How AOGs Fueled the Vietnam War

Paul Gryniewicz
Sea Classics

Jan 31, 2005 19:00 EST

In his Report on the War in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland observed that, "We were utterly dependent upon the sea logistical line."

A critical link in Westmorland's supply chain was made up of six, small slow, 22-year-old US Navy gasoline tankers: USS Patapsco (AOG-1), USS Elkhorn (AOG-7), USS Genesee (AOG-8). USS Kishwaukee (AOG-9), USS Tombigbee (AOG-11) and USS Noxubee (AOG-56). Their mission was to deliver fuel to US forces in the I Corps Tactical Zone, the five most northern provinces of South Vietnam that ran from the Ben Hai River in the center of the DMZ south to Sa Hyuhn. Thirty to 70-miles wide, I Corps was bordered on the west by Laos and on the east by the South China Sea. With the exception of a low, narrow coastal plain, jungle and mountains covered the region. Land-based transportation was practically non-existent. Route One was a narrow winding road running the length of the zone. A single narrow-gauge railroad ran parallel to it. Both were frequently out of commission due to enemy action and monsoon storms. The only established port in the zone was Da Nang.

I Corps' physical condition meant that the only way to practically and consistently move large quantities of supplies around was by water. Without fuel, planes and helicopters could not fly, tanks and trucks could not move, and PBRs and swift boats could not patrol the waterways. In December 1968 alone, shore-based forces consumed 1.7 million gallons of fuel daily. On average, the six AOGs pumped over 15 million gallons of fuel per nine-month deployment. Noxubee set the record by pumping 20 million gallons in 1968, earning a Meritorious Unit Commendation in the process.

THE SHIPS

Patapsco, Elkhorn, Genesee, Kishwaukee, Tombigbee and Noxubee were ideally suited to the conditions in Vietnam. Each ship was 310-ft long, with a beam of 48-ft 7-in and a draft of 15-ft 8-in. Four 1000-hp General Motors 16-cylinder diesel engines gave them a maximum speed of 14-kts. Twin screws and a large single rudder made them highly maneuverable. Armament included three 3-in .50-cal dual-purpose guns and two .50-cal machine gums for close-in defense. Ten zinc-lined liquid cargo tanks carried 680,000 gallons of motor gasoline, aviation gasoline, diesel fuel or jet fuel. Each ship was equipped with an LST type stern anchor mounted on the fantail. They carried a crew of six or seven officers and 90 men.

THE MISSION

For seven hard years, beginning in March 1965 and ending early 1972, at least one AOG was constantly deployed in Vietnamese waters. Tombigbee arrived in Vietnam on 8 March 1965, supporting the Ninth Marine Expeditionary Force as they waded ashore at Red Beach near Da Nang. Tombigbee became the first AOG to pump fuel ashore during the Vietnam War.

The high point of logistical operations occurred between 1966 and 1970 when at least two AOGs operated out of Da Nang at all times. While deployed to Vietnam, the six tankers remained units of Service Squadron Five, Service Force Pacific Fleet, but operated under the control of Commander Naval Support Activity, Da Nang.

During the early days of the war, the AOGs filled their empty cargo tanks at the Esso Fuel Depot pier at Da Nang. However repeated enemy attacks closed the depot, forcing the AOGs to take on fuel from a civilian depot tanker anchored safely out in the harbor. The big tanker could fill an empty AOGs cargo tanks in only twelve hours. Loaded with a mixed cargo of aviation gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and motor gasoline, the AOGs would get underway for one of the four Naval Supply Activity Detachments scattered along the coast: Sa Huyhn, Chu Lai, Tan My or Cua Viet. After a slow five- to seven-kt overnight run along the coast, threading their way through fishing boats and other coastal traffic, the AOGs would time their arrivals for daybreak.

Using both bow and stern anchors to keep from swinging with the current, AOGs anchored 1500 to 2000 yards offshore alongside a buoy marking the seaward terminus of an assault pipeline. One of the ship's boats or a boat from shore would float a fourinch hose from the tank deck to the buoy. A swiveling gooseneck connection on top of the buoy gave the AOGs a secure point to attach the refueling hoses. First, a crewman would hop onto the buoy and connect the hose. Once the connection was secure, the AOG would begin pumping fuel ashore. Due to their limited pumping capacity and small-diameter pipelines, it could take as long as 72 hours to unload all 680,000 gallons of fuel.

