PTF Zero Six-The Expendable
The South Vietnamese Navy Special Maritime Operations
of the Nasty class Patrol Torpedo-Fast Boat
by Commander Thong Ba Le, South Vietnamese Navy
The war in Vietnam between the free world and the Communist bloc had reached a higher level since the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, which involved North Vietnamese PT boats and two U.S. Navy destroyers in the international waters. Since the national resistance against the French from 1940-1954, war had taken the lives of so many innocent people in both North and South Vietnam and now there were more people being killed.
The Geneva Convention Accords agreed to end the war between Vietnam and France, and to divide the Vietnamese's beloved country into two parts. The Ben Hai River on the seventeenth parallel became the border. It was like a long sword of evil cutting across the beautiful land, what used to be an 'S' shaped paradise. Millions of Vietnamese citizens died for their nationalistic ideology and their blood poured into the soil of their homeland.
After celebrating a victory that had been won with the blood of their own countrymen, the Communists of Vietnam killed and eliminated all patriots who once fought side by side with them. In South Vietnam, the people mourned their lost brothers. The Communists also destroyed all parties that rebelled against them, and in 1958, they began to sneak troops and equipment through the jungle on the Ho Chi Minh trail along Truong Son Mountain. The North Vietnamese Communists sent supplies and weapons to the South Vietnamese coastline by boat, to start another war between the ideologists.
South Vietnam was at the forefront of the struggle between the free world and the International Communist Party. The Party was under the leadership of the Russian and the Red Chinese who hoped to conquer Southeast Asia, an area that included Indochina, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia , Singapore and perhaps India, too.
In November 1963, the free world lost two anticommunist leaders. President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of South Vietnam was killed on November 1st in a "Coup d'etat" carried out by his one time loyalists, the Army Generals. Three weeks later, on November 22,1963, while visiting Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Dallas, in his limousine, with his wife, Jaqueline, sitting next to him. These two men had been devoted in their commitment to protect Southeast Asia, and with their deaths and new leaders in their place, a new era of war was born.
The war increased the next year and the President of the United States of America, Lyndon B. Johnson, decided to stop the Communists' plan to rule Vietnam before the other members of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), fell to the Internal Communist Party in a domino effect. In August 1964, in retaliation of the North Vietnamese attack to the USS Maddox and the USS Turney Joy, President Johnson ordered Navy airplanes from the aircraft carrier the USS Ticonderoga of the Seventh Fleet to launch a massive attack and air bombardment of the North Vietnamese Naval Bases and their facilities.
The South Vietnamese Army Generals, vowing to fight the Communists, faced the uncertainty of maintaining their power over their people. One military coup after another had hindered the stability of the government, and it was their primary responsibility to stop the North Vietnamese infiltration of South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh trail before it was too late.
On a sunny day in May 1965, the first United States Marine stepped onto the white sandy beach of Danang. Billowy clouds covered Hai Van pass, which overlooked the Tien sa peninsula. President Johnson committed himself as the leader of the free world when, with the approval of the U.S. Congress, he made the historical decision to send the U.S. Armed Forces to battle in a foreign country.
In Saigon, the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam (MACV) increased the number of personnel. There were more U.S. Advisors working alongside their Vietnamese counterparts in South Vietnamese units. The Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) and the Mobile Support Team (MST) were the counterparts of the South Vietnamese Navy So Phong Ve Duyen Hai, Coastal Security Service (CSS), operating under the command of Nha Ky Thuat, the Strategic Technical Directorate (STD), of the Vietnamese Bo Tong Tham Muu, or General Staff Headquarters in Saigon. With their American counterpart, the US Studies and Observation Group (SOG), they carried out a covert operation to deter the war being conducted by the North Vietnamese in the South China Sea from north of the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel.
Twelve Vietnamse Navy crews and 12 Patrol Torpedo-Fast (PTF) boats and 3 Patrol Craft-Fast (PCF) boats of Luc Luong Hai Tuan, the Maritime Patrol Force, and many Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams of Luc Luong Biet Hai, the Special Maritime Force, were formed into a Special Task Force that operated different missions north of the seventeenth parallel. These missions were categorized in four missions called: "Mint, Cado, Loki and Special," and each had a specific task to execute. Furthermore, in order to classify the maritime operating areas, the sea between the seventeenth parallel and the twentieth was designated by colors, such as "Purple, Green, Blue, White, Yellow and Red." The operation units conducted their missions along the coast of North Vietnam from the southern edge of Hon Cop island to the Bach Long Vi island in the north. This dangerous and venturous maritime zone was named by members of the Special Task Force as the "Black Sea Zone" and every night, in the darkness of the storm, quietly steaming on the white-capped waves of the South China Sea, were the phantom boats in different formations, PTF boats of Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc (The Sacred Sword of Patriot League) with its crew members wearing black pajamas, on their mission to search and destroy their enemy's Naval vessels.
