CREATING A MAIN LINE OF RESISTANCE
TET AND THE GENESIS OF OPERATION SEA LORDS
Dr. Leslie J. Cullen
Texas Tech University
As the year 1968 dawned over the Republic of Vietnam, the headquarters of United States Naval Forces, Vietnam (NAVFORFV) occupied a small complex of buildings in downtown Saigon. Centered on a rambling two-story nineteenth century French colonial villa, the compound housed Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, Commander United States Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), and his staff.
Though technically located in a combat zone, pre-1968 Saigon was infamous for its carnival-like atmosphere. Observers often wondered if there was truly a war on. American GIs on brief R&R tours wandered the numerous go-go clubs and saloons in search of readily available thrills, and jostled in the crowded streets with throngs of Vietnamese civilians on bicycles, in pedicabs, and in automobiles. The snarled traffic could be amusing when it was not dangerous. Viet Cong rocket attacks and bombings occasionally shattered the illusion of peace, as did the ubiquitous presence of heavily armed South Vietnamese soldiers. Distant rumbles of artillery often punctuated the street sounds, especially at night. Journalists, officers, and visiting VIPs could observe the war from the comfort and relative safety of the Caravelle Hotel bar veranda, sipping cocktails and looking across the Saigon River where tracers from the miniguns of AC-47 gunships arced out of the twilight into the swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone.
On the night of January 31, 1968, when the Viet Cong launched the opening salvo of the 1968 Tet Offensive, American facilities in and around the South Vietnamese capital numbered among the primary targets. The sudden ferocity of the attacks caught Americans stationed in Saigon-including the NAVFORV staff-off guard. Admiral Veth remembers, "The first thing we knew about it was when we were all waked up (sic) in the middle of the night, and all hell broke loose in the way of gunfire and explosions." Veth and his staff gathered what weapons they could find in the compound-two machine guns, several side arms, and a box of fragmentation grenades-and clambered atop the roof of the villa. For the rest of the night and into the early morning that small group of naval officers watched tracers, rockets, and flares etch the Saigon skyline and listened to their radio as disjointed reports of Viet Cong attacks came from around the city.1
The totality of the enemy effort became clear in the week that followed, and the initial panic within South Vietnam itself gave way to domestic turmoil and political repercussions in the United States. For the American military, the 1968 Tet Offensive produced mixed results. The enemy seriously overestimated the impact the offensive would have on the South Vietnamese government and people, and this miscalculation resulted in severe casualties and an undeniable battlefield victory for the United States and South Vietnam. Of more importance, however, Tet has entered the annals of American military history as one its greatest intelligence disasters.2
After official assertions concerning Saigon's safety and the supposedly successful interdiction of Viet Cong supply and communications networks in the areas south and east of the city, Tet came as a nasty surprise. The counterinsurgency efforts, it seems, had not accomplished their planners' goals. Despite that salient fact, many in the United States Military Assistance Command (MACV) returned to confident predictions of looming success. Captain Earl Rectanus, who in 1968 served as NAVFORV staff intelligence officer, noted that the MACV and NAVFORV staffs were playing a public relations game instead of determining how the Viet Cong had amassed such a capability: ". . . we were going through all of this PR, is really what it was, and everybody was working to try to get evidence, back-up, to tell Washington that it really wasn't the disaster the media had been playing it up to be."3
In a combined atmosphere of military victory and official denial of Tet's implications, the United States Navy in Vietnam continued its standing strategy of using its in-country assets to patrol the coastal zones and major rivers. Those assets included Task Force 115, commonly known as the Market Time patrol force, which operated a dozen radar picket destroyer escorts (DERs), thirty-one cutters (WPBs), five high-endurance cutters (WHECs), eighty-four aluminum-hulled Swift boats (PCFs), and a large number of coastal junks and smaller craft. This small armada-working in conjunction with patrol aircraft-carried out an ongoing coastal surveillance effort along South Vietnam's 1,400-mile coastline. Market Time, in its three-year existence, had virtually choked off all seaborne infiltration by steel-hulled trawlers into the Republic of Vietnam.
Task Force 116, also known as Operation Game Warden, used scores of river patrol boats (PBRs) divided into five River Patrol Groups to deny the Viet Cong access to the main rivers and canals in the teeming Mekong Delta in III and IV Corps. In September 1968, TF 116 PBRs boarded and inspected more than 11,000 sampans and other small craft in the Delta.4 Despite this enormous and ongoing effort, Tet demonstrated that waterborne infiltration into southern South Vietnam-via canals and interior rivers-continued.
