|Vietnam Veterans of America|
The dramatic imagery of every war depicts the conflict itself. Be it representations in visual art, literature, film, or television, it’s all about the clash of troops, the deafening noise, disorder, chaos, and confusion. The battlefield is where the work of warfare is done, where strategy and tactics are realized, where outcomes are decided, and history is made.
But behind the time-honored images and stories of war lies a fundamental requirement for any fighting force. Whether in direct support of combat units or provisioning the hundreds of military facilities around the world, it’s all in the supply line—equipment and supplies of every size, shape, and purpose, from trucks to pencils, bullets to toilet paper, battle dressings to paper clips, toothpaste to rocket launchers—all moved along intricate transportation networks starting with requisition and procurement and ending with delivery at a final destination.
Those two words—“final destination”—can be a dangerous last step in a long process. It certainly was in Vietnam, where supply line teams were expected to operate in a land marked by extreme variations in climate and terrain, from coastal lowlands to densely forested mountains. While the logistics personnel working at desks in warehouses, dockside, or at airstrips were crucial to overall success, those working at the “tip of the spear” faced levels of risk similar to those of any grunt walking a jungle patrol.
“When people talk about Vietnam, they often speak about the Air Force with its jets and bombers, the Army units on the ground and the Marines up north, or the Brown Water Navy with its Swift Boats,” recalled Navy veteran Mike Chouinard. “But none of that could have happened without the men of the supply line, the guys who drove the trucks and ran the rivers in supply boats. Without fuel, munitions, food, spare parts, and other supplies, the war could never have been fought. The guys on the supply line were vital, but their service is often overlooked. They’re our forgotten heroes.”
In 1967 Chouinard served as an engineering officer aboard the U.S.S. Ogden (LPD-5), an amphibious transport ship. He became a Boat Group Officer after a personnel shakeup left that critical position open. Boat Group Officers supervised and led the teams that piloted and crewed the LCM-6 “Mike boats” as they ran supplies along the treacherous rivers of South Vietnam. A boat group typically consisted of four or five vessels, each crewed by five sailors.
“The fact that I had no background or experience with that kind of work was beside the point,” Chouinard said. Like many in wartime situations, he moved into a job he wasn’t trained to do—but one that had to be done. “When you talk to a Marine, he might talk about the combat he saw, his buddies, and his unit, but very rarely will he pause to think about how he was supplied. The guys on the supply trains put their lives on the line so the men in the field could do their jobs.”
Chouinard is quick to emphasize that he was simply one among many who did what was needed. “The number-one target in any war is the supply line,” he said. “The men of the supply line in Vietnam risked all, and sometimes gave all, to bring the fighting troops what they needed.”
THE DMZ’S COASTAL GATEWAY
In 1966 the Third Marine Division established a logistics and support base at a point on the coast of the South China Sea near the mouth of the Cua Viet River, a few kilometers south of the DMZ. While not the perfect gradient for large-scale amphibious landings, the beach there offered an excellent staging area for large amounts of supplies and equipment. The base served as the coastal gateway to the river with upstream access to Dong Ha.
The point where the mouth of the Cua Viet meets the ocean is a navigational challenge, notably when the tide is running and particularly during monsoon season when waves crest at 15 to 20 feet. But no matter the weather or conditions at sea, the supply train of Mike boats had their own schedules to keep.
The big flat-bottomed boats pounded in from offshore supply ships, pushing across as much as three miles of open ocean, and then moved through heaving surf to the mouth of the river. Essentially floating boxes some 70 feet long, Mike boats ran uncovered and with no armor other than their steel hulls. Not easy to maneuver under any circumstances, the churning waters at the river’s mouth guaranteed a rough ride into the river’s main channel. But even when the weather was less than hospitable, waiting for better conditions was never an option. The supply line was critical to in-country strategic initiatives and could not be delayed.
The boat group’s destination was about ten miles upriver where a dock had been constructed at Dong Ha as an offloading point and way station for incoming supplies and equipment. But while the waters of the river were more placid than the run through the surf, it was far from a pleasure trip. The Viet Cong continually mined the river, and while Navy mine-sweeping teams always cleared some of the mines, they missed many. The Navy lost three to five Mike boats to mines on a weekly basis during the war.
Chouinard made his first trip up the Cua Viet with five Mike boats under his command. The mission seemed uneventful, but after arriving, the mine sweep team advised him that his boats had dislodged a pressure-sensitive mine that should have exploded when one of the vessels passed over it. By good fortune the mine had been pushed by the boats’ prop wash onto a sandbar. Later, with the supply boats well out of range, the mine was exploded with a single rifle shot.
