The Brown Water War at 50: A Retrospective on the Coastal and Riverine Conflict in Vietnam

Image of The Brown Water War at 50: A Retrospective on the Coastal and Riverine Conflict in Vietnam
Release Date: 
October 15, 2023
Naval Institute Press
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a 50-year perspective of how the Navy rose to the operational challenge of navigating in an unforgiving environment against a determined foe.”
The coastal and riverine campaigns in Vietnam were a model of tactical improvisation, operational flexibility, and joint operations. This new volume is a series of essays that provide an excellent retrospective on Cutler’s eminent history of Vietnamese coastal and riverine campaigns, numerous historians offer differing viewpoints on the effectiveness of these operations, as well as retelling the stories of the sailors and soldiers that participated in this often-forgotten aspect of America’s long involvement in Southeast Asia.

The opening essays provide a narrative overview of the three aspects of American naval operations in the waters of South Vietnam. First was the patrol blockade of South Vietnam to prevent the shipment of supplies from North Vietnam to Viet Cong guerillas in the south, labeled Operation Market Time.

Second was the introduction of an entire fleet of river gunboats, shallow water amphibious craft, and naval aviation to gain control of the waters of the Mekong Delta. Finally, there was the forgotten mission of providing port and harbor security, especially in the approaches to Saigon up the Long Tau River for the tremendous number of merchants ships bringing cargo to support the increasing American war effort after 1965. All these forces eventually came under the control of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam commanded by a three-star Admiral.

In addition to securing the waters both offshore and in the rivers of South Vietnam, the Navy faced the challenge of defeating the Viet Cong stranglehold on the Mekong Delta, one of the primary agricultural regions of the country. This presented a challenge both tactically and technically to the Navy and in the early years of Americans involvement, and there was great debate on whether the Navy should undertake this role at all. The essay covering the joint Army-Navy effort to wrest control of the Mekong Delta describes the wide array of river craft that had to be develop as well as the joint command that led to the largest cooperative mission between the services to conduct a riverine campaign since the Union effort to seize the Mississippi River in the Civil War.

Two essays cover the often-neglected contributions of the  U.S. Marines and the South Vietnamese Navy and Marine Corps to the river and coastal campaigns. There were several rivers in the I Corps area in the northern part of the country where most of the U.S. Marines operated, and numerous Marines served as advisors with the South Vietnamese counterparts throughout the conflict. The South Vietnamese Navy and Marines, while often overshadowed by their American counterparts, were heavily involved in both riverine and maritime operations, particularly as the American involvement began to draw down from 1969 onward.

Of course, none of these efforts would have been possible without the support of naval aviation. In order to provide air support to the riverine forces, naval aviators not only borrowed helicopters and aircraft from the army suitable to operate in the Mekong, they devised innovative ways to operate helicopters off larger riverine craft to provide critical air support to maritime forces in contact with enemy troops.

Finally, because this a retrospective book, two other essays use previously unavailable sources to look at the crucial Communist Chinese and Soviet Union support to the war. The first examines the maritime flow of supplies through supposedly neutral Cambodia via the port of Sihanoukville and the intelligence challenge the U.S. had trying to understand the extent of the flow of material.

The second examines the overall extent of Communist China’s support to North Vietnam, without which their war effort would have likely collapsed. The subsequent violation of the neutrality of both Laos and Cambodia was a continual frustration to American commanders trying to neutralize the Viet Cong and support the South Vietnamese government, and as these essays show, even the most critical intelligence estimate underestimated the level of material shipped by China and the Soviets during the peak of the war.

All of the essays have copious endnotes, and the authors provide an excellent further reading list that covers the entire range of naval operations during the war. The volume provides an excellent update to Cutler’s classic history of Vietnam riverine operations, providing a 50-year perspective of how the Navy rose to the operational challenge of navigating in an unforgiving environment against a determined foe.