When Admiral Zumwalt launched SEALORDS in October 1968 with the blessing of the new COMUSMACV, General Creighton Abrams, allied naval forces in South Vietnam were at peak strength. The U.S. Navy's Coastal Surveillance Force operated 81 Swift boats, 24 Coast Guard WPBs, and 39 other vessels. The River Patrol Force deployed 258 patrol and minesweeping boats; the 3,700-man Riverine Assault Force counted 184 monitors, transports, and other armored craft; and Helicopter Attack Squadron Light (HAL) 3 flew 25 armed helicopters. This air component was soon augmented by the 15 fixed-wing OV-10 Bronco aircraft of Attack Squadron Light (VAL) 4, activated in April 1969. The lethal Bronco flown by the "Black Ponies" of VAL-4 carried 8 to 16 5- inch Zuni rockets, 19 2.75-inch rockets, 4 M-60 machine guns, and a 20-millimeter cannon. In addition, five SEAL platoons supported operations in the delta.
Complementing the American naval contingent were the Vietnamese Navy's 655 ships, assault craft, patrol boats, and other vessels. To focus the allied effort on the SEALORDS campaign, COMNAVFORV appointed his deputy the operational commander, or "First SEALORD," of the newly activated Task Force 194. Although continuing to function, the Game Warden, Market Time, and Riverine Assault Force operations were scaled down and their personnel and material resources increasingly devoted to SEALORDS. Task Force 115 PCFs mounted lightning raids into enemy- held coastal waterways and took over patrol responsibility for the delta's larger rivers. This freed the PBRs for operations along the previously uncontested smaller rivers and canals. These intrusions into former Viet Cong bastions were possible only with the on-call support of naval aircraft and the heavily armed riverine assault craft.
In the first phase of the SEALORDS campaign allied forces established patrol "barriers," often using electronic sensor devices, along the waterways paralleling the Cambodian border. In early November 1968, PBRs and riverine assault craft opened two canals between the Gulf of Siam at Rach Gia and the Bassac River at Long Xuyen. South Vietnamese paramilitary ground troops helped naval patrol units secure the transportation routes in this operational area, soon named Search Turn. Later in the month, Swift boats, PBRs, riverine assault craft, and Vietnamese naval vessels penetrated the Giang Thanh-Vinh Te canal system and established patrols along the waterway from Ha Tien on the gulf to Chau Doc on the upper Bassac. As a symbol of the Vietnamese contribution to the combined effort, the allied command changed the name of this operation from Foul Deck to Tran Hung Dao I. Then in December U.S. naval forces pushed up the Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay Rivers west of Saigon, against heavy enemy opposition, to cut infiltration routes from the "Parrot's Beak" area of Cambodia. The Giant Slingshot operation, so named for the configuration of the two rivers, severely hampered Communist resupply in the region near the capital and in the Plain of Reeds. Completing the first phase of the SEALORDS program, in January 1969 PBRs, assault support patrol boats (ASPB), and other river craft established patrol sectors along canals westward from the Vam Co Tay to the Mekong River in Operation Barrier Reef. Thus, by early 1969 a patrolled waterway interdiction barrier extended almost uninterrupted from Tay Ninh northwest of Saigon to the Gulf of Siam.
Allied Navies on the Offensive
The new year witnessed the strengthening of the border patrol barriers and the expansion of SEALORDS into three regions: I Corps, the area north of Saigon, and the remotest reaches of the Mekong Delta. In April, Task Force Clearwater's I Corps efforts were enhanced by Operation Sea Tiger in which Task Force 115 Swift boats, River Division 543 PBRs, Vietnamese Coastal Group 14 junks, and River Assault Group 32 units battled to secure the Cua Dai and Hoi An Rivers in Quang Nam Province. Soon afterward, in June, naval river forces began patrolling the vital Saigon River from Phu Cuong to Dau Tieng, the latter in the hotly contested Michelin Rubber Plantation. This operation, designated Ready Deck, tied in with the Giant Slingshot interdiction effort to the west.
In the Mekong Delta proper, Swift boat, PBR, riverine assault craft, SEAL, and Vietnamese ground units struck at the Viet Cong in their former strongholds, which included the Ca Mau Peninsula, the U Minh Forest, and the islands of the broad Mekong River system. From 7 to 18 April, ground, air, and naval units from each of the American services, the Vietnamese Navy, and the Vietnamese Marine Corps conducted Silver Mace II, a strike operation in the Nam Can Forest on Ca Mau Peninsula. The enemy avoided heavy contact with the allied force, but his logistical system was disrupted. After raiding and harassing operations like Silver Mace II, the combined navies often deployed forces to secure a more permanent Vietnamese government presence in vital areas. In June 1969, for example, the U.S. Navy anchored a mobile pontoon base in the middle of the Ca Mau region's Cua Lon River. This operation, labelled Sea Float, was made difficult by heavy Viet Cong opposition, strong river currents, and the distance to logistic support facilities. Still, Sea Float denied the enemy a safe haven even in this isolated corner of the delta. The allies further threatened the Communist "rear" area in September when they set up patrols on the Ong Doc, a river bordering the dense and isolated U Minh area. Staging from an advance tactical support base at the river's mouth, U.S. and Vietnamese PBRs of Operation Breezy Cove repeatedly intercepted and destroyed enemy supply parties crossing the waterway.
