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Vietnam: Naval War
Vietnam: The Navy's War
The U.S. Navy's involvement in the Vietnam War started with offshore patrols and missions in support of the U.S. Advisors in South Vietnam. Vietnam's long coastline, thousands of islands, and many miles of inland waterway demanded the use of naval forces. For the Vietnam War, the Navy chain of command ran from MACV -- General William C. Westmoreland and then General Creighton Abrams -- who directed the actions of the III Marine Amphibious Force and the U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam (NAVFORV) command, which handled Navy river, coastal, advisory, special operations, and logistical commands in South Vietnam.
In the Tonkin Gulf Incidents of August 1964, U.S. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara, used S. Vietnamese patrol boats and U.S. destroyers to put pressure on the N. Vietnamese with intelligence and sabotage operations along their coastline with the resulting confrontation at sea between N. Vietnamese and U.S. vessels.
In late 1964, guerrillas destroyed American combat planes at Bien Hoa airfield north of Saigon and on Christmas Eve set off a bomb at a bachelor officer's quarters in the South Vietnamese capital, killing two Americans and wounding over 100 Americans, Australians, and Vietnamese. Despite their own injuries, three Navy Nurses serving with the Navy's Saigon Station Hospital immediately administered medical treatment to other wounded personnel, earning Purple Heart medals and recognition for their selfless dedication to duty.
The enemy followed up with attacks in early 1965 on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and American military facilities in Pleiku and Qui Nhon during which more Americans died. As a result of these Communist outrages, the Johnson administration ordered Rolling Thunder, a full-scale bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
The aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet's Task Force 77 played a major role in U.S. bombing operations when the war began in earnest during March 1965. The carriers and their cruiser and destroyer escorts steamed at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin and, for over a year, Dixie Station southeast of Cam Ranh Bay. The Rolling Thunder, Linebacker, and other air campaigns involved the bombing of enemy power plants, fuel and supply facilities, highway and railroad bridges, and rail lines in North Vietnam and Laos.
Early in the war, massive, multi-carrier "Alpha Strikes" were typical. In one 70-plane operation, the air wings from USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) and USS Hancock (CVA-19) struck North Vietnamese radar sites on the coast and on Bach Long Vi, Nightingale Island, in the Gulf of Tonkin. In addition to airborne search and rescue, an American submarine in the Gulf of Tonkin picked up downed flyers. As the air war went on, the naval command adopted different tactics to improve the effectiveness of the carrier strikes while minimizing losses of men and planes, such as bombing by one or two A-6 Intruders on pinpoint targets.
Early in the war, the Navy's carrier squadrons were destroying two enemy fighters for every one they lost; an unacceptable win-to-loss ratio. As a result of intensive air-to-air combat training at California's Miramar Naval Air Station, the "Top Gun School," the ratio improved to 12-to-1 during air operations in 1972 and early 1973. Surface ship sailors also helped reduce the enemy's fleet of MiG interceptors. From the first year of the war to the last, the Navy positioned a cruiser equipped with advanced radars and communications between the enemy coast and Task Force 77. The warship, with the call sign "Red Crown," was responsible for keeping track of aircraft, friend or foe, flying over eastern North Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin. The ship often warned U.S. strike aircraft of approaching MiGs and directed escorting fighters toward the threat.
Carrier-based planes also provided essential close air support to U.S. and allied ground forces fighting North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft operating from Seventh Fleet destroyers and carriers executed search and rescue missions that saved hundreds of U.S. aviators whose aircraft went down in North Vietnam and Laos or at sea.
Navy warships were on hand in the Vietnam War to project their firepower ashore. Battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62), 8-inch and 6-inch gun cruisers, and destroyers poured a deluge of fire on bridges, radar sites, rail lines, and coastal artillery positions in North Vietnam. The enemy's coastal batteries fought back, hitting a number of U.S. ships and killing and wounding sailors. The North Vietnamese, however, failed to sink even one U.S. combatant. Joined by Vietnam Navy, Royal Australian Navy, and U.S. amphibious and patrol vessels, the Seventh Fleet's major warships also ranged along the 1,200-mile coast of South Vietnam to strike Viet Cong troop concentrations, supply caches, and fortifications. During the Communist Easter Offensive of 1972, the fleet's bombardment force took a huge toll of North Vietnamese tanks and troops advancing south on the coast against the city of Hue.
