|This article is contributed by Dave Donaldson, the first PGRA
Historian, and taken from Sea Classics, May 1975
Historian's Note: Scanned with permission of the Author; photos originally present in published article have not been included.
From George Washington’s small fleet of 50-ton schooners to today’s Navy hydrofoils, the gunboat has proven itself equal to all tasks, whether on the high seas or at the surf's edge.
ROUND 1960 the guerrilla warfare concept had taken hold In the Pentagon and the various services each developed its own Counter-Insurgency doctrine, along with the force and weapons to back it up. The Army had been first with its Special Forces in 1954, effectively dormant until the early 1960s while the Navy finally set up unconventional warfare program in 1962.
It was also in 1960 that advanced U.S. naval thinking embraced the restricted water strategy most suited to the proxy wars of liberation erupting along the sinuous, sieve-like coasts and in the river-threaded jungle swamps of the emerging nations. All of these actual and potential arenas of insurgent warfare combined poor land communications with extensive inland water networks and coastlines; many were archipelagoes or peninsulas.
A series of articles appearing in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings during 1960 through 1964 called for a revival of the PT as the antidote to the guerrilla. Basically, two types of counter-guerrilla mission were devised: interdiction of waterborne supply and transport and the deep-penetration commando raid on suspected guerrilla base camps, field positions and supply pipelines.
For the latter mission the Navy developed the SEALS (Sea-Air-Land) the seagoing counterpart to the Green Berets. The craft to transport and support these raiding parties were not to be found in the U.S. fleet inventory in 1962, predominantly an electronically sophisticated, missile and nuclear power-oriented blue water force; consequently the Navy had to go to Norway for the Nasty-class PTFs, essentially up-dated (sans-torpedo) Elco and Higgins PTs of World War II vintage. The story of the Nasty’s has been covered in a previous issue of Sea Classics ("The Last of the Red Hot PT Boats," May, 1974).
The supply interdiction and coastal surveillance role called for craft with better endurance and seaworthiness than the 80-ton PT types available. Consequently, in the spring of 1962 the Navy embarked on the development of the first American vessel designed as a coastal gunboat from the keel up since the Erie class gunboats (PGs) were laid down 30 years previously.
The two craft authorized for fiscal 1963 left the ways of the Tacoma Boat-building Corporation at Seattle, Washington in 1964 and were commissioned in August and October, 1966 as the Asheville (PGM-84) and the Gallup (PGM-85). These Ashev!lle-class Motor Gunboats (upgraded to Patrol Gunboats/combatant ships in 1967) provided the Navy with an opportunity to apply experimental construction and propulsion techniques to a production vessel.
Before elaborating on the ship itself, it should be understood that In 1961-62 the most immediate guerrilla threat to the United States was not remote Indochina, where we had a small advisory staff, but the bellicose Marxist regime 90 miles off our coast—Cuba. Throughout 1961 and 1962, Administration and Congressional spokesmen advocated taking direct action short of war to halt the rapid build-up of Castro’s Soviet-supplied war machine, then threatening to plant and nourish Guevara-style cells of revolutionaries throughout our southern flank.
The concept of the "Pacific blockade" or "declaration of contraband" was advanced and finally tested in the Second Fleet’s quarantine line during the October ‘62 Missile Crisis. Some 190 ships, headed by destroyers, spread 500 miles east of Guantanamo, intersecting Cuba’s sea lanes.
The core of the task force consisted of eight carriers. The destroyers on blockade barrier patrol might, on a moment’s notice, be called upon to reinforce the CVA anti-sub or anti-air screen (six Soviet missile subs were reported to be in the area).
The Second Fleet was stretched to the limit manning the picket line and would have been in a sad plight had the Soviet sub threat materialized. What was called for was the short-sea gunboat, recalling the "New Navy’s" 1890s Banana Fleet enforcing the Monroe Doctrine in the classic era of Gunboat Diplomacy.
