Allied Navies on the Offensive
The new year witnessed the strengthening of the border patrol barriers and the expansion of SEALORDS into three regions: I Corps, the area north of Saigon, and the remotest reaches of the Mekong Delta. In April, Task Force Clearwater's I Corps efforts were enhanced by Operation Sea Tiger in which Task Force 115 Swift boats, River Division 543 PBRs, Vietnamese Coastal Group 14 junks, and River Assault Group 32 units battled to secure the Cua Dai and Hoi An Rivers in Quang Nam Province. Soon afterward, in June, naval river forces began patrolling the vital Saigon River from Phu Cuong to Dau Tieng, the latter in the hotly contested Michelin Rubber Plantation. This operation, designated Ready Deck, tied in with the Giant Slingshot interdiction effort to the west.
In the Mekong Delta proper, Swift boat, PBR, riverine assault craft, SEAL, and Vietnamese ground units struck at the Viet Cong in their former strongholds, which included the Ca Mau Peninsula, the U Minh Forest, and the islands of the broad Mekong River system. From
Vietnamization of Naval Operations
The overall composition of the SEALORDS task force in South Vietnam reflected the growing role of the Vietnamese Navy in the war. The newly elected administration of President Richard M. Nixon formally adopted as U.S. policy the Vietnamization program early in 1969. The naval part of that process, termed ACTOV (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese), embodied the incremental transfer to Vietnam of NAVFORV's river and coastal combatant fleet and the logistic support establishment. ACTOV was more than the provision of material, however, for the Vietnamese Navy needed training in the operation, maintenance, and repair of the U.S. equipment and in the efficient functioning of the supply system. Leadership skills at all command levels required improvement as did the general morale of naval personnel before the Vietnamese Navy would be able to fight on alone. Spearheaded by the 564 officers and men of the Naval Advisory Group early in 1969, the U.S. Navy integrated Vietnamese sailors into the crews of American ships and craft. When sufficiently trained, the Vietnamese bluejackets and officers relieved their American counterparts, who then rotated back to the United States. As entire units came under Vietnamese Navy command, control of the various SEALORDS operations passed to that naval service as well.
The allied push into Cambodia during the spring of 1970 brought the SEALORDS forces into a unique operational environment. At 0730 local time on
The generally good performance of the Vietnamese Navy during the allied sweep into Cambodia motivated the transfer of significant operational responsibilities to the Vietnamese. The barrier along the Cambodian border was turned over to the Vietnamese Navy in March 1970, which renamed the operation Tran Hung Dao I. In May, Giant Slingshot and Sea Tiger became Tran Hung Dao II and Tran Hung Dao VII. The allied navies also launched Operation Blue Shark, a seven-month effort designed to strike at the Viet Cong command, communication, and logistics network (or infrastructure) in the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mekong River system, on the river islands, and along the river banks all the way to the Cambodian border. Coastal Surveillance Force PCFs landed SEALs and LDNN for swift, deadly attacks on the usually surprised enemy. The units often followed up on intelligence gathered by Naval Intelligence Liaison Officers (NILO) assigned to many of South Vietnam's provinces and operational areas.
The Vietnamese Navy, which grew from 18,000 men in the fall of 1968 to 32,000 men at the end of 1970, instituted organizational changes to accommodate the new personnel, material, and operational responsibilities. The Vietnamese grouped their riverine assault craft in riverine assault interdiction divisions (RAID) and their PBRs into river interdiction divisions (RID) and river patrol groups (RPG). They also augmented the existing RAGs and coastal groups, the latter now consolidated into 20 units for lack of sufficient patrol junks.
Task Force 77 Operations
Seventh Fleet operations during the post-Tet years also reflected the diminishing American role in the war. The prohibition against bombing North Vietnam, which went into force on 1 November 1968, limited the number of lucrative targets available to Task Force 77 to those in Laos, South Vietnam, and eventually Cambodia. Aerial operations in those countries also were limited by the seasonal Southwest Monsoon, which lasted from May to September. And beginning in 1970, the Navy mandated stringent measures to conserve fuel, ammunition, and aircraft to cut operating costs. As a result, the monthly average during 1968 of three attack carriers deployed at Yankee Station decreased to two ships from 1969 to 1971. Similarly, the 1968 monthly average of between 5,000 and 6,000 attack sorties in Southeast Asia dropped to between 3,000 and 4,000 sorties from November 1968 to mid-1970.
