The Loss of PCF 77
On 15 November, while attempting to cross the bar and enter Hue harbor, PCF 22 lost one man overboard. PCF 77, also in the area, maneuvered to assist in rescue operations, broached and upended in the heavy seas, promptly sinking in 13 feet of water.
Helicopters in the area picked up seven people in the water, two of whom, Chief Machinery Repairman W. S. BAKER, U.S. Navy and Boatswain's Mate Third Class Harry B. BROCK, U.S. Navy, were dead. The man overboard from PCF 22 was picked up by his own craft. Radioman Third Class B. A. TIMMONS, U.S. Navy, who was believed to be below decks at the time the boat capsized, was not recovered, and was listed as missing, presumed dead.
At the time of the incident, PCF 77 was outside the surfline, standing by to assist PCF 22 as required. The Officer-in-Charge of PCF 77, LTJG David G. WILBOURNE, U.S. Navy, had previously ordered all hands into lifejackets, and was at the helm. About 20 seconds after the man was reported safely aboard PCF 22, a wave, estimated to be 25 to 30 feet high, lifted the stern of PCF 77 and drove the bow into the trough. The SWIFT boat flipped end over end. The pilot house almost immediately filled with water, although all doors and windows had been secured on the orders of the OinC. The survivors exited through the port pilot house door, which had sprung.
As the boat rapidly filled, LTJG WILBOURNE was responsible for rescuing one man from the stricken craft, and CHIEF BAKER, a qualified diver, was last seen entering the after compartment where Petty Officer TIMMONS was believed to be trapped. One and one-half minutes after upending, PCF 77 sank, keel up.
Security elements were provided by the Marine Corps, and the Salvagemaster of Harbor Clearance Unit One was dispatched to the scene. The bow section of PCF 77 was washed ashore 2500 yards north of the Hue River mouth. The rest of the boat broke up, and HCU-1 Salvagemaster reported that a salvage attempt could not be effected.
Taken from the November 1966, U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, dated 23 January 1967.
The Hue River
On the afternoon of 14 Nov 1966 we were told to beef up the night presence due to an intelligence report that a Chinese sub might be crossing the DMZ to infiltrate arms. The increased presence was to be dusk to dawn. When the three boats got underway the weather appeared friendly. As we were among the first 100 crews none of us had ever experienced the rapid onset of monsoon winds. Prior to 2400 PCF-77 had closed the southern boundary of our patrol area and received Chief Baker (MRC Willy Scott Baker) to "daisy chain" into our camp the next morning.
Shortly thereafter LTJG Lou Velloni began sending scary weather reports from patrol area 1A1 on the DMZ. Lou was a brilliant and innovative officer, but a natural stand up comic so some of us down south were wondering if wasn't elaborating on his reports. It wasn't long before we believed him when he reported that a swell crashed over his stern and crashed through the rear pilot house windows causing him to run south at best speed.
The rest of the night our three boats bored holes in the South China Sea off the Hue (Perfume) River mouth. Most of the time we were stern to the swells to take advantage of the weight the engines and the long open after deck.
At daybreak OinC soul searching began on the radio. Lou opted to "shoot the curl first" and did so in true surfing style. The second boat was doing well until they lost a man over board. By this time I had relieved BM1 Twichell (BM1 Alma Twichell) at the helm. He didn't say a word. For over six months, since we had first laid eyes on the 77 boat in Subic, he had trained me to be every bit as good a coxswain as he was. I had also given my kapok life jacket to Chief Baker, our passenger. This was not an unselfish or heroic gesture. Since the age of sixteen I had been a lifeguard and swimming instructor and when I finished this tour I became an Underwater Demolition Team and SEAL officer for 23 years.
I radioed the boat not to come about and that we would pick up the man in the water. It was to no avail. I watched the PCF come about , crash though a monster wave and exposed its entire bottom with its turning screws. We continued to close and seconds later all I saw was water and foam.
Fortunately for me the stress of the turnover caused the pilot house door to spring open and I swam for the light. As I surfaced I was struck by a huge wave. The hull rolled and I could see the entire bottom with its screws still turning. Another wave and roll and Twichell popped out of the same door. It then occurred to me that these life jackets were a disadvantage to those still inside. On the next roll I saw GM Hodson struggling to open a cabin window and I began a series of surface dives to assist him. I was successful and he too escaped as the hull sank more rapidly. EN O'Neal (EN2 Arthur O'Neal), the look-out that had been ejected from the gun tub, who had been clinging to the bottom joined the rest of the survivors in the water. As those with life jackets were at the mercy of the waves, I tried to gather them together and proceed toward the beach. The distance appeared to be at least 1500 yards. As we stumbled ashore on the north side of the river, where we usually drew fire, I was loath to heed the gestures of the villagers who were attempting to get us to come into their hooch's to get warm. Within minutes we were to see USMC AMTRACKS swim across the river, drop their ramps and take us on board.
