VNN Coastal Group 16
August 7-8, 1967
Song Tra Khuc River

Photograph courtesy of Stew Harris


Music by Simon and Garfunkle©

The following are excerpts from Brown Water, Black Berets, Thomas J. Cutler, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD © 1988.

"Before dawn on 7 August 1967 an enemy force of about two battalions launched a frontal assault on Coastal Group 16's base, about seventy miles southeast of Da Nang" .... "The U.S. advisors at the base, Lieutenant William C. Fitzgerald, Lieutenant (j.g.) Anthony C. Williams, Chief Engineman Harold H. Guinn, and Boatswain's Mate First Class Leo E. Pearman were swept into the fight as the situation became desperate. Lieutenant Fitzgerald radioed for help; PCF-20, patrolling nearby, intercepted the message, relayed it to other Market Time units, and headed for the base at flank speed. Arriving in less than twenty minutes, the Swift opened fire on enemy mortar and automatic weapons sites that had been set up on the river bank adjacent to the base

Within minutes, the large enemy force was penetrating the northern minefield defenses of the base. Numerous Vietnamese Navy defenders were already dead, including the commander of the coastal group, Lieutenant (j.g.) Nguyen N. Thong, VNN. About three hundred enemy troops broke through and overran the central area of the base. The American advisors retreated to a bunker, where they continued firing on the advancing enemy.

PCF-75 soon arrived, and five minutes later the VNN PCE-10 joined the fray. All three craft delivered heavy fire, but they and the base defenders were unable to stop the enemy. Soon the base was under enemy control, and it appeared to Lieutenant Fitzgerald that his bunker was the last point of resistance. Ordering his men to escape to the river, he remained behind to provide covering fire. He also radioed a nearby U.S. artillery unit and called a strike on his position. Once his men were clear, Lieutenant Fitzgerald tried to withdraw, but as he left the bunker a bullet struck him in the back of the head and killed him."

"In the meantime, the USS Camp (DER-251), USS Gallup (PG-85), PCFs 15 and 54 and a U.S. Air Force 'Dragon Ship' had arrived and were saturating the enemy positions within the base with counter fire. The Swift Boats evacuated approximately forty Vietnamese to the Camp; fifteen of them were subsequently flown by helicopter to the Vietnamese hospital at Quang Ngai".."For the next several hours, the ships and aircraft kept up a steady barrage until one U.S. and two ARVN infantry companies arrived and launched a counterattack against the Viet Cong forces. Within a half hour the base was again in friendly hands."

"All but one of the base's buildings had been destroyed in the battle. Fourteen Vietnamese Navy men had been killed; thirty five more were wounded. Twenty civilians were also killed. Thirty five VC suspects who were detained at the base had been freed, and three others were killed"

End of Excerpts

Old "Day Late and a Dollar Short" #45's after end was safely nested and moored among the other off-patrol PCF's at the pier back in Chu Lai when the above battle took place during the early morning of the 7th. But by that afternoon we were back on station with the assignment to patrol the river mouth adjacent to the Coastal Group compound during the night.

As could be imagined, tensions were running high in the aftermath of the this tragedy, with the expectations that the Viet Cong would try some follow-up actions. The Vietnamese Gunboat (PCE-10) remained anchored just off the mouth of the Song Tra Khuc river to provide support to the compound with her 40 mm cannon. So, as sunset approached, the first order of business was to go along side this allied vessel to co-ordinate the night's operations. Speaking with the VNN skipper and his US Naval advisor, the inshore and river areas where PCF 45 would be during darkness were carefully laid out. A plea was also made to restrain their nervous gunners from using our Swift Boat for target practice. But, the best laid plans .....

Sporadic gunfire was received during the night from the sand bar just to the east of the compound. However, the only significant result of these outbursts was this spectacular image ... as the gun tub 50's attempted to suppress this gunfire.

Of more lasting consequence to our psyche was PCE-10's reaction a short while later. We were taken under fire from the gunboat's 40 mm weapons. Fortunately, the dark coloring of the boat's paint scheme melded with the background of the shoreline and led to inaccurate aiming by the VNN gunners. Frantic radio calls by our onboard VNN liaison eventually brought a halt to this "friendly fire". But while it lasted, every member of the crew just "knew" that those large caliber tracers were going to end up in their belly buttons.

Decades later, the memory of those terrifying moments, knowing that it was friendly forces on the other end, would make reading about the Alpha Troop, 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry's similar, but more fateful, experience during the Gulf War action at 73 Easting a lot more vivid.

On our way back to Chu Lai the following day, we did not even stop by PCE-10 to discuss the matter. The much larger tragedy at the Coastal Group compound made this incident seem trivial.