Initially the pipelines were fourinch floating lines that were quick and easy to install, but they were just as easily damaged by high surf and small boats, and were frequently out of action. By early 1968, all the floating lines were replaced by six-inch bottom-lay lines, which greatly improved reliability. However, the October to March monsoon season with its high winds and high surf frequently ripped up even these pipelines.

While pumping fuel ashore, LCUs (large landing craft), bladder boats (LCMs with 10,000-gal neoprene fuel bladders), YOGs (small harbor tankers), ammi barges (fuel storage pontoons with 70,000-gal capacity), and even an occasional Coast Guard cutter and Marine LVT would tie up alongside the AOG's tankdeck. While taking on fuel and fresh water, their crews were welcomed aboard for a shower, hot meal, a visit to the ship's store or, if their timing was right, a movie.

For security, pairs of sentries were stationed on the AOGs forecastle and fantail to keep unwanted swimmers and small craft away from the ship. The sentries were armed with M-1 rifles and concussion grenades. At night and at random intervals, the sentries tossed grenades over the side. The explosions were hard on the marine life and sleep for the crew, but were effective in keeping swimmers away. Depending on potential enemy threats, the ship's motor whaleboat, with a similarly armed crew, circled the ship on guard for any suspicious activity.

Once the tanker was empty, the AOG returned to Da Nang for another cargo, and as soon as she was topped off, the cycle would be repeated. For everyone on board, from captain to mess cook, a full night's sleep was an unheard-of luxury. Eighteen-hour workdays and seven-day work weeks were common. Life for the AOG crews became a constant blur of sea and anchor details, underway watches, refueling details, pumping watches, sentry watches and anchor watches, in addition to regular ship's work and maintenance. The crews stayed aboard ship practically the entire time. The only exception was a couple of hours ashore in Da Nang on a Sunday afternoon, only if the ship was in port and only for one duty section. After three or four months of constant activity, the ships would depart for a couple of weeks of upkeep and R&R at Subie Bay, Philippine Islands, Hong Kong, or some other nearby port. After that brief respite, they went back on the line shuttling fuel.

SAHUYHN

Sa Huyhn, the smallest and southernmost NSAD in I Corps, was about 100 miles south of Da Nang and two miles north of the I Corps' southern boarder. Established to support the US Army in the Due Pho region, Sa Huyhn was located on an island just off the mainland. A dense jungle coming right up to the beach gave Sa Huyhn a tropical appearance not found at the other NSAD locations. On the mainland, mountains seemed to come right up to the beach. The jungle and isolation caused Sa Huyhn to be nicknamed "Gilligan's Island" by at least one AOG crew.

The NASD constructed LCU ramps, an assault pipeline, a causeway to the mainland, a fuel farm, and various support buildings on the island. The US Army provided security in the area, and US Navy Swift Boats patrolled the waters around the island. The pipeline and causeway were frequently knocked out of service by the winter monsoons coming in off the South China Sea.

CHU LAI

Just 56 miles south of Da Nang, Chu Lai, located at the mouth of the Troung River, was the supply center for the First Marine Division and air bases in the area. Typical of the coast of I Corps, there was no harbor. The unprotected coastal anchorage experienced heavy seas, causing frequent interruptions in the transfer of fuel. In 1965, Genesee contributed to the construction of the airfield by pumping over ten million gallons of water to make concrete for the runways. Setting the pace for all future AOG operations, Genesee became the first unit of Service Force Pacific Fleet during the Vietnam War to be awarded the Navy Unit Commendation. Facilities were so improved that, by 1968, AOGs were replaced by larger civilian tankers and only infrequently delivered cargo to Chu Lai.

