The Brown Water Navy comprised Swift Boats and other watercraft whose missions were to patrol the muddy canals and shallow rivers of Vietnam. Screengrab courtesy of YouTube.
In the Vietnam War, apart from the “Blue Water Navy” arsenal of aircraft carriers, battleships, and destroyers, there was a small fleet of Patrol Craft, Fast (PCF), otherwise known as Swift Boats. These high-speed, unarmored aluminum vessels were tasked with hazardous coastal and riverine interdiction operations. They also supported US Navy SEALs for infiltration and exfiltration. The Swift Boats, among other smaller watercraft, made up the “Brown Water Navy” — a term associated with boats that spent their time at war skimming down the muddy canals and shallow rivers of Vietnam.
The Swift Boats were 50 feet long, had six-man crews, and were equipped with radar, .50-caliber machine guns, and 81 mm mortars. First ordered to Vietnam in April 1965, there were 84 Swift Boats on patrol with Task Force 115 supporting Operation Market Time by November 1966. The other major Brown Water Navy mission was Operation Game Warden, in which the Brown Water Navy helped stop North Vietnamese troops, supplies, and communications in South Vietnam. While covering 1,500 miles of Mekong Delta waterways, those sailors faced naval mines and ambushes often less than 50 feet away. In total, an estimated 400 Brown Water sailors were wounded and 50 were killed.
“On a larger vessel, most of these sailors would be in uniform all day,” said Mark Gallant, the director of operations at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. “On the Swift Boats, out there in the heat and humidity of Vietnam, these guys would be stripped down to their jockey shorts and would be getting suntans whenever they weren’t working too hard […] It was a little more lax as far as regulations and uniforms.”
As the war progressed, the US Navy began training Vietnamese forces on their own Swift Boats. In 1971, the Navy donated two Swift Boats used for training in San Diego to the Republic of Malta to patrol its coastlines. In April 2010, a Swift Boat was donated to the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Some 600 Swift Boat veterans were invited to the museum for a reunion, where they participated in a special Swift Boat tour.
“It was a tremendous welcome home for these guys,” Gallant said, choking back his tears, “which they didn’t get when they came back from Vietnam.”
Dave Bradley, a Swift Boat sailor who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, said that when he discussed his wartime service with others, he preferred to share the bright side of his experiences in an otherwise unhappy time for the nation.
“The original boats had a generator that was too small to run the radios and the coffee pot at the same time,” Bradley reflected. “Of course, being in the Navy, we turned the radios off until the coffee got made.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.