US Navy Riverine forces were crucial in I Corps keeping supply lines open on the Cua Viet and Perfume Rivers in support of the effort to retake Hue and the myriad other battles occurring along the northern I Corps AO and to the defense and recapture of a number of cities in the Delta during the Tet Offensive. This is their story:
By Chuck Johnson
Hanoi declared a truce that went into effect on 27 January 1968 in honor of the Tet holiday. Unknown to US forces, Hanoi’s plan to launch a major offensive throughout South Vietnam was scheduled to begin on 31 January. In 1967 and earlier in January 1968, North Vietnam had launched a number of attacks against Marine bases just south of the DMZ culminating in an all-out assault on Khe Sanh on 21 January as a feint to convince General Westmoreland that North Vietnam was planning to drive US Forces out of the northern reaches of I Corps and distract him from their true plan to attack cities throughout South Vietnam hoping to spur local populations into revolt against the South Vietnam government. Militarily Tet was a colossal failure; politically it was an enormous success as it convinced the US government that Vietnam was a lost cause. Subsequent to Tet, President Johnson denied General Westmoreland’s request for an additional 206,000 troops and shortly thereafter announced his intention not to run for reelection. Secretary of Defense McNamara who had announced his resignation in November 1967 left office in February 1968.
The Tet Offensive prematurely began on 30 January and formally ended on 23 February when the city of Hue was recaptured from Viet Cong forces. Navy bases throughout the Delta were hit along with most of the major cities including Saigon. Although clues were available that something big was in the offing, most US and South Vietnam forces were in a relaxed state in observance of the Tet Holiday (January 31, 1968). Navy bases were accustomed to occasional and sporadic mortar attacks so the initial explosions at the various bases were misinterpreted as part of the occasional harassment. That misperception soon changed when VC troops entered each of their target areas and began to occupy significant pieces of real estate. When the realization of what was happening hit the US defenders they reacted quickly and launched counter strikes throughout the Delta. A brief look at the events that occurred at three Navy bases (Figure 31), My Tho, Vinh Long and Ben Tre follows.
Figure 33: Vietnam War Era Map Showing My Tho, Ben Tre and Vinh Long Courtesy Texas Tech
My Tho – Capitol of Tien Giang Province
On the eve of the Tet Offensive, My Tho was home to PBR Sections 532 and 533, SEAL Team 2, a Tactical Operations Center (TOC), a squadron of the 6th ARVN Armored Cavalry and one battalion of the 11th ARVN Infantry Regiment supplemented by Vietnamese RAG units. The Victory Hotel provided both berthing and messing accommodations to US Navy personnel with the TOC located on its roof. The Carter Hotel located a half block from the Victory provided berthing but no messing. My Tho was attacked by approximately 1,200 Viet Cong from three battalions (261st, 263rd, and 514th) plus a sapper company (207th) with another battalion in reserve.
The RIVSEC 532 CO was eating dinner with his Vietnamese interpreter’s family, when sensing the mortar barrage was more intense than usual; he excused himself, ran to the docks and scrambled his boats. VNN Rangers rode along as the PBRs moved up a nearby canal and immediately engaged a VC force.
Navy SEALs from SEAL Team 2 were sipping beer on the roof of the Carter Hotel when they were alerted that the city was under attack. Some days earlier a senior CPO had told his team to move weapons from their compound on the river to their rooms; “just in case”. They gathered their weapons and ammo and set up a defensive position on the roof. As the VC approached the hotel, they were met with fire from the roof. At 0715 on 31 January 1968, a lull in the fighting allowed the SEAL team to gather more arms and ammo and to recruit some sailors to beef up the Carter roof defenses. Throughout the day, the SEALs using sniper scopes picked off any enemy combatant foolish enough to leave cover. Intense fighting occurred throughout My Tho as the VC attempted to implement their plan of attack.
At 1000 on 1 February, the MRF was in a holding pattern northeast of Vinh Long when it was ordered to deploy to My Tho. After picking up reinforcements from the 3/47th Infantry Battalion at Vinh Long, the MRF proceeded to My Tho arriving at 1515. Deployed infantry began moving into the city against stiff resistance. For the next 21 hours intense urban warfare ensued between the VC attack force and US infantry. The MRF forces supported by artillery and light attack helicopters methodically moved north through the city clearing out VC pockets of resistance. By midday on 2 February, the VC forces were abandoning My Tho and the battle was essentially over. Having accomplished its mission at My Tho, the MRF redeployed to Vinh Long which was still under siege.
Figure 34 My Tho Courtesy Texas Tech
Ben Tre – Capitol of Kien Hoa Province
About 800 VC attackers taken from the 518th Main Force and the 516th Local Force battalions launched an attack on Ben Tre at 0415 on 31 January. Ben Tre was lightly defended by two battalions of the 1st Brigade, 7th ARVN Division, and about 70 American advisors and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel housed in a MACV compound, comprising a block of buildings surrounded by a 10 foot masonry wall in downtown Ben Tre. It took the VC about 16 hours to seize virtually the entire city, exclusive of the MACV compound. The first Navy response came from PBR-720 and PBR-721 that were cruising on the Ham Luong River. Hearing gunfire and recognizing weapon specific VC rounds they turned off the river into the Song Ben Tre canal fronting Ben Tre. As the two boats approached Ben Tre, they saw six VNN LCVP boats on the canal’s north bank exchanging fire with attack elements on the south bank. Radio contact with the MACV compound brought a “standby we might need you” response. They were soon asked to engage the enemy force.
