The Saga of Tango Four

October 1, 1999


When I took over as CO of RAD 131 in March, 1969, the Division had 25 boats: Two Monitors, two CCB’s, two Zippos, six Alfas and thirteen Tangos. The boats were second generation river assault craft, built for the purpose from the keel up instead of converted LCM-6s. As with every division in TF 117, there were some boats that seemed to be up and ready for action, no matter what the circumstances. Most developed problems from time to time and (except for those with major combat damage) were back in action quickly after routing repairs. But, there’s always one……….

Tango Four (T-131-4) got my attention right away. And I mean RIGHT AWAY. It was about 0400 on my first full day as CO. I was awakened by the red beam of a flashlight shining in my face, and a disembodied, urgent voice saying “Sir! Tango Four has sunk!”

One of the first things I learned in the Navy is that, when somebody shines a red flashlight in your face while you’re asleep, they’re not bringing good news. That, and the knowledge that losing a boat on your first day does not look good on your command resume, dragged me instantly awake. It also left me confused. Tango Four, had been moored in the nest with the rest of the boats alongside our mother ship, USS Nueces. The crew was aboard. There was a watch on the pontoon. How the hell could a boat sink without someone noticing in time to prevent it? Hopefully, I asked, “You mean, sinking?” “No sir. I mean sunk!” By now, I was on my feet, pulling on my utilities and looking for my boots. “How about the crew,” I asked. “No problem, sir,” replied the voice behind the flashlight which was tracking my every move. “They woke up in time and scrambled to the next boat inboard. Couple of ’em got their feet wet, but I think the Chief’s got ’em calmed down by now.” “Very well,” I said as I laced up my boots. “Tell the Chief I’ll be right there. And please take that light out of my eyes.” “Yessir!” and the red ball of light did a little dance that matched the grin in the voice, then went out. “Glad somebody’s enjoying this,” I thought.

I headed out the door of the stateroom that I shared with my Chief Staff Officer, Ops Officer and the squadron Ops Officer, and went out on the Nueces’ main weather deck, about 30 feet above the boats moored to the pontoon floats on the starboard side. In the predawn light I could just make out the distinctive shapes of the two ranks of tango boats, their tall bow ramps lined up side-by-side so perfectly a Marine DI would weep with pride.

Except for the fifth boat outboard. That bow ramp, instead of standing at attention like the others, seemed to have passed out and was nearly horizontal. And, aft of the ramp, instead of a helicopter flight deck, coxswain’s flat and 20 MM gun tubs………….nothing. Empty darkness. “That,” I thought, “must be Tango Four.”

I made my way down to the pontoon and found the Chief. “Chief, what the hell happened,” I asked. He slowly shook his head and said, “We’re not sure, Lieutenant. Crew says, one minute everything’s fine, next minute she’s way down by the stern, and when the stern mooring lines popped she sank like a rock. If the bow lines hadn’t held, she’d be on the bottom instead of hanging there between those other two tangos.”

The Chief suggested that we secure Tango Four with extra lines, salvage what we could from the well deck and wait for one of the big LCU’s from Dong Tam to come out and tow it to the boatyard there. I told him to go ahead with that plan, then noticed that the squadron commander was standing up on the Nueces’ main deck where I’d been a few minutes earlier. “Guess I’d better go report to the Commodore,” I said. The Chief saluted, smiled and said, “Welcome to RAD 131, sir!”

Later that morning, an LCU (a landing craft on steroids) towed the partially submerged Tango Four to Dong Tam, where repairs would take the next three months. We learned the cause of the sinking was a blown packing gland around one of the screw shafts, allowing the engine room to flood. Most likely it was an anti-swimmer explosive charge from one of the base defense boats which constantly patrolled around the MRF anchored midstream in the My Tho River. This was a chronic problem, and a challenge for the boats assigned to BID (Base Interdiction & Defense): Throw the charges close enough to the nested boats to provide a good defense against swimmer/sappers, but not close enough to cause damage, especially near the screws. Tangos were especially vulnerable if packing glands were blown. With most of the boat’s mass concentrated aft there was very little freeboard there. Even a little flooding would put the stern awash, and if water came in over the transom into the engine room, the boat could sink in seconds, just like Tango Four.

When we finally got Tango Four back, she looked like a brand new boat. But looks can be deceiving. Over the next several months, it seemed that whenever Tango Four went on an operation, she would have some kind of malfunction: She might be stuck on the beach with her bow ramp down; or alternators would fail and the batteries go flat in the middle of an operation; or one or both engines would just quit and she’d have to be towed back. It got to the point where she was out of action more often than not. I confess to wasting a lot of time and breath chewing out the boat captain until I learned (not quickly enough for him!) that he and his crew were doing the best possible job of holding Tango Four together. After the sinking, it just wasn’t the same boat.

Over the next several months, RAD 131 completed a variety of assignment with the MRF in Kien Hoa providence, then on Operation Giant Slingshot out of Ben Luc, and on the Cambodian border west of Chau Doc for Barrier Reef. Tango Four somehow managed to hang in there, doing the job in spite of all her maintenance problems. We just had to make sure that she always went out in company with another boat that could tow her back, if she needed it. She had come to be like an old family car that breaks down a lot but no one wants to trade her in. Not that we could have – there weren’t a lot of new river assault craft dealers in the delta.

In the fall of 1969, the division made a long transit to the Ca Mau peninsula. The U.S. 9th Division had gone home, and we were assigned to support the Vietnamese 5th Marines on the Song Ong Doc, the southern edge of the U Minh Forest. One day, I made a trip several klicks down river to a newly-arrived LST in the Gulf of Thailand, in order to arrange logistic support for us. While on board the LST, I received a message that a large mine had detonated near our boats where they were beached in the Marine’s bivouac area, and that there was a lot of damage and casualties.

The next hour or so was one of the longest of the war. Message traffic was confusing and conflicting, so I had no clear picture of what had happened. There were no helicopters available for a quick ride back, so I grabbed the offer of a lift from the CO of the PBR division based at the mouth of the river. The tide was out and we kept running aground on sandbars for about the first klick. By the time I got back to our base, the wounded had all been medevac’d out, and all the damaged boats except one had been beached securely and repairs were underway.

The one exception was Tango Four. My last image of her is the same as my first – in midstream, down by the stern with only the bow ramp above water. She had been sunk again, this time for good. Her crew wasn’t as lucky this time, either. Several men had been wounded and had been medevac’d out with the others. I think she must still be there, since two of our recovery attempts failed to budge her from the muddy river bottom.

Several years later, I was looking through an old “National Geographic” magazine from 1968, and was reading an article on the Mekong River. On one of the pages was a color photograph of several tango boats transiting a large canal. I looked closely at one of the boats, and the bow number jumped out at me: T-131-4. I looked again and saw the lines running from her bow to the stern of the boat ahead.

Tango Four was under tow again.

Courtesy of MRFA member William Kahn, ComRivDiv-131 (69-70)