By Laura Hockensmith, National Museum of the United States Navy
Not since the end of the Civil War did the U.S. Navy have a need for a riverine force, or Brown Water Navy. But that all changed as the United States got deeper and deeper into conflict between North and South Vietnam. Due to the nature of the fighting and supply lines in Vietnam, the Navy needed fast, strong, reliable boats that could patrol the waterways and stop the Viet Cong infiltrated into South Vietnam from receiving guns and ammunition from the Communists in North Vietnam.
At first, they borrowed ships from the Coast Guard, cutters and river patrol boats up-armored for combat with a .50-caliber machine gun and 81-mm mortars installed on the forecastle and four .50-caliber deck guns on the fantail.
The U.S. Navy found what they were looking for in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil rig workers off the coast of Louisiana and Texas were shuttled to and from the rigs in strong aluminum boats built by Seward Seacraft Company of Louisiana. The taxi boats were sturdy, quiet and with a draft of 3 ½ feet, powered by two diesel engines with twin screws and speeds up to 28 knots. With the addition of weapons and living amenities, they were the perfect craft for patrolling the waterways of Vietnam.
On Dec. 18, 1965 the U.S. Navy formalized a Brown Water Navy, commissioning the water taxis as Patrol Craft, Fast, or swift boats. From the Cau Mau peninsula in South Vietnam to the western inland waters at the border of Cambodia, the Sailors patrolled the brown water.
The PCFs were not given names, only numbers, unlike the Navy’s larger blue water vessels. The Sailors who navigated the PCFs through murky waterways and manned the .50-caliber machine guns were soon recognized for their courage and actions on the battlefield.
Swift boats patrolled the waterways, interrupted enemy supply lines, and participated in complex insertion and extraction operations, while enduring monsoons, riverbank ambushes, mines laid by the Viet Cong, and difficult nighttime operations. Swift boat Sailors brought the naval fight inland and had a decisive role in the fight against the Viet Cong.
Following the Vietnam War, PCFs continued to have a role in the Navy in various ways, such as coastal patrols and anti-piracy campaigns throughout the world. One swift boat, PCF-1, is on display at the National Museum of the United States Navy located at the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast D.C.
PCF-1 was a training boat at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif., until April 1975 when it left for Panama to patrol the Panama Canal. Because of its Sailors’ intimate knowledge of the Panamanian waterways, PCF-1 was utilized in Operation Just Cause—the removal of Manuel Noriega and his regime in 1990. It found its permanent home at the Navy Yard in 1998. Its bow faces the Anacostia River, and in the words of then-Sen. John Kerry, “May she always be a shining example of Navy ingenuity and creativity, Navy commitment and courage…and may she stand here in constant vigil guarding the memory of those who served on Swifts but did not return.” Kerry, the current Secretary of State, was a former officer-in-charge of Swift boats during his service in Vietnam.
Fifty one years ago the Brown Water Navy was born. With that came a class of Sailors with undeniable courage and commitment to their duty and their fellow Sailors, navigating waters deep into hostile territory to interrupt the shipping pipeline bringing supplies to the enemy.