Thursday, November 17, 2005

Breaking Milk Bottles

A friend posted a link to the ship he served aboard during VietNam. One of those rare ships in the US Navy, a green ship in a brown water navy.

What you ask is a green ship in a brown water navy? As AndyJ alludes to, a tactic that dates back to the US Civil War when Union ironclads like Cairo prowled the Mississippi River. These are small boats able to go into forbidding places where the big boys cannot. In World War II, they were called PT boats. In VietNam there were many different breeds of these small boats from PBRs [Pibbers] to converted offshore boats called SWIFT boats, there were even some small boats armored like monitors. And these boats were all green painted and many ferried Army troops to hotspots. What tied all these various small boats together were the support ships like the converted LST USS Benewah[APB-35]. And they were part of the Mobile Riverine Force TF-117.

These men were involved in just one part of a complex interlocking scheme put forth by the Pentagon in accordance with Johnson Administration policy to interdict the flow of war material to the Viet Cong and the NVA regulars inside South VietNam while assisting US Army and ARVN attempts at controlling the delta. Offshore interdiction was called Operation Market Time and regular blue water ships like destroyers participated. Project Igloo White seeded sensors along the illegal Ho Chi Minh trail as it wound through Laos and Cambodia in an attempt to help American airpower blast it apart. Out of Tahkli and Korat flew F-105s and later F-4s into Route Pack 6 to take out bridges with names like Dragon Jaw and Paul Doumer during Rolling Thunder. While on Yankee Station; F-8s, F-4s, A-4s, and A-6s launched Alpha Strikes into Route Pack 6a on similar missions as their Air Force brethren.

They say tactical airpower is akin to breaking milk bottles while strategic airpower is killing the cow.

All the Johnson Administration policy on VietNam accomplished was the breaking of a lot of milk bottles while leaving the cow alive. And at great cost to America; over 400 F-105 Thunderchiefs were shot down going downtown while hundreds of American pilots like Lt. Alvarez [Shoot down #1] ended up in such hell-holes as the Hanoi Hilton to accomplish all those broke milk bottles.

Johnson’s administration under McNamara’s tutelage never considered going north and killing the cow because they feared provoking North VietNam’s supporters: People’s Republic of China and the USSR. So as the American warplanes rolled over Haiphong Harbor to attack the loading docks, ships of the PRC and USSR would shoot at them and the American pilots could not fire back even though it was those ships that were filling the milk bottles the Americans were breaking elsewhere.

It was not until 1972 under President Nixon that an attempt to at least starve the cow happened. In order to push the communist North VietNamese back to the negotiating table, Nixon ordered Operation Pocket Money to commence. Starting with just 36 mines placed in the inner and outer channels of Haiphong Harbor by A-6 and A-7s on May 9th 1972. As they were being dropped, President Nixon announced what he did and gave ships in Haiphong Harbor 36 hours to vacate the harbor before the mines activated. For the next eight months over 11,000 MK 36 and 108 MK52-2 mines were emplaced. As a result, the steady stream of supplies supporting the North VietNamese effort to conquer South VietNam was reduced to a trickle that came overland from the PRC. B-52 losses during Linebacker dropped as North VietNam expended more SA-2s than they could import so the strangulation on the supply lines saved American lives while Nixon negotiated to end the conflict.

One has to wonder what would have happened back in 1966 if President Johnson had done the same thing? There would probably be 50,000 less names on two walls in Washington DC and South VietNam might still exist. But this is all conjecture since what really happened was on April 30th, 1975 South VietNam surrendered to an armored assault from North VietNam while America stood paralyzed.

What can we learn from this bit of history? When going to war, ask yourself what are you going after. Going after the milk bottles or killing the cow? Desert Storm was just breaking more milk bottles since the instigator of the aggression was still in power afterwards. Operation Iraqi Freedom on the other hand was killing the cow since Saddam was deposed from power. So was the ousting of the Taliban killing the cow. What other recent conflicts was only breaking milk bottles? Suez Crisis of 1957 because the US and USSR intervened before Israel, Britain, and France conquered Egypt. The Korean War was yet more milk bottles broken since North Korea remains a menace to this day. World War II was killing the cow; Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini all died and their countries conquered.

