The Maritime Patrol Force
PTF Zero Six
The South Vietnamese Navy Special Maritime Operations
The war in Vietnam between the free world and the Communist bloc had reached a higher level since the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, which involved North Vietnamese PT boats and two U.S. Navy destroyers in the international waters. Since the national resistance against the French from 1940-1954, war had taken the lives of so many innocent people in both North and South Vietnam and now there were more people being killed.
of the Nasty class Patrol Torpedo-Fast Boat
Commander Thong Ba Le, South Vietnamese Navy
The Geneva Convention Accords agreed to end the war between Vietnam and France, and to divide the Vietnamese's beloved country into two parts. The Ben Hai River on the seventeenth parallel became the border. It was like a long sword of evil cutting across the beautiful land, what used to be an 'S' shaped paradise. Millions of Vietnamese citizens died for their nationalistic ideology and their blood poured into the soil of their homeland.
After celebrating a victory that had been won with the blood of their own countrymen, the Communists of Vietnam killed and eliminated all 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, and in 1958, they began to sneak troops and equipment through the jungle on the Ho Chi Minh trail along Truong Son Mountain. The North Vietnamese Communists sent supplies and weapons to the South Vietnamese coastline by boat, to start another war between the ideologists.
South Vietnam was at the forefront of the struggle between the free world and the International Communist Party. The Party was under the leadership of the Russian and the Red Chinese 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 anticommunist leaders. President Ngo Dinh Diem of the 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 Southeast Asia, and with their deaths and new leaders in their place, a new era of war was born.
The war increased the next year and the President of the United States of America, Lyndon B. Johnson, decided to stop the Communists' plan to rule Vietnam before the other members of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), fell to the Internal Communist Party in a domino effect. In August 1964, in retaliation of the North Vietnamese attack to the USS Maddox and the USS Turney Joy, President Johnson ordered Navy airplanes from the aircraft carrier the USS Ticonderoga of the Seventh Fleet to launch a massive attack and air bombardment of the North Vietnamese Naval Bases and their facilities.
The South Vietnamese Army Generals, vowing to fight the Communists, faced the uncertainty of maintaining their power over their people. One military coup after another had hindered the stability of the government, and it was their primary responsibility to stop the North Vietnamese infiltration 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 Marine stepped onto the white sandy beach of Danang. Billowy clouds covered Hai Van pass, which overlooked the Tien sa peninsula. President Johnson committed himself as the leader of the free world when, with the approval of the U.S. Congress, he made the historical decision to send the U.S. Armed Forces to battle in a foreign country.
In Saigon, the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam (MACV) increased the number of personnel. There were more U.S. Advisors working alongside their Vietnamese counterparts in South Vietnamese units. The Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) and the Mobile Support Team (MST) were the counterparts of the South Vietnamese Navy So Phong Ve Duyen Hai, Coastal Security Service (CSS), operating under the command of Nha Ky Thuat, the Strategic Technical Directorate (STD), of the Vietnamese Bo Tong Tham Muu, or General Staff Headquarters in Saigon. With their American counterpart, the US Studies and Observation Group (SOG), they carried out a covert operation to deter the war being conducted by the North Vietnamese in the South China Sea from north of the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel
Twelve Vietnamse Navy crews and 12 Patrol Torpedo-Fast (PTF) boats and 3 Patrol Craft-Fast (PCF) boats of Luc Luong Hai Tuan, the Maritime Patrol Force, and many Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams of Luc Luong Biet Hai, the Special Maritime Force, were formed into a Special Task Force that operated different 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 to execute. Furthermore, in order to classify the maritime operating areas, the sea between the seventeenth parallel and the twentieth was designated by colors, such as "Purple, Green, Blue, White, Yellow and Red." The operation units conducted their missions along the coast of North Vietnam from the 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 the Special Task Force as the "Black Sea Zone" and every night, in the darkness of the storm, quietly steaming on the white-capped waves of the South China Sea, were the phantom boats in different formations, PTF boats of Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc (The Sacred Sword of Patriot League) with its crew members wearing black pajamas, on their mission to search and destroy their enemy's Naval vessels.
The Black Sea Zone
Lieutenant Le Nguyen Thai pushed back the crop of black hair that had fallen across his forehead. He concentrated on the distance between the torpedo boat of the Officer-in-Tactical Command (OTC) and his Patrol Torpedo-Fast boat, PTF 06. A member of the graduating class of 1962-Capricorn the Goat-from the South Vietnamese Naval Academy in Nha Trang, LT Thai had volunteered to serve in this PTF and SEAL Special Task Force early the previous year.
The brackish air made him reach for the canteen behind his seat on the bridge. It was 2300 on a cool May night in 1966 at the international waters north of the seventeenth parallel in the South China Sea. The half-moon, reflecting a beautiful stream of light on the waves, hung on the starboard quarter of the formation of PT boats
"The sea is very calm tonight," LT Thai said to himself; the wind blew gently from the east-northeast.
