Wooden Boats and Iron Men

September 2, 1999

By R.C. Veeder, PHC, 7th Fleet Combat Camera Group


The days of wooden ships and iron men are not entirely bygone in the U.S. Navy. A daily drama is played on the Long Tau River pitting Navymen in 57-foot wooden-hulled boats against Viet Cong determined to stop the river traffic with mines, recoilless rifles and automatic weapons.

The stakes are high. Success for the enemy would stop the vital flow of supplies to Saigon, South Vietnam’s biggest and busiest port. It would also be a major victory that would raise enemy hopes and morale after a long series of setbacks. The Navy crews of Mine Squadron 11, Detachment Alfa, are determined that this will not happen. And one major reason for their resolution is the memory of their shipmates who have given their lives keeping the Long Tau open.MSB

When dawn breaks over the Long Tau the minesweeping boats have already been on the river for four hours sweeping for enemy mines. They will put in another eight to ten hours before calling it a day. For the merchant ships anchored at the mouth of the river, dawn means the start of the trip up the channel to Saigon. Merchant vessels are not allowed to make the hazardous transit at night. Minesweeping of the Long Tau is not glamorous, but vital; not thrilling, but tedious; not safe, but often deadly. To get at the merchant ships, the enemy has to strike at the Navy MSBs. He has done this repeatedly since the boats began sweeping March 10, 1966. The 57-foot MSBs have been hit with mines, attacked from around bends in the twisting channel or fired at with recoilless rifles from banks of the river. In November last year the first sweeper was sunk by enemy action. The heaviest attack on the MSBs occurred Feb. 15 this year. In four separate incidents that day one boat was sunk and three were damaged. One MSB crewman was killed and 16 others wounded in four separate attacks. The MSBs work two abreast, using a chain drag or float method of minesweeping. The chain drag cuts wires from mines which are command detonated from the river bank; the O-float cuts loose mines anchored at the bottom of the river. Seven enlisted men make up the crew of a 57-foot, 44-ton MSB. A petty officer first class is usually boat captain. The MSBs are armed with two .50-caliber and four .30-caliber machine guns plus a 40mm Honeywell grenade launcher. Additionally the men carry a variety of hand weapons. Each crewmember is capable of firing any weapon on the boat, his “emergency station” is the nearest gun. Detachment Alfa is based at Nha Be on the Long Tau. Minesweeping Squadron 11 is home based at Long Beach, Calif.