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 11 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.
Lieutenant Le Nguyen Thai pushed back the crop of black hair that had fallen across his forehead. He concentrated on the distance between the torpedo boat of the Officer-in-Tactical Command (OTC) and his Patrol Torpedo-Fast boat, PTF 06. A member of the graduating class of 1962-Capricorn the Goat-from the South Vietnamese Naval Academy in Nha Trang, LT Thai had volunteered to serve in this PTF and SEAL Special Task Force early the previous year.
The brackish air made him reach for the canteen behind his seat on the bridge. It was 2300 on a cool May night in 1966 at the international waters north of the seventeenth parallel in the South China Sea. The half-moon, reflecting a beautiful stream of light on the waves, hung on the starboard quarter of the formation of PT boats
"The sea is very calm tonight," LT Thai said to himself; the wind blew gently from the east-northeast.
LT Thai recalled the briefing in the conference room that had taken place fifteen minutes prior to getting underway. After going over the mission, the operations officer from the U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD), Lieutenant Commander Tom and his Vietnamese counterpart from the Coastal Security Service (CSS), LT Charlie, had wished everyone "good luck.
"We do need a lot of luck tonight," LT Thai thought. As he pondered how the rest of the night might transpire, he had a difficult time pushing away the thought that the task ahead was something of a "Mission Impossible.
"Skipper." LT Thai turned to face the executive officer, LTJG Tan, who had climbed up from the radar room located just below the bridge.
"We have reached check point Bravo, sir. I recommend setting General Quarters now.
"Very well. General Quarters, all hands man your battle stations.
LT Thai gave the order to his crew to ready themselves for combat conditions. Sailors throughout the boat donned flak jackets and helmets as they rushed past one another to their GQ stations.
"Mr. Tan, check with Chief Cuong to see if the oil pressure problem in the port engine has been taken care of." LT Thai continued, "I want all the power we can get-we might need to run flank speed tonight." He paused and looked at his executive officer.
"Aye aye, sir."
LTJG Tan hurried below to get a status report from his chief petty officer. He returned a moment later and reported back that everything had been repaired.
LT Thai traversed the steps leading down to the radar room. The NCO-in-charge of the sonar and radar, First Class Petty Officer Hau, saluted and reported:
"Good evening skipper. We are on schedule, sir.
"Very well, Petty Officer Hau," acknowledged LT Thai. "Let me take a look."
Under the red light in the radar room, LT Thai eyed a chart of the North Vietnamese coastline. The chart rested neatly atop a small desk. A radar repeater stood in the middle of the small room. On the right of the deck, there were sets of scanners, wires, and knobs of the radio and sonar equipment.
Standing in front of the radar repeater, LT Thai studied the position of his boat, call-name Hai Au, relative to the other boats in the task group. The scope intermittently displayed three diamond-like echoes equally spaced forward and aft of his boat. The four boats were steaming in an "I" formation with Hai Dang, the OTC, designated as the lead boat and guide. Behind LT Thai's boat were Bach Dang and Truong Giang.
LT Thai adjusted the bearing and range knobs to estimate his boat's distance from Hai Dang's stern. "Two hundred eighty yards. Not bad for night-time station keeping."
The radar repeater indicated no contacts within ten miles of the formation. Extending the range scale to 35 miles, he could see the outline of the Vietnamese coastline. Mui Ron, located north of the 18th parallel, was about seventeen and a half miles away at 250 degrees relative. The task group was now in the "Black Sea zone," and the action would begin within a matter of hours.
"We're almost to 'green section' and will alter course in about ten minutes," LT Thai stated.
"Yes sir, we are right on time, thanks to the weather and the calm sea tonight," his radar man replied
LT Thai looked again to the chart on the desk. It depicted various color blocks along the coastal line corresponding to code names of the operating areas of LT Thai's missions. The areas were Purple, Green, Blue, White, Yellow and Red, and extended from the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel.
"Hai Au, Bach Dang, Truong Giang, this is Hai Dang, over".
LT Thai heard the voice of LT Tung on the radio. LT Tung was the OTC and captain of Hai Dang.
