Early clandestine maritime operations, Vietnam, through August 1964
May 13, 2015
The previous section highlighted the precedents for covert Navy operations in China and pointed out some connections between China and Vietnam. This section will highlight US Navy covert maritime operations in Vietnam from 1954, when the Viet Minh defeated the French, through 1964, when President LBJ announced the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. So we will be looking at the period prior to the US officially going to war in Vietnam.
Brief Introduction --- the “lay of the land” changes markedly
Almost immediately following the conclusion of WWII, President Harry Truman reversed the widespread view among many in the US government that favored Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh and a free, united and independent Vietnam. Now, it was the USSR, the Cold War, and the American fear of communist expansionism that dominated US policies. President Truman knew Ho was a communist. Most saw the communists as monolithic, even though they were not, and the fear of communist expansion throughout Southeast Asia turned Truman against Ho Chi Minh. Truman was already under the gun, blamed for letting China go communist as Mao took control and Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists had to flee to Taiwan. The Soviet takeover of eastern Europe and the North Korean invasion of South Korea also happened on his watch. But perhaps more important was the strategic importance to the US of France. After all, France was in Europe and provided a strategic shield against communist expansion there. This is why Truman agreed that Indochina should be returned to France at Potsdam.
As a result, Truman decided he would help the French regain Indochina. France of course was in a war now, not with the Japanese, but against Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Truman authorized $15 million in military aid to the French in July 1950 and that aid would ramp up in terms of money, military hardware, and advisers.
In January 1953, former Army five star General Dwight D. Eisenhower became the US president. He would remain in office until 1961. Eisenhower saw the nuclear weapon as the main weapon against communist aggression in Europe. Elsewhere, he believed in using the CIA to carry out secret or covert actions against governments or leaders "directly or indirectly responsive to Soviet control.” He felt the CIA could be used to avoid taking responsibility for controversial interventions.
Eisenhower did provide considerable aid to the French for their war in Indochina. But he did not want to insert troops. By 1954 the US had inserted some US advisers and provided military hardware and supplies to the French in Vietnam. By that time 80 percent of all war supplies used by the French were provided by the US.
While he personally favored providing the French air attack support at Dien Bien Phu, Ike decided against doing that because he could not persuade allies such as the British to help. Once the French lost to the Viet Minh, Eisenhower’s approach was to prevent Ho Chi Minh from establishing a communist government throughout Vietnam. The French loss had clearly damaged US prestige in Asia. Therefore the National Security Council advocated a new initiative in Vietnam. One was creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) which would set a backdrop for US military responses to communist aggression there. Another was to strengthen South Vietnam’s military, and finally an effort to promote democracy.
The MAAGs’ influence, however, would increase as the French began to lose the war and the Americans took up greater responsibilities. It is noteworthy that the MAAG reported to the commander-in-chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) who in turn reported to the JCS.
In August 1950, eight officers and men arrived in Saigon to set up the Navy section of the MAAG. Its job was to administer military aid given to the French, which included quite a large number of ships and river craft.
The Miller Center of the University of Virginia said this:
“In 1954-1955, U.S. aid and support helped Ngo Dinh Diem (right) establish a non-Communist government in what became South Vietnam. Eisenhower considered the creation of South Vietnam a significant Cold War success.”
The man in the center of the photo is John Foster Dulles, Ike’s secretary of state. He advocated an aggressive posture against communism throughout the world.
Diem set up the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in 1956 and named himself president after a highly questionable election. The Geneva Accords of 1954 stipulated that Vietnam was to hold a nationwide election in 1956, in which Ho Chi Minh would have competed. Diem said South Vietnam did not sign the accords, and therefore the nationwide election planned for 1956 was null and void. He held an election in the South only, and of course Diem won. The US did not want the nationwide election to occur anyway. The US knew Ho Chi Minh would win and concluded the country would become communist. Instead the US supported Diem’s election and hoped the RVN would become a democracy standing tall against the communist regime in North Vietnam (NVN).
O’Daniel obtained French agreement for US forces to help train RVN forces, an action set in concrete by the end of 1954. The French had previously refused such help. In 1954 there were 342 Americans in the MAAG.
The French lost their war to the Viet Minh as the result of their loss at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Accords were issued on July 21, 1954. For Vietnam, it set a provisional military demarcation line approximately at the 17th Parallel, set a demilitarized zone (DMZ) about three miles wide on each side of the demarcation line, French Union forces were to regroup south of that line, the Viet Minh north of that line, and an International Control Commission (ICC) would monitor the ceasefire. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), hereinafter referred to as NVN, France, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the USSR and Britain signed. The State of Vietnam in Saigon rejected it, and the US simply took note of it. The US did promise not to disturb the accords by threats or use of force.
The US unilaterally declared it would “seek to achieve unity (of the two Vietnams) through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly." The US reneged on that.
On October 9, 1954 the French lowered their flag in Hanoi and left for Haiphong’s port of embarkation. On May 20, 1955 French Union forces withdrew from Saigon and on April 28, 1956 the last French forces left Vietnam.
The Viet Minh never left the South. The NVN began a major military buildup of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA of the North, also known as the North Vietnamese Army - NVA). The US provided advisers to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), which replaced the Vietnamese National Army.
The Geneva Accords were not well written and, frankly, did not hold much water.
As a result of the Geneva Accords of 1954, the RVN’s military became an independent force and the US had authority to help the RVN organize and train its military forces.
As a result of my report in the previous section, you are aware that US military forces were preparing covert operations in Vietnam, for my purposes in NVN, even before the French had to give up their Indochina colonies. During WWII, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to CIA, worked with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh insurgents against the Japanese occupation. But after the French fell in 1954, the US switched gears and worked against Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh because they were Communists. The US and France had worked with Vietnamese commandos to conduct raids against the Japanese. That set the stage for the US to continue commando raids, but following the Geneva Accord of 1954, the raids were targeted against North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh.
The French experience in riverine operations
Our focus in this report is covert maritime operations, so I will briefly address the French experience in riverine operations. These were not covert but are instructive.
Prior to WWII and back into the 19th century, the French used the Mekong River to conquer Indochina and move supplies and product. Following WWII, the French regained control of Indochina, and they employed their conventional forces to improvise a riverine force to fight against the Viet Minh. This was crucial, as Vietnam in those days had very few roads and much of the country consisted of complex river networks. The French tried to operate with paratroopers, but that was insufficient.
The French employed locally made craft including junks, and vessels left by the Japanese, and added some armor and armament. The British provided them some LCIs (landing craft, infantry), some LCAs (landing craft, assault) and LCTs (landing craft, tank). There is an excellent and descriptive web page showing each vessel type the French employed. You will see the French over time operated a large variety of riverine vessels in Indochina (Vietnam and Cambodia) including ones provided by the US.
With this inventory, the French Army formed river several flotillas to transport supplies and troops and conduct river patrols, known as Dinassauts. Initially, they provided transport with fire support escorts. Each flotilla had from 12-18 craft. Each flotilla could transport and land a force of about battalion size with equipment. Flotillas could also patrol and provide raiding support to main operating forces ashore. As the Viet Minh gained strength, the French organized river task forces of several flotillas reinforced by additional troop transports. The French Navy operated the craft and supported Army operations. The French Army involved its Transportation, Engineer and Armor Corps to work with the Navy.
The Transportation Corps was the most experienced in river operations. It set up a supply system and borrowed amphibious trucks from the Philippines and the US. These were largely ineffective. That persuaded the French to move to vessels suitable for operating in the river systems.
The Engineer Corps formed ferry companies using pontoon barges, and also used armored craft to move large pieces of equipment. Its forces also built and maintained river harbors and support facilities.
The Armored Corps had the most to learn. It employed reconnaissance units, amphibious tracked vehicles and its men helped the Navy operate the gun turrets.
The army complained more craft were needed while the navy complained it had no organic forces to defend its bases. The navy craft moved along the river in formations depending on the mission, and developed tactics for providing fire support and landing troops.
Viet Minh forces experienced successes attacking vessels at anchor and less success while the craft were afloat and moving. The Viet Minh used a variety of techniques to defend against these craft including swimmers, drifting mines, artillery and mortar fire, the latter two being the most effective.
The French rarely employed the craft for coastal operations largely because of the manner in which the river craft were modified. The French deployed their flotillas in Tonkin (north) and Cochinchina (south).
Most of the fighting during the French post WWII experience occurred in Tonkin which had a delta region formed by the Red (Song Hong), Black (Song Da) and Song Lo or Lo (Clear) Rivers. The Red River Delta, a flat, triangular region of 3,000 square kilometers, is smaller than the Mekong Delta but intensely developed and densely populated. Most traffic in Tonkin was by waterway, by French estimates 90 percent. The Northern Group, Force Amphibie du Nord, was based at Haiphong, led by the 1st Amphibious Flotilla, 1re Flottille Amphibie.
The Mekong Delta region in Cochinchina was formed by the Mekong, Bassac, Dong Nai, the Saigon and Vain Co Rivers. This satellite photo shows the four mouths (one of which is the Bassac River) of the Delta. It is Vietnam’s “rice basket.” It yields enough rice to feed the entire country with a surplus. It comprises two-thirds of the RVN’s arable land. It is the most densely populated area of the country. US Army intelligence estimated population density in the Delta at about 200 people per square kilometer. I will warn you that naming rivers in this region is an almost impossible job --- I have found multiple names for all these. I’ve selected these names because I think American forces referred to them using these names.
The French Navy’s Southern Group, Force Amphibie du Sud, led by the 2nd Amphibious Flotilla, 2e Flotilla Amphibie, was based at Phu My, on the Mekong Delta southeast of Saigon and close to Vung Tau.
All this said, let’s get down to business, again trying to do it in chronological order.
By September 1950, CMAG trained Vietnamese forces launched a China-Vietnam border campaign that completely overwhelmed the French forces there. Chinese logistical support increased from 10-20 tons per month in 1951 to 250 tons per month. The Chinese also made vast improvements to Vietnam’s transportation systems. General Phillip Davidson, the G2 (intelligence) for the US commander of Vietnam, General Westmoreland, “With a friendly China located adjacent to North Vietnam, there would have been little chance for a Vietnamese victory against the French, and later against the Americans and South Vietnamese.” Bob Seals, a retired Army special forces officer, has written, “ It is rather ironic that most professional historians tend to downplay or ignore China’s decisive role in North Vietnam’s victory while the military and intelligence communities, U.S. at least, are much more willing to acknowledge this fact.”
CIA estimated there were some 15,000 Chinese communist forces in Vietnam.
The CMAG’s operations to expand the capabilities of the Vietnamese forces fighting the French had ben very successful. With the Korean War over in 1953, China devoted even greater attention to Vietnam’s war against the French. In the hallmark Battle of Dien Bien Phu, China is estimated to have 8,286 tons of supplies, including 4,620 tons of petroleum, 1,360 tons of ammunition, 46 tons of weapons and 1,700 tons of rice from supply depots 600 miles away. In addition, significant numbers of Chinese advisers were involved at all levels of the battle. I will note simply note from this point on that the NVN continued to receive massive Chinese support through the end of the war with the US.
The year 1954, the time of French capitulation at Dien Bien Phu and the signing by some of the Geneva Accords, was a busy time for the US in Vietnam. The US had turned squarely against the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh and intended to preserve southern Vietnam as a non-communist state, out of Viet Minh control. I will also say that the CIA had been active in Vietnam now for four years. At first, the CIA tried to strengthen the French capacity to conduct covert actions against the Viet Minh. That did not work, so the CIA switched to covert operations itself.
I must acknowledge that Lansdale wrote a team report on his covert Saigon mission in 1954 and 1955 which was published as a result of the Pentagon Papers. I will draw heavily from it as it is one of very few sources for what I am about to describe.
He was given a cover as assistant Air Attaché in the embassy. He was beholding to both the US ambassador and to General O’Daniel, the CIA and Secretary Dulles. Interestingly, the CIA already had another operation in Saigon, a regular CIA station, Emmett McCarthy, responsible for conventional intelligence and spying. McCarthy saw Lansdale as an amateur and insisted all communications to Washington go through him. Lansdale did not like McCarthy either. That was a problem for Lansdale since he lacked independent communications. Mixed in here is the fact that Secretary Dulles viewed Lansdale as his personal covert action envoy to Vietnam. Much like was the case in WWII, the US already had multiple intelligence action voices in Saigon.
On March 15, 1954 President Eisenhower approved National Security Council (NSC) 5412, the “National Security Council Directive on Covert Operations.” It assigned responsibility for covert actions abroad to the CIA though there would be a follow-on group of decisions made to assure oversight and coordination.
NSC 5412 defined covert operations as follows:
“...all activities conducted pursuant to this directive which are so planned and executed that any U.S. Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the U.S. Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them. Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to: propaganda, political action; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition; escape and evasion and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states or groups including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups; support of indigenous and anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world; deceptive plans and operations; and all activities compatible with this directive necessary to accomplish the foregoing. Such operations shall not include: armed conflict by recognized military forces, espionage and counterespionage, nor cover and deception for military operations."
“You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly."
He said this would result in the demise of all Southeast Asia, with the "loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following."
