Monday, July 16, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Gunboat Patrols Look For Cong-Ambush, Infiltrations, Weapons

October 29, 1966

Cat Lo, South Viet Nam--This is one of five United States Naval bases in South Viet Nam, which are conducting two important operations in the War, Operation Market Time, and Operation Game Warden.

In the Market Time operation, swift 50-foot gunboats patrol the more than 1,000 miles of coastline, seeking out trawlers and junks and searching them for contraband and weapons.

The second system uses smaller armed boats to patrol the thousands of twisting miles of rivers and streams of the Mekong Delta. Viet Cong ambushes, mortar attacks, and mine explosions are common occurrences on the river patrol.

The two operations in progress are designed to throttle infiltration and cut off supply lines to the VC.

Aiding the Navy in the operation are several larger ships from the United States Coast Guard. The success of the projects has been good. Large numbers of firearms and foodstuffs have been intercepted. The largest haul of either operation was made during June, when a Coast Guard cutter captured more than eight tons of weapons and ammunition and took one prisoner, near the mouth of the Bassac River and the South China Sea, 60 miles south of Cat Lo.

Lt. (jg) Charles P. Eddy, 25, Houston, Tex., is only one of the many heroes who have emerged from these naval operations. Eddy won the Bronze star Jan. 9 for his role in capturing two junks on which 17 rifles and five tons of ammunition were hidden.

Eddy said his crew and two other boats attempted to stop two junks for a routine search. Skippers of the two junks refused to stop and opened fire. Eddy's boat was riddled with bullets and he returned fire with .50 and .3o caliber machine guns. Five Viet Cong aboard the two junks were killed.

Eddy and Chief Petty Officer Robert H. Hempstead, Winchester, Va., each received the Bronze Star for their actions.

"Our only casualties, "Eddy said, "were two dead chickens. Our supper, by the way," he added.

Cmdr. Donald J. McMillan, Suisum City, Calif., is a 16 year Navy veteran and the zone commander for Game Warden and Market Time.

"I believe we're really doing something here," the commander said. "We don't have action all the time, but we are keeping the pressure on the Viet Cong."

To see how one of the patrols on Market Time functioned, we hopped a ride on Lt. Peter C. Hilstrom's No. 69 Swift Boat. Hilstrom, 28, comes from Lake Oswego, Ore. He's young and he's only been in the Navy four and a half years, but he has the respect and admiration of his crew. Though Hilstrom's all Navy and demands every man aboard do their job, he's never too busy to smile or give them a pat on the back.

Hilstrom's craft is powered by two 490-horse power diesel engines, which will push the boat along at more than 30 miles an hour. The hull and superstructure are all aluminum, and serve as the platform for an arsenal of weapons.

Included in the armaments are twin .50 caliber machine guns in a forward turret, a single .50 caliber on the stern, and a direct fire 86 millimeter mortar. The five-man crew can choose their personal arms from five automatic rifles, a shotgun, and five .38 caliber pistols.

Hilstrom has been in Viet Nam since September, 1965, and though he's seen his share of action, he's still looking for his first big haul.

"We jokingly call this the Bore War," Hilstrom said. "But we'd sure like to get it over with."

Hilstrom's crew was composed of Chief Boatswain's Mate, Clarence (Duke) Ellington, 42, Miami, Okla., who's an old salt veteran of 24 years in the Navy; Gunner's Mate Roy E. Stafford, 33, Texas City, Tex., a 15 year Navy vet; Seaman Robert McDonald, 22, Riverside, Calif., cook, engineman and gunner; Ronald L. Mick, 23, Plainville, Kas., radioman; and the youngest member of the crew, Michael C. Youle, 19, Pekin, Ill.

Youle was graduated from Columbus, Ind., High School, while his father was stationed at Bakalar Air Base. His father is a 30-year man in the Air Force.

Hilstrom steered the Swift Boat away from the Cat Lo dock at noon sharp and guided her slowly past Vung Tau and into the South China Sea for a 24-hour patrol.

The first four or five hours were slow. No unusual activity was sighted. The deep water off Vung Tau was crowded wtih ships at anchor. They were waiting, Hilstrom said, to enter the Saigon River channel and travel the 40 miles inland to Saigon where they would unload their cargoes. Among the ships at anchor was the Baton Rouge Victory, which was heavily damaged by a Viet Cong mine in the Saigon River, Aug 27. The stricken ship was having a patch put on a long tear in her hull by Navy Harbor Clearance personnel.

Shortly before sunset, the activity picked up considerably when the fishing fleet began coming in with their catch. Hilstrom gave each boat a wary eye. He made no effort to stop and search every one of the small junks. He depended upon his training and intuition to tip him to suspicious acts before he ordered a craft stopped and searched.

During the night, nearly 15 boats were searched but no contraband or Viet Cong were discovered. The crew of the No. 69 boat took no chances. While McDonald and Mick searched the junks and trawlers, Stafford and Chief Ellington kept their machine guns trained on the boat.

During the night, we received a request to meet a radar escort destroyer, the USS Finch, and pick up a crewmember that had an abscessed tooth. We were to take him to the Naval Hospital at Vung Tau for treatment. About 10 a.m. the next day, we met the destroyer and picked up Seaman Norman Feuti, 20, Mapleville, R.I. Feuti's right jaw was swollen badly and he didn't feel like talking.

Members of the No. 69 crew tried to mooch some ice cream from the destroyer's executive officer, but when the exec checked the stores, he discovered the Finch was out of ice cream. It was a draw. The exec wanted a pair of dry cell batteries, which Hilstrom could not provide.

The 69 boat headed south about 11:30 a.m. and by 1:15 its relief boat was spotted and the recognition signals were passed. We headed for the hot, smelly mooring at Cat Lo. The patrol was over.

Cat Lo is an old French Army river base. The Vietnamese villagers in the swampy area depend upon fishing and salt making for their income.

"One thing is for sure," Hilstrom said, "these guys don't put salt on their fish or this place wouldn't smell so bad."

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