 
Post Script

Stew Harris was assigned as the Senior Naval Advisor to Coastal Group 16 in April 1968 and completed his tour of duty there in April 1969. It is a tribute to the resilience and determination of both the Vietnamese and Americans that this base was not only rebuilt after its almost total destruction in August 1967, but that it continued to remain active in spite of the of the overwhelming North Vietnamese military precence in the area. The base remained in operation until the turnover of American bases and naval resources to the SVN Navy in 1970-71 made available other, better equipped places to operate from.

As can be seen in the following images, the base was restored to its former status with Yabuta craft conducting agressive patrols of the Tra Khuc and Mui Batangan areas. Stew was even able to put in a jab at the Americal units operating in the area by painting "Go Navy" on the top of his living hooch and inviting some Mehonite missionaries out for a "spot of tea". Anything to relieve the tension of a having a brigade of NVA looking over your shoulder. Stew says that the sign brought results in the form of Army brass dropping by bearing gifts of packaged steaks!!

But the war was never very far off. The Marine A4 strike on the sand bar where PCF-45 took fire a year before, and the VNAF close air support against the not-so-nice-guys on the hill overlooking the base, just reminded Stew how lucky he was to be going home in one piece after his tour.

For more vivid descriptions of life at Coastal Group 16, visit Stew's collection of Tales From the Tra Khuc River

 

Post Script

"Tweaking the Tiger's Tail"

The Battle for the Paracel Islands

"HQ-10 Was Lost But Not Forgotten"

January 1974

Sadly, but bravely, the Patrol Craft Escort vessel PCE-10 described above - known more appropriately in the South Vietnamese Navy as Nhat-Tao HQ-10 - was lost in early 1974 during an engagement between VNN forces and those of the Peoples Liberation Navy (PLAN) in a dispute over control of the Paracel Islands (Hoang Sa in Vietnamese)

This small group of islands are located approximately 200 nautical miles due east of Danang. And, although too small to be inhabited by a permanent population, they were never-the-less an important historical and strategic possession of Vietnam. This claim of sovereignty dates back centuries. However, the Peoples Republic of China felt they could displace this claim based upon a proclamation made by them in September 1958, and acknowledged by then North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham-Van-Dong.

Contradicting this disputed proclamation, the South Vietnamese Government continued to maintain a small weather observation garrison on Pattle Island, the largest island in this group. And no action was initiated by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to displace this presence.

Until January of 1974

On January 16, after delivering six South Vietnamese Army officers and an American observer to the Paracels for an inspection tour, the former US Coast Guard Cutter Chicoteague WHEC-375, now Vietnamese Navy Patrol Cruiser Ly-Thuong-Kiet HQ-16, discovered two Chinese "armored fishing trawlers" were laying off Drummond Island supporting troops from the PLA that had occupied the territory. In addition, Chinese soldiers were observed around a bunker on nearby Duncan Island, with a PLAN landing ship moored directly on the beach.

   

      

The CO of HQ-16, CDR Le-Van-Thu, reported his findings back to the regional headquarters in Da Nang, and also sent over 15 people to guard the small island of Money. CDR Thu's report was routed immediately over to Saigon, where a hastily formed meeting by President Thieu and his cabinet decided to attempt eviction of the PRC forces.

Overnight on January 18, a small South Vietnamese force comprised of Destroyer Escort Tran-Khanh-Du HQ-4 {ex-USS Forster, DER-334} and the Patrol Cruiser Tran-Binh-Trong HQ-5 {ex-USCG Castle Rock, WHEC-383} were dispatched from the Da Nang area under the overall command of Captain Ha-Van-Ngac. Patrol Craft Nhat-Tao HQ-10 {ex-USS Serene AM-300} which was proceeding to Da Nang for repair of one of her engines, was also diverted to join the small flotilla of VNN ships that was converging on the Paracels.


Cruiser Tran-Binh-Trong HQ-5
{ex-USCG Castle Rock WHEC-383}

Destroyer Escort Tran-Khanh-Du HQ-4
{ex-USS Forster DER-334}

Patrol Craft Nhat-Tao HQ-10
{ex-USS Serene AM-300}

While waiting for the arrival of the other ships, CDR Thu on HQ-16 landed a team of Vietnamese commandos on Robert Island (Cam Tuyen) to investigate some PRC flags installed on this tiny spit of land. No PLA forces were present on the island, so the naval commandos returned to their ship. However, shortly after their arriving back aboard, two PLAN Kronstad-class guided missle gun boats started churning up the waters in the vivinity of the collection of small islands.

   

The possibility of peaceful restoration of the islands became highly unlikely.

   

Permission to attack the intruding PRC forces was transmitted to Captain Ngac later in the day of January 18, with one stipulation: President Thieu wanted the navy to try to "parley" with the Chinese first. Accordingly, the commander of the VNN task force arrayed his ships around Duncan Island during the evening in preparation for a confrontation early on the morning of the 19th.

Meanwhile, two additional PLAN T48-class gunboats arrived in the area.
This had the effect of further deterioration to an already very tense situation.

