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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 7, 2023

The Long Blue Line: The Ironwood—wartime ATON in Vietnam

By Lieutenant Wayne C. Wheeler U.S. Coast Guard (retired)

After two years in Cleveland (a grim city at the time, whose river caught on fire the year before I arrived), I received orders to my second ship, the 180-class buoy tender Coast Guard Cutter Ironwood (WLB-297). The ship was home ported at Honolulu but was presently underway en route to Yokosuka, Japan for maintenance work. Back then, it was less expensive to repair a ship in Japan than in a U.S. shipyard. 

I arrived in Japan three days before the ship and enjoyed the city. We were in the yard for two weeks, moored across the slip from the Navy aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-10). The Kitty Hawk was probably 850-feet in length compared to our 180-feet — and the sailors could look down at us in amazement that we transited the Pacific in such a small vessel. 

The day the ship arrived, I reported aboard and spent the morning and several hours after lunch being briefed by the executive officer (XO) that I was relieving. I learned about the crew and all the monthly, quarterly, semiannual, and annual reports that needed to be submitted. At about 3 p.m., an announcement on the ship’s intercom stated, “The new XO’s presence is requested in the cabin.” I made my way, looking forward to meeting my commanding officer (CO). I knocked and opened the door to a sight I could not believe. The cabin is rather spacious. When you enter there is a head straight ahead. Then, turning, you see the main part of the cabin with a large table in the middle, a couch on the portside, cabinet, and safe on the starboard side. On the forward bulkhead is a desk, and it is flanked by two doors: one to the captain’s bunk and the other to the classified communications equipment. 

On this occasion, the table was loaded with whisky bottles and standing around the table were the warrant boatswain, chief and the boatswain first class. The two stewards were trying to help the captain, clearly drunk, change from his uniform to civilian clothes so he could go ashore. He greeted me, “Welcome aboard, have a drink.” For those of you not informed of Navy and Coast Guard rules, liquor, in any form, is not allowed. 

This CO had come up through the ranks as a seaman and boatswain’s mate, and was eventually sent to Officer Candidate School. His life had been on the deck force, and this was what he was comfortable with. In fact, at first, I found the boatswain first class reporting directly to the CO, circumventing his chief, the warrant officer and me. I put a stop to that, explaining the chain of command to him. For all of his faults, the crew loved this CO. Because he came up through the deck force, he had fondness for all things “deck” — and that department got slightly more of the ship’s funds than other departments. Conversely, my second CO on the Ironwood had worked his way up through the engineering force and, thus, that department was favored for funds. 

Once out of the yard, we headed to Guam on our way to Honolulu. A few days before we reached Guam, we received a copy of a message from the district to the Coast Guard Cutter Buttonwood (WAGL-306/WLB-306), which, at that time was leaving Vietnam. The message informed that ship to leave their 50-caliber machine guns in Guam for the Ironwood. This, of course, indicated that we were to be diverted to Vietnam. 

When we reached port at Guam, we took on water, fuel, food and the four guns left by the Buttonwood. The ship’s damage controlman fashioned mountings for the guns and mounted them; two on the bow and two on the stern. We also loaded two Navy mooring buoys, which were to be dropped off in the Philippines before continuing on to Vietnam. 

Prior to leaving for the Philippines, the captain called a meeting in the wardroom. We had a radioman in attendance to take a message to be sent to the Fourteenth Coast Guard District office in Honolulu. The Fourteenth District oversaw Coast Guard operations in the Pacific. The captain remarked that if the district didn’t buy us helmets and flak jackets, we would have to buy our own with the ship’s funds. The radioman that heard the captain talk about flak jackets and helmets sent his mother a letter telling her that we were headed for Vietnam and the crew had to pay for their own flak jackets and helmets. His parents lived practically next door to, and were friends of, Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called the Coast Guard Commandant on his neighbor’s complaint that her little boy was going to Vietnam and had to buy his own equipment. 

After we got underway, we received a message from the district that once we arrived in the Philippines, we were not to leave until the district chief of staff arrived. The chief of staff met us in the Philippines, and all was straightened out. We left for “’Nam.” A trip that usually takes three days turned into seven as we ran into a typhoon, taking green water over the bow and causing some green faces among some of the new seamen. 

Reaching Vietnam, we anchored at the mouth of the river near Vung Tau and waited for a pilot to take us upriver to Saigon. When we finally arrived in the Saigon harbor area, a small boat brought our local Coast Guard representative to the ship. The CO gave me control of the bridge, and our Coast Guard liaison pointed out an area to port, where we were to tie-up.  

