Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnamby Thomas J. Cutler
The men of the U.S. Navy's brown-water force played a vital but often overlooked role in the Vietnam War. Known for their black berets and limitless courage, they maneuvered their aging, makeshift craft along shallow coastal waters and twisting inland waterways to search out the enemy. In this moving tribute to their contributions and sacrifices, Tom Cutler
The men of the U.S. Navy's brown-water force played a vital but often overlooked role in the Vietnam War. Known for their black berets and limitless courage, they maneuvered their aging, makeshift craft along shallow coastal waters and twisting inland waterways to search out the enemy. In this moving tribute to their contributions and sacrifices, Tom Cutler records their dramatic story as only a participant could. His own Vietnam experience enables him to add a striking human dimension to the account. The terror of firefights along the jungle-lined rivers, the rigors of camp life, and the sudden perils of guerrilla warfare are conveyed with authenticity. At the same time, the author's training as a historian allows him to objectively describe the scope of the navy's operations and evaluate their effectiveness.
Winner of the Navy League's Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Literary Achievement in 1988 when the book was first published, Cutler is credited with having written the definitive history of the brown-water sailors, an effort that has helped readers better understand the nature of U.S. involvement in the war.
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The Early Advisors
A journey of a
thousand miles must
begin with a single
Lao-tzu, c. 500 b.c.
Mary Hardcastle stood at the door of 196 Yen Do and watched her oldest daughter, Susan, walk through the front yard toward the gate in the high wall that surrounded the house. From where she stood, Mary could see the bright morning sun glinting off the shards of glass embedded in the top of the wall to discourage any would-be intruders. The February sun was already hot, despite the early hour, and the notorious Saigon humidity was beginning to thicken the morning air. The Hardcastles' houseboy, Loc, was already at the gate waiting for Susan. He smiled as she approached, and they spoke as they waited for the bus.
What a strange and yet exciting life we lead, thought Mary, watching Susan talking with Loc. Mary found the Vietnamese to be fascinating people, and Saigon was an intriguing city bearing the embellishments and scars of a long and varied history. Chinese influence was everywhere, challenged primarily by the remnants of French colonialism and to a lesser extent by the detritus of the Japanese occupation.
Now the Americans were becoming part of Saigon's international panorama. With over 16,000 American advisors in country and a large percentage of them posted in Saigon, it was becoming uncommon not to see an American car or pedestrian, both gargantuan by Vietnamese standards, on themajor streets downtown. Engineers, horticulturalists, architects, diplomats, journalists, and military men were all part of the American entourage, each playing a role in an unfolding drama that would rivet the attention of the world for a decade.
Mary and her family had landed at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport more than a year before, in January 1964. Her husband, Bill, a Navy captain, had been assigned to head up the Naval Advisory Group, which was ardently struggling to assist the Vietnamese in building a potent navy of their own. Despite the growing military and political tensions at the time, the U.S. government had wanted the senior officers in the growing U.S. Military Assistance Command to bring their families with them to Vietnam as a visible sign of confidence and commitment.
The Hardcastles were quartered in 196 Yen Do, about ten blocks from the center of the city. The two-story, three-bedroom house had once been the residence of one of Emperor Bao Dai's favored mistresses. Its two-foot-thick walls and the fortresslike wall surrounding the house and garden had provided both privacy and safety to the emperor during his frequent visits. Now this same protection had become a necessary part of the Hardcastles' lives.
Mary heard the government bus as it rattled down the street, and the shriek of the brakes as it stopped outside the gate. Although she couldn't see from where she stood, Mary knew that an American military policeman, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, would be leaving the bus and positioning himself to cover its front; a white-uniformed Vietnamese policeman toting a submachine gun would be covering its rear. Loc and Susan opened the gate and went outside. It had become part of the precautionary morning ritual for Loc to walk with Susan to the bus that would take her to the American dependents' high school out near Tan Son Nhut Airport. A moment later, Mary could hear the growl of the engine signaling the departure of the school bus. When it passed the open gate, she caught a glimpse of Susan looking out through the wire-mesh screens that had been placed over the windows as protection against terrorist grenades.
Mary turned and went into the house while Loc closed the outside gates. In the front hall she picked up the English-language newspaper and read the headline "PLEIKU ATTACKED: EIGHT AMERICANS KILLED, MANY WOUNDED." The accompanying article told of a Viet Cong mortar barrage and infiltration of Camp Holloway and the nearby airstrip, which had left ten aircraft destroyed in addition to the personnel casualties at the Central Highlands base. She put down the paper and closed her eyes, exhaling wearily.