The final task force-the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF)-used a variety of river patrol and assault craft to support sweep and clear operations in the Delta by the 2nd Brigade of the United States Army's 9th Infantry Division. The combined action of these task forces limited North Vietnamese and Viet Cong access to South Vietnam's waterways, all of which were then and still are vital lines of transportation and communication.5
The Navy's ongoing operations, despite their positive results, did not stop the enemy from infiltrating sufficient personnel and materiel to mount the 1968 Tet Offensive. MACV intelligence officers noted however, that even if the patrolling hindered the insurgency, the Navy's efforts were unable to interdict it entirely. The enemy adapted to American patrolling methods and altered schedules of movement and location accordingly. Chased from the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, infiltrators reverted to the lesser rivers and canals that laced the entire southern third of South Vietnam. Many of these waterways ran close to the Cambodian frontier, across which men and logistics moved with relative ease.
Interestingly, the Navy had known for four years that the enemy possessed such a capability. In early 1964, before American forces became actively engaged in South Vietnam, Captain Phil Bucklew, at the behest of then-CINCPAC, Admiral Harry D. Felt, took part in an exploratory mission to determine what could be done to counter waterborne infiltration. Bucklew and his staff traveled the Delta extensively, interviewing dozens of Vietnamese military personnel and their American advisors. At the Cambodian border, Bucklew personally witnessed the Viet Cong openly moving supplies by sampan inside "neutral" Cambodia. In his report to CINCPAC, Bucklew described the totality of the infiltration effort, criticized the South Vietnamese response as inefficient and woefully inadequate, and suggested that halting the Viet Cong would require a coastal blockade augmented by extensive patrolling of the internal rivers. The report went on to recommend that the Navy establish "a viable means of controlling the rivers by implementing barricades, curfews, checkpoints, and patrols" (emphasis added).6
Granted, Market Time, Game Warden, and the Mobile Riverine Force had done this in part, but the effort did not fully realize Bucklew's intentions. The navy had yet-as of early 1968-to heed his observation that blockading and patrolling alone would not suffice. An active effort at interdiction in the lesser rivers and along the Cambodian frontier-not just along the Mekong and Bassac-was crucial to defeating the insurgency.
The Navy disregarded Bucklew's ultimate conclusion because it lacked the intelligence gathering capacity to determine that seaborne infiltration of South Vietnam-as countered by Market Time-paled in importance to materiel the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong infiltrated from Cambodia along internal waterways. Once the Navy launched Market Time, it stubbornly refused to consider the implications of Bucklew's study. The irony is compounded when one considers that the very effectiveness of Market Time caused the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to do precisely what Bucklew predicted they would do-use the waterways along the Cambodian frontier to move logistics in a region where countermeasures were virtually nonexistent. Hence, the enemy was able to conclude successfully the build-up necessary to launch the attacks of early 1968. "It took," concluded historian Clarence Wunderlin, "the traumatic jolt delivered during the Tet Offensive to awaken naval planners to their strategic flaws."7 The Navy suffered from a gap of conception described by Marc Bloch as the tendency of finding it "useful to ask oneself questions, but very dangerous to answer them."8
In the end, it took more than the jolt of Tet to cause the Navy to alter its modus operandi in the Mekong Delta; it took a change of command. Despite the realization of what the enemy had accomplished by doing an end run around the Navy's patrolling systems, Veth clung stubbornly to the fixed pre-Tet strategy. He said, ". . . there was some agitation to go up a lot of the canals with our riverine boats and, let's say, harass the countryside, but for the most part we avoided that, again, because the chance of being ambushed by the enemy was so great and there wasn't much to be accomplished. . . . There just wasn't much to be gained by going up a lot of the little canals and streams that ran into the major rivers."9 Veth's passive strategy and his unimaginative attitude regarding the possibilities of a wider application of in-country naval power irritated General William C. Westmoreland's successor as COMUSMACV, the hard-charging, irascible General Creighton Abrams.10
Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., Veth's own successor, was also a hard-charger. His superiors recognized the 1942 Annapolis graduate and World War II veteran's leadership attributes very early in his career. At age forty-seven Zumwalt became the youngest three-star admiral in the Navy's history, and immediately thereafter-in mid-September 1968-he arrived in Saigon to follow Veth as COMNAVFORV.
