Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.
First Lieutenant James Bowers eased forward the controls on his Iroquois helicopter as he banked along the coastline.#1 He watched below at the waters and thought he saw something moving…an island. The olive drab airship careened across the sky as he maneuvered lower for a closer look. It was no island. Bowers banked clear of the Vung Ro Bay and radioed the position of the well-camouflaged enemy trawler. Within hours the floating “island” would be no more. A flight of South Vietnamese A-1 Skyraiders were diverted to the bay, two hundred and thirty-five miles north of Saigon, Vietnam, and despite enemy fire from the jungle surrounding the target, they were successful in sinking the enemy vessel into the shallows. Upon further inspection, after land-based units were able to fight through heavy enemy resistance, the sunken trawler and the nearby dense jungle were a treasure trove of weapons, munitions, and medical supplies.2
The Vung Ro Bay discovery on February 16, 1965 was a stark reminder to the United States military and its South Vietnam counterparts of the significance of the various supply routes that snaked throughout the war-torn country. The supply lines, especially the ones along the rivers and waterways, had to be stopped. With thousands of junks and other vessels transiting the waters throughout and along the coast of Vietnam, the task was daunting. Despite the efforts of the U.S. Navy, in coordination with other U.S. military assets, it was clear that additional maritime forces – especially those with experience in near-shore operations - would have to answer the call to duty. The nation’s oldest ongoing maritime force, it was quickly determined, was the perfect asset to utilize to try to stem the tide of enemy junks and vessels transporting troops, munitions, and other supplies to Viet Cong forces. The U.S. Coast Guard was going to Vietnam.
U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome in Vietnam.
Less than a year later the U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome was maintaining its position near the DMZ, or 17th Parallel, as part of Operation Market Time as a member of U.S. Coast Guard Squadron 13.# The mission of the cutter was to engage enemy vessels that were attempting to transit and support Viet Cong fighters below the DMZ. The cutter, as the hour struck 0330, was near the mouth of the Cua Viet River. Running darkened ship, as per the orders of Operation Market Time, only the green circling glow of the radar illuminated the small pilot house of the eighty-two foot cutter.#4 The executive officer, Lt. (jg) Ross Bell was on watch along with GM2 Mark D. McKenney. Their watch was almost over and in approximately fifteen minutes, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Patterson, would be arriving to relieve them. A few contacts were being tracked on the radar as the rest of the crew slept in their bunks or were completing their watch in the engine room. A Life Photographer, Timothy Page, and a South Vietnamese interpreter rounded out the cutter’s complement.
Meanwhile, high above on the star-filled night, two U.S. Air Force F-4C Phantom II’s and a B-57 Canberra circled, waiting further orders from the spotter aircraft. With armament left from a previous mission, they were alerted to possible enemy vessels operating in the area and maneuvered into position. The C-130 spotter aircraft lumbered through the early morning heavens, maintaining a watch on the various contacts who were transiting the waters below. There was movement and the C-130 launched flares to illuminate the contacts along the shoreline.
Lt. Bell and GM2 McKenney watched as the shoreline, approximately three-quarters of a mile distant, and several unknown contacts were illuminated by flares from above. McKenney immediately went below to alert the cutter’s skipper, Lt (jg) Brostrom. McKenney called out to the sleeping skipper. Brostrom rolled over in his rack to take the information. Meanwhile, two additional flares cascaded from above and illuminated the U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome. Lt. Bell could hear the thunderous roar of jets screaming down upon the cutter. He signaled general quarters as the first series of fifty-caliber rounds tore through the aluminum skin of the pilot house. Bell grabbed for the radio and sent a frantic message. Article India was under attack5.# The rounds pierced the pilothouse, the deck, and the executive officer.
Meanwhile, aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Point Caution, the radio crackled with a frantic message. “Article, this is Article India; am under fire from Vietnamese aircraft.”
“Do you require assistance?” the U.S.C.G.C. Point Caution’s operator responded.
“This is India, affirmative. I have taken hits, request assistance.”
The U.S.C.G.C. Point Caution tried to hail their brethren boat but received no response. Less than five minutes had passed since the initial request for assistance. The radios aboard the cutter must have been knocked out in the attack. The bow of the olive drab painted U.S.C.G.C. Point Caution sliced through the early morning waters at full speed as it raced toward the last known position of the crippled cutter.
