Task Force 116

Operation Game Warden

This page courtesy of:
Mobile Riverine Force
106 Belleview Drive NE
Conover, NC 28613

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The craft and personnel that patrolled the rivers

Patrol Boats River

The significant strategic and economic importance of South Vietnam’s extensive inland waterways made it clear from the beginning of the war that the Navy would be in the front rank of the allied forces laced by 3,000 nautical miles of rivers, canals, and smaller streams. The fertile Mekong Delta south of Saigon, where the largest segment of South Vietnam’s population lived, constituted the country’s rice bowl. Northward along the coast to the DMZ, sizable rivers stretched inland past vital population centers such as Hue. Throughout the country the road and rail system was rudimentary while the waterways provided ready access to the most important resources. The side that controlled the rivers and canals controlled the Heart of South Vietnam.   U.S. naval leaders were determined that allied forces would command these waterways when they established the River Patrol Force on 18 December 1965. From then until March 1966 the Navy procured river patrol boats (PBR) in the United States, prepared the crews at the Coronado and Mare Island, CA training centers, and deployed the units to Southeast Asia for operation Gamewarden. On March 1966, the River Patrol Force was designated River Patrol Squadron 5 for administrative purposes. By 31 August 1968, the force consisted of five river divisions, each controlling two 10-boat sections that operated from combat bases along the major rivers or from ships positioned in the rivers. The Navy reconditioned a number of ships (LSDs and LSTs) so they could serve as floating base facilities for a PBR section together with a helicopter detachment located at each support area.

River Patrol Force Dispositions

River Division 51 Can Tho / Binh Thuy
River Division 52 Sa Dec and Vinh Long
River Division 53 My Tho
River Division 54 Nha Be River
River Division 55 Danang

Support Ships 1966   Support Ships 1967-1968
Belle Grove (LSD-2)   Garrett County (LST-786)
Comstock (LSD-19)   Harnett County (LST-821)
Tortuga (LSD-26)   Hunterdon County (LST-838)
Floyd County (LST-762)   Jennings County (LST- 846)
Jennings County (LST-846)    

 

 

 

The PBR was the ubiquitous workhorse of the River Patrol Force. They were manned by a crew of four bluejackets, equipped with a pathfinder surface radar, two radios, and commonly armed with two twin mounted .50 caliber machine guns forward, M-60 machine guns (or a grenade launcher) port and starboard amidships, and a .50 caliber aft. Mark I's, the initial version of the PBR, performed well in the river patrol operations but were plagued with continual fouling of the water-jet engines by weeds and other detritus. When going alongside Vietnamese sampans for inspection, the fragil fiberglass hulls of the PBR were often damaged. New Mark II's versions of the craft, first deployed to the delta in Dec 1966, brought improved Jacuzzi jet pumps, which reduced fouling and increased speed from 25 to 29 knots, and were equiped with more durable aluminum gunwales.

Seawolf Helicopters

A key component of the Game Warden operation was it’s air support element. Initially the Army deployed detachments of two Bell UH-1B Iroquois helicopters and their crews to PBR bases and river-based LSTs. Beginning in April 1966, however, aircrews from the Navy’s Helicopter Support Squadron 1 replaced the Army personnel. Then on 1 April 1967, the Navy activated Helicopter Attack Light Squadron (HAL) 3 at Vung Tau with responsibility for providing Task Force 116 with aerial fire support, observation , and medical evacuation. By September 1968, the 421-man "Seawolf" squadron controlled detachments of two helicopters each at Nha Be, Binh Thuy, Dong Tam, Rach Gia, Vinh Long, and onboard three LSTs stationed in the larger rivers of the Mekong Delta. The UH-1B "Hueys" armed variously with 2.75 inch rockets; .50 caliber, 60 millimeter, and 7.62-millimeter machine guns; grenades, and small arms, were a powerful and mobile complement to the Game Warden surface units.

SEAL Operations

 

The River Patrol Force commanders also led other naval forces, including the highly trained and skilled SEALs. By mid-1968 the 211-man Seal Team 1, based at Coronado, fielded twelve 14-man platoons, each composed of two squads, generally four or five of the platoons at any given time were deployed to South Vietnam, where one or two of them served with the special operations force in Danang and another three operated out of Nha Be as Detachment GOLF in support of the TF-116 campaign in the Rung Sat Special Zone.

