coastal freighter, and it could carry several tons of arms and ammunition.  These trawlers did not fly a national flag, and would maneuver “innocently” in the South China Sea or Gulf of Thailand until they could make a high-speed run to the South Vietnamese coast to off-load their cargo for waiting Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army forces.


The JCS plan was to use USN aircraft to patrol the Vietnamese coastal waters.  Initially, this was done by Navy P5M-2G “Marlin” flying boats and SP-2H “Neptune” land-based maritime aircraft. 


Below: A Martin P5M-2G “Marlin” of VP-40 off the coast of Vietnam on Operation MARKET TIME patrol in August of 1965.  [Photo: US Navy]




Above: A Lockheed SP-2H “Neptune” of VP-1 as it appeared in 1964 on Operation MARKET TIME patrols.  [Drawing: Jeffery Cultice]


The P5M’s were retired in April 1967 and replaced by P-3A “Orion” maritime aircraft.  The VP (patrol squadrons) flew from Vietnamese, Thai, and Philippine bases.  Squadrons flying these missions were VP-1, VP-2, VP-4, VP-6, VP-16, VP-17, VP-26, VP-28, VP-40, VP-42, VP-46, VP-48, VP-49, and VP-50.  Some of these patrol aircraft were armed with AGM-12 “Bullpup” air-to-surface missiles to engage the trawlers directly.  However, the usual mode of operation was the patrol planes to observe, report, track, and vector surface vessels to intercept the North Vietnamese vessels once they crossed the 12-mile coastal boundary.



Above: A Lockheed P-3A “Orion” of VP-49 as it appeared in 1964 on Operation MARKET TIME patrols.  [Photo: NAS Jacksonville]


One of the most significant Operation MARKET TIME fights occurred between 29 February and 1 March 1968.  The North Vietnamese attempted a coordinated infiltration of the South by four gunrunning trawlers.  In the ensuing gunfight between the trawlers and allied naval forces, two of the trawlers were sunk, a third scuttled itself to avoid capture, and the fourth retreated at high speed into the South China Sea.


Operation MARKET TIME operated day and night, fair weather and foul, for eight and a half years.  MARKET TIME succeeded in denying the North Vietnamese the means to deliver tons of war materials into South Vietnam by sea.


The ships and craft of MARKET TIME were USN gun destroyers (DD), USN and VNN radar picket destroyers (DER), USN and VNN patrol craft escort, rescue (PCE) and (PECR), USCG high endurance cutters (WHEC), USN gun boats (PG) and (PGH), VNN motor gun boats (PGM), USCG and VNN 82-foot cutters (WPB), USN and VNN 50-foot patrol craft, fast (PCF), USN and VNN picket boats Mk V, USN and VNN 36-foot landing craft personnel, large (LCPL), USN and VNN 13-foot Boston Whalers, VNN Coastal Surveillance Force Yabuta junks.


DD  – Fletcher, Sumner, and Gearing-class destroyers

Above: The 390-foot USS AGERHOLM (DD-826) was a Gearing-class FRAM II modernization.  She is shown off Point Loma, San Diego, CA on her way to Operation MARKET TIME service in Vietnam.  [Photo: Mike Smolinski]


Below: The 376-foot USS JAMES C. OWENS (DD-776), was an Allen M. Sumner-class FRAM I modernization.  OWENS is shown here at Pearl Harbor in 1970.  [Photo: Clint D. Kennedy]

Below: A 1961 photo of USS STODDARD (DD-566).  Stoddard was a 376-foot Fletcher-class destroyer.  She is seen as she appeared during her Vietnam service.  [Photo: Daryl Baker]


DER – Edsall, John C. Butler-class destroyer escort radar pickets


Above: The 300-foot USS CAMP (DER-251) in USN service during Operation MARKET TIME.  These radar pickets were used extensively to track the North Vietnamese arms smuggling trawlers.  USS CAMP was one of two DER’s transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy.  A sister ship, TRAN KHANH DU (HQ-4) – ex-USS FORSTER (DER-334) – was captured by the North Vietnamese and remains in-service with communist Vietnam.  [Photo: Dennis Clark]


Below: TRAN HUNG DAO (HQ-1) – ex-USS CAMP (DER-251) – in VNN service.  This ship escaped to the Philippines when South Vietnam fell in April 1975 and was subsequently put into Philippine service.  [Photo: William Toohey]


PCE, PCE(R) – Admirable-class patrol craft escort (rescue)

Below: The former USS CRESTVIEW (PCE-895) was transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy as DONG HA II (HQ-07) in 1961.  In all, nine PCE and PCE(R) 180-foot vessels went into VNN service.  HQ-07 escaped to the Philippines in 1975 and was put into service by the Philippine Navy.  [Photo: Richard Leonhardt]



WHEC – Secretary-class and Casco-class high endurance USCG cutters


Below: The Secretary-class USCG high endurance cutter BIBB (WHEC-31).  Six if these 327-footers that served as part of Operation MARKET TIME off the coast of South Vietnam.  Two of the class, INGHAM (WHEC-35) and TANEY (WHEC-37) survive today as museum ships.  [Photo: US Coast Guard]


