Small Ships, Heavy Boats and the Perils of the Long Tau Shipping Channel

from Peter Bayliss with Ralph Grambo LCU's at the Vung Tau Ramp
Related Stories
Small Ships Heavy Boats and the Perils of the Long Tau Shipping Channel [This Page]
Saigon Pilot's Guide
Water Mines
4th Trans Command Support of the Riverine Forces

Australian Army Assists 4th Trans Missions

Australian involvement in SVN began in 1962 with 30 Combat Advisors, gradually increasing. In 1965 an Infantry Battalion was committed and served with the 173rd Airborne of the US Army. It was then decided to commit a Task Force with Logistic support. The Task Force had it's own area of operations (Phuoc Tuy Province) and the total number of personnel in-country rose to 8300 in 1967. The RAAF began operations with C-130 aircraft, Caribou aircraft, Helicopters and a squadron of Canberra bombers. The Australian Navy had deployed a DDG to operate with the US 7th Fleet. The total number of personnel who served in the 10 year involvement was 55000. This number was very small compared to US numbers. Australias defence forces have always been a "Citizens defence Force", and during WW2 one in every seven of the population served in the Defence Forces between 1939-45. The size of the Regular Army from 1947 has never gone beyond 32000.

AV1356 "CLIVE STEELE" at Daru New Guinea

In 1959 the Australian Army purchased four Landing Ship Medium (LSM) from the US Navy in Japan. We had no lift capacity for Centurion tanks. These vessels were veterans of the Pacific Campaigns and Korea. They were 203' LOA and could carry four Centurion Tanks(4x52 ton) at a speed of 11-12 knots with 14 Knots max. They served extensively in New Guinea and and the SW Pacific and two of them served in Borneo during confrontation with Indonesia in 1964. The unit, 32 Small Ship Squadron, was disbanded in early 1972 as, for some ridiculous reason, the Australian Navy was to be responsible for all seagoing activities of the Defence Force. 32 Small Ship Squadron comprised five ships :-

1 Small Ship Troop - AV1356 "CLIVE STEELE"

2 Small Ship Troop - AV1354 "HARRY CHAUVEL"

3 Small Ship Troop - AV1355 "VERNON STURDEE"

4 Small Ship Troop - AV1353 "BRUDENELL WHITE"

no designation - AS3051 "JOHN MONASH" 1400 ton Cargo ship

All ships served in Vietnam with "JOHN MONASH" undertaking the "Shuttle run" between Australia and Vietnam. The HQ of 32 Small Ship Squadron never left Syney, Australia with operational control being passed to the local Army Command i.e. In Vietnam the control was HQ Australian Force, Vietnam. Each LSM carried a crew of 52 with with four Corps represented (Engineers, Medical, Signals and Ordnance).

LCU'S at the ramp at Vung Tau

From 1963 to 1965 I was Master of an Army patrol craft in New Guinea and also Master of an ALC-50 (LCU type) Landing craft. In late 1965 I was posted to 32 Small Ship Squadron and remained with this unit until mid 1969. Two tours of Vietnam were completed in 1966 and 1968. In early 1969 I was Second Mate on AS3051"JOHN MONASH" and had sailed for Vietnam but was taken off at Townsville as I was posted to the States. This posting was changed and I was to serve with the US 159th Battalion at Vung Tau and the 5th Trans. Co.(Heavy Boat). After spending some time at Bin Thuy aboard LCU 1513 I returned to Vung Tau and spent some time in the Maritime Operations Office of 159th Battalion(Lt.Col H. Ernst commanding) with CW2 William O. Freyser.

8 PBR's on a barge at Vung Tau

The Perils of the Long Tau Ship Channel

About 100 miles from Vung Tau we were intercepted by a P2V"Neptune" aircraft of the US Navy and Challenged. Some hours later we were intercepted by a Destroyer of the US Navy and again challenged. We arrived at Vung Tau about 0100 and were again challenged by Harbour control which was MSTS operated. Every Merchant ship arriving was challenged and after authentication was allocated an anchorage and waited until they were required to Move up to Saigon. It was not a case of first come first served. It depended on the cargo.

Heavy Truck Tractors on a barge at Saigon

On our initial entry to Saigon we were under control of MSTS(Military Sea Transport Service(US Navy sponsored)). I think it is now called Military Sealift Command. After that we were under control of HQ Australian Force, Vietnam with conditional tasking by the US Army. The Australian HQ released us to the US Army for duties as The US Army required. It would remain that way unless a Tactical move was required by the Australians. The same approach occurred in 1968 when we began working to Danang, Qhi Nhon, Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Dong Tam and Bin Thuy.

Harbor Congestion at Saigon

In 1966 it was rather chaotic. It was not unusual to have 25-30 ships waiting. We offloaded some cargo across the beach at Vung Tau and then went up to Saigon. We were issued with communication instructions and reported in at various checkpoints. River traffic was heavy and during the time it took us to transit to Saigon (4.5 hrs) we passed 4 separate groups of 2xPBR's as well as Minesweepers. Large Tanker traffic always seemed to have Helo and PBR security.

