|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Serving Proudly and with Distinction: The U.S. Coast Guard in the Vietnam War
The history of the U.S. Coast Guard begins in the early days of the Republic when Alexander Hamilton lobbied Congress to authorize a “system of cutters” to enforce the new nation’s tariffs—its major source of revenue. Between 1790 and 1798, the revenue cutters were the country’s only naval force as the Continental Navy had been disbanded following the Revolutionary War.
The modern U.S. Coast Guard was formed on January 28, 1915, to ensure the nation’s maritime safety, security, and stewardship. It is a unique branch of the military responsible for an array of maritime duties, ranging from ensuring safe and lawful commerce to performing rescue missions in severe conditions. During wartime, the Coast Guard is under the operational orders of the Department of the Navy.
The Coast Guard has played a vital role in combat operations in every American foreign conflict since World War I, although that role remains largely unknown to most Americans. Coast Guard personnel have served proudly and with distinction in each of those conflicts.
The Coast Guard played an active role in the Vietnam War from 1965-75. An incident involving a trawler trying to bring ammunition and war materiel into South Vietnam at Vung Ro Bay in the South China Sea in February 1965 was the catalyst that led to its involvement. The U.S. Army had long contended that most of the supplies reaching the Viet Cong came by sea. Then, in February 1965, an Army helicopter noticed a “small island” slowly moving across Vung Ro Bay. It turned out to be a camouflaged steel-hulled trawler. Air Force jets were called in, and sunk it.
Secondary explosions—as well as tons of ammunition uncovered by the South Vietnamese Army on the beach—confirmed that the trawler indeed was transporting war materiel for the Viet Cong. That incident led the Navy to recognize a critical need for close-in patrols to interdict the movement of ammunition and other war materiel along the South Vietnam coast. On April 29, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized Coast Guard units to operate with the U.S. Navy in South Vietnam.
The Coast Guard assumed a wide range of responsibilities in Vietnam: Explosives Loading Detachments as part of Port Security operations; aids to navigation using buoy tenders and Loran stations; logistics support involving HC-130 transports; shipping and Merchant Marine advisory support; and other advisory activities. The Coast Guard also participated in the war’s first large-scale U.S. Navy interdiction campaign: Operation Market Time. The operation’s mission was to stop the infiltration by sea of war materiel for the Viet Cong.
OPERATION MARKET TIME
Operation Market Time was the longest and most sustained U.S. naval operation in the Vietnam War. It began as a surveillance-only role, but quickly expanded into a multilayered blockade including a task force (TF-115) of 5,000 personnel and 126 Navy and Coast Guard vessels. The operation depended heavily on small surface units—Navy swift boats and Coast Guard 82-foot cutters—as well as a network of land, sea, and air radars linked to surface units by a command and control system.
USCG Squadron One consisted of 47 officers, 198 enlisted men, and 25 cutters. Its operating zone included nine large patrol areas 80-120 miles long and up to 40 miles offshore. The patrol areas were divided into eight sub-patrol areas with a cutter and two swift boats typically assigned to each. An array of ships was stationed on the outer edge, more than 20 miles offshore. Aircraft patrolled the entire Market Time area 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
North Vietnam used large trawlers to try to bring war materiel and personnel into South Vietnam. In addition, the Viet Cong employed sampans in the Mekong Delta. The 25 Coast Guard cutters assigned to Operation Market Time performed heroically in confronting many attempts by the trawlers to clandestinely infiltrate South Vietnam; sinking or capturing trawlers and sampans; confiscating large amounts of weapons and other war materiel; and capturing and killing enemy combatants.
THE POINT GREY
On May 6, 1966, the USCGC Point Grey (WPB 82324) was on patrol on the western side of the Ca Mau Peninsula, the southernmost tip of South Vietnam. Its commanding officer, LTJG Charles B. Mosher, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, was trying to sleep after learning that his four-day Market Time patrol had been extended.
At around 10:00 p.m. the watch stander in the pilothouse spotted fires on the beach. A short while later the fires were extinguished, and the Point Grey picked up a radar target that was close by. The cutter maneuvered toward the contact and shined its signal light on it. The contact, a 110-foot-long unmarked coastal freighter riding low in the water without lights, did not respond but slowed down and started to change course.