By October 1969, one year after the start of the SEALORDS campaign, Communist military forces in the Mekong Delta were under heavy pressure. The successive border interdiction barriers delayed and disrupted the enemy's resupply and troop replacement from Cambodia. The raiding operations hit vulnerable base areas and the Sea Float deployment put allied forces deep into what had been a Viet Cong sanctuary. In addition, American and Vietnamese forces captured or destroyed over 500 tons of enemy weapons, ammunition, food, medicines, and other supplies. Furthermore, 3,000 Communist soldiers were killed and 300 were captured at a cost of 186 allied men killed and 1,451 wounded.
Vietnamization of Naval Operations
The overall composition of the SEALORDS task force in South Vietnam reflected the growing role of the Vietnamese Navy in the war. The newly elected administration of President Richard M. Nixon formally adopted as U.S. policy the Vietnamization program early in 1969. The naval part of that process, termed ACTOV (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese), embodied the incremental transfer to Vietnam of NAVFORV's river and coastal combatant fleet and the logistic support establishment. ACTOV was more than the provision of material, however, for the Vietnamese Navy needed training in the operation, maintenance, and repair of the U.S. equipment and in the efficient functioning of the supply system. Leadership skills at all command levels required improvement as did the general morale of naval personnel before the Vietnamese Navy would be able to fight on alone. Spearheaded by the 564 officers and men of the Naval Advisory Group early in 1969, the U.S. Navy integrated Vietnamese sailors into the crews of American ships and craft. When sufficiently trained, the Vietnamese bluejackets and officers relieved their American counterparts, who then rotated back to the United States. As entire units came under Vietnamese Navy command, control of the various SEALORDS operations passed to that naval service as well.
The allied push into Cambodia during the spring of 1970 brought the SEALORDS forces into a unique operational environment. At 0730 local time on 9 May, 10 days after ground troops crossed the border, a combined Vietnamese-American naval task force steamed up the Mekong River to wrest control of that key waterway from North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. The flotilla, led by a Vietnamese naval officer, was composed of American PCFs, ASPBs, PBRs, HAL-3 and VAL-4 aircraft, Benewah, Askari, Hunterdon County, YRBM 16, YRBM 21 and 10 strike assault boats (STAB) of Strike Assault Boat Squadron 20, a fast-reaction unit created by Admiral Zumwalt in 1969. The Vietnamese contingent included riverine assault craft of many types, PCFs, PBRs, and marine battalions. Naval Advisory Group personnel sailed with each Vietnamese vessel. By the end of the first day, Vietnamese naval units reached the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, while to the south the combined force stormed enemy-held Neak Luong, a strategic ferry crossing point on the river. For political reasons, no U.S. personnel were allowed past Neak Luong, midway to Phnom Penh. Although the American component pulled out of Cambodia by 29 June, the Vietnamese continued to guard the Mekong and evacuate to South Vietnam over 82,000 ethnic Vietnamese jeopardized by the conflict.
The generally good performance of the Vietnamese Navy during the allied sweep into Cambodia motivated the transfer of significant operational responsibilities to the Vietnamese. The barrier along the Cambodian border was turned over to the Vietnamese Navy in March 1970, which renamed the operation Tran Hung Dao I. In May, Giant Slingshot and Sea Tiger became Tran Hung Dao II and Tran Hung Dao VII. The allied navies also launched Operation Blue Shark, a seven-month effort designed to strike at the Viet Cong command, communication, and logistics network (or infrastructure) in the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mekong River system, on the river islands, and along the river banks all the way to the Cambodian border. Coastal Surveillance Force PCFs landed SEALs and LDNN for swift, deadly attacks on the usually surprised enemy. The units often followed up on intelligence gathered by Naval Intelligence Liaison Officers (NILO) assigned to many of South Vietnam's provinces and operational areas.
In July the Vietnamese Navy assumed sole responsibility f or the Ready Deck operation, which was given a Tran Hung Dao designator like the other former SEALORDS areas. Also in July, the U.S. Navy ceased its combat activity on I Corp's Cua Viet and Hue Rivers. The Americans then transferred the last combatant vessels of Task Force Clearwater to the Vietnamese. A final turnover of river craft at the end of 1970 enabled the Vietnamese Navy to take charge of the Search Turn, Barrier Reef, and Breezy Cove efforts deep in the Mekong Delta. Except for continued support by HAL-3 and VAL-4 aircraft and SEAL detachments, the U.S. Navy's role in the SEALORDS campaign ended in April 1971 when Solid Anchor (previously Sea Float and now based ashore at Nam Can) became a Vietnamese responsibility.
The Vietnamese Navy, which grew from 18,000 men in the fall of 1968 to 32,000 men at the end of 1970, instituted organizational changes to accommodate the new personnel, material, and operational responsibilities. The Vietnamese grouped their riverine assault craft in riverine assault interdiction divisions (RAID) and their PBRs into river interdiction divisions (RID) and river patrol groups (RPG). They also augmented the existing RAGs and coastal groups, the latter now consolidated into 20 units for lack of sufficient patrol junks.
