U.S. Naval Support Activity Saigon (1950-1973)
U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam Headquarters and NSA, Saigon 1950-1973
In August 1950, eight officers and men arrived in Saigon to staff the Navy section of the newly created Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Indochina. The Navy section’s job was to administer American military aid given to the French in their fight against the communist-led Viet Minh insurgency. Between 1950 and 1954, hundreds of ships and craft, including the light carrier USS BELLEAU WOOD (CVL-24), amphibious ships and craft, riverine craft, yard craft, barges, and floating cranes were provided to the French Expeditionary Forces in its unsuccessful fight against the Viet Minh forces.
Under the terms of the Geneva Agreement on Indochina, Vietnamese living in areas controlled by the communist Viet Minh (North Vietnam) could be evacuated by sea to the non-communist South Vietnam. During late 1954 and 1955, the Navy presence in Saigon increased to handle the large numbers of refugees from the north. Seventy-four Navy ships and 39 Military Sea Transportation Service civilian-crewed vessels transported over 310,000 passengers, 60,000 tons of cargo, and 8,000 vehicles mostly to the port of Saigon.
As the French withdrew from Indochina, the Navy section of MAAG worked to develop the fledgling South Vietnamese Navy. Between 1955 and 1961, American advisors made progress in both men and equipment. By the end of 1961, the 63-man naval advisory team had created a 4,500-man Vietnamese Navy with 119 ships, landing craft, and boats. There was also a paramilitary junk force for coastal patrol. The advisors also provided assistance to the Saigon Naval Shipyard, the largest facility of its kind in Southeast Asia.
In November 1961, a team headed by GEN Maxwell D. Taylor, chief military advisor to President John F. Kennedy, recommended that the Navy’s role in the counter insurgency struggle change from the advisory to the combat support role. The resulting growth in the number of U.S. support units deployed to South Vietnam called for a buildup of logistics resources. Because the Navy had been the lead service assigned to logistics support for SEA, it was directed to assume the task of supporting both Army and Air Force commands in-country.
The Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity, Saigon (HSAS), was established in July 1962. HSAS provided U.S. military services in the capital of Saigon with supply, fiscal, public works, medical and dental, transportation, commissary and exchange, special services, security, and general administrative support. Commanding Officer, HSAS, directed activity operations from the ex-French Cofat [Compagnie de Fabrication du Tabac] factory building on Hung Vuong Street, but other offices, warehouses, and personnel quarters were spread around the city. From this decentralized complex, HSAS personnel carried out activities such as the management of both officer and enlisted quarters, messes, rest and recuperation (R&R) flights to other Asian cities, USO shows, and Armed Forces Radio services. The command ran the 72-bed Saigon Station Hospital on Tran Hung Dao Street and a dental clinic. Naval chaplains attached to HSAS attended to the spiritual needs of Armed Forces personnel. The HSAS transported mail, commissary and exchange items to far-flung U.S. bases in-country and along the coast.
Though it was in the minority, other naval units formed part of the growing Saigon military community. A subordinate command of the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks), the Officer-in-Charge of Construction, established his office on Tu Do Street. The OIC of Construction and his staff oversaw the building of airfields, warehouses, and other facilities by civilian contractors. The Navy established the headquarters of Naval Construction Battalions, U.S. Pacific Fleet Detachment, Vietnam. This office coordinated Seabee units that were heavily involved building naval and Army Special Forces camps and doing civil actions projects. Another 7th Fleet detachment flew reconnaissance missions over Vietnam and conducted coastal surveillance from the nearby Tan Son Nhut airfield during 1962 and 1963.
In December 1963, the Vietnam conflict entered a more critical phase after the fall of President Diem. Additional American forces were required to stem the increased communist tide. American leaders established the Military Assistance Advisory Command, Vietnam, in May 1964. MACV replaced MAAG and the former MAAG personnel were absorbed by MACV. The old Navy section of MAAG became the Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam, and by the end of 1964 there were 235 naval personnel in the 4,900-man MACV command to attend to the needs of the growing Vietnamese Navy.
During the twelve months of 1964, HSAS supplied over 100 local and field exchanges, maintained 186,000 square feet of warehouse space, 200,000 cubic feet of refrigerated storage, and 127,000 square feet of outside storage. It also continued to provide messing, berthing, medical and dental, administrative, and personnel services during this time.