Offshore capabilities, out to several hundred miles, and prolonged surveillance called for more sea-kindly craft than the Nasty, which was a tough-hided boat but designed for cruising sheltered fjords. Main armament should also be a little more authoritative than the 40mm so as to provide more punch in a limited shore bombardment role as well as clobbering enemy coastal types before they could close for action.
Propulsion ability of 40-knot dash speeds was demanded to match any fast patrol boat extant and capable of evading or escaping larger combatant ships which might challenge them. The designated payload and limited open sea capabilities required a higher degree of independence from forward base support than found in the PT-derived vessels, particularly in view of the Cuban threat.
The Navy’s experience with coastal craft in the Second World War, aside from the PT (more of a shore-based attack craft than a true patrol vessel), consisted entirely of anti-submarine types, steel 173-foot PC and wooden 110-foot SC, as well as various amphibious assault ships and craft, such as the LCI. These types were converted to gunboats to supplement the up-gunned PT’s in their supply interdiction campaigns against by-passed Japanese garrisons late in the War.
Prior to this, the only gunboats’ in U.S. service, designed as such, were the aforementioned units of the Great White Fleet era. These "protected gunboats" or "cruising gunboats" were really marginal scouting cruisers, circa 1,000-2,000 tons displacement and mounting around four to six 6-inch guns, later reduced to 4-inchers. Their relatively shallow draft, usually 11-13 feet, permitted near-shore operations and some limited river work, but these ships were not suited for in-shore work as that term is now understood.
Speeds were moderate for the time, around 12 knots, as contrasted to a parallel gunboat development, the torpedo gunboat, which later evolved into the destroyer.
Some 23 of these coastal gunboats were constructed between 1588 and 1923; their roles were those flag-showing and blustering ventures which epitomized the catch-phrase "gunboat diplomacy." The gunboat was briefly revived in the mid-30s with the Erie and Charleston sisters (PG-50 and -51). These latter two 2,000-ton ships were actually cruiser surrogates, built to the Naval Treaty limits for patrol types without cutting into the allotted cruiser tonnage.
We had Patrol Gunboats in the Second World War but this designation was assigned to the reverse lend-lease Canadian-built corvettes of the Flower Class, designed for anti-submarine convoy escort, during the U-boats’ "happy hunting" period off the American east coast in ‘42-’43.
The above noted PGMs, 32 of which were ultimately converted, were augmented by the PCE (Patrol Convoy Escorts) essentially Admirable-class ocean minesweepers minus the sweeping gear. By the end of the 1960s, the PCEs were the only patrol ships remaining in the U.S. Fleet (a craft category was added to denote the smaller vessels).
The PGM designator was attached to a number of 95-foot, 117-ton craft constructed for foreign transfer; these were a composite of the 95-foot Cape-class Coast Guard Cutters and the 110-foot chasers (SC).
The Asheville-class brought the gunboat concept full circle, combining the endurance and firepower attributes of the Banana Fleet with the speed, maneuverability and shallow draft of the PT.
Endurance and sea-keeping requirements resulted in a ship over twice the length of the PT (165 feet overall) on roughly the same beam (24 foot maximum). To keep the draft light, it was necessary to go to aluminum construction; these ships are the first all-aluminum hulled vessels of any size in the Navy. Further weight reduction was achieved by constructing the superstructure of fiberglass plating over aluminum frames, the first Naval use of fiberglass on ship-sized vessels.
In consequence the ship, roughly the same size as the all steel PC (circa 400 tons) displaced only 250 tons at full load. Though the hull drew only 5½ feet, the twin propeller shafts canted down to increase navigating draft to 9½ feet, somewhat squandering the advantages of the weight conservation. However, the PCs still drew 2 to 3 feet more.
The combination of cruising endurance and sea-chase capability were attributes of the experimental CODAG dual-propulsion system, the letters signifying combined Diesel and Gas Turbine. Briefly, the system incorporated two Cummins diesels, combined horsepower of 1,450, and a marine adaptation of the Phantom fighter’s J-79 turbine, designated the LM1500, which developed 14,000 hp at speed.