This dramatic change in the nature of the allied war effort reflected the rapid but measured withdrawal from South Vietnam of U.S. naval forces. NAVFORV strength dropped from a peak of 38,083 personnel in September 1968 to 16,757 at the end of 1970. As Admiral Zumwalt transferred resources to the Vietnamese Navy, he disestablished U.S. naval commands and airlifted personnel home. With the redeployment of the Army's 9th Infantry Division and the turnover of 64 riverine assault craft in June 1969, the joint Mobile Riverine Force halted operations. When the Riverine Assault Force (Task Force 117) stood down on 25 August 1969, it became the first major naval command deactivated in Vietnam. By December 1970, COMNAVFORV had transferred to Vietnam the remaining river combatant craft in his command, which included 293 PBRs and 224 riverine assault craft. That month, the River Patrol Force was disestablished and the Task Force 116 designator reassigned to Commander Delta Naval Forces, a new headquarters controlling SEAL and naval aircraft units still in-country.
Vietnamese Navy Operational Commands, July 1970
Task Fleet 21 SEALORDS Operations
Task Force 210 Special
Task Force 211 Amphibious
Task Force 212 Tran Hung Dao I
Task Force 213 Coastal
Task Force 214 Giant Slingshot
Task Force 215 Fleet Command
Task Force 216 Ready Deck
Task Force 217 4th Riverine Area
Task Fleet 22 Non-SEALORDS Operations
Task Force 221 1st Coastal Zone
Task Force 222 2d Coastal Zone
Task Force 223 3d Coastal Zone
Task Force 224 4th Coastal Zone
Task Force 225 3d Riverine Area
Task Force 226 4th Riverine Area
Task Force 227 Rung Sat Special Zone
Task Force 228 Capital Military District
Task Force 77 Operations
Seventh Fleet operations during the post-Tet years also reflected the diminishing American role in the war. The prohibition against bombing North Vietnam, which went into force on 1 November 1968, limited the number of lucrative targets available to Task Force 77 to those in Laos, South Vietnam, and eventually Cambodia. Aerial operations in those countries also were limited by the seasonal Southwest Monsoon, which lasted from May to September. And beginning in 1970, the Navy mandated stringent measures to conserve fuel, ammunition, and aircraft to cut operating costs. As a result, the monthly average during 1968 of three attack carriers deployed at Yankee Station decreased to two ships from 1969 to 1971. Similarly, the 1968 monthly average of between 5,000 and 6,000 attack sorties in Southeast Asia dropped to between 3,000 and 4,000 sorties from November 1968 to mid-1970. From then until the end of 1971, naval air units averaged 1,000 to 2,500 strike sorties in Laos and South Vietnam. In this three- year period, the Navy dropped over 700,000 tons of ordnance on the enemy, while losing 130 aircraft and many of their crews.
While the air campaign in Southeast Asia tapered off, the fleet continued to concentrate forces against the Communist in critical areas. The great weight of effort was directed toward interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, the primary logistical artery of the Communist armies fighting in South Vietnam. Throughout the Laotian Panhandle (the Steel Tiger operating theater) naval attack squadrons bombed and mined North Vietnamese truck convoys, vehicle parks, fuel supply, and ammunition storage areas, bridges, roads, antiaircraft positions, and surface-to-air missile sites. To increase the effectiveness of the interdiction campaign, in November 1969 the joint Navy-Air Force team initiated Commando Bolt. This operation directed newly deployed EA-6B electronic countermeasures aircraft, precision- guided bombs, and sensitive ground and air sensor detection systems against the routes leading south from the Ban Karai and Mu Gia passes of Laos. The American air forces also inaugurated a series of Commando Hunt operations in the panhandle and continued the Barrel Roll campaign in northern Laos.
Although minor in comparison with the actions in Laos, the Navy's close air support operations in South Vietnam's I Corps served the allied cause well. Often constituting one-fourth to one-third of the naval attack sorties in Southeast Asia during 1969, the monthly missions in South Vietnam usually did not total over 500 in 1970 and 1971 when the American ground presence in the region was greatly reduced. Nonetheless, often hard-pressed units of the 3d Marine Division and the Army's 101st Airborne Division benefited from the air support provided by the carrier task force.
The fleet swiftly marshalled forces for several key operations. For instance, three attack carriers deployed to Yankee Station in May 1970 when the Navy freed the Air Force from some bombing responsibilities in Laos, allowing the latter service to focus on Cambodia. Again, in March 1971, Task Force 77 deployed Ranger, Kitty Hawk, and Hancock to the Gulf of Tonkin to back up the South Vietnamese advance into Laos, known as Operation Lam Son 719. Bucking heavy antiaircraft and surface-to-air missile fire, naval aviators flew 5,000 strike sorties that month, often dropping their ordnance within a few yards of South Vietnamese ground troops fighting for survival in Laos.
