By John Sherwood, Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command
During the Vietnam War, the Navy deployed a variety of small boats to South Vietnam ranging from Boston Whalers to modified World War II era landing craft. Perhaps the most iconic of them all was the Patrol Boat River or PBR as it was affectionately referred to by its crews. Adapted from a commercially manufactured 31-foot fiberglass pleasure craft, the Mark I PBR could achieve speeds of over 27 knots and featured a water jet propulsion system that allowed it to operate in the shallowest of waters, turn on a dime, and skid over sand bars. Its armament consisted of a twin .50-caliber machine gun in an armored turret forward and a .30-caliber gun (later replaced by a .50-caliber) aft. Generally, four Sailors crewed the PBR.
The Navy deployed 140 PBR patrol boats to Vietnam as part of Task Force 116, Operation Game Warden. TF-116’s area of operations included the 3,000 nautical miles of navigable waterways in the Mekong Delta. Over the course of the war, two-boat PBR patrols checked the cargo and identity papers of junks and sampans* plying the waterways, set up night ambushes at suspected enemy crossing points, supported SEALs with gunfire and transportation, and enforced curfew restrictions in their sector. In a typical month in late 1966, TF-116 units engaged in over 70 firefights. During the Tet Offensive in 1968, TF-116 helped stave off enemy attacks at all major towns in the Mekong Delta, earning the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions. River Patrol Force units were instrumental to the success of the SEALORDS anti-infiltration campaign under Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.
Examples of this little boat’s lethality are numerous. On October 31, 1966, BM1 James E. Williams, leading a patrol of two PBRs, surprised a large Viet Cong river crossing in the Mekong Delta near the town of My Tho. In the resulting fire fight, which included support from Navy light attack helicopters and other aviation assets, PBRs 105 and 107 systematically sank seven junks and 25 sampans. BM1 Williams later received a Medal of Honor for his heroism during this engagement, and his name currently graces the hull of the Navy’s Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers, DDG-95.
On December 11, 1966, as Patrol Officer on a PBR combat patrol on the Mekong River, Signalman First Class Chester B. Smith pursued a sampan into a narrow canal where the sampan’s occupants, aided by other Viet Cong along the canal banks, opened fire. Petty Officer Smith promptly directed his crew in returning suppressive fire. Bringing in his cover boat from the main river, Petty Officer Smith reentered the canal where he came upon a company-size Viet Cong force preparing to board forty sampans. After a four-hour engagement, Petty Officer Smith’s PBR’s accounted for fifteen enemy confirmed killed, twenty-eight enemy sampans sunk, twelve damaged, three captured, and an enemy ammunition cache destroyed. Petty Officer Smith later received a Navy Cross for this action. In January 2017, Chester Smith will be inducted into the Surface Navy Association’s Hall of Fame and will be a speaker for this year’s SNA Heritage Night held on January 11th.
One Naval Ship Systems Command report noted the PBR “was not built to current U.S. Navy standards,” nor was it subjected to an “adequate test and evaluation period.” Not surprisingly, a few bugs arose once it deployed in combat, but most were resolved expeditiously in theater. Author Tom Cutler, a veteran of the riverine forces, phrased it more eloquently: “Born in an atmosphere of urgency and tested under actual combat conditions, the PBR could have been a disaster. Instead, it proved to be a fierce little combatant that accomplished its mission.” More than anything else, the PBR demonstrated that off-the-shelf technology could be adapted for military use when circumstances demanded it.
Junks are wooden sailing (or in some cases motor powered) vessels based on an ancient Chinese design. A Sampan is a smaller flat-bottomed boat, also based on a Chinese design. Some sampans contain small shelters and can be powered by either sail or motor.