“We thought she was lost,” Mosher later said.
It soon became apparent that the trawler was headed for one of the rivers in the area. Mosher held fire until daylight because, he said, “We thought she was Chinese.” As dawn approached, Mosher decided to board the trawler as it lay 400 yards from the shore. When the Point Grey approached, intense fire erupted from three locations on the beach. It returned fire with its 50-caliber machine guns and 81mm mortar.
The Point Grey soon was forced to withdraw due to tide and sea conditions. At around 1:25 p.m. the next day, following the strafing of the shoreline by three Air Force F-100 Super Sabres, the Point Grey maneuvered to within 200 yards of the trawler. The Viet Cong opened up with small arms and automatic weapons fire from the mangroves, wounding three men on the Point Grey. One of them was Martin J. Kelleher, a gunner’s mate 1st class, who was hit but continued to return fire with his 50-caliber machine gun. The Point Grey’s Vietnamese liaison officer was wounded as well.
Mosher pulled the throttles full astern to better position his boat to return fire, but its propellers struck mud. Black smoke surged from the aft exhausts as he struggled to regain control. “When I got her back to where she was floating, I twisted the ship around to get the port guns firing,” Mosher said. He had to withdraw for a short time to evacuate the wounded and assess the damage to his boat.
“Our bridge was pretty well shot up,” he said. “We had hits in the superstructure and a few through the hull.”
Throughout the afternoon, surface and air units pounded the beach to thwart any Viet Cong attempts to unload the trawler. By 5:00 p.m. the vessel had drifted to within 50 yards of the shore and a decision was made to destroy it. The USS Brister (DER-327), which had arrived on scene, fired some 40 rounds at the trawler with its 3-inch .50 caliber, and the Point Grey lobbed 81mm mortar rounds causing several secondary explosions. The trawler burned until about 10:30 that night.
Follow-on salvage operations recovered six weapons and about 15 tons of ammunition, including 120mm mortar rounds manufactured in the People’s Republic of China, as well as propaganda material. It was the first evidence that this type of ammunition was being used in the Mekong Delta. A Viet Cong doctor captured on the Ca Mau Peninsula said the 110-foot trawler had sailed from Haiphong.
The action taken by the Point Grey disrupted a significant infiltration attempt by North Vietnam. Mosher’s decision to stay in the area despite strong winds and heavy seas resulted in the first successful intercept of a steel-hulled trawler in South Vietnam since the Vung Ro seizure a year earlier. For his courage under fire, he was awarded the Silver Star. The Chief of Staff of the Republic of Vietnam presented the Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation to the Point Grey. LTJG Mosher was inducted into the Wall of Gallantry at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2010.
THE POINT LEAGUE & POINT SLOCUM
At about 3:45 p.m. on May 19, 1966, an SP-2H Neptune Market Time surveillance plane detected and photographed a trawler 80 miles east of Con Son Island in the South China Sea. It filed a spot report alerting vessels in the area.
A USCGC Point League (WPB 82304) radar contact at 2:45 the next morning turned out to be the same trawler. Steaming at 10 knots, it was detected less than eight miles from the mouth of the Co Chien River. LTJG Stephen T. Ulmer commanded the Point League, one of the few cutters in Division 13 that had not seen action. That would soon change.
Ulmer informed the Vung Tau Coastal Surveillance Center that the Point League was closing in on a suspicious contact. When he got within visual range, it was moving toward the coast at a speed of about six knots. He illuminated it with the cutter’s searchlight. The contact turned out to be a 100-foot steel-hulled vessel with a 40-foot junk alongside.
Ulmer ordered Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Albert J. Wright, Jr., to fire warning shots across the bow of the trawler. It stopped momentarily, but then increased speed to 12 knots and headed to the mouth of the Co Chien River. The Point League fired two more bursts of .50-caliber machine gunfire across the vessel’s bow. The trawler returned fire with .50-caliber incendiary rounds. Several rounds slammed into Point League’s pilothouse. A piece of shrapnel hit LTJG Neil Markle, the executive officer, in the head; one round grazed Wright’s ankle.