Above: The Casco-class USCG high endurance cutter YAKUTAT (WHEC-380) was a 311-footer that served as part of Operation MARKET TIME.  Seven of the class transferred to the Vietnamese Navy in January 1971.  [Photo: US Coast Guard]


PG – Asheville-class patrol gunboat (gas turbine)

Below: The 165-foot Asheville-class Patrol Gunboat USS CANON (PG-90) was one of six gas turbine/diesel engine vessels that supported both Operations MARKET TIME and GAMEWARDEN.  USS CANON was the most decorated US Navy ship of the Vietnam War.  No American PG’s were transferred to the VNN.  [Photo: US Navy]



PGH – Patrol Gunboat Hydrofoil (gas turbine)


For a six-month period, beginning in November of 1969, Boat Support Unit ONE deployed its two gas turbine hydrofoil gunboats, USS FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1) and USS TUCUMCARI (PGH-2), to Vietnam for operational evaluation in the war zone.  Loaded in the well deck of the dock landing ship USS GUNSTON HALL (LSD-5), these craft were transported to Da Nang, Vietnam.  Each craft was accompanied by a trailer of spare parts due to the unique requirements of each vessel.  The deployment was not particularly successful and both hydrofoils were returned to the U.S. in 1970.  FLAGSTAFF remained at BSU-1 (Coronado, CA) for trails work and was eventually transferred to the US Coast Guard.  TUCUMCARI was transferred to BSU-2 at Little Creek, VA where she performed as a technology demonstrator in the U.S. and Europe.  TUCUMCARI ran onto a reef while on her hydrofoils off Vieques Island, Puerto Rico in November 1972.  Salvaged and brought back to the United States, TUCUMCARI was too badly damaged for repair and was subsequently scrapped.



Above: The gas turbine hydrofoil gunboats USS FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1), left, and USS TUCUMCARI (PGH-2), right.  These very sophisticated craft are seen aboard USS GUNSTON HALL (LSD-5) on their way to Vietnam in November 1969.  [Photos: Cliff Boxer]


Below: USS FLAGSTAFF shown at speed (45 knots) on her hydrofoils.  FLAGSTAFF had two diesel engines driving water jet pumps and one Rolls-Royce Tyne gas turbine driving a single supercavitating propeller.  PGH-1 displacement was 67 tons, 73 feet long (foils up) 82 feet long (foils down), 21.5 feet in beam, and had a draft of 4.5 feet (foils up) and 18 feet (foils down).  Armament in Vietnam was one 40mm gun, two twin .50 machine guns, and one 81mm Navy mortar.  [Photo: International Hydrofoil Society]




Above: USS FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1) refuels from USS PLATTE (AO-24) in February 1970.  [Photos: Richard Miller]


Below: USS FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1) after her conversion to mount the 152mm gun/missile launcher of the Sheridan airborne reconnaissance vehicle in 1971.   The top of the turret was modified to use a clear plexiglass dome (and then a redesigned cupola replaced that).  The gun/launcher could fire the MGM-51 Shillelagh wire-guide anti-tank missile or a 152mm conventional shell.  [Photo: International Hydrofoil Society]




Above: USS FLAGSTAFF was disarmed after the Sheridan gun/launch trials.  FLAGSTAFF was loaned to the US Coast Guard in November 1974, and then permanently transferred to the USCG on 29 February 1976.  [Photo: International Hydrofoil Society]


Below: FLAGSTAFF in USCG colors as WPBH-1.  FLAGSTAFF remained in USCG service, on and off, from 1974 through 30 September 1978, when she was decommissioned and scrapped.  [Photo: US Coast Guard]




Above: USS TUCUMCARI (PGH-2) on her hydrofoils off San Diego, CA prior to her Vietnam deployment.  TUCUMCARI was slightly smaller than FLAGSTAFF, and used a different hydrofoil arrangement. [Photo: International Hydrofoil Society] 


Below: USS TUCUMCARI shown with crew at battle stations.  The vessel had a speed of 45 knots on her hydrofoils, had two diesel engines and one Rolls-Royce Proteus gas turbine driving two water jet pumps.  PGH-2 displacement was 57 tons, 72 feet long, 35.3 feet in beam, and had a draft of 4.5 feet (foils up) and 13.9 feet (foils down).  Armament in Vietnam was one 40mm gun, two twin .50 machine guns, and one 81mm Navy mortar.  TUCUMCARI completed over 200 hours on her foils during her Vietnam deployment.  Operations were conducted day and night, in fair weather and foul.  Refueling at sea and vertical replenishment operations were demonstrated.  [Photo: International Hydrofoil Society] 



Above: USS TUCUMCARI (PGH-2) aboard USS CORONADO (LPD-11) for her transfer to NAB Little Creek, VA, from NAB Coronado, CA.  In August 1970, TUCUMCARI was loaded on USS WOOD COUNTY (LST-1173).  PGH-2 was taken to Europe for NATO demonstrations of her abilities from April to October 1971.  WOOD COUNTY acted as the support ship for TUCUMCARI during this deployment.  TUCUMCARI returned to the United States and continued operations until her fatal grounding in November 1972.  [Photo: Bill Foss]