LT Thai recalled the briefing in the conference room that had taken place fifteen minutes prior to getting underway. After going over the mission, the operations officer from the U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD), Lieutenant Commander Tom and his Vietnamese counterpart from the Coastal Security Service (CSS), LT Charlie, had wished everyone "good luck".
"We do need a lot of luck tonight," LT Thai thought. As he pondered how the rest of the night might transpire, he had a difficult time pushing away the thought that the task ahead was something of a "Mission Impossible.
"Skipper." LT Thai turned to face the executive officer, LTJG Tan, who had climbed up from the radar room located just below the bridge.
"We have reached check point Bravo, sir. I recommend setting General Quarters now.
"Very well. General Quarters, all hands man your battle stations.
LT Thai gave the order to his crew to ready themselves for combat conditions. Sailors throughout the boat donned flak jackets and helmets as they rushed past one another to their GQ stations.
"Mr. Tan, check with Chief Cuong to see if the oil pressure problem in the port engine has been taken care of." LT Thai continued, "I want all the power we can get-we might need to run flank speed tonight." He paused and looked at his executive officer.
"Aye aye, sir."
LTJG Tan hurried below to get a status report from his chief petty officer. He returned a moment later and reported back that everything had been repaired.
LT Thai traversed 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 LT Thai. "Let me take a look."
Under the red light in the radar room, LT Thai eyed a chart of the North Vietnamese coastline. The chart rested neatly atop a small desk. A radar repeater stood in the middle of the small room. On the right of the deck, there were sets of scanners, wires, and knobs of the radio and sonar equipment.
Standing in front of the radar repeater, LT Thai studied the position of his boat, call-name Hai Au, relative to the other boats in the task group. The scope intermittently displayed three diamond-like echoes equally spaced forward and aft of his boat. The four boats were steaming in an "I" formation with Hai Dang, the OTC, designated as the lead boat and guide. Behind LT Thai's boat were Bach Dang and Truong Giang.
LT Thai adjusted the bearing and range knobs to estimate his boat's distance from Hai Dang's stern. "Two hundred eighty yards. Not bad for night-time station keeping."
The radar repeater indicated no contacts within ten miles of the formation. Extending the range scale to 35 miles, he could see the outline of the Vietnamese coastline. Mui Ron, located north of the 18th parallel, was about seventeen and a half miles away at 250 degrees relative. The task group was now in the "Black Sea zone," and the action would begin within a matter of hours.
"We're almost to 'green section' and will alter course in about ten minutes," LT Thai stated.
"Yes sir, we are right on time, thanks to the weather and 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 to code names of the operating areas of LT Thai's missions. The areas were Purple, Green, Blue, White, Yellow and Red, and extended from the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel.
"Hai Au, Bach Dang, Truong Giang, this is Hai Dang, over".
LT Thai heard the voice of LT Tung on the radio. LT Tung 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 ordered course. Days and nights of training and practice were clearly evident as the boats smartly executed the OTC's order.
The PT boats were now heading north-northwest toward coastline of Ha Tinh province. LT Thai 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.
LT Thai mused, all at once feeling profound pity for the people who were suffering with the war that had caused them pain for many, many years. He thought about his friend and OTC of the task group, LT Tung, a native of North Vietnam who had emigrated to South Vietnam in 1954. He was a Naval Academy graduate of class Eight -"Scorpio the Scorpion"- an outstanding, experienced officer who 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 the present. He responded, "This is Hai Au, over" and waited for other boats to do the same.
"This is Hai Dang, all units change course to 285, formation India, execute, over."
After LT Thai responded and executed the order from the OTC, he looked down at the radar scope through the small window next to the throttles. The outline of the shoreline south of the Ha Tinh Bay was now just ahead of the task group.
"What is the distance to the shore, Mr. Tan?" he asked.
The executive officer, standing anxiously in front of the radar repeater, answered, "About 11 miles and closing, sir. Speed is 25 knots and we will reach our target in about 20 minutes.
"Very well," LT Thai answered and then gave an order to the radioman standing next to him:
"Forward 81mm mortar standby, set up distance 800 yards."
The sailor repeated the order to the forward gun crew, and LT 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 to execute 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 battle and disappeared as soon as the first gun shot was fired.
"Distance 1500 yards," LTJG Tan reported nervously 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 the shore. As part of the psychological warfare program against the North Vietnamese Communist government, these leaflets were designed to inform the civilian populace about Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc-the Sacred Sword of Patriot League. According to intelligence reports, these enemy posts were manned with 155mm batteries to defend their seaboard.
"They should know that we're here. Why is it so quiet? They must 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.
"Distance 600 yards from shore...sonar indicates that the depth is 55 feet and dropping fast, Skipper," LTJG Tan reported to LT Thai.