The trawler continued toward the shore while exchanging gunfire with the Point League. It suddenly grounded in shoal water about 100 yards from the beach. The Point League fired flares to illuminate the area and made three passes at the trawler from approximately 1,400 yards, firing its .50-caliber machine guns, as well as high-explosive mortar rounds.
Ulmer maneuvered the Point League closer and immediately came under intense fire from the shore. “They were firing from behind every sand dune,” he said. “We could see muzzle flashes and splashes in the water.” Ulmer had his gunners return fire as they maneuvered to safer waters to replenish their ammunition.
A pair of Air Force F-100 Super Sabre jets pounded the trawler with eight 20mm Pontiac M39 automatic cannons. “It appeared that the vessel was hit several times and an explosion rocked the vessel,” Ulmer said. A fire broke out on it.
The USCGC Point Slocum (WPB 82313) arrived on the scene at around 5:20 a.m. and made several firing passes on the beach while the Point League replenished its ammunition.
“On all passes we received automatic weapons fire, and on the final pass we drew three or four rounds of recoilless rifle or mortar fire,” LTJG B. Foster Thomson III, the commanding officer of the Point Slocum, wrote in his after-action report. One round hit the powder bags of the high-explosive mortar rounds, spraying Chief Boatswain’s Mate Bruce D. Davis with burning powder and shrapnel. Helicopter gunships arrived and provided additional suppression fire on the beach.
At around 7:15 a.m. the USS Haverfield (DER-393) joined the fight. The embarked commanding officer of Escort Squadron 5 assumed the role of on-scene commander of a flotilla that now included Coast Guard cutters, the destroyer USS John A. Boyle (DD-755), as well as units from South Vietnamese Navy Coastal Group 35 and River Assault Group 23. Surface and air units continued to fire at the Viet Cong on the beach.
At about 10:00 a.m. a damage control party of crewmembers from the cutters, the USS Haverfield, and the Vietnamese Navy units approached the burning trawler in two coastal group junks. As ammunition cooked off from the wreck and bullets from occasional small arms fire buzzed around them, the party doused the flames with hoses connected to portable seawater pumps.
The fires were brought under control by early afternoon. Elements of the ARVN 21st Division subsequently landed on the beach to establish a defensive perimeter. The Point League and a Vietnamese Navy LCM unsuccessfully tried to tow the trawler away from the beach.
A small fleet of Vietnamese and Navy vessels remained overnight to guard the trawler. “The sea was lit up like Christmas with many ships, and the sky was ablaze with flashing lights,” Ulmer said. The next day Harbor Clearance Teams found the trawler listing 20 degrees to port with at least eight holes in the deck and starboard side from 81mm rounds and many smaller holes from machine-gun fire. The salvage teams used pumps to remove water from the ship and began off-loading the cargo. LSSL-226—a South Vietnamese Navy ship—finally pulled the trawler free and towed it to Saigon.
More than a hundred tons of cargo from the trawler were recovered. The weapons were mainly Chinese-manufactured, although several Soviet and North Korean weapons were found as well. Included in the haul were seven 82mm mortars, 316 automatic rifles, 21 light machine guns, 20 75mm recoilless rifles, 25 40mm rocket launchers, and more than 220,000 7.62mm rounds of ammunition (the standard round for an AK-47 rifle), along with many other types of ammunition. The large quantity of sophisticated arms on the trawler indicated that they likely were intended for VC units stationed well beyond the local area.
South Vietnamese Head of State Nguyen Van Thieu personally conferred on Ulmer the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm. Thompson and Ulmer were awarded Silver Stars and inducted into the Wall of Gallantry at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2009 and 2010.
THE POINT CYPRESS
LTJG Art Katz, commanding officer of the USCGC Point Cypress (WPB 82326), said upon arriving in Vietnam that he was confident his cutter and its crew were well prepared to carry out their Operation Market Time mission. “We had trained hard, including in all combat conditions in total darkness,” he said. “Little did I know that the darkness training would pay dividends.”