"Hai Dang, this is Hai Au, roger, over," responded his "XO" as voices from the other PT boats followed.
"This is Bang Dang, roger, over.
"This is Truong Giang, roger, over." The voices from the last two boats were very clear.
"This is Hai Dang, all units change course to 335, formation India, execute over.
"This is Hai Au, roger, out.
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out.
"This is Truong Giang, roger, out.
The PT boats followed one another's wakes to the ordered course. Days and nights of training and practice were clearly evident as the boats smartly executed the OTC's order.
The PT boats were now heading north-northwest toward coastline of Ha Tinh province. LT Thai returned to his chair on the bridge and scanned the horizon. Just forward of his port beam were some flares hanging lonely in the sky, their pale rays looking like the light of the universe.
LT Thai mused, all at once feeling profound pity for the people who were suffering with the war that had caused them pain for many, many years. He thought about his friend and OTC of the task group, LT Tung, a native of North Vietnam who had emigrated to South Vietnam in 1954. He was a Naval Academy graduate of class Eight -"Scorpio the Scorpion"- an outstanding, experienced officer who had been with the Task Force for more than two years.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, over."
The voice from the radio brought LT Thai back to the present. He responded, "This is Hai Au, over" and waited for other boats to do the same.
"This is Hai Dang, all units change course to 285, formation India, execute, over."
After LT Thai responded and executed the order from the OTC, he looked down at the radar scope through the small window next to the throttles. The outline of the shoreline south of the Ha Tinh Bay was now just ahead of the task group.
"What is the distance to the shore, Mr. Tan?" he asked.
The executive officer, standing anxiously in front of the radar repeater, answered, "About 11 miles and closing, sir. Speed is 25 knots and we will reach our target in about 20 minutes.
"Very well," LT Thai answered and then gave an order to the radioman standing next to him:
"Forward 81mm mortar standby, set up distance 800 yards."
The sailor repeated the order to the forward gun crew, and LT Thai watched as they prepared the mortar rounds for firing.
"All units, this is Hai Dang. Reduce speed to ten knots, one zero knots and prepare to execute to fire Lima, over.
"This is Hai Au, roger, out.
"This is Bach Dang, roger, out.
"This is Truong Giang, roger, out.
The four PT boats were quickly approaching their targets.
"Distance 5000 yards from shore, sir. We're pretty close, Skipper."
LT Thai acknowledged the report from his "XO." He suddenly felt a tingling sensation down the back of his neck. This feeling often occurred when LT Thai was about to engage in battle and disappeared as soon as the first gun shot was fired.
"Distance 1500 yards," LTJG Tan reported nervously from the radar room.
"All hands standby. Forward 81mm mortar standby to fire leaflets on my command.
His task group's primary mission tonight was to shoot rounds containing anticommunist leaflets into enemy posts located on the shore. As part of the psychological warfare program against the North Vietnamese Communist government, these leaflets were designed to inform the civilian populace about Mat Tran Guom Thieng Ai Quoc-the Sacred Sword of Patriot League. According to intelligence reports, these enemy posts were manned with 155mm batteries to defend their seaboard.
"They should know that we're here. Why is it so quiet? They must have fallen asleep tonight," LT Thai whispered to his quartermaster, who was at the helm and concentrating on keeping the boat in position.
"All units this is Hai Dang, change course to 000, formation India, execute, over.
The four PT boats turned parallel to the shoreline. All guns were trained to the coastline and ready to fire.
"Distance 600 yards from shore...sonar indicates that the depth is 55 feet and dropping fast, Skipper," LTJG Tan reported to LT Thai.
"Very well Tan, we are going to open fire now," he hoped. "We're too close to the beach.
"All units this is Hai Dang, speed 35 knots, fire at will, out.
LT Thai responded, pushing the throttles forward, and ordered:
"Forward 81, batteries released!"
LT Thai watched the mortar crew load round after round into the muzzle. "Pup, pup, pup," was the sound emanating from the mortar as the rounds were fired. Suddenly, there were explosions all around the boats.