In addition to strike operations, the fleet continued to carry out the Yankee Team aerial reconnaissance program in Laos and the Blue Tree effort in North Vietnam. Although bombing operations had ceased in the North, the naval aircraft covering the photo- graphic planes were authorized to defend them with force. In a number of instances, escorting F-4 Phantoms destroyed surface-to- air missile sites that launched weapons against the reconnaissance group. The number of combat support sorties, the great majority of which were aerial reconnaissance missions, equalled or surpassed the attack sorties, reflecting the importance of intelligence gathering to the allied war effort in Southeast Asia. These naval aviation units produced valuable information on Communist troop movements into South Vietnam, the extensive infiltration system in Laos and North Vietnam, and the Communist bloc maritime resupply effort.
Allied Surface Warfare
The Seventh Fleet also made less use of its amphibious arm, although early in this period the naval ARG/SLF team carried out amphibious landings in the pattern of previous years. ARG/SLF Alpha and ARG/SLF Bravo, naval gunfire support ships, Market Time craft, and troops of the South Vietnamese Army's 23d Infantry Division carried out Bold Mariner, the largest amphibious operation of the Vietnam War. Between 13 January and 9 February 1969, the combined force sealed off the Batangan Peninsula by air, land, and sea and methodically screened over 12,000 Vietnamese. The process identified 256 Viet Cong troops, including the entire C-95th Sapper Company. The allies killed another 239 Viet Cong. In May, following unproductive operations in February and March, the Seventh Fleet's amphibious units landed on Barrier Island south of Hoi An and killed or captured 178 enemy soldiers. Four other actions mounted between May and August on the I Corps coast produced almost as many Marine as Communist casualties, primarily because of the numerous enemy mines and booby traps in the operational areas. On 7 September, the ARG/SLF team launched the final operation of the year, Defiant Stand, when it once again struck at the enemy on Barrier Island. This time, the one U.S. Marine and two South Korean Marine battalions committed to the battle killed 293 Viet Cong troops and captured 121 weapons at a cost of 59 allied casualties.
During the remaining months of 1969, the Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force was fully employed with the withdrawal of the 3d Marine Division from South Vietnam. American vessels transported over 18,400 troops and 24,000 tons of equipment to Okinawa and the United States. In keeping with the Vietnamization of the conflict, Washington withdrew both ARG/SLFs from South Vietnamese waters, placing them in an alert status. Thereafter, CINCPAC Admiral John S. McCain III and COMUSMACV General Abrams needed Joint Chiefs of Staff authorization to initiate combat landings in South Vietnam. Although throughout 1970 and 1971 the fleet's amphibious forces were prepared for the evacuation of Americans from the mainland and other contingencies, that need did not arise.
The changing U.S. role in the war and the relatively low level of enemy combat activity in the coastal regions also influenced the naval gunfire support mission in the post-Tet years. The combat action was heaviest in Cambodia during 1970 and in Laos during 1971. Consequently, the naval command limited the number of ships it made available to the fleet's Naval Gunfire Support Unit. The Navy also withdrew many ships with large-caliber guns. Battleship New Jersey (BB 62), which added her devastating 16-inch guns to the firepower on the gun line during late 1968 and early 1969, returned to the United States. Generally, one battleship, one cruiser, four to ten destroyers, and two rocket ships provided support early in 1969. By 1971, an average of three ships steamed offshore, one assigned duty in I corps and the others aided Vietnamese operations in the Ca Mau and U Minh areas. The 454,000 rounds fired by the task unit in 1969 was half the total expended in 1968. The figure dropped further to 234,000 rounds in 1970 and 114,000 rounds In 1971. Although Seventh Fleet commanders assigned fewer ships to the Naval Gunfire Support Unit during these years, they were prepared to deploy powerful surface combatants into South Vietnamese waters on short notice.
The lessened need for naval gunfire support partly reflected the success, after years of effort, of the Market Time antiinfiltration campaign. The combined effect of allied air, sea, and inshore patrols, amphibious operations in the coastal regions, ground force strength in the populated lowlands, and the availability of Laos and Cambodia as resupply bases apparently limited Communist attempts at seaborne infiltration during most of 1968 and 1969. No trawlers were discovered penetrating the territorial waters of the Republic of Vietnam until August 1969, when the Communist lost uninhibited access to the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. The ouster of the Sihanouk government and the allied push into Cambodia in the spring of 1970 totally closed this point of entry to the Communist. Between 24 August 1969 and the end of 1970, the allies detected 15 trawlers, about one each month, heading for the South Vietnamese littoral, normally in the Mekong Delta region. Task Force 115 destroyed one of these resupply ships, whose 60 tons of munitions were recovered by U.S. Navy and Vietnamese Navy divers. Thirteen other ships aborted their missions upon discovery. Only one trawler penetrated the screen to complete a resupply operation.
Confident of the coastal patrol's effectiveness, Commander Coastal Surveillance Force began early the Vietnamization of the Market Time effort. The ACTOV program of the Navy and the SCATTOR (Small Craft Assets, Training, and Turnover of Resources) plan of the Coast Guard entailed the phased transition of the Vietnamese Navy into complete control of the inshore barrier, then the high seas surface patrol, and finally a coastal radar network intended to replace the American air surveillance effort. In September 1970, as Task Force 115 turned over the last of the PCFs and WPBs, the Vietnamese Navy took charge of the inner barrier. Throughout 1971, the American naval command transferred seagoing ships, harbor control and mine craft, and logistic support craft of many types, including Coast Guard cutters Yakutat (WHEC 380), Bering Strait (WHEC 382), Castle Rock (WHEC 383), andCook Inlet (WHEC 384), each equipped with 5-inch guns; radar escort picket Camp (DER 251); Garrett County, reconfigured as a small craft tender; and refrigerated storage craft YFR 889.