"Very well Tan, we are going to open fire now," he hoped. "We're too close to the beach.
"All units this is Hai Dang, speed 35 knots, fire at will, out.
LT Thai responded, pushing the throttles forward, and ordered:
"Forward 81, batteries released!"
LT Thai watched the mortar crew load round after round into the muzzle. "Pup, pup, pup," was the sound emanating from the mortar 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 to increase his speed to flank, which was about 55 knots. The bow of his PT boat raised up; the boat was almost flying out of the water, with only the stern still touching its surface.
LT Thai maintained his position while artillery shells exploded dangerously close to his boat. Saltwater spray covered his face. His crew was courageously and calmly returning fire. They were used to these dangerous situations, although never before had they been this close to the shore to deliver leaflets.
The 40mm cannon aft fired noisily, and the sound "tac.. tac.. tac" from the two Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft cannons on either side of the boat was deafening. Traces of the rounds drew hundreds of lines toward the shore, and exploded when they hit their targets on the beach.
The moonbeams streamed down from the western sky and the flares lightened up the darkness of a cool night, LT Thai saw the other boats clinging to the surface of the sea. Hai Dang was on the left, and Bach Dang was on the right. He could not make out Truong Giang's silhouette, but he could see the flashes of gunfire from the boat.
The enemy artillery shells were still falling and exploding around 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 to hit the water at about 30 to100 yards from the boats
"The distance is 5000 yards, we're just about out of their range, Skipper.
"Very well, all hands maintain your stations.
"Lookouts, keep an eye on the sky for enemy airplanes." His crew had ceased 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, and Truong Giang closed to complete the "diamond shaped" formation. This Delta formation was used to protect the group from the attack of enemy airplanes flying out from their bases inland.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, report damage and casualties, over".
"Hai Dang, this is Hai Au, negative damage and casualties, over.
"Hai Dang, this is Bach Dang, negative damage. One crew member is slightly wounded, over.
"Hai Dang, this is Truong Giang, port bow above waterline 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 this battle.
"This is Hai Dang, change course to 165, formation Delta, speed 35 knots. We're going home, out."
The PT boats turned to the new course, still maintaining the 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 half moon, on the boats' starboard bows, was still hanging on the far horizon over the Motherland.
As on many other missions after the battle was over, LT Thai felt himself changing back from a warrior to a man. Sometimes LT Thai wondered and asked himself how long the war would continue. Would he and his friends have the patience and courage to fight until the end?
LT Thai remembered the day when he kneeled down to accept "the Sword of Honor" from the President of The Republic of Vietnam, and along with other commissioned naval 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 into the "I" formation.
"All hands secure from General Quarters," LT Thai ordered.
His radioman relayed the order to the crew to stand down from their GQ stations.
The boats were about to get to the Purple area, and it was fairly safe now because enemy airplanes rarely ventured this far from their bases.
LT Thai said to himself:
"There goes another night's adventure"
The mission which this task group had carried out was one of four maritime missions. This night's mission was named Operation "Mint." The others were called "Cado," "Loki" and "Special" missions.
The six color blocks from the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel and the four category missions, had been named by the "Special Sea Warriors" as "Vung Bien Den" or the "Black Sea zone".
A crescent moon hung in the western sky. The wind blew softly from the northeast and the South China Sea was calm on a starry night in July, 1966, just a few weeks after Co van, Advisors of the Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) celebrated the Independence Day of the United States of America at Bai bien Tien sa - Spanish Beach, Danang, South Vietnam.
Task group "Two" consisted of three Nasty class PTF boats that were en route to the "vung Trang" (White section) of the operating areas, patrolling in the "Mint" mission. "Mint" was a call name of one of four missions that were carried out by the crews of these Nasty class gunboats. The other missions were "Cado," "Loki" and "Special." The "Mint" operation involved patrolling the designated areas in the northern sea above the seventeenth parallels up to the twentieth parallels. Their primary task was to capture North Vietnamese fishermen for the indoctrination program and to return them to their villages, located in the long coastal zone between Vinh Linh and Hai Phong harbor, after they completed the program. This would hopefully help the covert operations of "Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc" (The Sacred Sword of the Patriot League), the call name of the anticommunist organization, an internal resistance movement in North Vietnam. Other tasks were to destroy Communist Navy vessels along the coast of North Vietnam and to carry out psychological propaganda and warfare. This was accomplished by shooting mortar shells to deliver anticommunist leaflets to people living on shore.
Lt. Le Nguyen Thai's gunboat (call name "Hai Au") was in second position of the "India" formation. Another boat, the "Hau Giang," was captained by Lt. Nguyen Van Tieu, also the Officer-in-Tactical Command (OTC). He was known as "the Tiger" by his American and Vietnamese colleagues. Lt. Tieu was a true sea warrior with all characteristics of a good fighter. The third gunboat's call name was "Bach Dang."
