Fighting along the Rach Ba Rai, September 15, 1967
The Inhospitable Delta of South Vietnam
Inter-service rivalry has always in existed in the armed services of the United States, and indeed in military forces all over the world. On occasion it has become quite intense. In most cases, however, in times of war the branches of the military quit fighting each other and fight the enemy. The Riverine force was a unique concept. It was a united effort of the United States Army and the United States Navy to deal with a very different situation in South Vietnam.
The Delta region, in the southern fourth of South Vietnam has been likened to a manís hand with twisted fingers. The fingers are the four main rivers that flow into the South China Sea. The Ca Mau Peninsula, jutting out into the sea, looks like a large swollen thumb.
It is a waterlogged environment, laced like a spiderweb with thousands of streams, canals, and marshes. It is covered with mangrove or nipa palm trees. The inhabitants live on the water. From the air, the area always appears to be a flood disaster zones. Most houses are built on stilts. Even the rice grown there thrives due to extended roots.
The land is ever changing. Shoals and sandbars are always shifting. They appear and disappear. The smells are a strange harmony of sweetness and rot. The abundant hibiscus flowers emit a strong perfume. About the only thing that is consistent is the heat - oh, and the presence of the Viet Cong.
Once a series of improvements and drainage programs carried out in the last years of the French dominion, the Mekong Delta had become the heartland and rice barrel of South Vietnam. In 1965 more than nine million people lived in the region. It was perhaps the most productive area food-wise for the entire country. Of course, the rebel communist forces immediately recognized its value and began a well-organized program to control the entire area. Its inaccessibility would make any incursions against them most difficult. There were ways, however, to overcome these difficulties.
Fighting on the Delta
During the time of the French, the enemy known as the Viet Minh, had infested the area and controlled some 80 per cent of the population. To combat them, the French forces acquired much of the discarded amphibious World War II equipment from the United States. From the LVTs, LCVPs, LCAs, DUKWs and Weasels, they organized "dinassauts" (naval assault divisions).
In more ample spaces, the French used bigger vessels, such as transport ships and minesweepers. They fought well against the tenacious Viet Minh. This maritime-amphibious force would be the inspiration of the "Brown Water Navy" of the United States during its involvement in Vietnam.
The Brown Water Navy
When the United States committed ground forces to the escalating violence in Vietnam, it quickly became apparent that this was a new type of war and demanded innovative changes. In central Vietnam and the highlands, it would be the airmobile force with the Huey helicopter that would write one chapter of a new type of warfare.
In the south, the problem of a waterlogged land presented a different sort of problem. To resolve it, the Army and the Navy would have to work together against a common enemy, the Viet Cong. The US Navy followed in the wake of the French and then improved on their techniques. At first they operated an offshore blockade and supplied advisors to the Vietnamese military forces attempting to control the enemy and eliminate a most elusive enemy. The Navy found itself being drawn inland and eventually into mobile amphibious operations on the French pattern. The Navy, however, was able to use the waterways in ways the French had never been able to do.
Even before the major commitment of US forces, the Navyís presence and training of the ARVN forces proved most effective. There were heroes even then. One was Lieutenant Harold Dale Meyerkord. In a series of engagements between November 1964 and January 1965, Lt. Meyerkord demonstrated unusual bravery in a number of hostile situations. On January 13th, 1965, he was serving as advisor to RAG #23 (River Assault Group), that was tied up in a big firefight two miles north of the Mekong River.
When the ARVN commander was killed, Meyerkord took over the leadership of the operation. In only minutes, he too was wounded. Being in the lead boat, he found himself cut off and a number of his crew out of action. He continued to fire at the enemy until fatally wounded. His action allowed the other boats to get into position and rout the enemy. For his valor he was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously.
