by CDR Thong Ba Le, South Vietnamese Navy
war in Vietnam between the free world and the Communistbloc had reached
a higher level since the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, whichinvolved
North Vietnamese PT boatsand two U.S. Navy destroyers in the international waters. Since
the national resistance against the French from1940-1954, war had taken
the lives of so many innocent people in both North andSouth Vietnam and
now there were more people being killed.
Geneva Convention Accords agreed to end the war between Vietnam and
France, and to divide the Vietnamese's beloved country into twoparts. The Ben Hai River on theseventeenth parallel became the border. Itwas like a long sword of evil cutting across the beautiful land, what used to bean 'S' shaped paradise. Millions ofVietnamese citizens died for their nationalistic ideology and their blood pouredinto the soil of their homeland.
celebrating a victory that had been won with theblood of their own
countrymen, the Communists of Vietnam killed and eliminatedall patriots
who once fought side by side with them. In South Vietnam, the people mourned their lost brothers. The
Communists also destroyed all parties that rebelled against them, andin
1958, they began to sneak troops and equipment through the jungle on
the HoChi Minh trail along Truong Son Mountain. TheNorth
Vietnamese Communists sent supplies and weapons to the South
Vietnamesecoastline by boat, to start another war between the
South Vietnam was at the forefront of the struggle betweenthe free world and the International Communist Party. The
Party was under the leadership of the Russian and the RedChinese who
hoped to conquer Southeast Asia, an area that included Indochina,the
Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia , Singapore and perhaps India, too.
In November 1963, the free world lost two anticommunistleaders. President
Ngo Dinh Diem ofthe Republic of South Vietnam was killed on November
1st in a "Coup d'etat"carried out by his one time loyalists, the Army
Generals. Three weeks later, on November 22,1963,
while visiting Dallas, Texas,President John F. Kennedy was assassinated
in downtown Dallas, in his limousine,with his wife, Jaqueline, sitting
next to him. These two men had been devoted in
their commitment to protect SoutheastAsia, and with their deaths and
new leaders in their place, a new era of war was born.
warincreased the next year and the President of the United States of
America,Lyndon B. Johnson, decided to stop the Communists' plan to rule
Vietnam beforethe other members of the South EastAsia Treaty Organization (SEATO), fell to the Internal Communist Party in adomino effect. In August 1964, inretaliation of the North Vietnamese attack to the USS Maddox and the USS TurneyJoy, President
Johnson ordered Navyairplanes from the aircraft carrier the USS
Ticonderoga of the Seventh Fleet tolaunch a massive attack and air
bombardment of the North Vietnamese Naval Basesand their facilities.
South Vietnamese Army Generals, vowing to fight theCommunists, faced
the uncertainty of maintaining their power over their people. One
military coup after another had hindered the stability of
thegovernment, and it was their primary responsibility to stop the
North Vietnameseinfiltration of South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh trail
before it was too late.
On a sunny day in May 1965, the first United States Marinestepped onto the white sandy beach of Danang. Billowy clouds covered Hai Van pass, which overlooked the Tien sapeninsula. President
Johnsoncommitted himself as the leader of the free world when, with the
approval of theU.S. Congress, he made the historical decision to send
the U.S. Armed Forces tobattle in a foreign country.
In Saigon, the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam (MACV)increased the number of personnel. Therewere more U.S. Advisors working alongside their Vietnamese counterparts in SouthVietnamese units. The
NavalAdvisory Detachment (NAD) and the Mobile Support Team (MST) were
thecounterparts of the South Vietnamese Navy So Phong Ve Duyen Hai,
CoastalSecurity Service (CSS), operating under the command of Nha Ky
Thuat, theStrategic Technical Directorate(STD), of the Vietnamese Bo Tong Tham Muu, or General Staff Headquarters inSaigon. With
their Americancounterpart, the US Studies and Observation Group (SOG),
they carried out acovert operation to deter the war being conducted by
the North Vietnamese in theSouth China Sea from north of the
seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel
Vietnamse Navy crews and 11 Patrol Torpedo-Fast (PTF)boats and 3 Patrol
Craft-Fast (PCF) boats of Luc Luong Hai Tuan, the MaritimePatrol Force,
and many Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams of Luc Luong Biet Hai, theSpecial
Maritime Force, were formed into a Special Task Force that
operateddifferent missions north of the seventeenth parallel. These missions were categorized in four missions called:"Mint, Cado, Loki and Special," and each had a specific task toexecute. Furthermore,
in order toclassify the maritime operating areas, the sea between the
seventeenth paralleland the twentieth was designated by colors, such as
"Purple, Green, Blue,White, Yellow and Red." Theoperation
units conducted their missions along the coast of North Vietnam fromthe
southern edge of Hon Cop island to the Bach Long Vi island in the north. This
dangerous and venturous maritime zone was named by members of
theSpecial Task Force as the "Black Sea Zone" and every night, in
thedarkness of the storm, quietly steaming on the white-capped waves of
the SouthChina Sea, were the phantom boats in different formations--PTF
boats of Mat TranGuom Thieng Ai Quoc, the Sacred Sword of Patriot
League," with its crewmembers wearing black pajamas, on their mission
to search and destroy theirenemy's Naval vessels.