The task group was heading north for a "Mint" mission. All hands on the three PTF boats manned their battle stations long after they passed the northern point of the "Green" operating area.
Lt. Thai looked at his wristwatch--it was 12:15 A.M. They would be nearing checkpoint Alfa, located between the offshore island called "Hon Me," southeast of Sam Son resort city, and "Hon Mat" island, located about 15 miles east of the coastal province of Vinh. He called down to the radar room and asked his XO, LTJG Luong Ha Chuong, "How we are doing? Have we reached checkpoint Alfa yet?"
LTJG Chuong stopped doing a fix on the navigating map, looked up and answered, "Yes sir, skipper, we're almost there. It looks like it's going to be a quiet mission--no radar contacts since we passed "Hon Mat." I think "tui Vem" (the Communists) must be sleeping."
"Well, I don't know, we're still far away from the hostile area in the "Vang" (Yellow) operating area north of "Sam Son", I think all the action would take place over there." Because he was a veteran to this type of mission, Lt. Thai would not feel safe until the PTFs returned and passed the seventeenth parallel on their way home.
"All units, this is Hau Giang, over."
Lt. Thai reached for the microphone next to the throttles on the bridge and responded, "Hau Giang, this is Hai Au, over."
He then heard the voice of other skipper to respond to the OTC. "Hau Giang, this is Bach Dang, over"
Lt. Tieu was a graduate of the class of 1959 from the Naval Academy in Nha Trang. Lt. Tieu gave orders to his task group to be executed. " All units, this is Hau Giang. We've just reached checkpoint Alfa. Change course to 305 degrees, speed 25 knots, formation India. Standby...execute. Over and out."
Lt. Thai acknowledged, "Hau Giang, this is Hai Au. Change course to 305, speed 25 knots, formation India. Roger and out."
The other gunboat did the same and all three PTF boats took turns changing course and increasing their speed to 25 knots in a column formation, with the distance of 300 yards between each boat. The execution of an order from the OTC only required a split second, thanks to the hard training and repeated exercising of tactics and formation maneuvering. Many nights at sea, they had trained again and again, in the darkness and cold wet of northeastern season; the roughest weather conditions in the South China Sea.
Lt. Thai still remembered training at night with a Navy SEAL team, the Vega, in an exercise to recover members of the team who were waiting in the water. A rubber boat was tied alongside of the PT boat and on board the rubber boat were two team members holding a big loop. The loop was used to scoop the SEAL members from the water. Each SEAL would raise his arm and try to grab the loop so that he would be pulled out of the water into the rubber boat as the PTF made a straight pass by him. In training, the instructors allowed the PT boat to make only two passes and if any SEAL member missed twice, he would have to swim with his equipment to shore, which was about two miles away.
Coordination and teamwork were extremely important to both the SEAL team and the PTF crew. It was a matter of life and death for the comrades-at-arms who had volunteered to take the risk and defend their homeland against the aggression of the North Vietnamese Communists. Therefore, in order to master rescue procedures in a hostile situation under enemy fire, they had to practice very hard without making any errors. Quick, instinctive reactions as well as intelligent, life-saving decisions under extreme pressure were the result of many successful missions of these professional PTF skippers and SEAL team leaders. They had developed a tight combat relationship that allowed them to depend on one another for survival in a "Mission Impossible" that was carried out almost every night. These missions occurred in the most dangerous maritime operating area of the South China Sea called "Vung Bien Den," or the "Black Sea zone" by the Task Force members.
"All units, this is Hau Giang. Prepare to release merchandise, over."
Lt. Thai was returned to the present from his thoughts by Lt. Tieu's voice from the intercom. He quickly responded to his friend and OTC, "Hau Giang, this is Hai Au. Acknowledge and standby, over."
The other skipper of the gunboat behind him also acknowledged the order. "Hau Giang, this is Bach Dang. Roger, over."
Lt. Thai gave orders to members of the SEAL team and to his master chief Hai Ho to follow procedures of releasing the indoctrinated fishermen back to their fishing village, located about two miles off shore. There were barrels used as floats and the prisoners wore disposable life jackets that were made by hand. They were also given one bag full of gifts, including a portable battery-operated radio that could only tune into the frequency of the radio station of the "Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc" (The Sacred Sword of Patriot League). It was another of the psychological program's methods to make the North Vietnamese nationals to believe that the comrades of the so-called "National Resistance Movement" within North Vietnam were people's friends. This was done in hopes that the people would join them in liberating the North from the Communist regime.
Lt. Thai thought of the happy time when these poor people's families saw their loved ones suddenly show up at their doorsteps in the morning.
"All units this is Hau Giang. Change course to 270 degrees, speed 10 knots. Execute, over."
Lt. Thai responded to the OTC, "Hau Giang, this is Hai Au. Course 270 degrees, speed 10 knots. Roger out." Bach Dang also executed the order.