We were flown to a field hospital to be treated for minor cuts and exposure. During that trip we identified the bodies of Chief Baker and PO Brock (BM3 Harry Giles Brock), which had been recovered after they floated to the surface. I will never forget their blue faces.
The next day Commander Coastal Squadron ONE, Commander Art Ismay flew with me from Hue to Danang. He tried to comfort me by saying that he felt that I had done everything I could under the circumstances. It helped, but not a lot.
Commander Naval Forces Viet Nam (COMNAVFORV) sent an officer to conduct an investigation. I still have a copy of the document that includes a picture of the bow of 77 resting on the beach. I was found responsible, but not culpable for the loss of PCF-77. Among the recommendations was one that I be awarded the Silver Star Medal. CINCPACFLT correctly decided that since we were not under fire at he time of the incident, I should receive the Navy Marine Corps Medal. When I retired in 1990 I wore ten personal decorations, half of which were for heroism or heroic achievement. I cherish that NMCM the most of any of my awards.
Story by David G. Wilbourne, LTJG, OinC PCF-77
Edited and retold by Larry Wasikowski
The loss of PCF-77, at the mouth of the Hue River, was not that she was swamped, in the truest sense of the term, but was flipped bow-down, stern-up and sank immediately. Entering the Hue River was probably the most dangerous river entrance that I have ever known. The following is the way I remember that incident.
For those not familiar with the Hue River, in I Corps, South Vietnam, the following is a description of that white knuckle run. To enter the river you needed to run straight at the beach, with the entrance about 15 degrees off your port bow, and then, at just the right moment, give a full left rudder to swing around, almost broadside to the seas, and gun the engines to make it into the protection of the seaward side of the river mouth. The river did not flow directly into the sea perpendicular to the beach, but at nearly a 30 degree angle. So, anytime you were running toward the beach, prior to giving the hard left rudder, you had to play with the engines to keep the boat running with the seas and then get in a "smooth" trough to make that last run almost broadside to the seas. This was hard enough to do in normal surf, but during the monsoon season, it was extremely dangerous as your the boat was then surfing on some very high seas, with very short periods between the waves. And, of course, you had to also watch your fathometer so you wouldn't bottom out in the surf line.
PCF-77 was trying to enter the river, to take shelter from one of those horrendous monsoon storms, where you had to look up to see the crest of the waves. Visibility was limited to whether you were in a trough, at any moment, or surfing on the crest of the wave itself. As PCF-77 was surfing toward the beach, another huge wave overtook her, lifting the stern and flipping the boat end-over-end. As I recall, those who lost their lives in that tragic accident were below deck, in the main cabin, and as the boat went upside down, the deck plates, that covered the interior ammo/gun lockers, dropped down on those who had been standing on them only moments before. The survivors were thrown into the sea and washed ashore. When they looked out to where the boat had been, there was nothing to see. A few days later some divers went in search of PCF-77, but the largest piece they found was a piece of "rolled aluminum" not more that 18" in length. The boat had been ripped apart by the sea, the sandy bottom and during the course of the storm had been torn and shredded into small, unrecognizable pieces. The recovered aluminum piece looked as it had been rolled up, like a newspaper, and then been polished silvery bright.
As a footnote, my personal log, dated 30 October 1966, tells of my being directed, in PCF-16, to proceed to the area off the Hue River, and to search for a crewman, BM1 Kemper S. Billings, that had been swept overboard from PCF-56, the night of 29 October, while traversing the river mouth. During our patrol, in that area, we had a UDT sailor from the USS Thomaston (LSD 29) on board to assist in recovery of the lost crewman if we found him. We never did find him, but my log also notes that I entered the Hue River the next day, to make a delivery of some materials to the Hue Swift Detachment. I can see that surf run, into that river, to this very day...
If any of you have anything to correct or to add to my recollection of the loss of BM1 Kemper S. Billings or PCF-77, please fill us in. By the way, I believe that after the PCF-77 incident all the interior ammo/gun lockers had latches installed on their deck plates.
Story by Anthony R. Taylor, LTJG, OinC PCF-16
Edited and retold by Larry Wasikowski
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This page was last updated on: May 07, 2013 at 14:35