While the air campaign in Southeast Asia tapered off, the fleet continued to concentrate forces against the Communist in critical areas. The great weight of effort was directed toward interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, the primary logistical artery of the Communist armies fighting in South Vietnam. Throughout the Laotian Panhandle (the Steel Tiger operating theater) naval attack squadrons bombed and mined North Vietnamese truck convoys, vehicle parks, fuel supply, and ammunition storage areas, bridges, roads, antiaircraft positions, and surface-to-air missile sites. To increase the effectiveness of the interdiction campaign, in November 1969 the joint Navy-Air Force team initiated Commando Bolt. This operation directed newly deployed EA-6B electronic countermeasures aircraft, precision- guided bombs, and sensitive ground and air sensor detection systems against the routes leading south from the Ban Karai and Mu Gia passes of Laos. The American air forces also inaugurated a series of Commando Hunt operations in the panhandle and continued the Barrel Roll campaign in northern Laos.
Although minor in comparison with the actions in Laos, the Navy's close air support operations in South Vietnam's I Corps served the allied cause well. Often constituting one-fourth to one-third of the naval attack sorties in Southeast Asia during 1969, the monthly missions in South Vietnam usually did not total over 500 in 1970 and 1971 when the American ground presence in the region was greatly reduced. Nonetheless, often hard-pressed units of the 3d Marine Division and the Army's 101st Airborne Division benefited from the air support provided by the carrier task force.
The fleet swiftly marshalled forces for several key operations. For instance, three attack carriers deployed to Yankee Station in May 1970 when the Navy freed the Air Force from some bombing responsibilities in Laos, allowing the latter service to focus on Cambodia. Again, in March 1971, Task Force 77 deployed Ranger, Kitty Hawk, and Hancock to the Gulf of Tonkin to back up the South Vietnamese advance into Laos, known as Operation Lam Son 719. Bucking heavy antiaircraft and surface-to-air missile fire, naval aviators flew 5,000 strike sorties that month, often dropping their ordnance within a few yards of South Vietnamese ground troops fighting for survival in Laos.
In addition to strike operations, the fleet continued to carry out the Yankee Team aerial reconnaissance program in Laos and the Blue Tree effort in North Vietnam. Although bombing operations had ceased in the North, the naval aircraft covering the photo- graphic planes were authorized to defend them with force. In a number of instances, escorting F-4 Phantoms destroyed surface-to- air missile sites that launched weapons against the reconnaissance group. The number of combat support sorties, the great majority of which were aerial reconnaissance missions, equalled or surpassed the attack sorties, reflecting the importance of intelligence gathering to the allied war effort in Southeast Asia. These naval aviation units produced valuable information on Communist troop movements into South Vietnam, the extensive infiltration system in Laos and North Vietnam, and the Communist bloc maritime resupply effort.
Allied Surface Warfare
The Seventh Fleet also made less use of its amphibious arm, although early in this period the naval ARG/SLF team carried out amphibious landings in the pattern of previous years. ARG/SLF Alpha and ARG/SLF Bravo, naval gunfire support ships, Market Time craft, and troops of the South Vietnamese Army's 23d Infantry Division carried out Bold Mariner, the largest amphibious operation of the Vietnam War. Between 13 January and 9 February 1969, the combined force sealed off the Batangan Peninsula by air, land, and sea and methodically screened over 12,000 Vietnamese. The process identified 256 Viet Cong troops, including the entire C-95th Sapper Company. The allies killed another 239 Viet Cong. In May, following unproductive operations in February and March, the Seventh Fleet's amphibious units landed on Barrier Island south of Hoi An and killed or captured 178 enemy soldiers. Four other actions mounted between May and August on the I Corps coast produced almost as many Marine as Communist casualties, primarily because of the numerous enemy mines and booby traps in the operational areas. On 7 September, the ARG/SLF team launched the final operation of the year, Defiant Stand, when it once again struck at the enemy on Barrier Island. This time, the one U.S. Marine and two South Korean Marine battalions committed to the battle killed 293 Viet Cong troops and captured 121 weapons at a cost of 59 allied casualties.