Despite the natural complications of a turnover process, the combined coastal patrol continued to perform successfully in 1971. Of the 11 Communist ships detected attempting infiltration during the year, only one delivered its cargo to the Viet Cong in An Xuyen Province, the usual destination of the trawlers. Another nine ships fled after being sighted by the allied patrol. The remaining vessel was tracked and sunk in coastal waters on 8 April through the coordinated effort of Coast Guard cutters Morgenthau (WHEC 722) and Rush (WHEC 723), the U.S. Navy's gunboat Antelope (PG 86) and air patrol units, and the Vietnamese Navy's motor gunboat Kien Vang (PGM 603).
An efficient logistic establishment was as important as a ready combat force to the future performance of the Vietnamese Navy. Soon after the turnover of combatant craft got underway, the U.S. Navy prepared its support establishment for eventual transfer to the allied naval service. Under ACTOVLOG (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese, Logistics), Admiral Zumwalt oversaw not only the turnover of U.S. installations, but also the expansion of the Vietnamese base, transportation, maintenance and repair, supply, and personnel housing infrastructures to accommodate the planned doubling in size of the navy. The Americans modernized existing facilities and constructed new bases, coastal radar sites, and housing for Vietnamese sailors and their families.
Coinciding with the turnover of river and coastal fighting vessels in 1969 and 1970, the Navy transferred many of the bases from which they operated. The first change of command occurred at My Tho in November 1969. Then, in the last three months of 1970, COMNAVFORV placed the Phu Cuong, Long Binh, Kien An, Chau Doc, Tan Chau, and Ha Tien Operating Bases under Vietnamese control. The transfer of Sa Dec and Chu Lai the following spring completed the process. During this same period, the Vietnamese Navy took over the six Advanced Tactical Support Bases established on the Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay Rivers for the Giant Slingshot operation and two more on the Cua Viet River in I Corps. In addition, the allied naval service assumed control of the harbor defense posts of the Stable Door effort, the three existing coastal radar sites, and Market Time's coastal surveillance centers.
Meanwhile, the Navy deployed Seabee detachments throughout South Vietnam to construct logistic facilities at new and existing bases. Once the Seabees completed this work and U.S. leaders felt the Vietnamese could totally support their combat units, the Americans transferred the bases to their allies. In this manner, beginning in the spring of 1971, Rear Admiral Robert S. Salzer, the new COMNAVFORV, relinquished control of Cat Lo and An Thoi, two of seven primary Logistic Support Bases that provided allied naval forces with major vessel overhauls and other supply assistance. In the same period, the Vietnamese took charge of Ben Luc and Rach Soi, two secondary or Intermediate Support Bases. These installations handled minor craft overhauls and provided units with maintenance, administrative, financial, and supply support. The next incremental transfer occurred in September when the Dong Tam Logistic Support Base and eight Intermediate Support Bases were Vietnamized. The allies completed the last major phase of the ACTOVLOG program in April 1972 when the Vietnamese Navy took over the former centers of American naval power in South Vietnam, the Logistic Support Bases at Nha Be, Binh Thuy, Cam Ranh Bay, and Danang. The Navy's other Vietnamization projects lasted until the total withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam in March 1973. Construction and turnover of the last of 16 coastal radar sites (one on board a station ship) was completed in August 1972. Further, COMNAVFORV erected over 4,500 shelters for Vietnamese Navy personnel and their families. American planners hoped these better living conditions would strengthen the morale of Vietnamese sailors. U.S. personnel completely restructured and streamlined the allied navy's supply system, with special attention devoted to the Naval Supply Center at Saigon. After an intensive $8 million effort with the help of American civilians, the Naval Advisory Group improved management procedures, developed a skilled work force, and modernized the industrial plant at the Saigon Naval Shipyard. By early 1973, the Vietnamese facility had finished building 58 ferrocement junks, reconditioned hundreds of newly acquired river craft, and achieved the ability to overhaul all of the Vietnamese Navy's seagoing ships in-country, a major goal of the advisory program.
By 1973, both the logistic establishment and the combat arm of the Vietnamese Navy possessed the material resources to carry on the fight alone. The 42,000-man naval service marshalled a force of 1,500 ships and craft for warfare on the rivers and canals, in coastal waters, and far out to sea. The supply, training, and repair facilities were structured to man and support the operational navy for a long-term struggle.
Despite these advantages, the Vietnamese Navy still was burdened with the old problems of poor leadership, low morale, and lack of dedication on the part of many personnel. The departing Americans in the Naval Advisory Group concluded that the relatively young, recently expanded, and still developing Vietnamese Navy had the potential to add great strength to the defense of South Vietnam, but only if given the time to mature.
