Category Archives: vietnam

Hạ Long Bay Vacation, 70 years ago

From the French military archives, this group of photos of the Marine Commando de Montfort catching some rays in Hạ Long Bay, in what is now Northern Vietnam, just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from mainland China, October 1950.

Just 60-strong, the Montforts had been formed in Indochina in late 1947, named after the late Ensign Louis de Montfort, a commando killed in Haiphong in March 1946. Using a mix of German, French, U.S., and British gear, they fought the Viet Minh extensively along with the coastal and border areas, carrying out various raids and reconnaissance operations borne by local craft and LCIs.

Like their companion unit, Commando Jaubert, the Montforts integrated local Vietnamese volunteers into their ranks, which at times accounted for half of the unit.

Their heaviest artillery were 60 mm mortars

…as well as lots of submachine guns, with the German MP40 being preferred.

Their go-to infantry arm was the U.S. M1 Carbine, light and handy for jumping around out of small boats for coastal operations in the jungle area

Note the M1 Carbine over the Marine’s shoulder, French OF37 ouef (egg) grenades on his pockets, and twin mag pouches. You would hope to have more than 60 spare rounds and a couple of grenades for a firefight in Indochina…

Montfort Commando-marine Moïse Saillant with a Châtellerault FM 24/29 LMG, in Ha Long Bay, circa 1950, note the cross draw pistol, which could be a MAB Model B. The FM 24/29 would remain in French service well into the 1970s, although it was a forerunner of the BREN

When it came to uniforms, you can tell their old WWII Commando Kiefer origins, as they made extensive use of the green beret with left-oriented cap badge and Denison smocks.

Note the flatbottom punts, possibly bridging pontoons, being towed by launches

After seven years of combat, Commando Montfort was disbanded in December 1954, its Indonchines members dismissed. It would soon be reformed in Metropolitan France, as a new war was brewing in Algeria.

Of Long Tan

The fact that the U.S. military and its South Vietnamese allies were not the only countries that faced off against the Sino-Soviet-backed North Vietnamese/Viet Cong South East Asia is often forgotten. Besides South Korean and Filipino units, Australia and New Zealand also dispatched contingents of their own while thousands of Brits and Canadians fought as volunteers wearing the uniform of several of the aforementioned forces.

Here is a picture of Australian SAS captain Peter Shilston as Mike Force company commander. Note the BAR belt used for 20 round M16 mags

When it comes to the ANZACs, no less than 61,000 Australians fought in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972, amassing over 3,500 casualties.

Their shining moment was perhaps the Battle of Long Tan which saw three forward observers of the Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery and 105 men of D Company, 6 Royal Australian Regiment fight a hopelessly outnumbered action (some 20:1 according to some reports) against a full NVA regiment and supporting VC battalion.

It was brutal, sometimes hand-to-hand fighting, with artillery and air support called in almost on top of the Australian/New Zealand force.

An Australian-made film about Long Tan, which used over 100 former Australian and New Zealand combat veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq as extras, was just released and it is pretty good.

If you have Amazon, it is on Prime.

Wombat Gun

Australian War Memorial WAR/70/0105/VN

Official caption:

Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam. 18 February 1970. Section Commander, Corporal Joe Danyluk of Port Kembla, NSW, carrying a mortar gun [M79 40mm grenade launcher] calls a halt during a sweep through bombed-out jungle after a bloody battle in the Long Hai mountains during Operation Hamersley. His company, B Company of 8th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (8RAR), together with other units of the Battalion, supported by armor, fought an estimated company of hard-core Viet Cong (VC) for a number of days in the mountains. The area was pounded by airstrikes including a raid by giant B52 bomber aircraft, naval bombardment from HMAS Vendetta, and artillery fire. Twenty-nine bodies of dead VC have been found to date.

First fielded in 1961 by the U.S. Army, the 6-pound M79 was light enough that you could carry it as a support weapon while still having a primary rifle– note CPL Danyluk’s M16 over the shoulder. In American service, it was often called the Bloop Gun or the Thumper. Meanwhile, the Ozzies referred to it as the Wombat Gun.