The formation headed now toward the shoreline. The task group was about to reach the drop point, which was approximately 2 miles off shore and 15 miles south of Sam Son beach in the "Trang" (White) operating area.
The voice of Lt. Tieu, Captain of the Hau Giang, was heard again from the intercom. "All units, this is Hau Giang. Change course to 010 degrees, speed 5 knots, formation India. Execute, out."
Lt. Thai acknowledged the OTC and then ordered the helm while pulling the throttle that controlled the boat engines slowly backward to reduce speed. "Right 15 degrees rudder."
The helm repeated while turning the wheel, "Right 15 degrees, aye aye, sir."
Lt. Thai waited to see his heading turning on the gyro compass toward the starboard. " Rudder amidships, steady as she goes. Course 010 degrees."
"Rudder amidships, course 010, aye aye, sir"
Lt. Thai looked down into the radar room through a small window located at the dashboard and spoke to his XO. "Mr Chuong, how far from check point Bravo?"
LTJG Chuong replied nervously while concentrating on the radar repeater that showed the shape of the coast of North Vietnam. It was very close to the left of the task group formation. " We are about one thousand yards to drop point sir, 2 miles from shore line, 50 feet depth, no contacts in the radius of 10 miles."
Lt. Thai did not see the face of his XO under the red light but he could hear the nervousness in his voice. He knew his XO very well, LTJG Chuong was a graduate of the Class XI , Aquarius the Water Bearer, from the Vietnamese Naval Academy. He had been his Executive Officer for almost three months and they had been together on more than 20 dangerous missions:
"Very well, Mr. Chuong. Keep me posted please--we are now in a very hostile area and the enemy will probably be waiting for us out there."
"Aye aye, sir," LTJG Chuong replied, as he continued to check the distance on the radarscope between his boat and the OTC. It was 310 yards in front of the formation; the diamond shaped echo behind him that was Bach Dang was 290 yards away.
Lt. Thai turned around when he heard the noises behind the bridge. Three members of the SEAL team and the master chief Hai Ho were helping two North Vietnamese fishermen, who were blindfolded, up from below deck. They were guided to the area in the stern of the boat waiting for to be released. These two fishermen, along with four others, were transferred from a Patrol Craft-Fast (PCF),one of three Swift boats of the Task Force, to the PTF boats that evening at a 'rendezvous' point about 15 miles north of Cu Lao Cham, where the indoctrinated camps were located.
" Skipper, we are almost there. Be ready, sir." LTJG Chuong reported to his Captain from the radar room.
"Very well, Mr. Chuong," Lt. Thai acknowledged. He then ordered the radioman standing on his right, "First class Kiet, tell the SEAL crew to stand ready to release the fishermen."
"SEAL, this is the bridge. Prepare to release the fishermen." He reported back to his Captain, "They are ready, sir"
Lt. Thai said, "Very well" and he heard the voice of the OTC from the intercom.
"Hai Au, Bach Dang, this is Hau Giang. All engines stop, drop merchandise. Execute, over."
Lt. Thai answered while pulling the throttles to neutral, "Hau Giang, this is Hai Au. All engines stop, drop merchandise, over and out."
"Hau Giang, this is Bach Dang. All engines stop, drop merchandise, over, out."
Lt. Thai told the radio man to relay the order and he looked back to see his crew dropping two floats that were attached to the boat by a rope, then remove the blindfolds from the fishermen's eyes. Chief Hai Ho showed them the direction of the shore; the crew wished them good luck and helped them climb down the ladder into the water.
After making sure that they secured their gift bags and that they held on to the rope, the SEAL team quickly untied the rope from the PT boat and then let go. Lt. Thai saw two barrels with fishermen hanging on them, floating away in the calm surface of the South China Sea. He prayed for Duc Phat (Buddha) to bless them and the others and to guide them safely back. Their families had not seen them in over three months, not since their last fishing trip at sea.
Lt. Thai got the microphone and reported the completion of the mission to the OTC. "Hau Giang, this is Hai Au. Mission accomplished, over."
"Hai Au, this is Hau Giang. Roger out."
The voice of Lt. Ha Hieu Diep, Captain of the Bach Dang, Lt. Thai 's class mate, a graduate of class X, Capricorn the Goat, was heard from the intercom. "Hau Giang, this is Bach Dang. Mission accomplished, over."
"Hai Au, Bach Dang, this is Hau Giang. Job well done! Increase speed to 25 knots, course 070, formation India. Execute, out."
All three PTF boats headed out to the open sea and continued on to the next checkpoint, located offshore, east of Sam Son beach and south of Hon Mat. Their mission's secondary task was to search and destroy enemy vessels at sea and to capture prisoners.
It was 1:30 in the morning; the starry sky was so deep and twinkling above the formation. A good breeze from the northeast was blowing cool air into the faces of the PTF crewmembers. They were tired from the long journey and the tense mission. They were on their battle stations for almost three hours. Lt. Thai could not release them from general quarters because they were now in the most dangerous area in South China Sea and action could take place at any time. They were very close to the enemy Navy base in Dao Cat Ba and its airfield in Thanh Hoa.