* * * * *
The sea was very rough this morning and the sea weather scale level was probably 3 minus. It was on a cloudy and gloomy day in October 1966, about one week before the South Vietnamese memorized their third National Celebration Day of the Revolution in November 1, 1963. The Revolution was carried out by the Army
Generals to end the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his family's rule.
The "Task Group One" included four Patrol Torpedo, Fast (PTF) boats. Their call-names were: Hong Ha, who was the Officer-in-Tactical Command (OTC), Hai Au, Huong Giang, and Bach Dang.
Their mission was to search and destroy enemy convoys that used the high sea, on the far eastern edge of the "Vung Bien Den-The Black Sea zone", to penetrate into South Vietnam. Navy intelligence had reported that by using this route, the enemy would be able to carry supplies on the large vessels formed in-group, and easily avoided the detection of the Navy that only operated close to the mainland.
The Task group left their base very early in the morning; this would be a difficult mission and a long journey. The furthest checkpoint of their mission was southern of an island called "Bach Long Vi-The Tail of the White Dragon" located in international waters.
The boat was rolling and pitching, the bow raised up and down with the waves spraying water over the bridge. Lt. Le Nguyen Thai kept wiping water from his face; the salty taste on his lips made him thirsty, again and again.
Lt. Thai had been with the force for almost two years, participating in over seventy missions in different categories. He was the captain of PTF Zero Six and his call-name was Hai Au. He became accustomed to the dangerous life and grew more and more excited with each adventure.
"This is a very dangerous job, the life is so uncertain, you can live today and die tomorrow, just like that."
Lt. Thai smiled as he recalled the "theory of life," statement made by his close friend Lt. Luu Tung, who had been with the force longer than Lt. Thai. But Lt. Thai believed in destiny, he always thought that anything that happened in this life was planned and there was no coincidence when events occurred, there were always reasons behind them.
"Well, at least there is a reason for me to have the courage to continue to do my duty for this kind of mission and to have peace in my mind."
Lt. Thai thought of his family,
"Ngoc must be preparing lunch for our children now."
Ngoc was his wife. She did not know what of duties were involved in his job. She expected that this job was a Navy mission, like the normal patrol at sea that required Lt. Thai to be away from home for a couple of days. She was never told about how dangerous they might be and she never asked.
One day, Lt. Thai came home very depressed and sad and did not want to eat his favorite dinner. On this day she asked Lt. Thai who told her later that some members of his crew were killed in the last mission.
"All units, this is Hong Ha, over"
The voice from the radio brought Lt. Thai back from his thoughts to the present.
"Hong Ha, this is Hai Au, over",
The other boats waited for Lt. Thai to finish communicating.
"Hong Ha, this is Huong Giang, over".
"Hong Ha, this is Bach Dang, over".
All boats responded to the OTC.
"All units, this is Hong Ha, begin to test firing all guns, execute, out".
"This is Hai Au, roger, out".
"This is Huong Giang, roger, out".
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out."
"General quarters, general quarters, all hands man their battle stations".
Lt. Thai gave the order to his crew who was running to their GQ combat positions.
"All guns, test firing to the air, 45 degrees angle, starboard side, 3 o'clock, fire at will, batteries release."
The sailors begun to fire their guns to the direction away from the task group, the noisy sound from the gunshots and the smell from the gunpowder made everybody feel to be in the mood of readiness.
The 40mm cannon was right behind of the bridge; two Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft canons were mounted on each side of the bridge. Those are very good and reliable weapons to protect the PT boat. Right in front of the bridge was the 81mm mortar, which was used mainly to shoot leaflets and flares, but sometimes Lt. Thai, used this powerful mortar to destroy targets in a close range combat. A 50 caliber machine gun was mounted on top of the 81mm mortar, this gun was also very effective in close battles because it could shoot hundred of bullets in a minute, including tracers which used in the dark nights to mark the flight of projectiles to the enemy targets. The armament had been built to give the PT boats the firepower to protect them against the sea and the air attacks from the enemy.
"Cease-fire, cease-fire, all hands are secured from general quarters".
Lt. Thai gave the order to the radioman standing next to him on the bridge who in turn related the order of the captain to all positions. Lt. Thai took off his flak jacket and put the helmet on the flight deck behind his chair then looked down to the radar room.
