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Operation Giant Slingshot: A History (Part 2)

Operations throughout the month of December 1968 consisted generally of boats coming upon groups of Viet Cong on the beach or crossing the river and being engaged by the boats. The enemy at this time did not recognize the maneuverability of the PBR or the heavy fire power of the river assault craft and in most cases engaged without hesitation or prior planning. They were engaged and driven back with casualties far exceeding those of the U.S. Naval Forces. BM2 Lehman, USN , was the first person killed in Operation GIANT SLINGSHOT. On the afternoon of 14 December 1968, two PBRs from River Division 534 had spotted artillery onto several bunkers about twelve kilometers north of Tra Cu and were departing the area to resume patrol when they were ambushed and taken under intense rocket and machine gun fire at XT 405160. Both boats were hit. A Navy Light Helicopter fire team (LHFT) and one from the Army scrambled to the scene and placed strikes into the area. Six U.S. Navy personnel were wounded including LEHMAN, who later died of wounds.

Activity continued heavy throughout the month of December, and cache discoveries became very numerous during the latter half of the month.

Mid-December saw arrival of the River LST USS HARNETT COUNTY at Ben Luc on the Vam Co Dong. Two more River Patrol Divisions were added bringing the total to five. LCDR Arthur J. Elliot, USN, was embarked in USS HARNETT COUNTY and assumed Vam Co Dong On-Scene Commander. On 15 December 1968 the separate rocket sites were discovered by the U.S. Army, all aimed at YRBM-18. On two hour notice YRBM-18 commandeered a passing Filipino tug and relocated down river in the Vam Co River in vicinity of the "French Fort" (XS897616). USS HARNETT COUNTY was also pulled back and all three support craft stayed in the French Fort area for the next few days. The USS HARNETT County sailed daily to Ben Luc and returned at night. This maneuver was evaluated as being more dangerous than staying at Ben Luc, since Ben Luc afforded the relative safety of the Ben Luc Bridge Defense Force which defends the vital bridge linking Saigon to points south on Route, FOUR. At 231825H, USS HARNETT COUNTY was fired upon by five rockets (XS 700665) while transiting back to the French Fort. The USS HARNETT COUNTY and accompanying units received no hits.

The month ended on a saddened note when LCDR ELLIOT was killed instantly by shrapnel from a B-40 rocket while on patrol. He had been on patrol on the upper Vam Co Dong (XL20035) and was killed when one of the two PBRs on patrol was taken under fire.

The month of January saw GIANT SLINGSHOT become semi-permanent. The forces engaged the enemy on an average of three times daily, and conducted join and combined operations on a large scale

On 2 January 1969, River Patrol Division 553, staged at Tuyen Nhon, commenced patrol on the Kinh Lagrange and Kinh Cung Canals, in addition to their patrol area of the river. The Canal Patrol area included the eastern half of a canal running east from An Long on the Mekong River, into Tuyen Nhon. This marked the birth of Operation Barrier Reef and CTG 194.9 was given control of Operation Barrier Reef East. The barrier Reef completed the "Great Barrier" interdiction effort along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border from Tay Ninh City all the way to the Gulf of Thailand. Action on the canal was heavy at first and then tapered off towards the end of the month.

The remote electronic detection developed and evaluated in 1968 were made operational in Operation GIANT SLINGSHOT in the vicinity of Hiep Hoa. Movement detected by these devices in an unfriendly area was reacted upon primarily by artillery and in most cases the movement ceased. Monitoring stations were established at two locations, later growing to three, fulfilling their mission of advanced remote detection of enemy movement.

