When the US Navy entered the Vietnam War, they weren’t ready to fight in the small inland canals and riverways, so they improvised. This article will take you through that undertaking. 

Chasing the enemy in fiberglass boats powered by Jacuzzi pumps. Deploying dolphins on anti-mine patrols. Dusting off combat tactics rarely used since the Civil War. This is what the U.S. Navy means when it says it adapted to Vietnam.

While it definitely had carrier, battleship and logistics operations in hand, “the Navy wasn’t prepared for the coastal and inland waterway operations in Vietnam,” says Ed Marolda, the author of five books and other publications about the Navy’s role in Vietnam during his career with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “All the focus at that time was ‘How do we defeat the Soviet Navy?’”

For all of this, the Navy’s role – especially that of the brown-water navy – went largely unnoticed. “Vietnam was unpopular, so people didn’t want to know much about it,” says retired Lt. Cmdr. Thomas J. Cutler, author of “Brown Water, Black Berets,” who served in Vietnam in 1972. “And it hasn’t gotten much attention in Hollywood. Until America sees it on the screen, it doesn’t exist.”

Beginning to End The Navy first sent advisers to Southeast Asia to help the French in 1950 and stayed to assist the South Vietnamese after the French left.

A dozen years later, the blue-water navy began gathering intelligence off the coast of Vietnam. Soon, newly formed Navy SEAL teams were deployed to Vietnam to train South Vietnamese naval commandos and conduct raids.

Turn by turn, the Navy was drawn further into combat and deeper inside Vietnam. In February 1965, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot discovered a well-camouflaged North Vietnamese trawler unloading arms and ammunition in a South Vietnamese bay. The South’s lackluster response to the Vung Ro Bay incident helped prompt the Navy to launch a major arms interdiction effort called Operation Market Time. The Navy purchased boats designed to ferry workers to drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, added weapons and radar, and used these new swift boats to stop and search junks and fishing boats along the South Vietnamese coast. The Navy also brought in the Coast Guard and its coastal patrol ships and smaller boats to stop the arms smugglers.

Brown Water Revival Meanwhile, the U.S. military turned its attention to the Viet Cong-controlled Mekong Delta, which accounted for a quarter of South Vietnam’s geography, half its population and a significant part of its rice production. But the Viet Cong were seizing so much of the crops that South Vietnam was having to import rice, Cutler says.

Reviving the brown-water navy also came with a boat problem. The Navy didn’t have a vessel for charging up the rivers and canals that fed the Mekong Delta. So it again turned to the consumer market, this time buying shallow-draft leisure boats powered by Jacuzzi pumps. Called PBRs, these were fast and highly maneuverable but lacked armor because it slowed the boats too much. “These things were fairly vulnerable,” Cutler says. “They made up for it with firepower – machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers.”

The return of the brown-water force was a success, Cutler says. The Navy retook the delta’s major rivers.

The brown-water navy was joined by a newly created Mobile Riverine Force that used World War II landing craft to take soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division to the fight.

Some landing craft were outfitted with rounded bows, cannons, machine guns and mortars, and deployed as “monitors” that covered troop landings up and down the delta. Others were outfitted with tiny flight decks for helicopters, which made them the world’s smallest aircraft carriers, Cutler says.

By the time Adm. Elmo Zumwalt took charge of the Navy in Vietnam in 1968, the brown-water navy had done such a good job of retaking the southern part of the Mekong Delta that brown-water duty was downright boring, Cutler says. But the Viet Cong had simply moved their arms smuggling and insurgent operations into smaller waterways. Zumwalt’s answer: Operation SEALORDS (Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River and Delta Strategy).

This all-inclusive approach meant that swift boats were moved from the coast and joined both the River Patrol Force and the Mobile Riverine Force to go after the Viet Cong in the remote reaches of the Mekong Delta and other waterways. “Casualties went way up, but morale also went way up,” Cutler says.

SEALORDS resulted in more injuries and deaths than any other Navy duty in Vietnam. Still, cooks, yeomen and all other manner of naval personnel vied for brown-water duty even though it wasn’t always good for career advancement.

 “It was just plain sexy,” Cutler says. “It doesn’t get much more adventuresome than going up a river firing weapons.”

In major harbors such as Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay, meanwhile, the Navy and the Coast Guard worked to keep enemy swimmers from planting mines on the ships that supplied U.S. forces. Cutler spent part of his tour with a team that ran Boston Whalers around the harbors at night, dropping grenades in random patterns. Dead enemy swimmers periodically washed up on shore the next morning, confirming the need for the patrols.

The Navy also used dolphins for this anti-mine duty, Marolda says. Outfitted with special canvas nose covers, the dolphins were trained to hit suspicious swimmers with their snouts.

When the Navy departed in 1973, it left South Vietnam with more than 1,100 vessels, making it one of the largest navies in the world, Marolda says. Thirty of those ships helped thousands of South Vietnamese naval personnel escape to the Philippines after their country fell in 1975. And the Navy’s last act in Vietnam was evacuating U.S. diplomats, South Vietnamese and Cambodians who served with U.S. forces, Marolda says.

The Navy’s Vietnam experiences informed future conflicts. Many of the Navy officers who led U.S. naval forces in Operation Desert Storm had Vietnam combat experience. And when the Navy decided to reactivate brown-water squadrons in Iraq, it went to the Naval History and Heritage Command to find out what the United States had done in Vietnam, Marolda says. “We still had the operational plans.”

This article originally appeared in the JUN 20, 2013 edition of the American Legion Magazine. The photos without captions were added to this article by the admin of this website to help with visualization.