Countering the Easter Offensive
The U.S. Navy gave its sister service some of this additional time when the fleet sortied into Southeast Asian waters to help stem the Communist Easter Offensive that began on 30 March 1972. This massive, three-pronged enemy attack, which broke across the DMZ, through the Central Highlands, and toward Saigon from the north, sparked an immediate American response. Seventh Fleet cruisers and destroyers steamed into the coastal waters off I Corps and added their 8-inch and 5-inch guns to the South Vietnamese defense of Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces. Each day, between 15 and 20 U.S. ships poured fire into the ranks of the North Vietnamese divisions striking for Hue. Navy and Marine Corps spotters ashore or in the air called in heavy bombardment. On occasion gunfire support ships fired directly at enemy troops and tanks on the beach. Expending thousands of rounds each month, 117,000 in June alone, the fleet surface force was a prime factor in the successful South Vietnamese defense of Hue and subsequent counterattack to retake overrun areas.
The Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force also came to the assistance of the South Vietnamese by threatening the enemy's rear along the coast. On 13 May, in order to frustrate Communist attack plans, Marine helicopters from the amphibious ready group's Okinawa (LPH 3) landed South Vietnamese marines miles behind Communist lines in I Corps. On 24 May and again on 29 June, the amphibious task group deployed South Vietnamese troops on the enemy's exposed coastal flank and rear. These actions and strikes by naval air and gunfire support units eventually helped force the North Vietnamese in retreat.
The successful South Vietnamese drive to retake lost ground in Quang Tri Province was also aided by a logistic lifeline set up across the beach. With Route 1 vulnerable to attack, the fleet installed a five-section causeway on the coast east of Quang Tri City. South Vietnamese LCUs and LCMs used the causeway, emplaced by Alamo (LSD 33) in mid-July, to land critical supplies. Aided by a Navy-Marine amphibious group advisory team, the Vietnamese delivered over 200 tons of ammunition and material to the front line forces before seasonal heavy weather in September curtailed the operation.
The U.S. naval forces still operating in support of the Market Time coastal surveillance patrol contributed to the allied defense as well. In April 1972, P-3 Orion aircraft based in the Philippines helped South Vietnamese units detect and turn back three of four Communist trawlers sent south. A combined surface patrol force intercepted and sank the fourth ship.
Of even greater importance to the nationwide South Vietnamese defensive effort was the Navy's campaign against North Vietnam, where the enemy launched and supplied the Easter Offensive. On 2 April 1972, soon after it became apparent that a major Communist effort was underway, President Nixon ordered his Pacific forces to strike that region of North Vietnam nearest to the DMZ by air and sea. By 9 May, the entire country, excluding a buffer zone 30 miles deep along the Chinese border and a number of sensitive targets, had been opened to Navy and Air Force attack. During April, the first month of operations, the Seventh Fleet resumed the interdiction campaign that ended in November 1968. Task Force 77 swelled to include five carriers, Constellation, Kitty Hawk, Hancock, Coral Sea, and Saratoga (CVA 60). The addition of Midway to the task force in May would make this the largest concentration of carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin during the war. The air squadrons, massed for multiaircraft strikes in Operation Freedom Train, hit key military and logistic facilities at Dong Hoi, Vinh, Thanh Hoa, Haiphong, and Hanoi. Smaller flights attacked enemy troop units, supply convoys, and headquarters in the areas around the DMZ. Also taking part in Freedom Train were the fleet's gun cruisers and destroyers, which ranged the southern North Vietnamese coastline, shelling transportation routes, troop concentrations, shore defenses, and Communist logistic installations. Joseph Strauss (DDG 16) and Richard B. Anderson (DD 786) opened this renewed operation on 5 April when they fired on the Ben Hai Bridge in the northern half of the DMZ. Then on the 16th for the first time, cruiser Oklahoma City and three destroyers obliterated targets on the Do Son Peninsula, which guarded the approaches to Haiphong.
The nature of the campaign changed in May when President Nixon ordered the virtual isolation of North Vietnam from external Communist support. Aside from the obvious military rationale, the President sought by this action to end North Vietnamese intransigence at the stalled Paris negotiations. For the first time in the long Southeast Asian conflict, all of the Navy's conventional resources were brought to bear on the enemy. On 9 May, in Operation Pocket Money, Coral Sea's A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsairs dropped magnetic-acoustic sea mines in the river approaches to Haiphong, North Vietnam's chief port. Shortly thereafter, the other major ports were mined as well. Over 85 percent of the country's military imports passed through these ports. Washington gave foreign ships three days to depart the country, after which the mines armed themselves. Despite this advance notice, 32 foreign, mostly Communist ships elected to remain trapped in North Vietnamese waters.
The fleet's surface combatants also helped deny the enemy unhindered use of the inland coastal areas. On 10 May the 8-inch guns of heavy cruiser Newport News bombarded targets near Hanoi from a position off Do Son while guided missile cruisers Oklahoma City and Providence and three destroyers suppressed the enemy's counterbattery fire from the peninsula. Normally three or four U.S. ships made up the surface action group that cruised along the coast ready to provide air-spotted or direct fire. From April through September, the cruiser destroyer group fired over 111,000 rounds at the enemy, destroying or damaging thousands of bunkers and buildings; knocking out tanks, trucks, and artillery sites; killing 2,000 troops; and sinking almost 200 coastal logistic craft and 4 motor torpedo boats. In August, Newport News, destroyer Rowan (DD 782), and naval air units sank two of the PT boats that attacked the American ships off Haiphong.
