The U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard in the Vietnam War
The United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard performed valiantly during the Vietnam War. Two million naval personnel served on land and water to defend South Vietnam from Communist North Vietnamese conquest. U.S. troops withdrew undefeated under the Paris Peace Accord in 1973. South Vietnam fought on for two more years, succumbing to North Vietnamese ``reunification'' and ``re-education'' in 1975.
More than 2,500 U.S. naval personnel were killed in Vietnam, and hundreds suffered as prisoners of war. The USN listed hundreds of flight crew members missing in action and presumed dead. United States Senators John McCain, John Kerrey and Robert Kerrey served with distinction in Vietnam, as did countless officers and enlisted men in the Army, the Navy (including the Marines and the Coast Guard) and the Air Force.
U.S. military personnel served in various advisory and combat capacites in Vietnam during the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, from World War II through 1975. The exploits of the U.S. Navy are highlighted in this column. USN commando teams consisted of Marines, UDT's (Underwater Demolition Teams), SEALS (sea, air and land forces), and the skilled Combat Battalions (CB's or ``Seabees'') who built infrastructure in dangerous situations, often in enemy territory, with resultant courage and casualties.
The USN supported the military units of all the armed forces, and served thoughout former French Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, North and South Vietnam) on land, river and sea. The USN had to master a variety of geographic environments, using helicopters, fighter aircraft, reconnaissance planes, patrol boats, cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers. The USCG manned destroyer sized WHEC (high endurance) cutters, and WPB river patrol boats.
USN and CG personnel mastered a variety of watercraft from which to engage in combat, search and rescue, contraband interdiction, and troop deployment missions.
When President Lyndon Johnson expanded the U.S. war effort beyond the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Vietnam after the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident(s), the first U.S. prisoner of war in a North Vietnam prison camp was downed naval aviator Lt. Everett Alvarez.
Coast Guard Commander Paul Yost distinguished himself in the delta and river regions of Vietnam, later to be promoted to Admiral and USCG Commandant.
At the end of U.S. military involvement in 1973, the USN assisted the North Vietnamese in deactivating the strategically placed mines in Haiphong Harbor, and assisted in the rescue of tens of thousands of refugees after the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam.
Interested readers may pursue the detailed history of the United States Navy, of which the Coast Guard is part in wartime, by consulting the splendid narrative and pictoral source ``By Sea and Land: A History of the U.S. Navy and the War In Southeast Asia'' (Naval Historical Center, Washington D.C., 1994, 416 pp., $53.00).
The author, Edward Marolda, is a military historian and director of the Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy. Marolda served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army officer in command of combat supply convoys.
The author dedicated his scholarly publication ``to the U.S. Navy veterans of the War in Southeast Asia'' who served and sacrificed in that noble mission.
Another good naval history is Barry Gregory's ``Vietnam: Coastal and Riverine Forces'' (Thorson's Publishing Group, Wellingborough, England, 1988, 135 pp.). Gregory traced USN and USCG military exploits and technology. The watercraft included patrol boats and seagoing craft which carried torpedo and grenade launchers, mortars, deck guns, machine guns, flame throwers and even high-powered water hoses used to flush out Viet Cong from riverbank emplacements.
Gregory quoted Gen. Westmoreland, the Commander of U.S. Forces in Viet Nam, who said this about the Mobile Riverine Force during the Tet offensive of 1968: ``The IMF saved the (Mekong) Delta (region).''
Military historian Marolda paid this tribute to Navy Seabees in Tet: ``The Navy's construction units prepared facilities and defenses for Army divisions, repaired a crucial bridge across the Perfume River to Hue, and helped reopen land communications to the beseiged Marine base at Khe Sanh,'' at significant cost in killed and wounded.
Another good reference is ``Riverine Force,'' by John Forbes and Robert Williams (Bantam Books, 1987, 158 pp.). The authors review watercraft and weaponry, adding to the arsenal air cushion (Hovercraft) vehicles capable of 60 knots. The authors chronicled dangerous patrol boat operations off the DMZ and throughout Indochina.
Forbes and Williams concluded that U.S. military personnel used ``an armada of boats and evolving strategies, and proved they could win.''@et