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Review of PTFs and BSU-1 in Vietnam

COMMAND HISTORY - Vietnam 1964-1972

The earliest dedicated naval special warfare craft was the PTF (fast patrol boat). Its role in the Vietnam war has been shrouded in classified operations and only recently been de-classified. The boats development is also a product of political and changing military doctrine. Both must be discussed before getting into the development of the PTF.

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The year 1961 was a year that saw President John F. Kennedy direct the armed services to create "counter-insurgency forces to meet the irregular forces developing in the hot spots of the world." In Vietnam in 1961 the CIA was supporting the South Vietnamese government. In a covert war against the North, maritime operations at this time were carried out by South Vietnam's 1st Observation Group and were inserted and extracted by junks, under the code name Nautilus. The North Vietnamese responded by building a Navy capable of protecting her coastline.

President Kennedy's mandate gave birth to the U.S. Navy SEALs in January 1962. The naval commando who's role is to have a sea air and land capability. The Navy and SEALs were now looking for delivery platforms for this sea-borne raider. Air assets, ships, and even submarines were already in the Navy's inventory. What was lacking was an armed, high speed shallow draft boat that could operate in a hostile coastal environment and insert, support, and extract a SEAL platoon. To meet the needs of the SEALs the Navy went "shopping". A key figure of influence, and a naval special warfare legend, was Capt. Phil H. Bucklew, whose exploits in World War II won him two Navy crosses and the silver star. Capt Bucklew made use of the PT boats in WWII and again in Korea. As the commanding officer of the newly commissioned Naval Operations Support Group One (now Naval Special Warfare Group One) knew he needed PT boats again and made his views known.

The development of the PTF began with two aging post war PT boats, PTs 810 and 811. While identified as a quick solution for the SEALs, money was put into the boats and modernized and designated PTFs on 21 Dec. 1962. JPG (53048 bytes)

These craft once refurbished were moved to Little Creek Va. and began stateside SEAL support operations. More PTFs were needed and the Navy began looking at designs. The Navy for years had been looking at a new combatant craft to match the Soviet small combatant craft, but never really had the need or money for such a craft in the fleet so all research was on paper alone. Of all this research the best design was the Norwegian Tjeld ( Nasty) Class torpedo boat. The chief obstacle to buying a foreign boat was political. The legal obstacles of the buy-American Act required presidential authorization. This political obstacle was over come when the Central Intelligence Agency requested a new presence in Vietnam by Jan. 1963. So two Norwegian Nasty class boats, named Skrei, and Hvass were bought in December 1962. These would become PTFs 3 and 4. Planners now saw the need for 10 to 15 more PTFs. So the politics of boat procurement were overcome by geo-political events. 

1963 was a year where much was to be accomplished in little time because of the commitments in Vietnam. SEALs were already in DaNang and training the SCT sea-commando (biet-hai) since mid-1962. MACVSOG had established a base For the new maritime assets coming, and South Vietnamese Navy ( Hai-Tuan ) crews were being gathered and trained to prepare for the arrival of the PTFs, and a logistical night-mare of all support lined up. The CIA's Philippine-based Eastern Construction Company (ECC) set up its company and integrated into the MACVSOG organization, as well as the Chinese, German, and Norwegian hired operators.

In the U.S. at Little Creek Va. as the PTFs became operational, crews were recruited, many officers were L.D.O.'s and the enlisted were serious professionals. Much of the boat training was self-taught. It was found that the PTF crewman was a professional in his rate yet cross-trained in all operations of the boat. The theory being if one man is a casualty another could take his place, so it was possible for a Radarman to find himself manning a weapon. The crew was also trained in navigation and small arms. Boat tactics were being developed, SEAL support operations was learned from insertion and extraction, patrol planning, and standard operating procedures between boats and SEALs.

