MSC Moves Vietnam-era Small Boat for Veterans Group

Wednesday, June 26, 2002
Lee Wahler saw a wrapped boat at the Washington Navy Yard that he thought he recognized. Wahler, an employee of the Navy's Military Sealift Command, headquartered on the yard, approached the owner of the boat, the Naval Historical Center, to confirm his suspicions. He discovered that he was right. The boat was an MK1 River Patrol Boat, or PBR. Wahler is intimately familiar with this type of boat as he was a patrol officer with a PBR unit during the Vietnam War from 1970 to 1971. He was a member of Task Force 116, the Navy's river patrol force that operated from 1966 to 1971 along the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Wahler is a member of the Gamewardens of Vietnam Association, Inc., the oldest Vietnam veterans association, established in 1968 by veterans of Task Force 116. Task Force 116, known as the "brown water navy," was the Navy's first river patrol force since the Civil War and, as a result, developed many of its tactics in theater. The purpose of the 31-foot MK1 PBR, and later the MK2, was to keep the rivers of Vietnam open to peaceful trade while denying the Viet Cong access. Task Force 116 was the most highly decorated naval command of the war with two recipients of the Medal of Honor, 14 recipients of the Navy Cross and numerous recipients of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. The MK1 PBR at the Navy Yard, one of few MK1 PBRs still around, was assigned to the Naval Historical Center for storage. Wahler suggested that the boat be transferred to the Gamewardens and moved to Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va., where the Gamewardens have a memorial obelisk. Military Sealift Command's USNS Mohawk, a fleet ocean tug, was scheduled to be at the Washington Navy Yard May 21-22 for another event and to then sail for Norfolk, Va., so NHC and the Gamewardens arranged to move the PBR aboard Mohawk. Mohawk loaded the PBR May 22 and off-loaded the PBR May 24 at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek with help from Commander, Special Boat Squadron Two. Special Boat Squadron Two operates the descendent of the MK1 PBR, the Mark V Special Operations Craft, which carries Special Operations Forces, primarily SEAL combat swimmers, into and out of operations with a low to medium threat level. The Mark V also supports limited coastal patrol and interruption of enemy activities. The Navy actually modified the original fiberglass-hulled MK1 PBR from a leisure craft design. The boats were outfitted with one twin 50-caliber machine gun forward and an after-mount of either a machine gun or mortar. The ships also had a light machine gun and/or 40-millimeter grenade launcher amidships. The MK1 PBR could reach speeds of up to 25 knots, while drawing a draft of only 12 to 18 inches dead in the water or as little as nine inches underway to operate in the shallow waters of the Mekong Delta. Even with the special MK1 design, the PBR crews faced a dangerous mission -- operating in rivers swarming with Vietnamese boats called junks and sampans, any one of which could be helping the Viet Cong. The sampans, made of bamboo, were capable of navigating in only a few inches of water and could travel practically unseen under the overhanging vegetation lining the banks of a river or mangrove swamp. A Navy boatswain's mate captained the PBR with a crew of three others -- normally a Navy engineman serving as the boat engineer, a gunner's mate serving as both gunner and seaman, and a third crewmember, frequently a Vietnamese interpreter who knew the peculiarities and geography of the river. The boat captain and crew had an enormous responsibility. The PBRs logged up to 70,000 patrol hours in an average month and were involved in about 80 firefights per month. The Gamewardens hope to eventually display the MK1 PBR in Little Creek with the 15-foot granite memorial obelisk already there to honor the memory of fallen members of the "brown water navy." Until then, Commander, Special Boat Squadron Two, has offered to display the boat at the command's building. The boat is in good condition, but does not have engines or waterjets or an original forward gun mount. The Gamewardens are currently looking for volunteers from its members in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area to maintain and improve the boat. The Gamewardens are also collecting special donations to cover the boat's loading and transport costs.
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