One year ago, on 12 January 2016, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy captured ten U.S. Navy personnel (one officer and nine enlisted sailors) and seized two Navy riverine boats. One day later the Iranians released the boats and their crews.
On the anniversary of this event, four individuals who served as officers-in-charge (OinCs) of U.S. Navy Swift Boats for approximately 12 months during 1967 through 1969, operating out of multiple bases along the coast of South Vietnam from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to the Cambodia border, discussed their experiences. All of these OinCs and their crews are decorated veterans. Three of the former PCF OinCs still work full time running small businesses, and the fourth is a retired executive involved in non-profit activities.
The combat veterans have read the Navy’s released investigation of the January 2016 seizure. Their goal is not to pass judgment but to share their related experiences that could impact, in some way, future small-boat operational planning.
Dan Daly LTJG OinC PCF-76
Tom Jones LTJG OinC PCF-80
Lou Masterson LTJG OinC PCF-75
Joe Patton LTJG OinC PCF-61 & PCF-52
INTERVIEWER: Dan Daly
What was the importance of attendance at SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) training, crew integrity, and cross training?
Jones: SERE was a reality check—first in the classroom and then in the field. We were all young volunteers from a variety of backgrounds, and this required we quickly meld into a team. Crew integrity was extremely critical, and it started in Coronado. Just as important was cross training, and it also began in Boat School. Know your job and be able to do the jobs of your shipmates. This continued for 24 hours, every patrol for 12 months. Each individual had his assigned and primary responsibilities, such as the maintenance of engines, weapons, or communications. Everyone knew, however, how to use all the equipment regardless of rough seas or calm seas, day or night. This included the OinC.
Masterson: I never believed we would be captured. To me, crew integrity meant knowing, at any point in time, who was in charge and following orders and procedures. This was the only way you could safely have three men on watch, while the other three slept. You had to know your job well, and be able to do your shipmate’s job correctly “the first time.” We often patrolled for 30 hours, so the OinC had to sleep during his off watch. He had to have confidence in the leadership of those on watch to follow the night orders. The most critical standing order was when to wake the OinC. Sometimes these orders might be as simple as the distance you patrolled off the beach or the size of a fishing vessel you might inspect. Misjudgments could be deadly.
Patton: To our crew, SERE was our first real physical test. It was not pleasant. Although as Lou said, you might not be worried about being captured, SERE did get you thinking about survival in a broad sense. You began to understand the importance of being a member of a team and responsibilities each of you shared.
What flexibility did the OinC have during a patrol?
Patton: In the southern areas, we often were assigned specific rivers to patrol. On that patrol, the OinC decided when to conduct board-and-search operations, whether to respond to a U.S. Army request for gunfire, or investigate an intelligence report from “Barbados,” our coastal surveillance center (CSC). On occasion, when we conducted multiple boat operations, a more senior officer would be assigned to Swift Boats. Frankly, a senior Swift Boat skipper usually did a better job leading this type of operation. Based on experience, he knew the capabilities of the crews, boats, and weapons and the local geography.
Jones: Our division ops boss assigned the patrol sectors. Arriving in the patrol area, I set the patrol parameters depending on local boat traffic, proximity of enemy forces, and the probability of requests for gunfire support, in our case from the Marines. General quarters was always my call, as were the night orders defining specifically how the patrol was to be conducted and when to wake the off watch crew. Ongoing training and operations with other Swift or Navy units were my responsibility as OinC of PCF-80.
Masterson: Basically, within the assigned patrol area, we did not need “permission” to act. We transmitted complete reports to the CSC in a timely fashion. If we were required to leave the patrol area to do search-and-rescue (SAR) operations or to support another Swift Boat, we would inform the CSC. The CSC might relay a request to us for gunfire support from the Marines. On occasion, we would be asked to work with the Coast Guard on a SAR mission for a downed aviator. In all these cases, the OinC was responsible for making the decision on how to respond. This was based on the current demands in the patrol sector. For example, you would not abandon a gunfire mission to participate in a SAR mission.
What role did esprit de corps play in Swift Boats?
Masterson: It was absolutely critical. It was the cornerstone for teamwork and pride in doing a good job.
Patton: This was the ingredient that brought our crew together and in turn bonded our crew with other crews. Our understanding of this esprit de corps combined with a sense of brotherhood saved lives and was absolutely critical in combat situations.
Jones: For us, it began in Coronado. It became stronger upon our arrival in Vietnam and the assignment of our first PCF. It drove us through firefights, boring days, brutal weather, and 150 patrols. It was part of our life at sea and on shore. It is a bond that exists today, 49 years later, with the remaining three members of our crew. It was that simple; it was that basic.
To me, esprit de corps was the mentality that resulted in excellence rather than average. I agree with Joe, it was the adrenaline that could save lives. To continue, did you ever doubt that, as the OinC, you were the one in charge?
