By John Gregory
Detailed exhibit opens at Maritime Museum
American sailors faced incredible danger while patrolling coastal and inland waterways during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. One such sailor is Bob Bolger, a Vietnam veteran who has accrued more than 2,700 hours as a volunteer at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Bolger can tell visitors every detail about PCF 816, a swift boat on display at the museum.
Swift boats are 50-foot-long, aluminum-hulled sea craft commonly used during Vietnam to stop enemy supplies from being transported south. A tour of PCF 816 is impressive, especially when viewing its menacing 50 caliber machine guns. It’s even more impressive when accompanied by Bolger describing his combat experiences.
Bolger survived a tour in Vietnam as the skipper of a swift boat from 1966 to 1967. His 2 ½ months of training at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado included stints at Camp Pendleton and journeys to the San Clemente Islands.
Swift boats can race up to 28 knots, which is about 32 mph, Bolger said.
“I thought they were cool. They were fast,” he said.
Swift boats in Vietnam had a crew of six — one officer and five enlisted sailors. Their stations included one gunner and one assistant gunner on the 50-caliber machine gun on the aft deck. They had an 81mm mortar tube attached beneath this machine gun. A third sailor manned the twin 50-caliber machine guns mounted in the gun tub above the pilot house.
The officer in charge was stationed in the pilot house along with another sailor who steered the boat. Another sailor was a “floater,” stationed in the cabin behind the pilot house. He usually monitored the radio and helped distribute the ammunition stashed in the magazines beneath the floor of the cabin.
The crew’s personal weapons included M16 rifles, shotguns and an M79 grenade launcher, which was Bolger’s weapon of choice. Those stationed inside the cabin and the pilot house would sometimes fire their weapons out of the windows during battle. It’s not hard to imagine how loud and stuffy these enclosed areas would get during a heated firefight.
The crew would supplement their weapons with whatever they could “steal” during their downtime on base, Bolger said.
“I liked to steal light anti-tank weapon systems,” he said, referring to a short rocket launcher, also called the M-72 LAW, consisting of a rocket in a disposable tube.
Bolger said this weapon was especially good for “bunker busting.” The Vietcong built sturdy bunkers along riverbanks and beaches, and on the cliffs above the waterways. They were made of masonry materials, logs, and sand, and were very hard to destroy, he added.
A tour of swift boat duty provided plenty of action and terrifying memories. In Vietnam, Bolger commanded the swift boat designated PCF 99 and he described one such instance from May 14, 1967. His crew was on a psychological warfare mission in which a propaganda team came aboard to use loud speakers and tapes with messages in Vietnamese for the enemy.
“There was a place about 20 miles south of Chu Lai that we called the Corral. It was a hamlet named Co Lay. We got shot there so often that we called it the Co Lay Corral as in ‘Gunfight at the Co Lay Corral,’” Bolger explained.
“You go right up to these guys [enemy shore bunkers] and play these tapes, and I’m not sure what was on these tapes — they were in Vietnamese,” Bolger said. “But I think when they got to the part where they said in Vietnamese, ‘Ho Chi Minh sucks,’ that was when they opened up.”
That particular day, his crew earned five Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars and needed two helicopter “dust-off” missions to evacuate the wounded.
“The only number important to any of us was zero body bags,” Bolger said.
Early in the war, the swift boats patrolled mostly in the open ocean. Their original mission was to stop the flow of supplies going from North Vietnam or China to South Vietnam by open ocean, typically by trawler, Bolger said.
“The trawler would load up with supplies in North Vietnam or communist China, then hang around in international waters off the coast of South Vietnam where they wanted to beach,” Bolger said. “Then, at the right time, say at the dark of the moon, midnight, they’d make that run across 12 miles of territorial waters then beach, unload the boat, unload the crew, blow up the boat … fade into the jungle and declare victory. It was a very effective logistic concept.”
But swift boats, U.S. Coast Guard cutters and other forces shut down that practice in about 2 ½ years, he said. The enemy began sending supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail almost exclusively. But they still had to move their supplies further and they began depending on rivers, so swift boats began patrolling these inland waterways.
Because of this, swift boat riverine training was moved from Coronado to Mare Island Naval Station in Vallejo, California, where the river network between Vallejo and Sacramento provided a more suitable inland waterway training environment.
Anyone wishing to learn more about swift boats in Vietnam may experience a highly detailed display as the Maritime Museum of San Diego pays homage to the wartime ventures of swift boat sailors with a new exhibit titled “Swift Boats at War in Vietnam,” which opened April 29, accompanied by the release of a book bearing the same name. For more information, visit sdmaritime.org.