The normal surveillance patrol would utilize diesels alone which could give up to 16-knots; when a burst of speed was needed the gas turbine was ignited, the diesels revved to maximum while the turbine was meshed to a reduction gear to bring the revs down to match the diesel’s and the turbine was clutched to the shafts as the diesels were disengaged. The whole operation took place at the flick of a switch and could achieve an unprecedented acceleration of as much as zero to 40 knots inside of a minute.
The 3-man pilot house watch had to be provided with seat belts to withstand the violent lurch. The power transfer was thus achieved without loss of speed and was as smooth as could be expected from integral power units.
Obviously a 250-ton ship steaming all 40 knots would normally require relatively open seas to do any kind of maneuvering since several hundred meters of water could slip under life keel while turning or reversing course. This problem was overcome by fitting variable pitch propellers; this meant that the ship could reverse almost instantaneously while under way without any time-consuming gear changes. The propeller blade pitch was simply altered and the ship reversed course inside of two ship-lengths. Instant rudder response considerably narrowed the turning radius.
As the ships are likely to operate in the tropics and the aluminum hull would rapidly carry the turbine’s heat to the crew spaces, all living and working areas are provided with air conditioning.
Habitability standards generally are quite high for a vessel of this size. The living space below deck amidships consist chiefly of the crew quarters arranged in a U-shaped corridor surrounding the gas turbine room. A partition, offset to starboard, divides the area into 12-man and 9-man sections, respectively to port and starboard, each containing triple-tiered bunks, benches and lockers and a head with shower and lavatory. An inclined ladder leads up hatches opening on an enclosed passageway on the main deck, thus keeping the quarters relatively dry. Forward of the crew quarters is the Mess Deck and administrative area, the after part of which serves as a dining area for four and a lounge for officers and crew.
The galley, next forward, is rather spacious for a patrol ship with a range, counter space and ample cold storage, followed by the 10-man crew’s mess. These spaces also have direct access to the main deck. Moving forward through a watertight door one comes to the administration center, containing the ship’s office and supply office.
As was mentioned, the turbine room is sited at the center of the crew spaces and houses the G.E. LM 1500 gas turbine, comprised of separate generator and power turbine sections.
Aft of the turbine plant is the Main Engine Room, housing both the main propulsion diesels and the service diesel which powers the ship’s various auxiliary systems; the gearbox assembly linking turbine and diesels to the shafts are also located here.
Further aft, a second service generator and back-up ship service systems surround the Enclosed Operating Station (E.O.S.), the main propulsion control center containing extensive engineering monitoring equipment. Though the turbine speed can be regulated from either the E.O.S. or the pilot house, it must be ignited from the E.O.S. The three engineering compartments are separated by watertight bulkheads.
The main deck is dominated by the large deckhouse, containing, starting forward, the CO’s quarters (with the gun control room athwartships), the JO’s quarters (3 men), and the 4-man CPO’s cabin. The eight men share two complete heads with showers. The passage running along the length of the deck house opens to the main deck spaces below.
A bomber crew would feel at home in the pilot house on the 01 level. The control system is quite streamlined and the officer of the deck is able to conn the ship directly by means of the control console’s throttles and helm: all propulsion controls are duplicated in the E.O.S. below. Navigational instruments serving the watchstanders include a Raytheon pathfinder radar scanner, a fathometer and a LORAN set. Instant communications are maintained from the pilothouse throughout the ship via two intercom units as well as various alarms.
A normal watch consists of four men: the OOD, a petty officer, the helmsman and a lookout.
The Combat Information Center (CIC), located just aft of the pilot house is the old chart-house, renamed to reflect its function as a sort of data processing command post. The primary radar, radio and LORAN sets, mirrored in the pilot house, are located in the CIC, where the information from the various sources is evaluated and the alternative courses of action weighed.
The open bridge deck, at 02 level, contains tie fire control director, Mk 63 gunfire control system.
