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Chapter 1: The Early Years, 1950-1959

From the beginning of the conflict in Southeast Asia, the Navy played a key role in support of American strategic objectives. With the Communist seizure of China in 1949 and the invasion of South Korea by North Korean and Chinese forces the following year, U.S. leaders concluded that the Indochina Peninsula and possibly all Southeast Asia soon might also sink under the rising Communist tide.

To prevent this loss, the administration of President Harry S. Truman provided military aid and advisory assistance to France,then fighting to retain control of its Indochinese possessions against an indigenous Communist movement, the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh.

On 3 August 1950, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group(MAAG), Indochina, arrived in Saigon to administer the material assistance program. The MAAG's Navy Section, comprised of Commander John B. Howland and seven other officers and men, was on hand at the end of October to process the first shipment of naval material, which consisted of Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters, to French forces. During the next four years, as part of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program, the United States delivered military aid totaling $2.6 billion, including two light aircraft carriers, renamed by the French Bois Belleau and La Fayette, 438 amphibious landing ships and craft, armored river patrol boats and other vessels, and 500 aircraft. In addition, the Navy Section of MAAG oversaw the provision of spare parts and the development of base facilities such as the Naval Shipyard in Saigon and the Naval Amphibious Base in Haiphong.

The fleet complemented these efforts with port calls and task force deployments intended to highlight American support for the anti-Communist stand of France and its Indochinese allies of the French Union. As early as March 1950, the Seventh Fleet commander, with destroyers Stickell (DD 888) and Richard B.Anderson (DD 786), visited Saigon while 60 plans aircraft carrier from Boxer (CVA 21) overflew the city. In October 1953, the four ships of Destroyer Division 30 conducted a similar show-the-flag voyage up the Saigon River.

In the spring of 1954, the fleet's presence took another form in Southeast Asian waters when the French military effort in Indochina reached a climax at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Responding to pleas from the French, who were fighting desperately to hold on to their isolated bastion in the mountains of Tonkin, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed an aircraft carrier task force and supporting units into the South China Sea. At various times Wasp (CVA 18),Essex (CVA 9), Boxer, and Philippine Sea (CV 47) steamed off the Indochinese Peninsula prepared to launch their aircraft against Communist forces besieging the French base. Awaiting a possible order from Washington to enter the conflict, naval leaders dispatched carrier reconnaissance planes to fly over the area around Dien Bien Phu. The aircraft gathered intelligence on Viet Minh troop movements and logistic buildup. Finally, President Eisenhower, concluding that the risks of unilateral U.S. intervention might far outweigh the gains,decided against any action. On 7 May 1954, Viet Minh forces overwhelmed the last French defenders of the surrounded outpost. Two months later, hard on the heels of this defeat, France surrendered its interests to Indochina at an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

Passage to Freedom

The Geneva Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities divided Vietnam into two zones for the regroupment of the contending Viet Minh and French forces. Ho Chi Minh's troops concentrated north of a provisional military demarcation line established along the Ben Hai River at the 17th parallel while French and allied indigenous forces regrouped to the south of it. At the same time, Vietnamese civilians were allowed to emigrate to the zone of their choice. The U.S Navy answered the French government call to assist in evacuating the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese who chose to live in the predominately non-Communist South. From August 1954 to May 1955 the Navy mounted a massive sea lift between the ports of Haiphong and Saigon. To carry out the operation, named Passage to Freedom, the Pacific Fleet concentrated 74 tank landing ships (LST), transports, attack cargo ships, dock landing ships (LSD), and other vessels in the South China Sea under Rear Admiral Lorenzo S. Sabin, Commander Amphibious Force, Western Pacific and Commander Amphibious Group 1.

The Navy's Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) provided an additional 39 transports. This large group of ships, shuttling between North and South Vietnam, was supplied and replenished by the Logistic Support Force, Western Pacific, whose oiler, cargo, provision, repair, salvage, and hospital ships were stationed at the midway point in Danang Bay. Fleet medical units and Naval Beach Group 1 elements helped ease the plight of the Vietnamese refugees encamped ashore at both ends of the transit route. By 20 May 1955, the Navy had transported 293,000 immigrants, many of them Catholics, who soon formed the core of the anti-Communist segment of the population in South Vietnam. In addition to 17,800 Vietnamese military personnel, the American flotilla carried south 8,135 vehicles and 68,757 tons of cargo,much of it material provided to the French under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program.

Development of the Vietnamese Navy

In succeeding years, the Navy continued its support of the new Republic of Vietnam as the United States filled the vacuum left by the French. The Eisenhower administration, guided by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was instrumental in forming the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a coalition of non-Communist states concerned with preventing the further extension of Communist influence in the region. In addition, the United States undertook the task of equipping and training an indigenous South Vietnamese armed force capable of defending the country during the initial phases of attack by an external power.

Because Ho Chi Minh's regime was concerned with consolidating control over North Vietnam in the years following the end of its war with France, the threat to President Ngo Dinh Diem's South Vietnam was temporarily limited. Thus, the U.S. military mission in the country had a grace period in which to prepare South Vietnam for the enemy's expected offensive.From 1954 to 1959, the Navy Section of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Vietnam, worked to develop a viable navy for South Vietnam. The number of advisors allowed in-country at anyone time was limited by the Geneva Accord restriction on there introduction of military personnel. In this period there were never more than 79 naval advisors assigned to MAAG or to the Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission, created to salvage American aid material left in Vietnam by the French. But these Navy and marine Corps advisors were important in the development of the Vietnamese Navy, which grew from a force of 1,500 men, and a small number of ships and craft to a force of 5,000 men and 119 ships and craft. Controlled by the Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, the navy was organized into a Naval Staff; Sea Force, River Force, and Marine Corps operating forces; and a shore establishment. The latter group comprised the Naval Stations and Schools and the Naval Supply Center, Saigon.

The American naval advisors concentrated on providing material assistance to the Vietnamese Navy. Many vessels were left behind by the French, but the advisory group designated additional material aid that was needed and administered the deliveries. Patrol craft, escorts, minesweepers, and landing craft were acquired so that the South Vietnamese could carry out the priority mission of supporting its army with coastal patrol, escort and transportation, harbor defense, limited minelaying and minesweeping, and antisubmarine warfare. In addition, the naval trainers taught gunnery, navigation, and other subjects at the Nha Trang Naval School and worked to improve management skills at the Saigon Naval Shipyard. The Navy Section also served as the field office for the evaluation of new weapons, boats, and equipment for possible future use in the special environment of Southeast Asia. These relatively modest efforts to prepare the South Vietnamese Navy for combat would soon be tested.


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08 November 1997