By Edward J. Marolda
The Vietnam Navy (VNN) came into existence, fought its battles, and faded into history in a short span of twenty years (1955-1975). But, during that time the VNN, with the assistance of American advisors, became one of the world’s largest navies with 42,000 men and women and 672 amphibious ships and craft, 20 mine warfare vessels, 450 patrol craft, 56 service craft, and 242 junks.
The organizational changes to the Vietnam Navy during those two decades reflected the evolution in the service’s mission and responsibilities. Initially, the Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, an army officer, controlled the Navy Staff and its chief. With the encouragement of American naval advisors, the general staff established the billet of Chief of Naval Operations, which handled the administration, if not the operational control, of the naval service.
In the early years, the navy’s combat forces consisted of the Sea Force (renamed Fleet Command in January 1966), River Force, and Marine Corps (made a separate military service in April 1965). Recognizing that the sea was a likely avenue of approach for Communists infiltrating from North Vietnam or moving along the South Vietnamese littoral, in April 1960 the navy established the paramilitary Coastal Force and in July 1965 formally integrated it into the navy.
The different missions of the navy’s combat forces determined how they were operationally controlled. The units involved in open sea and coastal patrol missions operated first in five Sea Zones, then in four Naval Zones (after October 1963), and finally four Coastal Zones (after April 1965). The coastal zones, from the 1st in the north to the 4th in the Gulf of Siam, corresponded to the army’s I, II, III, and IV Corps areas. Coastal Force junks patrolled the offshore waters from 28 bases along the coast. The regional operations of the Coastal Force were directed from coastal surveillance centers set up in Danang, Cam Ranh, Vung Tau, and An Thoi.
The River Force, organized into river assault groups on the French model of Dinassaut (naval assault divisions), initially served the army divisions closest to its Mekong Delta naval bases at Saigon, My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho, and Long Xuyen. In the early 1960s, the navy also formed the River Transport Escort Group to protect the vital foodstuffs being convoyed to Saigon, and the River Transport Group to move army forces throughout the delta. In April 1965, the Joint General Staff established the III and IV Riverine Areas to manage River Force operations. The navy was given sole responsibility for handling operations in the Rung Sat “Special Zone,” a maze of rivers and swamps south of Saigon.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States supplemented the modest force of ships and craft turned over to the VNN by the French with hundreds of naval vessels, including escorts (PCE), patrol rescue escorts (PCER), motor gunboats (PGM), large support landing ships (LSSL), large infantry landing ships (LSIL), tank landing ships (LST), medium landing ships (LSM), and minesweeping launches (MLMS). These vessels improved the ability of the oceangoing force to patrol the 1,200-mile coastline, provide gunfire support for troops ashore, and carry out amphibious landings and open sea operations.
The River Force received a fleet of smaller vessels, including specially converted mechanized landing craft (LCM) that served as monitors, command boats, troop transports, minesweeping boats, patrol vessels, and fuel barges. The United States also provided the river sailors with 27 American-built river patrol craft (RPC). Unfortunately, these vessels proved to be too noisy, underarmed, and easily slowed by river vegetation.
Armed with these combatants, the Vietnam Navy played an increasing role in the fight for South Vietnam. Along with American naval forces, the Fleet Command and the Coastal Force seized or destroyed thousands of junks, sampans, and other craft ferrying enemy munitions and personnel along the coast. The Coastal Force also carried out many amphibious raids, patrols of shallow inlets and river mouths, and troop lifts. These operations played an important part in the allied campaign to deny the enemy easy access to the coastal regions. For instance, during Operation Irving in October 1966, ground forces and junk units in II Coastal Zone cooperated to kill 681 Viet Cong guerrillas. Even though Communist forces sometimes overran the triangular-shaped fortifications of the Coastal Force, they more often failed to overcome the defenders.
In addition to offshore patrol, Fleet Command ships also patrolled the larger Mekong Delta rivers and protected merchant ships moving between the sea and the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The VNN paid a price for its success on the rivers, however. In one period during 1966, enemy river mines sank an LSSL and damaged an LSIL and a utility landing craft (LCU). Viet Cong mines also sank several of the command’s minesweeping launches in the Rung Sat during 1966 and 1967.
While the VNN sometimes crowned its operations with victory and its sailors often fought bravely, serious deficiencies plagued the service throughout its existence, but especially during the 1960s. Careerism and political activity on the part of many naval officers weakened the war effort. The coup d’etat against President Diem in November 1963 and the political troubles of 1965-1966, in which the navy figured prominently, damaged the morale of officers and bluejackets alike and distracted them from their military mission.
The training of sailors, many educationally unprepared in the technical skills essential for the operation of complex vessels, weapons, and equipment, was generally inadequate. Low pay and austere living conditions prompted many sailors to desert the colors over the years and frustrated recruitment.