Special Boat Squadron ONE was originally established by CNO on 1 February 1964 as Boat Support Unit ONE, a component command of Naval Operations Support Groups, Pacific. Its mission was to administer the newly reinstated PTF (Patrol Torpedo Fast) Boat program and to operate high-speed craft in support of Naval Special Warfare Operations, this primarily in conjunction with UDT and SEAL units. BSU-1's first commanding officer was Lt. Bert Knight. The missions were soon expanded to include all aspects of riverine and restricted water warfare. The PTF program grew rapidly, beginning with four “Nasty” class PTF’s in the fall of 1964. Crews attended schools in the San Diego area, then deployed to Subic Bay, Philippines, to put their boats in service and prepare for operational commitments. As a result of events in the Tonkin Gulf, there had been a great demand for simulated PTF type attacks for training, and Boat Support Unit ONE was tasked with providing such services. In September 1965, Boat Support Unit ONE implemented the original training for PCF (Swift) crews in underway boat operation for duty as part of the MARKET TIME patrol in Vietnam, using eight Swift Boats. On 1 July 1971, Boat Support Unit ONE was re-designated Coastal River Squadron ONE and its mission broadened to encompass coastal/riverine patrol and warfare.

The command was instrumental in the development and evaluation of a wide variety of small boat projects. These included the Landing Craft Swimmer Recovery Vessel (LCSR); Coastal Patrol and Interdiction Craft (CPIC); Swimmer Delivery Vehicle, Auxiliary (LCU/ASDV), which continues to serve as a mother ship for SEAL/UDT mini-subs, providing compressed air and diver recompression emergency services; and the FLAGSTAFF (PCH-l), one of the Navy’s first operational hydrofoils. ptfbsu1photo4.jpg (32578 bytes)

While this sounds good, in reality BSU-1 assets had deployed to Subic Bay P.I.  By Feb. these deployed assets were now called Mobile Support Team One (MST-1). The Philippines was a good source of mahogany wood for the Nasty PTFs, and soon a Napier Deltic engine repair facility was installed and Subic Bay P.I. became the "official" homeport for deployed PTF Dets. While the PTFs were being painted dark green, PTF Crews endured S.E.R.E. School. PTF-1 and 2 received 2 single 50cal m.g's. Final preparations of the craft and other assets were loaded out on a LSD for its last leg of the journey to Vietnam. 

On 24 Jan, 1964 MACVSOG was formally organized in Vietnam, and on that same day President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the authorization of OPLAN- 34a. Op-34a was the authorization to carry out operations in North Vietnam. April 1964 saw PTF-1 and 2 plus a pontoon dock, a floating dry dock (AFDL-23), a crane barge, and a LCM-3 push boat arrive in DaNang. gray.ptfdanang2b.jpg (46287 bytes)

PTF-3 And 4 remained in Subic for fuel tank improvements. May saw PTF's 3,4,5,6, arrive in DaNang. July saw PTF's-7 and 8 arrive in-country. MST-1 assets continued to arrive in increments over the the years including three PCF Swift Boats. These PCFs were proto types without the twin 50 cal m.g. gun tub on top of the pilot house. These swifts were in the early years used on raids North also, but later they were used for harbor and base security and logistic support. Upon arrival in DaNang MST-1 became part of MACVSOG's maritime organization called the Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) whose first C.O. was Cmdr. Al Thomas. NAD  was organized into a repair and maintenance team, boat training team, SEAL training team, and a marine recon team for NAD Security. The South Vietnamese personnel contribution was the Coastal Security Service, CSS, (so phong ve duyen hai). The CSS was the South Vietnamese organization of MACVSOG, with Cmdr. Ho van Ky Thoai as C.O.. The CSS like SOG utilized different services into the special action teams, with code names for its teams, Sea Commando Team (SCT) that were trained and run by U.S. Navy SEALs was called "Vega". The Marines was " Romulus", and Army was "Nimbus". The CSS also controlled civilian agents code name " Cumulus". The Coastal Security Service (CSS) were the PTF boat crews (hai-tuan), and also PCFs and the junks under "Nautilus". These South Vietnamese Navy sailors were supposed to be above the average in the regular South Viet Navy and received more pay than their regular South Vietnamese sailors. South Vietnamese civilians were also hired to run the base facilities.

NAD bases at DaNang comprised of a number of facilities.