The North Vietnamese fought back hard. Earlier in the year Higbee (DD 806) became the first U.S. naval vessel attacked by enemy MiGs, one of which dropped a bomb on the destroyer's stern, wounding four sailors. In addition, while Communist coastal batteries hit 16 ships offshore in 1972, no ship was sunk then or at any time in the Southeast Asian conflict. In July, Warrington (DD 843) struck what was determined to be a wayward U.S. mine that caused extensive damage to the ship. Naval leaders later decided to scrap the already obsolete destroyer rather than spend money on her repair. These few human and material casualties suffered by the Seventh Fleet contrasted with the great punishment absorbed by the North Vietnamese.
From May through December 1972, no large merchant vessels entered or left North Vietnamese harbors. An attempt by the Communist to lighter cargo to shore from ships in international waters was foiled when fleet ships and aircraft, including Marine helicopter gunships, intercepted and destroyed the shuttling craft. The deployed American fleet even curtailed the enemy's intracoastal movement.
Complementing this effort at sea was the massive aerial offensive by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force named Linebacker. In contrast to the earlier Rolling Thunder campaign, in Linebacker Washington gave operational commanders authority to choose when, how, and in what order to strike and restrike targets. Commanders could adjust to changing weather and the enemy's defenses and concentrate their aerial firepower to best effect. As a result, American air squadrons interdicted the road and rail lines from China and devastated North Vietnamese warmaking resources, including munition stockpiles, fuel storage facilities, power plants, rail yards, and bridges.
Using Boeing B-52 bombers and new, more accurate ordnance, such as laser guided bombs and advanced Walleye bombs, the Air Force and the Navy hit targets with great precision and destructiveness. For instance, the U.S. air forces destroyed the Thanh Hoa and Paul Doumer bridges, long impervious to American bombing, and the Hanoi power plant deep in the heart of the populated capital city. They also knocked out targets as close as 10 miles to the center of Hanoi and 5 miles from Haiphong harbor. Between 9 May and the end of September, the Navy flew an average of 4,000 day-and-night attack sorties each month, reaching a peak of 4,746 in August. This represented over 60 percent of the American combat support sorties during the same five-month period.
The North Vietnamese attempted to counter the American onslaught. Employing thousands of antiaircraft weapons and firing almost 2,000 surface-to-air missiles in this period, the enemy shot down 28 American aircraft. In one day alone, the Communist air force challenged U.S. aerial supremacy by sending up 41 interceptor aircraft. On that day, 10 May, Navy pilot Lieutenant Randy Cunningham and his radar intercept officer Lieutenant (jg) William Driscoll became the war's only Navy "aces," adding three kills to the two already credited to them. American air units destroyed a total of 11 North Vietnamese aircraft that day, but lost 6 of their own. The Navy's ratio of kills to losses had improved by the end of air operations on 15 January 1973, when the total stood at 25 MiGs destroyed in air-to-air combat for the loss of 5 naval aircraft. During the Linebacker campaigns, the fleet's SAR units rescued 30 naval air crewmen downed for various reasons in the North Vietnamese theater of operations.
By the end of September 1972, the North Vietnamese diplomats in Paris were much more amenable to serious negotiation than they were at the end of March. Allied air, naval, and ground forces had repulsed the Communist offensive in South Vietnam and in I Corps even regained much lost ground. After drastically reducing the enemy's reinforcements and munitions infiltrated into the South, the U.S. air and naval campaign in the North gradually destroyed Hanoi's ability to prosecute the war.
Believing that a negotiated settlement of the Southeast Asian conflict was within reach in Paris, on 11 October the Nixon administration ordered U.S. Pacific forces to cease bombing in the vicinity of Hanoi. Then on the twenty-third, Washington restricted allied strikes to targets below the 20th parallel. Nevertheless, negotiations with the North Vietnamese again bogged down in Paris while the enemy strengthened the air defenses of the capital and Haiphong and restored the rail lines to China. The Communist once more stockpiled war reserves.
In response to these developments, President Nixon ordered a massive air assault by Air Force B-52 bombers, tactical aircraft, and the Navy's carrier attack units against military targets deep within Hanoi and Haiphong. On 18 December the joint attack, designated Linebacker II, fell on the enemy capital. That night and on succeeding nights of the operation, wave after wave of B-52 bombers and supporting aircraft struck Hanoi, hitting command and communication facilities, power plants, rail yards, bridges, storage buildings, open stockpiles, truck parks, and ship repair complexes. Because of the precision of the air crews and their weapons, there was minimal damage to nonmilitary property. The North Vietnamese met the Linebacker II attack with 1,250 surface-to-air missiles, which brought down 15 of the big American bombers and 3 supporting aircraft; antiaircraft defenses and MiG interceptors destroyed another 4 carrier planes.
