Wednesday, May 24, 2017

One Century Ago: We Got Ourselves a Convoy!

Now that we can look back upon the whole course of the campaign, we can usefully study why it was that the choice should have been so long in doubt, and at the time there were many, including among civilians, who were familiar with the idea of convoy, and inferred, from its success in former wars, that it was an obvious and infallible method whose value had been strangely overlooked.
Henry Newbolt, History of the Great War, Naval Operations, Vol. V., 2-3.
In this undated photograph, United States merchant vessels approach the coast of England during the First World War. The second experimental convoy, the first originating from the North American continent, to test this contested transatlantic shipping strategy left Hampton Roads for Ireland on May 24, 1917. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)    
The convoy system, originally known as "wafting," had been used sporadically by the English since the early-1500s.  The practice was still in place 350 years ago when groups of merchant vessels laden with tobacco left Hampton Roads on their way to England, hoping not to run afoul of what was then the scourge of the seas, the Dutch.  A century ago, however, the practice had long been out of favor, and for the first three years of the First World War, the British had been paying for it dearly in terms of tonnage, war material, and lives lost to their German adversaries. 

Smaller convoys had been instituted by the British practically before the war officially began, the first being, ironically enough, to the Dutch.  The so-called "Beef Trips" along the Hook of Holland route began in July, 1916.  Another convoy arrangement had also been put into place to protect colliers bound for France, yet the Admiralty insisted that the term "convoy" was inappropriate, calling the arrangement instead, "controlled sailing." First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, RN, had approved the arrangement in January 1917, yet he still strongly resisted any recommendation that the same strategy be used in transatlantic shipping.  Despite relenting to Norwegian demands to provide a similar measure of protection to their merchant vessels a couple of months later, no serious consideration was given to instituting the convoy system across the Atlantic, where U-boats inflicted most of the British losses.

Similar losses being incurred by American-flagged ships in no small part precipitated the U.S. entry into the war on April 6, 1917, but Americans too were reluctant to resurrect convoying from American ports.  President Woodrow Wilson was fond of saying that his Navy would hunt down the Kaiser's submarines on the open ocean and strike their bases, which he called "hornets' nests." The Royal Navy had followed this strategy, known as the patrol system, since the beginning of the war but had precious little to show for it.  

Rear Admiral William S. Sims, USN, who arrived in London on April 10 as a liaison officer to the British Admiralty, later wrote, "One of the astonishing things about this war was that many of the naval officers of all countries did not seem to understand until a very late date that it was utterly futile to send anti-submarine surface craft out into the wide ocean to attack or chase away submarines. The thing to do, of course, was to make the submarines come to the anti-submarine craft and fight in order to get merchantmen." Many mid-grade officers of the Royal Navy agreed with him, yet simple, even traditional, ideas can run afoul of a hidebound orthodoxy at the top, and that is what Sims encountered both within the Admiralty in London, and later from his superiors in Washington. 

Admiral Jellicoe's attitude reflected that of his predecessor, Adm. Sir Henry Jackson, and the chief of the Admiralty War Staff, Adm. Sir Henry Oliver.  Fixated on the Mahanian concept that decisive duels between dreadnoughts constituted the raison d'ĂȘtre of modern navies, they negated its role as a guarantor of maritime commerce.  As a consequence, the battleships of the Grand Fleet assembled together in Scapa Flow received the greatest protection from submarines, while the widely dispersed merchant vessels approaching Britain from around the world received little to none, and the nation began to starve.

Making matters worse for the merchantmen, the senior strategists of the Royal Navy operated under the assumption that a proper convoy would require a 1-1 ratio of escorts to merchant vessels, in which case, even if the entire U.S. Atlantic Fleet came to their aid after entering the war, it would not be enough to make the arrangement practicable.  And with its commander, Adm. Henry T. Mayo, just as convinced that he needed most of his ships at home to protect against a German onslaught against the eastern seaboard, Sims' proposal seemed a non-starter. 