During the remaining months of 1969, the Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force was fully employed with the withdrawal of the 3d Marine Division from South Vietnam. American vessels transported over 18,400 troops and 24,000 tons of equipment to Okinawa and the United States. In keeping with the Vietnamization of the conflict, Washington withdrew both ARG/SLFs from South Vietnamese waters, placing them in an alert status. Thereafter, CINCPAC Admiral John S. McCain III and COMUSMACV General Abrams needed Joint Chiefs of Staff authorization to initiate combat landings in South Vietnam. Although throughout 1970 and 1971 the fleet's amphibious forces were prepared for the evacuation of Americans from the mainland and other contingencies, that need did not arise.
The changing U.S. role in the war and the relatively low level of enemy combat activity in the coastal regions also influenced the naval gunfire support mission in the post-Tet years. The combat action was heaviest in Cambodia during 1970 and in Laos during 1971. Consequently, the naval command limited the number of ships it made available to the fleet's Naval Gunfire Support Unit. The Navy also withdrew many ships with large-caliber guns. Battleship New Jersey (BB 62), which added her devastating 16-inch guns to the firepower on the gun line during late 1968 and early 1969, returned to the United States. Generally, one battleship, one cruiser, four to ten destroyers, and two rocket ships provided support early in 1969. By 1971, an average of three ships steamed offshore, one assigned duty in I corps and the others aided Vietnamese operations in the Ca Mau and U Minh areas. The 454,000 rounds fired by the task unit in 1969 was half the total expended in 1968. The figure dropped further to 234,000 rounds in 1970 and 114,000 rounds In 1971. Although Seventh Fleet commanders assigned fewer ships to the Naval Gunfire Support Unit during these years, they were prepared to deploy powerful surface combatants into South Vietnamese waters on short notice.
The lessened need for naval gunfire support partly reflected the success, after years of effort, of the Market Time antiinfiltration campaign. The combined effect of allied air, sea, and inshore patrols, amphibious operations in the coastal regions, ground force strength in the populated lowlands, and the availability of Laos and Cambodia as resupply bases apparently limited Communist attempts at seaborne infiltration during most of 1968 and 1969. No trawlers were discovered penetrating the territorial waters of the Republic of Vietnam until August 1969, when the Communist lost uninhibited access to the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. The ouster of the Sihanouk government and the allied push into Cambodia in the spring of 1970 totally closed this point of entry to the Communist. Between 24 August 1969 and the end of 1970, the allies detected 15 trawlers, about one each month, heading for the South Vietnamese littoral, normally in the Mekong Delta region. Task Force 115 destroyed one of these resupply ships, whose 60 tons of munitions were recovered by U.S. Navy and Vietnamese Navy divers. Thirteen other ships aborted their missions upon discovery. Only one trawler penetrated the screen to complete a resupply operation.
Confident of the coastal patrol's effectiveness, Commander Coastal Surveillance Force began early the Vietnamization of the Market Time effort. The ACTOV program of the Navy and the SCATTOR (Small Craft Assets, Training, and Turnover of Resources) plan of the Coast Guard entailed the phased transition of the Vietnamese Navy into complete control of the inshore barrier, then the high seas surface patrol, and finally a coastal radar network intended to replace the American air surveillance effort. In September 1970, as Task Force 115 turned over the last of the PCFs and WPBs, the Vietnamese Navy took charge of the inner barrier. Throughout 1971, the American naval command transferred seagoing ships, harbor control and mine craft, and logistic support craft of many types, including Coast Guard cutters Yakutat (WHEC 380), Bering Strait (WHEC 382), Castle Rock (WHEC 383), and Cook Inlet (WHEC 384), each equipped with 5-inch guns; radar escort picket Camp (DER 251); Garrett County, reconfigured as a small craft tender; and refrigerated storage craft YFR 889.