More violence, she thought. More deaths. Where was it all going? She remembered reading the accounts of the attack on Bien Hoa Airbase last October. Journalists had speculated that President Johnson would probably order U.S. planes from the Seventh Fleet to bomb North Vietnam in reprisal, as they had done following the Tonkin Gulf PT-boat attacks on U.S. ships three months earlier, yet no bombing had been ordered. Conjecture in the press had pointed to the presidential election, just three days away, as the reason. But Mary also remembered the Christmas Eve bombing of the Brink Hotel in downtown Saigon, which housed those U.S. officers who did not have their families with them. Two had died then and fifty-eight others had been injured, but again no reprisals had been ordered. She vividly recalled the sound and concussion from the blast, more than a dozen blocks away. Previously there had also been the bombings of the movie theater, the bowling alley, and some athletic-field bleachers in the Saigon area.
The threat of violence was always present. Any significant gathering of Americans had to be considered a potential target. Several times Mary, as president of the Association of American Women, had been forced to cancel a meeting because the authorities had warned of a possible attack. Sometimes she had to cancel her trips to the station hospital in Cholon, the Chinese section of the city, where she worked as a Red Cross volunteer. Mary had learned that Saigon was no place for reckless behavior. Prudence had so far kept her and her family safe.
Not everything about Saigon was grim. Mary had sensed the excitement of the times, and she savored the kinds of experiences available only to those fortunate enough to live in a foreign country. She had grown to know the wives of Bill's high-ranking Vietnamese naval officer counterparts quite well. They had promised to teach her Vietnamese when she had first arrived, but after several weeks of valiant but less than successful efforts, they had suggested that perhaps they might teach her French instead.
The ringing of the telephone interrupted Mary's thoughts. From the slightest trace of tension in Bill's drawling voice, which only a wife would detect, she knew that something important was happening. "Mary, President Johnson is ordering all dependents to leave Vietnam," Bill said quietly; he quickly added, "It's not going to be an emergency evac. You'll have a few days to get organized."
They talked calmly about what would have to be done. Both had known that this might occur at any time. Bill had nearly a year left of his tour before he would be able to rejoin his family. Mary would have to establish a new home, put the children into new schools in the middle of a school year, and somehow find the patience and optimism to wait for her husband to return from a war zone.
Within a week Mary and the children would leave Saigon.
"Support Any Friend, Oppose Any Foe"
The formal involvement of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam had begun in August 1950, when the first contingent of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived in Saigon to set up shop. The MAAG consisted of a joint team of Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel; its purpose was to provide the military supplies necessary to prevent the expansion of communism in Indochina. Because the supplies were turned over directly to the French Expeditionary Corps, the MAAG members functioned in the early days primarily as a logistical accounting group with no real advisory role. The French adamantly refused to allow the Americans in the MAAG to provide any training assistance to either themselves or their protégé, the Vietnamese National Army. The Vietnamese Navy, such as it was, was under the direct command of a French officer, and by 1952 reports from American naval officers in the MAAG were taking a pessimistic view of French claims to have established a Vietnamese Navy that would someday be able to function independently. This "navy" consisted of approximately four hundred sailors serving under French officers and petty officers in the river forces, and a functioning training apparatus was nearly nonexistent.
American impotence in the advisory role continued throughout the next three and a half years, while the French and their Vietnamese allies fought against the determined forces of Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Viet Minh troops. Then on 8 May 1954 the Viet Minh overran the key French position at Dien Bien Phu after a spectacular set-piece siege that captured the attention of the world and proved the death knell for French military influence in Indochina.
According to the Geneva agreement, concluded after Dien Bien Phu on 20 July 1954, the French were to remain in the southern half of the now divided Vietnam until the general elections, to take place in July 1956. In an effort to synchronize American and French advisory functions in Vietnam, a Training Relations Instruction Mission was created on 3 December 1954 consisting of one Navy, one Air Force, and three Army officers from each nation. The mission grew rapidly (having thirty-three U.S. and seventy-six French officers three months later), but American naval representation remained low. By May 1955, the U.S. contingent had reached 155, yet there were only two naval officers in the mission.
During this period, tensions developed between the Americans and the French serving in Vietnam. Part of the problem lay in disagreements over how the advisory mission was to be accomplished, but these disagreements were exacerbated by President Ngo Dinh Diem's preference for the Americans. The French were humiliated, for example, when the South Vietnamese Army abruptly converted its uniforms from French-style to a more American type and began saluting as the Americans did rather than with the French open-palm method. Too, American advisors apparently made no real effort to conceal their eagerness to take over from the French.