The tide began to turn, however, when Jellicoe along with the Admiralty revised its estimates on how many ocean-going escort vessels might actually be needed to begin convoying vessels across the Atlantic, helped in no small measure by Destroyer Division 8's arrival in Ireland on May 4.  The day before that, Sims received word from Washington that 36 destroyers would be on their way.  Although the destroyers of Division 8 began their service in British waters on May 8, they were assigned only to patrol duties.  Under pressure from Parliament, however, reeling from the news that April had been the most successful month of the war for German submarines, the decision was made to assemble a trial convoy and sail it from Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, which departed for Britain on May 10.  A subsequent naval staff study concluded, "The trial had been an entire success, and from that moment it may be said that the submarine menace was conquered."

Despite such superlatives from officers typically given to understatement, the newly-converted Admiralty could not usher their new allies across the pond into their new way of thinking.  The U.S. Navy turned down a request to send a convoy of 16 to 20 ships from Hampton Roads with one of the three American destroyer divisions being sent to British waters after Division 8, so the British resolved to show their American cousins that it could be done.  Their second trial convoy, made up of 12 ships and escorted by the armored cruiser HMS Roxburgh, left Hampton Roads on May 24.  All the vessels of the convoy, with the exception of two that fell behind, reached their destinations safely by June 10.

Despite one of the stragglers being torpedoed and sunk, the vessels of this first transatlantic convoy of the war had a much better survival rate than they would have had alone.  Before the convoy system was finally instituted on the Atlantic crossings, a merchant vessel had a one in four chance of being attacked.  Although it would be a few months before convoying once again became a regular part of maritime commerce originating from Hampton Roads, it was clear that this centuries-old practice would bring the reign of terror spawned by the newest naval weapon to an end at last.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

One Century Ago: The Birthplace of Aviation Training in Hampton Roads

A photograph is a mechanically and chemically-produced reflection of a fleeting moment in time.  However imperfect and impermanent it might be, a photograph is sometimes our best window upon the past, particularly when its subject no longer exists.  In commemoration of a contract signed with the Navy one century ago, we reveal a panoramic image of the first facility that trained naval aviators in Hampton Roads.  Despite its appearance and its name, the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, it was not a government facility, and naval aviators were actually among the last military pilots to learn to fly there.  In fact, many of the prospective pilots who trained there weren't even Americans.

Based upon other pictures made by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company photographer Frank Conway, this panoramic image of the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station in Newport News, Virginia, was probably taken in 1916. The words, "Curtiss Aviation Field, Newport News, Virginia," are barely legible in the upper-center of the photograph. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
One century ago, much of the nation's attention regarding the Navy was focused upon events overseas, considering that the first contingent of American destroyers reached Ireland to join with their Royal Navy compatriots on May 4, 1917.  They were the first of dozens sent to help ameliorate the submarine threat plaguing the British.  While the submarine was arguably the most consequential new naval weapon of the First World War, the men who would lead in the development of air warfare, which would decisively shape the course of the Second World War, were just getting their feet wet at this time.  Specifically, many of them literally got their feet wet at the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, near Newport News Point, directly east of the municipal boat harbor, on the opposite side of where the northern end of the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel lies today.

Although most of the military students who trained at the station were Canadian, on May 17, 1917, a contract to train 20 men of the Naval Reserve Flying Force at the facility was awarded to Glenn Curtiss, who had established the aviation school in December 1915. They were not the first students from the U.S. Navy trained by Curtiss. Two weeks after a young pilot working for his exhibition company, Eugene Ely, had proven just off Old Point Comfort on November 14, 1910, that Curtiss aircraft could launch from American warships, Curtiss offered to train one naval officer in the construction and operation of his airplanes.  Lieutenant Theodore Gordon "Spuds" Ellyson, a native Virginian who until his selection for aviation training had commanded a submarine, became Naval Aviator No. 1 the following year.

The location of Glenn Curtiss's aviation school and experimentation facility, the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, is superimposed here on this 1916 chart of the area. The red square denotes the spot where the main hangar to the far right in the panoramic photo once stood. (Courtesy of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
In the fall of 1915, years before the Army and the Navy had established aviation facilities in Hampton Roads, Curtiss purchased 20 acres of land in Newport News for a facility in which both training and experimentation could take place.  It was officially declared open for business on December 10 of that year.  In June 1917, funding would be appropriated by Congress to purchase 474 acres of the former Jamestown Exposition grounds and nearby Pine Beach across the roadstead for use as a naval training station and operating base, but construction would not begin until July, and Naval Air Station Norfolk would not officially be established there until the following year.  In December 1916, the Army had purchased over 1,600 acres from six plantations along the Back River on the eastern side of the Virginia Peninsula for a large aviation school and experimental station, but preliminary work did not begin until April on what in August would officially be named Langley Field. Meanwhile, America was already at war.  There was an immediate need for pilots to fight the Germans in Europe, so the Navy turned to Curtiss, who had been providing training to allied military pilots since the beginning of the war.