TAN MY

Located at the mouth of the Perfume River, 30 miles north of Da Nang, Tan My provided support for US Marines in the Hue-Phu Bai area. An underwater pipeline and a rigid tank farm were built in early 1967, along with improvements to LST ramps and other shore facilities. Ships could either anchor offshore or in the lagoon at the mouth of the river and deliver their cargoes. AOGs typically anchored offshore at the pipeline buoy to unload, but they entered the lagoon when weather or enemy action closed down the pipeline and pumped fuel directly into bladder boats and barges. Such was the case in November 1966, when storm damage to the pipeline earned Patapsco the distinction of being the first AOG to enter the lagoon to unload.

Tan My was in the cross hairs of the Communists' 1968 TET offensive. The fuel farm was destroyed along with several landing craft and barges. River cargo operations were interrupted for ten days, and 18 men belonging to NSAD Tan My were killed. During one 72-hr period of nonstop operations, Kishwaukee pumped 1.7 million gallons ashore at Cua Viet and Hue. While anchored in the lagoon at Tan My on 28 February, unloading into bladder boats and barges, she came under small-arms fire, quickly got underway without any casualties, re-anchored out of range and resumed pumping. The need for fuel was so critical during the TET Offensive that Kishwaukee spent 144 out of 168 days on the line.

On 1 May 1968, Genesee arrived at Tan My and anchored alongside the pipeline buoy. US Army LARC-801 came out to assist Genesee connecting to the pipeline. Genesee crewmen SA Donald Shafer and DC2 Harley Cowans climbed aboard the LARC and hooked the ship's hoses to the connection on the buoy. Those on board Genesee witnessed the LARC explode and burst into flames. The stunned observers saw one of the men blown through the air and into the water.

The LARC was completely engulfed by a lake of fire as the motor whaleboat from Genesee got underway to rescue the crew. SF3 Tony Neil, aboard the whaleboat, dove into the flame-covered water to attempt a rescue. Swimming under water and pushing the flames away with his hands when he surfaced for a breath, Neil located the LARC's driver, SP4 Tommy Miller, who was without a life jacket and badly burned. Neil managed to get the burned driver back to the ship. The others on the whaleboat fished Cowans and another LARC crewman out of the water but could not locate Schafer. By this time LCM-92 and 18 other LARCs were on site searching for the missing seaman but without any luck. Army units recovered Shafer's body a week later. An investigation determined that a spark from the LARC's exhaust caused avgas from the leaking hose line to ignite, destroying the LARC, killing Shafer and injuring three others.

CUA VIET

The Cua Viet River had well-earned reputation of being a very dangerous place, while at the same time it was one of the most beautiful. The brown, muddy river water entered into the blue-green South China Sea less than four miles from the DMZ. The mouth of the river was blocked by constantly shifting sandbars and surrounded by miles of white sand beaches. Its banks were dotted with dark green pine trees. No jungle here. The river and sea teemed with life. Fish were plentiful, water snakes were common, sharks fed in the mix of fresh and salt water and sea turtles were occasionally seen at night.

Pipeline damage would often force the AOGs to enter the river itself to unload. In August 1967, Elkhorn was the first AOG to enter the Cua Viet River to unload.

On the north bank of the river sat a fishing village whose boats and nets made navigation in the river and coastal areas difficult for larger vessels. Along with NASD Cua Viet, with its bladder fuel farm, the south bank was home to the river patrol boats of Task Force Clearwater and the US Marines at Camp Kistler. The whole place had the look and feel of being under siege. Each building was heavily sandbagged. Concertina wire and mine fields surrounded the landward side. LCPLs and PBRs of the River security Group patrolled the river, while minesweepers worked to keep the river clear. Enemy attacks were frequent, with the fuel farm being the target. It was not uncommon for hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel to go up in fire and smoke in a single attack.

AOGS UNDER ATTACK AT CUA VIET

Patapsco anchored at the Cua Viet pipeline on 15 February 1968 and commenced pumping over 338,000 gallons of jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel fuel ashore. At 1422 the next day, eight artillery rounds landed nearby, forcing her to get underway. At 1641 Patapsco re-anchored and resumed unloading. Back at Cua Viet on 27 and 28 February, Patapsco was again forced to secure from pumping and get underway to dodge incoming fire. Patapsco was not hit in these attacks.