Lieutenant Le Nguyen Thai pushed back the crop of blackhair that had fallen across his forehead. Heconcentrated
on the distance between the torpedo boat of the
Officer-in-TacticalCommand (OTC) and his Patrol Torpedo-Fast boat, PTF
06. A member of the graduating class of
1962-Capricorn the Goat-from theSouth Vietnamese Naval Academy in Nha
Trang, LT Thai had volunteered to serve inthis PTF and SEAL Special
Task Force early the previous year.
The brackish air made him reach for the canteen behind hisseat on the bridge. It
was 2300 ona cool May night in 1966 at the international waters north
of the seventeenthparallel in the South China Sea. The half-moon,
reflecting a beautiful stream oflight on the waves, hung on the
starboard quarter of the formation of PT boats
"The sea is very calm tonight," LT Thai said tohimself; the wind blew gently from the east-northeast.
LT Thai recalled the briefing in the conference room thathad taken place fifteen minutes prior to getting underway. After
going over the mission, the operations officer from the U.S.
NavalAdvisory Detachment (NAD), Lieutenant Commander Tom and his
Vietnamesecounterpart from the Coastal Security Service (CSS), LT
Charlie, had wishedeveryone "good luck.
"We do need a lot of luck tonight," LT Thaithought. As
he pondered how therest of the night might transpire, he had a
difficult time pushing away thethought that the task ahead was
something of a "Mission Impossible.
"Skipper." LTThai turned to face the executive officer, LTJG Tan, who had climbed up from theradar room located just below the bridge.
"We havereached check point Bravo, sir. Irecommend setting General Quarters now.
"Very well. GeneralQuarters, all hands man your battle stations.
LT Thai gave the order to his crew to ready themselves forcombat conditions. Sailorsthroughout the boat donned flak jackets and helmets as they rushed past oneanother to their GQ stations.
Tan,check with Chief Cuong to see if the oil pressure problem in the
port engine hasbeen taken care of." LT Thai continued, "I want all the
power we canget-we might need to run flank speed tonight." He paused and looked at his executive officer.
LTJG Tanhurried below to get a status report from his chief petty officer. He returned a moment later and reported back that everything had beenrepaired.
LT Thaitraversed the steps leading down to the radar room. The NCO-in-charge of the sonar and radar, First Class Petty Officer Hau,saluted and reported:
"Good evening skipper. We are on schedule, sir.
"Very well, Petty Officer Hau," acknowledged LTThai. "Let me take alook."
Under the red light in the radar room, LT Thai eyed a chartof the North Vietnamese coastline. Thechart rested neatly atop a small desk. Aradar repeater stood in the middle of the small room. On the right of the deck, there were sets of scanners, wires, and knobsof the radio and sonar equipment.
infront of the radar repeater, LT Thai studied the position of his
boat, call-nameHai Au, relative to the other boats in the task group. The scope intermittently displayed three diamond-like echoes equallyspaced forward and aft of his boat. Thefour boats were steaming in an "I" formation with Hai Dang, the OTC,designated as the lead boat and guide. BehindLT Thai's boat were Bach Dang and Truong Giang.
LT Thai adjusted the bearing and range knobs to estimatehis boat's distance from Hai Dang's stern. "Two hundred eighty yards. Notbad for night-time station keeping."
The radarrepeater indicated no contacts within ten miles of the formation. Extending the range scale to 35 miles, he could see the outline of theVietnamese coastline. Mui Ron, located north of the 18th parallel, was aboutseventeen and a half miles away at 250 degrees relative. The task group was now in the "Black Sea zone," and the actionwould begin within a matter of hours.
