Vietnam is usually remembered as a war fought in jungles and rice paddies. But there was another conflict as well. A sailor’s war, much of it fought from the decks of United States Coast Guard cutters. The Coast Guard played a significant role in securing Vietnam’s 1,200-mile coastline. Some 8,000 Coast Guardsmen and 56 different combatant vessels were assigned there. Coast Guardsmen destroyed enemy supply ships, supported ground units, rescued American and other friendly forces, and performed many more duties, including carrying out humanitarian roles which are common to the Coast Guard. Yet, the Coast Guard’s involvement in the Vietnam War is still little known.
Early in the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese obtained their supplies in many ways. Forces allied with the Republic of South Vietnam could not stop the enemy’s flow of men, arms, and supplies.
In February 1965, a U.S. Army pilot flying over Vung Ro Bay near Qui Nhon noticed an “island” moving slowly from one side of the bay to the other. Upon closer observation, he saw the island was a carefully camouflaged ship. Intelligence sources determined the ship was North Vietnamese and engaged in supplying enemy forces. Air strikes were called in and the vessel was sunk.
A tight security and surveillance system was necessary. This would be no easy chore with 1,200 miles of coastline to patrol and over 60,000 junks and sampans to control. To provide this coverage, the Coastal Surveillance Force was established in March 1965. Called Market Time after the native boats using the waterways for fishing and marketing, this task force provided a single command to integrate sea, air and land-based units, and coordinate U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and South Vietnamese naval units.
The backbone of the Coast Guard fleet were the 82-foot patrol boats (WPB). Known as Squadron One, 26 of them saw action. The 82-footers’ main job was choking off the enemy’s seaborne supplies. Much of the action took place near the borders. Division 12, out of Da Nang in the north, patrolled the 17th parallel. Division 11, based at An Thoi in the south, guarded the border between Cambodia and South Vietnam. At first, these patrol boats formed a barrier from the shore straight out into the ocean. They were to cut off the enemy as they tried to enter South Vietnamese waters. However, the North Vietnamese sent their supplies in large steel-hulled vessels far out to sea to beat the blockade by going around it.
So, the Coast Guard and Navy changed tactics. Rather than trying to catch the enemy as they entered Southern waters, the Coast Guard and Navy decided to hit them as they approached the drop-off points. The boats formed a picket line along the shoreline and covered the area with radar. When a target was spotted, they attacked.
A year after the new defensive schedule was set up, enemy smuggling was stopped cold. In desperation, the communists tried a tactical change of their own. In February 1968, the North Vietnamese ran four large trawlers south all at once, in the hope of getting something through. Three were destroyed and one retreated. After that, enemy seaborne smuggling was largely carried out in small sampans.
The patrol boats also worked with the Navy SEALs and military recon units. They also gave emergency support to Special Forces camps, transported personnel, evacuated wounded, and provided naval-gunfire support. About two years into Operation Market Time, naval operations were extended further offshore and expanded into the Gulf of Thailand.
Market Time units stopped many enemy vessels carrying supplies and men. The success of the operation forced the enemy to rely on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to transport supplies. As many of the trawler “kills” were in southern Vietnam near the Ca Mau Peninsula, the enemy had to carry supplies over an extraordinarily long land route.
As time went on, the Coast Guard was asked to increase its support and did so by providing five high-endurance cutters ranging in size from 255 to 378 feet. Coast Guard Squadron Three was born. The large cutters kept their peacetime white paint job instead of taking a coat of gray, like the patrol boats. They were quickly nicknamed “White Ghosts” by the Viet Cong.
The cutters had five-inch deck guns and therefore brought with them far greater firepower than the patrol boats had. These ships were shallow draft, and could run in close to the shore and bring their big guns down on enemy encampments.
Shortly after their arrival, Squadron Three ships began battling the Viet Cong. The Cutter Rush, working with an Australian destroyer, brought its guns to the aid of a small Special Forces camp in the village of Song Ong Doc. The village, located in the middle of Viet Cong-held territory, was being overrun. Gunfire from the two ships drove off the attackers and left 64 Viet Cong dead. Like the patrol boats, the large cutters were multi-mission ships. They supported amphibious assaults and gave logistical support for Coast Guard patrol vessels and the Navy’s PCFs (Patrol Craft Fast).
