Vietnam’s River Patrol Boats Packed Both Speed and Firepower


On Halloween night time in 1966, Petty Officer 1st Class James Elliott “Willy” Williams, commanding a two-boat patrol utilizing craft specifically designed for fight on Vietnam’s inland waterways, was gunning for enemy vessels infesting the Mekong Delta. Williams in Patrol Boat River 105 destroyed one in all two Viet Cong sampans noticed on the My Tho River. Pursuing the second down a slender canal, PBR 105 and PBR 99 shocked two VC regiments simply starting to maneuver downriver in sampans and junks.

Williams ordered his small fiberglass boats, launched in Vietnam simply eight months earlier, ahead in assault formation. With weapons blazing from each side, the PBRs struck with bows excessive above the water, slicing by way of the enemy flotilla at full-throttle, twisting and turning to current a poor goal—their wakes washing over and capsizing the sampans. VC in fortified riverbank positions countered with mortar shells, rockets and small-arms hearth however had been unable to precisely goal their weapons at Williams’ fast-moving boats.

James Elliott “Willy” Williams, awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits as a Patrol Boat River skipper on Oct. 31, 1966, acquired the second highest valor award, the Navy Cross, for heroics in January 1967. Ten different valor wards, together with two Silver Stars, make him probably the most embellished enlisted sailor in U.S. Navy historical past. / Naval Historical past and Heritage Command

The U.S. patrol encountered further junks and bigger VC formations farther down the canal. Crews on the 2 speedy PBRs launched thunderous hearth on a shocked enemy flotilla. Quickly the Navy’s Huey helicopter gunships arrived. Williams’ boats made one other run down the canal.

Ordering searchlights turned on as nightfall approached, Williams pressed the assault into the night time. The crews of PBRs 105 and 99 destroyed 65 VC vessels and inflicted an estimated 1,000 casualties, whereas struggling little if any harm to their very own craft. For his actions that Halloween night time, Williams acquired the Medal of Honor.

An ocean away, one other man shared within the success that Williams and his males achieved in these quick, extremely maneuverable, well-armed PBRs. His firm’s identify was engraved on every boat’s brass builders plate: “United Boat Builders Inc., Bellingham, Washington.”

When 35-year-old Arthur “Artwork” Nordtvedt based United Boat Builders in 1957, he created a diversified product line of delight craft, industrial vessels and navy designs to make sure year-round manufacturing of his fiberglass boats. United rose to nationwide prominence when it was chosen to provide the Patrol Boat River, manufactured in two variations, the Mark I and Mark II, for the U.S. Navy through the Vietnam Warfare.

By battle’s finish, about 300 of the extremely regarded riverine patrol boats had seen motion within the Mekong River Delta.

In an interview as United was starting operations, Nordtvedt stated: “We’re only a younger bunch of men banded collectively, doing the factor we love and revel in—boatbuilding. I can guarantee you of this: we now have the power, want and know-how to succeed.” And succeed they did. By 1960, United had outgrown its startup location in a small leased constructing and moved to a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing unit on Bellingham’s waterfront. As soon as his industrial and pleasure boat strains had been in manufacturing, Nordtvedt targeting navy contracts, turning United into a serious provider of fiberglass boats for the Navy.

Finally, the corporate produced greater than 2,729 vessels of varied varieties for the federal government. The primary contracts had been awarded in December 1961 for 10 Touchdown Craft Swimmer Reconnaissance assist boats. The 52-foot LCSRs had been utilized by the Navy to deploy and retrieve frogmen on missions.

Research and experiences within the early Sixties highlighted the rising use of South Vietnam’s waterways by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Military for ambushes, provide shipments and different actions. Of most concern had been the tributaries and canal methods of the huge Mekong River Delta, an space of 16,000 sq. miles, comprising practically 5,000 miles of waterway. Management of the Delta was essential to South Vietnam’s commerce.