Zumwalt began his tenure in Vietnam with an extensive seven-day tour of his new command; from the major installations to the smallest advisory post on the rivers; from the Mekong Delta to the DMZ; the admiral's observations helped him to develop a thumbnail sketch that he did not like. Zumwalt-who was certainly aware of the Bucklew Report and its implications-concluded that the Navy's effort in Vietnam, despite the fine performance of individual units and personnel, suffered from underutilization of its in-country assets and from a lack of guidance and strategic vision at the top. Captain Howard J. Kerr-then an aide to Zumwalt-took the tour with the admiral and recalled of it: ". . . we came away from those days with a clear understanding that the staff in Saigon was cut off from the forces in the field. Their relationship was one of telephone calls and messages. . . . It was just a sleepy, large, moribund staff which had fallen into a pattern of reading message traffic."11 Zumwalt decided that the aggressive leadership of the task force commanders and the initiative and effort of the 38,000 officers and men under his command could be put to greater use. The admiral and his staff began searching for a new strategy; a strategy that would take into account the Tet-hardened conclusions of the Bucklew Report; a strategy that would change the focus of the navy's previous efforts from mere patrolling to a more forward and active drive to interdict the enemy's lines of supply and communication and destroy his base camps in the Delta. The genesis of what became Operation Sea Lords arose from this decision.
Sea Lords-which stood for Southeast Asia Lake Ocean River Delta Strategy and embodied the totality of Zumwalt's and NAVFORV's vision-encompassed all three preexisting task forces that heretofore had been operating independently of one another and brought them together in a strategy unified in its conception and execution. Since the Tet Offensive demonstrated that the previous strategy did not effectively hinder enemy infiltration, Zumwalt and his staff decided to combine and refocus the Navy's in-country assets. Market Time continued as before, but the PCFs now moved up the major rivers, freeing the Game Warden PBRs to move further inland and establish a system of named barriers. These barriers extended from Saigon north and west to the Parrot's Beak region of the Cambodian border, and along a series of canals extending from the Mekong and Bassac Rivers west and south to the Cambodian border and the Gulf of Thailand.12 The barriers consisted of mobile bases aboard Tank Landing Ships (LSTs) and more fixed facilities called Advanced Tactical Support Bases (ATSBs), which the Navy located at intervals along the interior waterways. Each LST or ATSB served as a support facility for PBRs and the heavier craft of the Mobile Riverine Force as they patrolled deeper than ever before into the interior of III and IV Corps.13
Sea Lords contained a second component complementing the forward and aggressive barrier strategy: denial of sanctuary to the enemy in remote regions previously defaulted to him. As we have seen, under Admiral Veth the Navy generally avoided the distant and inaccessible reaches of III and IV Corps, specifically the infamous Rung Sat Special Zone southeast of Saigon and the Ca Mau Peninsula at the southern extremity of the Republic of Vietnam. The NAVFORV staff developed a unique plan for each.
In the Rung Sat, stepped up river patrolling, ground sweeps, and harassment and interdiction fire kept the Viet Cong off balance in what had formerly been a sanctuary. The Navy instituted a cooperative plan with other Free World Forces-including the Australians, South Koreans, South Vietnamese, and Thais-for operating in the area and conducting coordinated operations. The frequency of Viet Cong attacks on commercial shipping using the Long Tau ship channel to the port of Saigon fell dramatically. The result, wrote NAVFORV staff historian Richard Schreadly, became "a model for what could be made of a seemingly hopeless situation, given leadership, singleness of purpose, and a spark of imagination."14
In the Ca Mau Peninsula-regarded by American advisors as one of the most eerie and inhospitable places in South Vietnam-the Navy launched a unique and innovative operation-Sea Float. A floating base anchored in the Cua Lon River, Sea Float served as a platform from which the Navy carried out interdiction patrols, SEAL team operations, and civic action efforts. As a result of this audacious placement of an American presence in a region long defaulted to the Viet Cong, Vietnamese civilians made refugees during the 1968 Tet Offensive returned to their homes in the Nam Can District adjacent to the base, and American observers witnessed a sharp rise in regional economic activity. "Sea Float's effect," Zumwalt concluded, "was that it greatly accelerated pacification."15
Because Sea Lords-with its post-Tet emphases on interdiction, denial of sanctuary, and pacification-unified the American naval effort, it is unquestionably one of the better strategies to emerge from the American military experience in Vietnam. Given the political limitations Washington placed on the theater of operations, it was as near total-geographically-as Zumwalt and his staff could make it with the available resources. Statistically, Navy records indicate the level to which Sea Lords operations interfered with Viet Cong logistics. A July 1969 NAVFORV study indicated that the barrier operations to date generated 900 firefights resulting in more than 1,600 enemy killed. Naval forces captured more than 160 tons of weapons, and in Zumwalt's opinion this statistic was worth far more than the omnipresent "body count."16 If interdiction was the key, the admiral reasoned, then numbers and types of weapons seized outweighed dead Vietnamese, however high their numbers. "We were not there specifically to see how many Viet Cong we could kill," recalled Lieutenant Commander Robert Powers. "We were there . . . to stop their bringing supplies in that were disrupting the countryside, and . . . to deny their influence."17 Powers' statement-and NAVFORV's approach-reflect one of the central aspects of the American experience in Vietnam. In a limited war of shifting goals, what constitutes success?