Coast Guard aviators
In addition to the patrol boats and high endurance cutters, 12 Coast Guard aviators flew in Vietnam between 1968 and 1975. They flew with the Air Force as part of a service exchange program out of Tuy Hoa and Da Nang, Vietnam, as well as from Thailand and the Philippines. Helicopter pilots flew Air Force HH-3s (known as “Jolly Green Giants”) and later HH-53s, while fixed wing pilots flew Air Force C-130s. These aviators flew hundreds of rescue missions over enemy-infested jungles. Their actions kept a lot of American pilots out of prison camps.
One of the Coast Guard’s pilots was Lt. Jack Rittichier, who served as a pilot with the Air Force’s 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. He was the first Coast Guard combat casualty in Vietnam—killed in a mountainous region west of Da Nang while attempting to rescue a downed U.S. fighter pilot. Rittichier’s helicopter came under hostile enemy fire and crashed in a ball of flame. A hangar at Coast Guard Air Station Detroit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, is named in Rittichier’s honor.
Other support roles
Along with their combat role, Coast Guardsmen played an essential support mission. Coast Guard port securitymen, a reserve-only rate, were on hand as experts to safely load and unload ammunition. Explosive Loading Detachments (ELD teams) were also set up. With one officer and seven enlisted men, they could stop any U.S. flagged vessel from loading or unloading any cargo, and basically had carte blanche to enforce safety regulations. ELD teams encountered their share of bizarre and deadly situations as they struggled to keep the harbors from blowing up. Fire was a constant enemy. Vietnamese families living aboard ammunition barges, cooked with open flames, while both Vietnamese and American stevedores would smoke as they unloaded cargoes.
Enemy attack was a constant threat. In February 1968, an offloading merchant ship took nine recoilless-rifle hits at Ca Lai. Fire started immediately. The ELD team, battling against time, rushed onto the burning ship, charged the hoses, and doused the fire before the ship exploded.
The Coast Guard’s Merchant Marine Detail personnel helped keep merchant vessels sailing by providing investigative and judicial services, and diplomacy. They served the merchant sailor both afloat and ashore. Though normally in the background, these officers were vital to the supply effort in Vietnam.
Other Coast Guardsmen were assigned to keeping the harbors safe. Before ships could reach the docks, they had to safely navigate into the harbors. Coast Guard buoy tenders marked the channels to help keep the traffic moving and repacked batteries used in the lighthouses along the coast.
Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) stations were set up and manned by the Coast Guard. The stations sent out electronic signals to help mariners and aviators fix their positions.
Lifesavers at heart
Perhaps the most intangible, but no less important, item a Coast Guardsman brought with him from the United States was his humanity. Lifesavers at heart, they never left that behind, even in combat. Coast Guardsmen performed many medical missions, but also gave of themselves to Vietnamese civilians.
On the Coast Guard’s birthday in August 1969, the Coast Guard Cutter Sebago celebrated by rebuilding the orphanage at Quin Nhon. The village of Song Ong Doc was “adopted” by the Coast Guard. Crewmen from all of the cutters working in the Gulf of Thailand gave of themselves in dozens of ways, including building schools and dispensaries, setting up playground equipment, and handing out Christmas presents.
The Coast Guard’s presence began to wind down as the Vietnamization program was phased in. The 26 patrol boats and several large high-endurance cutters were turned over to the South Vietnamese. They became the core of the South Vietnamese navy.
By the time they left, Coast Guard cutters had cruised over 5.5 million miles, participated in nearly 6,000 naval gunfire missions, and boarded nearly 250,000 junks and sampans.
The service’s main job was to dry up the enemy supply routes—which they did. With Coast Guardsmen guarding the coast, an enemy junk had only a ten percent chance of slipping through. A steel-hulled vessel had no chance at all. Not a bad job for the low-key warrior of the United States Coast Guard.
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