At the end of 1964, American leaders anticipated a major build-up of U.S. and allied forces within the Republic of Vietnam. Pacific military leaders gradually transferred HSAS responsibilities to deploying Army logistics commands. However, HSAS continued to function with increased responsibilities during 1965. Each month, the port facilities in Saigon handled 330,000 tons of cargo from 96 ships, transported 40,000 tons of cargo to other destinations within Vietnam, acquired 2.73 million cubic feet of warehouse storage, maintained 54 bachelor officers and enlisted quarters, the real estate division was managing 318 construction contracts, and the 109 medical personnel of the Saigon Station Hospital treated thousands of patients. In May 1966, the resources of HSAS were turned over to the Army and HSAS was disestablished.
The influx of large American and allied combat forces into Vietnam from 1965 to 1968 caused the naval establishment in Saigon to undergo dramatic expansion. In early 1965, a headquarters and operations center was established at the NAG for the Commander, Coastal Surveillance Force. These activities became part of Task Force 115 and were named Operation MARKET TIME. MARKET TIME units did country-wide air and sea patrols of the Vietnamese coastline to prevent North Vietnamese smuggling of arms and supplies to communist units fighting in South Vietnam. Squadrons of SP-2 Neptune maritime aircraft flew from Tan Son Nhut airfield in support of MARKET TIME activities. Helicopter Combat Support Squadron ONE detachments operated from the Tan Son Nhut facility. MARKET TIME activities were subsequently moved to Cam Ranh Bay.
Operations to prevent the mining of the Long Tau shipping channel became a high priority. The Long Tau was the main shipping channel that all supplies had to transit to reach the port of Saigon from the South China Sea. The first minesweeping units were converted landing craft operating from Saigon Naval Shipyard. Later, dedicated units from Mine Squadron 11 operated from Nha Be. On 18 December 1965, the headquarters for the River Patrol Force, Task Force 116, code name Operation GAME WARDEN were initially established in Saigon. The River Patrol Force headquarters were subsequently moved to Can Tho. Operation GAME WARDEN patrols sought to interdict communist arms and supplies on the inland rivers and canals of Vietnam.
By 1966, the diverse nature of the naval commitment to Vietnam resulted in a major reorganization. All of the Navy’s headquarters, advisory, coastal surveillance, helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, mine warfare, river patrol, and harbor defense units were brought under one command on 1 April 1966. This was Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam (ComNavForV) with headquarters in Saigon. ComNavForV assumed responsibility for coordination with the Saigon-based Military Sea Transportation Service office, with the OIC of Construction, and with the Commander, Coast Guard Activities, Vietnam.
Although HSAS was replaced by the Army’s own logistics commands for general support, naval units in the southern part of Vietnam continued to need Navy-specific support. On the same day that HSAS was disestablished, 17 May 1966, these duties were assumed by the Naval Support Activity, Saigon. NSA Saigon became responsible for all naval activities within the II, III, and IV Corps Tactical Zones. NSA Da Nang was responsible for all activities within the I Corps Tactical Zone.
To improve logistics flow to naval units in the field, NSA Saigon established subordinate detachments at An Thoi, Cam Ranh Bay, Cat Lo, Nha Be, Qui Nhon, Can Tho-Binh Thuy, Dong Tam, Sa Dec, Vinh Long, Vung Tau, and Ben Luc. These sites were chosen because of their proximity to the waterways on which the combat units operated and their accessibility to support ships and craft. Another important criterion for port selection was the presence of Vietnamese Naval installations that could provide base facilities and defenses for American naval tenants.
NSA Saigon had assigned or operational control of many vessels including dedicated fleet repair and maintenance ships, amphibious ships and craft, and a great variety of barges for berthing, messing, fuel and water supply, and repair. NSA Saigon also ran an air transportation service, called “Air Cofat” that operated various helicopters and fixed-wing transport aircraft.
On 30 April 1972, the Commander, Naval Construction Battalions closed down and the staff relocated to the United States. In June 1972, the NSA Saigon turned over its assets and responsibilities to the Vietnamese and was disestablished. The Naval Support Facility at Newport carried out a similar transfer. The ComNavForV headquarters turned over its responsibilities to the Vietnamese on 29 April 1973, and brought an end to the combat phase of U.S. Navy activities in Vietnam. After March 1973, the only naval personnel remaining in Vietnam belonged to the naval section of the Defense Attaché Office of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. For the next two years, this section oversaw the dwindling U.S. military assistance to South Vietnam. By April 1975 all U.S. personnel were withdrawn from South Vietnam shortly before the country fell to the communist invaders from North Vietnam. The Navy’s 25 year experience in Vietnam had come to an end.