However, when confronted with committing US forces in the RVN when the French were about to fall, Ike said, “I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions." He refused to provide air support to the French at Dien Bien Phu, the French fell, and the Geneva Accords were signed. Nonetheless, Eisenhower supported the anti-Communist government in the RVN and remained committed to RVN President Ngo Dinh Diem, even though most in the administration knew Diem was not the right man.
In August 1954, due to US personnel ceiling issues associated with the Geneva Accords, General O’Daniel arranged for the SMM to grow to 12. Ten officers stationed in Korea, Japan, and Okinawa were hurriedly sent to Vietnam. Also in August, Lansdale’s team arrived.
SMM organized a “northern SMM” group which in turn organized paramilitary groups. Conein led northern SMM. In a paper dealing with the OSS written by John Simkin, he said this about Conein’s psychological warfare operation:
“The plan was to mount a propaganda campaign to persuade the Vietnamese people in the south not to vote for the Communists in the forthcoming elections. In the months that followed they distributed targeted documents that claimed the Vietminh had entered South Vietnam and were killing innocent civilians. The Ho Chi Minh government was also accused of slaying thousands of political opponents in North Vietnam.”
Please recall it is 1954, and the Geneva Accords stipulated nationwide elections would be held in all Vietnam in 1956, so at this point the US was worried about those elections.
I’ll return to Conein in a moment.
This is a photo of Sailors aboard the USS Menard (APA-201) taken from the cover of a book entitled, Operation Passage to Freedom, by Ronald B. Francium, Jr. The Menard was an attack transport and the first ship to be used by Sabin in Operation Passage to Freedom. Initially, the Navy did not know what to expect, so the skipper of the Menard expected the worst. Very few US ships had ever called in Indochinese waters. This crew had never been to Haiphong, they did not know how they would get all the Vietnamese aboard, they were not sure whom to contact, the French, the embassy, the NVN, or the Catholic Church (many refugees were Catholic), etc.
Here are a few more photos.
This photo shows an American passenger ship uploading evacuees.
This photo shows the British HMS Warrior taking on evacuees.
This photo shows Vietnamese refugees moving from a French landing ship to the USS Montague during Operation Passage to Freedom in August 1954.
It should be noted that the CIA’s Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew refugees from Hanoi to Saigon as well, according to the CIA, flying some 19,808 men, women and children out of North Vietnam in what was known as “Operation Cognac.” The photo shows refugees waiting to board a CAT C-46 aircraft in Hanoi.
CAT had a fleet of C-46 and C-47 aircraft lined up at Haiphong, as shown in this photo.
CAT also flew out several thousand Chinese Nationalists, flying them from Hanoi to Haiphong for later sea transport out.
Among other things, this US endeavor supported the position among many senior officials that the US had a moral responsibility toward the RVN.
You will recall I said eight officers and men came to Saigon in August 1950 to set up the Navy Section of the MAAG. By 1954 the population of navy personnel in Saigon grew to handle the large flow of refugees from the North. There were well over 100 Navy and Merchant Marine ships involved in Operation Passage to Freedom. Furthermore, as reported earlier, the MAAG’s mission expanded to include training the South Vietnamese. The Navy Section had to handle that as well.
Operation Passage to Freedom provided a perfect window for covert maritime operations in the NVN. So, we return to Major Conein. His northern SMM group had people based in Hanoi to supervise the refugee flow for the Hanoi airlift organized by the French. He also had a branch in Haiphong.
Conein’s activities were not confined just to psychological warfare. His overall effort was meant to stop reunification of Vietnam. So he also led sabotage, paramilitary operations, and agent placement in the NVN. The Northern Group was to get in place in Hanoi before the Viet Minh officially took over. The team said it was there to work the refugee issues, such as Operation Passage to Freedom. But he organized a second team to explore the possibilities of arranging resistance against the Viet Minh from within the NVN. This team consisted of Lt. Colonel Raymond Wittmayer, USA, Major Fred Allen, USA, and Lt. Edward Williams, USA.
Lt. Edward Bain, USN and Capt. Richard Smith, USMC were also assigned as a support group to the SMM. They arranged clandestine air, maritime, and land supply of paramilitary materiel.
Conein used the CIA’s airline, the CAT and navy assets. CAT, on return flights from Saigon to Hanoi, would smuggle SMM agents and weapons into the north, later said to exceed eight tons worth. Conein employed air drops, over-the-beach insertions, and shipped supplies to be smuggled into the NVN and hidden. It is important to remember that all this was done under CIA direction.
Edward Lansdale has written that Admiral Sabin was also in charge of a clandestine Navy organization known as Task Force 98 (TF 98), later changed to 98.7. Recall Task Force 90 was for Operation Passage to Freedom. But Task Force 98, among other things, provided supply ships to support CIA covert operations in NVN, to wit, Major Conein and his northern SMM group. Employing TF 98’s ships, Conein was able to smuggle large amounts of weapons, ammunition, explosives, and communications equipment into the NVN before the northern SMM people had to leave Hanoi as required by the Geneva Accord.
TF 98 also transported anticommunist Vietnamese, many said to have been trained in Saipan, to NVN to set up a northern guerrilla network. Lansdale used Saipan as a training center for Vietnamese commandos.
TF 98 further provided clandestine transportation for Vietnamese trainees to a “secret training site,” which one author suggests was at the US Army’s Camp Chinen which was said to be a paramilitary support asset.
Video grab from “Okinawa - Chinen Base Housing ghost-town”, taken after CIA left
This contention appears to be validated by “The Pentagon Papers,” which contained among other things a 1961 memo from Lansdale to General Maxwell Baylor. It said this:
“Okinawa Station is in itself a paramilitary support asset and, in critical situations calling for extensive support of Unconventional Warfare (UW) activity in the Far East, could be devoted in its entirety to this mission. Located at Camp Chinen, it comprises a self-contained base under Army cover with facilities of all types necessary to the storage, testing, packaging, procurement and delivery of supplies-ranging from weapons and explosives to medical and clothing. Because of it being a controlled area, it can accommodate admirably the holding of black bodies in singletons or small groups, as well as small groups of trainees ..."
The Okinawa Times also talked about Camp Chinen in an article of September 28, 1971. It said this:
“Camp Chinen’s Composite Service Group (CSG) in Tamagusuku-son is the Okinawa branch of the CIA ... According
to the secret Pentagon papers, after President Kennedy issued concrete orders for secret operations in Vietnam in
1961, Brig Gen Edward K. Lansdale, a guerrilla warfare expert in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted a memorandum to Gen Maxwell D. Taylor, military advisor to President Kennedy, concerning ‘the resources for unconventional warfare in Southeast Asia.’ In this memorandum Camp Chinen is clearly listed as CIA's Okinawa branch. The paper also says that the camp with its facilities looks like a self-sustaining base under army protection, that it has all kinds of facilities necessary to store, test, pack, procure, and supply all materials from munitions and explosives to medical supplies and clothing, and that it is best suited to shelter secret agents ... However, what the camp really is has been unknown, and rumor has it that it is a ‘spy school’ or an ‘intelligence organization’ ... According to villagers, there are natural caves in several places inside the compound, and the camp is really best suited to shelter agents, as pointed out by the secret Pentagon paper. In addition, CSG has its own ammunition storage in Chibana depot and it has its own facilities inside Chibana depot under CIA's code name of ‘CAS.’”
The Okinawa Times also said:
“Two of the buildings inside the camp were enclosed by double barbed-wire fences and looked like a school.
What appeared to be a teacher who was dressed in civvies carried a revolver on his hip..."
I'd like to stick with Camp Chinen for a moment. A reader who lived there and is very familiar with it sent me some good, quite credible information about the camp, including the aerial photo above, which shows Camp Chinen in the lower left:
"Camp Chinen was operational from 1950 through July 1972. In addition to its Technical Service Division (TSD now OTS), Camp Chinen housed a logistical unit in a series of nine warehouses. These supplied all sorts of equipment--from weapons to clothing--for Agency (CIA) operations throughout SE Asia. Among these were a variety of boats used in maritime operations in Vietnam. Among the most popular was the 16 ft. Boston Whaler, painted grey, and equipped with 40 hp Johnson engines that had been 'suppressed' by a technician at Chinen. The base had long-term contracts with CAT and Air America for transporting equipment from Naha to Saigon, Bangkok, or anywhere else. Some items also went by ship.
"Regarding the now-public descriptions of Camp Chinen which you cite--Chinen was a technical and logistical support base, and was not used for training commandoes. (By the way, Saipan closed in 1962.) Nor were prisoners held there. Additionally, no one walked around armed, except the base guards, who were all Okinawans. The base was nominally under US Army cover, but that was a rather thin veneer as no evidence of the 'Army' was visible inside or outside the base. It was purely CIA, and it's main disguise was its very innocuousness. Officially, it was known as the US Army First Composite Unit (FCU) from 1951-1957. From 1957 through 1972, it was the US Army Composite Service Group (CSG or sometimes USACSG). The CIA left the base in the summer of 1972 (after Okinawa's reversion in May) and it was then occupied by the US 1st Special Forces Airborne until late 1974. They used it for training and for language study. They also continued the air-supply responsibilities for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that the Agency had been operating while they were on the base. Today,the entire site has been transformed into the Ryukyu Golf Club, and, as of 2014, no evidence of Camp Chinen remains."
He later added this:
"I should probably add one caveat: to my knowledge no prisoners were ever brought to Chinen. I know Lansdale refers to "black bodies"--which some have interpreted as 'prisoners,' but that wasn't necessarily the case. 'Black bodies' can be agents brought in 'black'—i.e., without any knowledge of where they are. Indeed, 'going in black' was a common expression meaning 'without official permission or documentation.' Again, I can't say with absolute certainty that the Agency never brought a prisoner of some sort to the base, but it is highly unlikely. Chinen just wasn't set up for that sort of thing, and interrogations/polygraphs were generally conducted in the country of operation. We did have three safe-houses on the base, but they were used mainly for visitors (sometimes foreign) who were brought in for some specialized technical training. I know of one instance when a PRC boat went aground on Okinawa after a storm. A few people from Chinen went down to interview the men, but that was done at Kadena, not at Chinen. It turns out they were just poor fishermen, so they were given food, clothing, and medical care, then sent back to PRC at USG expense. "
Changing the subject just a bit, the Dai Viet was nationalist, anti-communist political party and militant organization active in Vietnam. Conein worked through the Northern Dai Viets loyal to former emperor Bao Dai. Conein’s intent was to get enough of them trained to be ready to kick into action when the time was right. Lansdale used the term “Binh” to cover the Dai Viet aspect and to protect those the US would train and equip.
A Lt. Andrews of the SMM exfiltrated 13 Binhs through Haiphong port to be taken out of the North by one of Admiral Sabin’s Task Force 98 ships to a training area. I believe the main training area was at the Freedom Company facilities at Camp Baston, near Clark AFB, the Philippines, which I will mention in a moment.
On October 9, 1954, the northern SMM team left Hanoi with the last French troops. The team spent the last few days contaminating the oil supply for the bus company, and did some work preparing for a team from Japan to finish off sabotaging a railroad.
In November 1954, Major Lansdale and a group of Filipino advisers created the Freedom Company of the Philippines, funded by CIA. The company, among other things, would provide experienced Filipinos who had been fighting the communists in the Philippines to fight the Viet Minh in both the NVN and RVN.
On November 23, 1954, the SMM put 21 selected Vietnamese agents and two cooks on a navy ship in the Saigon River. They disguised themselves as coolies and joined the coolies and refugees going on and off the ship, and then disappeared cleverly one by one into Saigon. They were then picked up from inconspicuous assembly points and moved to a ship for transfer to their training area, again I believe in the Philippines.
In January 1955, the SMM continued using the flow of refugees to move equipment and arms to be stored in the north in areas free from the Viet Minh, for later use by the Binh paramilitary team. The USAF’s 581st Air Resupply Squadron (ARS) supported moving shipments to Saigon for a second Vietnamese paramilitary group Lansdale called the Hao group.The 581st among other aircraft used B-29As stripped of armament to do the transporting. The photo is of one of the B-29As assigned to the 581st ARS. Its underside was painted black for night operations. CIA and USAF people in Okinawa and the Philippines helped. The mission of the 581st ARS was the infiltration, resupply, and exfiltration of guerrilla-type personnel, and the aerial delivery of psychological warfare materiel (leaflets and other similar materials). I believe they flew mostly to of Clark AB, Philippines.
In early January 1955 the CIA’s CAT C-46s flew supplies, arms and equipment to Haiphong, where they were hidden inside building foundations or buried in cemeteries during phony funeral ceremonies.
By January 31, 1955 all operational equipment for the Binh paramilitary group had been shipped to Haiphong by the CIA’s CAT, once again cached at secret locations in the north. The Viet Minh tightened security at the Haiphong Airport so a decision was made to move the equipment for the Hao by sea. USN Task Force 98, by now called 98.7, Captain Frank, USN in command, helped.
By the time this was done, I believe in February 1955, the SMM had smuggled 8.5 tons of supplies for the Hao, including fourteen agent radios, 300 carbines, 90,000 rounds of carbine ammunition, 50 pistols, 10,000 rounds of pistol ammunition, and 300 pounds of explosives. Two and a half tons were delivered to the Hao agents in Tonkin, while the remainder was cached along the Red River by SMM, with the help of the USN.