On 7 January one platoon of U.S. Navy SEALS deployed to Tra Cu base camp (as the second staging sites began to be called). They operated in the vicinity of the base for approximately three weeks gathering various bits of valuable information. An incident of note occurred on 15 January 1969, The SEAL's had received previous intelligence that every night between 1900H and 2000H a woman in Hiep Hoa Village was feeding transient Viet Cong. The SEAL's went into break up the process and immediately upon insertion received heavy automatic weapons fire from the hootch in question. The boat supporting the SEAL's laid down heavy cover fire for the SEAL extraction and some of the tracers rounds caused the hootch to catch fire approximately one-half hour after the engagement ( the combustion was witnessed by the Army Forward Air Controller flying in the area). The Navy at Tra Cu received notice of the fire, plans were made to return and hold a MedCap because of the gunfire near friendly civilians. Upon returning, loud speaker hails failed to get any wounded bought to the boats. The next day the Hamlet Chief began a loud protest saying the U.S. Navy had burned the village with the flame thrower monitor, killing sixteen people. Sixteen solatium payments were asked for and paid. The Navy flame thrower monitor had not been in the area for three days and the fire was started as a result of the enemy initiated firefight. The entire matter was settled between the Army and Navy representatives, (although the Navy representatives never did see sixteen bodies), and the whole incident was forgotten until the following month. The enemy at the Paris Peace Talks accused the U.S. of using flame thrower boats against sixteen "innocent" civilians. Nothing further came of the incident but indirectly the operation was known around the world.

On 18 January 1969, the First Air Cavalry Division moved into an area north and west of Tuyen Nhon to conduct two or three weeks of operations. Coordination was effected with the Army and was considered to be the first time since the Civil War that the Army used the Navy's resources on the river to assist land operation. (note: The Mobile Riverine Force was Army with Navy boats assigned to transport and support). The Navy assets in GIANT SLINGSHOT represent independent effort. The units in GIANT SLINGSHOT were always ready to provide support, but only on a case by case basis and with its primary mission always in mind, specifically interdiction.

The month of January saw 43.4 tons of arms, ammo, and supplies captured from the enemy, primarily from caches. This was a one month record for GIANT SLINGSHOT and proved the December's 17.7 tons had not been just a fluke. Tactics for the interdiction effort were being developed, skill in these tactics was acquired.

Some changes of thinking took place in February 1969, By February it became obvious that GIANT SLINGSHOT was making its name and that it would continue for "some time." The semi-permanence of the operation necessitated Commander Naval Support Activity, Saigon to assume logistic support of the operation. Immediately plans were made to establish "Advanced Tactical Support Bases" (ATSB) at each of the base camps. This involved building Southeast Asia Huts for berthing, base defense bunkers and mess facilities. In mid-February the base camp at Hiep Hoa was relocated partially afloat to Go Dau Ha and construction was started at Tuyen Nhon and Tra Cu. The Dredge, Western Eagle, from RMK-BRJ Construction Company, began dredging ops at Ben Luc to provide fill for a large NSA Detachment. This detachment was to become the prime support center for the entire operation. Toward the end of February the GIANT SLINGSHOT AO was extended even farther up the Vam Co Tay River. A floating base was established at Moc Hoa and River Division 594 began patrolling the river to within one kilometer of the Cambodia Border. Another division (RivDiv 571) was staged at Tuyen Nhon for a total of two there. One River Division patrolled the Barrier Reef East AO while the other patrolled the Tuyen Nhon region of the Vam Co Tay River.

About this time the pseudonyms ENIFF and FRIFF were coined in GIANT SLINGSHOT. Earlier an explanation had been passed along to state whether a firefight was enemy initiated or friendly initiated, probably to show through semantics and politics that the VC were the ones fighting the war and that the U.S. was only trying to give stability to Vietnam. ENIFF and FRIFF came into usage because the phrases were rather long and cumbersome and both were used frequently in GIANT SLINGSHOT.

The ENIFF's on the section of the Vam Co Dong directly east of the "Angel's Wing" area of the Cambodian-Vietnamese Border between Tra Cu and Go Dau Ha became so numerous that this area was nicknamed "Blood Alley".