USNAD intelligence had recently reported on the North Vietnamese Navy hara-kiri activities in the "Yellow" operating area. These suicidal junk boat units set traps along the coast of Dao Cat Ba to Sam Son in groups of five or more to ambush and destroy Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc's (The Sacred Sword of Patriot League) PT boats. Therefore Lt. Tieu, a.k.a. the Tiger, and his task group decided to challenge them. But on the other hand, they did not want to kill innocent fishermen who were in the middle of a cruel war that had lasted too long and destroyed the Vietnamese homeland. From time to time the crews of the Nasty class gunboats, The Expendable, had to face the reality of the war, either following their consciences to avoid killing innocent fishermen, thus taking chances of being killed, or to shoot and destroy without thought in order to survive.
That had bothered Lt. Thai and kept him awake so many nights after returning from combat missions. He compared the ambiguities between his responsibilities as a normal Naval Officer and as a Warrior, killing the enemy of the Vietnamese people, the International Communist Party. That thinking made him unhappy and he suffered deeply when he witnessed his comrades-at-arms being killed in action. He suffered even more when, as Captain of the PTF boat, it was his duty to inform the families of his fallen comrades of the devastating news.
The sea was very rough this morning and the sea weather scale level was probably 3 minus. It was on a cloudy and gloomy day in October 1966, about one week before the South Vietnamese memorized their third National Celebration Day of the Revolution in November 1, 1963. The Revolution was carried out by the Army
Generals to end the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his family's rule.
The "Task Group One" included four Patrol Torpedo, Fast (PTF) boats. Their call-names were: Hong Ha, who was the Officer-in-Tactical Command (OTC), Hai Au, Huong Giang, and Bach Dang.
Their mission was to search and destroy enemy convoys that used the high sea, on the far eastern edge of the "Vung Bien Den-The Black Sea zone", to penetrate into South Vietnam. Navy intelligence had reported that by using this route, the enemy would be able to carry supplies on the large vessels formed in-group, and easily avoided the detection of the Navy that only operated close to the mainland.
The Task group left their base very early in the morning; this would be a difficult mission and a long journey. The furthest checkpoint of their mission was southern of an island called "Bach Long Vi-The Tail of the White Dragon" located in international waters.
The boat was rolling and pitching, the bow raised up and down with the waves spraying water over the bridge. Lt. Le Nguyen Thai kept wiping water from his face; the salty taste on his lips made him thirsty, again and again.
Lt. Thai had been with the force for almost two years, participating in over seventy missions in different categories. He was the captain of PTF Zero Six and his call-name was Hai Au. He became accustomed to the dangerous life and grew more and more excited with each adventure.
"This is a very dangerous job, the life is so uncertain, you can live today and die tomorrow, just like that."
Lt. Thai smiled as he recalled the "theory of life," statement made by his close friend Lt. Luu Tung, who had been with the force longer than Lt. Thai. But Lt. Thai believed in destiny, he always thought that anything that happened in this life was planned and there was no coincidence when events occurred, there were always reasons behind them.
"Well, at least there is a reason for me to have the courage to continue to do my duty for this kind of mission and to have peace in my mind."
Lt. Thai thought of his family,
"Ngoc must be preparing lunch for our children now."
Ngoc was his wife. She did not know what of duties were involved in his job. She expected that this job was a Navy mission, like the normal patrol at sea that required Lt. Thai to be away from home for a couple of days. She was never told about how dangerous they might be and she never asked.
One day, Lt. Thai came home very depressed and sad and did not want to eat his favorite dinner. On this day she asked Lt. Thai who told her later that some members of his crew were killed in the last mission.
"All units, this is Hong Ha, over"
The voice from the radio brought Lt. Thai back from his thoughts to the present.
"Hong Ha, this is Hai Au, over",
The other boats waited for Lt. Thai to finish communicating.
"Hong Ha, this is Huong Giang, over".
"Hong Ha, this is Bach Dang, over".
All boats responded to the OTC.
"All units, this is Hong Ha, begin to test firing all guns, execute, out".
"This is Hai Au, roger, out".
"This is Huong Giang, roger, out".
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out."
"General quarters, general quarters, all hands man their battle stations".
Lt. Thai gave the order to his crew who was running to their GQ combat positions.
"All guns, test firing to the air, 45 degrees angle, starboard side, 3 o'clock, fire at will, batteries release."
The sailors begun to fire their guns to the direction away from the task group, the noisy sound from the gunshots and the smell from the gunpowder made everybody feel to be in the mood of readiness.