Major Conein began a 30-day effort, I believe in February 1955, to infiltrate the Binh paramilitary group into the north, almost one by one. The Binh worked to become normal citizens, getting jobs etc.
It is arguable whether inserting agents did much good. Many, perhaps most of the commandos were killed or captured, or turned by the communists to provide deceptive information. It took some time for the Pentagon and the CIA to recognize they were being deceived by these agents. Arguably the greatest downside was the effort failed to leave an in-place network that would last long term. One problem was that there was really little appetite in the NVN to fight against the communists; there was not much of a resistance effort there, so the CIA found it especially hard to infiltrate. Furthermore, the communists were in charge and exercised strict control.
There are experts who believe, however, that the overall Lansdale-Conein effort did convince a large number of Vietnamese to leave the NVN. Furthermore, my research will also show that these insertion operations had great intelligence value, especially later downstream.
During much of 1955, the US and French sparred over who should train the Vietnamese military. On March 4, 1955, General J. Lawton Collins, Ike’s special representative in Vietnam, told US News and World Report Magazine that the US would not attempt to build an air force in Vietnam, and there would only be a small effort by the Navy to help the Vietnamese with coastal security.
The US devoted most of its energy to supporting the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. National elections called by the Geneva Convention of 1954, scheduled for 1956, that were to unite the two Vietnams were not held, partly because Diem did not want them, partly because the US did not want them. It was almost a sure bet that Ho Chi Minh would win and that communism would prevail. Eisenhower knew this, saying:
”I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader.”
With the elections canceled, the US military could foresee big problems ahead emanating from the NVN. As a result, General William’s job now became far more burdensome on his group of 342 people who were originally tasked primarily with handling logistics for the RVN. His main task now was to build a competent South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. This meant training on a massive scale. He pleaded over and over for more people, but Washington was skittish about being called on the international carpet for violating the Geneva Accords.
So, as a “work-around,” the US established a Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission (TERM) on June 1, 1956 with the strength set at 350 men. Its job ostensibly was to handle excess US military equipment, and it would be allowed to train the South Vietnamese in logistics, but was not to get involved with training combat forces. The TERM was subordinate to General Williams, but was not part of the MAAG, again to avoid the manning ceilings. As the TERM became more effective, Williams was able to divert his MAAG people to his newly added ARVN training mission.
I need to explain a bit about the PLO. The PLO was divided into three sections:
- Northern Operations Service: covert operations outside the RVN, including the NVN, Laos, Cambodia
- SouthernOperations Service: guerrilla operations within the RVN.
- First Observation Group: prepare for underground operations should the communists take over
The PLO began infiltrating the NVN by sea very early on, in 1956. The PLO used wooden junks to send personnel and supplies to those already place in the NVN. The junks could mix well in with the fishermen. Most incursions were short, lasting only a few days.
On April 28, 1956, the French High Command in Vietnam terminated and the US took over full responsibility for all training for the ARVN. The French did insist on training the RVN’s air force and navy as an associate of the US through June 1957.
It was obvious the MAAG needed help on the training mission. The Army established the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment (SFOD) in April 1956 with most of its men drawn from the 77th SFG. I understand it had about 16 men. Its cover was the 8251st Army Service Unit, and later placed under the 1st SFG.
Colonel Edward Lansdale departed Vietnam in December 1956. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations, Staff Member of the President's Committee on Military Assistance, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, and rose to the rank of major general.
Of course, this was a formality as the NVN already had been building an insurgency force with its Viet Minh force. The Viet Minh were to remain in the North. But by 1960 US intelligence estimated there to be from 3,000 - 5,000 communist insurgents in the RVN, mostly infiltrated from the NVN, some by sea. This force clearly set out to implement the new strategy. The US and RVN were unprepared to counter this.
In June 1957, the 1st SFG was activated in Okinawa. The 14th SFOD was subordinated to the newly formed 1st SFG. The 14th set up shop in Thailand in September 1956 and conducted airborne, jump master and Ranger training for the Royal Thai Ranger Battalion.
The MAAG J3 (operations) had a group named the Combined Studies Division, which some reports say was a State Department effort located “in the basement” of he MAAG. It is my understanding that at least early on most or all Army Special Forces units were responsible to the Combined Studies Division of the MAAG J3.
The US military first entered the Delta in 1957, replacing French advisers. The RVN’s Navy (VNN) employed six river assault groups there.
Given the final termination of French training for RVN air force and naval forces in June 1957, both the USAF and USN began to significantly increase heir presence. The Navy rotated ships through Vietnamese ports and helped train the VNN in coastal surveillance.
The 14th SFOD concentrated its efforts in the RVN’s Central Highlands and Mekong Delta, where the government had virtually no presence and no control. In the Central Highlands, the SF Soldiers worked very closely with the indigenous group living there, the Montagnard, who proved to be a valiant and loyal partner. This photo shows a US Army Special Forces Soldier training Montagnard; note that it is actually a combat mission where the trainer has to go out with those he trains to watch them, advise them, and help them. That concept continues to this day.
In February 1959, General Heintges completed his review of the PEO in Laos. He recommended a new military assistance plan. He also replaced General Brown. Heintges’ plan allowed a greatly expanded US role in Laotian military training. The French were still doing the training, but now US “civilians” would deploy to four Laotian military regions and work as deputies to the French supervisors. By the end of 1959, the PEO had an authorized strength of 175, plus 190 contract personal, and 149 temporary duty (TDY) Special Forces for a total authorized strength of 514. The 7th SFG would send the special forces.
I do not intend to get into Laos unless I have to during this report. I will simply say that in these early years, much of the American unconventional activity in Southeast Asia was in Laos rather than in Vietnam. Much of the training of Laotian forces occurred in Thailand and the Philippines. Laos was really the first theater of operations for US Special Forces, mostly Army. To many, Laos served as a laboratory for unconventional warfare. Frankly, at this point Laos remained a higher priority in the US than Vietnam.
In May 1959, The NVN committed itself to an armed overthrow of the RVN. It created the 559th Transportation Group (created on 5/59) to operate a land route to the RVN from the North through Laos, which came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The 559th was tasked to move men, weapons and supplies by this route. It began operations immediately. Major Vo Bam was in charge. He used ancient footpaths that connected the NVN and RVN through Laos and constructed major stages areas, depots, and command posts. The mission for the NVN was so secret no records were kept. The 559th Engineer Brigade did the work --- it’s motto was “Blood may flow but the road will not stop.” The photo is a Viet Cong photo circa 1959 of Vietnamese and Laotians building the trail.
In July 1959, the NVN created Group 759 to ship weapons and ammunition from the NVN to the RVN by sea, in steel-hulled trawlers. It was based at the coastal region of Do Son-Haiphong. While this was important, the Ho Chi Minh Trail had the highest priority. The US could prove the NVN was moving troops and supplies on the trail in violation of the Geneva Accords. It took until 1965 for the US to prove the NVN was moving troops and supplies to the RVN by sea. I do not know what the criteria was to “prove.” There was plenty of evidence of such movements by sea but for technical reasons, I guess, the “proof” did not come until 1965. This photo shows a NVN steel hulled trawler caught by a USN patrol squadron in 1967.
In August 1959, the NVN’s 559th Transportation Group completed its first deliveries on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this delivery consisting of rifles and ammunitions to the Viet Cong in Thua Thien Hue, in Quang Tri Province, close to Hue and northwest of Danang, just below the DMZ. Of course, the trail would expand over time.
In late 1959, many eyes in Washington continued to focus on Laos, which had been in various stages of instability since 1954. Ho Chi Minh’s insurgency efforts were also focused on Laos. The communist Pathet Lao (similar in concept to the Viet Minh) launched a major offensive against the Laotian government and it appeared a major civil war was underway. A group of Pathet Lao is shown here. I find this photo interesting. It is very well staged and the photo is very well done. I do not know who took it. The Pathet Lao were not known for being so sophisticated!
While the NVN supported this Pathet Lao effort, the top NVN priority in Laos was on the trail, building it, improving it, expanding it, and moving more and more troops and supplies over it
US planners saw Laos as a forward defense line for the RVN and Thailand. The US took all kinds of actions in Laos to beef up the Royal Lao Amed Forces, the Force Armée Royale, known as the “FAR.”
OPLAN 32-59 had separate sections for each country, 32(L)-59 for Laos. During 1959, CINCPAC’s Pacific Command (PACOM) anticipated that unilateral US military intervention in Laos might be required in response to the communist insurgency. Because of this, Felt issued the Laos section in June 1959, prior to the entire plan being published. The Laos plan envisioned formation of Joint Task Force 116 (JTF 116) employing three Marine battalions from Okinawa, air attacks from 7th Fleet carriers in the South China Sea, and two Army battle groups airlifted from Hawaii to replace the Marines once initial objectives had been secured. There was quite a bit of arguing about force composition and leadership, and involvement of strategic bombers, nuclear or non-nuclear. The plan was not executed.
All that said about Laos, in September 1959 sizable enemy units began attacking RVN government troops and installations. As a mentioned earlier, intelligence estimates now assessed there to be from 3,000 to 5,000 enemy insurgents in the RVN. Many infiltrated by land, some from sea. Several analyses now began that reassessed the threat situation in Southeast Asia.
While the Navy had landing craft of various types, what was needed were small patrol boats, motor torpedo boats, motor gunboats, and fast patrol boats. The planners wanted small, fast, shallow-draft boats armed with light weapons, displacing no more than eighty tons and capable of a top speed of 25 knots.
Senior naval officers in the Pacific and planners in Washington pursued development and procurement of such a capability but lost out in the budget to carriers, destroyers, submarines and amphibious vessels. The “Navy-Navy” as I call it had also significantly lowered the priority for unconventional warfare training. Many senior naval officers did not even want to help the Army’s special forces group conduct training that required ships.
On March 14, 1960 Admiral Felt proposed the development of an anti-guerrilla capability within the RVN’s armed forces to fight against the enemy’s guerrilla tactics and subversion of the population.
In April 1960 Felt received JCS suggestions on how to deal with the growing insurgent threat in the RVN. Among other things, the JCS requested US Army Special Forces teams be assigned to the RVN to train Vietnamese ranger cadres.
Admiral Felt forwarded a document, “Counter-Insurgency Operations in South Vietnam and Laos,” to the JCS for approval. This study highlighted these requirements:
- Primary objective was to secure the local populace on a continuing basis, which means securing and holding the many villages and hamlets.
- It is essential for the RVN government to win the allegiance of the affected people by improving their economic, political, and social welfare.
- A centrally controlled and thoroughly planned campaign involving a plethora of organizations is needed, to include coastal and river patrols and a civilian-manned coastal-watcher system to impede infiltration.
- The US is going to have to spend money on this, regardless of where this sits on the priority budget list or all-out war is inevitable.
No action was taken on Felt’s plan during Eisenhower’s administration, which ended in 1961.
General Williams achieved part of his goal to build up the MAAG head-count in 1960 when he was allowed to integrate the TERM into the MAAG in May 1960. Addition of the training mission and the buildup of MAAG are important to what happened in 1962, the creation of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), a sub-unified military combatant command. A lot of this “number crunching” was based on interpretations of what was allowed and not allowed by the Geneva Accords of 1954, even though neither the US or the RVN signed them. But let’s not get ahead of our chronology.
While the US military intervention in Laos planned in OPLAN32(L)-59 was not executed, Admiral Felt continued to look for ways to beef up the Laotian armed forces. He specifically focused on improving the Laotian river flotilla, which was small and motley. He therefore recommended the US provide 10 landing craft vehicle and personnel (LCVP), assemble the LCVPs near Saigon, and transport them up the Mekong River to Laos.
As a result, Commander Clarence W. Westergaard, USN, Naval Beach Group 1, was designated as the commander of the Mekong transit force, joined by Lt. David Del Giudice and ten of his men from Underwater Demolition Team 12 (UDT-12), Mike Detachment out of Yokosuka, Japan. These 12 men were joined by five Navy personnel from the ship’s crew of the USS Okanogan (APA-220). Their group was referred to as the Mekong Boat Flotilla and was under the operational control of the Chief, MAAG Vietnam.
They were underway on June 14, 1960 from Saigon using five fifty-foot landing craft mechanized (LCM), such as shown here. They were escorted by the Tarn Xet (HQ-331) a landing ship, infantry, large (LSIL) from the VNN.
Each LCM carried one smaller Landing craft vehicle and personnel (LCVP) on their decks. This photo shows a LCVP in WWII. They arrived in Phnom Penh on June 16.
The flotilla encountered all kinds of delays but resumed its passage on June 30, guided by Capitaine de Corvette Serge Dupuis, a French officer and experienced pilot of the Mekong. The flotilla encountered problems with the swift rapids and submerged obstacles but crossed the Laotian border on July 4, 1960. They turned over the boats to the Laotians at Voun Khom, Laos, which I believe today is known as Don Khon, an island right at the border with Cambodia, shown by the red dot and red arrow. They then boarded an aircraft at Pakse, Laos, a bit to the north, and returned to Saigon.
CINCPAC, the 7th Fleet and various Army and Marine units prepared and came close numerous times to executing a military intervention in Laos between 1960 and 1962. It is most eye-opening to learn of the planning but I cannot cover it here. I wanted to highlight the Mekong River Flotilla’s delivery of ships to the Laotians because Lt. Giudice of UDT-12 was a member. His name will pop up later as the first commander of the newly formed SEAL Team One which did go to Vietnam early on. I am not sure whether this mission was covert or not. My gut says it was given that the US was not allowed to provide any military supplies to Laos, although it did by the bag full.