Based in Hammondsport, New York, the former motorcycle manufacturer had run an aviation training school at North Island in San Diego from 1912 to 1914, and had also established schools in Toronto, Buffalo, and Hammondsport before he opened the station in Newport News.  Like his competitors at the American Wright Company in Dayton, Ohio, most of Curtiss's first students at the Newport News facility were Canadians hoping to join in the war in Europe with the British Royal Flying Corps.   

Within this segment of a panoramic photograph taken of the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station near Newport News Point, Virginia, a Curtiss Model F flying boat rests near Building Five of the station, where instructors and visitors relaxed between flights.  Canadian military aviators as well as American Army and National Guard pilots trained at the school before the first cohort of American naval aviators arrived.  The scene is only part of a panoramic image made by Curtiss company photographer Frank Conway in 1916.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection) 
The battered, yet sharp panoramic image of the facility came to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in 2015 within a plain cardboard box, with no indication of what it contained.  It had been a minor miracle that it even arrived in the first place, considering that it was addressed to the original location of the museum, Pennsylvania House, from which it had relocated in the early-1990s.  There is no telling how long it had been in transit. 
It is unknown whether the figure standing near the front of this rather sleek-looking Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" is company founder Glenn Curtiss, but it is a definite possibility.  Frank Conway had photographed the aviation pioneer in an almost identical outfit during a visit to the station in 1916. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection) 
Prospective pilots usually underwent about 50 hours of flight instruction during the six to eight weeks they spent at the aeronautical station. The last of the naval aviators finished their initial flight training there on August 28, 1917.

In her book Flyboys Over Hampton Roads (2010), local historian Amy Waters Yarsinske wrote that the U.S. Army's business dwarfed that of the Navy at the station, pointing out that over 1,000 Army officers and enlisted members of the Signal Corps, including Major William "Billy" Mitchell, trained there.  She also discovered that two early female aviation pioneers, Ruth Law and Mary Anita "Neta" Snook also trained at the school.  Snook would later become Amelia Earhart's flying instructor.

While a number of early naval aviators received their initial flight training at the station over the summer of 1917, one of its most notable Navy alumni was a former instructor there.  A decade after becoming an instructor at the school, Bertrand Blanchard "Bert" Acosta would attain fame as Rear Admiral Richard Byrd's copilot during his 1927 Atlantic crossing.

After Langley Field and Naval Air Station Norfolk became operational in 1917 and 1918, respectively, the aeronautical station's days were numbered.  Unable to expand and starved of military contracts after the end of the war, the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station closed in 1922.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Commander Taussig's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Not Fun Voyage to Ireland

Hurry up and wait.

Everyone in the Navy experiences the phenomenon before a deployment, but Lieutenant Commander Joseph K. Taussig was struck with an acute case of this military malady virtually from the moment he received a phone call at his home in Norfolk, Virginia, on the evening of April 13, 1917, informing him that his six destroyers were to depart Hampton Roads for New York in a matter of hours. So urgent were the orders from Washington that 15 of his men were left behind because the division got underway before the expiration of liberty the following morning.  
Artist Bernard Gribble probably patterned his famous painting, "Return of the Mayflower," now in the collection of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, after press photos of the arrival of the "Special Service Division" at Queenstown, Ireland, on May 4, 1917. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file) 
Greeted with great fanfare after his arrival at Queenstown in Cork Harbor, Ireland, on May 4, Taussig and his men coming to the aid of the beleaguered British were hailed as heroes.  He also achieved instant worldwide fame, uttering one of the first great American sound bites of the Great War.  Newspapers across the Anglophone world printed his upbeat reply to Vice Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly, who had asked him, "When will you be ready to go to sea?" 

