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Operation Giant Slingshot: A History (Part 1)

In October of 1968, the picture of Naval Forces in Vietnam changed and the gains made by the three task forces (TF-115, 116 and 117) during the previous two years were consolidated. The efforts of three groups of men and machinery three different missions in three areas of the Mekong Delta formed one force to combat the enemy on a single large front. This new force was dubbed Operation SEALORDS (Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, Delta Strategy) and was designated Task Force 194.

Prior to the formation of the Sealords Force each task force had been operating in it's own territory, carrying out its assigned mission. Sealords was created to form a joint force to move offensively in a coordinated manner against the Viet Cong.

The initial successes and ground gains by the original task forces and the blending of the differently designed river and coastal craft heartened all concerned and raised the question, "What Next?" A quick look at a map of the Republic of Vietnam illustrates the problem at hand. The Mekong Delta is the breadbasket of Vietnam, however, it is virtually surrounded on all sides by potential enemy infiltration routes. The South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand border the delta region on two sides. The Cambodian / Vietnamese border, making its way north from the Gulf of Thailand, runs along a third side and dips eastward along most of the fourth side. The delta is like a ripe plum on the vine, hanging by its small stem waiting to be plucked. It was from this portion of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border running dangerously close to Saigon that most of the heavy infiltration prior to 1968 Tet offensive originated. It is from this and other parts of the border that the Viet Cong infiltrate the Mekong Delta.

The Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam, Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt USN, determined that the time was right for the Navy to seize the initiative. He also determined that a strong blow could be struck against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese infiltrators at a key point of entry into the Republic of Vietnam. The U.S. Navy had not conducted sustained operations in the upper delta region, except in the protection of the Long Tau Shipping Channel into Saigon. A patrol barrier in the upper delta region could link up the already existing barrier on the Vinh Te Canal from the Bassac River to the Gulf of Thailand. Thus it was Vice Admiral Zumwalt who conceived and initiated an operation extending Vam Co River and its two forks, the Vam Co Dong (East) and the Vam Co Tay (West), designed to interdict the flow of men and arms from that portion of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border dipping to within fifty miles of Saigon. This region is referred to as the Parrot's Beak because of its outline on the map. (note: This portion of the border is not drawn along geographic landmarks). This made infiltration even easier than across well-defined boundaries; another selling point from the infiltrator's point of view. Because of the unique shape of the forked rivers, the operation on the river system was christened Operation GIANT SLINGSHOT.

This operation was placed under the Command of Captain Arthur W. Price Jr., and he was designated Commander Task Group 194.9. Captain Price Immediately organized and collected his Giant Slingshot force, a difficult task since he also held command in the River patrol Forces in Vietnam (CTF-116) and of River Patrol Flotilla Five. He assigned two River Patrol Divisions each consisting of ten, thirty-two foot fiberglass River Patrol Boats (PBRs) per division. These ten boat divisions were the basic units of the River Patrol Force and provided the optimum number of boats and people to conduct two patrols twenty four hours each day and still conduct planned and maintenance. Each division was commanded by a Lieutenant and averaged approximately fifty people in strength including four officers. The Giant Slingshot force also included one River Assault Division (RAD) chopped from the Mobile Riverine Force (TF-117). The RAD was designed to conduct mobile assault and support missions in direct support of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division. Each division consisted of approximately fourteen Armored Troop Carriers (ATC), converted LCM-6 landing craft), six Assault Support Patrol Boats (ASPB), two or three Monitors and one Command and Control Boat (CCB) these divisions were also commanded by a Lieutenant. Two or more divisions made up a squadron and were commanded by a Commander.

The Giant Slingshot Interdiction Force was based on the YRBM-16 and supported by an ARL and a "River LST." A YRBM is an APL which has been converted to a boat (PBR) repair barge with additional capability of berthing and messing the personnel of two River Patrol Divisions. An ARL is an LST which has been converted into a Landing Craft Repair Ship but which in the riverine warfare of Vietnam served as a River Assault Craft Repair Ship. A "River LST" is a standard LST which has been outfitted to repair, maintain and berth one River Patrol Division. The repair facilities of each of these ships and craft was intended to be an intermediate repair facility. The Depot Level Repair facilities in the Delta were Binh Thuy and Nha Be for PBR's and Dong Tam for RAC.