You will recall CINCPAC Operation Plan 32-59 of December 1959, the first comprehensive plan for defense of Southeast Asia. I noted again that the greatest threat at the time this was being written was seen as Laos. That quickly changed in 1960. Attention now moved over to the RVN. That was because by 1960 it was clear the NVN was implementing a new insurgency strategy. The US and RVN were unprepared to counter this.
By 1960, the US moved away from preparing the ARVN for conventional warfare and increased emphasis on counterinsurgency techniques. The CIA led the charge, which is consistent with what I reported earlier about Lansdale and Conein.
In August 1960, perhaps earlier I am not sure, the CIA began sending South Vietnamese to Taiwan for UDT, counterinsurgency and covert maritime operations training. One officer and seven men completed the course.
Some time during 1960, the CIA initiated “Project Tiger.” The CIA station chief in Saigon ran it. The CIA employed safe houses in Saigon, Vung Tau and Danang to train RVN commandos. USN weapons and ship experts supported the project, constructing boats configured to look like Chinese junks but specially configured to carry commandos and supplies.
On December 20, 1960 the Vietnamese political organization known as the National Front for the Liberation of the South (NLF), Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam in Vietnamese. Its mission was to overthrow the RVN government and reunify the NVN and RVN. In December 1960 the NVN established an insurgency known as the Việt Cộng , the “VC.” It became the military arm for the NLF in the RVN. I will say the term Viet Cong showed up in Saigon press reports as early as 1957, cong san Viet Nam, translating simply to Vietnamese communist. The photo shows VC soldiers from D 445 Battalion.
“The U.S. should recognize that Vietnam is in a critical condition and should treat it as a combat area of the cold war, as an area requiring emergency treatment.”
Lansdale assessed the RVN to be near total collapse. He further said if the RVN continues following President Diem’s policies, it would surely be lost.
John F. Kennedy became the 35th US President on January 31, 1961. Lansdale’s report drew JFK’s early and keen interest. Lansdale reported the VC controlled most of the RVN and opined that if Vietnam fell, all Southeast Asia would be “easy pickings for our enemy.” He recommended the US ramp up its military presence in the RVN and make some changes in what he saw as a lethargic US embassy in Saigon.
Shortly after taking office in January 1961, President Kennedy approved the general concept of Admiral Felt’s plan, “Counter-Insurgency Operations in South Vietnam and Laos.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk informed Admiral Felt, “(The) White House ranks defense of Vietnam among highest priorities U.S. foreign policy." President Diem had some issues with the political, economic and social reform aspects of the plan, but he did agree unconventional warfare was the way to go.
On March 9, 1961 JFK signed National Security Action Memo 29 (NSAM-29), which directed the CIA to take the lead implementing a number of covert actions in Laos, to include provision of supplies by aircraft and helicopter, formation of a covert B-26 bomber unit (two RB-66 reconnaissance aircraft were also deployed) based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) Thailand for air attacks into Laos against NVN and guerrilla forces, recruit US and ROC aircrews to wear civilian clothes, employ Thai special forces to support Hmong forces fighting the communists, and secretly use five bases in Thailand from which to provide air defense for Thailand and conduct reconnaissance over Laos. All of these actions, and the NSAM-29 itself, were secret and held quite closely.
The Takhli project was known as “Project Mill Pond.” One of the B-26s is shown in the photo at Takhli, unmarked, painted black.
Of interest here is that NSAM-29 dealt primarily with Laos, but President JFK had made a deal with the national security apparatus that if he JFK went along with their desire to neutralize Laos, he would do something for the resistance in the RVN. That deal resulted in sending several hundred American special forces to Vietnam as you will see in a moment.
In addition, you will recall CIA’s Project Tiger which was to train RVN commandos to use specially configured junks to carry commandos and supplies by sea to the NVN. It turns out that JFK signed a revised version of NSAM-29 in late April or early May 1961 that endorsed the Project Tiger program. It is worth noting that this revised NSAM-29 authorized “penetration of the Vietnamese Communist mechanism.” Because of this phraseology and other indicators, there are respected experts who believe the real US focus on the RVN and Laos had more to do with combating the Chinese than the NVN. They think senior US officials were really after China, politically.
This is a March 23, 1961 photo of JFK discussing Laos during a press conference. During the final months of the Eisenhower administration, Laos had flared up. As Ike left office, he told Kennedy that Laos would be JFK’s biggest problem upon taking the presidency. JFK would complain that Ike didn’t tell him anything of importance about Vietnam.
The Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) (5th SFG(A)) was constituted in April 1960 and was activated in 1961. It was formed to operate exclusively in Vietnam. This is among the most highly decorated units in the US military.
In an article by Tran Do Cam, entitled, “A Special Navy Unit of the Republic of Vietnam, the Coastal Security Service,” Cam wrote that in February 1961 Dr. Tran Quang Tuyen, President Diem’s chief of intelligence and the head of the RVN’s secret police, with the help of CIA, put two spies ashore at Quang Yen, a town on the Bach Dang River northeast of Haiphong. One of the spies was from the RVN, the other, Pham Chuyen, from NVN. They landed safely. That said, another source, John Prados, in his book, Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby, said that Pham Chuyen was a single agent put into the area of Quang Yen, on the beach at Ha Long Bay, near Quang Yen, codenamed “Ares.” The NVN spotted his boat and captured him. The NVN forced him to work the radio for their benefit; for example, he would demand more supplies, they would be delivered, and the delivery crew captured.
Formation of American military special forces took hold during the Kennedy administration, though of course, many of them traced their lineage back to WWII. In a May 25, 1961 speech to Congress, entitled “Urgent National Needs,” JFK said this:
“I am directing the Secretary of Defense to expand rapidly and substantially, in cooperation with our Allies, the orientation of existing forces for the conduct of non-nuclear war, paramilitary operations, and sub-limited or unconventional wars. In addition, our special forces and unconventional warfare units will be increased and reoriented. Throughout the services new emphasis must be placed on the special skills and languages which are required to work with local populations.”
NSAM 52 also approved a suite of covert actions in the NVN and RVN, to include dispatch of agents, overflight of NVN for photo intelligence using American or Chinese Nationalist crews and equipment as necessary, and expanded communications intelligence intercepts of Vietnamese communist communications in the RVN and NVN. Furthermore, it authorized the formation of networks of resistance, covert bases and teams for sabotage and harassment. And it also approved the deployment of a 400-man US Army Special Forces group to Nha Trang, RVN to accelerate ARVN training. At the outset, the CIA was tasked to provide the manpower and resources for a covert war against the NVN. William E. Colby was the CIA’s station chief in Saigon at the time, so the job fell to him.
Furthermore, NSAM-52 also instructed that DoD to examine “the size and composition of forces which would be desirable in the case of a possible commitment of US force to Vietnam. One result was to send 400 U.S. Special Forces soldiers and 100 military advisers to teach the South Vietnamese guerrilla-type tactics. At the time of Kennedy’s death in November 1963, there were more than 16,000 US advisors in the RVN.
Three more NSAMs were issued in June 1961: NSAMs 55, 56, and 57. NSAM 55 was signed by JFK, the other two by McBundy. Each one of them started the ball rolling to move covert, clandestine operations in Vietnam away from the CIA over to the JCS, to wit the military. This was because most agreed the CIA efforts to conduct black operations in the NVN had produced very few results. There were many reasons, one of which was that many of the infiltration teams had informants in their ranks. The Kennedy administration’s confidence in the CIA to conduct such operations was waning.
Let’s turn to Navy special operations events occurring in 1961.
You will recall my highlighting French naval operations in Vietnam and the Dinassauts, or the French naval assault divisions. Following the French defeat in 1954, the very rudimentary VNN began trying to emulate the French riverine organization by forming River Assault Groups known as RAGS. By 1961 there were five RAGS and a river transport group, with perhaps a hundred various types of landing craft and patrol boats armed to fight in shallow water. The RAGS worked with a RVN Marines battalion. Together they formed the VNN River Force. By 1961, there were 45 US advisers, all Navy or Marine. The River Force’s equipment was antiquated stuff left by the French.
I mentioned earlier that a naval contingent of Vietnamese was sent to Taiwan for UDT training. One officer and seven men completed that training. They formed the initial cadre of Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai, LDNN, or Frogman Unit. The LDNN was formally created in July 1961. Its mission was salvage, obstacle removal, pier protection and special amphibious operations.
Soon thereafter, a second unit was formed, Biet Hai, or Special Sea Force, paramilitary sea commandos under the operational control of the Presidential Liaison Office (PLO) introduced to you earlier.
So now is a good time to talk about the development of Navy SEALs.
It is said in many quarters that President Kennedy was the one to establish SEAL Teams. As indicated earlier, he did task the SecDef to organize all the military services for counter-insurgency and unconventional warfare. This photo shows him inspecting men from SEAL Team 2 and UDT-21 and UDT-22 in April 1962. But he did not establish the SEALs.
The establishment of the Navy SEALs was the result of a long 60 year evolutionary process. Navy planners had been working the issue for some time. It is too strong a phrase to say “Kennedy established” the SEALs. He actually instructed the SecDef, Robert McNamara, That said, the establishment of the SEALs as an organization did occur concommitant with developments in Southeast Asia.
He was interested in keeping communist forces off-guard through employment of covert maritime operations. He asked his staff to study the problem and develop recommendations. After considerable study, the staff concluded that the UDTs could be expanded to take on unconventional warfare tasks. You will recall from the earlier section that by the end of the Korean War, the UDT mission had expanded considerably, almost to the SEAL level the wold evolve later.
The missions were established as follows:
- Primary: Develop a specialized capability to conduct operations for military, political, or economic purposes within an area occupied by the enemy for sabotage, demolition, and other clandestine activities conducted in and around restricted waters, rivers, and canals, and to conduct training of selected U.S., allied and indigenous personnel in a wide variety of skills for use in naval clandestine operations in hostile environments.
- Secondary: Develop doctrine and tactics for SEAL operations and develop support equipment, including special craft for use in these operations.
I might say here that while the top brass, civilian and naval, liked the approach behind setting up the SEALs, the bulk of the senior leaders in the Navy were unenthusiastic about it. At first they were unenthusiastic about the Navy getting involved in covert operations at all, across the board. Aircraft carriers, destroyers etc. remained the centerpiece of their thinking.
A gear switch now, but it will blend with the SEAL initiatives fairly quickly.
In March 1961, the CIA proposed to JFK that it sabotage NVN ports along with conducting other covert activities there. CIA case officers in Saigon envisioned using motorized junks navigating up the coast, then deploying a team of commandos to sneak up the Gianh River north of Dong Hoi and set charges against the NVN’s Swatow (Shantou) motor gun boats made by the Soviets and Chinese.
In their book, Spies and Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam, Kenneth Conboy and S. Dale Andrade assert that in April 1961 JFK aggressively advocated establishing “networks of resistance” in the NVN.
In May 1961, Admiral Burke signed a memo to his staff saying two units should be formed and “represent a center or focal point through which all elements of this specialized Navy capability (naval guerrilla warfare) would be channeled. An appropriate name for such units could be SEAL units, SEAL being a contraction of SEA, AIR, LAND, and thereby, indicating an all-around, universal capability.” This was prescient as even CIA would agree it could not handle covert maritime operations.
On October 23, 1961, the NVN’s Group 759, tasked with shipping weapons and ammunition to the RVN by sea, was activated.
In October 1961, JFK became further disturbed by events in Vietnam. One of his problems was the US really did not know how to deal with guerrilla warfare --- JFK concluded it was a new kind of aggression and looked to his advisers for new ways to deal with it. He complained that Eisenhower had not talked to him very much about the issues in Vietnam, instead concentrating on Laos. As a result, JFK sent General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to Vietnam to assess the situation. General Taylor had retired from the military in 1959, but JFK appointed him as his military adviser in July 1961. Rostow was the deputy special assistant for national security affairs working for McGeorge Bundy. Bundy assigned Laos and Vietnam to Rostow.
Once again I want to highlight the Navy section of the MAAG, which had taken on the added responsibilities of building a South Vietnamese Navy. By the end of 1961, the Navy section, which now was a Navy advisory team, had grown from eight to 63 and had created a 4,500-man Vietnamese Navy with 119 ships, landing craft and boats. And, as I have commented earlier, there was also a paramilitary junk force for coastal patrol. Finally, this Navy advisory team also had to handle logistics support for the Army and Air Force commands in country. Clearly it was on overload.
You will recall Pham Chuyen, an agent sent to the NVN and captured by the NVN who forced him to work a radio for the NVN’s benefit. He kept demanding more supplies. As a result, the CIA sent a mission from the RVN in January 1962 and the NVN captured to boat and its entire crew. This was a Project Tiger mission highlighted earlier.
Admiral Burke followed up his authorization of two SEAL Teams in January 1962 and formally established them. Their mission was to “conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla warfare, and clandestine operations.” ST-1 was located at the Naval Amphibious Base (NAB), Coronado, California and co-located with UDT-11 and UDT-12. SEAL Team Two (ST-2) was positioned at NAB, Little Creek, Norfolk, Virginia and co-located with UDT-21. The existing UDTs supplied all the manpower to establish the new SEAL Teams.
