From the Stars and Stripes archives

The Brown Water Navy

On the river in Vietnam, 1969.


By JIM FALK | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 14, 1969

NOT SINCE DAVID Farragut moved into the Mississippi to take New Orleans has the U.S. Navy fought a river war, but then not since the Civil War has our country been involved in a conflict where rivers mean so much.

Picture 10,000 miles of water furrows, canals and rivers snaking through rich rice land, dense mangrove swamps and nipa palm.

This is the delta region of South Vietnam — from the Cambodian border above Tay Ninh southeast to the South China Sea and then southwest along both boundaries to the Gulf of Thailand.

This is where fully half of the republic's 17 million citizens live. This is an area capable of producing enough rice to feed all of Southeast Asia. This is a system of waterways plied by more than a million private water craft, each of them harmless in appearance, yet each a potential part of the enemy supply chain.

Charley laid claim to this area in 1946, and has been trying ever since to gain the full title to it. He needs it for a pantry, for a recruiting depot, for a warehouse, for a shipping route, for a stepping stone to bigger targets.

From out of the past has come the Brown Water Navy to challenge Charley's claim.

Names like Nam Can, Chau Doc, Tra Cu and Nha Be will never carry the historical weight of New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg or Memphis.

But to the 16,000 U.S. Navymen who operate from these bases and dozens of others like them, the names burn indelible images of brief but deadly battles fought in Charley's lair, on Charley's terms — images of an AK47's high-pitch staccato on "Blood Alley," of B40 rockets whooshing over "Brown's Bun," of crude but terribly effective mines at "Coral Bend.''

These men come fresh from high school to set up night ambushes on a canal just half a mile from the Cambodian border. They come from drafting boards in air-conditioned offices to advise Vietnamese river assault and interdiction divisions at advance tactical support bases. They come from years of service on larger ships learning to fight a different type of war,

For the past three years the Navy has been operating heavily along the coast and on the inland waterways of South Vietnam, but less than a year ago the Brown Water Navy really came into its own.

Last Oct. 18 Operation Sea Lords (Southeast Asia Lakes, Oceans, Rivers and Deltas) was launched with a series of fast patrol craft (Swift boat) raids deep into Charley-held canals and rivers flowing into the Gulf of Thailand.

To these 50-foot aluminum boats, which previously had only operated on coastal surveillance missions, were added river patrol boats whose 31-foot fiberglass hull can hit 27 miles per hour in water just over nine inches deep. And from the river assault forces came the assault support patrol boats, armored troop carriers and LCM monitors — the "heavies" which look for all the world like a line of ironclads on the Mississippi as they head up the Vam Co Dong in Vietnam's early morning light.

Navy air power also was brought into the operation in the form of outdated, but still effective UH1B Iroquois helicopters of Helicopter Attack Sq. 3. Nicknamed Seawolves, these gunships team up with heavily armed fixed-wing OV10A Broncos of Light Attack Sq, 4 to bring additional pressure to bear on Charley. Both these squadrons were created and commissioned by the Navy for use in the delta.

And along with all of this came the ever expanding Vietnamese river forces and the units of Vietnamese and American ground forces as well as Navy Seals and explosive ordnance experts to be used in sweeping areas, investigating suspected strongholds and reacting to Charley's attacks.

The operation was set up to interdict enemy infiltration in the delta, to root Charley out of his nest, to deny him this important sanctuary and to create a government presence where none had existed before.

It was drawn up along the same lines the Navy has always used in building task forces — get a few units from here, order in a few more from there, borrow this, ask for that. All the power was there at the start, it was just a matter of moving the right forces to the right place and coupling them together into a cohesive organization under capable mission commanders.

One of these commanders compares Sea Lords with the most successful operations of World War II where maximum flexibility resulted in the achievement of maximum effectiveness.

And the operation has been effective. The tangible results such as more than 2,500 enemy killed in action (by body count) as compared with 179 deaths among the American and Vietnamese forces during the first 10 months of. the operation may seem insignificant.

What Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., the man who initiated Operation Sea Lords, the commander of all U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and at 49 the Navy's youngest three-star admiral, likes to point out are the "unquantifiable results:" 1) The intelligence gathering aspects, 2) the impact of friendly presence in the area, 3) the negative effect on the enemy, 4) denial of supplies to the enemy, and 5) the disruptive effect this constant pressure has on the enemy.

These results are being proven every day in the number of contacts with Charley when he tries to move, in the caches found along river banks, in the increasing number of ralliers to the government cause, in the information contained in captured enemy documents and by the mere fact that where friendly forces are Charley is not.

To more easily carry out its mission, Sea Lords is broken down into operations within the operation.

There is Seafloat, a newly established, first of its kind, 360 by 90-foot floating base made of pontoons and anchored on the Cua Lon River which runs from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Thailand, cutting off the southern tip of Vietnam. This base sits near the old city of Nam Can and marks the southernmost presence of friendly forces with its Swift boats, facilities for Seawolf gunships, support personnel, psychological warfare teams and 160 Montagnard soldiers.

Operation Search Turn sends boat patrols probing the Long Xuyen Canal complex running inland from the Gulf of Thailand.

Tran Hung Dao, an operation named for the patron saint of Vietnamese seamen, covers the network of waterways spanning the Cambodian border from the Hau Giang River, through the Vinh Te Canal and the Giang Thanh River to the Gulf. Patrol boats and Seawolves work this area from repair, berthing and messing yard craft (YRBMs) and also from tank landing ships anchored at strategic spots in the area.

Giant Slingshot, named for the shape of the rivers along which it is conducted, has river patrol boats and armored assault craft working the Vam Co Tay and Vam Co Dong Rivers from advance tactical support bases spaced along the meandering waterways.

And just below Saigon lies the Rung Sat (killer forest) Special Zone with its 405 square miles of marshland containing 3,600 miles of navigable waterways. The Long Tau River winds for 26 miles through this wasteland, which though largely defoliated, still conceals an estimated 700 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese whose efforts (unsuccessful for over 20 years) are still directed toward blocking the supply channel to Saigon.

Working these far flung areas requires 700 friendly boats patrolling the endless miles of dangerous water routes, checking some 4,000 Vietnamese craft every day, long boring hours under a blistering sun and emotion-charged nights waiting in ambush.

Speaking of the men who do this day in and day out, Zumwalt says, "They are tigers in every respect. Tales of their courage are legion. The episodes they have brought off are almost unbelievable."

But at the same time the American side of the Brown Water Navy is slowly and surely working itself out of a job under a program of "accelerated turnover."

Through classroom training in Saigon arjd augmenting Vietnamese sailors into American crews for on-the-job training the Vietnamese Navy is being prepared to take over American assets and assume a greater role in the river war. In fact, nearly half of the armored assault craft have been turned over so far.

The greatest impact of the turnover program to date can be found in Operation Giant Slingshot where 40 percent of the 130 assigned craft flies the Vietnamese flag.

Zumwalt says that there is no hard and fast date set for completing the turnover, but the word going around his headquarters in Saigon is that by next summer the Navy will be finished with the operational side of running a Brown Water Navy.

And with that another action-packed episode will slide into the annals of naval history.