Within a month of arriving in country, the Point Cypress was assigned to patrol the Soi Rap River, the western border of the Viet Cong-controlled Rung Sat Secret Zone. On the night of March 24, 1966, the watch observed a suspicious radar contact. Katz waited until the contact was away from the riverbank before training the boat’s searchlight on it. Its occupants, some ten Viet Cong fighters, immediately began shooting. The crew returned fire, destroying the sampan. Several Viet Cong were killed and a colonel, who had sustained serious wounds, was captured. The Point Cypress took a large number of hits but sustained no serious damage or casualties.
Three months later, an intelligence report indicated that the Viet Cong were using large motorized junks in the myriad canals of the Mekong Delta to transport men and weapons. Katz got permission to undertake a night patrol to search for and destroy the junks. Katz’s plan was to enter the river at low tide to see if the Point Cypress could safely navigate the river’s sandbars and fishing nets, an important consideration given that he was uncertain what the boat might encounter if confronted by the Viet Cong.
The Point Cypress got underway at low tide on a moonless June 16, 1966, night. It safely navigated sandbars and other obstacles and proceeded a few miles upriver where it dropped anchor and set up radar surveillance.
A few hours later three large sampans emerged from a canal and crossed the river. Katz set general quarters and weighed anchor, estimating that the river current would carry the cutter close to mid-river where the three large (70-80 feet) motorized junks could be intercepted.
Upon drifting to about the midpoint in the river, the Point Cypress got underway at top speed and maneuvered into the middle of the junks, where all five of its .50-caliber machine guns could be trained on them. With the three sampans in full view, the Point Cypress opened fire. One of the sampans exploded in a huge fireball, with bodies and debris flying everywhere. A second junk was hit by the cutter’s .50-caliber machine guns and sunk. The Point Cypress took the third junk under fire, but in the darkness Katz was unable to ascertain with certainty if it had been destroyed.
The Point Cypress took many hits but sustained no serious damage and no injuries. It departed the area with more water under the keel than when it had entered the river, having fully accomplished its mission.
Katz was awarded a Bronze Star for his leadership and was inducted into the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Wall of Gallantry in 2010.
THE POINT GAMMON
In early January 1967, a steel-hulled vessel was detected outside the territorial waters of South Vietnam by a U.S. Navy P3A Orion patrol aircraft 80 miles east of the coastal city of Qui Nhon in Central South Vietnam heading on a southerly course. The USCGC Point Gammon (WPB-82328), commanded by LTJG Roger Hassard, was patrolling the area. PCF 68 and PCF 71 were nearby, providing close-in support. All the Market Time patrol vessels were monitoring radio traffic about the trawler, which continued offshore on a southwesterly course approximately 20 miles offshore.
Around 9:00 p.m., the trawler changed course, heading north toward the coastline in the vicinity of the mouth of Song Bo De River, a few miles northeast of the tip of the Ca Mau Peninsula. The Viet Cong often used the shallow canals that weave through the Ca Mau to move war materiel and personnel at night.
PCF 71 approached to within 50 yards or so of the trawler and illuminated it with a searchlight. It immediately drew small arms and machine gun fire from the trawler that destroyed its searchlight and radar. Responding to Mayday calls from PCF 71, Point Gammon and PCF 68 proceeded at flank speed toward PCF 71’s location.
PCF 68 encountered a suspect fishing junk that also appeared to be heading toward the Bo De, and raced to intercept it. The Point Gammon, meanwhile, approached the enemy vessel that now was close to shore. Making a sharp turn to starboard, Point Gammon fired an 81mm flare to illuminate the target. It appeared to be a large cargo vessel about 150 feet in length. Point Gammon then fired .50-caliber tracers as warning shots across its bow. The trawler immediately returned fire.
The trawler continued moving along the coast on a northerly track at a surprisingly high speed, around 12-15 knots. The trawler now was about 2,000 yards off of Point Gammon’s port bow. The cutter slowly closed in on the trawler, firing its .50-caliber machine guns and 81mm mortar. It scored a direct hit near the trawler’s bridge with an 81mm white phosphorous round, igniting a fire.
After about 20-30 minutes of concentrated fire on the trawler from Point Gammon and PCF 6, the trawler suddenly and violently exploded. It disappeared from Point Gammon’s radar and the fire suddenly went out, indicating the trawler had sunk. A Snoopy C-47 flare ship directly over the trawler reported a severe concussion from an explosion.