The men aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome were facing a host of problems. Several rounds struck two gas cans located on the aft deck of the cutter. A small fire erupted and sent flames into the sky. BMC Patterson saw the fire and immediately set out to extinguish the flames. With the hoses engaged, he was able to knock the ignited gas cans into the water. The rest of the crew, having rolled from their racks, immediately ascended to the deck to see what was going on. Crewmen raced along the decks as they grabbed fire-fighting gear and hoses to extinguish the fire before it worsened. BM1 Billy Russell rushed up to the deck believing that they had run aground. He immediately began fighting the fire as the jets circled far overhead. While BMC Patterson and others from the crew continued to fight the fire, the skipper, Lt. Brostrom, raced to the bridge and grabbed a Very pistol to try to signal the aircraft. The aircraft were firing on a friendly vessel. The thunderous roar of the jets rumbled along the water. Rounds shattered through the pilothouse, the bridge wings, and deck. Lt. Brostrom was hit and mortally wounded. The Very pistol, unfired, remained in his hand. The jets circled for another run on their target.
Damage to the cutter.
BMC Patterson ascended to the splintered pilothouse. The skipper was dead and Lt. Bell and McKenney were both wounded. The bulk of the radios were inoperable. BMC Patterson engaged the throttles and the cutter began to slice through the water. He quickly went to grab the flares but realized that they were not there. He had no choice but to maintain the helm and try to head toward the shoreline. He ordered the rest of the crew to grab the wounded and get below decks. He yelled to BM1 Russell to stay below decks until the aircraft had passed. He wanted to make sure that if he were hit, BM1 Russell could take the helm and press on.
As the service’s ensign flapped in the breeze, the three U.S. Air Force aircraft circled above and began their next strafing run. Rounds sliced through the deck and pilot house. BMC Patterson hit the deck to avoid being struck by the deadly lead barrage. As the aircraft passed overhead, he stood up, checked his bearings, and continued to press on toward the shoreline.
Damage to the port side.
As the cutter reached the mouth of the river, BMC Patterson ordered the men to abandon ship 6.# BMC Patterson ensured that the wounded were placed in life-jackets and paired with those who were not wounded. The men jumped into the shallow water and grabbed at the two life rafts that BM1 Russell and another crewman had deployed. The men began to wade toward shore in two groups. Suddenly, fifty-caliber rounds from the beach erupted over their heads. BMC Patterson, realizing that the aircraft had finally stopped shooting, ordered the men to begin to return to the cutter for protection from the fire from shore. The jets finally learned that they had been firing on a friendly vessel and were called off from their attack.
At 0445 the U.S.C.G.C. Point Caution found the damaged cutter dead in the water. The crew quickly assisted five of the cutter’s crew aboard while the other seven men were plucked from the shallows from small boats launched from the coastal observation post located inside the river. Soon after fellow 82’ foot patrol boats, the U.S.C.G.C.’s Point Orient and Point Lomas arrived on scene to offer assistance. Five of the cutter’s complement were wounded and two had been killed – the skipper and EN2 Jerry Phillips.7 By 0605, despite the damage inflicted to the U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome during the multiple strafing and bombing runs, both of her engines and watertight integrity were undamaged 8. Boatswain’s Mate Chief Patterson manned the helm and got the cutter underway. The U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome began her voyage back to DaNang for repairs.
The friendly-fire attack resulted in a significant shift in the rules of engagement for U.S. and South Vietnamese pilots for the duration of the war. On August 21, 1966 General William C. Westmoreland, commander of military operations in South Vietnam, ordered all pilots to ensure that vessels were properly “identified” by a coastal surveillance center prior to engaging. The new order was to prevent “the reoccurrence” of deadly attacks like the one that had occurred aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome.# BMC Patterson received a Bronze Star with a combat “V” device for his heroic actions in saving both the cutter, his surviving crew, and two passengers. The U.S.C.G.C. Point Welcome returned to patrol duties after three months of repairs. She would serve under U.S. Coast Guard command until April 29, 1970, when she the cutter was transferred to South Vietnam and renamed Ngu Yen Han.#
Charging into action.
Since the foundation of the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard and its various predecessor services have served a pivotal role in both times of peace and war. The U.S. Coast Guard in the turbulent and deadly waters of Vietnam was no exception. While the exploits and efforts of the other military branches are more well known and celebrated, the actions of the courageous Coast Guardsmen who served in Vietnam are no less important and significant.# The actions of the Coast Guardsmen who fought and died in service to their nation and in their efforts to curb communist oppression in Southeast Asia also serve as a stark reminder of the dedication and devotion to duty that remain at the keel of the service and its guardians who serve in the present day United States Coast Guard, both in local waters and afar, as sentinels and saviors of the seas.