Now lets help the people of Iraq and Afghanistan rebuild their countries while fencing out the diseased cattle like Osama bint Laden and Saddam Hussein.

PS: AndyJ, I hope you like the post you caused.

Links of interest:
USS Benewah
USS Coral Sea and Operation Pocket Money.

Update: 2150Z 18NOV05
Thanks to AndyJ I now have a picture of crew of USS Benewah breaking a few of those milk bottles using a quad mount 40mm Bofors to do it. In VietNam combat could happen anywhere and a small craft tender/command ship like USS Benewah would be a tempting target or it could be they are engaging a target before becoming a target. AndyJ please tell the story behind this picture, pretty please?


Anonymous said...


I am in total awe of anything that you write. Thanks for the write-up.

ex-expat said...

I thought I had read somewhere the Thunderchief was by Vietman, a dated war plane, which was a factor in the number of loses sustained?

Anna said...

AndyJ, you are very welcome. Interesting what the muse brings forth.

Ex-expat. The factors in the losses were restrictive ROEs, predictable avenues of attack, and increasing sophistication of the North VietNamese air defenses. It was the two seat Thud, the F model that gave birth to the greatest Wild Weasel ever produced the F-105G. Thuds continued in the inventory until the 1980s with the F-105Gs of the Georgia Air National Guard being the last opeartional planes.

Though was it gilding the lily to basically call Saddam and Osama mad cows? ^_^

ex-expat said...

Agreed. However the book (can't remember the tittle to save me) pointed out that both the Thunderchief & Phantom were big heavy planes, not very well suited for the missions during the Vietman war.

Anonymous said...

Anna, did you change your e-mail address? I tried to send you some mail and it was returned.


Anna said...

It should be annapuma AT aol DOT com.

Well your book is correct to a certain extent. The Thud was meant to do Mach 1 on the deck to nuke Russia. While the Phantom was meant to be an interceptor for the Navy. Instead they went downtown armed with bombs and missles amidst what became the most sophisticated air defense network outside of the USSR breaking those milk bottles. Day in and day out they did it with ground crews working non-stop to support the tempo.

Anonymous said...

"a quad mount 40mm Bofors"

Is there anything that you DON'T know? You never cease to amaze me.


Anna said...

AndyJ, lots I don't know. Hence I keep reading. And buying books.

Hey at least I did not mention the best automatic AA guns the US Navy used in WWII were foreign inventions: Swedish Bofors 40mm and the Swiss Oerlikon 20mm. :)

When I first went aboard USS Alabama with my parents, on the back of one Oerlikon spray shields I saw 'Lead Dammit Lead' and being clueless I mentally read it to mean a certain heavy metal and not to shoot ahead of the target. Took me a bit, but I finally figured it out. ^_^

Now as the talker, are you going to tell the story of that picture?

Anonymous said...

Actually, there isn't too much to tell about the picture, to tell the truth, I couldn't really tell you what is going on there. Chances are that we were just doing a practice firing run or harrassment and interdiction firing, although those were usually done at night. From the relaxed poses of the loaders, we probably were not under battle conditions.

The funny thing is that in October 1967 I reported for duty aboard the Benewah, after Gunnersmate school at Great Lakes. Weeks and weeks of training on electronics, hydraulics, modern guns and missiles. When I reported to the ship, I found 2 40mm quad mounts, 2 3"50 slow fire cannons and a load of .50 cal and .30 cal machine guns. Everything dating from WWII (Even the ammunition was headstamped from WWII and Korea. No electronics, everything was manual point and train. We did get rather accurate with those 40's and they could lay down some horrendous return fire.

Any other information I can pass along, just ask. You know how us old farts like to tell war stories.


Anna said...

Would love to hear more of your stories. How else would I learn more of the brown water navy.

Phew just finished a post and way past bed time.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

Ask and you shall receive, if my feeble memory can remember