The existence of the SEAL Teams was handled as classified information throughout most of the Indochina War.
As an aside, the UDTs would remain separate from the SEALs until 1983 when they were all designated SEAL Teams or Swimmer Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVTs), the latter of which were redesignated SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams.
Since 1962, CIA Maritime Operations (MAROPS) had been based along the Tien Sha peninsula, enclosed in the red rectangle, butting out northeast of Danang, between Monkey and Marble Mountains. The SEALs were to use this base to train people in covert maritime operations against the NVN, and the Vietnamese Coastal Force was to be trained in reconnaissance and guerrilla warfare. All together the programs developed early on by Lansdale and Conein were to continue. All together this would become the maritime component of an operation known as OP-34-A which I will highlight a little later.
As an aside, Giudice studied the weapons used by Capt. Milton Miles of SACO in WWII, discussed in a previous section, and found that what Miles had was pretty much what his SEALs would need to get started.
In January 1962, the USS Cook (APD-130), a Crosley-class high speed transport, a ship launched in 1945, deployed UDT-12 hydrographic surveyors to examine the beach, tides, and underwater obstacles off the RVN coast. The “AP” in APD stands for transport, the “D” for destroyer.
Please keep Sullivan in mind as he has done some writing about his experiences and I will refer to those on occasion. I believe they remained in-country through the end of February 1962. Sullivan would return again later.
I have to switch subjects and introduce MACV. I know it can get tough to jump around subjects like this, but as you will recall from the previous section, I said, “It is the sum total of actions of human beings that creates history.” And you are getting a feel for just some of the events that were occurring in rapid succession. This was only the tip of the iceberg.
After considerable work in Washington, Admiral Felt, CINCPAC, formally activated the US Military Assistance Command (USMACV) on February 3, 1962, headquartered in Saigon, General Paul Harkins in command (shown here). By the end of 1962 MACV had some 12,000 US military people. The Department of Defense (DoD) set up MACV because military assistance to the RVN was increasing. The MAAG had been providing this support prior to MACV. On the surface at the start, MACV was to help it. However, the chief of MAAG reported to the commander MACV instead of directly to CINCPAC. The photo is of the first MACV headquarters on Pasteur Street, Saigon.
MACV had no authority for air operations over North Vietnam. Responsible only for coastal naval and interior riverine operations, MACV had no authority over the 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77 (TF-77) operating in and around a location in the South China Sea known as Yankee Station, subordinate to the 7th Fleet. MACV had no authority for the war in Laos. MACV had no authority for enemy safe-havens in Cambodia unless authorized by higher authority. And finally, MACV had no authority for the strategic bombing forces of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).
Finally, MACV had no authority to conduct operations outside the RVN, to wit in Laos, Cambodia and NVN. In short, MACV’s authorities extended only to within the RVN, though it would expand to include a NVN province north of and adjacent to the DMZ. This authority of course held enormous responsibilities, but the command structure for fighting the overall war was fragmented, a military “no-no.”
On March 10, 1962 two instructors from ST-1 arrived in Saigon to begin a six-month tour training South Vietnamese personnel in clandestine, maritime operations, in response to CAS Saigon requirements. Their job was to train the Vietnamese in small boat operations, sabotage, landing techniques, and other related skills.
I wish to underscore that the ST-1 people were training the “boat drivers” and the commandos who would land and cause havoc.
Let’s now take a look at what were known as the Navy’s “Desoto” Patrols. Between April 14-20, 1962, the USS DeHaven (DD-727) performed the first Desoto patrol off the coast of Tsingtao, China. Desoto is an acronym for Dehaven Special Operations off TsingtaO in the Yellow Sea area. The Desoto Patrol was a response to Chinese efforts to extend China’s territorial waters. There were three objectives:
- Assert freedom of the seas
- Realistic training
- Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collection
The DeHaven was an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer. Mobile SIGINT (communications and electronic intelligence-COMINT and ELINT) vans were placed on the destroyer and Navy operators from the Naval Security Group (NSG) intercepted Chinese communications and electronic emissions. Please keep these patrols in mind. They turn out to be very important.
The Navy ran eight of the initial Desoto patrols offshore China and up the Korean and Soviet coasts as far as the Soviet Gulf or Strait of Tartary. This is in no way meant to be the tracks the patrols might take, but the graphic is meant to give you a sense for the geography.
Let’s return to the Nautilus program.
In April 1962 the CIA brought in four Taiwan trained commandos, “Team VULCAN,” and sent them to Danang to train on planting mines on the hulls of the enemy boats. This was the first operational effort of the Nautilus program. Recall I mentioned previously involving two members of SEAL Team One, Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Robert Sullivan and CPO Charles Raymond. Sullivan has written that he and Raymond set up the training for “Operation Vulcan.”
In May 1962 the USS Catfish (SS-339) submarine sailed from the Philippines on a mission codenamed “Wise Tiger” and parked underwater off the mouth of Gianh River to collect intelligence on the NVN Swatow Russian-built torpedo boats such as shown here, located at the NVN’s naval base there. The SEALs thought this would be an easy target.
The Catfish spotted three Swatows believed to be harbored at Quang Khe which lies at the mouth of the Gianh River. This is a February 1967 photo of the base and craft in the area. Based on this report, a specially configured armed junk boat with 10 crew (I believe RVN crew, some of whom were civilians) headed north and anchored off the mouth of Gianh. The commandos sneaked ashore in a raft, took a look at the area, and returned to the junk undetected.
In June 1962 the CIA launched Team VULCAN on a boat named “Nautilus 2”, it headed north, went to the desired area, and the commandos boarded a small motorized launch. Once the shore was in sight, the commandos jumped into the water to swim the rest of the way. Without going into detail, things went badly after they got to shore next to the Swatows when a mine exploded in the hands of one of the commandos. This alerted the NVN, but the commandos managed to get their other mines pasted to the hulls of some Swatows. Some of the mines detonated and one of the Swatows was seen taking on water fast. Unfortunately another Swatow managed to escape, it chased the Nautilus 2, they both exchanged fire, and the Nautilus 2 was sunk. By my count, one Taiwanese commando and 10 South Vietnamese were captured.
Admiral Felt was dissatisfied with this CIA-directed mission and others the CIA had attempted. He is said to have criticized CIA for failing to understand the USN’s full capability, especially now with the presence of the SEALs.
It is my understanding that the CIA continued to mount these missions, employing civilians recruited by the CIA along with VNN LDNN frogmen. At first, they were not usually detected by the NVN. But as time went on, probably because of incidents like the one just described, and because the junks were often taking the same courses at sea, the NVN began to improve its intelligence on these missions.
In July 1962, the Navy established a Headquarters Naval Support Activity, Saigon. As the name indicates, these people took on all manner of support and administrative activities. This unit was needed as other Navy units entered the picture in Saigon for construction and reconnaissance. You will recall Capt. Drachnik led the naval section of the MAAG. He has said this naval support activity took a lot of administrative and logistics burdens off his plate.
In July 1962 SecDef McNamara convened a meeting with the State Department and CIA at which everyone agreed to transfer responsibility for commando attacks against the NVN from CIA to the DoD in a transfer that would be known as “Operation Switchback.”
In August 1962, Capt. Drachnik, USN of the Navy section MAAG developed a concept for a “US River Warfare Force.” He sent it to Washington, The concept was to organize several river groups, each with a Marine rifle company, fifteen river craft (LCVP type), thirty swimmer support boats, an UH-1B helicopter, a mother ship (LSM), and a major support ship (an LSM, LSD, LPD, or APA), Carrier or shore-based aircraft would provide air support. His idea was to locate the support ship at the mouth of a major river, and the mother ship some 35 miles away. The naval group would use the mother ship to sortie into rivers to "locate, harass, and destroy guerrilla-type insurgency units in order to assist a friendly government to resist covert aggression." His concept was opposed by Naval planners. I believe he had the Mekong Delta region in mind.
In late August 1962, COMUSMACV proposed using US motor torpedo boats (PTs) supported by a USN logistics unit at Danang.
In September 1962 Special Group 5412 suggested using the PTs and USN SEALs in these operations against NVN. This idea was eventually scuttled (well sort of) . The SEALs’ mission would be to train the RVN forces to conduct such raids. There was quite a bit of activity to reactivate USN PTs, acquire Norwegian PTFs, such as shown here, called “Nastys” and use some Norwegian crews. The commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) directed a mobile support team (MST) be established at Danang, two officers, ten enlisted and that the boats be stricken from USN records. The plan was for the Nastys to go to NVN with Norwegian operators and VNN SEALs.
In October 1962, Mobile Training Team 10-62 had completed its tour training Biet Hai, graduating 62. It was replaced by Mobile Training Team 4-63, Lt. jg Alan Routh in command.
In December 1962, the ninth Desoto patrol was conducted by the USS Agerholm (DD-826), a Gearing-class destroyer, from the Gulf of Tonkin around China’s Hainan Island and off the coast of NVN. The Agerholm’s patrol was the first such US patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea.
I have read a report by the National Security Agency (NSA), once highly classified, now unclassified, which said the beginning of the Desoto patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin in December 1962 was to support OP-34-A clandestine insertion missions into the NVN. The NSA, which is the national agency responsible for SIGINT operations abroad, reported this:
“By December (1962), the (Desoto) patrols had been extended to the coasts of Korea and North Vietnam. The rationale was to support special operations under OPLAN 34-A.”
As commandos would conduct their nighttime insertion raids into the NVN, the NSG operators aboard the Agerholm would monitor NVN reactions, support the raids with the resulting intelligence, and help obtain order of battle and capabilities information. I’ll refer you back to Colonel Lansdale and Major Coenin, who started the covert raids up north. While it is true these raids did little damage to the NVN, it is also true that with the Desoto patrols and other intelligence collection done earlier, these raids now were yielding a lot of very useful intelligence.
Let’s return for a moment to the Drachnik concept for US Riverine Warfare. Now remember, the Navy had already organized two SEAL teams for counterinsurgency and clandestine warfare, and elements of ST-1 had already been deployed to Vietnam. Yet, Capt. Donald N. Clay, USN, the Head, Special Operations Section of the Navy staff, testified to Congress that “the Navy did consider it necessary or desirable to have its general purpose forces separately organized for counterinsurgency operations.” Perhaps the key phrase here is “general purpose forces.” The SEALs were not general purpose. In any event, Admiral Anderson, the CNO who got the SEALs organized and approved, emphasized to Drachnik, “We are required to remain in an advisory role [which prevents] our development of a U.S. force for use in your area." He recommended preparing the VNN to do this kind of job.
On the surface, it would seem Navy policies were cloudy. Perhaps that was the intent. I have read that the Navy was eager during 1962 to employ its newly formed SEALs in secret operations in the NVN. But MACV, which had just formed that same year, declined, saying it was not ready to commit US forces into combat. So ostensibly the SEALs that did come were confined to training, though I will have more to say on that subject a bit later.
All of this said, JFK got into the act along with some other senior Navy leaders pressuring the Navy to continue developing special formations, to wit elements such as the SEALs and Seabee Technical Assistance Teams (STAT).
The MAAG had hoped to deliver 644 junks to the VNN by June, but that did not happen. By the end of 1962 MAAG had delivered only 335, of which 215 had a sail, 89 had a motor, 16 had an auxiliary engine, and 15 were configured to be command junks. The VNN had 11 operational junk divisions by the end of the year. The bottom photo is of a Yabuta junk built in Saigon. It was called a Coastal Raider (Duyên Kích Đĩnh) and was made of a ferro-concrete. It was armed with small arms, a .50 caliber and a .30 caliber machine gun and had a single diesel engine and a single shaft. These Yabutas were the second most common built, a total of 71.
“Operation Switchback” formally began on January 1, 1963. Organizing and executing agent team insertions, aerial reconnaissance missions and naval sabotage operations in the NVN now was a military responsibility, not a CIA job. However, It would take a bit of time to effect the transfer from CIA to the military. This is an example of how the transfer might have taken a while. I have read a report by navyseals.com that says:
“The CIA began SEAL covert operations in early 1963. At the outset of the war, operations consisted of ambushing supply movements and locating and capturing North Vietnamese officers. Due to poor intelligence information, these operations were not very successful.”
That indicates the CIA was still organizing these kinds of operations in early 1963, while Switchback was underway.
It is my understanding the CIA first transferred paramilitary operations in the RVN to the military. These were much larger operations than conducted in the NVN and considered by many to be more important. The covert operations in the NVN would generally wait until early 1964 before they were transferred to a new military organization named MACV-SOG or MACSOG. I will address this organization when we get to 1964.
In February 1963, UDT-12, with support from the 3rd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion, I believe Alpha Company, began surveying the coastline south of Danang, staging from the USS Weiss (APD-135), also a Crosley-class high speed transport, a ship launched in 1945 (shown here off the coast of Vietnam in 1965). During the February-March 1963 transit of the Weiss along the RVN coastline, the VC did fire on shore parties from the ship. I have assumed these shore parties were from the A/3 Marine Recon.