  1. Lower base camp, was the operational base of NAD. In-Country PTFs were birthed at 3 pontoon piers, it also had the command post, and craft repair and maintenance facilities
  2. Upper base camp, contained the messing and birthing and Administrative facilities for the CSS.
  3. Camp Fay, was the principle birthing and messing and support area for all U.S. Personnel assigned to NAD. However early in the war officers were billeted in a French villa known as the Alamo.
  4. Camp Black Rock located a mile east of Camp Fay was the berthing area of the SEALs.
  5. Coral beach, was a range for pistol, rifles, grenades and mortars. It was also an area for training for infiltration.
  6. Spanish beach, was the magazine storage for ordinance.
  7. Nung Camp, located next to upper base camp, was used for additional CSS and CIDG birthing.
  8. "Do-Do" Island P.O.W. Camp for North Vietnamese prisoners.
MST-1, on arrival, began training CSS on PTFs. There was a great push to become operational. American PTF crews taught The CSS/PTF crews what they had learned in the States, plus air and fleet coordination, proper communication procedures, and multiple boat tactics, gunnery and underway repairs were stressed.

Later in the war PTFs were used to simulate attacks on 7th Fleet ships in the area. But what was quickly apparent was that the CSS crews did not grasp the technical side of the high performance PTF. There were several visits by Norwegian tech. reps of Bataservice Industrier A/S, who built the Nasty PTF over the years. 

Operations against North Vietnam by the PTFs began in late May 1964 and set the pattern of raids that would last until the last operations in 1971. It is note worthy that these operation were comparable to American PT's and British MTB's of WWII. This was extremely rare and unique in the Vietnam war and any other conflict since WWII. These missions include, direct action missions, insertion and extraction of SCT teams for recon, prisoner snatches, and demolition raids, insertion and extraction of agents. Psychological operations, which included floating in special one frequency radios that would only pick-up only a SOG propaganda station. Also fishermen from the north would be kidnapped and taken south where they would be wined and dined and shown the wonders of South Vietnam. They were given presents and taken back to the north with the hope they would spread dissent. The success of this program was questionable but popular as many North Vietnamese fishermen were repeat guests and had many volunteers. Coastal patrol and interdiction of the northern coast included junk captures, board and search and the disruption of North Vietnams maritime industry. The PTFs aided in hydrographic surveys of North Vietnam and were available assets in the recovery of downed pilots. The most dramatic missions of the PTFs were shore bombardment and direct combat action against North Vietnam's naval combatant craft. 

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of the raids up north occurred on 2 Aug. 1964 the USS Maddox DD- 731 was making a Desoto patrol [intell sweep] when it was attacked by North Vietnamese  P-4 torpedo boats. The attack was repulsed, but the ramifications were historic. The North Vietnamese government claimed it was chasing South Vietnamese PT boats and assumed the Maddox was also part of the raid. This incident gave President Lyndon. B. Johnson the political power to commit a massive influx of U.S. Forces into Vietnam. The Vietnam War that would take the lives of 58,000 Americans. The small covert war could have remained as it was, it was a Politician that made the decision, and its the service man that carries out the order. In 1964 who knew, the PTFs stood down for two months after the Maddox incident. Then they carried on with ops. Some typical PTF operations during op34a are described in the October 1964 ops schedule:

October 1-31
Prisoner snatch by SCT from PTF.

  • Junk capture.
  • Bombard Cafe Mui Ron and Tiger Island by PTFs.
  • Bombardment of Yen Phu and Sam Son radar sites by PTFs.
  • Return captives from previous raid (junk capture).
  • Bombardment of Hon Ne and Hon Me.
  • SCT team blows up pier at Phuc Loi and bombard Hon Gu.
  • SCT team blows section of Hanoi-Vinh rail line.
  • Bombardment of Dong Hoi and Tiger Island by PTFs.
  • Bombardment of Nightingale Island.
It has been often asked did Americans go north on ops? Officially no, and were ordered not to. However Capt. Phil Bucklew stated over the years it was necessary for American participation, whether to support a CSS counter-part, it was to reassure his CSS counter-part that all of the advise and support he had given was valid. This made the SEAL/MST counter-part more credible thus more effective, however most of the time, SCT personnel were in DaNang behind the scenes performing up-keep on the boats. 


