The "Brown Water Navy" in Vietnam had the responsibility of patrolling the rivers and denying their use to the enemy.
On the southern-most river in Vietnam, Song Cau Lon, a U.S. Navy base was anchored in the middle of the river from which operations were made into the surrounding jungle. The Navy had sole responsibility for "pacifying" the region and preventing the influence of the Viet Cong. The river base was named Operation Seafloat.
A good measure of American technology was applied in the operation in the effort to stay a step ahead of the enemy. One such technological device was called a duffle bag. It was a 40-inch-long by 8-inch-diameter cylindrical tube with a sensor/transmitter inside. A unit of sailors and Vietnamese "Kit Carson Scouts" (former Viet Cong) would trek into the jungle to hang these sensors in trees. The coordinates of each sensor were marked on a local map. Each sensor was designed to activate and begin transmitting if sound was made under it during the night.
Back at the base was an operator's panel with a series of about 25 little light bulbs with a toggle switch under each. While we were on watch at night, if a sensor activated, a bulb on the panel would light up, and the operator, wearing earphones, would turn up the toggle switch and listen to the noise below.
Most of the time it was animal or "jungle" sounds. Every once in awhile we would hear human activity under a sensor. The rule was that nobody would be out in the jungle at night except the enemy. The coordinates of the sensor would be phoned to the four mortars on the base, and they would begin to lob shells out toward the sensor. One can imagine how surprised the enemy would be, wondering how we knew where they were.
I went out with the units to hang the duffle bags, and I was an operator at the base during the night that would monitor the panel.
The Viet Cong had a hard time trying to foil our operations. One tactic they had was to send swimmers out to our base at night carrying explosives. We called them "sappers." In order to prevent this tactic, our four mortar positions would throw concussion grenades into the water every fifteen minutes.
Apparently the enemy learned our schedule and sent two sapper swimmers to attack Seafloat one night in April 1970. One of the men at a mortar position saw the swimmers and "dispatched" them with a concussion grenade. He received a Bronze Star for preventing a deadly attack.
The U.S. Navy was quite active in the Vietnam War, more than shelling the coast or bombing targets with carrier planes. The Brown Water Navy suffered most of the casualties that the Navy experienced in the war; 174,000 sailors served in country in Vietnam; 2,555 were killed in action; 4,178 were wounded; and 369 were missing in action.
Riding down an open river in a patrol boat proved to be an enticing target for the enemy.
Gregory Newman lives in Nooksack.