As you’ll notice from the map in Part I, South Vietnam had a very long coastline.The first task of any navy is to secure the seas, and in the Vietnam War, our Navy strove to do just that. While the North Vietnamese navy was little real threat to our operations, we were determined to deny them use of Vietnamese waters to them for logistics or movement of personnel. Accordingly, Operation Market Time was launched to track all movement in the waters off Vietnam, and to search or seize any suspicious vessels, from ocean-going trawlers, to wooden junks, to humble sampans just along the shoreline. Such an operation eventually required a large, layered screen, with multiple types of platforms.
The first layer, furthest out to sea, consisted of long range maritime patrol planes tracking ocean going vessels well off shore. P-2 Neptunes and later P-3 Orions (and until 1967, P-5 Marlin flying boats) operated from the Philippines or Thailand scoured the South China Sea to track vessels. All contacts were reported to one of five regional control centers in South Vietnam.
Just inshore from these patrol planes was the main body of the surface blockade, generally destroyers or later, radar picket destroyer escorts. The radar picket destroyer escorts had extremely fuel efficient diesel propulsion, giving them outstanding endurance on station.
But the sheer number of small craft that needed boarding and searching was far more than a screen of destroyer escorts could possibly address. Further, much of the traffic that needed to be searched travelled very close inshore, where the larger vessels could not venture. The Coast Guard contributed the services of quite a few 82’ patrol boats, but far more boats were needed, and even the 82’ boats were seen as too large and expensive to procure in the numbers envisioned.
The Navy hadn’t spend a lot of time developing small craft specifically for wartime use. Almost all small boats designed by and for the Navy were for use as ships boats. It was tacitly assumed that the Navy could turn to private industry for a boat to support any small combatant needs. As the war in Vietnam began to heat up, the Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (NAVADGRP MACV) did publish a list of attributes that it felt such a small craft should have:
1. Reliable and sturdy.
2. Non-wooden hull, with screw and rudder protection against groundings.
3. Self-sufficient for 400-500 mile patrol.
4. Speed of 20/25 knots.
5. Small high-resolution radar (Range up to 4-6 miles.)
6. Reliable long-range communications equipment, and equipment compatible with Army and Air Force equipment.
7. Quiet operation.
8. Armament for limited offense.
9. Sparse berthing, no messing.
10. Fathometer, accurate from 0-50 feet.
11. Small, powerful searchlight.
Accordingly, the Navy searched for a small boat that would be suitable for the task. And they found it in the Gulf of Mexico servicing oil platforms.
In the early 1960s, offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was just starting to boom. Most platforms were in relatively shallow waters fairly close to shore. Movement of workers to and from the platforms called for a fair number of small, fast boats with good stability, payload capacity, range, and ease of use. Stewart Seacraft of Berwick, Louisiana, made a popular water taxi to support the offshore oil rigs.
As the Navy was starting to look around for a small craft that could support operations off the coast of Vietnam, one of the civilians on the staff of the Bureau of Ships recalled Stewart’s water taxi. Pretty soon, the Navy had requested Stewart to modify their boat to include armament and communications suitable for the Navy, and almost instantly after that, the 50’ Patrol Craft Fast (PCF) or “Swift Boat” was placed into production. Total time from the original visit to Stewart to signed contracts? Less than one month. And 40 days later, the first four craft were delivered. Imagine any procurement program moving that fast in today’s environment! It would take longer than that for DoN to come up with the name of the program. Within 2 years, 108 PCF had been ordered. By the end of the program in 1972, 171 boats were built, with many of these later craft ordered for allies such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and even Brazil.
The “Swift Boat,” known in Navy-speak as a Patrol Craft, Fast, was 50’ long. Powered by twin diesel engines, it had a top speed of about 25 knots. That’s pretty slow by today’s powerboat standards, but at the time was pretty fair. And it was more than enough to run down virtually any junk or sampan. Armed with a twin .50cal mount over the pilothouse, and a combination .50cal/81mm mortar on the fantail, it had pretty good firepower for its size. The 81mm mortar was originally mainly intended to fire illumination rounds for spotting at night, but proved quite handy in providing rapid fire support against shore targets. The five or six man crew also carried a liberal supply of small arms.
PCF-1, now on display at the Washington Navy Yard. Note the gun tub on top of the pilothouse, and the combo gun/mortar mount on the fantail.
A small, commercial surface search radar helped boats detect targets at night, though the weak radar returns of wooden sampans meant that a radar with a nominal range of 10-12 miles might only pick up a target at a half to a quarter mile.
Communications was originally provided by an HF Single Side Band radio typical of Navy communications. But soon most boats sported the same VRC-46 series FM radio that the Army used in its vehicles. Ease of operation and interoperability with other services meant that the VRC-46 quickly became the primary commo system. Many boats also sported a short range PRC-25 radio system in the pilothouse.
While the boats had bunks and a fairly well equipped galley, patrols rarely lasted more than 12 to 24 hours. Operating at low speeds, the boats had enough fuel for about 96 hours. But boats rarely operated at low speeds. Higher speeds greatly reduced the boats endurance. Further, while the boats were quite seaworthy, they also were quite lively, and would leave the crews exhausted after a day of bouncing from wave to wave.
The PCFs operated from a series of austere bases along the coast of South Vietnam. Given the enormous length of the coastline, and the relatively small number of boats in service, especially with the enormous numbers of small native craft afloat, there was always a challenge providing more than the most cursory coverage of the entire operational area. Having said that, the North Vietnamese actually made remarkably few attempts at serious resupply of the forces by sea. One of the few times they did, attempting to run the blockade with five 100 ton trawlers, ended in disaster for them. But the use of the inshore patrols by Swift Boats and other assets also prevented the Viet Cong from freely using small craft along the coastline to move men and arms. PCF and other TF115 elements provided fire support for troops ashore, served as blocking forces to prevent VC units from fleeing ground forces, and aided in transportation and logistics support of ground units operating near the coast.
Because the PCF was so swiftly (heh) adapted from a commercial design, there were some design features the Navy decided to change in later production bo
ats. This led to the purchase of MkII and MkIII series boats. But because of the rushed nature of the program, there were large numbers of MkI boats in service, and only relatively small numbers of the later boats were deployed to Vietnam.
Training for PCF crews was originally at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in San Diego, but soon shifted to Mare Island, as the back bay of San Francisco Bay more closely resembled the waters and coastline of Vietnam.
PCF crews were quickly deployed to Vietnam, while their boats were sent as deck cargo aboard freighters. Soon Boat Squadron One (later Coastal Squadron One) and its associated Boat Divisions 101-106 (later CoastDivs) were conducting operations.
Other vessels such as the Asheville class PGs also supported Operation Market Time, but the PCFs formed the backbone of the inshore operations.
As the war wound on, PCFs would be used less for coastal patrol and more for riverine warfare, but that’s the topic for a later chapter.
If the PCF and the organization of the Coastal Divisions which operated them were imperfect weapons, we should remember that from concept to actual operations happened in an incredibly short span of time. The Navy of that time saw a need, procured boats, assigned personnel, trained the force and deployed it in a matter of only a couple of months. Contrast that with the Navy of the Post 9/11 wars that took interminable years to field a riverine force to aid in the conflict in Iraq.