The loss of six B-52s on 20 December alone, however, called for a change in tactics and more reliance on technologically superior equipment. Thereafter, the American air forces employed the most advanced precision-guided weapons and electronic countermeasure, target finding, and other equipment. They also concentrated on the destruction of the enemy's missile defense network, including command and control facilities, missile assembly and transportation points, and the missile batteries themselves. To spread thin Communist defenses, the American command broadened the operational arena to include not only Hanoi, but Haiphong, Thai Nguyen, Long Dun Kep, and Lang Dang. This redirection of effort succeeded. By 29 December, the last day of Linebacker II, U.S. forces had neutralized the enemy's surface-to-air missile system while reducing friendly losses to a minimum. Not surprisingly, at year's end the North Vietnamese resumed serious discussions in Paris. On 15 January 1973, both sides ceased combat operations in the North.
Withdrawal from the War
On 27 January 1973, U.S., South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and Viet Cong representatives finally signed the long-sought cease- fire agreement at Paris. Under its provisions, the Communist agreed to release all American prisoners of war within a space of two months in exchange for U.S. military withdrawal from South Vietnam and the U.S. Navy's clearance of mines from North Vietnamese waters.
During February and March, U.S. aircraft touched down at Gia Lam Airfield in Hanoi to repatriate 138 naval aviators, some of whom had been prisoners in North Vietnam since 1964. The men were flown to reception centers in the Pacific and the United States, where they received a joyous welcome from families and friends. The repatriation program, appropriately named Operation Homecoming, ensured that the men received extensive medical, psychological, and emotional support for the transition from captivity to freedom. Another five men captured in the war were released earlier by the North Vietnamese while two escaped. Thirty-six naval aviators died while in the hands of the Communist, whose treatment of American prisoners was always harsh and often bestial. The Navy listed over 600 naval flight crew personnel missing and presumed dead at the end of the conflict.
In these same two months, the Navy closed down all remaining base facilities, offices, and commands in South Vietnam. Advisors, the first naval personnel to deploy to Vietnam in 1950, were also the last to leave. The men gathered in Saigon for flights home. On 11 February, the Coast Guard disestablished the office of the Senior Coast Guard Officer, Vietnam, and airlifted out all of its personnel. Soon afterward, the fleet air reconnaissance and communications detachments at Danang relocated to Cubi Point in the Philippines. Finally, on 29 March 1973, the Naval Advisory Group and Naval Forces, Vietnam, were formally disestablished. Thereafter, only 9 Navy and Marine Corps officers assigned to the U.S. Embassy's Defense Attache Office and 156 Marine embassy guards remained in South Vietnam.
The last provision of the cease-fire agreement that directly related to the Navy entailed removal of the U.S. sea mines laid along the North Vietnamese coast and the Mark 36 Destructors dropped into inland waterways. On 28 January, following months of extensive preparation and training, the Seventh Fleet's Mine Countermeasures Force (Task Force 78), led by Rear Admiral Brian McCauley, sailed from Subic Bay and shaped course for a staging area off Haiphong. On 6 February, one day after Commander Task Force 78 met in the city to coordinate actions with his North Vietnamese opposite, Colonel Hoang Huu Thai, Operation End Sweep got underway. Ocean minesweepers Engage (MSO 433), Force (MSO) 445), Fortify (MSO 446), and Impervious (MSO 449) swept areas off the coast near Haiphong while being escorted by guided missile frigate Worden (DLG 18) and destroyerEpperson (DD 719). By the end of the month, amphibious ships New Orleans (LPH 11), Dubuque (LPD 8), Ogdon (LPD 5), Cleveland (LPD 7), and Inchon (LPH 12) had joined the force off North Vietnam. These ships carried 31 CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters from the Navy's Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 12 and from Marine helicopter squadrons HMM-165 and HMH-463. These aircraft towed minesweeping sleds and other devices to carry out aerial mine countermeasures along the inland waterways and the shallow port areas. A total of 10 ocean minesweepers, 9 amphibious ships, 6 fleet tugs, 3 salvage ships, and 19 destroyer types served with Task Force 78 during the six months of Operation End Sweep.
The Americans began airborne minesweeping in the primary shipping channel to Haiphong on 27 February and in the ports of Hon Gai and Cam Pha on 17 March. During the early part of April, MSS 2, an old, decommissioned LST, filled with foam and other buffers and crewed by a few daring volunteers, made eight check runs up the Haiphong channel to ensure that no mines threatened the vital waterway. Meanwhile, U.S. naval instructors trained 50 North Vietnamese personnel to conduct minesweeping operations on rivers and inland waterways. Further, U.S. C-130 transport aircraft flew into Cat Bi Airfield to transfer minesweeping gear to the North Vietnamese. Airborne and ocean sweeping operations continued in the Haiphong and northern areas until 17 April, when U.S. leaders temporarily withdrew the task force to persuade the North Vietnamese to adhere to the terms of the Paris agreement. Convinced that Hanoi had received the intended message, on 18 June Washington restarted Operation End Sweep. The task force returned to the anchorage off Haiphong. In little more than a week, Admiral McCauley declared the water approaches to Haiphong and the harbors of Hon Gai and Cam Pha free of danger from mines. Afterward, the American flotilla worked the coastal areas off Vinh in southern North Vietnam. Finally, on 18 July 1973, with Operation End Sweep completed, the Seventh Fleet departed North Vietnamese territorial waters. Thus ended the U.S. Navy's long, arduous, and costly deployment off the Communist mainland.
08 November 1997