VC forces had practically overrun the Mekong, which was turning into a possible NVA incursion route. Countering that risk was an inferior South Vietnamese riverine pressure that was a mixture of vessels deserted by the nation’s former French rulers, presumably a number of vessels from the World Warfare II Japanese occupation and junks. The remnants of the 1946-54 French-Indochina Warfare had been heavy (thus requiring a number of ft of water), slow-moving, simply snagged in underwater particles and extra flippantly armed than their VC opponents.

In January 1965, the Weapons Planning Group of the Naval Ordnance Station at China Lake, California, launched a report that known as for the event of a simpler riverine warfare pressure. The report emphasised the necessity for a ship that would function in a hostile jungle atmosphere with slender and shallow estuaries filled with obstacles, whereas combating enemy hidden inside fortified bunkers alongside the Mekong’s waterways.

After reviewing the report, the Navy’s Ordnance Division of the Unconventional Warfare Workplace issued a set of necessities for a shallow-water hull manufactured from aluminum or fiberglass with a propulsion system that wouldn’t be hindered be the weeds frequent within the Delta. Pace and maneuverability had been additionally important. The pressing want meant there was no time to design a craft from the keel up, suggesting an current hull design must be tailored for navy use.

Nordtvedt’s United Boat Builders was hardly the one firm within the profitable Navy contract. Main competitor Hatteras Yacht Co. of North Carolina additionally was eyeing the prize. In 1965 Hatteras founder Willis Slane and his naval architect, Jack Hargrave, had been invited to Washington, D.C., with different vessel producers. A captain within the Ordnance Division was stated to be making a determined plea for a shallow-water craft within the 30-foot vary, primarily based on an current hull, that would run as much as 30 knots (35 mph) and be tailored for operations in Southeast Asia.

A PBR crewman operates his twin .50-caliber machine gun mount on patrol in the Mekong River on April 14, 1966. Some PBR crews added extra weapons to their PBR. But there was a trade-off: reduced speed. / Naval History and Heritage Command
A PBR crewman operates his twin .50-caliber machine gun mount on patrol within the Mekong River on April 14, 1966. Some PBR crews added additional weapons to their PBR. However there was a trade-off: diminished pace. / Naval Historical past and Heritage Command

Architect Hargrave reportedly turned to Slane through the assembly and stated his design crew may meet these specs with Hatteras’ current 28-foot sporting hull. In accordance with Hargrave years later, Slane stood and stated, “Excuse me captain, I’ve simply put into manufacturing a really quick, broad-beamed hull, 28 ft lengthy, which may do the job.” Getting everybody’s consideration, Slane continued: “If we may drive her with water-jet pumps, we wouldn’t should deal with shafts, propellers and rudders. That may permit high-speed operation in very shallow water.” The captain requested how lengthy it will take to get a proper proposal from Hatteras. Slane responded: “Proposal, hell! I haven’t time for that paperwork stuff. I’ll construct the rattling boat.”

Returning to North Carolina, Slane took two 28-foot hulls and geared up them with a water-jet drive from Indiana Gear Works and a set of supercharged Daytona diesel engines. Per week later, a prototype was within the water, working at 30.5 knots. Slane was able to exhibit his creation to the Navy. Tommy Henshaw, a longtime Hatteras worker, recalled: “I had an opportunity to experience on it. Slane examined that boat to the restrict. It was quick. It could flip and cease on a dime.”

As Slane developed his prototype, phrase of his negotiations with the Navy reached Nordtvedt some 3,000 miles away. “I had heard by way of [informal] channels within the trade that Willis Slane was coping with the Ordnance Division to develop a river patrol boat to be used in Vietnam,” Nordtvedt recalled in an interview with this text’s creator. “I puzzled why the Bureau of Ships’ small boat division wasn’t concerned on the procurement stage, the place a round of necessities and contracts ought to originate. I knew Fred Joest on the bureau, so I known as to inquire what he knew about this.”

Joest, who would later head the small boat division, oversaw the procurement of greater than 5,000 vessels as much as 85 ft in size and was answerable for buying, bids, designing, development and upkeep. When Nordtvedt known as, a mystified Joest stated he would look into the matter.