Jones: Not for a moment. The sudden changes that might take place during a patrol—such as a firefight, gunfire support, or even a brutal change in weather—required leadership, not group decisions. Decisions had to be made in seconds, and there was no book to reference. If you felt on occasion you would like a second opinion, you looked around the boat, you didn’t radio somebody 50 miles away. If your crew didn’t have confidence in your decisions or respect your authority, it could spell disaster.
Patton: Authority might be assigned, but respect was earned through leadership. You understood and responded to the needs of the mission and the needs of your men on patrol and ashore. You were the officer, but just as important, you were a member of the crew. If you didn’t understand both these responsibilities, you were going to have a problem in Swift Boats.
Masterson: On PCF-75, there was never any doubt in my mind or in the mind of any member of the crew who was in charge. The men respected it. Without it, we could not have done our job effectively in a very demanding combat environment. I would add moral leadership to the mix. This was a combat area, and you constantly had to make tough calls. How aggressive were you inspecting a fishing junk with women and children on board? Did the unit on shore requesting gunfire support really know where the civilians or friendly forces were located? You were being judged on every mission, and you should have been.
On occasion, all of us were faced with a situation that changed from a peaceful day on the water to a close-in firefight or a brutal storm 50 miles from your base. How did you prepare?
Patton: I describe it as “Expect the unexpected.” This was part of the adventure and why most of us joined the Swift Boat program. The answer was training and more training, which started back in Coronado. In country, your crew talked to the experienced crews. The veteran crews were always happy to share their knowledge, perhaps with just a touch of superiority. This goes back to the esprit de corps we discussed earlier. Training, learning, and sharing; when these critical elements stopped, it was time to go home.
Jones: I agree with Joe that there was no “normal day on patrol.” We discussed certain combat scenarios in which PCF-80 had been involved, or situations we heard about from other crews. Often we would practice a response. Let’s say there was unexpected fire from the beach. How fast could you return fire? Did you turn toward the target or head out to sea to regroup? Obviously, cross training played a critical role if a crew member was wounded. For example, everyone could drive the boat and operate every weapon. Regarding bad weather, and it could be really bad in just a matter of hours, Swift Boats, to my knowledge, were never called into port. This was a decision made by the OinC, and it was a tough decision. How critical was your presence in the patrol area, how far away was home base, and what was your assessment of the dangers at sea? In the north, it was 90 miles from the DMZ to Da Nang Harbor, with absolutely no refuge along the way.
Masterson: We did not always patrol at general quarters, but we always had someone in the gun tub above the pilot house who could operate the twin .50 calibers. Again, cross training was the rule. The person in the gun tub also would serve as a lookout. Small arms were laid out in the main cabin and readily accessible. Obviously, during board-and-search operations everything moved up a notch. For any suspicious vessel, we set general quarters. We tried to anticipate “what ifs” and planned accordingly. Bad weather was always a challenge, especially at night, because you couldn’t see from what direction the waves were coming. You might have to ride each wave “stern to” for hours, working your way back to port. Patrolling up north in a storm, a decision to enter the Hue River or perhaps the Cua Viet, even during daylight, you knew could be deadly. We all had our stories.
In your opinions, what were three contributing factors to the success of the Swift Boat program?
Jones: The fact that the program, in its early years, was all volunteer, both for officers and enlisted, helped develop esprit de corps. Second, the goal of maintaining the integrity of the crew throughout training and 12 months in Vietnam with minimum replacements was big. Third, lean management of the Swift Boat program in country was very important. There was an OinC of the division, who in many cases was promoted from being a senior boat driver. He was the onshore manager. He assigned patrol areas, replaced crew members as necessary, and had oversight for boat maintenance. This was the best scenario, because that individual knew most of the officers as well as the crews, and certainly had a hands-on understanding of operations. Under way, all responsibility rested with the individual OinCs.
Masterson: The Swift Boat program, for the most part, was a group of dedicated officers and sailors. They wanted to succeed and do their job well. To succeed, every OinC had to be creative and be able to read between the lines. Very often there were no directives to reference or established standards. You had to think for the moment, calling upon your knowledge and experience to make the right decision. You had to have the courage and the confidence to lead; it was that simple. You, along with your crew, had to know “the buck stops here.”
Patton: The success of the program was based on good men committed to the mission who were trained into a combat teams. This was enhanced by leadership, discipline, and esprit de corps. Politics, bureaucracy, and the enemy were the biggest threats to the program.
Should the Navy be involved in small-boat operations, and if so, what command-and-control structure should be employed?
Patton: Recently the Navy has not done the best job in small-boat operations. However, if you are going to patrol and/or control rivers, harbors, and certain coastlines, you need small boats, not ships. The same applies to clandestine operations and close-in support for small onshore units. In these situations there is often a requirement for split-second decision making by someone, on-site and in charge. If that person doesn’t understand that responsibility or that responsibility has not been assigned to him, the outcome will be failure or disaster.