The 40mm cannon was right behind of the bridge; two Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft canons were mounted on each side of the bridge. Those are very good and reliable weapons to protect the PT boat. Right in front of the bridge was the 81mm mortar, which was used mainly to shoot leaflets and flares, but sometimes Lt. Thai, used this powerful mortar to destroy targets in a close range combat. A 50 caliber machine gun was mounted on top of the 81mm mortar, this gun was also very effective in close battles because it could shoot hundred of bullets in a minute, including tracers which used in the dark nights to mark the flight of projectiles to the enemy targets. The armament had been built to give the PT boats the firepower to protect them against the sea and the air attacks from the enemy.
"Cease-fire, cease-fire, all hands are secured from general quarters".
Lt. Thai gave the order to the radioman standing next to him on the bridge who in turn related the order of the captain to all positions. Lt. Thai took off his flak jacket and put the helmet on the flight deck behind his chair then looked down to the radar room.
" How are we doing Mr. Lai?"
He asked his executive officer who was standing in front of the radar repeater and doing a fix on the navigation map.
" We are about fifteen minutes behind schedule, we just have passed check point Alfa. The sea is pretty rough, wind from east northeast about 16 knots, with our speed of 25 knots we can catch up the lost time, sir."
LTJG Lai was his new XO, this was his third mission and he still needed to be coached and trained.
" Very well, let me know as soon as we reach to check point Bravo."
"Aye Aye Captain" LTJG Lai replied to his skipper who returned to his chair on the bridge. Check point Bravo was about 20 miles north of the 17 parallels.
" All units, this is Hong Ha, over."
" Hong Ha, this is Hai Au, over".
Lt. Thai heard the voice from the other boats.
" Hong Ha, this is Huong Giang, over."
" Hong Ha, this is Bach Dang, over."
" All units, this is Hong Ha, change course to 010 degrees, speed 25 knots, formation India, execute, over and out."
" This is Hai Au, roger, out."
"This is Huong Giang, roger, out."
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out."
All PT boats took turns changing to the new course and maintained their positions behind the OTC in a column formation. The distance between each boat was 300 yards.
Lt. Thai worried about this long mission and the unfavorable weather conditions.
It was now the northeastern season, the stormy season in the South China Sea, with the rougher seas and stronger winds. The crew tired more easily and became seasick. That would affect their physical conditions as well as their performances during the mission..
" We will need all our strength for this mission."
Lt. Thai was talking to himself and looked at his wrist watch .
Lt. Thai looked toward the direction of the land. It was so far away in the horizon; there was the land that nourished the hopes of a whole generation that had suffered too much and too long in the war. Lt. Thai wished that one day his people would be happy and be able to live without destruction and famine from the war. Lt. Thai returned from his thought by the voice from the radio:
"All units, this is Hong Ha, prepare to change course to 355 degrees, over".
All PT boats took turns responding to the OTC.
"Captain, we are about to reach to check point Bravo, Sir" His XO reported.
"Very well, change the radar scale to 25 miles to see if there was any contact" he told his XO.
"All units, this is Hong Ha, change course to 355 degrees, execute, out".
The four PT boats changed to the new course heading to their destination that was about 7 hours away, at the southwest of the island named " Bach Long Vi-The Tail of the White Dragon ", located at 20o25 North and 107o 50 East.
* * * * *
It was about fifteen hundred hours, the sea was calmer and the wind came slightly from the east. Lt. Thai could see the sun trying to get its sunrays out of the clouds. Far away on the horizon, on his port side, was the coast of North Vietnam about 65 miles to
the west. There was no contact on the radar repeater in the last three hours, the radar scale was now set for the distance of 35 miles radius.
" All units, this is Hong Ha, "Skunk" at two o'clock, distance 34 miles, general quarters, general quarters, execute over,"
" Hong Ha, this is Hai Au, roger and out,"
" Hong Ha, this is Huong Giang, roger and out,"
" Hong Ha, this is Bach Dang, roger and out,"
Lt. Thai gave the order to the radioman standing next to him who related to his crew
" General quarters, all hand man their battle stations ".
The sailors knew that this was not a drill, they ran quickly to their CQ posts while putting on their life jackets and the helmets.
"All stations are ready, sir"
"Radar room, keep me posted on the Skunk."
Lt. Thai looked down and talked to his XO who concentrated on the contacts on the radar repeater.
" Aye aye sir, those will be many Skunks, I think they are stationary sir"
LTJG Lai's voice was shaking
" Distance is 25 miles at 010 degrees".
Lt. Thai reached for his jacket and the helmet. He guessed that these Skunks were the Chinese Communist Navy vessels that were on the international waters, so he did not think there would be any danger.
" Unless these Chinese want to start a war " He said to himself " We will be ready."
"All units, this is Hong Ha, change speed to 35 knots , course 010 degree, execute over and out"
The PT boats increased their speed and changed course, heading to the Skunks.
Lt. Thai looked at the horizon and he could see through his binocular the small dark shapes of boats appearing from time to time in the waves.