As the particular system adopted has been criticized as well as has the choice or all gun armament, it would be well to examine these elements in the light of the situation in 1961-62 when the PG design was being developed, and subsequent events.
During the summer of 1961, U.S. Naval Intelligence first got wind of the Soviet Osa and Komar missile craft armed with the ship-to-ship Styx Missile. These boats were considered first-line units for coastal defense of Russian ports and not likely to be supplied to client states for some years. Even as late as the fall of 1964, the attacking patrol boats of the North Vietnamese Navy in the Tonkin Gulf incident were armed solely with light automatic weapons and torpedoes. As it happened, Komar boats with twin Styx launching tubes were being supplied to Cuba as early as 1962, but we had little knowledge as to the effectiveness of the Styx anti-ship missile system; nor did we have a counter weapon. Submarines were likely to be intercepted further out to sea, if at all, and were the domain of the frigates and DE types originally conceived to fight them. None of the prospective brushfire antagonists maintained sub fleets. Thus, the Navy’s first specifically designated inshore warfare design was a barge-busting gunboat, pure and simple.
The heaviest naval gun compatible with the PG’s light displacement was the venerable 1936 vintage 3 inch/50 shell rifle in a single mount. This weapon was modified during the Second World War to lob its 13-pound rounds at the rate of about 50 to the minute.
The 3 inch/50 was conceived as a heavy-hitting anti-aircraft battery for battleships and cruisers; as such, it was mounted in tandem in open gun tubs. Minor warships, the PCs, PCEs, and DEs, shipped the 3 inch/50 as main armament, manipulated in local control by direct visual weapon-mounted sighting.
For battery employment in the flak role, the larger ships were fitted with the Mk 63 gunfire control system during the last two years of the war. This air defense complex wedded an optical remote director (the Mk65) with a small intermediate range dish radar mounted on the gun (the An-SPG-50). it is capable of detecting, acquiring, tracking and engaging designated air or surface targets by automatically training and elevating the gun and initiating firing; analog computer electronics synthesize the basic range and bearing data.
The system also utilizes a lead-computing sight geared to the pace of low-flying prop-driven attack craft. The Mk 63s surface target capability is somewhat less effective. Midway through the 1960s the Pentagon adopted a new Dutch-designed gunfire control system, the Hollandse-Signaal M22 and earmarked it for PG use. The Dutch system, designated the Mk 87 in U.S. service, employed advanced computer electronics capable of absorbing and analyzing a broad range of data such as relative bearing, platform stability, weather and sea state, and combined the navigational radar and fire control component into one unit.
The system practically conned the ship as well as operated the armament during an engagement. It performed equally well against air and sea or shore-based surface targets. The ships fitted with this system can be readily detected by the egg-shaped radar housing over the bridge.
Most NATO navies have adopted the Hollandse fire control and navigation system. However, the quickening pace of events in Southeast Asia demanded immediate deployment of anti-infiltration patrol vessels and Secretary McNamara felt that the PG program would be unduly delayed by installing the Mk 67 array at that time, although he acknowledged its superiority over its American counterpart. Two ships, Antelope (PG-86) and Ready (PG-87) had already been fitted with the newer system when the decision to revert to the MKG 3 was made in 1968 and these craft remain and the only two units so equipped to date.
The 3 inch/50 is mounted on the fore-deck enclosed in a streamlined fiberglass reinforced plastic spray and blast shield (to keep the breech mechanism and radar director dry) as introduced on the Edsall-class radar-picket conversions (DER) during the mid-1950s.
Also linked to the Mk 63 GFCS is the Bofors 40mm L60 automatic cannon mounted singly and open on the fantail. This weapon is another WWII veteran, remembered for its sky-peppering barrages against Japanese Kamikaze attacks late in the war. It was then mounted in tandem or quads; the solo version has lately been encountered as main armament on patrol vessels throughout the NATO bloc, in a slightly modernized L71 configuration. This weapon, like the forward 3 inch/50, can be fired either in director or local control.
