Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Sept. 07, 2022: Come Hell or Low Water
Above we see the Benewah-class self-propelled barracks ship USS Colleton (APB-36), some 55 years ago this month on 24 September 1967, moored in South Vietnam’s My Tho River. A collection of floating piers and docks sister the big, armored converted LST, to her small craft brood of the Mobile Riverine Force. Alongside her are at least 10 LCM-6 landing craft converted to Armored Troop Carriers (aka “Tango” boats), four CCB (aka “Charlie” boats) communication/control monitors, and a helicopter-pad equipped Aid Boat. Note the quad 40mm Bofors fore and aft on Colleton along with two 3″/50s flanking her helicopter pad as well as her location near shore.
Colleton had to be one of the most formidable vessels to even be labeled a “barracks ship” and these days would pull down the designation of an Expeditionary Sea Base, although she was much better armed.
About those APBs…
The Old Navy’s primary receiving ship/barracks ships, based at naval stations and shipyards to house blue jackets between homes, were usually just hulked warships, their topsides covered over by dormitories.
With the U.S. military swelling to a multi-million man force in WWII– much of it to be sent far overseas into often remote areas such as isolated Pacific islands with no infrastructure– the Navy quickly realized that barracks ships would be needed. Soon, starting in FY 1942, a class of 40 non-self-propelled Barracks Ships (APL hull numbers) were begun. Dubbed the APL-2 and APL-17 types, they were simple 2,000-ton, 260-foot, covered barges with a two-story barracks built on top.
Midway into the numbering sequence for the APLs, starting with APL-35 and running through APL-40, it was decided to create a run of larger, self-propelled barracks ships. These would become the Benewah-class authorized as APL-35 (soon morphed to APB-35) and 15 sisters soon following.
To avoid reinventing the wheel, the Benewahs were all 4,000-ton, 328-foot, LST-542-class landing ship tanks, or AKS-16 class general stores issue ships (which used the same hull and machinery). They were able to steam at 12 knots and had a decent self-defense capability including two twins and four single 40mm/60 Bofors as well as a mix of smaller cannon and machine gun mounts. Gone was the landing and beaching gear and added was a double-deck troop accommodation for 28 officers and 275 enlisted as well as galley and recreation facilities for those embarked as well as the 137-man crew.
For a time still termed APLs then “LST (Modified)” they eventually became APBs by the time they joined the Navy List.
Ten of the class were quickly converted to APBs post-commissioning while still at their builders including USS Wythe (APB-41) (ex-LST-575), Yavapai (APB-42)(ex LST-676), Yolo (APB-43)(ex LST-677), Presque Isle (APB-44)(ex LST-678), Accomac (APB-49)(ex LST-710), Cameron (APB-50)(ex LST-928), Blackford (APB-45)(ex AKS-16), Dorchester (APB-46)(ex AKS-17), Kingman (APB-47)(ex AKS-18), and Vanderburgh (APB-48)(ex AKS-19). These ships made it to the fleet first and some were sent into the thick of the action by 1944.
This left Benewah, Colleton, Marlboro (APB-38), Mercer (APB-39), and Nueces (APB-40) to be built as barracks ships from the keel up rather than converted.
However, this meant that the five-pack of fresh-built Benewahs, Colleton included, were only completed post-VJ-Day.
Speaking of which, Colleton, authorized, on 17 December 1943 as Barracks Ship (non-self-propelled) APL-36 and later reclassified to APB-36 on 8 August 1944, was laid down, on 9 June 1945 at Boston Naval Shipyard and “completed” in September 1945. As she wasn’t needed, she was never commissioned and was placed immediately in reserve at Boston, her bunks never slept in, an ensign never flown from her. She would slumber for 22 years, just in case.
She earned her name from the county and river in South Carolina, near the vital entrance to Port Royal.
Good Morning, Rat Sung Special Zone!
On 1 April 1966, Naval Forces, Vietnam, was established to control the Navy’s units in the Army’s II, III, and IV Corps Tactical Zones. This eventually included the Coastal Surveillance Force (Task Force 115), River Patrol Force (Task Force 116), and Riverine Assault Force (Task Force 117). The latter unit formed the naval component of the joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force.
Patterned after the French naval assault divisions, or Dinassauts, which performed well in the Indochina War from 1946 to 1954, the MRF consisted of an Army element– 2d Brigade, 9th Infantry Division (augmented by the 3rd Brigade after mid-1968), and a Navy element– River Assault Squadrons 9 and 11 along with River Support Squadron 7– under COMUSMACV’s overall direction.
The “Old Reliables” of the 9th Infantry Division were reactivated on 1 February 1966 and arrived in Vietnam on 16 December 1966 from Fort Riley, Kansas, and would spend most of their time “in-country” with wet boots, motored around the Vietnamese river complex via the Navy.
As detailed in By Sea, Air, and Land » Chapter 3: The Years of Combat, 1965-1968 from The Navy Department Library:
Each 400-man assault squadron, divided further into two river assault divisions, marshaled a powerful fleet of five monitors. Each monitor was protected with armor and equipped with .50 caliber, 40-millimeter, and 20-millimeter gun mounts, two 40- millimeter grenade launchers, and an 81-millimeter mortar. Another two or three similarly armed and armored craft served as command and control boats. A total of 26 Armored Troop Carriers that mounted .50-caliber machine guns, rapid-fire grenade launchers, and 20-millimeter cannons transported the Army troops. Also installed on the former amphibious landing craft were helicopter landing platforms. A number of craft mounted flame throwers [dubbed “Zippo” boats] or water cannons [dubbed “Douche” boats] to destroy enemy bunkers. A modified armored troop carrier functioned as a refueler for the river force. Beginning in September 1967, to augment the firepower of these converted landing crafts, each squadron was provided with 8 to 16 newly designed Assault Support Patrol Boats for minesweeping and escort duties.