The material condition of the navy raised even more serious concerns. Hull and equipment deterioration in the World War II- era ships and craft was a serious problem, as was the lack of sufficient spare parts, supplies, and fuel. Compounding the problem was the inability of the ship and boat repair facilities in South Vietnam to handle the workload generated by the high-intensity operations of 1967-1969.
Because of these personnel and material problems, the Vietnam Navy rarely had 50 percent of its ships and craft in operation for blue-ocean, coastal, or river missions.
The VNN’s fortunes rose, albeit temporarily, with Washington’s decision to turn the war effort over to the Vietnamese and withdraw U.S. military forces from Southeast Asia. In early 1969, President Richard M. Nixon formally adopted as U.S. policy the so-called “Vietnamization” program. The naval part of that process, termed ACTOV (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese), involved the phased transfer to Vietnam of the U.S. Navy’s river and coastal combatant fleet. As entire units came under Vietnam Navy command, control of the various combat operations passed to that naval service as well. Hence, the VNN took on sole responsibility for river assault operations when the joint U.S. Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force lowered its colors and transferred 64 riverine assault craft in the summer of 1969.
The Vietnam Navy performed well during the allied push into Cambodia in the spring of 1970. On 9 May, a combined Vietnamese-American naval task force, under Vietnamese command, steamed up the Mekong River and secured control of that key waterway from Communist forces. The combined flotilla stormed enemy-held Neak Luong, a strategic ferry crossing point on the river. Then, the Vietnamese contingent of river combatants pushed on to Phnom Penh.
In July 1970, the U.S. Navy ceased its offensive missions on I Corps’s Cua Viet and Hue rivers and by the end of the year its other major operations throughout South Vietnam. During that time, Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam, transferred to the VNN 293 river patrol boats and 224 riverine assault craft. The Vietnam Navy grouped these fighting vessels into riverine assault interdiction divisions (RAID), river interdiction divisions (RID), and river patrol groups (RPG).
The same process worked with the offshore patrol operation during 1970 and 1971. As part of the U.S. Navy’s ACTOV program and the U.S. Coast Guard’s SCATTOR (Small Craft Assets, Training, and Turnover of Resources) program, the United States transferred to the VNN complete control of the coastal and high seas surface patrol operations. The American naval command transferred four Coast Guard cutters, each equipped with 5-inch guns, radar escort picket ship Camp (DER 251), Garrett County (LST 786), and various harbor control, mine craft, and logistic support vessels. In the midst of this activity, the American and Vietnamese naval forces managed to sink or turn back all but one of the eleven Communist ships that attempted to infiltrate contraband into South Vietnam during 1971. By August 1972, the VNN took on responsibility for the entire coastal patrol effort when it took possession of the last of 16 American coastal radar installations.
In addition to ships and craft, the U.S. Navy, under the ACTOVLOG (Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese, Logistics) program, transferred to the Vietnam Navy its many combat and logistic support bases. The first change of command occurred in November 1969 at My Tho and the last in April 1972 at the former centers of American naval power in South Vietnam, the bases at Nha Be, Binh Thuy, Cam Ranh Bay, and Danang.
By 1973, the Vietnam Navy possessed the material resources to carry on the fight alone. The 42,000-man naval service marshaled a force of over 1,400 ships and craft to meet the enemy on the rivers and canals of South Vietnam and in the South China Sea. The relatively young, dramatically expanded, and still developing Vietnam Navy had great potential, but it needed time to mature.
The Vietnam Navy never got that time. Disenchanted with the American venture in Southeast Asia, during 1973 and 1974 the United States drastically cut financial support for the Vietnamese armed forces. The Vietnam Navy was compelled to reduce its overall operations by 50 percent and its river combat and patrol activities by 70 percent. To conserve scarce ammunition and fuel, Saigon laid up over 600 river and harbor craft and 22 ships. The enemy did not target the waterways during this period, but the respite was short lived.
In little more than a month during the spring of 1975, Communist ground forces seized all of northern and central South Vietnam, bypassing any VNN concentrations. The Vietnam Navy’s ships and sailors soon joined the hurried exodus of troops and civilians from the I and II Corps areas. With the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, many of the VNN’s ships and craft put to sea and gathered off Son Island southwest of Vung Tau. The flotilla of 26 Vietnam Navy and other vessels, with 30,000 sailors, their families, and other civilians on board, joined the U.S. Seventh Fleet when it embarked the last of the refugees fleeing South Vietnam and headed for the Philippines.
Thus ended the Vietnam Navy’s short, if dramatic history. The VNN’s sailors often fought with bravery and determination, killing many of the enemy and suffering heavy losses of their own. But, their valor and sacrifice was not rewarded with victory in the Vietnam War.
Reproduced with permission from: Tucker, Spencer C., ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
26 August 2003