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Vietnam: River War 1965-1973
Task Force 116 -- Operation Game Warden
During the Vietnam War, Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV) was responsible for securing the many rivers and canals that wound their way through the lush, tropical landscape of South Vietnam. In Operation Game Warden, Navy river patrol boats (PBR) organized as Task Force 116 (known as the "brown water navy") moved along the major rivers of the Mekong Delta and further north near Hue. The mission of these units was to deny the enemy use of the waterways for transporting guerrillas and supplies.
The Vietnamese used a multitude of boats called junks and sampans, any one of which could be helping the Viet Cong. The sampans, made of bamboo, were capable of navigating in only a few inches of water and could travel practically unseen under the overhanging vegetation lining the banks of a river or mangrove swamp. Every day, sailors of the Navy's River Patrol Force, with air support from heavily armed UH-1B Huey helicopters of Navy Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3, the "Seawolves," stopped and searched the sampans and similar small craft for hidden munitions and other contraband. The discovery of Viet Cong guerrillas operating on the river, which occurred often, led to fierce gun battles at close quarters.
Equally important to the war on the rivers were the Navy's highly trained, motivated, and courageous SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) naval special forces, first used in Vietnam. Small detachments of SEALs operated routinely in Viet Cong-controlled areas gathering intelligence and killing or capturing key enemy personnel. Navy mine countermeasures units, despite losing a number of minesweeping boats to enemy rocket propelled grenades and command-detonated mines, kept the tortuous, 45-mile channel from the sea to Saigon, a major logistics hub in southern South Vietnam, open throughout the war.
Sharing these inland operating areas was the joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force, which consisted of heavily armed and armored monitors, troop carriers, assault support patrol boats, and combat troops from the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division who often closed with the enemy. In battle after battle, the naval force deployed troops on the flanks and rear of Communist combat units and with American helicopter teams decimated the enemy forces.
Task Force 116 was the most highly decorated naval command of the war with two recipients of the Medal of Honor, 14 recipients of the Navy Cross and numerous recipients of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.
After several years of war, however, the enemy had begun to find ways of countering the allied river patrol and river assault operations. The Viet Cong shifted their resupply activities to small rivers and canals and the main force North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong combat units either avoided contact with the Mobile Riverine Force or waited for the right opportunity to spring deadly ambushes.
To regain the initiative after the Tet Offensive, Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., a dynamic officer who took charge as COMNAVFORV in the fall of 1968, followed a new strategic approach, which he named Sealords (Southeast Asia Lake-Ocean-River-Delta Strategy). The thrust of the Sealords campaign was to establish closely patrolled sectors along the Cambodian border where the enemy brought most of his munitions and supplies into South Vietnam, penetrating Viet Cong strongholds in the dense marsh and swampland areas of the Mekong Delta. The enemy resistance to this new strategy was fierce and sustained during 1969 and 1970, but the allies established increasing control of the targeted areas. Coupled with the U.S. and South Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia in 1970, the Sealords campaign severely hindered enemy operations in the Mekong Delta and enabled the South Vietnamese to redeploy an ARVN infantry division out of the Mekong Delta to fight elsewhere during the Communist Easter Offensive of 1972.
The PBR (Patrol Boat, River)
The U.S. Navy created the original 31-foot fiberglass-hulled Mk I PBR from a modified leisure craft design. The boats were outfitted with one twin 50-caliber machine gun forward and an after-mount of either a machine gun or mortar. The ships also had a light machine gun and/or 40-millimeter grenade launcher amidships. They carried two AN/PRC-25 radios and the Pathfinder surface radar. The Mk I PBR could reach speeds of up to 25 knots, while drawing a draft of only 12 to 18 inches dead in the water or as little as nine inches underway, necessary to operate in the shallow waters of the Mekong Delta. The 1966 Mk II PBR had two turbocharged V-653 Detroit diesel engines and an aluminum hull better suited to conditions in Vietnam. It required 30 inches of water and could cruise at up to 34 mph.
A Navy boatswain's mate captained the PBR with a crew of three others -- normally a Navy engineman serving as the boat engineer, a gunner's mate serving as both gunner and seaman, and a third crewmember, frequently a Vietnamese interpreter who knew the peculiarities and geography of the river. The boat captain and crew had an enormous responsibility. The PBRs logged up to 70,000 patrol hours in an average month and were involved in about 80 firefights per month.
Other types of armored and unarmored boats were used in the River War, including the Monitors and PCFs shown on the photos on this page, but the versitile PBR was the indispensible workhorse vessel.
Recommended Books about the River War in Vietnam