Success and failure can be subjective concepts. Many observers regard much if not all of what the United States did in Vietnam as unsuccessful because of the ultimate negative outcome of the entire conflict. To do so in the case of Operation Sea Lords would be inaccurate. Taking into consideration changing American policy in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, General Abrams-and Admiral Zumwalt under him-could consider little more than how to stabilize a fluid situation long enough to allow the struggling South Vietnamese to improve their political and military structures and consolidate a defensible position. In that light, Sea Lords-despite its inability to eradicate waterborne infiltration through the Mekong Delta, made an enormous difference. It interrupted Viet Cong and North Vietnamese logistics networks. It cost the enemy in personnel, materiel, and in Zumwalt's estimation, the key factor of time. Sea Lords, in its imaginative and forward application of naval power, repeatedly disrupted enemy timetables and forced the communists to alter or delay their plans. Compared to the period prior to Tet 1968, the results of Sea Lords and its subordinate operations speak for themselves.
1 John T. Mason Interview with Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, USN (Ret.) August 10, 1977 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), pp. 405-06.
2 Glenn Helm, "Surprised at Tet," Pull Together; Newsletter of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Naval Historical Center, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 1-5.
3 Paul Stillwell Interview with Vice Admiral Earl F. Rectanus, USN (Ret.), November 19, 1982 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), p. 17.
4 Richard L. Schreadly, "Sea Lords", United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 96:8 (August 1970), p. 23.
5 The secondary literature on United States Navy operations in South Vietnam is broad, but for specific operations see Victor Croizat's The Brown Water Navy: The River and Coastal War in Indochina and Vietnam (Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1984); Thomas J. Cutler's Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1988); Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1994), and R.L. Schreadly's From the Rivers to the Sea: The United States Navy in Vietnam (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1992). For a study of the Coast Guard's contributions to Operation Market Time, see Alex Larzelere's The Coast Guard at War; Vietnam, 1965-1975 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1996) and Dennis L. Noble's "Cutters and Sampans," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1984, pp. 47-53.
6 Quoted in Thomas Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets, pp. 72-76.
7 Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr., "The Paradox of Power: Infiltration, Coastal Surveillance, and the United States Navy in Vietnam, 1965-68," The Journal of Military History, 53, July 1989, pp. 275-289.
8 Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (New York: Vintage, 1953), p. 17.
9 John T. Mason Interview with Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, USN (Ret.), August 10, 1977, p. 388.
10 In fairness to Veth, his unassertive approach to the war indicates more than the simple disdain in which General Abrams held him. There was a larger attitude within the Navy that the in-country war in South Vietnam paled in significance to the "real" war-the air war against North Vietnam flown from the aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet. For that reason, South Vietnam gained a reputation at best as a detour from a successful career track, or at worst, a "dumping ground" for inferior officers. The Navy's tendency to give less than ideal follow-on assignments to officers coming out of NavForV had the dual effect of reinforcing this negative perception and removing any incentive for highly motivated officers to volunteer for a tour in Vietnam. In the wider Navy, preoccupied as it was with the Soviet threat-and with Operation Rolling Thunder-the brown water war in Vietnam placed a distant third on anyone's list of priorities.
11 Paul Stillwell Interview with Captain Howard J. Kerr, USN, September 22, 1982 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), pp. 26-27.
12 The barriers included Operation Giant Slingshot, Operation Search Turn, Operation Tran Hung Dao, Operation Barrier Reef, and Operation Double Shift.
13 For contemporary descriptions of barrier operations and their support facilities, see Robert C. Powers, "Beans and Bullets for SEALORDS," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 96: 12 (December 1970), pp. 95-97; and R. L. Schreadly, "Nothing to Report: A Day on the Vam Co Tay," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 96: 12 (December 1970), pp. 23-27.
14 R. L. Schreadly, "The River War in Vietnam, 1950-1970," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 97, Naval Review Issue, May 1971, p. 205. For the official USN view of the Rung Sat, see "Rung Sat Special Zone Intelligence Study," ComNavForV Miscellaneous (8), Box 597, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington DC.
15 Author Interview with Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. Jr., USN (Ret.), April 18, 1997, Lubbock, Texas.
16 Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam/Chief Naval Advisory Group Newsletter #9, 1 July 1969, ComNavForV/ChNavAdvGrp Newsletter File, Box #585, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington DC.
17 Etta Belle Kitchen Interview with Captain Robert F. Powers, USN, October 30, 1982 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), p. 80.