Saturday, April 1, 2017

That Time A Coast Guard Cutter Escaped The Air Force In Vietnam

The Unwelcome
The Unwelcome Point Welcome



Point Welcome loved her crew, and they loved her back. So much so that they gave her some ink.


Serving behind enemy lines in the war-torn rivers of Vietnam, Welcome and her crew were all each other had. So they would do anything for each other.

Welcome had started her life the same as any Coast Guard patrol boat. She plied the waters of the Pacific Northwest in search of drunken boaters and sinking ships, never thinking she’d someday be sent away to war.


But in 1965, everything changed. The U.S. had committed troops to Vietnam and now faced a growing insurgency in the South, fed by weapons smuggled down the coast in fishing boats. These boats would load themselves with several tons of guns and ammo and then – under cover of darkness – speed from international waters to the rivers and coves where they’d meet the Viet Cong.


The U.S. Navy was powerless to stop them. The Navy’s ships had all been built for high-seas battles against Soviet cruisers, and the rivers and coastlines of Vietnam were too shallow for its warships to patrol. Whenever the smugglers got into a chase, they’d simply dip into shoal water where the Navy couldn’t follow. For the moment, the only military branch that had ships small and nimble enough to catch smuggling boats on Vietnam’s shores was the U.S. Coast Guard.

While the Navy scrambled to design all-new boats, Welcome and 25 of her sisters loaded onto merchant ships bound for the Philippines.
  
Since the Point-class cutters were all built for law enforcement and search and rescue, they weren’t heavily armed: just one 20mm machine gun mounted on their fronts.  But as luck would have it, a Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer named Elmer Hicks had already found a way to turn them into perfect war machines.

While trying to invent a better way to launch illumination flares for search and rescue, Hicks slapped a 50-caliber machine gun on top of an 81mm mortar launcher, and inadvertently created a deadly weapon that would serve on Navy and Coast Guard boats throughout the war.

In Subic Bay, Welcome received one of Hicks’ machine gun/mortars and four additional 50-cals. Her white hull was painted gray, and her berthing and arms lockers were beefed up. She had gone from rescue boat to war boat, with a crew of 11 and more firepower than a cutter twice her size.

Welcome was one of the first patrol boats to arrive in Vietnam. Her new home was a coastal surveillance base on the Cua Viet River known as X-Ray Alfa. She spent the next year venturing out on three-day patrols toward the 17th Parallel, hunting for Viet Cong trawlers crossing the DMZ or sailing down the rivers from the North. She boarded sampans suspected of smuggling Viet Cong fighters; she searched for pilots who’d crashed in the waters off the coast. And she used her mortar gun to fire on enemy positions spotted for her by Air Force jets.



Then one night in August of 1966, as she watched the jets fly off on their bombing runs up the coast, something unusual happened.


She’d been lit up by illumination flares before – the Air Force would drop them over boats near the DMZ to identify them at night – but this time, something felt off. Usually, once the planes saw that Welcome was friendly, they’d move on. This time, though, they kept circling.

Welcome started her engines and began to head south, back toward base. A second round of flares dropped, and then…



Machine gun rounds ripped through Point Welcome’s hull. Her aluminum skin tore open, and flames spurted from her fantail. All across her decks, her crew scrambled to put out the fire and tend to the wounded, while her captain rushed to the bridge to send up a signal flare and warn the planes she was friendly.

Before the young captain could fire the flare gun, though, the planes circled in for another attack. Their machine guns opened up, and hundreds of bullets tore through Welcome’s bridge. A 20 mm round struck him in the chest, and he fell to the deck.



Welcome sped up to 18 knots. She sent out a distress call and aimed for the mouth of the Cua Viet River, where X-Ray Alfa was. Overhead, she could hear the planes turn for another pass. They were still hunting her.

As the planes fired, Welcome slammed herself into full reverse. 



A cluster of bombs hit the water just ahead of her, sending shrapnel into her superstructure.

The jets circled around once more, and she counted the seconds. By now, she knew how long it took them to turn. The planes had seen her slow down the first time, though, and so now they aimed a little farther back.

Welcome gunned her engines; she had known what they were going to do. The bombs crashed into her wake, and with the planes out of ammo, she ran for X-Ray Alfa.

But she wasn’t going to make it. Her engines were giving out, and she feared she was sinking. Not wanting to take her crew down with her, she beached herself on the shore. The crew began to unload into the water, trying to bring the wounded up onto the sand.

That was when the Viet Cong showed up.

They had probably heard the explosions and gunfire from before, and unlike the Air Force, had no problem seeing whose side Welcome was on. They opened fire from the trees with machine guns.

But thankfully, help arrived.


 Three of Welcome’s sister ships had heard her distress call and came to rescue her. The Viet Cong soldiers fled back into the jungle, and Point Caution, Point Lomas, and Point Orient helped repair Point Welcome and tend to her wounded. After about an hour, she was able to sail for Danang under her own power, where her crew could get help.

All in all, the jets had fired 1100 rounds of ammo at Point Welcome, as well as cluster bombs and rockets. She was half-burned, with holes through almost every part of her. Two of her crew, including her captain, were dead, and the rest were wounded. But there was one more victim of the night’s attack.


The military held an investigation. Everyone gave their testimony.

As it turned out, the Air Force had never trained any of its fighter wings how to identify Coast Guard boats. In fact, most of the service wasn't even aware the Coast Guard was in Vietnam at all, and there was no standardized system for units from different branches to let each other know where they were. 

While the attack on Welcome was one of the worst cases of friendly fire in U.S. military history, it helped show the services that they needed to work together, and in the long run, her sacrifice, and the sacrifice of her crew, probably saved lives.

Welcome’s service in Vietnam wasn’t done, though. After getting some repairs, she went back to the fight. She fought during the Tet offensive, and blew up a Viet Cong trawler loaded with ammo and weapons after the trawler open fire on another Coast Guard cutter. In July 1969, in one of the most impressive Coast Guard operations of the war, Welcome and one of her sisters carried the Coast Guard Landing Party up river behind enemy lines, where in a single raid, 15 Coasties and two Points destroyed 18 North Vietnamese Army bunkers, captured 59 troops, killed 10, and caused “five large secondary explosions,” according to a letter from the legendary Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Commander of Naval Forces in Vietnam.

I guess the Navy measures things in explosions.


4.5/5 would detonate again

When the U.S. started to pull out of Southeast Asia in 1970, though, Welcome didn’t go. She stayed behind with South Vietnam, to take care of some unfinished business.


Where exactly she wound up remains a mystery.


Go Coast Guard.

This post is about a boat, and like in any boat story, in it the crew's actions become the boat's. But you should definitely take a moment to watch this interview with Chief Petty Officer Richard "Pat" Patterson, who was the real hero of that night.




 Best Cutters of the Best Coast Guard!



1 comment:

  1. A valiant yet sad event. Would make a great book!

    ReplyDelete