Task Force 116
To recapture once and for all the waterways of the Delta, Task Force 116 (codenamed Game Warden) was formed on December 18th, 1965. Initially, the Navy had nothing in its inventory to fight this kind of war. It was a war not quite on water and not quite on land, and yet it was both. In a lightning campaign, a series of large and small naval craft were modified for the task. If not available, they were produced. The classic example of excellence was the tiny PBR (Patrol Boat Riverine, or as its crew renamed it, "Proud, Reliable, and Brave").
But the fighting would have to be taken inland. When the patrol boats cleaned up the rivers, the enemy simply melted away into the thick foliage, out of range of the guns. To root them out, army troops would have to be used. The Republic of South Vietnam committed the 7th and 21st Divisions, plus various naval and marine units. From the United States came units of the 9th Division. A second task force was formed; this one called Task Force 117. Its craft included armored personnel carriers called ATCs (Armored Troop Carriers). To support them, heavily armed and armored craft, called "monitors" (recalling the unique ship of the Civil War) were designed. They carried every type of weapon including twin 40mm guns, grenade launchers, mortars and flamethrowers.
These forces were active in the IV Corps and the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ) at the mouth of the Saigon River. TF 117 was organized into four 400-men river assault squadrons. Each squadron had troop carriers and five monitors. The task force also kept in operations at Dong Tam a barracks ship and numerous barges, the larger of which carried 105mm howitzers for quick artillery support. It was a well-equipped highly motivated force that provided a serious challenge to the 263rd and 516th Main Force VC battalions that were attempting to control the area. From June 1967 through July 1968 this mobile Riverine force conducted one attack after another against their enemy in Operation Coronado.
Ambush on the Rach Ba Rai
One of the biggest actions of TF 117 took place on August 15-16 1967 along the Rach Ba Rai River. Colonel Bert A. Davidís Mobile Riverine Brigade had just come back from one encounter with the 263rd VC Main Force battalion and was going back for more. The Colonelís plan was to trap the enemy in their positions along the river, about 8 miles north of its confluence with the Mekong River.
They were supposedly entrenched along a twist in the river called "Snoopyís Point" (because its shape resembled the nose of the famous "Peanuts" dog). He planned on pushing the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry past the point to Beach White One. Another battalion, the 3rd of the 47th would come overland from the south. The empty river craft would form a block at the river.
Finally the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry would enter from the east in M-113 troop carriers with tank support. This latter force would serve as the hammer that would slam down on the anvil of the previously mentioned units. This would leave the VC with no way out and allow them to be cut to pieces with artillery and air support.
That was the plan. But, as so often happens in war, the enemy does not cooperate. Instead of holding their fire as the ships moved passed, headed to Beach White One, the enemy chose to open fire from carefully concealed points along the river bank, some positions so close to the waterline that the guns on the ships could not depress enough to return fire. RPG rounds buzzed like angry hornets and pummeled the armor of the ATCs and the monitors. T-91-1, an ATC, received five RPG hits in less than a minute and was ordered to the rear. Instead its captain chose to stay and fight.
Navy Sea Wolf helicopters darted in and out, firing miniguns and rockets into suspected enemy emplacements. The fighting raged for hours, with some of the ATCs managing to get their human and armored cargo on land.
Once on shore, however, the situation did not improve. Hardly had the men landed when fire from Viet Cong riflemen began to knock down GIs. Automatic weapons fire increased the carnage. Screams of pain and calls for medical attention could be heard above the din of small arms fire and bursting mortar shells. Grenadiers took position and returned fire with canister rounds from the M-79s.
Air support was called in and an immediate dispatch was sent, ordering the 2nd Battalion, 60th Regiment in from the east by helicopter. By dayís end the fighting had virtually ended. The descent of night brought fear to the GIs on shore but it proved to be groundless. The enemy had done his famous disappearing act. Charlie had taken a beating and was headed for the safety of the bush. He took comfort, however, in the fact that for a moment, he was giving as good as he got. The fighting along the Delta would go on, deadly and unabated.
Article reproduced courtesy of the original author, 'Wild Bill' Wilder, from The Gamers Net