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The Vietnam Experience

The U.S. Navy participated in a wide variety of roles and missions during the Vietnam War. Navy combat artists recorded many of these activities, typically sharing the same dangers as the sailors and Marines they accompanied. In the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, ocean going "blue water" Navy ships provided artillery, aviation, logistic, medical, and other support to aid in America’s defense of a non-communist Southeast Asia. The big guns of ships on the offshore "firing line" provided essential naval gunfire support to allied forces engaged in combat operations ashore. Aircraft carriers on "Yankee Station" (off North Vietnam) and "Dixie Station" (off South Vietnam) provided air support for the sailors and soldiers fighting south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the Republic of (South) Vietnam. The carriers also served as bases for naval aircraft operating over North Vietnam and Laos, including perilous missions against North Vietnamese forces on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Along the coasts and rivers of the Republic of Vietnam, the inshore, or "brown water" Navy’s fast patrol boats, armored vessels, and support ships sought to interdict enemy supplies and troop movements, as well as fighting alongside the U.S. Army to defeat enemy forces in battles near water. Since much of the conflict was a guerrilla war, there generally were no front lines. Surprise encounters with the enemy occurred often, and naval personnel need to maintain constant vigilance. Shore-based Navy helicopters operated in support of the brown water Navy, and Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land) conducted hazardous special operations along the waterways of the Republic of Vietnam.

In addition to non-combat roles elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Navy was onshore in the Republic of Vietnam too. Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (Seabees) continued their tradition of expert military engineering in support of combat troops, while also engaging in civil action projects to improve the lives of Vietnamese civilians. Navy medical personnel and chaplains were attached to U.S. Marine combat units, providing crucial aid and comfort to the troubled, the wounded and the dying. Without the hard work of Navy personnel operating logistical shore facilities, the massive quantities of essential war materials arriving by sea would never have reached allied military forces.

Navy combat artists recorded all of these aspects of naval operations. For those who were not there, the scenes depicted here give a visual sense of the Vietnam War: the colors, the landscape, the people, and adrenaline-charged combat actions.

South Vietnam, near DMZ
R. G. Smith, 1969.111
Oil on masonite, 1968


Three Vietnamese await questioning on the deck of a patrol boat. River and coastal patrol vessels routinely stopped Vietnamese boats to check their authorization papers and inspect their cargoes. If proper papers were not produced or the patrol commander suspected illegal activity, he had the ability to detain the crew and vessel for investigation.


This is the Doctor's First Patient Today
Bravo Co., 1st Bn, 4th Marines
Charles Waterhouse, 1971.28
Pen and ink on paper, 1967

Marines were heavily engaged in ground combat. When casualties occurred, Navy corpsmen assigned to their units provided front line medical attention.


Nam Hoa
Seabee Detachment MCB-3
John C. Roach, 1969.153
Acrylic on paper, 1968


This small quarry just south of the Demilitarized Zone run by Seabees of Mobile Construction Battalion 3 provided much needed rock for road building.


Fire Fight
Mekong Delta
R. G. Smith, 1969.113
Oil on masonite, 1968


River patrol boats (PBRs) were the backbone of the River Patrol Force. With four man crews, these craft performed most of the inland water patrols in the Mekong Delta. By the end of 1970, when the South Vietnamese navy took over the River Patrol Force, there were almost 300 PBRs in use.


USN PBR on Patrol
Long Tau River, Rung Sat Special Zone
Charles Waterhouse, #12
Acrylic on board, March 1, 1967

Operating in conjunction with helicopters, ground units, and SEAL teams, River Patrol Boats (PBRs) helped keep rivers clear of mines and infiltrators. The Long Tau River in the Rung Sat Special Zone was a particular target for attack and sabotage, but River Patrol Forces kept this vital link between Saigon and the sea open throughout the war.


Seals on Ambush
Mekong Delta
Marbury Brown, #33
Acrylic on canvas, 1967


Established to carry out guerrilla and anti-guerrilla operations in harbors, inland waters and their adjacent land areas, SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) teams usually operated in 6 man units to gather intelligence and conduct raids, reconnaissance patrols, salvage dives, and, as depicted here, ambushes of enemy forces.


Sudden Squall
Tonkin Gulf
R. G. Smith, 1970.97
Oil on canvas, November 1969


The USS de Haven (DD-727) provides anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection for the carrier USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) while on Yankee Station, an operational staging area just off the coast of North Vietnam. The winter monsoon in that region is characterized by consistent heavy clouds and rainfall that make operations difficult.


Ready, Willing and Able
Binh Thuy, Mekong Delta
R. G. Smith, 1970.95
Oil on canvasboard, 1969


These UH-1B helicopters from Helicopter Attack Light Squadron (HAL) 3 197 the "Seawolf" squadron 197 provided aerial support for Operation Game Warden, river patrol activities in the central Mekong Delta area.

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27 July 2004