The Viet Cong throughout the OGS (GIANT SLINGSHOT) AO were beginning to feel the punch of constant patrols on the rivers and fought back in a determined manner. Very few nights went by without numerous contacts with the enemy.

Captain Price although retaining responsibility for the operation and CTG 194.9 had physically returned to Binh Thuy in January leaving the operation in the capable hands of LCDR J.K. Parker USN. LCDR Parker had been with the operation since it's inception.

The U.S. Army and Navy joined forces in early February to conduct a small operation called operation Keel Haul. It was noticed that certain areas were more active, usually during a certain time frame. Thus Keel Haul's mission was to insure heavy retaliation on the enemy where a concentration of force was anticipated. The operation put more boats on the section of river in question (Blood Alley: with troops embarked. The Army provided troops for the day op to support the Navy with quick reaction capability.  This tactic was based on the assumption that the enemy would initiate contact and troops would immediately, or as soon as possible thereafter, land and engage the Viet Cong. Arty would be standing by with tubes pointed in the general direction of the operation and on call. The operation, although promising, didn't provide any spectacular results but another was planned for later in the month.

The second operation Keel Haul II, added thirty-five dedicated air mobile troops on strip alert. These troops could be inserted behind the VC and trap any VC force in the middle. The results from this operation were encouraging, but the Army felt that too many men and assets were tied up when compared to results.

The Commanding General of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division, in meeting with LCDR Parker stated that he used the Navy's contacts on the river to help gauge his relocation of troops. This is but one illustration of both the value of GSS and the rapport established between the two services.

From the beginning, operation GIANT SLINGSHOT, an experiment itself, was the proving ground for many experimental devices. The Remote Underwater Detection Device (RUDD), a small portable hydrophone with a mile of connecting wire, was given first to GSS for development of tactics for RUDD employment. Another experiment was the teaming up of the Army K-9 corps and Navy PBRs. The dogs were taken by PBR when waterborne ambushes were set along the river banks. The dogs worked out very well, detecting the enemy approaching at which time the boats would open fire and break from ambush.  Even though the dogs met with success, none were permanently assigned to the operation. Dog's again showed up in the operation in April. These dogs were trained to detect swimmer sappers and a 30-day experiment was conducted. Although the dogs did not detect a swimmer, their deterrent value cannot be measured. Other experiments included the squeeze bore, a more sophisticated night observation device, herbicides, colored dye for sampan detection and other similar R&D devices.

On 21 February the newly turned over Vietnamese Navy River Assault and Interdiction Divisions (RAIDS) 70 and 71 arrived in the operation to join forces as part of the ultimate plane to turn over the war effort to the Vietnamese. They were scheduled to train with U.S. boats and eventually assume an area of responsibility on the rivers.

Toward the end of February the river divisions began to get even better results from waterborne ambushes and their frequency of employment increased. The waterborne ambush tactics had been used by PBR divisions in the past. The Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay Rivers were well suited for ambushes because of their heavy foliage and narrowness.

In March activity continued on the increase and the second largest tonnage of arms, ammo and supplies were ferreted out. This increased activity was true on both sides. GIANT SLINGSHOT forces now found the ambush tactics highly profitable. It almost guaranteed contacts and gave the advantage to the ambushing forces. As narrow as the rivers are, it becomes necessary to make it dangerous to even approach the river banks, let alone cross. For this reason the use of random ambushes is an effective weapon against the VC in this type of environment. Intelligence can predict a "most likely crossing point." An ambush set up in this area two or three nights running is bound to net results in body count or aborted crossings. As this tactic was repeatedly employed the VC were more cautious at the idea of approaching the river Banks. River Division 532 became the leader in initiating contact and concentrated it's main efforts toward ambush tactics with superb results. River Divisions 591 and 592 based at Ben Luc and Go Dau Ha quickly followed suit and also obtained excellent results.

See the RiverVet Ambush page for photos related to the above portion of the book.

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