Also in February 1963, SEAL instructors were tasked to train the LDNN on clandestine maritime operations. I have read that the Navy sent a team of two officers and ten enlisted men to Danang for this purpose. I assume the two ST-1 men already there were part of this group, but perhaps this group was an additive; I am not sure. In much of my research, authors refer to the LDNN as the Vietnamese SEALs. Frankly, I found it difficult to assemble exactly when and how many SEAL people came to Vietnam for training in the early days.
At about this same time, two refurbished PT boats, now classified as PTFs, were sent to Danang with maintenance and training support.
Just as a reminder, RVN directed covert operations against the NVN (and Laos) continued with CIA support. President Diem is said to have intensified these in April 1963.
The USS Edwards (DD-619), a Gleaves-class destroyer, conducted the second Desoto patrol offshore the NVN in April 1963, and covered more of the NVN than did the USS Agerholm. The Craig circumnavigated China’s Hainan Isand and then headed down the NVN coast. The Edwards did not record any NVN reactions, though the Chinese continued to complain and reportedly did shadow the Edwards.
In May 1963, the JCS directed CINCPAC to prepare a plan to support the VNN’s effort to carry out special operations in North Vietnam. It did so, preparing what would be called CINCPAC OPLAN 34-63.
Sometime in the fall of 1963, President JFK authorized the use of American military forces to gather intelligence on NVN coastal defenses. As you have seen, this was already underway.
On September 9, 1963, JCS approved the final version of CINCPAC OPLAN 34-63. It called for intensified, non-attributable hit and run VNN covert sabotage raids against NVN, employing Vietnamese commandos under U.S. control, and supported by US military advisory materiel and training assistance.
By October 1963 the RVN covert operations supported by CIA were slowly but surely being turned over to the US military as part of “Operation Switchback.”
I should note as an Ensign, Bucklew served with the Scouts and Raiders (S&R) in Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa) in November 1942. In July 1943, he commanded a "Scout Boat" during the landings on Sicily, and also participated as a S&R in the Normandy invasion. He also scouted the Chinese coastal areas to gather intelligence on the Japanese and trained Chinese guerrillas to fight the Japanese. You will recall the S&R was among the initial USN efforts at covert maritime operations. In the Korean War, Bucklew conducted infiltration, harassment, and psychological operations against North Korea. He retired after 20 years service, but was selected to command Naval Special Warfare Group One, which consisted of ST-1, UDTs 11 and 12, and BSU-1. He is known as the "Father of Naval Special Warfare.”
At the Honolulu Conference of November 20-21, 1963, involving senior level US cabinet and military officials, OPLAN 34-63 was presented. It is interesting that this conference occurred when it did, despite the assassination of Diem. That probably was because the US was happy to see him go. And, of course, there is evidence the US participated in the event.
On November 20, SecDef McNamara directed the development of a combined MACV-CAS program for covert operations against the NVN. “CAS” translates to Covert Action Staff which was an element of CIA for political and economic covert action. What this meant is that McNamara tasked MACV and CIA to take CINCPAC’s OPLAN 34-63, which McNamara viewed as a “concept,” and convert it into a detailed twelve-month plan for implementation.
On December 15, 1963, General Harkins sent his proposed “OPLAN 34-A-64, CAS Saigon OPLAN TIGER” to CINCPAC, “OPLAN 34-A” for short. This was a major evolution in covert maritime operations against the NVN.
CINCPAC forwarded OPLAN 34-A to the JCS and recommended approval. This was the OPLAN that McNamara had directed MACV and CIA to prepare. This plan contained over 2,000 activities to include reconnaissance, psychological warfare and sabotage operations along with small military attacks against the NVN. RVN air, ground and naval units were to conduct such operations supplemented by Asian mercenaries, mostly Chinese Nationalist. MACV and CIA would furnish the equipment, advisers and base facilities within the RVN. No Americans were to enter the NVN. The US involvement was to be carefully concealed. The entire endeavor was to be held as very secret. The RVN concurred with the plan.
In late 1963 SecDef Robert McNamara directed the Navy to assemble a force of American-built Patrol-Torpedo (PT) boats and Nasty class fast-attack boats purchased from Norway, designated by the USN as PTFs or Patrol Torpedo Fast. During 1963 the USN modified these boats for Vietnam and deployed them to Danang. One of the major modifications was removal of the torpedo tubes since the Navy felt their targets would be smaller ships not requiring torpedoes. I have also read that all serial numbers, whether on the craft or the guns, were ground off or drilled out. I have also read the boats arrived at Danang in late 1963. The Nastys routinely went to NVN waters to land commandos to conduct raids against NVN installations.
By the end of 1963, Capt. Drachnik, who you will recall headed the naval section of the MAAG, had 145 Americans working with every Vietnamese level of command right down to the VNN River Assault Groups, the RAGS. In 1961 he had only 45. The VNN RAGS operated boats like this specializing in counterinsurgency work.
During the first few weeks of 1964 President JBJ ordered the first, most limited phase of OPLAN 34-A be placed into effect in Vietnam on February 1, 1964.
Also in January 1964, General William Westmoreland, USA, was designated the deputy commander MACV.
MACSOG was to be a highly classified, multi-service United States special operations unit which would covert unconventional warfare operations prior to and during the Vietnam War. It would take over CIA’s covert operations in the NVN in accordance with Operation Switchback. Its mission was:
“Execute an intensified program of harassment, diversion, political pressure, capture of prisoners, physical destruction, acquisition of intelligence, generation of propaganda, and diversion of resources, against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."
MACSOG’s job was to conduct the commando operations needed to execute OPLAN-34-A. Russell started with 99 military and 31 civilians. SOG would eventually consist primarily of personnel from the US Army, Navy Seals, Air Force, the CIA and elements of the United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance units who had been training infiltrators for the CIA since the early 1960’s.
It is important to note that MACSOG remained a military activity theoretically subordinate to MACV, but it was not controlled by MACV. It was placed on the MACV organizational chart for security purposes, as a cover. MACSOG was instead controlled by the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities at the Department of Defense. That was because MACV had no authority to conduct operations outside the RVN, to wit in Laos, Cambodia and NVN. Those authorities rested in Washington.
Also on January 24, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) signed the authorization for OPLAN-34-A, which gave the go-ahead for US forces to carry out operations in the NVN.
I have not been able to pin down exactly a start date, but I believe the Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) activated at Danang at about this time, January-February 1964. The NAD was a cover used by MACSOG. It was CIA’s MAROPS within the MACSOG, Maritime Studies Group (MACSOG-34), responsible for covert maritime operations that had up until this time been conducted almost exclusively by the Vietnamese. Danang was used by boats operating on missions to the NVN. To my knowledge, the men in CIA’s MAROPs were mostly Navy SEALs.
NAD’s headquarters was located at the foot of Monkey Mountain on Tien Sha peninsula northeast of Danang referred to earlier. I have read that on arrival at NAD’s offices at Camp Fay, the sailors turned in their Navy identification cards and received NAD ID cards in their place.
I want to show you a series of drawings and a photo dealing with the NAD’s location at Danang.
As a result of Lt. Giudice’s assessment back in 1962, a SEAL base was to be set up on the Tien Sha peninsula and would become known as Camp Tien Sha. Camp Fay would serve as living quarters and messing and support areas for all military personnel assigned to the NAD. That said, the SEALs berthed at Camp Black Rock.The red arrows roughly highlight a section of My Khe Beach which was used secretly to house the Vietnamese commandos. In the beginning, mostly Vietnamese commandos were used, though later downstream men from other nations and ethnic groups were used.
This is a photo of the main gate at Camp Tien Sha, undated, so I don’t know when it was built. That said, I know the Seabees built the base from an old French encampment and I suspect it was ready in the 1964 period, though I did find a blogger who said he was the first to bed-down at Camp Tien Sha in 1965.
Prior to moving over to the Tien Sha peninsula, the NAD operated from a place called the “White Elephant.” It was an old French hotel in Danang city. The Navy used it for several purposes, one of which was to serve as a communications center. This is a photo of the old elephant. The Navy continued using it even after the NAD left.
This is a great schematic of the lower base and the PTF base, which indicates the NAD did set up shop here in 1964. I know it is hard to read the numbers in circles.
The NAD building was built in 1965. Offices inside were also used by SOG and “others.” It was a concrete block building with metal hip roof and one entrance, no windows. The fence was about 10' high with a barbed wire top. The gate was right across from the door. There were two gates at the entry. One gate went into a small four foot square area, where I expect credentials were checked, and then there was another gate. Those who were there called it the "Super Spook" building. There were also buildings for an armory, electronics shop, carpenter shop, machine/electrical shop, boat engine shop and the ship fitter’s shop. There was also a warehouse and supply office, a lounge, latrine (“head”), and sick bay, a generator building, and a fuel farm.
There were three piers for the PTFs. Pier One was the primary pier for Nasty class PTFs in early days. Floating pier sections were able to berth six boats. Pier Three was a floating pier section off of Pier One used for small craft and LCM(s) assigned to base. Pier Four had floating sections used by the NAD’s Swift boats. Pier Two had floating sections used in the early days to berth the “gassers,” PTFs 1 and 2. Later, after the aluminum boats left, the pier was used to berth up to four of Nasty class PTFs, which were made of wood.
There were anchor buoys for PTFs 1 and 2, the “gassers.” They were never refueled at the pier. They were moved out to the refueling buoy and the 115 octane gas used to power the boats was delivered by a truck through a hose floating on the water. I believe the other PTFs that came had diesel engines which had no spark plugs, but instead took air in and compressed it. The heat of the compressed air lit the fuel in a diesel engine. Therefore they could be refueled at the piers.
Camp Fay and Camp Tien-Sha, Danang, RVN
There was a cove at the base of Monkey Mountain at which the SEALs set up this small base with finger piers and a floating drydock. This is a modern-day Google Earth photo I believe to be that cove with piers. If so, it looks like the NVN Navy is using it for its coastal patrol boats.
I wish to mention here that after reading many blogs written by men who were at Camp Tien Sha, I realized that this was a very busy camp, larger than you might expect, where men did all different kinds of work employing all different kinds of skills. The covert maritime operation in his area was only one, and my hunch is not many knew what those guys were doing. As an aside, the camp also fell victim to plenty of enemy attacks. I have also read stories suggesting NVN agents were all around the area watching. One report of an aircraft overflying the camp said he received ground fire. The pilot said the place was infested with Viet Cong.
Sullivan has written that the site he and CPO Raymond had set up for Operation Vulcan in 1962 along the beach below Monkey Mountain at Danang was now expanded. Sullivan, now on his second tour to the RVN, wrote:
“It (the old Vulcan training area) was now a group of five separate training sites spread out along 4 or 5 miles of beach. The Headquarters was on the northern end of the beach, and that was where the SEAL advisors were housed. Each site was separated and segregated to keep the personnel from contact with each other for security reasons. Each site was designated for a specific mission. SEAL personal were assigned to train a particular group of agents for their mission and only that mission. Usually there were two SEALs assigned to each group, but in a few cases it took up to four. We had graduated from operating from Junks to ‘Swift Boats,’ and then to the ‘Nasties’ (Norwegian Attack Craft). This was a definite improvement in our speed and armament capability. All the boats were heavily armed.
“Our group of agents came from the remaining Vietnamese trained in Taiwan for the Vietnamese UDT Team, but not chosen for the First ‘Vulcan’ operation. There were twenty of them. There was also an interpreter in the group. He was a noncombatant and used only to explain our English to the group, and their Vietnamese to us. We held a short course with the group on what American Commands that they must know immediately without the need of an interpreter. We didn’t want the need for an interpreter if we were in the middle of a firefight.”
I want to focus in on what the SEAL involvement actually was during a raid on the NVN. Sullivan wrote that he and his new partner, Boatswain's Mate Ray Abreu, also a SEAL, one who came from UDT-11, were embarked on the swift boats when they went on raids to the NVN. However, he said they did not disembark onto a rubber Inflatable Boat Small (IBS) with the Vietnamese commandos. Instead, they remained on the swift boat and could tell if the operation was a success by watching and listening to the explosions set off by the commandos on shore, and then seeing which of the commandos survived once they returned to the swift boat. He also said that NVN Swatows would chase after them, and they would return their fire. Sullivan even commented that he fired the .50 cal and is sure he “got some good licks in.” Finally, he said the swift boats were operated by a Coxswain and an Engineer, both of whom were contract people from the SOG CIA period, Scandinavian Merchant Seamen. So the SEALs were at a minimum up in NVN waters.
Let me add to this.
Steve Edwards, author of “Stalking the Enemy’s Coast,” published by the Navy’s “Proceedings” in February 1992, wrote this:
“In a June 1980 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute, Captain Phil H. Bucklew (shown here), an almost legendary figure in naval special warfare, addressed the 34-A missions specifically: ‘Our SEAL contingents would train Vietnamese SEALs and supervise. They were not allowed to go north of the demarcation line, though they did at times...’”
Edwin Moise, in his book Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War,” wrote that US policy clearly forbade the US military from going along on combat missions against the NVN. He wrote:
“Captain Phil H. Bucklew, who as head of the Naval Operations Support Group was responsible for the US Navy personnel in question, believes that they habitually violated the prohibition. Indeed he is not aware of any cases in which PTFs from Danang went on combat operations without American personnel aboard.”
