The Sa Ky River Victory

The "Sa Key River Victory" is how the Battle at Cape Batangan, just north of Quang Ngai, is referred to by the South Vietnamese. On July 11th, 1967, a Navy SP-2H Market Time surveillance aircraft, on a routine patrol along the Quang Ngai coast, spotted a steel-hulled vessel around 1930 hours running toward the coastline, with no harbor nearby. I Corps Market Time Commander Charles R. Stephan ordered the destroyer USS Wilhoite to pursue the contact, which had quickly changed course to a south-southeasterly direction. Commander E.W. Hays, skipper of the Wilhoite, maneuvered his ship to an intercept point with the enemy contact, now code-named Skunk Alpha.

The Wilhoite circled the trawler at daybreak, taking pictures, and then set course back to the coast. The destroyer kept radar surveillance from beyond the horizon. On Thursday, July 13th, 1967, at 1300 hours, Skunk Alpha anchored 50 nautical miles east of the Paracel Islands and about 200 nautical miles east-northeast of Chu Lai. By 1600, Skunk Alpha was back on the move. At 2300, she made a decisive change in course and turned in a southwesterly direction.

An interception plan was drawn up in DaNang, by members of the Northern Surveillance Group, also headed by Commander Stephan. It was anticipated that the trawler would attempt landfall somewhere near Cape Batangan, south of Chu Lai. The plan called for a four-vessel formation, two on either side of the trawler, that would stay astern of the enemy ship as it continued toward its destination. Landfall was expected around midnight, when darkness of the moon would provide additional cover. Three ships were already picked for the interception: USS Wilhoite, USS Gallop (PG-85), and the Coast Guard cutter Point Orient (WPB-82319). The fourth vessel would be a swift, but it would be selected at the last minute, when the skunk made its final dash for shore. Lieutenant Victor G. Reiling, Jr., First Coastal Zone psychological operations officer, and his South Vietnamese counterpart blasted a prerecorded message over a loudspeaker on the Point Orient at Skunk Alpha. The trawler was now well inside the territorial waters of the Republic of South Vietnam. PCF-79 was tapped as the fourth interception vessel. Skunk Alpha disregarded the message, and both PCF-79 and the Point Orient fired warning shots across the trawler's bow. Closer to shore, the larger ships temporarily lost radar contact. Aboard PCF-79, its officer in charge, LTJG Edward J. Bergin and SN Raul Herrera saw a huge radar contact on their scope, which Bergin reported to Stephan aboard Wilhoite: "I've got one fast moving contact headed up the river mouth. Request permission to go in and get him." Stephan replied: "Per grau (permission granted)." Then the skipper of the Point Orient broke in: "Affirmative, Delta November. That's our contact. Let's go get 'em." Bergin replied, "I'm on my way!"

And the chase was on. All hell broke loose. Red tracer rounds were coming and going in every direction. Helo gunships from Task Force Oregon dropped flares. Suddenly, Skunk Alpha seemed to rise like a giant from beneath the sea. When only 200 yards from the ship, BM2 Bobby Don Carver fired his first high- explosive 81mm mortar round and missed his mark. By then PCF-79 was so close that SA Ronald J. Rinehart had to hand load the mortar shells while Carver leveled it off. He took aim and let go a round of "Willie-Pete" (white phosphorus) directly into the starboard side of the trawler's pilothouse. Skunk Alpha's pilothouse erupted into a blinding-white, glowing ball of fire. Within minutes, she ran aground at the mouth of the Sa Ky River, on the tip of Cape Batangan.

Skunk Alpha was carrying more than 90 tons of contraband supplies, to include:

Skunk Alpha had been well suited for her mission. Her holds were lined with fiberglass between the hull and its sheathing. She was also equipped with a high-capacity pumping system. Her engine was muffled for silent running. There was also 2,000 pounds of TNT strategically located aboard the vessel, that could be set off to self-destruct if she were to fail in her mission. Luckily Carver's mortar round had knocked out the detonation button. He saved thousands of Allied Forces lives, including those of his crew. PCF-79 surely would have gone down in that explosion. The seizure of Skunk Alpha was proof that Market Time operations were very successful in cutting the sea infiltration of supplies to the NVA and the VC.

Premier Nguyen Cao Ky and Vice President Nguyen Van Thieu personally decorated the crew of PCF-79 and the others involved in the capture of the Communist gunrunner with the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. A huge celebration and awards ceremony was held in DaNang, next to the "White Elephant" (headquarters of the Naval Support Activity commander).

 

Story as told by Raul "Bean" Herrera in Vietnam magazine, February 1996 issue.

Revised by Larry Wasikowski

 


Trawler Incident

Trawler photo by trailing aircraft

Trawler photograph from trailing aircraft - prior to run towards the coast

      At 1925 on 11 July 1967, an olive-green, steel-hulled trawler, 120 feet in length, was detected about 85 miles southeast of DaNang by a Patrol Squadron 1SP-2H aircraft conducting a routine MARKET TIME surveillance patrol. The trawler, which was not flying any colors and was running darkened, immediately reversed course to seaward. For the next three and one-half days, continuous radar surveillance of the trawler was maintained by patrol aircraft and the USS Wilhoite DER 397. During this period the trawler made several radical course changes and CTF 115 (Captain Ralph Di Cori, USN) directed all other MARKET TIME units in the patrol area to remain clear of the trawler in order to avoid compromising the surveillance plan. Just before midnight on the 13th, about 225 miles east of Cape Batangan, the trawler swung westward and headed toward the coast. At 1309 on the 14th, CTF 115 directed Wilhoite, USS Gallup PG 85, USS Walker DD 517, PCF 79 and USCGC Point Orient to proceed to a point astern of the trawler, eight miles away. At this time CTG 115.1 (Commander Charles R. Stephan, USN), in Wilhoite, assumed the duties of on-scene commander. At0100, 15 July, 41 minutes prior to moonset, the trawler crossed the intercept point -- five miles from the coast. USCGC Point Orient promptly illuminated the ship and an embarked Vietnamese naval officer beamed a loudspeaker appeal at the trawler's crew to surrender. The ship ignored the broadcast and subsequent rounds fired across her bow and continued toward the beach.