Because wombats…

Spelunking, occupation edition

75 years ago today.

Official caption: “Japanese Kairyu Type Midget submarine outside its cave hideaway in a Japanese coastal hillside, 22 September 1945.”

The men alongside it are from the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69).

The sixth Boston was commissioned 30 June 1943 and left Pearl Harbor for points West on 6 December of the same year, going on to earn an impressive 10 battlestars for her WWII service. Following the Japanese surrender, Boston remained in the Far East on occupation duty until 28 February 1946 then headed home for mothballs.

Given a second lease on life, she was reworked as a guided-missile cruiser in 1955 and recommissioned as CAG-1, the country’s first warship carrying an impressive 144 RIM-2 Terrier missiles in her armored magazines for use on her two twin launchers– keep in mind today’s VLS-equipped Ticonderoga-class cruisers only carry a maximum of 122 SM-2/3s providing all of their Mk 41 cells are filled with them.

Aft launcher onboard USS Boston (CA 69) in 1969 off of Vietnam with a GMTRS simulator T-SAM. Note the shell powder cans coming aboard– an almost daily task when she worked the gun line. NARA Photo 80-G-379158

Boston however still got a lot of use out of her WWII-era big guns, firing thousands of rounds of eight and five-inch shells against targets in Vietnam in 1967-68.

She was decommissioned 5 May 1970 and scrapped five years later.

Vale, Capt. Groom

He may have been born in D.C. but Winston Francis Groom Jr. was a true “Son of the South,” having graduated from UMS-Wright Military Academy and then the University of Alabama before spending much of his life as a Mobile Bay fixture. Commissioned through the Crimson Tide’s ROTC program, he served with the 245th PSYOP Company as a PSYOP Team Leader supporting the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands of Vietnam from 1966 to 1967.

Groom in Vietnam

“My age and lowly rank notwithstanding, my impression was that I was headed for some exalted position worthy of a John le Carré novel,” Groom later wrote of his time as a “dirty trickster” in Vietnam.

Following four years on active duty and an honorable discharge, he spent eight years as a reporter and columnist for the Washington Star newspaper before, with the encouragement of Willie Morris, a literal Good Old Boy from Mississippi, he resigned and began making pages of his own.

In the end, Groom finished some 20 books, many of them excellent military non-fiction works such as Shiloh 1862, Vicksburg 1864, 1942, and his Aviators/Generals/Allies trilogy of WWII. He was a Pulitzer finalist for Conversations with the Enemy: the story of P.F.C. Robert Garwood.

He also dabbled in fiction, with the main characters often having a connection to both Vietnam and Alabama. Write what you know, they say…

A natural raconteur in that most Southern of ways, I saw Capt. Groom speak on two occasions and was all the better for it.

He passed last week, aged 77. He will certainly be missed.

As noted in his obit: 

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be made to the University of Alabama Libraries Special Collection, Post Office Box 870266, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487, or the Gary Sinise Foundation, Post Office Box 368, Woodland Hills, California, 91365. A graveside service will be held Wednesday, September 23, at 11:00 am at Pine Crest Cemetery, 1939 Dauphin Island Parkway, Mobile, Alabama 36605.

Happy Birthday, Snake, the hardest laboring gunship in the Free World

“Cobras At Night” Vietnam Era, by Robert T. Coleman, March 1968. Acrylic on board, 18″ x 24″ depicting AH-1 Cobra gunships working 2.75-inch rockets amongst the locals.

Cobras At Night Robert Coleman 1968 US Army CMH

U.S. Army Center of Military History

Robert T. Coleman attended college at the Kendall School of Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He volunteered for the draft and traveled to Vietnam as part of Combat Artist Team VI from February to March 1968. We have talked about the Vietnam Combat Artist program extensively in the past.

As for the Cobra, the Snake first flew 7 September 1965 and over 2,000 were built of all types through 2019 with single-engine versions still being flown in Bahrain, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Turkey while the twin-engined Super Cobra endures with the U.S. Marines and will continue to do so for some time.