The original plan of attack for the GIANT SLINGSHOT Interdiction effort was for Commander Task Group 194.9 to embark in YRBM-16 and sail to Tan An, the province capital of Long An Province. Tan An was also the headquarters for the Third Brigade of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division. The third brigade was deployed through-out Long An Province and, to ensure close coordination, co-location was highly desirable. Commander Task Group 194.9 planned to deploy one River Patrol Division on each of the two rivers. In order to gain the maximum effectiveness from such a small force, it was further determined that it would be beneficial to deploy most of the boats of each River Patrol Division from a secondary Staging Site up river. In coordination with the U.S. advised local Vietnames forces at Tra Cu on the Vam Co Dong and Tuyen Nhon on the Vam Co Tay River, it was agreed that the U.S. navy could stock an area in or around the compounds at each location with fuel, ammo and rations for support of the craft. Berthing was also arranged from the force. The PBR's patrolled up river from Tra Cu and Tuyen Nhon to Go Dau Ha and Moc Hoa respectively. At these locations, emergency staging sites were arranged with the local forces so that units engaged in a firefight at the opposite end of the patrol area could refuel and re-arm at an emergency staging area. In addition to these continuous patrols, random patrols were scheduled for the portion of the river between Primary and Secondary sites.

Operation GIANT SLINGSHOT was officially born on 5 December 1968, when Captain Price transmitted the following message: YRBM-16 arrived Tan An 051700H December 1968, CTF 194.9 embarked. Final positioning and secure anchoring operations in progress with ETC 052400H …movement of boat assets a thing of beauty with all units arriving within minutes of YRBM at Tan An. RON for all boat units at Tan An with movement to secondary sites and commencement of patrol operations scheduled for 060800H."

During the planning and initial stages of the operation, changes were frequent. It was apparent then,that the business of interdiction is a fast moving type of operation and flexibility is the key to success. To be specific, the River LST was scheduled to be the USS Garrett County, which was to be relieved by the USS Harnett County. USS Garrett County was due for regular overhaul. The Harnett County was delayed in Yokosuka, however, and thus a gap existed between River LST's in the operation. A third River Patrol Division was scheduled into the operation but it was newly forming and arrived on 6 December 1968, commencing patrols on 8 December 1968. Since YRBM-16 was unable to support more than two river divisions, the third river division was primarily staged in Nha Be, and transited to their patrol area on a daily basis. They also used YRBM-18 as a staging point.

The units commenced patrols as scheduled on 6 December 1968 and River Division 534 was the first GIANT SLINGSHOT unit to engage the enemy. At 061915H December 1968 a U.S. Army helicopter flying surveillance patrol on the Vam Co Dong River received ground fire and requested that PBRs investigate the area for a possible sampan crossing. Two PBRs deployed to investigate and received heavy automatic weapons fire while enroute, XS 426086. The boats returned fire, made another firing run and suppressed the enemy fire. No one was injured in this first fire fight. On the 7th of December 1968 there were two additional firefights which were initiated by the enemy. It should be added here that this level of activity was considered high because PBR's had previously been engaged in the population and resources control mission of Task Force 116, where firefights with this regularity were seldom encountered. The enemy was engaged on numerous occasions, but seldom three times in two days. This level of activity for GIANT SLINGSHOT forces remained both high and above the average of other units operating in the Mekong Delta.

From the beginning the cooperation, assistance, coordination and support between GIANT SLINGSHOT forces and the U.S. Army, ARVN, Special forces and numerous other non-organic units operating in the area was excellent and ever increasing. The increased water mobility given to the ground units lured them into previously unguarded rivers. With land oriented and water oriented people working together, the operation became more and more abundant and efficient. The land troops enjoyed the mobility allowing them to sail into an area rapidly, disembark and sweep an area quickly before the enemy could hide caches or booby traps. The Viet Cong, long known to be transporting their arms and ammo down canals, streams and rivers in pony express point-to-point fashion, were caught short by the combined efforts in GIANT SLINGSHOT. They were suddenly unable to move freely about the rivers and were therefore unable to get their caches moved away from the river and in some cases unable to even cover caches lying in the open.

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