The Coast Guard at War: Vietnam, 1965-1975

Article excerpt

Larzelere, Alex. The Coast Guard at War: Vietnam, 1965-1975. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1997. 345pp. $32.95

Most people fail to recognize that the U.S. Coast Guard is this nation's smallest armed force. Captain Alex Larzelere, U.S. Coast Guard (retired), a former commanding officer of two patrol boats in Vietnam, has written a history of the Coast Guard in the Vietnam War that is one of the best examinations of the service's role in combat to be published in many years. While not a historian, Larzelere has done a credible job pulling together many of the documents and other material needed to cover the subject. The author is not the first to broach this subject: Eugene N. Tulich produced a short monograph, The United States Coast Guard in South East Asia during the Vietnam Conflict, for the service in 1975. But Larzelere's work adds more to the literature by including a large number of interviews of the U.S. Coast Guardsmen who served in Southeast Asia, and by his coverage of the decisions that led to the service's participation in the war.

In 1965 the U.S. Navy needed small craft to attempt to control infiltration of war materiel by sea. While destroyers and other ships could work off shore, they could not patrol the rivers and shallow coastal waters. The U.S. Navy turned to the Coast Guard and found it very receptive. The Commandant, Admiral Edwin J. Roland, was "very interested in seeing the Coast Guard get involved in supporting the Navy." The vessels selected were eighty-two-foot patrol boats (WPBs). In peacetime these boats were skippered by master chief boatswain's mates and had a crew of eight enlisted men. For Vietnam, however, two commissioned officers were added, as the "feeling was . . . the presence of an officer was needed for thejob of stopping and boarding vessels. [The service also] thought there should be a little more seniority." A few more enlisted men were added to the complements for this duty.

The Coast Guard performed the remarkable feat of having the patrol boats and their crews brought from various locations throughout the United States and made ready in thirty days. This reviewer can recall a cutter on International Ice Patrol being diverted to St. John's, Newfoundland, so a gunner's mate could be quickly transferred to join the first squadron. The U.S. Coast Guard commissioned Squadron One on 27 May 1965, and as early as 24 July the cutter Point Orient was exchanging fire with the Viet Cong. Eventually twenty-six patrol boats and thirty larger high endurance cutters were assigned to Southeast Asia.

In general, the patrol boats and high endurance cutters received what little publicity the service generated during the war. Larzelere has done a great service for those interested in Vietnam by detailing all the activities of the U.S. Coast Guard in that conflict. The service had explosive loading detachments, shipping and port security groups, a shipping advisor, and aids-tonavigation units in-country. Larzelere's narrative details one overriding feature of these duties-that the Coast Guard met with interservice rivalry and confusion about what they were doing in Vietnam. …