"We are ready now, sir, that is, as soon as we finish refueling."
On May 4, 1917, Joseph K. Taussig is captured in mid-salute as he greets Royal Navy Vice Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly (far right) at Admiralty House in Queenstown (now known as Cobh), Ireland after leading Destroyer Division Eight across the Atlantic from Boston on April 24 on his flagship, USS Wadsworth (DD-60), seen approaching the town in the photograph to the right.  The journey had actually begun at the York River near Hampton Roads, Virginia, on April 14. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)  
"Of course you know how destroyers are-always wanting something done to them," Taussig continued.  "But this is war, and we are ready to make the best of things and go to sea immediately." Had Taussig been as brutally honest with the Royal Navy's commander-in-chief of the coasts of Ireland that day about his voyage as he was known to be later in his career, perhaps the headlines would have been a bit different. 

It is unknown whether Taussig commiserated with his subordinates before or during the history-making voyage to Queenstown aboard his flagship USS Wadsworth (DD-60), but he vented his frustrations with his superiors within his diary.  Even one century later, perhaps some of his frustrations might resonate with commanders today.

After arriving at New York Navy Yard about 13 hours after departing Hampton Roads on April 14, leaving 15 of his men behind in the rush, he noted:
It was Saturday night, and of course nobody paid any attention to us.  So, just as I supposed, the great emergency requiring us to sail at daylight was no emergency at all, and it would have been much better had I been given some discretion in the matter and allowed to remain in Hampton Roads until my liberty men returned. But it is the way we have in the Navy.  Somebody somewhere is generally prone to "fly off the handle." 
What made things even more frustrating for Taussig was that only two of his destroyers were allowed to dock upon arrival, and when he enquired as to why, he was informed that his flotilla was not even supposed to be in New York at all and was instead directed to proceed directly to Boston.  He wrote:
There certainly is a lack of communications somewhere.  But what can we expect? Our Navy Department is absolutely unorganized so far as its duty in connection with carrying on a war is concerned.  Evidently things are very much upset at headquarters.  Perhaps someday we will have a real General Staff, but until that day comes we must continue to be buffeted around in all sorts of ways.
The metaphorical buffeting continued after Taussig's arrival in Boston, where yard officials estimated that preparations for "any service that might be required" would take ten days.  Admiral William S. Benson, the Chief of Naval Operations, called from Washington, declaring flatly that "the destroyers must be ready to leave immediately on receipt of orders, but [he] did not say when the orders were coming." 

For nearly three years, the American march towards war was characterized by numerous fits, and non-starts, particularly after the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915.  Almost two years later, several weeks after the official declaration of war against Germany, nothing had happened.  Unlike the way the war in Europe had begun nearly three years before, American forces did not surge into combat, guns blazing. An entire army would have to be moved from one continent to another before American forces would make a demonstrable impact.  But politically, something, anything, needed to happen, despite the fact that, according to a U.S. Naval Academy history of the war, "[a]pproximately two-thirds of our ships...were not materially ready for instant service and 90 per cent fell far short of the compliment necessary for the efficient fighting of these ships." 
William S. Sims, seen here as a vice admiral
in the garden of the Admiralty headquarters
in London later in the war, was the architect
of the strategy of filling gaps in Royal Navy's
defenses piecemeal, but immediately, rather
than organizing a grand naval force to help
the British, which would have taken much longer. 
Sims learned from Adm. Sir John Jellicoe, First
Sea Lord, that the British did not have that kind
of time. (Naval History and Heritage Command

The head of the Naval War College, Rear Adm. William S. Sims, had been clandestinely dispatched to London before the declaration of war, and from there after consulting with the Admiralty he devised an approach both befitting a Navy clearly not ready for large-scale conflict and a uniformed leadership wary of ceding operational control to foreigners.  Sims recommended that the only way to get American naval forces immediately into the war and achieve the greatest impact right away would be "to use its available units to strengthen the weak spots in other Navies and thus effect a more vigorous conduct of the war already so thoroughly underway in all areas."  