North Vietnamese trawler map of course changes

   At 0020, with the trawler three miles from shore, the MARKET TIME units opened fire; about five minutes later the trawler began firing at PCF 79 with automatic weapons and one or two large caliber weapons. (Salvage parties later determined that the trawler's crew had been equipped with three 12.7mm machine guns and at least one 57mm recoilless rifle.) At 0400, under a rain of fire, the trawler ran aground on a sand bar, 200 feet from shore, at the mouth of the Sa Ky River.

North Vietnamese trawler aground on sandbar

North Vietnamese trawler aground on sandbar at the mouth of the Sa Ky River

   Minutes later the ship was on fire from stem to stern and by 0100 a number of secondary explosions began to erupt from the trawler. At this time Republic of Korea artillery units located near Cape Batangan took the area surrounding the trawler under fire and continued to do so until 0600. From 0600 until 0700 USS Walker, US Army gunships and Air Force jets conducted a series of fire missions to clear landing sites for ROK Marines en route by helicopter. The Marines arrived at 0715 and established a perimeter. Participating Vietnamese Navy units included PGM 618, MSC 115 and a number of junks from Coastal Group 15.

   At 1230 CTG 115.1 and Gunner's Mate Second Class Eddie A. Knaup, USN, an ordnance specialist, boarded the trawler and Petty Officer Knaup disarmed the self-destruction system which was rigged to detonate 2,000 pounds of TNT. At 1610 the trawler was pulled off the sandbar by two LCM-8 and towed to Chu Lai, arriving about 2000. During the transit the movement of air through the ship rekindled a fire below decks; Petty Officer Knaup investigated and, with assistance from personnel of PCFs 20 and 54, extinguished the blaze.

North Vietnamese trawler under tow

North Vietnamese trawler under tow to Chu Lai.    Note: PCF 79 in upper right background.

That afternoon Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, USN, Commander US Naval Forces Vietnam, sent the following message to Commander Task Force 115:

1.    I TAKE GREAT PRIDE IN NOTING THE CAPTURE OF THE NORTH VIETNAMESE TRAWLER BY UNITS OF TF 115.
2.   YOUR WISDOM IN MAINTAINING COVERT SURVEILLANCE UPON FIRST TURNING AWAY THE TRAWLER WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN THE SUBSEQUENT AMBUSH SO ABLY PLANNED AND EXECUTED.
3.   THE TENACITY AND PATIENCE OF YOU AND YOUR UNITS IN DOGGEDLY SHADOWING THE INFILTRATOR UNTIL WELL WITHIN THE CONTGUOUS ZONE IS IN KEEPING WITH THE INTENT AND SPIRIT OF THE MARKET TIME MISSION.
4.   THE STRICT ADHERENCE OF YOUR UNITS TO THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, EVEN AT RISK OF THEIR LIVES, BRINGS THE UTMOST CREDIT TO CTF 155 AND HIS PERSONNEL.
5.   THROUGH YOUR SHREWD TACTICAL PLANNING, DISTRIBUTION AND UTILIZATION OF AIR AND SURFACE FORCES -- YOU AND YOUR UNITS HAVE AGAIN PROVED THAT THE COAST OF VIETNAM IS INVIOLABLE TO STEEL HULLED INFILTRATION, AND BY YOUR ACTIONS HAVE UNDOUBTEDLY SAVED LIVES OF YOUR COMRADES IN ARMS.
6.   WELL DONE.   RADM VETH SENDS.

   Tons of weapons and ammunition were recovered from the trawler. The cargo included over 700,000 rounds of ammunition and over 1,200 various weapons, including machine guns, rocket launchers, submachine guns and rifles. The holds of the ship were sheathed with plywood and insulated with fiberglass between the hull and the sheathing. Other features included a high-velocity firemain system and a high-capacity pumping system. In addition, the trawler's engine was muffled for silent running. One member of the crew, a North Vietnamese, was found dead in the pilot house. The fate of the remainder of the crew is unknown.

TRAWLER'S CARGO

394,560    7.62mm, incendiary type 3    12.7mm (.50 cal) machine gun
311,520    7.62mm, ball type 975    AK-44 rifles
5,7750    12.7mm ball type 189    AK-56 automatic rifles
996    82mm mortars 25    B-40 rocket launchers
213     B-440 rockets 9    K-53 machines guns
6    57mm, recoilless-rifle rounds    
1,960    anti-personnel mines    
1,250    anti-personnel grenades    
484    concussion grenades    
6,880    C-4 plastic explosive (lbs)    
3,102    TNT (lbs) -- Plus associated detonators, igniters and batteries    

   The Capture of the North Vietnamese freighter marked the eighth time since February 1965 that a steel-hulled trawler has been intercepted. Of the previous seven, three were destroyed, one was damaged, one was captured and two were turned back.

Account taken from:
U.S. NAVAL FORCES VIETNAM
Monthly Historical Supplement
July 1967, pages 2 thru 11

 

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This page was last updated on:  October 21, 2008 at 10:17