" How are we doing Mr. Lai?"
He asked his executive officer who was standing in front of the radar repeater and doing a fix on the navigation map.
" We are about fifteen minutes behind schedule, we just have passed check point Alfa. The sea is pretty rough, wind from east northeast about 16 knots, with our speed of 25 knots we can catch up the lost time, sir."
LTJG Lai was his new XO, this was his third mission and he still needed to be coached and trained.
" Very well, let me know as soon as we reach to check point Bravo."
"Aye Aye Captain" LTJG Lai replied to his skipper who returned to his chair on the bridge. Check point Bravo was about 20 miles north of the 17 parallels.
" All units, this is Hong Ha, over."
" Hong Ha, this is Hai Au, over".
Lt. Thai heard the voice from the other boats.
" Hong Ha, this is Huong Giang, over."
" Hong Ha, this is Bach Dang, over."
" All units, this is Hong Ha, change course to 010 degrees, speed 25 knots, formation India, execute, over and out."
" This is Hai Au, roger, out."
"This is Huong Giang, roger, out."
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out."
All PT boats took turns changing to the new course and maintained their positions behind the OTC in a column formation. The distance between each boat was 300 yards.
Lt. Thai worried about this long mission and the unfavorable weather conditions.
It was now the northeastern season, the stormy season in the South China Sea, with the rougher seas and stronger winds. The crew tired more easily and became seasick. That would affect their physical conditions as well as their performances during the mission..
" We will need all our strength for this mission."
Lt. Thai was talking to himself and looked at his wrist watch .
Lt. Thai looked toward the direction of the land. It was so far away in the horizon; there was the land that nourished the hopes of a whole generation that had suffered too much and too long in the war. Lt. Thai wished that one day his people would be happy and be able to live without destruction and famine from the war. Lt. Thai returned from his thought by the voice from the radio:
"All units, this is Hong Ha, prepare to change course to 355 degrees, over".
All PT boats took turns responding to the OTC.
"Captain, we are about to reach to check point Bravo, Sir" His XO reported.
"Very well, change the radar scale to 25 miles to see if there was any contact" he told his XO.
"All units, this is Hong Ha, change course to 355 degrees, execute, out".
The four PT boats changed to the new course heading to their destination that was about 7 hours away, at the southwest of the island named " Bach Long Vi-The Tail of the White Dragon ", located at 20o25 North and 107o 50 East.
* * * * *
It was about fifteen hundred hours, the sea was calmer and the wind came slightly from the east. Lt. Thai could see the sun trying to get its sunrays out of the clouds. Far away on the horizon, on his port side, was the coast of North Vietnam about 65 miles to
the west. There was no contact on the radar repeater in the last three hours, the radar scale was now set for the distance of 35 miles radius.
" All units, this is Hong Ha, "Skunk" at two o'clock, distance 34 miles, general quarters, general quarters, execute over,"
" Hong Ha, this is Hai Au, roger and out,"
" Hong Ha, this is Huong Giang, roger and out,"
" Hong Ha, this is Bach Dang, roger and out,"
Lt. Thai gave the order to the radioman standing next to him who related to his crew
" General quarters, all hand man their battle stations ".
The sailors knew that this was not a drill, they ran quickly to their CQ posts while putting on their life jackets and the helmets.
"All stations are ready, sir"
"Radar room, keep me posted on the Skunk."
Lt. Thai looked down and talked to his XO who concentrated on the contacts on the radar repeater.
" Aye aye sir, those will be many Skunks, I think they are stationary sir"
LTJG Lai's voice was shaking
" Distance is 25 miles at 010 degrees".
Lt. Thai reached for his jacket and the helmet. He guessed that these Skunks were the Chinese Communist Navy vessels that were on the international waters, so he did not think there would be any danger.
" Unless these Chinese want to start a war " He said to himself " We will be ready."
"All units, this is Hong Ha, change speed to 35 knots , course 010 degree, execute over and out"
The PT boats increased their speed and changed course, heading to the Skunks.
Lt. Thai looked at the horizon and he could see through his binocular the small dark shapes of boats appearing from time to time in the waves.
" Distance to the targets is 5500 yards, dead ahead and closing fast, captain".
LTJG. Lai reported from the radar room.
Lt. Thai acknowledged "Very well" then he turned to the radioman and told him to relate his order to all positions
" Tell them do not fire unless I give the order to do so, understood?"
He did not want to make any mistake in this situation.