In no other area was the Royal Navy in more need of assistance than against U-Boats that at that point were an existential threat to Britain's continued prosecution of the war.  This strategic plan, to buttress the Royal Navy where needed immediately rather than send a large force of American warships, resonated with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and led directly to Taussig being tapped to lead the first mission of assistance to the British.  In Taussig's case, however, the many hands up and down the chain of command between Sims and Taussig did not make for light work.  The secrecy practiced at the departmental level made the preparation process all the more difficult for Taussig.  In his diary, Taussig mused that "it would seem that the whole result of this war, which has been going on for nearly three years, depends on whether or not six little destroyers sail from Boston for the English Channel on a certain indefinite date known to no one- not even those who are issuing the orders.  Can you beat it!"

Taussig did as best he could under the circumstances, working as hard as possible, but fully expecting to be ordered to sea before his ships were ready, which is exactly what happened.  On the morning of April 24, a week after arriving in Boston, two officers from Washington arrived with signal books and sealed orders, to be opened 50 miles out to sea.  Taussig's "Special Destroyer Division" was to begin their journey immediately.  Left on the pier were ice machines that they now had no time to install, as well as target practice ammunition, wrecking mines, and pay accounts.  "Some of our lamb's wool-lined jackets did not arrive either," he wrote, "but what I regret most is the non-arrival of a large box of laundry which has been following us from Norfolk."

"I always have the blues when I leave home for a trip," Taussig wrote after getting underway, "but I feel more that way tonight than usual."  In addition to missing his wife and young daughter, the frustrating fortnight he had experienced left him feeling that "the [Navy] department did not treat us right."  Taussig continued:

Instead of nagging us and not giving us any information, I feel sure that the proper procedure in this case would have been for me to be ordered to Washington and get the situation explained to me confidentially.  I feel that the Department kicked us out rather discourteously instead of saying to us, "You fellows are up against a tough proposition.  The Department knows that you will do your best and wishes you success.  Good-bye and good luck." If we had been treated that way I would be in a much better frame of mind tonight.  
This undated photograph taken aboard USS Wadsworth might or might not show conditions aboard the destroyer as she made her initial journey from Boston, Massachusetts to Queenstown (now Cobh) Ireland in 1917.  Joseph Taussig reported in his diary that for six days his destroyers dealt with "half a gale, the wind blowing steadily from SSE," so it is conceivable that this image was from that voyage.  In any event it gives an indication of conditions in the North Atlantic aboard the destroyers that for the rest of the First World War would help the Royal Navy defeat the Kaiserliche Marine. (Naval History and Heritage Command image) 
It is a truism that a kvetching Sailor is a happy Sailor, and despite losing about ten hours conducting repairs en route, Taussig and his gallant crew were happy indeed to have reached Queenstown intact, almost ten days after their departure from Boston.  After all, he wrote in his diary, it could have been much worse, and not just because of the heavy winds that buffeted them for over half the voyage.  Rear Adm. Sims noted that German submarines had laid mines directly off Queenstown the day before Destroyer Division 8's arrival, and they had been discovered just in time. As the windows of Admiralty House shook with the explosions of mines being harvested by Royal Navy minesweepers on the evening of May 3, Vice Adm. Bayly remarked jokingly "that it was a pity to interfere with such a warm welcome as had apparently been planned for our crusaders."  As Taussig and his officers sat down to dinner at Admiralty House after the following evening, the German mines were still exploding in Cork Harbor.  "This again impressed our men," Sims wrote, "with the fact that the game which they had now entered was a quite different affair from their peace-time manoeuvres [sic]"   

Despite the fact that the greatest naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Jutland almost one year before, had forced the Germans to conclude that only the Kaiserliche Marine's submarines could win the war, savage skirmishes continued between surface combatants.  A battle between two British destroyers, HMS Swift and HMS Broke, and six German destroyers early on the morning of April 21 off Dover involved torpedoing at eyeball-to-eyeball range, culminating in Broke ramming one her stricken assailants. For the two minutes the ships were locked together, "a boarding encounter with cutlasses and bayonets, recalling the days when wooden warships came together and the men fought on the decks," ensued.  When it was over, 22 British sailors were killed and 40 were wounded, while 72 of their adversaries perished, along with two of the German destroyers.