“Vice Admiral Roy L. Johnson, commander of the US Seventh Fleet starting in June 1964, recalls that the Vietnamese crew had proved unreliable ... American crews had to be substituted for the Vietnamese. Admiral Johnson is ‘pretty sure’ that American crews were being used on raids against the North Vietnamese coast by August 1964 ...”
Moise does indicate however that some people close to the operation at Danang do not agree. For my part, I firmly believe US Navy SEALs did go on OP 34-A missions against NVN.
On February 12, 1964 General Khanh, the RVN president, set up the Strategic Technical Service (later named the Strategic Technical Directorate) under the direction of Colonel Tran Van Ho, ARVN, at the RVN’s Ministry of Defense. Its mission was to work closely with MACSOG on covert operations designed to strike at the NVN.
I will reiterate that MACSOG did not really belong to MACV, but instead was directed from Washington. MACSOG and the RVN Strategic Technical Service were to execute the instructions coming from Washington.
In February 1964 the CNO established Boat Support Unit One (BSU-1), a component of Naval Operations Support Groups, Pacific. Its job was to administer the PTF program and to operate high-speed craft in support of Naval Special Warfare Operations in conjunction with UDT and SEAL units. Lt. Bert Knight was the first BSU-1 commander. So here again, US Navy personnel were going North.
Warboats.org has written, “The missions were soon expanded to include all aspects of riverine and restricted water warfare. The PTF program grew rapidly, beginning with four ‘Nasty’ class PTF’s in the fall of 1964.” BSU-1 was soon renamed Mobile Support Team One (MST-1) and was located at Subic Bay, Philippines. It sent a detachment to Danang in February to train VNN officers and crews how to operate and maintain the craft. I believe the Vietnamese operators of the boats were called the Hai-Tuan.
MACV really had no operational control, but each month was required to submit recommended actions to the Department of Defense (DoD) which, after consulting with the White House and State Department, would select the operations to be conducted. DoD retained veto authority over every raid.
In late February into early March 1964, the USS Craig (DD-885), a Gering-cass destroyer, conducted the third Desoto patrol offshore NVN. The NSG crew embarked intercepted the NVN tracking the Craig on this mission. NSA reported, “(NVN) radar stations tracked the USS Craig and DRV (NVN) naval communications referred to her by hull number. Although the SIGINT from the Craig’s mission wasn’t voluminous, it did contribute to new insight into DRV tracking station locations, equipment and capability.”
On March 26,1964, Captain Richard Whitesides (left), USAF, a pilot, 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron, and Capt. Floyd Thompson (right), USA, 5th SFG observer, were flying an Cessna L-19, later redesignated as the O-1 Bird Dog Observation and Forward Air Controller (FAC) aircraft.
They were shot down over Quang Tri Province, RVN, a few miles northeast of Khe Sanh. The 5th SFG was based at Khe Sanh while the 19th TASS was home-based at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. Whitesides was on temporary duty at Danang. Whitesides’ remains were accounted for on October 21, 2014 and he was returned to the US for burial. The Viet Cong captured Thompson and held him as a POW until March 16, 1973. He was the longest held US POW in the Vietnam War. He spent 10 days short of nine years in captivity.
Regarding Capt. Whitesides, it is worth noting he received the Air Force Cross for his actions during an O-1 mission on November 23, 1963. Please note the date. On that mission, he directed continuous air strikes against Viet Cong positions and remained on station even though his aircraft was disabled, resulting in the destruction of Viet Cong large gun emplacements. I raise this because the USAF began attacking Viet Cong targets in covert operations named “Farmgate” and “Jungle Jim” as early as late 1961 to early 1962.
On April 1, 1964 the RVN established the Coastal Security Service (CSS). The Northern Department’s Atlantic and Pacific teams were merged into the CSS. CSS was charged with conducting all sea commando attacks beyond the 17th parallel. This photo shows CSS commanders at Danang in 1964. In turn, the CSS was under the jurisdiction of the RVN’s Strategic Technical Service.
In April 1964, PTF-1 and PTF-2 plus a pontoon dock, a floating dry dock (AFDL-23), a crane barge and a LCM-3 push boat arrived at Danang. I believe this is a photo of one of the PTF’s at Danang in 1964, presented by Warboats.org. The PTF is sitting on the AFDL-23 floating dry dock, no trivial operation. PTFs 1 and 2 were reactivated US-built aluminum hull boats with gas engines.
This photo shows PTFs 1 and 2 berthed at the dock at Danang, labeled 1 and 2.
In May 1963 CIA sent Weisshart to Saigon to set up this notional resistance movement in the NVN. Thomas Ahern, in a then secret publication, “The Way We Do Things: Black Entry Operations Into North Vietnam, 1961-1964,” mentioned the SSPL in passing as a mission of the sabotage teams being sent to the NVN.
Richard H. Shultz Jr. Says in The Secret War Against Hanoi:
“The psywar that SOG carried out against North Vietnam included the following operations: the creation of a notional or fabricated resistance movement, known as the Sacred Sword of the Patriotic League (SSPL), whose purpose was to foster the impression that a well organized resistance movement was active in North Vietnam; and the indoctrination of North Vietnamese detainees at Paradise Island.”
I’ll return to the SSPL and talk more about Paradise Island. But fundamentally it became supportive of OPLAN 34-A.
On May 15, 1964 MACV took over the MAAG because combat deployments were getting too large for the MAAG to handle. The MAAG was folded into MACV. Once MACV took over the MAAG, the Navy section of the MAAG became the Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam. To my knowledge, the Naval Activity Detachment, NAD, remained a part of the Naval Advisory Group, the latter working as its cover along with MACSOG.
Implementation of OPLAN 34-A began slowly. Frankly, most of the focus in these early days was on conducting air and ground operations in Laos, directed largely at the Ho Chi Minh Trail logistics lines running from the NVN through Laos. That is another story.
In May 1964, PTFs 3, 4, 5, and 6 arrived in Danang. These PTFs were new Norwegian-built wooden hull boats with diesel engines. A total of eight boats would be delivered to Danang. This is a photo of PTF-3 at Subic Bay, the Philippines.
On May 27, 1964 a SOG 34 Nasty crew captured a NVN junk boat and six passengers. CIA ran a top secret resistance training center at Cu Lao Cham island off Danang, and the captives were taken there for interrogation.
"Covert boat and landing team operations were conducted against the coast of North Vietnam to interdict enemy coastal shipping, capture prisoners for interrogations and psychological warfare exploitation, and to force North Vietnam to increase its coastal defenses."
The SSPL members told the fishermen Paradise Island was “liberated territory,” an that the island was a secret training camp for the resistance that would liberate the NVN from the Chinese communists.
Psywarrior.com says MACVSOG documents describe three camps on the island:
Headquarters building, Camp Dodo Paradise island
“A small camp called DODO was the base for the US personnel (three officers and four enlisted men). The camp was well separated from the other camps and was principally a support base where the US Advisors could communicate with and assist the Vietnamese camp commander. The second camp, PHOENIX, was the delivery point for prisoners captured through marine operations. Its capacity was 90 to 150. It was operated by 3 Vietnamese who represent the SSPL and who both interrogated the POW’s for intelligence for SOG intelligence and indoctrinated them with the program of the SSPL. The third camp, separated by heavy foliage and several kilometers, was D36 where more thorough indoctrination was conducted. The camp, with a capacity of 50, was reserved for those selected prisoners who had shown a desire to join the SSPL and were to be tasked to perform an intelligence or PSYOP function upon return to NVN.”
MACVSOG further documented that the Vietnamese CSS controlled operations on the island. Psywarrior.com noted further, “In a Vietnamese-language article entitled ‘Coastal Raiders’ translated by Donald C. Brewster, Tran Do Cam talks about Vietnamese psychological operations. In regard to the Sacred Sword of the Patriotic League he says:
“‘Missions to capture fishermen for the purpose of indoctrination began on May 27, 1964. In this operation a fast patrol boat and a Swift captured a fishing junk in the waters off Ðông Hói. Six fishermen along with their junk were brought to a place called Cù Lao Chàm Island which was located off the coast of Ðà Nãng. In an effort to win their support, the fishermen were treated very kindly and were well fed. On June 2nd, the fishermen and their junk were returned to where they were captured and they brought along with them the various gifts of cloth, food and plastic utensils, etc., that they had been given during their stay.’”
The bottom line here is that the captured fishermen were led to believe that Paradise Island was in NVN waters, and that the people interrogating and indoctrinating them were SSPL members of a large resistance movement headquartered in the mountains of NVN. Of course, there was no such thing as an SSPL; the entire story was a creation, a fabrication. I commend the Psywarrior.com story to you.
I’ll start changing subjects again.
On June 2, 1964, the NSC 5412 Special Group, responsible for coordinating government covert operations, was replaced by the 303 Committee, McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor the chairman.
On June 12, 1964 SOG 34 destroyed a storage facility in NVN and a bridge on Route 1 near Hao Dong Mad.
In July 1964, General Westmoreland replaced General Harkins as the commander MACV. I will note here that during their time together at MACV, both Generals Harkins and Westmoreland held a conservative view toward expanding the conflict in Vietnam, especially with regard to attacking the NVN. That said, Westmoreland strongly supported commando raids on the NVN and air and ground operations in Laos against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He also favored air reprisals for major Viet Cong attacks on US installations. He would later (1965) favor bombing campaigns of the NVN.
By the end of July 1964, OPLAN 34-A MAROPS was launching almost every day out of Danang. On July 30, VNN naval commandos staged a midnight amphibious raid on the NVN islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu in the Gulf of Tonkin. Most operations consisted of small amphibious raids and bombardments of shore targets in the NVN by fast armed motorboats.
Also in July 1964, the focus of the Desoto missions changed in character. They were now to support OPLAN 34-A; that is, determine NVN coastal activity which would cover those areas targeted by OPLAN 34-A. For example, as I said, by the end of July 1964, OPLAN 34-A MAROPS was launching almost every day out of Danang. The idea was to gather intelligence to support such operations, even though the Desoto crews might not know such operations were planned or were occurring. The alphabetic points show the Desoto mission start and stop points, the latter serving as loitering areas. The purpose was to cause the NVN to react, to do something that would give insights into its naval capabilities and intentions. For example, the patrols would want to excite coastal radar facilities so they could be located, listen to command and control facilities to see what they did etc; one of the best ways to do that was to be in position when a OPLN 34-A mission was operating in the area.
The fourth Desoto patrol mission offshore the NVN was conducted by the USS Maddox (DD-747) in July 1964 for about three days, up and down the NVN coastline. The Maddox mission was the first to sail up and down the entire NVN coastline as shown on the map above. Furthermore, she would sail while OPLAN 34-A missions were underway. That way her NSG crew could monitor reactions to the OPLAN 34-A missions. In addition, CINCPAC eased the restrictions, telling Maddox she should stay eight nautical miles from the coastline but could approach to four miles of any of its islands.
NSA reported “her mission was to observe the junk fleet suspected of transporting guerrillas to the south, obtain navigational and hydrographic data and acquire intelligence on the NVN Navy. The latter item was of considerable importance, first because the Geneva Accords of 1954 specifically prohibited the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (NVN) from having a naval forces and second because of SIGINT’s role in detecting DRV naval activity.” SIGINT intercepts since 1957 had shown a steady buildup in the NVN’s navy and in 1959 provided evidence of fleet modernization.
Again the NVN tracked this mission and accused the US of firing on a NVN island. The Maddox reported sighting NVN patrol boats chasing other vessels in the area.
On July 30, VNN naval commandos staged a midnight amphibious raid on the NVN islands of Hon Me and Hon Ngu northeast of Vinh in the Gulf of Tonkin. Most operations consisted of small amphibious raids and bombardments of shore targets in the NVN by fast armed motorboats. At the time of the VNN commando operation, the USS Maddox was about 120-130 miles away, positioned at sea along the 17th parallel. You will recall the 17th parallel is roughly where the DMZ is dividing North from South Vietnam.
Cmdr. Herbert Ogier (right) was in command of the Maddox, Captain John Herrick (left) was embarked on the Maddox and in command of Destroyer Division 192, a two destroyer task group, the other destroyer being the USS Turner Joy (DD-951), a Forrest Sherman-class destroyer, Cmdr. Ronald Barnhart, Jr. in command.
On July 31, the Maddox turned northward on a course up the coast, staying about 12 miles offshore, but on a course that would pass by Hon Me Island. Also on July 31, the Maddox intercepted NVN communications indicating the “American imperialists” had shelled one of their fortifications. The Maddox did report sighting NVN patrol craft pursuing several unidentified vessels, but the Maddox made no attempt to investigate.
On August 1, 1964, NSA alerted the Navy that the NVN was reacting with more belligerence to these Desoto missions and warned the Navy that the NVN Navy might attack one of the destroyers. Nonetheless, the Maddox continued her patrol northward that put her on a course past Hon Me Island. SIGINT intercepts did report a NVN naval entity informing the location and course of an enemy ship which correlated to the position and course of the Maddox. Shortly thereafter, an intercepted NVN naval message said it had been “directed to fight the enemy tonight.” The Maddox was notified of this report. The NVN then continuously tracked the Maddox and several messages were intercepted pre-positioning NVN warships for attack.