In fact in the later years most enlisted MST thought that going to DaNang or "on site" as they called it, rather passive, but a great place for drinking beer and a serious game of monopoly. Enlisted MST did feel friction towards the CSS because the CSS who would come down, operate the boats north, come back and walk off and leave the MST to fix them. However the CSS working in the hops with the MST were on good terms with the enlisted MST. It must also be noted that enlisted MST were often kept in the dark about operations up north, and only had vague idea about what went on through rumors and conversations. 

In Jan. 1965 the PTFs and PCFs were leased to the South Vietnamese Navy. PTFs-1 and 2 were so mechanically unreliable and had no spare parts so they were stripped and sunk for target practice in 1965. PTF-4 was sunk in 1965 on ops, and 8,9, 14, 15, and 16 were sunk in 1966 on ops. North Vietnam now was fighting back with coastal batteries and combatant craft and on rare occasions NVN aircraft. One PTF was sunk by accident by another PTF, blue on blue engagements could be understandable when you have trouble with bad communications, a radar screen, full of contacts and no positive control of your patrol at night. Some PTFs were accidentally grounded, so at any one time in DaNang there were at least 5 to 7 PTFs and 11 CSS crews available for Ops. MST crews were the backbone of keeping the boats up and available for ops., but it was clear more PTFs were needed to replace the battle loses and badly damaged PTFs. In 1967 the Navy was building PTFs of the Nasty design in the U.S. at John Trumpy and Sons of Annapolis, Maryland. These craft were built under license from Norwegian designs. These PTFs would be known as "Trumpy" class PTFs numbered in series 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22. 

The missions continued through the years, some filled with violence and tragedy, others were milk runs that could have suddenly turned to death. But a final look at an operation called Hai Chang Do 1, MACVSOG plan 5-71, on the night of 19- 20 Feb 1971 reveals the nature of aggressive PTF operators. Four PTFs in the Hon Nieu island area observed three large freighters of Chinese registry. While photographing these ships they were engaged by a North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boat. This P-4 was engaged and sunk. With the mission compromised the PTFs heads south. A hour later the PTFs were engaged by a North Vietnamese Swatlow class and Shanghi class gun boats. These boats were engaged and were heavily damaged and left behind as the PTFs headed south. The PTF patrols were passing between Hon Gio Island and the north Vietnamese coast when they were engaged again by a P-4 torpedo boat and a Shanghi class gunboat. The P-4 was heavily damaged and broke off the engagement, same For the Shanghi. The PTFs returned to DaNang with one KIA amongst her crews. 

It must also be noted that the SCT and CSS also did operations in South Vietnam under the code name Dodge Mark. These operations were primarily SCT teams with their SEAL counter-parts, but PTFs did support the missions by insertion, and extraction and gunfire support. A typical Dodge Mark mission using SCT and a PTF occurred 25 April 1969, a PTF left DaNang and transited to Barrier Island. Well off shore the PTF launched two RB-12s inflatable boats, One of the RE-12 engines wouldn't start so the other inflatable was towed along with them. At 400 yards from the beach the SCT swam ashore leaving just the coxswains on the inflatable. The SCT sent scouts up the beach, but they quickly returned for two V.C. were coming down the beach. A hasty ambush was set up and the V.C. killed, their bodies searched for intell. The SCT then swam out to the RB-12s and called for extraction, and moved out to meet the PTF. The PTF recovered the boats and team and returned to DaNang. While this was technically a CSS operation, because it was south of the DMZ, the SEAL advisors went with the SCT, and 2 MST were aboard the PTF. 

The year of 1971 also saw the stateside commands change their names from Boat Support Units 1 and 2, to Coastal River Squadron 1 and 2.

In Vietnam MACVSOG was in the process of turning over operations to the Vietnamese and the Naval Advisory Detachment was no exception. The improvement and modernization program was a program that prepared the CSS to operate independently and take over planning and conduct operations without U.S. advise. 