HMS Broke rams German destroyer G-85 during a fierce engagement south of Goodwin Sands at approximately 1 in the morning on April 21, 1917.  Her captain, Royal Navy Cmdr. E.R.G.R. Evans, later wrote, "I hit her at full speed almost at right angles abreast after funnel, port side, and she literally tore her side out and bent my stem to port." Not long after the battle, Evans was promoted to captain. (Auckland [New Zealand] Weekly News, July 12, 1917/ Wikimedia Commons)
Captain E.R.G.R. Evans, RN, in 1917.
Upon entering Cork Harbor, the man who commanded HMS Broke during that furious fight, Cmdr. Edward R.G.R. Evans, boarded Wadsworth with a pilot to guide her to her new berth in Queenstown.  He handed Taussig a note written by the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Adm. Sir John Jellicoe, a fellow veteran of the Boxer Rebellion, which said in part:
My experience in China makes me feel perfectly convinced that the two nations will work in the closest cooperation and I won't flatter you by saying too much about the value of your help. 
Just over 123 years after Congress authorized the construction of six frigates to comprise a force that could, in part, protect the nation from the Royal Navy, six American destroyers joined their counterparts in the Royal Navy to face a foe neither had faced together.  The shared struggle at sea during that unprecedented war, and the one that would follow a generation later, built the fraternal bond that still exists between the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy, one century later.

Editor's Note: For incontrovertible, encyclopedic proof that the naval war between the Entente and the Central Powers was far from over when Cdr. Taussig arrived, check out the new book, Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, 1914-1918 by Vincent P. O'Hara and Leonard R. Heinz (Naval Institute Press, 2017).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Fifty Years Ago: A Barracks Ship from Newport News Becomes a Flagship in Vietnam

Consider the barracks ship. Boxy and somewhat nondescript, they are fixtures along the waterfronts of shipyards that service US Navy vessels around the world. They provide berthing, messing, and other miscellaneous functions for the crews of vessels being commissioned, decommissioned, or undergoing major overhaul or rehab work during their life cycle. While this isn't exactly a Cinderella story, fifty years ago a self-propelled barracks ship, a variety of Landing Ship, Tank (LST) built too late to take part in World War II, was plucked from obscurity in Newport News, Virginia, to become an unusual kind of flagship nearly 9,000 miles away.

Somewhere in the Mekong Delta, Riverine Amphibious Assault Force (Task Force 117) flagship USS Benewah (APB-35) of the Mobile Riverine Force supports combat operations led by Armored Troop Carriers (ATCs) passing to her starboard. Both Benewah and the smaller ATCs used during the war in Vietnam were modified from vessels and landing craft built for the Second World War two decades before. (US Navy Photo by Chief Journalist R.D. Moeser/ NHHC image)
As the US Navy became more deeply involved in defending the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, also known as South Vietnam) from its communist northern neighbor fifty years ago, Naval Forces Vietnam had to contend with a riverine type of combat environment on a scale not seen since the Civil War. While the Navy’s research and development emphasis had been going into defeating an increasingly sophisticated Soviet blue water threat, a decidedly low-tech brown water infiltration of the RVN by communist guerrillas was continuing apace, complicating American efforts to bring stability to the country.
The Mekong Delta, situated south of South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, comprised most of the southernmost portion of the country. (
By 1966, after several years of a enforcing a blockade and patrolling the main waterways along the RVN’s 1,200-mile coastline, it was becoming clear that this approach was insufficient in defeating enemy National Liberation Front (Viet Cong, or VC) insurgents, who were using the Mekong Delta, home to over a third of the country's population, as a base of operations. A more integrated approach between the US Army and Navy was called for, and coordination would begin at the top. Gen. William Westmoreland, Commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Rear Adm. (Upper Half) Norvell G. Ward, Commander, US Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), conceived of a strike force to take the fight to the VC in their innumerable hiding places within the delta: the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). Within the MRF, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division would work hand-in-glove with the Sailors of the Riverine Assault Force manning hundreds of small riverine craft.  