The twin fifty MGs on the bridge wings amidships round out the fixed armament. Additional counter-ambush firepower is available from the PGs mixed bag of hand-held small arms including M-16s, M-60 light machine guns, a few 40mm grenade launchers and .45 cal. pistols.
The Navy publicity on the PGs touts the ships as coastal and ocean-going cruisers, and it is true that the size and round-bilge hull form offer more stability at sea than do the PT-derived craft with V-bottoms. The deck has considerable sheer forward and this, coupled with the flared bow knuckle, helps ward off excessive wetness on the foredeck. About 1/3 aft the knuckle fairs into the hull as flare diminishes and the after ½ of the hull is tightly turned at the bilge. This cross section tends to render a planing craft more seaworthy than does a hard-chine, V-bottom.
Yet the long sea swells beyond the continental shelf find no challenge in tossing 250 tons about and the gunboat sailor must have a yachtsman’s resistance to mal de mer. A carrier veteran recently was a guest aboard the Welch (PG-93) and found the going a little rough until I he got his sea legs back. Of course the sea-going capability of a PG depends largely on the ability of the crews to take it. All of the PGs occasionally transit wide stretches of open ocean to move to repair and overhaul facilities or during transfers to new commands while lesser patrol craft must be hoisted aboard cargo vessels for long hauls.
Two vessels, Surprise and Defiance, braved the rigors of the North Atlantic in November en route to the Mediterranean: though a bit damp from the crossing, the crew was reported to be undaunted. Underway replenishment and refueling techniques have been simplified and improved to the extent that cruising radius of small ships is no longer the critical factor it was early in World War II, although the speed and efficiency of transits and long patrols are affected by frequent UNREPS and these are not often feasible in heavy weather.
The Navy has recently been coy about releasing data on the PGs cruising radius; however, earlier figures from Janes and Weyers annuals circa 1964-67, give 325 sea miles at 35 knots and 1,700 sea miles at 16 knots. Both figures are at maximum power or nearly so, for the turbine and diesel power plants respectively. It is presumed that at optimum endurance cruise speeds (10-12 knots?) the range might double the radius at 16 knots.
The comfortable habitability standards were deemed adequate for prolonged patrols of several weeks or more, though the ships rarely stay at sea for more than two weeks at a stretch.
Even the little World War 1 110-foot chasers (SCs) were underway for two-week periods while the 173-foot PCs usual sub-hunting patrol lasted eight weeks and they suffered from overcrowding and had minimal amenities; if pressed, and given adequate auxiliary support, the PG should be capable of 2-month patrols. The Second World War PT could carry provisions for 5 days, though after two or three days of buffeting and pounding, the 14 sodden crew members had expended most of their fight against the sea.
The PGs relatively high endurance and seaworthiness along with the speed, maneuverability and shallow draft needed for hot pursuit of blockade runners made her a valuable asset in the Market Time anti-infiltration blockade along the 1,000-mile South Vietnamese coast.
Valid similarities have been drawn between the Union blockade of the confederate coasts and waterways and the Navy’s task in Vietnam. Our South Atlantic seaboard and Gulf Coast are similar to the Vietnamese Shoreline, studded with reefs and islands, laced with estuaries and inlets and plagued by rapid shifts of current and tide. Techniques and strategies were borrowed from the earlier conflict.
The first units dispatched to the scene were Coast Guard vessels: large cutters (WHEC and WMEC) and 82-foot patrol boats placed under Navy operational control. The Coast Guard was experienced at this type of work, particularly during the rum war of the prohibition era and had vessels more suitable than those furnished by the Navy.
The latter service once again found themselves caught short when faced with a war on the muddy fringes and, as in the Pacific Campaign, improvised with conversions of mine, anti-submarine, amphibious assault and torpedo attack ships and craft. None were entirely satisfactory.