The PBR .50-caliber guns silenced the enemy guns in short order. PBR-713 and PBR-714 arrived on the scene allowing the first two boats to repair to the USS Harnett County, anchored on the Ham Luong, for fuel and ammo. As PBR-713 and PBR-714 proceeded up the canal they took hits from enemy rounds, none fatal. Soon other PBR boats arrived on the scene, one of which a MKII PBR used its 60mm mortar to drop rounds on the MACV compound periphery. For the balance of the day (31st) PBR boats and Navy helicopters from HAL-3 provided enough firepower to prevent complete loss of Ben Tre.
Additional firepower was provided by AC-47 gunships and the Harnett County. “During the course of Tet, the LST’s 40mm mounts delivered over 20,000 rounds of API shells in the Ben Tre area, destroying 30 structures, three bunkers, a sampan, and a brick factory.” The following day Army helicopters delivered two battalions from the 3rd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division who immediately engaged in intense house to house fighting losing sixteen soldiers in the process. Continued air and artillery support gradually allowed the US troops to dislodge the enemy combatants; but it took until 5 February to free the city.
Figure 35 Ben Tre Courtesy Texas Tech
Vinh Long – Capitol of Vinh Long Province
Two Viet Cong battalions (the 306th and the 308th) with an estimated strength of 1200 supported by the 857th Provincial Main Force Battalion and other units attacked Vinh Long at about 0300 on 31 January. Vinh Long’s defense relied primarily on the 2nd ARVN Armored Cavalry, the 43rd ARVN Ranger Battalion, PBRs and RAG units. Some MACV advisors, U.S. Army military police, and U.S. Army combat engineers were also available to fight. A 3,000 foot long airstrip was located just west of the city and an NSA villa was located about six miles south of the city.
The USS Garrett County was anchored about two miles northwest of the city. During the first day of battle, the Viet Cong forces overran the city. At 1500 on the 31st, the villa occupants fled to the Navy Base where they boarded PBRs that unlike the PBRs at Ben Tre left the Navy Base piers for their mother ship (Garrett County) while it was left to the VNN soldiers and sailors attached to the RAG units to defend the Navy base. The VNN force of about forty sailors defended the base perimeter with fire support from RAG-23 and RAG-31 on the river.
While fighting off the VC assault, the VNN Navy evacuated about 2,500 civilians to an island in the Co Chien River. Meanwhile, at the Airstrip just west of Vinh Long helicopter aircrews and maintenance personnel from HAL-3, Detachment 3 chose to stand their ground and defend the airstrip. Two UH-1B HAL-3 helicopters from the Garrett County, returning from a mission at Tra Vinh, braved the VC mortar and automatic weapon fire to land, refuel and rearm. Door gunners detached the M60 machine guns from their pedestals and joined the ground forces to repel a VC force that had breached the perimeter. Under fire, maintenance personnel refueled and rearmed the two UH-1B helicopters that were immediately back in the air providing air support to the troops on the ground. The firing runs expended ammunition so quickly that the birds were in the air for about six minutes before they had to land and rearm. Meanwhile support personnel in firing bunkers were heavily engaged in repelling the attack and they managed to hold until the 3rd Squadron of the ARVN 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment arrived with M-113 armored personnel carriers and M-41 A3 light tanks.
Once the ARVN armor had cleared the airfield periphery it returned to the city to help in retaking Vinh Long from enemy forces. In late afternoon, helicopters inserted the U.S. Army’s Company C, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry into the airfield. While the situation at the airstrip improved, the situation in the city had deteriorated to the point where enemy units had taken most of the city except for small pockets of resistance. Ten members of the 148th Military Police Platoon occupied a well fortified villa located about 100 yards from the MACV compound armed with four M60 machine guns, three 60mm mortars, M79 grenade launchers, LAW rockets, and numerous small arms.
The villa periphery and inside spaces were sandbagged providing some measure of protection against incoming rounds. More importantly, the villa’s occupants were intent on putting up a fight, which they did until the following day when they left the villa to support the airfield defenders.
Although Vinh Long was not secured until 7 February, the most intense fighting took place from 31 January to 2 February. On 31 January, the 3rd Squadron, 2nd ARVN Armored Cavalry was rebuffed by machine-gun fire and rocket propelled grenades while trying to clear Vinh Long’s main street and was forced to withdraw. The same results occurred the following morning; but later in the day reinforcements arrived on boats in the form of the 3rd Battalion, 15th ARVN Infantry. The 43rd Rangers and the MRF provided added support allowing the heavily reinforced Armored Cavalry to begin clearing Vinh Long of attackers. By 4 February, they had essentially accomplished their mission.
Seawolf detachments HAL-3 and HAL-4 were the only Navy elements operating during the first two days of February. While fully occupied in defending Vinh Long, they found time to execute a mission of mercy with the help of an Army Huey pilot by rescuing 130 orphans and 12 nuns from an orphanage located about 400 yards from the airstrip.
The climactic part of the battle occurred on 4 February when the MRF arrived on scene with two battalions of the 9th Infantry Division (the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry and the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry).
The fresh troops along with ARVN units established blocking positions around the city and began engaging VC forces in Vinh Long. Intense fighting took place over the next 24 hours and the pressure around the airstrip was relieved. By the 6th of February the battle for Vinh Long was essentially over
Figure 36 Vinh Long Courtesy Texas Tech
Charles Johnson spent 28 years at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (Naval Surface Warfare Center) 1959-1987 as a design engineer and project manager specializing in fuzing, 5 years with Advanced Technology and Research from 1987 to 1992 as Division Head for Army business, 5 years at the Navy Technical Representative Office in Tucson as Senior Hardware Engineer on Standard Missile from 2000-2007, and eight months in Vietnam in 1971 attached to the Naval Research and Development Unit – Vietnam (NRDU-V) as sensor specialist. He also maintains a website: About – Stomping on Ants
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