Under the Radar

New Book Goes In Depth on Swift Boats in Vietnam

BY RICHARD SISK - MILITARY.COM

With his ship in the yards, Lt. (j.g.) Ted Kenny was happily devoting himself to screwing up in Boston when he got the call from the office of the dreaded “Detailer” in Washington – Goodbye Boston, hello Coastal Squadron One.

Where’s that?

In-country, Vietnam.

Oh. Just what am I going to be doing?

You will be Officer-in-Charge of a PCF.

What’s that?

Look it up in Jane’s Fighting Ships.

Thus began Kenny’s stint in the brown water war of a Patrol Craft Fast, or “Swift Boat,” a semi-ungainly 50-footer capable of 32 knots and also capable of nose-diving into a swell and being flipped by a moderate ocean chop.

The Navy, once the admirals decided they needed a new boat for a new war, thought the Swifts were just the thing for the coasts, rivers and canals of Vietnam. Somebody came up with the crowd-pleaser that they were “big enough to outrun anything they couldn’t outfight.”

Maybe so. Readers can make up their own minds with a collection of stories from Swifties in the new book Swift Boats At War In Vietnam (Stackpole Books), edited by Guy Gugliotta and John Yeoman, and researched by Neva Sullaway, who published the Journal of Pacific Maritime History.

The contributions of the Swift Boats, and even their presence in the war zone, were little known beyond the small community of Swifties who served on them until the presidential election campaign of 2004, when the term “Swift Boat” became a verb. Unexpectedly, what then-Sen. John Kerry did – or didn’t – do aboard a Swift Boat became a big deal.

In their excellent introduction to the book, Gugliotta, a former Washington Post, Miami Herald and UPI reporter who skippered PCFs 50 and 89, and Yeoman, now an advisor to a wealth management firm who commanded PCFs 37 and 692, touch only briefly on the Kerry episode.

The Swift Boats had faded “from the American consciousness for decades,” they wrote, “but in 2004, Swift Boats surfaced briefly and notoriously when pro-Republican Swift veterans upended the presidential campaign” to denounce Kerry, questioning whether he rated a Silver Star and playing up his role in the anti-war organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

PCF 31 on a canal out of Ha Tien

“That election added the newly-minted verb ‘to swiftboat’ to the U.S. campaign lexicon, used to describe almost any particularly virulent form of political smear,” Gugliotta and Yeoman wrote, but “the story of Swift Boats is much more than this. For those who served aboard them, the boats offered unmatched lessons in heroism, teamwork, camaraderie, and the ability to function under life-or-death pressure.”

Some of that pressure came from the boats themselves. They were used initially to interdict shipping in coastal waters and then in the labyrinthine rivers and canals, but they proved to be finicky in both environments, putting a premium on boat handlers who could improvise.

As it turned out, the 50-foot Swift Boat “was not enough boat for the ocean, but it was too much boat for the rivers,” Gugliotta wrote.

In one selection titled “Rogue Wave,” Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Stirlin Harris described how “instinct took over” as he tried to get his Swift Boat through the treacherous cross-currents where the Cua Viet River met the sea south of the Demilitarized Zone.

A wave slammed into the boat, “picking us up as though we had been a surfer madly paddling to get to the crest of the wave.” The boat started to yaw to the left, the bow falling off to port, “and if I couldn’t stop it, we were doomed to founder,” Harris wrote.

“I slammed the port throttle full ahead, spun the helm hard to starboard, and then grabbed the starboard throttle and slammed into full reverse, hoping to corkscrew the boat and break the death grip the wave had on us. The Detroit diesels and the gearboxes absorbed the abuse,” Harris said, “and then, all of a sudden, the wave passed beneath us.” His improvisation had worked.

For armament, the Swifts had two .50 caliber heavy machine guns forward and a third on the fantail riding atop an .81 mm mortar. The crew of one officer and usually five enlisted also had what Gugliotta called a “changing menu of small arms” – M-60 machine guns, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers and grenades.

For many Swifties, the weapons were the stage props in a recurring and lethal drama in which the players knew their roles too well.

Lt. Virgil Erwin wrote: “We hunt the Viet Cong at night in the rivers of the Mekong Delta near Vung Tau. They wait patiently for us in mud bunkers and blinds for a chance to ambush us with rockets, as if we were mallards. We risk an attack to get them to tip their hand, so we can blow them out of their bunkers.”

The mortar PCF 694 being used in drop fire mode for gun support at a pre-defined target.

From 1965-70, the Navy sent 116 Swift Boats to Vietnam. About 600 officers served aboard them, mostly Lieutenants Junior Grade and some Lieutenants and Ensigns. About 3,000 enlisted were Swifties, mostly second-class and third-class Petty Officers, and also first-class Petty Officers and Seaman Strikers.

Their main advocate was Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then-Chief of Naval Forces, Vietnam, who endorsed the Swift Boat concept of a special naval interdiction force. He also let them grow beards.

The stories told in the book are laced with the what-if regrets that come with war. In a story titled “Even The Best Intentions,” Lt. j.g. Rod McAlpin of PCF 73 told of a patrol off the Ca Mau peninsula while using the Coast Guard cutter Yainstat as a base of operations.

An Army detachment was under fire and PCF 73 raced to provide fire support with the .81mm mortar. Many things went wrong. Somehow the anchor line became fouled with the screws. The fire mission was effective and then the Army called again to say that had a Vietnamese boy, maybe nine or 10, who had been badly wounded by the enemy shelling.

On the Bassac River in the Long Tau secret zone, skipper Don Patterson calls in gun fire support to destroy enemy bunkers on the shore of the canal.

PCF 73 turned around to pick up the boy to get him back to the doctors on the Yainstat. McAlpin went full throttle as the Swift reached the open sea, but feared that the jarring ride over the white caps would kill the boy.

“We wanted to get the boy to the cutter as soon as we could but we didn’t want to kill him in the process,” McAlpin wrote. “We needed to go fast but nature wouldn’t allow it.”

“On the Yainstat, doctor and staff worked through the night. The little boy didn’t make it. I suppose we did our best but it wasn’t good enough. We felt rotten.”

About 400 Swift Boat sailors were wounded in action in Vietnam. Fifty were killed, mostly in firefights. Remember them this coming Memorial Day.

Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com

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