On August 2, 1964, the Maddox sighted five naval vessels, three PTs and two probable Swatow-class PGMs along with a large fleet of about 75 junks some 10 miles north of Hon Me Island. The Maddox changed course twice to avoid the patrol boats, reached the northernmost point of her patrol track, and turned to the south. Shortly after turning south, the NVN issued a command message instructing that the time had come to close with the “enemy” and employ torpedoes. The Maddox was notified of this message.
The NVN patrol boats did attack. I will not go into the details other than to say the Maddox requested air support, she fired warning shots, she maneuvered to avoid torpedoes, she attacked the NVN vessels, air cover did arrive on scene, and the Maddox withdrew. She had rendered one NVN patrol boat dead in the water and burning, with two other vessels heavily damaged but still underway.
On August 3, 1964, President LBJ ordered the Maddox to be reinforced by the USS Turner Joy. He sent both ships back to the area. The NVN remained interested but took no hostile action. However, VNN patrol boats did run up the coast and bombarded a radar installation at Vinh Son and a security post at Mui Ron. NVN patrol boats pursued them back to Danang without incident.
On August 4, 1964, both the Maddox and Turner Joy returned to patrol but north of where the incidents had occurred. During the evening, Capt. Herrick’s crew spotted several enemy vessel contacts some 25-35 miles away and air contacts. He asked for air support. Fighter aircraft launched from the carriers USS Ticonderoga and USS Consellation. While the US Desoto destroyers reported losing contact with the aircraft, they did report enemy vessels approaching and closing fast.
The Turner Joy began firing and dropped depth charges once the vessels approached within 4,000 yards. The Maddox did not see these vessels on her radars and could not locate them. Then some among the Maddox crew aid they spotted a torpedo coming at them and skimming beneath the surface. Both destroyers took immediate evasive actions. There was quite a bit of activity thereafter and as the dust started to settle a bit, the leaders embarked on the destroyers started doubting some of their “as it happened,” real-time reporting, now having some time to put the pieces together. The bottom-line issue would have to do with whether they were really attacked by torpedoes or not.
Admiral Grant Sharp, CINCPAC, recommended to the JCS that the US begin bombing NVN coastal bases for the patrol boats. The JCS had a list of 94 targets drawn up a year earlier. Senior National Security Council advisors had already sent a recommendation to the president for reprisal attacks. LBJ approved the reprisals on August 4 and the JCS issued an execution order. Late in the evening on August 4, 1964, President Johnson announced that he had ordered retaliatory air strikes on the North Vietnamese in response to reports of their attacks earlier on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. This photo shows him speaking to the American people on the evening of August 4.
On August 5, 1964, Capt. Herrick sent a message to CINCPAC expressing doubts about the validity of some of their reporting and suggested a complete evaluation prior to taking any further actions. Admiral Sharp so notified SecDef McNamara. McNamara responded by saying the reprisal execute orders remained in effect. Nonetheless, considerable debate ensued. NSA has said, “The sequence of events at the White House was driven largely by SIGINT. The reliance on SIGINT even went to the extent of overruling the commander on the scene. It was obvious to the president and his advisors that there had really been an attack --- they had the North Vietnamese messages to prove it. But to the analysts working the problem at NSA, things did not appear to be so obvious.”
One problem with SIGINT is it is not always conclusive when taken in bits and pieces.
I will simply leave it that these events sparked enormous controversy. After NSA analysts had time to piece all their information together, as NSA has said, “It became obvious how big a mistake had been made.”
On August 5, 1964, “Operation Pierce Arrow” was executed consisting of 64 air strike sorties of aircraft from the Ticonderoga and Constellation. The targets included torpedo boat bases of Hon Gai, Loc Chao, Quang Khe, and Phuc Loi, and the oil storage depot at Vinh. The air attacks caused an estimated 90 percent destruction of the Vinh oil fields and total or partial destruction of some 29 NVN vessels.
The US lost two aircraft, Lt. Richard Sather, USN, (left) KIA, and Lt. jg Everett Alvarez Jr., the second US POW in Vietnam. Alvarez spent over eight years as a POW, the longest of any naval aviator. Both had been embarked aboard the USS Constellation.
Lt. Sather was flying an A-1H Skyraider assigned to Attack Squadron 145 “Swordsmen.” Sather was hit by enemy fire offshore Thanh Hoa, some 25 miles north of Hon Me. No parachute was seen, and there was no emergency beeper heard. He was the first USN pilot lost in the war. His remains were returned to US control on August 14, 1985. It is not clear why the Vietnamese waited so long.
Lt. jg Alvarez was flying an A-4C Skyhawk assigned to Attack Squadron 144 “Roadrunners,” call sign Four-Eleven. His target was originally a port facility right on the border with China. The pilots were briefed to be very careful not to drop any ordnance and fire any weapons that might hit Chinese territory. The pilots, looking at the maps, grimaced knowing that a one second misstep could result in their ordnance hitting China. Just prior to launch, the mission was changed to hit Hon Gai. As his group approached the bay they could see that enemy PT boats were out on the water and not tied up at the pier as originally briefed. Alvarez was hit almost immediately. He could not control the aircraft and ejected. Fellow aviators orbited his area for a while but had to leave because of low fuel. “Fishermen” at sea fired at him while he was in the water, captured him and turned him over to NVN authorities.
On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. LBJ signed to resolution on August 10, 1964, and the US would now go to war against the NVN, officially.
Desoto patrols would restart on September 17-18. As a point of interest, the USS Sabalo (SS-302) Balao-class submarine deployed to the Western Pacific (Westpac) on short notice, specifically sent to the Gulf of Tonkin. While near Haiphong, Sabao received reports that two Desoto destroyers, the USS Edwards (DD-950) and Morton (DD-948), were under attack by NVN patrol boats. Sabalo was close but not close enough to get there in time to intercept the patrol boats, though the skipper reported, “During the attack, aircraft from carriers lit up the sky with flares.” An order for a reprisal air attack was in the works, but was scrubbed.
These would be the last Desoto patrols. However, SecDef McNamara told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 20, 1968, “While the ensuing situation reports indicated the probability of hostile craft in the area of the patrol, it was decided at both Washington and field command levels that no credible evidence of an attack existed.”
Nonetheless, CINCPAC and MACV planners continued planning for more shore attacks and capture of NVN naval and civilian vessels. LBJ gave General Westmoreland greater flexibility in scheduling these. Westmoreland favored their continuation but wanted them kept secret.
On October 8, 1964, the ROC set up a ROC MAAG Vietnam in the RVN. It was to furnish political warfare advisers and medical men and help with the problem of refugees. Three LST crews were also sent to assist in the waterborne logistics effort. The LSTs belonged to the US Navy port, Keelung, Taiwan.
“Best turn it (Vietnam) into a bigger war…I’m afraid you really ought to send more troops to the South…Don’t be afraid of U.S. intervention, at most it’s no worse than having another Korean War. The Chinese army is prepared, and if America takes the risk of attacking North Vietnam, the Chinese army will march in at once. Our troops want a war now.”
In an article published in Navy Proceedings, entitled “Stalking the Enemy’s Coast,” Steve Edwards, a licensed master in the U.S. Merchant Marine, wrote this:
“With reference to 34-A, two questions have always arisen: were the 34-A missions effective, and did U.S. Navy SEALs ever go north on these missions? The official answers to these questions have always been ‘no.’ We do now know, however, that specifically targeted high-ranking North Vietnamese naval officers were kidnapped and under interrogation-provided information about, among other things, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. We also now know that U.S. Navy SEALs did go up north. In a June 1980 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute, Captain Phil H. Bucklew, an almost legendary figure in naval special warfare, addressed the 34-A missions specifically: ‘Our SEAL contingents would train Vietnamese SEALs and supervise. They were not allowed to go north of the demarcation line, though they did at times.... ‘ Considering the foregoing, the answer to both of these nagging questions must be ‘yes.’”
I feel compelled to address a few events in 1965 briefly, in part because I had wanted to do the entire story on the Brown Water Navy, and I found out it was in 1965 that the Brown Water Navy really got going. Here’s how.
By 1965 the US Navy had originally intended to help build, equip and train the VNN, but soon found it needed to become actively involved in coastal operations. The NVA was infiltrating large quantities of supplies and large numbers of men by sea, employing mainly trawlers and fishing junks designed to look like normal coastal traffic. And indeed General Westmoreland had asked for increased USN involvement in operations in the RVN.
On 16 February 1965, a 100-ton North Vietnamese trawler from the Transportation Group 125 was discovered at Vung Ro Bay, RVN, a small bay north of Nha Trang. An US Army UH-1B piloted by Lt. James Bowers, USA, flew over the bay and spotted what looked like an island, except Bowers said it was moving! He took a closer look and discovered it was a small ship with many potted plants on the deck and superstructure.
Allied forces attacked this “island” over the next few days and put the vessel aground on the beach. This is a photo of the beached steel-hulled boat. Thomas Cutler, wriiting Brown Water, Black Berets: Cost and Riverine Waters in Vietnam, wrote this:
“A preliminary survey reveal one million rounds of small-arms ammunition, more than 1,000 stick grenades, 500 pounds of TNT in prepare charges, 2,000 rounds of 82-mm mortar ammunition, 500 anti-tank grenades, 1,500 rounds of recoils rife ammunition, more than 3,600 rifles an submachine guns, and 500 pounds of medical supplies. Subsequent examination of dead bodies and the ships contents revealed plenty of evidence indicating this ship was a unit of K.35 Naval Group 125. Any doubt the NVN was shipping such supplies to fight against the RVN by sea was now gone. Furthermore, the USN concluded the VNN was unable to handle the coastal surveillance job.”
The discovery of the Group 125 ship in Vung Ro Bay proved the NVN was transporting supplies, equipment and men to the South by sea. As a result, in March 1965, the JCS authorized the US 7th Feet to conduct patrols off the RVN coast in what was dubbed “Operation Market Time.” The JCS organized Naval Task Force 115 (TF 115) for the task. By March 16, 1965 two USN destroyers were put on patrol along the coast. A-1 Skyraiders off aircraft carriers at a location known as “Dixie Station” and P-3 aircraft were also put on air patrols. By the first week of April some 28 USN and US Coast Guard (USCG) vessels were participating in the Market Time patrols.
The USN joined with the VNN to blockade the coastal areas of the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. The USN employed destroyers, patrol craft, US Coast Guard (USCG) cutters, gun boats, picket boats, landing craft, Boston Whalers along with P5M-2G Marlin flying boats and SP-2H Neptune land-based, maritime surveillance aircraft.
In short order, the vessels with firepower, both small and large, were often called on to go beyond patrolling and to engage enemy forces kinetically to support ARVN land operations.
Market Time had to do with blockading the RVN’s coastline. But the inland rivers remained a problem. By September 1965, a top echelon of Naval officers recommended the creation of an American river patrol employing more than 120 vessels based on the rivers.
On December 18, 1965, the Navy created Task Force 116, a River Patrol Force, to execute “Operation Game Warden.” The mission was to deny the enemy use of the waterways for transporting guerrillas and supplies. This became known as the “Brown Water Navy,” because it was inland on the rivers, as opposed to the “Blue Water Navy” out at sea.
This was no small challenge. It has been estimated the Mekong Delta consisted of over 1440 miles of navigable waterways along with some 4,000 canals of venous depths and widths
I am going to stop my chronological report here.
This so-called Brown Water Navy evolved from the decades-long covert maritime operations I have described thus far. I will pass on something said by navyseals.com:
“The brown water of the Delta provided the foundation for the development of SEAL riverine operations. The SEALs adapted quickly and with deadly results. The braces, inlets and estuaries intermingled and left a broad area for both the North and South to operate. The SEALs and Brown Water Navy Boat Crews made it their job to win this part of the war, impeding as much as possible the movement of troops and supplies coming from the North.
“The SEAL teams experienced this war like no others. Combat with the VC was very close and personal. Unlike the conventional warfare methods of firing artillery into a coordinate location, or dropping bombs from thirty thousand feet, the SEALs operated within inches of their targets. SEALs had to kill at short range and respond without hesitation or be killed. Into the late sixties, the SEALs made great headway with this new style of warfare. Theirs were the most effective anti-guerrilla and guerrilla actions in the war.
“SEALs continued to make forays into North Vietnam and Laos, and unofficially into Cambodia, controlled by the Studies and Observations Group ... The last SEAL platoon departed Vietnam on 7 December 1971. The last SEAL advisor left Vietnam in March 1973.”
You have seen through this report how the decisions were made. You also know that the Navy SEALs remained a classified operation throughout the war. The Naval Museum has said this:
“After about six years of heavy involvement in Vietnam, the relatively small group of SEALs accounted for 600 confirmed VC killed and 300 more almost certainly killed. Numerous others were captured or detained. No statistical tally can be placed on the effects of the intelligence gathered by SEALs, but there is no question that they made a contribution to the war out of all proportion to their numbers. In the psychological war, too, they were extraordinary; going some way towards evening up the unspoken balance of terror and gaining a reputation as fearsome and extraordinary warriors.
“The last SEAL platoon departed Vietnam on 7 December 1971. The last SEAL advisors left Vietnam in March 1973. Between 1965 and 1972 there were 46 SEALs killed in Vietnam. They are forever remembered on the Navy SEAL Memorial at the Museum.
“Three U.S. Navy SEALs were recipients of the Medal of Honor during Vietnam.”