" Distance to the targets is 5500 yards, dead ahead and closing fast, captain".
LTJG. Lai reported from the radar room.
Lt. Thai acknowledged "Very well" then he turned to the radioman and told him to relate his order to all positions
" Tell them do not fire unless I give the order to do so, understood?"
He did not want to make any mistake in this situation.
The Skunks appeared to be what Lt. Thai had expected. They were the Chinese Communist Navy boats. He could see the red flags flying in the wind. There were more than ten gunboats forming an "India" formation heading south very slowly. Lt. Thai saw that they were in combat positions too.
" All units this is Hong Ha, contacts were identified as Chinese Communist Navy boats in the international waters, change course to 350 degrees, execute, over and out".
Lt. Thai exhaled softly and he ordered the helm to the new course while continuing to observe the reaction of the Red Chinese vessels. They did not to be a threat to the Task group and they maintained their course. The tension was lesser as the PT boats steamed further away from the Chinese Communist. It was about 1800 hours, the sea would be dark soon.
" Mr. Lai , check and let me know how far to the check point Delta"
Check point Delta was the destination of the mission.
"Sir, it's about 80 miles, with this speed and this weather we could get there at 2030 hours".
Lt. Thai already knew that the OTC wanted to gain back the lost time by maintaining the same speed of 35 knots.
The sea became rougher and the wind blew water over the bow to the bridge. The crew was getting tired but they still had to remain at their battle stations. The boat kept rolling due to the waves coming from starboard side at about 2 o'clock.
" All units this is Hong Ha, battle condition two, maintain look out, be careful over and out"
Lt. Thai gave the ordered to his crew to release half of them from the battle stations and put another man on look out position. The Task group continued on their mission without incident up to that time.
At about twenty hundred hours, Lt. Thai was all wet with the sticky salt water. He felt so tired because of the long day. It was dark; he could only see the dim light at the stern of the boat of the OTC about 300 yards away.
He called to his XO down below:
" LTJG Lai, you are in charge, I am going to my room and change my clothes"
LTJG Lai climbed up from the radar room and said:
" Aye aye sir, I am in charge, course 350 degrees, speed 35 knots".
He took the binoculars and put it around his neck, standing watch on the bridge.
Lt. Thai went down to the radar room, talked to the radar man on duty, checked the position of the boat then proceeded to his quarter below.
About 15 minutes later, while putting on the dry black shirt, Lt. Thai felt the rolling of the boat seemed different. He knew right away that the course was changing.
Lt. Thai hurried up and ran to the bridge, he took a quick look at the radar repeater and realized that his boat was turning to the port side and was making a 360-degrees turn.
He skipped the doorstep, rushed to the throttles and pulled back to stop his boat while ordering the helm to put the rudder in mid-ship position.
It was too late, his boat had collided with the last boat of the formation from the stern of this boat and in five minutes, two boats were dead in the water.
Lt. Thai radioed and reported the incident to the OTC who had stopped with the other boat to prepare and join the rescue. Bach Dang was the boat that was hit. The skipper was LTJG Le Giang who had ordered his crew to abandon ship.
While Lt. Thai maneuvered his boat to the rescue position, he had his crew check the bow of his boat that was damaged in the collision.
"Hai Au, Huong Giang this is Hong Ha, fire flares and maintain looked outs, I will keep my radar surveillance, remember that we are only 25 miles south of ' Bach Long Vi-The Tail of the White Dragon' island, over and out."
Bach Dang went down in about 20 minutes after the collision and all crew members were rescued in a little over one hour, in the rough sea and under the light of flares that brighten the moonless night. It was a miracle that Lt. Giang and his crew including 5 members of the SEAL team, the Venus, were all accounted for. They were pulled out from the cold water of the South China Sea onto three PTF boats thanks to their life jackets that kept them afloat while waiting to be rescued.
The bow of Lt. Thai's PTF boat was badly damaged, about half of the front compartment was gone. His damage control crew had used the plywood and beams to repair and to keep the water from coming in, but his boat could only run slowly at the speed of 10 knots.
The OTC had radioed to the headquarters after the rescue was completed and informed them that the task group was heading home at slow speed and he requested assistance to be on standby.
Lt. Thai came down from the bridge to comfort his friends who were still in shock from the cold. After that he got the report from his XO about what caused the boat to make a 360-degree turn. The gyrocompass had suddenly gone out of order and caused the heading turn to starboard. That made the helm, who tried to maintain the course at 350 degrees, to steer to the left causing the boat to made a circle and collide with the last boat.
It took 25 hours for the trip back to the base.
The quest, the dangerous life, the courage of the PTF crews continued in the next "Mission Impossible". The tale of this event which took place in the darkness of the night, south of the coast of the "Bach Long Vi -The Tail of White Dragon" island, was recalled by members of the 12 crews of the PTF Task Force including PTF Zero Six. They were known as "The Expendable".