“Somebody on the Unconventional Warfare Workplace talked with the individuals at Hatteras a couple of fast prototype to promote to the Navy,” Joest, additionally interviewed by this text’s creator, reported again to Nordtvedt. “Why they went to Willis Slane, I do not know. This was not correct process.” He advised Nordtvedt, “This contract has to exit to bid,” and promised to get a project-bid round to bidders as quickly as attainable.

“There was an amazing want for a big amount of river boats,” Joest recalled. “They had been asking for 120 boats with a three-month turnaround as soon as awarded. I used to be given {a photograph} of Slane’s boat and a single sheet of specs that the Ordnance Division had written. I wanted these specs, which bonded bidders to a mandated pace with full armament load.”

Joest didn’t count on many bidders as a result of firms weren’t allowed time to construct a mould and must meet the necessities with an exiting hull. “We gave them solely every week to reply,” he stated.

In the meantime, Nordtvedt had a 30-day lead over his opponents and made the most effective of his time. “I knew Hatteras was making an attempt to make use of their 28-foot hull,” he stated. “So, I began with the necessities that the Ordnance Division had given him. I drew my define on a drafting board in two days and did a number of experiments on our 31-foot fiberglass sports-cruiser hull.”

Nordtvedt made some modifications to accommodate the Navy’s necessities, together with the power to haul additional weight. “The brand new hull was an enchancment over the unique, and the design was handed on to the pleasure boat,” he stated. “The prototype was quickly within the water as we started pace and dealing with traits.”

Though Hatteras was utilizing jet pumps from Indiana Gear Works, Nordtvedt didn’t suppose these jet pumps had been highly effective sufficient. “I began assessments on the water-jet propulsion models by Jacuzzi Brothers,” he stated. The boat builder additionally stated he may “assure 14,000 kilos” for weight.

In addition to United and Hatteras, different bidders had been Bertram Yacht Co., Boston Whaler, Chris-Craft and Bay Shipbuilding. “We evaluated these bids because the proposals got here in,” Joest remembers. “We seemed to see who may present the most effective efficiency and the place others would fall quick. Then we seemed on the value. Once we noticed the United bundle, we stated, that is the place we need to go.”

Steve Nordtvedt, Artwork’s son, was United’s naval contract supervisor and remembers a proposal error by the corporate that underpriced the upkeep spare components kits, which included an engine, water jet and miscellaneous gear. The price of every equipment was about $11,000. There was one set for each 10 boats, which meant 12 units for 120 boats.

Within the proposal, “I mistakenly included just one set, as an alternative of 12,” the youthful Nordtvedt stated. “The error was found after the proposal was delivered. It was a $120,000 drawback. Artwork phoned Fred Joest.” The Navy contracts official wished to know if United may swallow the $120,000 quite than add that quantity to its bid. “Can you reside with that? Joest requested, in response to Steve Nordtvedt, and adopted with “Don’t increase the problem.” Translation: Don’t make a fuss over $120,000.

Artwork replied, “We’ll dwell with it,” as his son recalled. “Fred’s recommendation was interpreted as a very good signal that United was within the working for the contract.”

Hatteras additionally offered a working prototype, Joest stated, however Slane had demonstrated solely an empty hull. Navy officers had been impressed with its pace and talent to function in shallow water; nonetheless, they had been observing a ship with no weight on it, not to mention a fight load. One other strike towards Slane was his objection to authorities oversight. The Navy wished authorities inspectors within the plant to observe development of the boats, stated Henshaw, the previous Hatteras worker. “Willis advised them he’d be glad to construct them, however he wouldn’t have the federal government inform him methods to do it. So, we misplaced the entire contract.”

United Boat Builders submitted the low bid at $75,000 per boat and was formally awarded the PBR contract on Nov. 29,1965. We’ll by no means know if Slane meant to protest the contract determination. A couple of weeks earlier, on Nov. 7, 1965, he died of a coronary heart assault.

