By Tom Lynam, Kuna VFW Post 7019
Very often we associate the Navy with the “ Deep Blue Sea”, or the “ Oceans Blue”. At times the seas were green or gray and angry. There is one phrase that may not be so familiar, but trust me, it involved a great number of very brave and dedicated sailors that gave all to protect our country and it’s resources. May I present the “Brown Water Navy” or more correctly, the U.S. Riverine Forces in Vietnam.
A concept of the French in 1950, the Brown Water Navy, so called for the muddy hue of the river and coastal delta waters of the Mekong, was formed partnered with the South Vietnamese Navy. It was composed of about 100 assorted types of landing craft and patrol boats which were armed to fight in shallow waters. By 1961, there were 45 U.S. military advisors. At this time effectiveness was hampered because the U.S. had little interest in brown-water operations. In September, 1965, the war began to intensify and a American river patrol was created comprised of more than 120 vessels. Added were helicopters, LSTs and LSDs. Then there was the PBR, Patrol Boat, River which was to become the mainstay of the operations.
The PBRs were modified sport boats built by United Boat Builders of Bellingham, Washington. Fast at more than 25 knots, the PBRs used a propulsion system of vectored water jets. Therefore they had the advantage of lacking propellers and rudders that could be fouled by debris or shallow water or shot away. The boats (not ships) drafted less than two feet of water and could operate in very shallow areas. Most were armed with three .50 caliber machine guns and a 40mm grenade launcher. A total of 160 were built and entered in service. All were piloted and crewed by U.S. Naval personnel yet served and protected Marine, SEAL teams, Army, Coast Guard and Navy operations.
The major purpose of the PBR was to patrol the rivers, canals and delta waters and locate, detain, confiscate and destroy munitions, supplies, and personnel of the North Vietnam Army and Vietcong. Other responsibilities were to insert and extract U.S. and ARVN personnel on various missions, escort ships and personnel, and humanitarian operations.
By May, 1970, a typical sailor logged 172 ambush missions during his Vietnam tour. More than 3,800 tons of supplies were interrupted and never reached the enemy forces.
The generally accepted name for the PBR was a Swift (like the bird). Fast, agile and ready to fight, the boats and the crews were always in harms way. Many men and boats were lost to overwhelming odds fighting an elusive enemy that was determined to win. The sailors of the Brown Water Navy brought a new level of respect and meaning to the Vietnam experience. Through their actions and dedication, lives were saved and the war was perhaps shortened.
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