Naval amphibious forces exploited the sea to hit the enemy at different locations along the length of the coast of South Vietnam, from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the north to the Gulf of Siam in the south. These landings included large-scale assaults involving many ships, aircraft, and troops as well as combat raids and intelligence-gathering missions. In Operation Starlite during August 1965, the war's most successful amphibious assault, Navy amphibious vessels deployed Marine units ashore which then linked up with Army of Vietnam forces to encircle and destroy the 1st Viet Cong Regiment. Afterward, large enemy units avoided the coastal areas and employed only booby traps and snipers to oppose allied amphibious operations. The naval command then used the Navy-Marine Corps Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force as a floating reserve, especially during the climactic ground battles along the DMZ in 1967 and 1968.
In Operation Market Time, the U.S. Navy, Vietnam Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard largely shut down the seaborne infiltration effort started by the Communists during the early 1960s. Destroyers, mine warfare ships, Coast Guard cutters, gunboats, patrol craft, shore-based patrol planes, and high-powered coastal radars made it almost impossible for the North Vietnamese to slip one of their munitions-laden, 100-ton supply ships past the Market Time patrol. Allied naval forces destroyed or forced back to North Vietnam all but two of the 50 steel-hulled trawlers that tried to run the blockade between 1965 and 1972.
Military Sealift Command ships transported 95% of the ammunition, fuel, vehicles, supplies, and other war materials that reached U.S. forces in South Vietnam. Navy Seabee construction units built thousands of bridges, fortifications, and encampments, paved thousands of miles of road, and developed the huge Navy-Marine Corps logistics bases at Danang and Saigon. During the bitter struggle of the Tet offensive in February of 1968, Seabees built and fought in direct support of the Marine Corps and Army. While the battle for Hue raged, Seabees from Phu Bai were summoned to rebuild and repair two vitally needed concrete bridges. When enemy snipers drove the Seabees from their work, they organized their own combat teams which silenced the snipers. A few months later, the Seabees went to work on the Danang to Hue railroad and put it quickly back into service for the first time since 1965. During 1968-69 there were more than 11,000 Seabees serving in South Vietnam, the peak number for the war.
Another important aspect of the SEALORDS campaign on Vietnam's rivers and inland waterways, was the emphasis on improving the combat performance of the Vietnam Navy. Since 1950, thousands of American naval advisors had worked to prepare their Vietnamese counterparts for operating the ships, coastal and river craft, planes, weapons, and equipment that the Vietnam Navy received in U.S. military assistance programs. The objective of this effort was to enable Vietnamese sailors to carry on the fight with the Communists largely on their own. The mission became especially important after 1968, when the new administration of President Richard M. Nixon began withdrawing U.S. military forces from Vietnam. Eventually, the Vietnam Navy was ranked the fifth largest in the world with 42,000 men and women and 1,500 naval vessels who fought with courage and self-sacrifice against the Communists.
By 1972 President Nixon had achieved diplomatic assurances that Moscow or Beijing would not interfere, so he ordered the Seventh Fleet to mine the waters of North Vietnam. Navy and Marine attack aircraft from aircraft carrier Coral Sea dropped thousands of mines in the approaches to Haiphong and North Vietnam's other major ports. With no merchant ships bringing in supplies of surface-to-air missiles or other munitions, the Communist war effort was quickly curtailed. The Seventh Fleet's mining of North Vietnam's ports in 1972 and 1973, in conjunction with the Air Force-Navy Linebacker bombing campaign, helped return North Vietnam to the Paris Peace talks that ended the Vietnam War for the United States.
Approximately 1,842,000 men and women of the U.S. Navy served in Southeast Asia. 2,600 sailors died in the conflict and 10,000 suffered from wounds, disease, and injury. Their service and sacrifice was an essential component of the U.S. effort to stem the Communist advance in Southeast Asia.
Recommended Books about the Naval War in Vietnam