The PBR contract was a very powerful mission that United ever bid on. The Protection Division made acquisition of the boats a precedence. United created 4 further one-piece hull and deck molds to satisfy manufacturing calls for.

By Dec. 21, the corporate had constructed 10 boats, and others had been below development. The tightly drawn contract gave United till April 1 to ship 120 PBRs. A accomplished boat was anticipated to be prepared for acceptance trials each eight days.

The unique PBR Mark I used to be an olive drab 31-foot craft primarily based on United’s Uniflite sport-cruiser design. There have been twin .50-caliber machine weapons in a ahead M36 turret rotating tub and a set .30-caliber M1919AH Browning machine gun on the strict. The boat’s helm featured a windscreen with a smooth high canvas. The station for the coxswain (the sailor on the wheel) on the portside had two AN/VRC-46 cell communications radios and a management panel. A Raytheon 1900N radar set was mounted topside. The coxswain’s station, engines and gun mounts had ceramic armor that would cease small-arms hearth.

Put in tightly beneath the deck had been two Normal Motors Detroit Diesel 220 horsepower 6V53N engines with no gearbox, as there was no reverse nor propeller. As an alternative, the engines drove Jacuzzi 14 WJ water-jet pumps. The pumps had been mounted with their consumption pipe working by way of the underside of the boat and out a gap within the stern. Water could be sucked up the road and handed by way of an impeller (a small reverse propeller) that accelerated the circulation and compelled the water out making a jet steam that moved the boat with a thrust 6,000 gallons a minute.

Rerouting the water 180 levels stopped the craft shortly, inside two boat lengths, giving the PBR distinctive maneuverability. Moreover, with no propeller to foul and drafting about 9 inches (sitting with solely 9 inches of the hull below water), the boat may run in very shallow water—just about anyplace—at excessive pace.

The crewmen of a PBR appear relaxed during a patrol run along the My Tho River in June 1969. / Naval History & Heritage Command
The crewmen of a PBR seem relaxed throughout a patrol run alongside the My Tho River in June 1969. / Naval Historical past & Heritage Command

The primary boat off the road was delivered to Hunters Level, San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard for underwater shock assessments to guage the fiberglass hull’s integrity. The one modifications required had been minor modifications to the engine mounts. Nordtvedt, nonetheless, was involved concerning the boats’ capability to satisfy United’s efficiency commonplace of 25 knots (29 mph) with a full load.

Pre-award experiments carried out by United had been primarily based on a most weight of 14,000 kilos. Nevertheless, change orders had elevated the burden by greater than 1,000 kilos. There was additionally a 500-pound improve in engine weight and heavier new laminates used for the reason that prototype was constructed. Consequently, “we had a 16,000-pound vessel,” Nordtvedt stated, “and it took some work to get this factor working correctly.”

Joest, assigned to United through the patrol boat program, labored alongside Nordtvedt to discover a answer. The primary try to extend pace concerned experiments with the Jacuzzi pumps. That effort failed. “So, we went on a weight witch hunt,” Joest remembered. “We went by way of the boat piece by piece.”

The unique metal mounting ring for the .50-caliber machine gun was remanufactured in aluminum. Diesel warmth exchangers had been changed with lighter models. Resin content material management was instituted, and boat armor was diminished. Any weight financial savings not affecting structural integrity had been altered till Nordtvedt was glad. The end result was a vessel displacing 14,600 kilos.

On Dec. 18, 1965, the Navy established Operation Recreation Warden, which might pool teams of PBRs collectively as Process Pressure 116 to patrol the Mekong Delta and disrupt Viet Cong actions. American sailors would board and search vessels for hidden contraband and battle any VC or North Vietnamese forces they encountered.

By mid-January 1966, the primary 10 boats handed acceptance trials and had been delivered to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, north of San Francisco, the place the primary crews would prepare to function them. Subsequent boats had been despatched direct to Vietnam.