"We're almost to 'green section' and will alter coursein about ten minutes," LT Thai stated.
"Yes sir, we are right on time, thanks to the weatherand the calm sea tonight," his radar man replied
LT Thai looked again to the chart on the desk. It depicted various color blocks along the coastal line corresponding tocode names of the operating areas of LT Thai's missions. The areas were Purple, Green, Blue, White, Yellow and Red, and extendedfrom the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel.
"Hai Au, Bach Dang, Truong Giang, this is Hai Dang,over".
LT Thai heardthe voice of LT Tung on the radio. LTTung was the OTC and captain of Hai Dang.
"Hai Dang, this is Hai Au, roger, over,"responded his "XO" as voices from the other PT boats followed.
"This is Bang Dang, roger, over.
"This is Truong Giang, roger, over." The voices from the last two boats were very clear.
"This is Hai Dang, all units change course to 335,formation India, execute over.
"This is Hai Au, roger, out.
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out.
"This is Truong Giang, roger, out.
The PT boats followed one another's wakes to the orderedcourse. Days and nights of trainingand practice were clearly evident as the boats smartly executed the OTC's order.
The PT boats were now heading north-northwest towardcoastline of Ha Tinh province. LTThai returned to his chair on the bridge and scanned the horizon. Just forward of his port beam were some flares hanging lonely in the sky,their pale rays looking like the light of the universe.
Thai mused, all at once feeling profound pity for thepeople who were
suffering with the war that had caused them pain for many, manyyears. He
thought about his friendand OTC of the task group, LT Tung, a native of
North Vietnam who had emigratedto South Vietnam in 1954. He was aNaval Academy graduate of class Eight -"Scorpio the Scorpion"- an outstanding, experienced officerwho had been with the Task Force for more than two years.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, over."
The voice from the radio brought LT Thai back to thepresent. He responded, "This is Hai Au, over" and waited for other boats to do thesame.
"This is Hai Dang, all units change course to 285,formation India, execute, over."
LT Thairesponded and executed the order from the OTC, he looked down at
the radar scopethrough the small window next to the throttles. The outline of the shoreline south of the Ha Tinh Bay was nowjust ahead of the task group.
"What isthe distance to the shore, Mr. Tan?" he asked.
executive officer, standing anxiously in front of theradar repeater,
answered, "About 11 miles and closing, sir. Speed is 25knots and we
will reach our target in about 20 minutes.
"Very well," LT Thai answered and then gave anorder to the radioman standing next to him:
"Forward81mm mortar standby, set up distance 800 yards."
The sailor repeated the order to the forward gun crew, andLT Thai watched as they prepared the mortar rounds for firing.
"All units, this is Hai Dang. Reduce speed to ten knots, one zero knots and prepare toexecute to fire Lima, over.
"This is Hai Au, roger, out.
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out.
"This is Truong Giang, roger, out.
The four PT boats were quickly approaching their targets.
"Distance 5000 yards from shore, sir. We're pretty close, Skipper."
LT Thai acknowledged the report from his "XO." He suddenly felt a tingling sensation down the back of his neck. This feeling often occurred when LT Thai was about to engage in battleand disappeared as soon as the first gun shot was fired.
"Distance 1500 yards," LTJG Tan reportednervously from the radar room.
"All hands standby. Forward 81mm mortar standby to fire leaflets on my command.
His task group's primary mission tonight was to shoot rounds containing anticommunist leaflets into enemy posts located on theshore. As
part of the psychologicalwarfare program against the North Vietnamese
Communist government, theseleaflets were designed to inform the
civilian populace about Mat Tran GuomThieng Ai Quoc-the Sacred Sword of
Patriot League. According to intelligencereports, these enemy posts
were manned with 155mm batteries to defend theirseaboard.
"They should know that we're here. Why is it so quiet? Theymust
have fallen asleep tonight," LT Thai whispered to his quartermaster,who
was at the helm and concentrating on keeping the boat in position.
"All units this is Hai Dang, change course to 000,formation India, execute, over.
The four PT boats turned parallel to the shoreline. All guns were trained to the coastline and ready to fire.
600 yards from shore...sonar indicates thatthe depth is 55 feet and
dropping fast, Skipper," LTJG Tan reported to LTThai.
"Very well Tan, we are going to open fire now,"he hoped. "We're too close tothe beach.