The Skunks appeared to be what Lt. Thai had expected. They were the Chinese Communist Navy boats. He could see the red flags flying in the wind. There were more than ten gunboats forming an "India" formation heading south very slowly. Lt. Thai saw that they were in combat positions too.
" All units this is Hong Ha, contacts were identified as Chinese Communist Navy boats in the international waters, change course to 350 degrees, execute, over and out".
Lt. Thai exhaled softly and he ordered the helm to the new course while continuing to observe the reaction of the Red Chinese vessels. They did not to be a threat to the Task group and they maintained their course. The tension was lesser as the PT boats steamed further away from the Chinese Communist. It was about 1800 hours, the sea would be dark soon.
" Mr. Lai , check and let me know how far to the check point Delta"
Check point Delta was the destination of the mission.
"Sir, it's about 80 miles, with this speed and this weather we could get there at 2030 hours".
Lt. Thai already knew that the OTC wanted to gain back the lost time by maintaining the same speed of 35 knots.
The sea became rougher and the wind blew water over the bow to the bridge. The crew was getting tired but they still had to remain at their battle stations. The boat kept rolling due to the waves coming from starboard side at about 2 o'clock.
" All units this is Hong Ha, battle condition two, maintain look out, be careful over and out"
Lt. Thai gave the ordered to his crew to release half of them from the battle stations and put another man on look out position. The Task group continued on their mission without incident up to that time.
At about twenty hundred hours, Lt. Thai was all wet with the sticky salt water. He felt so tired because of the long day. It was dark; he could only see the dim light at the stern of the boat of the OTC about 300 yards away.
He called to his XO down below:
" LTJG Lai, you are in charge, I am going to my room and change my clothes"
LTJG Lai climbed up from the radar room and said:
" Aye aye sir, I am in charge, course 350 degrees, speed 35 knots".
He took the binoculars and put it around his neck, standing watch on the bridge.
Lt. Thai went down to the radar room, talked to the radar man on duty, checked the position of the boat then proceeded to his quarter below.
About 15 minutes later, while putting on the dry black shirt, Lt. Thai felt the rolling of the boat seemed different. He knew right away that the course was changing.
Lt. Thai hurried up and ran to the bridge, he took a quick look at the radar repeater and realized that his boat was turning to the port side and was making a 360-degrees turn.
He skipped the doorstep, rushed to the throttles and pulled back to stop his boat while ordering the helm to put the rudder in mid-ship position.
It was too late, his boat had collided with the last boat of the formation from the stern of this boat and in five minutes, two boats were dead in the water.
Lt. Thai radioed and reported the incident to the OTC who had stopped with the other boat to prepare and join the rescue. Bach Dang was the boat that was hit. The skipper was LTJG Le Giang who had ordered his crew to abandon ship.
While Lt. Thai maneuvered his boat to the rescue position, he had his crew check the bow of his boat that was damaged in the collision.
"Hai Au, Huong Giang this is Hong Ha, fire flares and maintain looked outs, I will keep my radar surveillance, remember that we are only 25 miles south of ' Bach Long Vi-The Tail of the White Dragon' island, over and out."
Bach Dang went down in about 20 minutes after the collision and all crew members were rescued in a little over one hour, in the rough sea and under the light of flares that brighten the moonless night. It was a miracle that Lt. Giang and his crew including 5 members of the SEAL team, the Venus, were all accounted for. They were pulled out from the cold water of the South China Sea onto three PTF boats thanks to their life jackets that kept them afloat while waiting to be rescued.
The bow of Lt. Thai's PTF boat was badly damaged, about half of the front compartment was gone. His damage control crew had used the plywood and beams to repair and to keep the water from coming in, but his boat could only run slowly at the speed of 10 knots.
The OTC had radioed to the headquarters after the rescue was completed and informed them that the task group was heading home at slow speed and he requested assistance to be on standby.
Lt. Thai came down from the bridge to comfort his friends who were still in shock from the cold. After that he got the report from his XO about what caused the boat to make a 360-degree turn. The gyrocompass had suddenly gone out of order and caused the heading turn to starboard. That made the helm, who tried to maintain the course at 350 degrees, to steer to the left causing the boat to made a circle and collide with the last boat.
It took 25 hours for the trip back to the base.
The quest, the dangerous life, the courage of the PTF crews continued in the next "Mission Impossible". The tale of this event which took place in the darkness of the night, south of the coast of the "Bach Long Vi -The Tail of White Dragon" island, was recalled by members of the 12 crews of the PTF Task Force including PTF Zero Six. They were known as "The Expendable"