As July 1956 approached, it became evident that President Diem had no intention of conducting the general elections called for in the Geneva Accords. He recognized that the larger population of North Vietnam and the charismatic image of Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist hero in his struggles against the Japanese and French would probably have ensured a Communist victory. The United States indirectly supported his decision; surprisingly, China and the Soviet Union did not press for the elections. French presence in Vietnam was supposed to continue until the elections, but with that milestone removed, the question of a continued presence remained open. President Diem closed it on 26 February 1956 by asking the French to withdraw their forces completely.
Command of the Vietnamese Navy had been turned over to the Vietnamese in July 1955. The French command in Vietnam was disestablished on 26 April 1956, and two days later the Training Relations Instruction Mission was closed down.
With the departure of French military forces from Indochina, the United States stepped in to fill the void of anti-Communist, free-world strength, a role that the French had been playing simultaneously with that of stubborn colonialists. This duality of French objectives, opposing communism and yet preserving colonial interests, had long been a sore point for the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, who saw the former as so important that they, by association, were forced to support the latter. The departure of the French had left the United States able to assume the anti-Communist role without the embarrassment of colonial objectives. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said in the fall of 1956: "We have a clean base there now, without a taint of colonialism. Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise."
In the years immediately following the French departure, the American advisory commitment to Vietnam remained small. Despite the U.S. refusal to sign the Geneva Accords in 1954, official government policy restricted the number of advisors to the 342-man limit imposed by the accords. When the French were in the final stages of withdrawal in 1956, the South Vietnamese government requested increased U.S. support, arguing that replacing the departing French with American advisors would be in keeping with the spirit of Geneva. Still concerned about the image of adhering to the limit, however, the U.S. administration sent a 350-man increase to Vietnam not as an addition to the MAAG, but under the new auspices of a Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission. The purpose of this augmentation was to help the Vietnamese cope with the logistical nightmare of managing, maintaining, and reducing the huge inventory of American-supplied equipment that France was leaving behind in Indochina; it was argued that much of the equipment would be abandoned without the mission. The Geneva-created International Control Commission, composed of representatives from Canada, Poland, and India, approved the increase when assured that the overall effect would be to reduce the amount of military equipment in Vietnam. Instructions given to members of the mission by the U.S. State Department included provisions for training the Vietnamese in matters relating to the recovery and maintenance of the equipment, but this was supposed to be subordinate to the primary task of recovering designated quantities of the abandoned equipment. The chief of the MAAG was, however, empowered to transfer men between the mission and the MAAG as he deemed necessary, and this made the dividing line obscure at best.
In the meantime, Communist insurgent activity was gradually gaining momentum. In June 1957, a MAAG report cited a "slight but notable increase" in Communist-inspired violence in South Vietnam. In one month in the fall of that same year, six village chiefs were reported killed; more than twenty other local government officials had been killed, wounded, or kidnapped. Activity in the Mekong Delta in particular was stepped up. Curiously, a Viet Cong document captured years later by U.S. forces referred to 1957-58 as a period of low activity when full-time military units "became idle and ... their main elements could not develop but deteriorated spiritually as well as organizationally."
By the end of 1958, the Communists had consolidated their power in North Vietnam and began diverting their attention to the South. New directions from Hanoi to insurgents in the South called for increases in armed activities, and infiltration routes into the South through Laos were improved. By the end of 1959 the monthly assassination rate had doubled; well over a hundred ambushes and attacks on government posts occurred in the last half of the year alone.
Performance of the South Vietnamese armed forces was less than spectacular during this period. In September a large South Vietnamese force traveling in sampans and launches through a flooded marshland in Kien Phong Province near the Cambodian border was attacked by an enemy contingent less than a quarter its size. Most of the government force jumped overboard in panic, and the resultant casualties were inordinately high considering the numbers involved. Two weeks later a forty-five-man government force surrendered to a much smaller Viet Cong group in the same province. Similar incidents elsewhere in the country reinforced a growing pessimism among American advisors.
In an attempt to counter the poor performance of the South Vietnamese troops, Lieutenant General Samuel T. Williams, then chief of the MAAG, had sent a letter to Admiral Harry D. Felt, Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), requesting a revocation of the longstanding restriction against allowing U.S. advisors to accompany their Vietnamese counterparts on combat missions. General Williams believed that the South Vietnamese failures resulted from a lack of proper planning and aggressiveness, and he expected the presence of U.S. advisors to at least partially correct those problems. On 25 May 1959 Admiral Felt approved the request: American advisors were permitted to go along on operational missions provided that they themselves not actively participate in actual combat. This caveat of nonparticipation often proved unrealisitic when advisors found themselves under fire, and there were increasing instances of active participation by the Americans from that time onward.