STRAIT OF HORMUZ (Aug. 12, 2019) An AH-1Z Viper helicopter attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) takes off during a strait transit aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4).  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck/Released)

Not bad for a platform that dates back some 55 years.

SINKEX Harpoon edition

The U.S. Navy’s press office released that, on 29 August off the coast of Hawaii during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2020, a live-fire SINKEX was conducted against a target hulk, the ex-USS Durham (LKA-114).

An 18,000-ton Charleston-class amphibious cargo ship commissioned on May 24, 1969, Durham was decommissioned on February 25, 1994, notably seeing service during Vietnam (four campaign stars, including the Frequent Wind evacuation in 1975) and the First Gulf War. The only Navy ship to carry the name of the North Carolina city, Durham was laid up in Pearl Harbor’s Middle Loch since 2000 and found ineligible for historic preservation in 2017.

The released video shows at least three missile hits as well as what could be some other surface weapons, with the Navy non-commital on just what ordinance was expended.

Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Navy is reporting that the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Regina had the opportunity to shoot two of their RGM-84 Harpoons in RIMPAC, a rare event indeed.

Master Seaman Dan Bard, RCN

Master Seaman Dan Bard, RCN

At the same time, the Royal Australian Navy reports that the modified ANZAC (MEKO200) class frigate HMAS Stuart (FFH-153) expended one of her Harpoons on Durham.

RAN photo

RAN photo

“Simulation is a critical part of our training but there is nothing better than to conduct live-fire training,” said Royal Australian Navy Capt. Phillipa Hay, commander, RIMPAC 2020 Task Force One. “Sinking exercises are an important way to test our weapons and weapons systems in the most realistic way possible. It demonstrates as a joint force we are capable of high-end warfare.”

Hanoi’s Shpagin MAT-50

The (North) Vietnamese People’s Revolutionary Army and its allied Viet Cong organization south of the DMZ, throughout the wars in Indochina, received extensive support from both Warsaw Pact countries and Communist China.

Among the military aid sent to Hanoi was the Chinese Type 50 submachine gun, which is easily recognizable to any firearm buff as a clone of the iconic PPsh-41 “pe-pe-sha” of WWII, chambered in 7.62x25mm Tokarev.

The Chinese Type 50 Via RIAC 

However, the gun was frequently modded in Vietnamese service to be more modern (for the 1960s) with a new sheet metal lower with simple telescoping wire stock and a pistol grip in place of the clunky wooden buttstock, chopping down the distinctive barrel jacket and crimping the stub of it to the barrel, then installing a new front AK-style front sight.

1967: Type K50M PPS Viet-Chinese submachine gun, captured in South Vietnam, note the modification. U.S. Marine Photo A189433 via the National Archives 

In short, they made the gun more like the French MAT-49, which they already had large stocks of post-Dien Bien Phu, and were familiar with.

French army recruitment poster during the period of the Indochina and Algerian wars, for the Colonial Airborne Troops, “My fortune is my glory, my trade is combat,” featuring the MAT-49 SMG

The NVA-modded PPsh-41, dubbed the K50M, was certainly more compact and visually much different on the outside, but internally identical to the gun that defended Stalingrad. Plus, at just 22-inches long with the stock pushed in, it was ideal for use by sappers, insurgents, and raiding parties, who no doubt appreciated the ability to use it at 700 rounds-per-minute, especially at close range as noted in the December 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

Due to many of these guns being captured in the war, they exist in the West in a number of military museums, including the IWM.

Vet Bring Back…SKS

While most guns floating around that came back in a GI’s duffle bag from some overseas conflict are Mausers, Arisakas, Nambus, and Lugers, the Vietnam-era Vets often had to make do with the humble SKS.

I recently got to hang out with one, an “11-million” series Chicom Type 56 with a DD-603 tying it to a MAC Team 87 Captain and it certainly was a neat gun.

More in my column at Guns.com.

From the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Tonkin, 52 years of service

The Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717) moors at U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak’s fuel pier in Kodiak, Alaska, July 10, 2020. Photo by Chief Petty Officer Matthew/USCG

The 378-foot Hamilton-class Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717) just completed her final patrol.