The port was a nightmare of freighters, tankers, tugs and tows, junks, and sampans, crisscrossing the harbor without any clear system. As the river was in a flood stage and we were moving very briskly, I began taking off turns (reducing way) to come to port. The captain, who was engaged with our contact, turned and asked what I was doing. I explained, and he told me to return to the speed we had been making. I didn’t think it was prudent and requested to be relieved. He relieved me of the con, resumed speed and came to port heading to the designated pier. As we got close, he again came to port heading to our pier, but the current was so swift that it carried our ship across the rudder of a large ship that was moored perpendicular to us. This resulted in caving in the starboard taffrail, ripping off the gun mount and tearing off our stern awning posts. Over the next few days, all the damage was repaired by our clever damage controlman. 

Our time in Saigon was very limited. We got our orders and headed down river and to the mouth of the Saigon River. Our first job was installing buoys to mark a channel from the Saigon River to the Army Corps of Engineer’s docks. We worked from the dock, across the bay, toward the river, setting the buoys to mark a channel according to the coordinates we were given. After we finished, we noticed that tugs and other vessels were not using our new channel but navigating just outside and west of the channel. I had the con, and the captain ordered me to sail up the east side of the channel next to the buoys we had set to check the channel depth. I stationed a quartermaster at the depth finder, calling out the depth every 30 seconds. He reported it was getting shallower and shallower as we progressed. When the depth got down to 12-feet under our keel, I started to back down. However, the CO, who was on the bridge, said for me to go full speed ahead, which I unfortunately did — and we slowly came to a stop in mud or a sand bar. 

We were unable to back down and to wait for low tide (tides are very shallow in Vietnam) and help from an Army Corps of Engineer LCVP (landing craft vehicle/personnel) “Mike Boat.” It was a very embarrassing situation, and it took some time. Shoving by the Mike Boat partially caved in the hull in the area of the officer’s shower. After we broke free and left the Vung Tau area, we headed south to the Vietnam (Mekong) delta area, where we placed some buoys in a very questionable channel. 

After the delta work, we headed north, back to Vung Tau, with a broken vang motor (part of the boom rig). Fortunately, the Navy had a repair ship anchored off Vung Tau. That unit could repair anything — even make brass presentation plaques should the need arise. During this repair period, we tied up at small village west of Vung Tau called Cat Lo. Between Cat Lo and the Saigon River was a large island. During the night, the Viet Cong came out and our forces’ helicopters would fly over the island, firing on the enemy. Some nights, if I didn’t care for the movie we were showing on the ship’s fantail, I would go up on the flying bridge and watch the war; a strange, surreal situation. 

Eventually, our vang motor was repaired and installed, and we got underway, heading north and working buoys in every port all the way to Qua Viet (Cửa Việt), about eight miles south of the DMZ (Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone). On our way north, we stopped for some rest and relaxation at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. Da Nang had a beautiful beach. Along the beach were palm trees with speakers playing Hawaiian music. Every 50 yards was a beer and food station (hamburgers, steaks, etc.). Every 200 yards was a stage — some had Playboy bunnies, one had a band playing country and western music, and another had comedians. It was a beautiful beach with warm water, entertainment, beer and food, and music; but it was all male. Some men were casually dressed or in swimming suits, others just coming in from the field in mud caked uniforms with a rifle slung over their shoulder — very surreal! At the same time, one could also watch our planes bombing enemy forces on the nearby Marble Mountains. 

At Qua Viet, we entered a very small harbor to work and set a few buoys. All of a sudden, an amphibious half-track (amtrac) came out of the Marine base on the south side of the inlet, crossed the inlet behind us, turned into the village, and blew up several huts. All during this time, the fishermen were washing their net in the harbor within yards of the action and didn’t even turn around to see what the shelling was all about. Again, very surreal. 

After we serviced Qua Viet, we returned to the Philippines. We had some rest and relaxation in the Philippines, then on to Guam to take on water, fuel and mail. After we left Guam, it required two weeks of chugging along at 10 knots to reach our homeport of Honolulu. During this cruise, we saw no land or vessels, were out of range of any LORAN signals and had to rely on the stars. As XO (basically a paperwork position) I had little to do, maybe hold a few drills (man overboard, fire or abandon ship). I had the crew rig up a hammock on the flying bridge, where I spent a great deal of time reading novels and swapping them with the CO, who also had little to do. As we chugged our way to Hawaii, we would hove to every four hours to take bathyscape readings for NOAA. Eventually we pulled into Honolulu at the Coast Guard Base on Sand Island.