Despite this significant change in policy, the poor performance continued into the following year, and the situation deteriorated. An intelligence estimate issued in August 1960 stated that Viet Cong activities were becoming more widespread and intense, and that support for the insurgents among the general populace seemed to be increasing. Further, it stated that senior North Vietnamese cadres and military supplies were entering South Vietnam from infiltration trails through Laos and Cambodia and by junk along the eastern coastline.
It was against this backdrop of pessimism and alarm that John F. Kennedy stepped to the podium on the Capitol steps and took the oath of office as president in January 1961. The ringing words of his inaugural address, though not specifically addressed to the situation in South Vietnam, marked a new level of commitment to the struggle there:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.... To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our words that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far greater iron tyranny.... To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required.
Almost immediately upon taking office, President Kennedy began grappling with the situation in Indochina. First Laos, then Vietnam became important considerations of his administration, although events in other parts of the world such as Cuba and Berlin continually competed for his attention. In May of the first year he sent his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, to Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, to confer with President Diem. The discussions between Johnson and Diem centered on the enlargement of the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam and included some specific talk about strengthening the Vietnamese coastal patrol force.
For quite some time the Communists had been suspected of bringing supplies into South Vietnam from the sea. The Vietnamese Navy had begun patrolling the coastal waters in junks, the traditional Oriental sailing vessels, and it was this Junk Force, as it was called, that would need considerable expansion if it were to have any significant success in interdicting the flow of Communist supplies. At a National Security Council meeting on 29 April 1961, President Kennedy approved the training of Vietnamese junk crews in Vietnam or at U.S. bases by U.S. Navy personnel.
Vice President Johnson's proposal to strengthen the Junk Force was endorsed and expanded, to include controlling the inland waterways as well, by General Maxwell Taylor, President Kennedy's personal military advisor, who had gone to Vietnam in October at the president's request to assess the military situation there. General Taylor sent a cablegram to the president proposing an extensive expansion of U.S. commitment, in which he said: "The U.S. Government will assist the GVN [Government of Vietnam] in effecting surveillance and control over the coastal waters and inland waterways, furnishing such advisors, operating personnel and small craft as may be necessary for quick and effective operations."
On 11 November 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent a joint memorandum to the president outlining a series of recommendations and priorities for coping with the Vietnam situation. Among the specific proposals listed as immediate in nature was a call, similar in wording to General Taylor's message, for providing the small craft, "uniformed advisers and operating personnel" as necessary to exercise control over the coastal waters and inland waterways.
In response to these recommendations from his top advisors, President Kennedy significantly enlarged the U.S. military effort in Vietnam. Although stopping short of sending combat troops, which had also been repeatedly recommended to him, he substantially increased the number of American advisors over the three years of his administration. By the end of 1961, the number had quadrupled to exceed 3,000; by mid-1962 there were 12,000; and by the end of 1963 the total passed 16,000. While most of these additional advisors were not naval personnel, President Kennedy, himself a naval officer in World War II, did not overlook the importance of a naval role in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson wrote of the post-1961 period in his memoirs: "We increased assistance to the Vietnamese Navy to enable it to protect the coast against infiltration from the North and to patrol the inland waterways used extensively by the Viet Cong."
With this increased support from the United States, the Vietnamese Navy (VNN) grew by leaps and bounds between 1961 and 1965. Three task-oriented forces had been established: the Sea Force, the River Force, and the Junk Force. The Sea Force, which consisted of the larger, more conventional coastal craft, grew from twenty-one to forty-eight ships during this period. The River Force, designed primarily for transporting troops along the waterways, increased its assets from five River Assault Groups consisting of approximately one hundred boats to seven RAGs with a total inventory in excess of 150 boats. The Junk Force grew to 644 craft by 1965. Total VNN personnel expanded from three thousand in 1961 to more than eight thousand in 1965.
The number of American naval advisors grew correspondingly from 53 in the MAAG in 1961 to 235 in the Naval Advisory Group component of MACV by the beginning of 1965. (MAAG was absorbed into the newly formed MACVMilitary Assistance Command Vietnamin May 1965.) As the number of advisors increased, more began to advise at the unit level. Increasingly, advisors appeared on Sea Force ships, with the River Assault Groups, and aboard junks. The die was cast: the American Navy had begun its coastal and riverine involvement in Vietnam.
Meet the Author
Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).
He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.
Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.
His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.
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