"All units this is Hai Dang, speed 35 knots, fire atwill, out.
LT Thai responded, pushing the throttles forward, andordered:
"Forward 81, batteries released!"
LT Thaiwatched the mortar crew load round after round into the muzzle. "Pup, pup, pup," was the sound emanating from themortar as the rounds were fired. Suddenly,there were explosions all around the boats.
"All units, change course to 090, formation two,repeat formation two, flank speed, execute, out.
All the PT boats made a sharp 90 degree turn to starboard,forming a line abreast.
LT Thai pushed the throttles all the way forward toincrease his speed to flank, which was about 55 knots. The bow of his PT boat raised up; the boat was almost flying out of thewater, with only the stern still touching its surface.
LT Thai maintained his position while artillery shellsexploded dangerously close to his boat. Saltwaterspray covered his face. His crewwas courageously and calmly returning fire. They were used to these dangerous situations, although never before hadthey been this close to the shore to deliver leaflets.
40mm cannon aft fired noisily, and the sound "tac..tac.. tac" from the
two Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft cannons on either sideof the boat was
deafening. Tracesof the rounds drew hundreds of lines toward the shore, and exploded when theyhit their targets on the beach.
moonbeams streamed down from the western sky and theflares lightened up
the darkness of a cool night, LT Thai saw the other boatsclinging to
the surface of the sea. HaiDang was on the left, and Bach Dang was on the right. He could not make out Truong Giang's silhouette, but he couldsee the flashes of gunfire from the boat.
The enemy artillery shells were still falling and explodingaround their boats. Fortunately,the PT boats were very small, fast moving targets that zigzagged easily. Even those enemy rockets that were radar controlled could only manage tohit the water at about 30 to100 yards from the boats
"The distance is 5000 yards, we're just about out oftheir range, Skipper.
"Very well, all hands maintain your stations.
"Lookouts, keep an eye on the sky for enemyairplanes." His crew hadceased firing for now.
"All units this is Hai Dang, resume speed to 25 knots,formation Delta, execute, out.
LT Thai reduced speed and maneuvered into station. His boat was now on the guide boat's starboard quarter. Bach
Dang maneuvered to his position on the OTC's port quarter, andTruong
Giang closed to complete the "diamond shaped" formation. This Delta formation was used to protect the group from the attack ofenemy airplanes flying out from their bases inland.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, report damage andcasualties, over".
"Hai Dang, this is Hai Au, negative damage andcasualties, over.
"Hai Dang, this is Bach Dang, negative damage. One crew member is slightly wounded, over.
"Hai Dang, this is Truong Giang, port bow abovewaterline was hit, damage control crew is repairing. No serious problems, over.
LT Thai exhaled softly and said to himself:
" LCDR Tom was right, we had a lot of luck in thisbattle.
"This is Hai Dang, change course to 165, formationDelta, speed 35 knots. We're goinghome, out."
The PT boats turned to the new course, still maintainingthe anti-aircraft formation, and increased their speed heading south. LT Thai looked at his aluminum wristwatch and saw that the time was 0220.
" This is Hai Dang. Job well done, my friends."
LT Tung paused and then said:
"Thank you all very much, out.
The halfmoon, on the boats' starboard bows, was still hanging on the far horizon overthe Motherland.
As on many other missions after the battle was over, LTThai felt himself changing back from a warrior to a man. Sometimes LT Thai wondered and asked himself how long the warwould continue. Would he and hisfriends have the patience and courage to fight until the end?
Thairemembered the day when he kneeled down to accept "the Sword of
Honor"from the President of The Republic of Vietnam, and along with
other commissionednaval officers, took the oath to protect and defend
his country. He had kept his oath until now.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, formation India,execute, out.
LT Thai and the other skippers maneuvered their boats intothe "I" formation.
"All hands secure from General Quarters," LT Thaiordered.
His radioman relayed the order to the crew to stand downfrom their GQ stations.
boats were about to get to the Purple area, and it wasfairly safe now
because enemy airplanes rarely ventured this far from theirbases.
LT Thai said to himself:
"There goes another night's adventure.
The mission which this task group had carried out was oneof four maritime missions. Thisnight's mission was named Operation "Mint." The others were called "Cado," "Loki" and"Special" missions.
six color blocks from the seventeenth parallel to thetwentieth parallel
and the four category missions, had been named by the"Special Sea
Warriors" as "Vung Bien Den" or the "BlackSea zone".