In his book War in the Shallows: U.S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968 (2015), historian Robert Sherwood of the Naval History and Heritage Command wrote:
The MRF kept enemy forces in the [Mekong] delta on the defensive and allowed MACV to focus forces in other areas of the country, secured the vital and populous “bread basket” of South Vietnam, and provided essential backup to the three ARVN divisions there. In many respects, it served as the cornerstone for General William Westmoreland’s southern flank.
Although a shore base called Dong Tam (which roughly translated into “united hearts and minds” in Vietnamese) was created for the MRF from land dredged from the delta, the joint operation’s emphasis on mobility necessitated forming mobile bases closer to the action, where front lines were constantly in flux.  As during the Civil War a century before and the First World War 50 years later, the Navy would have to press whatever vessels were on hand into action. Unlike both earlier wars, during which civilian vessels were modified for dangerous war deployments, there was a ready resource for the MRF at depots and shipyards around the country. Ships originally built to support amphibious landings during World War II were pressed into service as the massive counterinsurgency effort in the Mekong Delta got underway, involving up to 30,000 Sailors at its height.  

The Landing Ship, Tank (LST), first produced in 1942, with the last decommissioned in 2002, could deliver much more than tanks. All manner of vehicles, even railroad cars, were delivered by the lumbering, flat-bottomed marvels. Some of the over 1,000 LSTs built during the 1940s were modified during construction to such an extent that their classification changed. Becoming anything from battle damage repair ships (ARBs) and landing craft repair ships (ARLs) to even mini aircraft carriers, LSTs and their derivatives were some of the most versatile ships ever built for naval service. Built too late to see any action during WWII, the self-propelled floating barracks ship USS Benewah (APB-35), named for a county in Northwest Idaho, more than made up for it after arriving fifty years ago in Vietnam to become a flagship in the Navy’s first “great green fleet.”  

After two decades of serving miscellaneous support roles for the Navy Reserve and the Seabees, Benewah could be found serving as a barracks ship, temporarily housing the crews of new ships being built at Newport News Shipbuilding, near the mouth of the James River in Hampton Roads. In July 1966, as the MRF was in its formative stages, Benewah was reacquired by the Navy and sent to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for conversion to a brigade command ship. In addition to new quad-40 mm cannons and 3-inch guns, along with .50 caliber and 7.62mm machine gun mounts, her onboard medical facilities were greatly enlarged, and as a finishing touch, a large helicopter platform was installed above it. She was recommissioned on January 28, 1967, and sent to Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, for training.
The chief's lounge aboard USS Benewah (APB-35) was a place for senior Navy NCOs to relax between operations against communist insurgents in the Mekong Delta, and sported a rather large television (for its time). (NHHC image
Although she emerged in fighting shape, Benewah’s haze gray finish did not exactly befit her role in a venture that would place Soldiers and Sailors on equal footing. This would be remedied during a stopover in Pearl Harbor en route to Vietnam, where she was painted olive green. The  MRF’s new 328-foot long flagship arrived on April 23, 1967, and immediately began operations as a mobile support base for over 1,000 Soldiers, Sailors, and a variety of assault craft belonging to the Riverine Amphibious Assault Force (TF-117).  Benewah was far from just a place for MRF members to shower, sleep, and get a bowl of ice cream. Her Joint Tactical Operations Center monitored and jammed enemy communications while directing assault operations along the delta's 3,000 nautical miles of waterways.    
Benewah is shown here with an assortment of assault craft including ATCs, with one, an ATC(H) equipped with a helicopter pad, and river monitors on the Soi Rap River in October 1967. (US Navy Photo by Photographer's mate 2nd Class C.B. Hall/ NHHC image
Benewah was ultimately joined by several other self-propelled barracks ships modified for MRF service such as USS Colleton (APB-36), USS Mercer (APB-39), and USS Neuces (APB-40). They served as the core of a formidable Mobile Riverine Base fielding 3,600 Soldiers and Sailors and their heavily-armored monitors, Armored Troop Carriers (ATCs), and river patrol boats (PBRs) as they fought to stem the insurgency.  

By late 1970, the war in Vietnam, which saw that the reemergence of monitors in riverine combat operations for the first time since the Civil War, and the reappearance of trench (or immersion) foot as an endemic condition for the first time since the First World War, was over for Benewah. After roughly three and a half years of frontline combat service, earning 11 battle stars in the waters of both Vietnam and Cambodia, the former flagship, one of the most decorated of the entire war, was transferred to Naval Base Subic Bay.  Benewah was decommissioned there in 1971 and subsequently transferred to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which made an unsuccessful attempt to convert her into a hospital ship. She now rests on the sea floor somewhere off the archipelago after being sunk as part of an artificial reef.