Papa Bravo Romeo: U.S. Navy Patrol Boats in Vietnam

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9780553528008: Papa Bravo Romeo: U.S. Navy Patrol Boats in Vietnam

2 cassettes, 2 hrs.
read by Eric Conger

River warfare in Vietnam was the site of some of the most brutal fighting of the war—especially in the infamous Mekong Delta. US Navy Lieutenant Wynn Goldsmith was a “river rat” and a man who led the first MK II PBR patrol boats in combat.

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1965, Goldsmith received his commission and reported to an ocean going minesweeper as Engineering Officer before being sent to Vietnam. PAPA BRAVO ROMEO details his early career, his years in Vietnam, as well his later career as Assistant for River Warfare to the Commander Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet.

Goldsmith's books is one of the few to examine the life and miliatry career of someone who served in the "brown water" navy. He served with distinction, earning a Bronze Star with combat V, two Navy Commendation medals with combat V, the Purple Heart, the Combat Action Award, and the Presidential Citation.

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About the Author:

WYNN GOLDSMITH received a degree from the University of Virginia in June 1965. That day he also received a commission as an engsign, U.S. Navy. He spent two years as engineering officer on an ocean-going minesweeper before being ordered to Vietnam to serve on the Navy's river patrol force. After Vietnam he was the staff assistant for river warfare for the U.S. Navy's amphibious force. In 1970 he resigned from active duty and returned to his native Georgia. He is currently a management analyst with Lockheed Martin Company. He lives in Roswell, Georgia, with his wife and two children. PAPA BRAVO ROMEO is his first book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PAPA BRAVO ROMEO
Prologue