The mainstays of the operations were the Coast Guard’s 82-foot Point-class low-endurance patrol boats. These boats could make 20 knots, a little slow for overhauling 12-15 knot sampans less than a mile from shore and cover, and could stay on station for four days. When the first PGs, Asheville (PG-84) and Gallup (PG-85), reached Vietnam in May of 1967 they took their place in the offshore (3-15 miles) barrier of Task Force 115, the Coastal Surveillance Force. The two ships were welcome additions to the Market Time forces as they were useful in both offshore and inshore barriers and their 40-knot speed gave them the hustle to rapidly close with any smuggling vessel encountered.
Within a week, however, teething troubles plagued the sisters and they had to curtail their patrol activities. Trouble developed in the van-pitch propellers, the gearbox, the turbine drive train, and electronic systems; repair facilities in Cam Ranh could not handle the problems as they lacked the necessary spare parts, tools and calibration equipment and the ships had to proceed to Subic Bay, Philippines or Yokosuka, Japan for repairs.
It was at first hoped that the new gunboats could handle most of their own maintenance problems but it was apparent that the jet-powered craft were as finicky as their airborne counterparts and could not survive for long away from specialized base facilities tailored to their needs. This could be remedied by bringing the technicians, tools and spares to Cam Ranh, but meanwhile, PGs had to be taken off the line for extended transits whenever a bug developed.
Crew training was another problem. It seemed that few crew members had received much training in gunboat techniques. By September of 1967, this deficiency was remedied by training each PG sailor to handle a variety of jobs, a concept which proved its worth in December when Gallup’s chief engine man had to be hospitalized and he was relieved by the ship’s first class electrician.
As PGs continued to augment the barrier line throughout 1968-1971, reaching an eventual total of ten vessels at different periods, the cross training concept was developed and improved. The job interchangeability, promoted a club-like atmosphere on board and minimized professional rivalries. As a result, PG crews are considered a special breed and are hand-picked based on temperament as well as professional qualifications.
The ships themselves continued to break down, chiefly due to difficulties with the tricky clutching system, until in-country based technology could deal with most of the problems and commencing with Tacoma (PG-92), the entire transmission system was redesigned resulting effectively in a new class.
Externally, the only difference from prior numbers in the series is the repositioning of the turbine intake from directly aft of the ClC to the forward surface of the turbine stack.
The PGs primary mission on Market Time duty, the stop and search routine, was generally tedious and uneventful. A South Vietnamese liaison petty officer was embarked to identify suspect cargo junks or fishing craft from among the thousands passing any particular point daily. The boarding and search procedures were time consuming and arduous, fraught with the possibility of an ambush or booby trap awaiting the boarding party.
The PGs carried a 14-foot skimmer which could be used to ferry an inspection team to the subject. Two 15-man rafts were also stowed on the 01 weather deck. During a typical patrol in July 1969, Gallup (PG-84) investigated approximately 30 contacts daily without incident.
Most of the coastal traffic acceded to the search and were rewarded with cigarettes and First Aid supplies for their trouble. It was the rare junk or sampan that attempted to evade when nailed. These few ‘who tried to break were usually cornered or intimidated by the chase and typically had the most innocuous motives for the attempt: such as the junk which Gallup overtook in July, 1969 which yielded nothing more than a man without an l.D. card.
PGs sometimes held a suspect boat under its guns while the ubiquitous little swift 50-foot PCFs (Fast Patrol Craft) made the actual contact closer inshore. Several were beached in evasion attempts and taken under fire.
Prior to the PGs arrival, the offshore barrier was manned by MSOs (ocean Minesweepers), LSTs (Tank Landing Ships) and the Coast Guard’s large high endurance cutters. The LSTs provided support facilities for the smaller craft on the inshore barrier, the swifts and CG patrol boats.
The modern 3,000-ton Hamilton-class CG cutters were suited for extended shadowing of seagoing trawlers spotted departing Tonkin Gulf by patrol aircraft and, also equipped with a CODAG power package, could close rapidly. A 20-foot draft kept them well out from shore. The 7 DERs over 30-years old, relatively slow and projecting 14 feet beneath the surface were replaced by the PGs which employed the same 3-inch firepower on a 40-knot platform capable of more intimate contact with the inshore elements, an effective liaison between the two barrier lines.