On 28 October 1968, Noxubee (Lt. J.R. McCall) was pumping cargo through the underwater pipeline and to a bladder boat alongside when North Vietnamese artillery opened fire on the ship. Ensign Richard Bland was at the pumping station on the port side of the tank deck when the first rounds came in, sending up plumes of water along the starboard side. Bland called away the sea detail, and ordered the engine room to stand by for an emergency underway. BMC Franklin and the two fantail sentries quickly yanked the stern anchor up, while at the same time, Ens. Andy Bavarik, hauled in the bow anchor.

Meanwhile, Bland and the tank deck crew cast off the bladder boat and grabbed fire axes to cut away the fueling hoses. All the while, the enemy's artillery was bracketing the ship. By the time the fuel hoses were cut free and the bow anchor hoisted off the bottom, Noxubee was underway at 14-kts and safely got out of range. After a few hours, Noxubee returned to the anchorage and resumed pumping.

Genesee (Lt. Alan Pendleton) arrived off Cua Viet early on the morning of Monday, 22 April 1968, and was informed that the new six-inch underwater line was not yet completed and the old four-inch floating line was out of commission. Genesee then entered the Cua Viet River and by 0845 was securely moored in mid-channel, in five fathoms of water, her bow toward the mouth of the river and her starboard side abeam of the fuel depot.

The AOG commenced pumping fuel ashore at 1010. At 1650, Ammi Barge 824 tied up to the port side tank deck and began taking on diesel fuel. At 2314, Genesee secured pumping for the day. Two minutes later, Genesee began taking mortar fire.

The first round was short, the next long, and the next four or five walked down the length of the ship as near misses. The XO, Lt(Jg) Michael Haines, from his GQ station on the signal bridge, directed the crew of Mt. 33 to cut the stern mooring line. He also ordered all exposed topside personnel below and darkened ship. Cutting the stern line enabled the ship to swing about ten feet, just enough to keep from taking a direct hit on the tank deck loaded with JP-4 jet fuel that could have incinerated the ship and all those aboard.

Rounds were exploding all around. It was only a matter of time before the enemy gunners found their mark. The first hit was on the 01 level port side aft. A second round struck the outboard engine on the ammi barge. Both hits sent lethal shrapnel flying up and down the port side of the Genesee and started fires on the ship and the barge. Internal communications throughout the ship were knocked out. Chunks of flying steel perforated Genesee's stack and exploded an acetylene tank stored along the passageway outside the wardroom. Shrapnel sliced through the high frequency antennas, limiting Genesee's ability communications to the outside world. One chunk hit a 55-gal gasoline drum stored on the 02 level aft. Fire flowed down the scuppers and down the side of the ship near the JP-4 cargo tanks. hot metal tore through the tops of empty cargo tanks B-2 and B-4 without causing any additional fires or explosions. The most serious damage occurred forward. As SF3 Art Ball was securing the watertight door from the tank deck, shrapnel blasted through the door, striking Ball in the left chest and abdomen. SA Theodore Perkins, who was standing near Ball, was also wounded.

Ball and Perkins were alive and conscious when "Doc" Blind arrived in the forward passageway and began treating their wounds. With only limited medical facilities aboard Genesee, Blind called for a medivac helicopter. At 0001, an LCM came alongside and transported the wounded men ashore for a short helicopter flight to the USS Sanctuary (AH-17) cruising offshore. The LCM cast off by 0005, but unfortunately Art Ball did not survive the flight to the Sanctuary. Fully recovered from his wounds, Perkins returned to duty aboard Genesee about three months later.

Two fires were raging, one aft and the other on the ammi barge. Repair II, led by SF1 Richard Hymass, doused the gasoline fire on the 02 level aft in less than five minutes. Meanwhile, DC3 William McMullins and SFFN Jack Neal, disregarding the danger to themselves, jumped onto the burning barge and attacked the fire with a fire hose. The two firefighters got some help from GMG3 Mike Minderman, who directed a steady stream of water onto the burning barge from his hose on the tank deck. Unable to make any substantial progress against the fire, McMullins, Neal and Minderman put down their hoses, picked up axes and cut the mooring lines to the ammi barge, allowing it to drift dowriver, taking with it the fire and the threat to the tank deck.