"All units, change course to 090, formation two, repeat formation two, flank speed, execute, out.
All the PT boats made a sharp 90 degree turn to starboard, forming a line abreast.
LT Thai pushed the throttles all the way forward to increase his speed to flank, which was about 55 knots. The bow of his PT boat raised up; the boat was almost flying out of the water, with only the stern still touching its surface.
LT Thai maintained his position while artillery shells exploded dangerously close to his boat. Saltwater spray covered his face. His crew was courageously and calmly returning fire. They were used to these dangerous situations, although never before had they been this close to the shore to deliver leaflets.
The 40mm cannon aft fired noisily, and the sound "tac.. tac.. tac" from the two Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft cannons on either side of the boat was deafening. Traces of the rounds drew hundreds of lines toward the shore, and exploded when they hit their targets on the beach.
The moonbeams streamed down from the western sky and the flares lightened up the darkness of a cool night, LT Thai saw the other boats clinging to the surface of the sea. Hai Dang was on the left, and Bach Dang was on the right. He could not make out Truong Giang's silhouette, but he could see the flashes of gunfire from the boat.
The enemy artillery shells were still falling and exploding around their boats. Fortunately, the PT boats were very small, fast moving targets that zigzagged easily. Even those enemy rockets that were radar controlled could only manage to hit the water at about 30 to100 yards from the boats
"The distance is 5000 yards, we're just about out of their range, Skipper.
"Very well, all hands maintain your stations.
"Lookouts, keep an eye on the sky for enemy airplanes." His crew had ceased firing for now.
"All units this is Hai Dang, resume speed to 25 knots, formation Delta, execute, out.
LT Thai reduced speed and maneuvered into station. His boat was now on the guide boat's starboard quarter. Bach Dang maneuvered to his position on the OTC's port quarter, and Truong Giang closed to complete the "diamond shaped" formation. This Delta formation was used to protect the group from the attack of enemy airplanes flying out from their bases inland.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, report damage and casualties, over".
"Hai Dang, this is Hai Au, negative damage and casualties, over.
"Hai Dang, this is Bach Dang, negative damage. One crew member is slightly wounded, over.
"Hai Dang, this is Truong Giang, port bow above waterline was hit, damage control crew is repairing. No serious problems, over.
LT Thai exhaled softly and said to himself:
" LCDR Tom was right, we had a lot of luck in this battle.
"This is Hai Dang, change course to 165, formation Delta, speed 35 knots. We're going home, out."
The PT boats turned to the new course, still maintaining the anti-aircraft formation, and increased their speed heading south. LT Thai looked at his aluminum wristwatch and saw that the time was 0220.
" This is Hai Dang. Job well done, my friends."
LT Tung paused and then said:
"Thank you all very much, out.
The half moon, on the boats' starboard bows, was still hanging on the far horizon over the Motherland.
As on many other missions after the battle was over, LT Thai felt himself changing back from a warrior to a man. Sometimes LT Thai wondered and asked himself how long the war would continue. Would he and his friends have the patience and courage to fight until the end?
LT Thai remembered the day when he kneeled down to accept "the Sword of Honor" from the President of The Republic of Vietnam, and along with other commissioned naval officers, took the oath to protect and defend his country. He had kept his oath until now.
"All units, this is Hai Dang, formation India, execute, out.
LT Thai and the other skippers maneuvered their boats into the "I" formation.
"All hands secure from General Quarters," LT Thai ordered.
His radioman relayed the order to the crew to stand down from their GQ stations.
The boats were about to get to the Purple area, and it was fairly safe now because enemy airplanes rarely ventured this far from their bases.
LT Thai said to himself:
"There goes another night's adventure.
The mission which this task group had carried out was one of four maritime missions. This night's mission was named Operation "Mint." The others were called "Cado," "Loki" and "Special" missions.
The six color blocks from the seventeenth parallel to the twentieth parallel and the four category missions, had been named by the "Special Sea Warriors" as "Vung Bien Den" or the "Black Sea zone".
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