The CSS took over in May 1971. Then on 22 Oct 71 typhoon Ester hit DaNang and the damage to MST Assets were PTF 6, 12 and PCF 3 were sunk at the piers Also a LCM-3 and the 40' UB boat were sunk. All boats were raised and PTFs 6 ,12 and PCF 3 were sent to Subic Bay P.I. for repairs. The LCM-3 was repaired by CSS/MST and the 40' UB was surveyed. The CSS in early 1972 was organized into five 15 man SCT teams, a maintenance training team, eleven PTF crews and five PCF crews, plus a headquarters and support element. Jan. 72 Saw all NAD base facilities turn over to the CSS except for Camp Fay which still supported U.S.N, personnel. MST-1 in 1972 had 7 PTFs, 3 PCFs, 1 LCM-3, 1 LCM-3 push boat, 1 40' Utility boat, and a 30 ton crane barge. On Mar. 72 NAD received approved relief from the maritime mission assigned to MACVSOG, on 28 Apr 72 Naval Advisory Detachment was disestablished. The leases to the South Vietnamese of the PTFs were terminated and the PTFs and other MST assets were shipped out of Vietnam. MACVSOG was disestablished 30 Apr 72 and became Strategic Technical Directorate Team 158. This ended more than eight years of of covert maritime operations. This was true naval special warfare. 


At home in the U.S. the PTFs were divided up between the two east and west coast Coastal River Squadrons and Subic Bay would become MST-3 in 1972, a forward operations base for PTFs. From 1972 to 1978 the PTFs carried out her missions in the form of training exercises which included SEAL/UDT Insertion and extractions, and simulated enemy PT attacks on U.S Navy ships called Komar exercises. Some PTFs were used as platforms for evaluation in new weapons and engineering. Peace time found it too expensive to operate and maintain these high performance craft and the PTFs were placed out of service between the years of 1976 and 1978 (PTF-13 in 1972). 

In May 1976, Coastal River Squadron ONE received the first of a projected 8 new 65-foot patrol boats, 6 of which were received and were operational for over 2 years. Total acquisition was completed in May 1979. The PB was expected to carry the Coastal Interdiction/Patrol mission of the command well through the next decade. In September 1976, FLAGSTAFF (PGH-l) was transferred to the Coast Guard. During January 1977, USS CANNON (PG-90), USS GALLUP (PG-85), and two “Trumpy” class PTF’s were retired from service.

In October 1978 Coastal River Squadron ONE became Special Boat Squadron ONE, spawning three commissioned units; Special Boat Units ELEVEN, (Mare Island, San Francisco), TWELVE, and THIRTEEN (Reserve Training Component).

Special Boat Unit TWELVE performed its mission of Coastal Patrol and Interdiction, UDT/SEAL Team support and diving qualification support with various craft assigned including two auxiliary swimmer, deployment vehicle tenders (ASDV), two patrol torpedo craft (PTF), three Specter class patrol boats and various smaller craft. The unit also maintained a detachment (Mobile Support Team Three) in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines of one officer and ten enlisted personnel who support UDT/SEAL Team training in the Western Pacific.

Today....   (01-05-07 The History of all units is here.)

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(Compiled by Jim Gray from his personal experiences and the following bibliography.)


  • MACVSOG Command History - Annex A,N,&, M 1964-1966, Annex B 1971-1972, by Charles F. Reske, Alpha Publications, 1990 ISBN:0-939427-60-5. 
  • Reminiscences of Capt. Phil H. Bucklew USN (ret.), U.S. Naval Institute oral history deft. 1981. 
  • Southeast Asian Special Forces, by Ken Conboy, Osprey Publishing Ltd. 1991, ISBN: 1-85532-106-8. 
  • U.S. Small Combatants, by Norman Friedman, Naval Institute Press 1987, ISBN: 0-87021-713-5 
  • Jane's Fighting Ships, 1970-1971, Capt. John More RN, Franklin Watts inc. ISBN: 0531-032515 
  • Boat Manual for the Nasty Class PTF, Bataservice Industrier A/S Norway,