The next day found Genesee still anchored midchannel in the Cua Viet River, pumping cargo ashore. The crew counted 40 holes in the ship, ranging from one-half to five-inches in diameter, and spent next several days patching up the damage.

Noxubee (Lt. Dudley Cass) anchored off the Cua Viet fuel farm at 0855 on 8 September 1969. At 1640, YOG-76 moored astern and began filling her cargo tanks. About four hours later, pumping secured and YOG-76 got underway. An hour later, at 2137, fantail sentries SN Paul Gryniewicz and SN Sam Profit and OOD Lt.(jg) Clare Brooks, sighted two swimmers in the water only ten to 15 yards astern of Noxubee. They immediately took the swimmers under rifle fire and tossed concussion grenades at them. Noxubee hoisted her anchors and got underway.

At 2215, Noxubee re-anchored about 1200 yards off the beach so divers could inspect the hull. By 2350, the divers reported that, because of the dark conditions, strong current and rough sea, they could only inspect the stern area and did not find anything. A more complete inspection would have to wait until first light. The divers did speculate that if there was a mine it would probably be a Soviet-made BPM-2 with a 64-1b TNT charge, equipped with a six-hour timer, and magnetically clamped to the hull. With that less-than-encouraging report, Lt. Cass decided to move further out from the beach and anchor for the night.

At 0201 the mine exploded. The swimmers had placed the mine not at the stern by the engine room or the tank deck where it would have done lethal damage, but forward on the port side by the dry cargo hold in a relatively "safe" spot. The blast opened a three-ft by five-ft hole in the hull, flooding spaces underneath the cargo hold and the hold itself with two- to three-ft of water. It also ruptured a fire main causing the Number 2 magazine to flood with over six feet of water. Before the dust from the blast settled, damage control parties under the experienced direction of SFC Eskel Wolf went into action, working in knee-deep water to stem the incoming flood by plugging the hole with mattresses and lifejackets. They also secured the fire main and pumped out the Number 2 magazine.

To help raise the damaged section of the bow out of the water, all remaining cargo was either pumped over the side or transferred to the sternmost cargo tanks. The crew from Mt. 31 went into the Number 1 magazine and began removing the three-in ammunition and dumping it over the side. Electrical power was out in the forward part of the ship, so they had to manually crank the ammunition hoist up by hand. In doing so, BM3 George Hahn suffered a broken wrist and was Noxubee's only casualty of the night.

Cass requested assistance from nearby USS Grapple (ARS-7) and, at first light, anchored 100 yards from Grapple and secured from general quarters. Divers went over the side to inspect the hull. No major structural problem was found. Then the combined repair crews went to work making a temporary patch and shoring up the internal damage. At 2000, Noxubee was deemed seaworthy. An hour later the AOG got underway accompanied by Grapple for Da Nang at seven knots.

After safely reaching Da Nang, Noxubee tied up alongside Grapple and a list was put on the ship. A steel plate was welded over the hole and enough internal repairs were made to allow the ship to safely resume duties. Noxubee was back on station making regular supply runs in less than a week. Before the month was out, Noxubee was at Subie Bay for dry docking and permanent repairs.

AOGS WITHDRAW

As 1969 turned into 1970, US forces began to withdraw from Vietnam. Patapsco and Noxubee completed their final deployments before the end of 1969. Genesee made a final run to Sa Huyhn and down to Vung Tau near Saigon before departing Da Nang for the last time. Kishwaukee made two runs down to Vung Tau before sailing to Pearl Harbor and decommissioning in 1970.

Elkhorn and Tombigbee still had a mission in Vietnam and rotated operations in Vietnamese waters until early 1972. Both fueled Coast Guard and Naval vessels operating along the coast, freeing up larger fleet oilers to support aircraft carriers operating on Yankee Station. Tombigbee and Elkhorn also conducted surveillance operations of Soviet ships in the South China Sea. Tombigbee's Vietnam service came to a close in December 1971, and Elkhorn s in February 1972, ending seven years of continuous wartime duty by AOGs.

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Source: Sea Classics