Beginning in early 1967, the Atlantic SEAL Team 2 provided another three platoons, two of which were stationed with the Game Warden units at Can Tho. These units launched SEAL Operations in the central delta area. Although focused primarily on the areas south and west of Saigon, the SEALs also mounted operations in the I and 11 Corps Tactical zones.

These elite Naval Commando units carried out hit and run raids, day and night ambushes, reconnaissance patrols and other special intelligence operations. Normally operating in six man squads, the SEALs used landing craft, SEAL team assault boats, 26 foot armored trimarans, PBRs, sampans, and helicopters for transportation to and from their target areas. Mobile, versatile, and extremely effective in their dangerous work, the SEALs were a very valuable fighting force employed in the riverine environment of Vietnam.

 

Air Cushion Vehicles

  

In addition to the PBR patrol craft, there were also a total of seven Patrol Air Cushion Vehicles (PACV's) sent to Vietnam on an experimental basis. Task Force 116 employed three of these craft. They were operated in the Mekong Delta as PACV Division 107.  PACV's were first deployed in 1966, brought back to the U.S., reworked, and then redeployed back to Viet Nam in late 1967.

During 1968 there were three separate PACV's deployed by the Army. They deployed to the Dong Tam area to work with the U.S. 9th Division.

Although able to move with great speed over shallow marshy areas, such as the Plain of Reeds, the PACVs proved to be too noisy and too mechanically sophisticated for riverine warfare in South Vietnam. The three Navy PACV's were finally turned over to the Coast Guard in San Francisco.

Mine Sweepers

Mine clearing forces also were essential to the security of Vietnams waterways. Nowhere was this more crucial than on the rivers near Saigon, the country's most vital port. Viet Cong mining of the main channel, the Long Tau River, which wound its way through the Rung Sat Special Zone south of the capital, could have had a devastating effect on the war effort. Consequently on 20 May 1966, the Navy established Mine Squadron 11 Alpha (Mine Division 112 after May 1968) at Nha Be, under command of TF-116 until mid-1968. The minesweeping boats (MSB) were reactivated in the United States and shipped to South Vietnam. The 56 foot wooden hulled vessels were armed with machine guns and grenade launchers and carried surface radar's and minesweeping gear for clearing explosives from the key waterways, The Navy also deployed three-boat subordinate units to Danang and Cam Rahn Bay. Detachment Alpha’s strength increased in July 1967 when the first of six mechanized landing craft {LCM(M)} that were specially configured to sweep mines arrived at Nha Be.

Gamewarden Operations 1966 thru 1968

Game Warden operations got underway in early 1966. Naval leaders set out to secure the vital water passages through out the Rung Sat and to establish patrols on the large Mekong Delta rivers. On these latter waterways, the Viet Cong transported arms and supplies brought in from Cambodia, shifted guerrilla units, and taxed the population. The navy created two separate task groups to direct operations in the respective areas.

On 26 March 1966 U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese forces kicked off operation Jack-Stay, the war’s first major action in the Rung Sat. PBR units (including one cection from Tortuga), minesweeping boats from Nha Be, SEALs, and helicopters operated together to sweep the area. At the end of the 12 day effort, the allies had killed or captured 69 of the enemy, destroyed Viet Cong supply bases, training sites; and other logistical facilities; and at least for a time, restricted enemy movement in the zone.

The enemy, however remained a potent threat. In one month, August 1966, Viet Cong mines in the Long Tau heavily damaged SS Baton Rouge Victory, a Vietnamese Navy motor launch minesweeper, and MSB-54. In November, a Viet Cong mine sank MSB-54 and on the last day of the Year American forces discovered a Soviet made contact mine in the shipping channel.  The American and South Vietnamese intensified minesweeping operations and the enemy continued to fight back. In February 1967 Communist recoilless rifle fire and mines destroyed MSB-45 and heavily damaged MSB-49.

