Keeping Swift Boats up and running was vital to the new ‘Small Boat Brown-Water Navy’. One sailor from the maintenance ship, USS Krishna, recalls some events and challenges while stationed on the repair vessel. Read what he had to say.
by Tome Edwards
I enlisted in the Navy on February 5, 1968; that was 3 days after my 19th birthday. Shortly before completing basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, I received my first set of orders. I was about to become a crew member of the USS Krishna.
It was in dry-dock at the base in Yokosuka, Japan. With renovations complete, we got underway at a less than blistering 9 knots. On September 24, we dropped our anchors in An Thoi, Vietnam. That was the first day of what was about to become one of the most interesting and memorable chapters of my life; maintaining and repairing Patrol Craft Fast, (P.C.F.’s), also known as Swift Boats.
Approximately three and a half years before my deployment to Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command in Saigon, requested shallow watercraft to support the newly formed Coastal Surveillance Force.
Their assignment – curtail the flow of North Vietnamese troops and supplies to the south via waterways. Prior to the arrival of Swift Boats, the Viet Cong had unbounded access to rivers, canals, and the coastline for smuggling and infiltration operations.
The Navy had tested a variety of boats to address the specific needs of combating that type of guerrilla warfare before opting to use a craft built by Sewart Seacraft, a Louisiana-based manufacturer.
They transported the Swift Boats to the Philippines; An Thoi and Da Nang were selected as the two areas most critical to the needs the new craft could address. The 50-foot-long 25-knot quarter-inch-thick aluminum hull Swift Boats had twin 50-caliber machine guns above the pilothouse and a single 50 over an 81 mm mortar aft. Swift Boats quickly proved to be the perfect fit for the type of warfare underway on the rivers and along the coast.
During Operation Market Time, Swift Boats maintained a 24/7 schedule and interacted with hundreds of ‘junks’ (fishing vessels) daily. Keeping Swift Boats up and running was vital to the new ‘Small Boat Brown-Water Navy’.
Legitimate fishermen operated most junks. That gave the sailors the opportunity to engage in goodwill gestures such as giving cigarettes and candy to those on the junks that were being inspected for contraband.
We manned swift Boats with crews of 6, one officer, and 5 enlisted that had to adapt to being a part of this new facet on military service. I have always found it interesting that 80% of the crews were volunteers. Utilizing 5 Coastal Surveillance Centers to coordinate their patrols, Operation Market Time proved to be successful in its assigned task.
The next phase of Swift Boat operations was to conduct surveillance along the 1,500 miles of South Vietnam’s coastline. Once again, Swift Boats delivered.
For the sailors aboard the USS Krishna, our job was to keep Swift Boats up and running. To a man, we took pride in what we did. Over the years I have occasionally looked back on my time in An Thoi and know morale was never a problem. As a crew, we were tighter than a hat band.
Some memories of war are absolutely indelible, and not all of them occur during combat. As an Electricians Mate Apprentice, I am confident the $83 that was all mine twice a month was well earned. One component of a Swift Boat electrical system was two 24-volt battery banks.
They served as the primary source of power for engine starting, navigation lights, radar, and general-purpose lighting. The portside batteries were for standby power and the starboard bank provided general boat power. The wiring configuration ensured both banks could function in parallel to maintain the operation of essential systems.
The batteries were located in the aft section of the ‘engine room’; trust me, that’s a relative term. In order to access, service and replace them you had to navigate over and around two 480 HP Detroit Marine Diesels.
As a now-retired aerospace engineer, I am confident that when Swift Boats were being designed the engineers never considered the electricians that worked on them weren’t former football players. Fortunately, in my case I played baseball and I worked on Swift Boats 48 years and 62 pounds ago.
Supplies were, at times, problematic. I still remember a Swift Boat coming back from a patrol and some of the battery posts were in, shall we say, less than new condition.
I noticed a few now-empty 50-caliber machine gun shells were on the deck and saw them as the answer to the battery post problem. I hack-sawed the firing pin off and put what was left on a grinding wheel to thin out one side. I then tapped them over what was left of a battery post and poured in solder. When it cooled, I peeled the shell off and had a good battery post.