PGM – PGM-9 class 100-foot motor gun boat, VNN


Below: The Vietnamese Patrol Motor Gunboat or PGM, THO CHAU (HQ-619).  A World War 2 design called the PGM-9, vessels of this class were given to or built for U.S. allies as part of Foreign Military Sales (FMS).  Twenty PGM gunboats were used by the VNN.  THO CHAU (HQ-619) escaped to the Philippines in 1975 and was put into service by the Philippine Navy.  [Photo: Larry C. Brooks II]


WPB – Point-class 82-foot USCG cutter



Above: The USCG transferred some 26 of these 82-foot Point-class cutters to Vietnam in January 1971.  POINT YOUNG (WPB-82303) was one of those vessels given to the VNN.  [Photo: US Coast Guard]


PCF – Swift boat 50-foot patrol craft, fast


Below: One of the hardest working small boats as part of Operation MARKET TIME was the Patrol Craft, Fast (PCF) or “Swift” boat.  The PCF was a conversion of a commercial craft designed to service oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.  This Mk I PCF is patrolling off the coast of the Ca Mau Peninsula.  Some 103 PCF boats – Mk I, II, and III – were used by the VNN.  [Photo: US Navy]


LCPL –36-foot landing craft personnel, large Mk 4 (steel) and Mk 11 (fiberglass)



Above: A nest Mk 4 (steel hull) LCPLs tied-up along USS BELLE GROVE (LSD-2) prior to transfer to the VNN in 1966.  The yellow square and red “X” is an airborne recognition sign to prevent friendly fire accidents.  The Mk 4 and Mk 11 (fiberglass hull) LCPLs were used for harbor and river security operations.  [Photo: Bruce Shewbrooks]


Below: The Mk 11 (fiberglass hull) LCPL was the most common boat used by harbor security IUWU-1 through 5.  These boats were identified by IUW + a boat number on the bow.  This photo shows a Mk 11 LCPL out of the water for maintenance.  [Photo: Bill Masasso]



Mk V Picket Boat – 45-foot harbor security

Above: The Hacker Boat Co. of Mt. Clemens, MI built the Mk V picket boat.  The Mk V was a wooden 45-foot boat designed for harbor security operations.  These boats were employed by Inshore Undersea Warfare Units: IUWU-1 at Vung Tau, IUWU-2 at Cam Ranh Bay, IUWU-3 at Qui Nhon, IUWU-4 at Nha Trang, and IUWU-5 at Vung Ro.  Twenty-four Mk V picket boats were turned over to the Vietnamese.  [Photo: Vietnamese Navy]


Boston Whaler – 13-foot harbor security runabout


Below: A nest of three Boston Whalers (foreground), a Mk V picket boat (background, center) and a Mk 11 LCPL (background, right) alongside the IUWU-4 pier at Nha Trang.  Thirty-three Boston Whalers were transferred to the VNN.  [Photo:]




Above: A map of South Vietnam showing the deployed Inshore Undersea Warfare Units: IUWU-1 at Vung Tau; IUWU-2 at Cam Ranh Bay; IUWU-3 at Qui Nhon; IUWU-4 at Nha Trang; and IUWU-5 at Vung Ro.  Binh Thuy was several miles up the Bassac River from Can Tho.

Command Junk – 50-foot VNN Coastal Surveillance Force



Above: The wooden 50-foot command junk (Ghe Chủ Lực) was a local-built wooden design for coastal patrol by the VNN Coastal Security Force.  It was armed with a .30 and a .50 machine gun and a 60mm mortar.  A single diesel engine drove a single shaft prop.  Command junks carried more radios than the 36-foot patrol junks.  American Navy advisors worked with the VNN Coastal Surveillance Forces.  Regardless of size, these boats were commonly known as Yabuta Junks.  [Photo: Vietnamese Navy]


Patrol Junk – 36-foot VNN Coastal Surveillance Force


Below: There were three types of patrol junks used by VNN Coastal Security Force; one was made of ferro-concrete and the two others were made of wood.  The boats were lightly armed with small arms and a .30 caliber machine gun and had a single diesel engine turning a single shaft.  The Ghe Thiên Nga Yabutas were the most common (151 built).  [Photo: Vietnamese Navy]




Above: The Coastal Raider (Duyên Kích Đĩnh) was a ferro-concrete Yabuta built in Saigon.  It was armed with small arms, a .50 caliber and a .30 caliber machine gun and had a single diesel engine and a single shaft.  These Yabutas were the second most common (71 built).  [Photo: Vietnamese Navy]


Below: The Ghe Kiên Giang Yabuta was made of wood.  The boats were lightly armed with small arms and a .30 caliber machine gun and had a single diesel engine and a single shaft.  Only six were built.  The VNN had 20 coastal surveillance centers along the coast of Vietnam.  Each base had at least 12 junks of various configurations).  [Photo: Vietnamese Navy]





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