The Market Time interdiction role was rather strategically oriented, effective on account of the VC supply ships kept bottled up above the DMZ rather than by virtue of the handful of men and munitions actually bagged.
The more hectic and tangible PG job was the Naval Gunfire Support Mission. Destroyers and cruisers far offshore ranged eight, six and five-inch shells far inland (up to 15 miles) to knock out fortified positions holding up a troop advance or smother areas of observed large enemy troop concentrations. The PGs came closer inshore on rescue missions called by trapped patrols or to back up amphibious raiding parties on a sweep, be they SEALS, Marines or Army "Black Ponies."
The 3-inch shell is negligible against almost any kind of ground cover, not to mention fortified bunkers, but it can raise hell with troops on the move and keep their heads down.
The majority of NGFS missions have been of the "harassment and interdiction" (H&l) type, that is un-spotted blind fire on suspected VC escape or supply routes simply to keep the pressure on. Or there is the "call fire" mission to back up a small unit sweep. such as when Crockett (PG-88) took out VC positions at the direction of a SEAL team inserted into hostile territory while anchored in extremely shallow water.
Small troop insertions were actually carried out by the swift boats, capable of navigating waist-high water, while a PG might stand by to suppress enemy gunfire. The Ashevilles also participated to a limited extent in river operations, several utilizing SeaFloat, the floating base at the confluence of the Cua Lon River and the Cai Nhap Canal, cutting through the southern tip of Vietnam.
It was during one of these river patrols, on the morning of August 11, 1970 that the Canon (PG-90) was ambushed by eight B-40 41 rockets and automatic weapons fire as she entered the Song Bo De about 15 miles east of SeaFloat. The ship took five direct hits in the starboard side and another three in the port side as well as numerous automatic weapons hits. Twelve crew members including the captain and the weapons and engineering officer were wounded, yet Canon was able to return heavy suppression fire as Seawolves (helicopter gunships) and two PCFs rushed to the area. The PG limped back to SeaFloat where the wounded were medevaced and treated.
The most common form of ambush on these SeaFloat-based riverine patrols were the V.C. swimmer-sapper teams, frogmen, which attempted to clamp explosive charges to the ship’s bottom. When PGs reached suspected areas of sapper operations. they lowered the 14-foot skimmer which provided a roving patrol to cover the ship’s flanks against these attacks, sometimes pumping a few volleys from the grenade launchers to surface any submerged guerrillas.
Further out towards blue water, the participation of Tacoma (PG-92) in the destruction of a North Vietnamese arms trawler on the night of November 21, 1970, illustrates the PG in an offshore interdiction operation. A Market Time patrol aircraft spotted the trawler about 65 miles out to sea headed for the coast on November 17; USCGC Rush (WHEC723) and Tacoma were summoned to the scene, the Tacoma arriving first which covertly shadowed the enemy trawler by radar contact at 7-8 miles throughout the night until relieved by Rush the next day. Rush stayed with the trawler for the next 3 days and when she tried to run for the coast, challenged it by flashing light as it entered the 12 mile limit. By this time, Tacoma had returned to the scene accompanied by an MSO, Endurance, and another high endurance cutter, Sherman.
The trawler responded to the challenging signal by turning on her navigating lights and attempting to evade. At this point, Endurance fired warning shots across the blockade runner’s bow, followed by direct fire when she failed to heave to. The trawler returned fire with 75mm recoilless rifles and small arms, landing one 75mm round rather harmlessly on the MSOs fantail. This signaled a hail of 3", 5", 20mm, and 50 cal. projectiles from Rush, Sherman and Tacoma, all scoring hits. The trawler self-destructed shortly thereafter, the 10th and last trawler interception by Market Time forces.