Masterson: The Navy must continue to examine the goals and objectives of its missions. What are the related and realistic requirements assigned to the crew? Individuals with prior or related experience definitely could bring value to these discussions and decisions. Small-boat operations need not be an independent career path, but it can never be a poor stepchild. If someone doesn’t understand or become involved in the mission, the men, and the equipment, then serving in this manner can be a career ender.
Jones: Looking back on the Swift Boat program, the question that should be examined is: What has changed and what is the same? The Navy certainly can decide what equipment is required for small-boat missions. Most likely some of it currently exists. What is more of a challenge is defining the levels of leadership, responsibility, and delegation required for successful small-boat operations.
In closing, I observe that when command-and-control becomes top-heavy, it can lead to disaster. Satellite communications and video links are of little help to the onboard OinC when his boat rounds that bend in the river and the enemy opens fire. Only you can make the decisions, because you are the one in charge.
By definition, any firefight that involved a Swift Boat was not a long, drawn-out affair simply because the enemy easily could hide while you were riding on a noisy gray boat close offshore and very visible. Therefore, the best solution for survival was a massive return of fire and, if necessary, combining it with a high-speed departure.
Standard operations in enemy territory like this was to travel close into the beach at a speed of ten knots-plus, seeing what you could observe taking place along the shoreline or perhaps detect in the sand dunes, all the while showing the U.S. flag. Clandestine was not the operative word. The white water of the rolling wake would catch the eye, or the sound of the diesels would cover the audio spectrum. Some more cynical observers might refer to this as drawing fire.
The first indication of trouble was when I saw several small puffs of sand along the beach. These soon led to splashes in the shallow water working their way directly toward me. Keep in mind, the Navy felt that Swift Boat officers should wear traditional khaki uniforms, with the enlisted men in dungarees. As a result, my uniform said, “I’m the man, hit me.”
Obviously this was an enemy machine gun, most likely fixed on a tripod with someone at the trigger who had enough experience to walk his rounds toward the target for better accuracy. Before the rounds even hit the water, I knew we were in trouble. Obviously they had let Lou’s boat pass by first and opened up on PCF-76 as the second boat. This was a classic ambush technique used to minimize return fire.
I yelled for the crew to open fire and jammed the throttles forward. The big Detroit Diesels roared to life in response, but not before multiple rounds hit our boat just forward of my position. The first bullets shattered the glass in the portside cabin windows, continuing out the starboard side. The next rounds screamed by me with a metal-to-metal squeal; they drilled holes into the aluminum cabin side.
Boats was stationed at the aft .50 caliber. Both his legs were solidly spread on the deck, hands locked on the handles and trigger, as he sighted down the barrel and pumped out four rounds at a time with that ba-ba-ba-bab...ba-ba-ba-bab sound that only a .50 caliber can make. This firing discipline kept the recoil of the big gun from climbing up in the air and off the target. His controlled fire approach soon lost out to the locked trigger method, with the result of rapidly emptying the ammo bin. I was a firm believer in the theory that the more lead you threw at the enemy, the less likely they were to keep their heads up and continue to shoot at you.
PCF-76 started to accelerate, and we moved north of the target. Lou had seen and heard the incoming rounds, so he circled hard back at full speed and immediately turned his guns to starboard and opened fire with his twin .50 caliber forward mount. As he approached the suspected target location, he fired an 81-mm round in the trigger fire mode from his after mount toward the dune line. The round went off prematurely because it was fired too low, hit a nearby wave, and exploded, but fortunately far enough away from the boat to avoid any red hot shrapnel hitting his own crew.
After a high-speed turn, we completed a similar firing run in Lou’s wake with all guns blasting. Clearing the firing area, I did a quick survey and confirmed that we had taken some hits, but no one was injured.
—White Water, Red Hot Lead: On Board U.S. Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam
Tom Jones graduated from Ohio University in Athens. After Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS), he served on board an oiler out of Pearl Harbor for 22 months as a deck officer and navigator. He and his crew served together for 12 months in Vietnam. After a lengthy management career with a major retailer, he resides with his wife in Florida.
Lou Masterson attended OCS after graduating from the University of Notre Dame. His first assignment was on board a destroyer in the Pacific. Volunteering for Swift Boats, he and his crew put PCF-75 into service in the summer of 1966 and served through August 1967. Lou resides in Ohio and is the president of a search firm recruiting senior executives for community hospitals.
Joe Patton received his naval commission from OCS in Newport, after graduating from the University of Rhode Island. He served on board the USS Boxer (LPH-4) and then volunteered for Swift Boat duty, serving from February 1968 to February 1969. He is the founder of the investment firm JP Marvel Wealth Management and lives in Boston with his family.