As the tide crested on the following morning, HQ-5 lowered a brace of rubber landing craft over the side, heading for Duncan. Twenty Vietnamese Navy commandos, led by a lieutenant junior grade (Trung Uy), waded through the surf and onto the high ground waving a white flag, indicating a desire to talk. Instead, the larger than expected Chinese ground force began advancing toward the small party from several directions. Captain Ngac ordered a retreat. As the Vietnamese began nudging their boats back into the water, the PLA troops opened fire. The Trung Uy and two of his men fell dead in the raging surf.

The flotilla commander, in direct radio communications with the VNN Headquarters staff in Saigon, requested instructions. After only a short period of deliberations, the word from Saigon was emphatically relayed:

"SHOOT!!"

Captain Ngac immediately translated the order into action as his four vessels began moving toward and taking on the two armed trawlers, one landing craft and four missle gunboats with devastating fire. The melee that resulted was fast paced, close in, and deadly. The two groups of ships were some times as close as only 1600 yards as they blasted away at one another. One of the PLAN gunboats (K-274) was sunk outright. And another (T-389) was damaged so badly that it was beached on Duncan and lost. The remaining two PLAN gunboats were also damaged.

But HQ-10 took a direct hit from a surface-to-surface missle and, spewing smoke and fire from her bridge, went dead in the water with her guns silent. HQ-16 also received damage from an errant five inch round from HQ-5 but continued to fight on, scoring additional hits.

A seaman below decks on the Nhat-Tao rushed up to the gun deck to find the gun crew dead and the 40 mm weapon jammed. Although not a gunner's mate, Seaman (Ha Si) Tay cleared the gun and resumed firing on the PLAN vessels. The Chinese concentrated their firepower on this renewed source of danger, and Tay quickly went down fighting as the fate of his ship became all too evident.

"HQ-10 was going under"

After only thirty-five minutes (10:25 to 11:00 AM), the furious battle was over. Both groups of ships began rapidly pulling away from one another. The PLAN toward Hainan, and the South Vietnamese in the opposite direction toward Da Nang.

As the disengagement took place, word reached Saigon from the Americans that, although the US would not provide assistance in what they deemed to be a local dispute, they did advise that radar reports from US Naval sources indicated that a flight of MIG-21's had taken off from Hainan headed toward the Paracels, with at least one Chinese Guided Missle Criuser also moving in that direction at high speed.

With this news, and indications of rapidly moving surface radar contacts approaching the area from the north, the only recourse for the Vietnamese was to retire completely. Captain Ngac ordered HQ-4 to escort the crippled HQ-16 back to Da Nang. HQ-5, with the commander of the flotilla on board, would begin an "expanding square" search for survivors from HQ-10.

But even the search effort was abandoned and further emphasis made for all South Vietnamese ships to withdraw as it became increasingly clear that further threats from the PLAN could be expected. Information obtained in later years proved this to be a wise decision, as two PLAN Hainan Class submarines were directed to guard the approaches to the Paracels on October 19.

Therfore, it would not be until several days later that a Dutch tanker and a Vietnamese fishing boat boat pulled only thirty-seven survivors of the sunken Nhat-Tao out of the South China Sea. This from the eighty-two sailors on board HQ-10 when the battle began. Commanding Officer Nguy-Van-Tha was not among those who were rescued, having been killed when when the missle hit the bridge area.

A few days later, the Chinese returned in force to finish the occupation of the entire chain of islands of the Paracels. The Chinese government announced to the world that they had captured forty-eight prisoners, including the one American. These were the garrison forces on Pattle and neighboring Money plus the six ARVN officers that had arrived in the days just before the battle.

   

Up until today, the Government of North Vietnam has not lodged a formal protest, and the Paracels remain claimed and in the control of the PRC.

Why did the South Vietnamese Navy challenge China with its more powerful fleet?

That seems like a logical question. Perhaps best answered by men who fought there.

From a Vietnamese language article published in 1998:

Twenty four years ago, US Navy officers stationed in Vietnam thought that the South Vietnamese Navy should have quietly withdrawn from the Paracels. They never did expect that "Little South Vietnam" would pick a fight with the giant China.

"Why would you engage a superior force with no hope of succeeding?"

Even those that did not directly participate in the battle would answer as follows:

"To defend my country, even to the death. The South Vietnamese Navy was determined to fight. The Paracel Islands were and are a part of Vietnam's heritage. The Vietnamese vowed to defend it. Our ships exchanged fire with the invaders and fought with all their strength. Many worldwide observers, who at first wondered at our actions, later looked on with admiration at our courage.

A nation's destiny is in the hands of its own people."


Captain Ha-Van-Ngac
Read his account of this battle
As translated by his son Ha-Manh-Chi

The Naval Battle for the Paracels - 1974

 


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