The PG’s seagoing capabilities were tested in a series of experimental missions. In one of the earliest of these trials, USS Beacon (PG-99) in August, 1970 proceeded to "Yankee Station." the Attack Carriers’ staging area in Tonkin Gulf for bomb runs over North Vietnam, where she served as plane guard vessel for USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63). replacing a destroyer in that role during which patrol she refueled several times from the CVA.
During June and July of 1972 Naval aircraft mined Haiphong Harbor. It was decided to dispatch warships to the area to warn off approaching merchant shipping. This was a unique opportunity to evaluate gunboat performance on sustained at-sea operations under combat conditions. Welch and Crockett participated in this operation, named Notification Line, accompanied by one or two Claude Jones-class DEs. Average time on station was 7 days at a stretch over a 4-week period.
On two occasions during this mission, Welch intercepted a Soviet intelligence collection ship and warned it away from Haiphong. This type of mission is reminiscent of the gunboat’s flag-showing bravado in the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s "big stick." Beacon also provided open ocean convoy escort.
In November of 1970, Defiance (PG-95) and Surprise (PG-97) were sent to the Mediterranean to join the Sixth Fleet in special operations to shadow Soviet missile craft which were, in turn, shadowing our own fleet movements. The rough North Atlantic passage, already noted, took two weeks, accompanied by four amphibious ships which provided fuel and provisions en route. The PGs successfully tailed the Soviet warships in the Mediterranean for two weeks but one wonders what they would have fought them with had the Russians challenged.
An LST, Graham County, now designated as Gunboat Tender (AGP) arrived n Naples in September, 1972 to serve as mothership providing forward support for Defiance and Surprise, as well as USS Antelope (PG-86) and USS Ready PG-87) which also arrived that month after an Atlantic transit.
PGs have also shown themselves to be effective Search and Rescue vessels whether it be to scoop downed pilots out of the Tonkin Gulf or to rescue crewmen on foundering vessels far out at sea.
The Patrol Gunboat, despite its "interim" status and employment of obsolescent armament and fire control, has proven itself equal to all tasks, whether on the high seas or at the surf’s edge. It has replaced the destroyer in several work-a-day functions with the fleet as well as projected effective firepower inshore to support small unit amphibious actions.
Though four ships to date. Antelope, Ready, Grand Rapids and Douglas, have been equipped with standard surface-to-air missiles modified for anti-ship orientation (like the PG, an interim development), this is but a temporary expedient until the Delphinus-class Hydrofoil Missile boats (PHM) start coming off the stocks in 1975, the PGs successor. Though slated for functional displacement, the gunboats are still very much with the Navy. Three have been transferred to foreign military assistance recipients: Benicia (PG-96) to South Korea and Surprise and Defiance to Turkey.
It would be interesting to learn whether the little ships took part in the Turks’ successful amphibious invasion of Cyprus in August 1974.
There are 14 gunboats remaining on the fleet list. Seven originally operating out of Guam, primarily on Trust-territory patrol since our disengagement in Vietnam, have returned to the States and the only ships remaining overseas are home-ported in Naples. Naval bases operating PGs in the U.S. include San Diego, Little Creek, Va. and Chicago.
The Ashevilles marked a return of U.S. Naval thinking to the "minor combatant," a concept barely grasped during the PTs all-gun conversion at the end of the Second World War and quickly immersed in the wash of the Naval counterforce.
With the gunboat’s revival, albeit as a "mini-destroyer," we have re-discovered a lost American Naval tradition. In 1775, searching for a means to interdict the Redcoats’ seaborne supply during their siege of Boston, George Washington commissioned 6 little 50-ton Marblehead schooners, sharp-lined, maneuverable, fast and capable of ranging across the ocean or luring pursuing men-o’-war onto un-charted shoals. This coastal interception flotilla was our first fleet—the ships were the functional counterparts to today’s patrol gunboat. Whether they mount launcher tubes or guns, cleave the waves or ski above them, the gunboat has returned to stay.
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