Memoirs of a Brown Water Sailor

Veterans Voices

From 1966 to 1968, the Mobile Riverine Force lost a total of 260 sailors.

(WDVM) — First Class Petty Officer Robert Smith was one of of 300 Navy quartermasters chosen to attend the Navy’s Assault Craft School in Coronado, California in the late 1960s, before being shipped to Vietnam.

Bob’s boat checking a sampan for contraband bound for Viet Cong forces surrounding Saigon.

“My job for that year was to stop traffic on the rivers and check for contraband; weapons, medical supplies and even personnel,” said Smith who lives in Kearneysville, West Virginia.

Smith was the captain of a PBR, a patrol boat, assigned to Task Force 116 of the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta.

The PBR was a heavily armed and highly maneuverable boat about the size of a cabin cruiser you might see on the Chesapeake Bay. It mounted twin .50 caliber heavy machineguns in a gun tub on the bow of the boat.

Staring down the barrels of twin fifties on the bow of a PBR in Vietnam.
A PBR burns on a riverbank after being ambushed by Viet Cong guerillas firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the patrol boat.

Another Ma Deuce [50 cal] was mounted on the fantail with an M-60 machinegun and grenade launcher located amidships. PBRs were powered by jacuzzi engines that allowed them to fly down rivers at 32 miles per hour or creep up canals in two feet of water.

PBR duty was dangerous. From 1966 to 1968, the Mobile Riverine Force lost a total of 260 sailors. Some were helicopter pilots who flew top cover for the patrol boats.

However, the majority were Brown Water Sailors like Smith. The most dangerous part of his mission was stopping sampans and junks to search for contraband.

PBRs always operated in pairs.

“We never knew when they were going to shoot at us,” said Smith, who got into firefights almost daily with the Viet Cong who were posing as fishermen on rivers in the Mekong Delta during his tour of duty.

Two VC suspects taken aboard Bob’s boat for questioning.

“They always surprised us and many times when we had a sampan or junk alongside our boat, searching it, we’d get fire from the shore,” said Smith, “but we learned to maneuver the boat in such a way while we were searching to the middle of the river where the enemy’s accuracy was compromised.”

Smith has a scale replica of his Papa-Bravo-Romeo [PBR] in the war room of his home along with a display case of memorabilia from his days in the Navy.


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