The Sinking of PCF-19
As seen from PCF-12
and told by then
EN2 James Walter Steffes

 

I was aboard PCF-12 on June 15, 1968 when we got underway from DaNang enroute to our assigned patrol area, Enfield Cobra Charlie. This area is off Wonder Beach, south of Cua Viet. We settled into our patrol area and all seemed quiet and routine. Our crew consisted of LTJG Pete Snyder, BM2 Johnnie P. Fitts, LPO, myself, EN2 James Steffes, QM2 Gary Rosenberger, RD2 Kenneth Bloch and GMG3 Thomas Klemash. It was our second patrol since taking over PCF-12, and it was running well.

Around 1900 or so, we received a call from Enfield Cobra Alpha asking to meet us near the point that our patrol areas touched, saying they were having radar problems. The Alpha boat was PCF-19 with LTJG John Davis’ crew aboard. They were operating off of a Coast Guard Cutter, the USCG Campbell. About 2000, I guess, we met. It was dark when she came alongside. I hadn’t been in country long and did not know the crew personally, although I had seen them around the APL.

The problem was that their radar kept fading out, especially at slow speeds. They could not be sure where they were and their position was critical being so close to the DMZ. I climbed down into the engine room with their snipe, EN2 Edward Cruz. We quickly determined that the starboard engine’s alternator was not charging its bank of batteries and the radar ran off these batteries. PCF-12 had a knife switch on the after bulkhead that connected the two banks of batteries together in case of charging circuit problems. PCF-19 had no such switch and since it was not his boat he did not know where his jumper cables were or if he had any. I quickly got my set from PCF-12 and we hooked them up across the battery banks on PCF-19. Now the port engine could charge both banks of batteries. I recall chatting and laughing with my new found snipe friend, Ed Cruz, as we slipped and slid in the wet bilges while hooking up those cables. With their radar working fine, we said goodbye and PCF-19 moved off into the darkness, never to be seen again.

At approximately 0030 on June 16th, "flash traffic" was sent to all Market Time Units from the Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer at Alpha One, which was an outpost on the DMZ, part of the McNamara Line. It stated that Enfield Cobra Alpha has disappeared in a flash of light and appeared to have sunk. We proceeded at max speed to the area, arriving just as the Point Dume was pulling two survivors from the water. They proceeded to Cua Viet with LTJG John Davis and GMGSN John Anderegg, both badly wounded. After notifying CSC DaNang, "Article," that we were on station and assumed Enfield Cobra Alpha, we began to illuminate the area looking for survivors until we exhausted our supply of 81mm illumination rounds. We found only debris and a fuel slick, no bodies or survivors. Suddenly, we were illuminated by four amber colored illumination rounds, at a high altitude, directly overhead. Mr. Snyder called the Point Dume but she was still in Cua Viet. We headed south with illumination rounds continuing to light us up, following us southward. At some point, we stopped and checked our bearings. As we looked around us into the darkness, with a moon that sometimes was behind the clouds, we spotted two aircraft "hovering" on our port and starboard beams. They were about 300 yards away and 100 feet above the water. As the boat swung around to put the aircraft ahead and astern of PCF-12, I could hear Mr. Snyder requesting air support and identification of these helos. The answer from the beach was "no friendly aircraft in the area, have contacts near you on radar and starlight scope." "Are they squawking IFF," my OinC asked? "Negative, I repeat, negative squawking IFF," came the reply. At this time, Mr. Snyder radioed, "Roger that, I am taking aircraft under fire if they show hostile intent." By this time the helos were forward and aft of PCF-12 and I got a good look at one of the helos in the moonlight. It had a rounded front like an observation helo and it looked like two crewman sitting side by side. I went up to the pilot house to tell Mr. Snyder, who was standing in the doorway, I could see the other helo. I watched as tracers began to come toward us as this helo opened fire. The guns were from the nose of the helo. Our guns opened up and I ran back to my position as the loader on the after gun. We heard a crash of glass and a splash as one of the helos hit the water, the other helo broke contact and left the area.

For the next two and a half hours, we played cat and mouse with one or more helos at a time, opening up with our guns when they moved toward us in a threatening manner. We must have moved back north because we saw Point Dume nearby and blinking lights around her in the air, she was firing tracers into the air at something, but we could not see what it was. During this time, the radios were crackling constantly as my OinC answered calls from DaNang and other units while all friendlies that could be in the area were checked out. The result was; no friendlies, these had to be North Vietnamese.

About 0330, low on ammo, fuel and our .50 caliber barrels burned out, PCF-12 received a call from an aircraft flight leader as they approached from the south to intercept. We were told to fire a blue flare, both us and the Point Dume, to mark our positions. The jets flew overhead and acknowledged our position. There were explosions and gunfire to the north as the jets looked for targets. Remember, this is at least three hours after PCF-19 went down. As dawn broke, we could only see the shoreline and the Point Dume. We went alongside a ship where we received fuel and some .50 caliber ammo. We continued to patrol and look for signs of PCF-19 until we were relieved by PCF-101 and then returned to DaNang. A few days later some of our crew and some of the Point Dume testified at a Board of Inquiry held at III MAF Headquarters in DaNang.

We continued to monitor and track these "lights" for several weeks after this, up until September. In August PCF-12 and an extra crew took turns patrolling Enfield Cobra Alpha’s area for two weeks using USCG Owasco as our mother ship.

I have pages of documents, deck logs of ships in the area, copies of mortuary logs and many more documents. I started to write a book entitled "The Sinking of PCF-19". If any of you wish to share your observations or records of that night, I will recognize you as the source of any material that I can use.

This is my story in brief. I know what the "official story" is, but this is mine, as true and complete as I can remember.

EPILOGUE

My investigations continue to this day, however not much new evidence has surfaced. Along with Larry Lail, a hospital corpsman that assisted the divers on June 16, 17 and 18, as they retrieved the bodies from the sunken PCF-19. He was aboard USS Acme, an MSO. We have located the Marine Officer who was at the forward most post, on the beach, "Oceanview" and the Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer at Alpha One. They bear out this story as they had tracked the lights for several weeks. The NGLO had a radio operator that saw the flash and explosion of PCF-19. We have also located two of the four divers, the skipper of the Point Dume, the Wing Commander of the planes out of DaNang and the pilot that was blamed for sinking PCF-19, however he has not as yet agreed to talk to us.

Our comrades lost to us that night were: BM2 Anthony Chandler, EN2 Edward Cruz, GMG3 Billy Armstrong, QM2 Frank Bowman. Bowman is still listed as an MIA.