Despite the natural complications of a turnover process, the combined coastal patrol continued to perform successfully in 1971. Of the 11 Communist ships detected attempting infiltration during the year, only one delivered its cargo to the Viet Cong in An Xuyen Province, the usual destination of the trawlers. Another nine ships fled after being sighted by the allied patrol. The remaining vessel was tracked and sunk in coastal waters on 8 April through the coordinated effort of Coast Guard cutters Morgenthau (WHEC 722) and Rush (WHEC 723), the U.S. Navy's gunboat Antelope (PG 86) and air patrol units, and the Vietnamese Navy's motor gunboat Kien Vang (PGM 603).
An efficient logistic establishment was as important as a ready combat force to the future performance of the Vietnamese Navy. Soon after the turnover of combatant craft got underway, the U.S. Navy prepared its support establishment for eventual transfer to the allied naval service. Under ACTOVLOG (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese, Logistics), Admiral Zumwalt oversaw not only the turnover of U.S. installations, but also the expansion of the Vietnamese base, transportation, maintenance and repair, supply, and personnel housing infrastructures to accommodate the planned doubling in size of the navy. The Americans modernized existing facilities and constructed new bases, coastal radar sites, and housing for Vietnamese sailors and their families.
Coinciding with the turnover of river and coastal fighting vessels in 1969 and 1970, the Navy transferred many of the bases from which they operated. The first change of command occurred at My Tho in November 1969. Then, in the last three months of 1970, COMNAVFORV placed the Phu Cuong, Long Binh, Kien An, Chau Doc, Tan Chau, and Ha Tien Operating Bases under Vietnamese control. The transfer of Sa Dec and Chu Lai the following spring completed the process. During this same period, the Vietnamese Navy took over the six Advanced Tactical Support Bases established on the Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay Rivers for the Giant Slingshot operation and two more on the Cua Viet River in I Corps. In addition, the allied naval service assumed control of the harbor defense posts of the Stable Door effort, the three existing coastal radar sites, and Market Time's coastal surveillance centers.
Meanwhile, the Navy deployed Seabee detachments throughout South Vietnam to construct logistic facilities at new and existing bases. Once the Seabees completed this work and U.S. leaders felt the Vietnamese could totally support their combat units, the Americans transferred the bases to their allies. In this manner, beginning in the spring of 1971, Rear Admiral Robert S. Salzer, the new COMNAVFORV, relinquished control of Cat Lo and An Thoi, two of seven primary Logistic Support Bases that provided allied naval forces with major vessel overhauls and other supply assistance. In the same period, the Vietnamese took charge of Ben Luc and Rach Soi, two secondary or Intermediate Support Bases. These installations handled minor craft overhauls and provided units with maintenance, administrative, financial, and supply support. The next incremental transfer occurred in September when the Dong Tam Logistic Support Base and eight Intermediate Support Bases were Vietnamized. The allies completed the last major phase of the ACTOVLOG program in April 1972 when the Vietnamese Navy took over the former centers of American naval power in South Vietnam, the Logistic Support Bases at Nha Be, Binh Thuy, Cam Ranh Bay, and Danang. The Navy's other Vietnamization projects lasted until the total withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam in March 1973. Construction and turnover of the last of 16 coastal radar sites (one on board a station ship) was completed in August 1972. Further, COMNAVFORV erected over 4,500 shelters for Vietnamese Navy personnel and their families. American planners hoped these better living conditions would strengthen the morale of Vietnamese sailors. U.S. personnel completely restructured and streamlined the allied navy's supply system, with special attention devoted to the Naval Supply Center at Saigon. After an intensive $8 million effort with the help of American civilians, the Naval Advisory Group improved management procedures, developed a skilled work force, and modernized the industrial plant at the Saigon Naval Shipyard. By early 1973, the Vietnamese facility had finished building 58 ferrocement junks, reconditioned hundreds of newly acquired river craft, and achieved the ability to overhaul all of the Vietnamese Navy's seagoing ships in-country, a major goal of the advisory program.
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08 November 1997