Unbelievable Harbor congestion at Saigon during the buildup and before Newport was built

The scene in Saigon from Camp Davies in the south to the RVN Navy dockyard was simply chaotic. The wharfage was completely covered by ships with some being anchored fore and aft on the opposite side of the river

Panamanian Freighter

Nha Be and Cat Lai were also congested with Tankers and ammunition ships. A Panamanian freighter was sunk at Nha Be with limpet mines.I have no data on limpet mines but they would have been soviet or chicom. They were used rather extensively on the Cua Viet river in I Corps and not so extensively in the Saigon area. Limpet mines get the name from the method of attachment to the hull of the vessel, usually by suction cups. They are devastating in that they can be exactly placed to do the most damage to a vulnerable part of the vessel.

"Westchester County" LST1167 Damaged by Limpet Mines, My Tho River IV Corps SVN Oct 1968. Shown here in line with other ships of the Mobile Riverine Force 9th Inf. Div. at Dong Tam

Limpets were placed on the hull of LST 1167 "Westchester County" (at My Tho exploding on the Stb. side rupturing berthing, fuel and storage compartments. 26 sailors were killed. Command detonated mines were used extensively on The Long Tau [ Saigon - Vung Tau]. US minesweepers normally operated between Nha Be south to the ocean and South Vietnamese operated from Nha Be to Newport.

An LSM sweeping the Long Tau

The purpose built Minesweeper Boats (MSB) were active from Mar 66 and with the addition of converted LCM-6's to Minsweeper,River (MSM) many millions of dollars were saved regarding ship and cargo losses let alone the number of personnel that may have been killed or wounded. A few months later the US "Baton Rouge Victory" was coming up river from Vung Tau and about 15 miles from the mouth at a place called Les Quattre Bras it was sunk by a command detonated mine. It is also possible that the mine could have been a pressure influence mine. We passed it a couple of hours later going downriver.

From 1 Jan 69 to 17 May 69 there were 33 attacks on shipping between Saigon and Vung Tau. These attacks were of Rocket, Rocket grenade, mine or MG fire. On 12 May 69 Five Merchant ships and two US Navy supply ships were attacked in three major rivers in IV Corps. Five of the ships were attacked on the Long Tau with only one ship SS "Robin Grey" being hit causing minor damage and wounding one merchant seaman. The Navy ships were hit on the My Tho and Bassac rivers causing minor damage and wounding two seamen.

"CLIVE STEELE" with a LCU at Vung Tau 1966

The "CLIVE STEELE" was hit by Rockets on the Long Tau in Jan 69 with minor damage. In early 1966 AV1356 "CLIVE STEELE" was in New Guinea and we were recalled in a hurry back to Sydney to load for SVN. We went direct from Sydney to Manus Island hence to the bottom of the Phillipines then to the top of Borneo and then over to Vung Tau.

Discharging Australian Tanks at Can Ranh

The Australian Government had decided in 1965 to send an Infantry Battalion to Vietnam and chartered a civil ship to assist in the logistic re-supply with a LSM to assist in the unloading of the civil ship "BOONAROO". and HMAS "SYDNEY" (Aircraft Carrier converted to a Troop Transport) They also foresaw that the could be trouble with the crews of the civil shipping and that was the reason for Army Small Ships to be deployed there. Australian Merchant Seamen are renowned for their Socialist/Communist ideals as are our Wharf Laborers (Longshoremen). Strange but they earned more money than I did. The only instance where there was some trouble in-country was in 1968 when the SS "Jeparit" arrived in Vung Tau with a load of Centurion tanks for the Task Force. There was no crane suitable at Vung Tau so the US Army suggested that if the ship went to Saigon it could be unloaded there. The seamen refused unless they were paid exhorbitant "danger money". The Army refused and sent the ship to Cam Ranh Bay. We were taken off our normal duties and went to Cam Ranh to pick up the tanks and bring them back to the Task Force at Baria. The "Jeparit" was later commissioned into the Australian Navy and the seamen replaced with navy personnel. (( Note: If you don't know, We are the only Ally of the US who do not receive US Aid. We pay for everything.))

Army Nose Art

In Feb 1970 some months were spent at the Harbormasters Office at MM1 in Saigon. On return to Australia my posting was as Navigation Instructor at the School until I decided that Australia was becoming a cesspool of Vietnam protest so we went "home" to New Guinea and the PNG Transportation Squadron. I was commissioned and served as Troop Commander, XO and , as a Capt., finally as Officer Commanding until A Navy Commander took over and I became XO.

When we returned to Australia I became Senior Instructor of the Maritime Wing of the school until my resignation in 1976. My era was over.

During my time with the Harbourmasters Office at MM1 the main thrust was the control and movement of all US Army vessels within the Saigon Port area. This included the YS series tankers, Floating Cranes, LCU, LCM, Tugs, dumb barges(which were a constant headache as they were being "lost"all the time) and 'out - country' US Army vessels from Okinawa. I am not sure about the association between MSTS and the MM1 office but we had quite alot to do with Newport (dumb barges to/from, loading/unloading LCU's).

Return to the ATAV Homepage