By the end of 1967, each river assault squadron contained 26 ATCs, 16 ASPBs, five Monitors, two CCBs, one Aid Boat, and one refueller (a modified LCM).
However, the MRF needed mother ships, and the first, USS Whitfield County (LST 1169), clocked in to support River Assault Squadron 9 at Vung Tau in January 1967. The utility of this put the Navy on a course that would bring its APBs out of mothballs and sent them to Southeast Asia
Converted to provide a mobile operating base for river patrol squadrons and serve as a command ship in support of Amy infantry battalions, Colleton was finally commissioned on 28 January 1967, at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Colleton’s ultimate conversion included upgraded habitation amenities, a large amidship helicopter pad for supporting aircraft (primarily Army and Navy UH-1s), expanded 18-bed sick bay facilities, and some quickly installed electronics and commo gear. Her WWII-era guns, well-greased but never fired, were put back in service as threats from Viet Cong sappers and NVA PT boats were a real thing.
From the Mobile Riverine Force Association:
After a complete paint job (green Army olive drab), several hundred square feet of bar armor was fabricated to cover the bridge and operations area. This had to be constructed entirely by ship’s company from angle iron and ½-inch steel bars. The month of May  also saw the installation of 8-50 caliber and 12 7.62mm machine guns to the armament of the ship. She also acquired three ammo pontoons to be used as a mooring place for the small boats of the River Assault Squadrons and as assembling points for troops about to be embarked in the Armored Troop Carriers (Tango’s).
She was soon joined by Benewah who had been laid up at Green Cove Springs, Florida since 1956, and the ship was recommissioned, on 26 February 1967 and sent to Vietnam.
As detailed in Riverine Warfare, The U.S. Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters:
By late May 1967, the five ships that formed the initial Mobile Riverine Base had arrived in the Delta. These include two self-propelled barracks ships, the USS Benewah (APB 35) and USS Colleton (APB 30); a landing craft repair ship, USS Askari (ARL 30); the barracks craft APL 26; and a logistics support LST assigned on a 2-month rotational basis by Commander Seventh Fleet.
These five ships provided repair and logistic support, including messing, berthing, and working spaces for the 1,900 embarked troops of the 2d Brigade, and the 1,600 Navy men then assigned to TF-117. Benewah served as the Mobile Riverine Force flagship. By mid-June, 68 boats had joined the force and others arrived every few days (the full complement of 180 river assault craft was reached in 1968).
Thus, beginning June 1967, it was possible to conduct six to eight search and destroy missions per month, each lasting 2 or 3 days. (A number were joint United States-South Vietnamese.) On each of eight separate operations during the year, more than 100 Viet Cong were killed.
Sisters Mercer (also laid up in Green Cove Springs) and Nueces (laid up in Orange, Texas since 1955) would soon follow by 1968.
The four barracks ships, augmented by a rotating force of LSTs (Caroline County, Kemper County, Vernon County, Washtenaw County, Windham County, Sedgwick County, and the aforementioned Whitfield County), and supported by the landing craft repair ships USS Askari (ARL-30) and Satyr (ARL 23) and a couple of yard tugs, would form the hard nucleus that the MRF would operate from throughout 1967 through 1969.
Notably, Colleton was the only one of her sisters outfitted as a pseudo-hospital ship. Arriving in the theater just days before the Tet Offensive, she managed 890 combat casualties from 29 January 1968 to May 1968 alone. Of these patients, 134 were admitted to the ship’s ward, and 411 evac’ed after stabilization.
Then came the policy of Vietnamization, which aimed to reduce American involvement in the country by transferring all military assets and responsibilities to South Vietnam. With that, the MRF soon changed hands, and, with “the locals” taking over its tasks, the MRF faded away and its support ships went home.
The four barracks ships earned no less than a combined total of 27 campaign stars for Vietnam War service in addition to seven Combat Action Ribbons, a Presidential Unit Citation, seven Navy Unit Commendations, and one Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation. To this were added a host of RVN awards and decorations including multiple Gallantry Crosses and Civil Action Medals. Not bad for floating hotels.
Colleton transited back home, arriving at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for decommissioning in December 1969. Back in mothballs at Bremerton for a few years, she was struck from the NVR in 1973 when it became apparent that she would not have to return to Vietnam, and was sold for $172.226.62, to American Ship Dismantler’s Inc. of Portland, Oregon, for scrapping.
The U.S. Navy has only had a single USS Colleton on its list and as far as I can tell there is little in way of relics around from her life.
As noted by the MRF Assoc, “She was a good ship and will always be remembered by all who served and lived on her in Vietnam, Navy and Army alike.”
Of her sisters, they would prove to be extremely hard to kill indeed. The pair of APBs that arrived in Vietnam to support the MRF in 1968, Nueces and Mercer, once they left Southeast Asia, they only made it as far as Japan and are still there. Nueces is still in Yokosuka while Mercer is in Sasebo, providing berthing and messing assistance to U.S. Forces Japan. Of course, they long ago landed their guns and were officially decommissioned in 1970, redesignated APLs as they are no longer self-propelled.
Displacement 2,189 t., 4,080 t.(fl)
Length 328 feet
Beam 50 feet
Draft 11′ 2″
Fuel Capacity: Diesel 2,975 Bbls
two General Motors 12-567A Diesel engines
double Falk Main Reduction Gears
five Diesel-drive 100Kw 120V/240V D.C. Ship’s Service Generators
two propellers, 1,800shp
Speed: 12 kts.
four single 40mm AA gun mounts
two twin 40mm AA gun mounts
twenty .50 and .30 cal machine guns
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