Not all the boats had been delivered on time, Steve Nordtvedt stated. There was a penalty of $500 per boat per day for each PBR not delivered by April 1. “The Navy acquired the a hundred and twentieth boat in mid-April,” Nordtvedt stated. “United paid a penalty of $35,000.”

Regardless that United had not met all of the supply dates, the Navy was nonetheless impressed. An modification to the unique contract known as for a further 40 boats.

The primary 11 boats arrived on the Navy’s Nha Be base in Saigon on March 21, 1966. New crews realized to function the boats within the Vung Tau space, a port location on the tip of South Vietnam. Boat crews had been famous for the modifications they made to extend efficiency. They added armaments and protecting shielding. In addition they tweaked the engines to get extra energy. Moreover, “crews would modify their gun tubs to carry extra rounds,” recalled Petty Officer third Class machinist mate Ralph Christopher, creator of Responsibility Honor Sacrifice. For instance, one in all his pals, Warrant Officer Ralph Fries, modified the quantity for the ahead twin .50-caliber machine weapons from 250 to 500 rounds per tray. Moreover, “they belted 1,500 rounds per .50 gun and flanked them on either side of the bow and over the pump covers,” Christopher stated.

Artwork Nordtvedt

The additional firepower and shielding, nonetheless, slowed the boats, which made them susceptible to ambush. Most crews found their biggest weapons had been pace and maneuverability in exiting a kill zone, “hot-dogging” from hurt’s approach, then hitting again. A number of months earlier than Williams’ Halloween battle, he ordered all of PBR 105’s armor eliminated, apart from that defending his engines. He claimed a rise in pace as much as 35 knots (40 mph). The fiberglass hull diverse in thickness as much as a half-inch. Except a rocket-propelled grenade or small-arms hearth hit the engines or one thing equally strong, most projectiles would cross by way of the hull.

Though the Mark I operated with a lot success, a modified model was quickly requested. The Mark II advanced from ideas by boat crews and observations of the Mark I’s efficiency after months of intensive use in a harsh, sizzling and humid atmosphere. The Jacuzzis wanted changes attributable to excessive put on. The considerations had been such that in September 1966, the Navy flew Nordtvedt, Joest and Jacuzzi Brothers’ Vice President Ray Horan to South Vietnam to look at and consider the PBR’s progress.

The brand new boats had a flatter hull, better width and elevated size. “Artwork’s Mark I had a ‘deep-Vee’ [hull] design, which was generally utilized in rougher coastal waters,” Joest stated. “We’re speaking riverine waters now.”

Steve Nordtvedt believed the brand new boats had been extra suited to their meant objective. The Mark II’s foremost benefit was “its capability to hold a heavier load with no loss in efficiency,” he stated. “The load required in fight shortly outgrew the Mark I’s capability.”

The Mark II enabled crews so as to add extra armament, mostly two 7.62 mm M60 machine weapons and a 40 mm grenade launcher. Some crews maximized their firepower by including a 20 mm cannon ahead or putting an 81 mm mortar towards the strict. The brand new PBR was a formable battle machine. Artwork Nordtvedt wasn’t impressed by the redesign, claiming his authentic boat was a greater idea. Adjustments “made the hull stiffer and fewer versatile,” he stated.

United Boat Builders’ PBR wartime program ran from December 1965 by way of September 1975, with 161 Mark I and 355 Mark II boats accomplished. On the finish of manufacturing in 1977 a complete of 535 PBRs had been manufactured. Many went to international navies.

Nordtvedt refused to take sole credit score for designing and constructing the boats that had so nimbly borne their crews out and in of hurt’s approach. Every time he was thanked, he would reply, “It’s my crew you need to thank, not me.” Nordtvedt died on Oct. 1, 2013, at age 91. V

Todd Warger is a recipient of the Washington State Historic Society’s 2008 David Douglas award for the documentary movie Shipyard. He carried out about 20 recorded interviews with Artwork Nordtvedt in 2006. Warger resides in Bellingham, Washington.

This text appeared within the December 2021 difficulty of Vietnam journal. For extra tales from Vietnam journal, subscribe and go to us on Fb.

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