By the spring of 1967 the Rapid build up of allied forces in the Rung Sat area, the refinement of tactics, and improvement of weapon systems began to reduce enemy effectiveness. During the year the Vietnamese Regional Force and the U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division conducted aggressive sweeps ashore in coordination with Helicopters, PBRs, and MSB units; the better equipped LCM(M)'s augmented the minesweeping force at Nha Be. SEAL's began sowing mines throughout enemy-held areas, and both PBR's and MSB's added rapid fire, 40-millimeter grenade launchers to their armament from mid-1967 to mid 1968. The Viet Cong continued to ambush shipping on the Long Tau with mines, 122 millimeter rockets, rocket propelled grenades, recoilless rifles, machine guns, and small arms. Quick response by allied reaction forces, however, often cut short these assaults. Ship damage and personnel casualties were relatively light. Other attacks never occurred because of PBR and SEAL patrols upsetting enemy plans, and the MSB's and LCM(M)'s sweeping of mines. Consequently, the communists were unable to sever the vital lifeline to Saigon, even when their forces were fighting for survival during TET and post-Tet battles of 1968.

Game Warden operations in the central reaches of the Mekong Delta began on 8 May 1966, when PBR section 511 of River Division 51 at Can Tho patrolled a stretch of the Bassac River. Soon afterwards other units initiated surveillance of the upper Mekong and the My Tho, Ham Luong, and Co Chien arms of the mighty river that emptied into the South China Sea.

In the two boat random patrols TF-116 sailors checked the cargo and identity papers of junks and sampans plying the waterways, set up night ambushes at suspected enemy crossing points, supported the SEAL's with gunfire and transportation, and enforced curfew restrictions in their sector, usually no more then 35 nautical miles from the base.

Game Warden operations in the central delta registered only modest success from 1966-1968. These events foreshadowed a busy and dangerous year for Game Warden sailors who boarded over 40,000 vessels and inspected them for enemy personnel and contraband. In the process, the River Patrol Force destroyed, damaged, or captured 2,000 Viet Cong craft and killed, wounded, or captured over 1,400 of the enemy. The U.S. Navy suffered the loss of 39 officers and men killed, 366 wounded, and 9 missing in Battle.

The Tet offensive of 1968 fully engaged Task Force 116. Because of the firepower and mobility the PBR's stiffened the defense of the numerous delta cities and towns that were under siege by the enemy. The River patrol boat units were key elements in the successful allied stands at My Tho, Ben Tre, Chau Doc, Tra Vinh, and Can Tho. The enemy prevailed only at Vinh Long, where the Viet Cong overran the PBR base forcing the defenders to withdraw to the Garrett County (LST-786), despite this and a few other temporary setbacks, TF-116 reestablished firm control of the major delta rivers by mid-year and helped cut short the Viet Cong attack on Saigon.

River Sailors also gave critical support to allied forces fighting to contain the enemy surge in I Corps. From September to October 1967, River Section 521 and Hunterdon County deployed to the river area south of Danang and to Cau Hai Bay near Hue. PBR units operated permanently in the northern reaches of South Vietnam after 24 February 1968, when COMNAVFORV established Task Force Clearwater, under the operational control of Commanding General III Marine Amphibious Force. The Mission of the task force was to secure the Perfume River which gave access to Hue from the sea and then Cua Viet. The Task Force eased supply efforts to American forces arrayed along the DMZ and holding the besieged outpost at Khe Sanh. 

Task Force Clearwater headquarters was established on Mobile Base II, a floating barge complex stationed first at Tan My and later at Cua Viet. Because heavily armed North Vietnamese Army units were present in the region, COMNAVFORV strengthened the 20-boat PBR task force with monitors, armored troop carriers, PACVs, landing craft, and minesweepers. Task Force Clearwater could also call on helicopters, attack aircraft, artillery, naval gunfire, and ground troops support from other units in I corps region. Convoys bristling with weaponry were required to maintain the line of communication with forward combat units. The naval forces carried out equally vital minesweeping and patrolling operations. During 1968, Task Force Clearwater’s support was crucial to the successful defense of Khe Sanh, the recapture of Hue, and the defeat of the enemy offensive in I Corps.

For Task Force 116's contribution of PBR and other resources after the end of 1968, see the section on this site describing Admiral Elmo Zumwalt's SEALORDS Operation

 

 

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