The trawler “was gone,” Hassard said. It was apparently far enough offshore to have sunk beneath the surface of the water. No oil slick or debris was found at daylight, but the enemy trawler almost certainly came to rest on the bottom of the ocean near the mouth of the Bo De.
Hassard had operated as the on-scene commander and had coordinated with the swift boat and other units and made subsequent command decisions that successfully intercepted and destroyed the trawler. For his heroism and leadership in confronting and destroying the enemy trawler, Hassard was awarded a Bronze Star. He was inducted into the Wall of Gallantry at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2010.
More incidents involving Coast Guard units occurred over the next several years. In all of them the crews of the cutters performed professionally and with courage and distinction. Many of the officers who commanded the boats were graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Many of those who served early in the conflict were from the Class of 1963: Thirteen of them received Bronze Stars with V devices; three received Silver Stars.
Of the 8,000 Coast Guardsmen who served in Vietnam, three officers and four enlisted men were killed in action and 59 wounded.
An especially egregious tragedy occurred on August 11, 1966. The Point Welcome, commanded by LTJG David C. Brostrom, was operating in a Market Time patrol area about a mile offshore and slightly south of the 17th parallel. This also was a Seventh Air Force operational area code-named Tally Ho—a special interdiction zone that extended from the DMZ 30 miles north into North Vietnam. For much of the year there had been little or no coordination between the Air Force and Market Time units in the area.
In the early morning hours that day, an Air Force B-57 code-named Yellow Bird-181 mistakenly identified the Point Welcome as an enemy junk and opened fire. During the attack, Brostrom stepped out on the vessel’s platform off of the bridge and tried to signal the attacking aircraft with an Aldis lamp. He was immediately hit by a 20mm round, which killed him instantly.
Multiple attacks on the Point Welcome followed, including F-4 Phantoms dropping 250-pound bombs on it that fortunately missed their target. A ceasefire finally was ordered by the Air Force’s tactical command around 4:30 that morning.
In addition to Brostrom, Engineman 2nd Class Jerry Phillips died in the attacks and LTJG Ross Bell, the Point Welcome’s executive officer, was severely wounded. Three other crew members—Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Mark D. McKenney, Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Donald L. Austin, and Fireman Apprentice Davidson—as well as Life magazine photojournalist Tim Page were wounded and had to be evacuated to a Marine Corps field hospital. Other crewmembers suffered shrapnel wounds but were able to return to duty after being treated.
Despite the fact that not one man on board the Point Welcome escaped injury, its crew members carried out their duties. Their actions saved the Point Welcome from destruction under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.
The cutters’ crews, in keeping with the long-held tradition of the Coast Guard, also strived to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people. While boarding a fishing junk, for example, the USCGC Point Partridge (WPB-82305), commanded by LTJG John Greason, found a young girl with a badly abscessed foot. They took her and her father onboard, cleaned and dressed the wound, and applied antibiotics.
During the next patrol in that area they came across the same fishing junk. Its crew again took the father and little girl onboard and cleaned and dressed the wound, which was healing nicely. The crew gave her a doll as big as she was. She smiled from ear to ear, and she and her father broke down in tears of happiness—as did most of the crew.
South Vietnamese liaison officers were sometimes assigned to the Coast Guard cutters. Close relationships often developed between them and the commanding officers. Some of these officers at the war’s end were able to immigrate to the United States. Some of those relationships were renewed and often developed into long-lasting friendships.
WAS OPERATION MARKET TIME A SUCCESS?
Operation Market Time had an unquestionable impact on North Vietnam’s ability to infiltrate materials into South Vietnam. In 1966 alone, Market Time units detected 807,946 watercraft, visually inspected 223,482 of them, and boarded 181,482. They also engaged in 482 firefights, killed 161 Viet Cong, and captured 177, while experiencing 21 friendly deaths and 97 other casualties.
A BDM Corporation study concluded that at the very least the operation forced the VC to drastically alter its logistical operations. It found that at the beginning of 1966 almost 75 percent of enemy resupply came from the sea along the South Vietnamese coast. By early 1967, that number had been reduced to just 10 percent.
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