This book is not intended to be a history of the U.S. Navy's PBR (patrol boat, river) river rats during the Vietnam War. It is a personal account of my experiences in an unusual combat environment over thirty years ago with those little fiberglass boats. It is an incomplete first-year record of a great U.S. Navy unit that existed for only twenty-two months. One unit of two dozen or so, formed in the cauldron of war, with no history and no future. A force assembled for a short-term mission to help stave off a communist victory in South Vietnam.
The mission was a short-term success, but ultimate failure. The boats and their sailors were not failures in any sense.
The boats were basically off-the-shelf commercial cabin cruiser/sport fishermen hulls, painted green, loaded down with machine guns and ammunition, and sent to war. The little boats got into combat in the spring of 1966, within ninety-days of the signing of the first production contract. The Uniflite Boat Company of Bellingham, Washington, delivered the first vessels of an initial 120-boat run within schedule and at slightly less than the estimated $100,000-per-copy cost. The whole production line of that small-boat company was dedicated to the Navy for three years. The $100,000 cost included engines, water pumps, all control systems, the radar system, acceptance trials, and even the green paint. The government furnished guns, ceramic armor, radios. The .50-caliber guns came from stock left over from World War II and the Korean conflict. Some of those venerable guns probably were going to war for the third time. They had been fired by 8th Air Force gunners on B-17s over Nazi Germany and by Army infantry or armed personnel in Korea. The additional cost to the government to fully equip a PBR for combat was probably less than $5,000 total per boat. Altogether, the cost of each of those boats delivered into combat was a slight fraction of the cost of a patrol plane of fighter bomber, which even in 1966, cost the tax-payers a couple of million dollars each.
The little fiberglass boats were first intended to replace Navy land-and-sea based patrol craft monitoring enemy movement on the waterways of the Mekong Delta. The Navy was using both Lockheed P-2 (land-based) and Martin PM-5 (seaplane) aircraft to patrol the waterways of Vietnam at low altitude, but the aircraft were expensive and ineffective on that mission; they had been designed to seek and destroy submarines.
Second, the boats were to identify and engage enemy watercraft using the waterways, something that fast-moving aircraft, even at low altitude, could not accomplish.
The PBRs did that more and more. They saved friendly outposts by the hundreds, medevacked wounded friendlies by the thousands, saved a couple of provincial cities during the Tet 1968, and were the main tools for sealing off the Cambodian border as sailor warriors face-to-face with the enemy on the water and in a platform suited for the mission. The PBR was a great example of how the United States government and industry can work together on an emergency basis to deliver an effective, cost-efficient weapons system.
The first combat patrols in 1966 showed that the little boats were vulnerable to concentrated enemy fire from fortified positions on the riverbanks. They needed reliable air cover, and reliable intelligence. The Seawolves (helicopter gunships) came first. The Navy gratefully accepted old UH-1B Army gunships, and combat-experienced Army gunship pilots provided training to Navy helicopter aviators trained to battle submarines. They provided reliable air cover.
The SEALS (sea, air, land), the U.S. Navy commandos, came second. They were to provide reliable intel.
It was the sailors on our boats who made them such an effective implement of war. Most of them were captained by first class petty officers or CPOs (chief petty officers), sometimes by second class petty officers, occasionally by a guy with only one vee stripe under his crow (a third class petty officer). When they engaged the enemy it was usually with a small tactical unit of two boats commanded by a first class, a CPO, or a junior officer (usually a lieutenant, j.g.). The little boats went to a war where there was no top-heavy command controlling their actions. Patrol, seek, engage—that loose doctrine was interpreted differently by each PBR commander.
A typical PBR unit performed a tough job exceptionally well. A first class or second class (E-6 or E-5) was the boat captain. Every river rat at the time probably knew that he was not in the real Navy and that the Vietnam War was not a real war. But it was combat. A lot of the guys really wanted that experience. They were, for the most part, young guys—middle-class Americans who wanted to support their country. Guys who proudly enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for PBR duty because they knew that they would be tested under fire. They were tested. About 50 percent of the nearly 6,000 PBR sailors who served in Vietnam got Purple Hearts. Three hundred or so gave their lives.
My story is typical of the stories hundreds of PBR junior officers who served in Vietnam could have written.
I was the son of the generation that had grown up and suffered during the Great Depression, had desperately fought in World War II, and had prospered ever since. I was like most of my generation.
In the spring of 1967, when I received my orders to PBRs, I was not a volunteer for the boats or, even, Vietnam. I had a regular Navy commission. I wanted a West Coast destroyer. I wanted a blue-water challenge. I wanted to be part of the ever-increasing high-tech Navy during a period in which the ships were at a high degree of readiness and often in danger zones off the Vietnamese coast. I wanted to be a part of a surface Navy that was not shortchanged because of the Vietnam War. The minesweep force on which I served out of Charleston was being stripped of men and material to wage the war in Vietnam. I wanted to go to sea with a full complement of trained sailors going in harm's way. I was tired of cumshawing men and spare parts?a cook here, an electrician here, a piston head there—just so my ship could get under way for local operations.
In Navy lingo, cumshawing basically means "borrowing and bartering." Stealing, or "midnight requisitioning," was often used under the cover of cumshawing. The COs and XOs winked at such stuff, part of a long Navy tradition to get the job done, and to hell with procedures. The brown-water river rats I knew could out-cumshaw anybody.
I also wanted to visit exotic ports of call in the Pacific, and a home port different from Charleston. I had heard a lot of good things about "Dago," as San Diego was known in the fleet. A town where you never had to wear foul-weather gear, a town where you never felt as if you were being treated as second class by the locals because you wore a military uniform. In Charleston polite society, only the Citadel-gray and Confederate-gray uniforms got respect. "Yankee" sailors and dogs had to keep to the sidewalks. The rough-and-tumble North Charlestown municipality, with its plethora of bars, pawn shops, strip clubs, and gambling dens respected and loved the Navy. The Navy was a cash cow to those folks. The tourist-oriented, historic downtown Charleston community south of Broad Street (the SOBs) with all the fine dining places, fine homes, and fine young girls of the community, was virtually off limits to sailors in uniform. I dated a couple of those fine young SOB women, and I was warned never to show up in uniform. Even though I was a son of the South and descended from a long line of Confederate warriors on my father's side, my mother's grandfather (just off the boat from Germany) had fought for the Yankees. I never got comfortable with those ladies or their families.
I just wanted to be close to the action on a blue-water destroyer out of San Diego. A job as DCA (damage control assistant) and assistant engineering officer on a destroyer doing Yankee Station (South China Sea operations for U.S. Navy carrier attacks) would have been fine with me.
Eventually I got to spend a lot of time in San Diego.
The Vietnam War SEALs have received a lot of attention over the past decades. Many books about tough, brave, in-your-face, gritty, bloody SEALS have been published. PBRs are mentioned often in the personal accounts. Not often enough and not correctly though, so readers might think that PBRs were just transportation for SEALs.
Five PBR sailors were killed in action for every SEAL killed in action. Five Navy ships were named for PBR river rats killed in action, only one for a SEAL.
The Navy had an easy job of filling the billets of the enlisted PBR units. The boat captains were, for the most part, young petty officers in nontechnical ratings who had already determined to make the Navy a career, and who had a couple of years to go on their current (usually four-year) enlistments. They were proud of their chosen profession and wanted to make rank as fast as the technical ratings in the dawning of the age of computers were making their additional stripes. They were professionals, trained for war, and they wanted that combat experience. They also knew that a tour in Vietnam would accelerate their advancement. It was typical that Vietnam E-5 (petty officer second class) or E-6 (petty officer first class) PBR boat captains went on to retire as CPOs (chief petty officers) or as commissioned leadership. The sailors appreciated the respect they received once back on blue-water ships.
The young gunners (E-3s when they arrived in Vietnam) had a different collective experience. Some of the PBR sailors who served as gunners had almost their entire Navy experience on the little boats. A lot of them were eighteen-year-olds right out of boot camp or gunner's mates G-school ("G" for guns as opposed to missiles). A minority of gunners who survived one tour extended for another, then another, until the...

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Wynn Goldsmith
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