As noted by the USCG, Mellon and her “150-person crew left Seattle April 17 to conduct missions throughout the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. During the patrol, the crew conducted 38 law enforcement boardings, four search-and-rescue cases, and enforced federal regulations governing Alaska’s $13.9 billion commercial fishing industry.”

She returned to her longtime homeport at Seattle earlier this month and is scheduled for decommissioning August 20, 2020, bringing an epic 52-year career to a close.

Laid down in 1966 at Avondale in New Orleans, she commissioned on January 9, 1968.

A modern ship with her helm controlled via a joystick, she carried a 5″/38 DP mount forward, a half-dozen ASW torpedo tubes, sonar, an 80-foot helicopter deck, and used a then-innovative CODAG engineering suite. Contemporary accounts held that she was able to reach a speed of “20 knots in less than 20 seconds and go from full ahead to full astern in less than one minute.”

The Hamilton-class cutters were one of the first naval vessels built with a combined diesel and gas turbine propulsion plant. At the time: “The twin screws can use 7,000 diesel shaft horsepower to make 17 knots, and a total of 36,000 gas turbine shaft horsepower to make 28 knots. The diesel engines are Fairbanks-Morse and are larger versions of a 1968 diesel locomotive design. Her Pratt-Whitney marine gas turbine engines are similar to those installed in Boeing 707 passenger jet aircraft.”

Mellon served regular weather station duty on Ocean Station November in the Northern Pacific– and even had a balloon shelter for such work, in addition to SAR, maritime fisheries patrol, and counter-smuggling duties.

Once, she even got involved in responding to a mutiny on the high seas.

She also went to a real-live shooting war.

As noted by the Coast Guard Historian’s Office:

Mellon saw extensive service during the conflict in Vietnam. She was twice awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation as part of Task Force 115 (U.S. Navy Coastal Surveillance Force) which maintained close surveillance over 1,200 miles of Vietnamese coastline and 64,000 licensed watercraft.

The task force seized large quantities of war material, preventing it from reaching enemy hands. During her service in the waters adjacent to Vietnam, Mellon also conducted numerous naval gunfire support missions, rescue operations, medical civic action programs, and training programs for Vietnamese military personnel.

She saved lives.

Mellon rescued passengers from the burning Holland-America luxury liner MS Prinsendam off the Alaskan coast in 1980 in conjunction with another cutter, pulling 510 passengers and crew members from lifeboats after they abandoned ship. Remarkably, and in vast contrast to the Titanic, this occurred with no deaths or serious injuries, and all passengers and crew from the Prindsendam accounted for.

Added to this tally over the years were mariners from the doomed Italian supertanker Giovanna Lollighetti, the MV Carnelian, and the downed crew of a C-130 surviving among the frozen scrub of Attu Island.

She held the line

A regular on the Bearing Sea Patrol, Mellon’s sonarmen counted more sonar contacts with Soviet subs in the 1980s than many active-duty tin cans.

Updated for the Cold War, she was given frigate-level armament, trading her 5″ gun for a more modern 76mm OTO Melera Mk.75, picking up more modern air search radars, a “Slick-32” EW suite, and improved AN/SQS-26 bow-mounted sonar. She also got a modicum of anti-air protection from a CIWS and an anti-ship armament of 8 Harpoon cans. The idea was that if the balloon went up, the Hamiltons could easily chop over to add a few more hulls to the “600 Ship Navy” and help out with ASW and convoy duty.

Speaking of which, she was the only cutter in USCG history to fire a live Harpoon, during tests off Oxnard in January 1990.

PAC Ken Freeze, USCG

The Coast Guard certainly got their $14.5 million FY65 original costs out of her, and, as with most of her class, will surely go on to serve an overseas ally for another generation or two.

Her motto is Primus Inter Pares (First Among Equals).

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mellon (WHEC 717) crew and an Air Station Barbers Point MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew conduct searches just before sunset 24 miles south of Oahu, March 18, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Joshua Martin/Released)

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