NAVIGATING THE CUA VIET
Aside from the constant threat of mines, the VC routinely attacked the supply boats from hidden positions along the shoreline. Over a period of six months the boats under Chouinard’s command were ambushed almost daily by snipers. Grenades were often lobbed at (and sometimes into) the boats. Mortar and artillery attacks also were a regular part of any trip.
After the close call on his first trip upriver, Chouinard charted every point on the waterway where a mine exploded or a boat was damaged or sunk. He studied the river on every trip, noting locations with the greatest potential for mines or where ambushes were most likely to occur. His analytical approach became a critical factor in protecting boats and men, given that the crews were under orders not to return incoming fire even when ambushed.
The job of the supply train, Chouinard said, was to “trade speed and distance for safety”—except speed was not a Mike boat’s advantage. With a top speed of 9 knots (roughly 10 mph), Mike boats moved at an agonizing crawl even when taking rocket or artillery fire or running a gauntlet of snipers hidden along the shoreline. Despite these conditions (and the fact that the boats carried two .50 cal. machine guns), standing orders at the time were that boat crews were not to return fire or otherwise defend the boat—just keep moving.
Although there was almost constant danger on the river with daily exposure to enemy fire, boat crews were considered to be logistics teams and, as such, were officially categorized as non-combatants. No crew members were issued personal arms (except for Chouinard, and then only a 1911 model .45 cal. pistol). In fact, before February 1968 when MACV issued new orders establishing Marine security details for the Mike boats, the boat crews received no combat pay. They were not stationed on the ground in Vietnam; administratively speaking, they didn’t serve “in” Vietnam.
During the summer of 1967 the NVA moved an array of 130mm rockets below the DMZ with an eye on the boat ramp at Dong Ha. Late in the day on June 12 they attacked. Chouinard’s five boats were tied up at the dock waiting to unload. More than two hundred rocket and artillery shells slammed down, and shrapnel ripped across the area. With heavy artillery from north of the DMZ joining in, communications wiring and equipment was destroyed. Trees were leveled. Jeeps and trucks were rendered smoking wrecks. Barrels of petroleum, lubricants, and defoliants were punctured. Tents and other shelters were torn away.
Unprotected supplies that had been offloaded on the dock were either destroyed in explosions or caught fire and burned. One Marine was killed and 33 wounded. Throughout the attack the Mike boat sailors hunkered down in their uncovered, unprotected boats while, as Chouinard put it, “hell rained all around them.”
Many riverine supply trains lost boats and men—it was intensely dangerous work—but the U.S.S. Ogden’s boat group defied the odds by running the gauntlet daily for six months without the loss of a boat or a crewman. The boat ran nearly a hundred trips on the river and moved more than 17,000 tons of cargo, including food, munitions, fuel, Agent Orange, spare parts, and vehicles.
When the supply boats overnighted at the dock at Dong Ha, Chouinard (having the only weapon in the group) stood solo night watches, vigilant for floating mines and swimmers. Despite his own exhaustion and stress, Chouinard had his crews shelter in the bottom of their boats so they could get some sleep and be rested and alert for the inevitably perilous trip back down the river the next day.
“Everybody understood the importance of our mission,” Chouinard said. It’s a thought reflected in a famous comment made by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower while serving as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II: “You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”
Speaking more recently and even more succinctly, Army Gen. Frederick M. Franks, Jr, who commanded troops in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, said: “Clearly, logistics is the hard part of fighting a war.”
RISKING LIFE & LIMB
After many unprotected trips up and back on the Cua Viet, the extraordinary risks that supply boats and their crews took on a daily basis were finally recognized at the upper command level. That led to new orders from Gen. Creighton Abrams, then MACV’s Deputy Commander. In February 1968 Abrams directed that a naval task force be organized to coordinate the protection of the watercraft using the rivers to resupply Hue and Dong Ha.
The supply line sailors from the U.S.S. Ogden ran the Cua Viet amid ambushes, mines, mortars, and, after reaching their destination, faced the very real possibility of after-dark visits from NVA and VC artillery. “These sailors were essentially under constant fire,” said Chouinard. “They were primary targets at every point on the river and when docked at the boat ramp.” The boats bore the scars of the trips, the dings and dents of rifle fire, the charred spots where grenades exploded, the jagged holes that marked a mortar hit. “The job was to keep the Marines supplied, and that’s what these men did, without fail.”
Chouinard believes the men of the supply line in Vietnam epitomized the concept of the unsung hero. “These men risked life and limb every day, but received no medals and no commendations,” he said, noting that even a thank-you was rare.
“Yet they were absolutely necessary to the overall war effort.”
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