I still remember the Captain of the Krishna seeing that, laughing and saying “Well, that’s one way to do it”.
On December 5, 1968 (my memory isn’t this good; I kept a log book). Former Vaudeville performer Georgie Jessel was in An Thoi for a USO show. I have believed for years you can never have too much chocolate or laughter, and Georgie provided plenty of the second.
The following day, P.C.F. 36 returned with heavy damage to the radar and electrical systems. For the Krishna electricians, it was all hands on deck. During the day typhoon warnings were issued. Life in Vietnam was never boring.
The Krishna had a ‘port and starboard’ duty rotation; every other day you would stand a 4 or 5-hour watch. On December 20, I had mid-watch, midnight to 4 AM on the bow, and had an M 16 and a box of concussion grenades. They were thrown into the water occasionally to keep Viet Cong from planting explosives on the ship. I threw what turned out to be a short fuse grenade and it was the loudest sound I had heard other than a Led Zeppelin concert. Days later, I almost didn’t hear Santa coming.
In 1971, the U.S. Navy donated two Swift Boats to the newly established government in the nation of Malta. They had used those Swift Boats for training at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California.
While operating in Malta they were a part of that country’s Maritime Squadron. For nearly 40 years, they functioned as coast guard vessels involved in rescue work of those fleeing North Africa and enforcing fishing rights. In 2010, they placed the Swift Boats into retirement and Vanessa Frazier, Malta’s Minister of Defense, donated one of them to the Maritime Museum of San Diego for $1.00 and no, that isn’t a typo.
They transferred the San Diego-bound Swift Boat to a container ship and arrived in Norfork, Virginia. They then placed it on a unique truck/trailer rig. At 14 feet wide, 16 feet high and 43,000 pounds, it required a highly skilled driver to bring her 2,600 miles back to San Diego for a warm ‘welcome home’ reception.
This article originally appeared on THE GIANT KILLER Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/smallestsoldier/
The GIANT KILLER book details the incredible life of the smallest soldier, Green Beret Captain Richard Flaherty along with the harrowing stories from the men of the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. The Giant Killer FB page honors these incredible war heroes, making sure their stories of valor and sacrifice are not forgotten. God Bless our Vets!
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You’re interesting article about Swift boat maintenance reminds me of the deep camaraderie between strangers thrown together randomly who managed to do their best under the worst of conditions all the while growing lifelong friendships. Veterans know that such relationships seldom exist outside of military deployments and so reliving them is always a plus. Especially enjoy the part about fixing the battery post with a 50 caliber cartridge shell. I start with construction engineers in the South Central Highlands and we were blessed with the kind of officers and ncos who allowed a bunch of kids to use their brains to get things done that could not be done quickly and effectively the army way but the kids figured out how to do it anyway. That can do attitude is part of what makes us a great country. Thanks for your post.
Great article about Swift boats, I worked at Nha Be in 68 ,a PBR Base.
Great Job Men! I also noticed the 3 USCG Cutters tied up to the RL 38. We often worked hand in hand with the Swift Boats.
I saw George Jessel at the NCO club at High Wycombe Air Station, UK, in 1968 or ’69, indeed, a funny man.
Very interesting read.. Being a USAF “Support” Troop, I can identify a lot of this. Keep them sailing, keep them flying. Do your best so they have the best to work with under fire. Give them the best chance to come back.
Liked the article. I was aboard the Krishna as an EM also. 70-71
I landed in Tokyo as a young US Army SP4 on my way to Vietnam. We were allowed to get off the plane and stretch our legs. In the airport I noticed many US Navy men dressed in khaki uniforms. They wore their unit patches in plastic protectors that hung from their pocket button. Most of them were from these patrol boat units and every single one of them had purple hearts, many with oak leaf clusters. I always thought that Navy troops had soft jobs compared to Army and Marine soldiers. Not after seeing that! Oct 68.
Thank you for proffering these informative articles
for us old Vietnam truckers to read .
We ran rivers of dirt and asphalt so I find some
kindred spirit with these “river rats “ !
These stories for us who did not serve, female, to have a better understanding what you endured. The not so bad times and the worst of times.
To have some idea of what you put up with, helps to understand why you had to do things you normally would not have.
A bit late WELCOME HOME.