Friday, January 3, 2020

Da Nang’s Tien Sha peninsula: Naval covert action in NVN

The US Navy’s unconventional warfare and covert action capabilities and activities grew considerably from WWII through the Indochina War, and beyond. I have done considerable research on this period and produced an extensive report, far too long to present here.

This account will break down two most interesting and interrelated sets of maritime covert actions against North Vietnam (NVN).  I wanted to keep this brief, but fear the history complicated that.

The two sets of covert actions are: Naval activities on Da Nang’s Tien Sha Peninsula and the Navy’s Desoto Maritime Patrol Missions along NVN's periphery.

In short, US SEALs transported Vietnamese commandos and others into NVN from Da Nang Air Base (AB), Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The USS Maddox was on a Desoto intelligence collection patrol to monitor these commando operations, arguably the cause of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and US war against NVN,

With that in mind, let’s start with the Tien Sha Peninsula. It is a peninsula, marked in the red box, close to Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam (RVN). It butts out northeast of Da Nang, between Monkey and Marble Mountains, both of which would evolve to be important US military outposts. During the US Indochina War Da Nang Air Base (AB) was a major air, Marine and naval base about 96 miles southeast of the DMZ.

Da Nang is a coastal city not far from the the border with North Vietnam (NVN). The first American combat troops to arrive in Vietnam landed there in March 1965: Marines.

In 1962 the CIA Maritime Operations (MAROPS) set up a base along Da Nang’s Tien She peninsula, enclosed in the red rectangle on this map,

In January 1962, the Navy established two SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) teams: Seal Team 1 (ST-1) at Coronado, California, and ST-2 at Little Creek, Virginia. Admiral Arleigh Burke, USN, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), wanted such special units to handle naval guerrilla warfare. Their existence was handled as classified information throughout most of the Indochina War.

In January 1962, ST-1 sent two men, Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Robert Sullivan (shown here) and CPO Charles Raymond to conduct initial surveys and prepare to train South Vietnamese to be maritime commandos under a CIA program code name, “Nautilus.”

Nautilus was a CIA plan to insert commando teams into NVN's coastline. In April 1962 CIA brought in four Taiwan trained commandos, known as “Team VULCAN.” They went to Da Nang to learn how to plant mines on the hulls of enemy boats. This was the first operational effort of the Nautilus program.

On January 1, 1963, the responsibility for Nautilus operations was transferred to the Navy under “Operation Switchback.” ST-1 would be the main entity involved. During the time CIA had been in charge, it conducted several clandestine maritime operations in NVN using RVN, Taiwanese and other ethnic groups.

On January 24, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) signed the authorization for OPLAN-34-A. It gave the go-ahead for US forces to carry out operations in the NVN.

The Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) activated at Da Nang at about this time, January-February 1964. The NAD was a cover used by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation group (MACSOG). MACSOG is a study unto its own: Its job was covert operations in Vietnam.

CIA’s MAROPS operated within the MACSOG). ]To my knowledge, the men in CIA’s MAROPs were mostly Navy SEALs.

NAD’s headquarters was located at the foot of Monkey Mountain on Tien Sha peninsula. I have read that on arrival at NAD’s offices, the sailors turned in their Navy identification cards and received NAD ID cards in their place.

I want to show you a series of drawings and a photo dealing with the NAD’s location at Da Nang.

The SEALs used the Tien Sha base, known as Camp Tien Sha. The SEALs berthed at Camp Black Rock. Camp Fay had living quarters and messing and support areas for all military personnel assigned to the NAD. The 30th Naval Construction Regiment (NCR) was located at a cove on Da Nang Bay.

The SEALs trained the Vietnamese Coastal Force in reconnaissance and guerrilla warfare. The red arrows roughly highlight a section of My Khe Beach which was used secretly to house the Vietnamese commandos. In the beginning, mostly Vietnamese commandos were used, though later downstream men from other nations and ethnic groups were used. The SEALs piloted the patrol boats transporting them.

This is a photo of the main gate at Camp Tien Sha. Navy Seabees built the base from an old French encampment. I believe it was ready for bed-down by 1965.

Prior to moving over to the Tien Sha peninsula, the NAD operated from a place called the “White Elephant,” It was an old French hotel in Da Nang city. The Navy used it for several purposes, one of which was to serve as a communications center. This is a photo of the old elephant. The Navy continued using it even after the NAD left.

This is a great schematic of the lower base and the Patrol Boat Fast (PTF base).

The NAD building was built in 1965. Offices inside were also used by MACSOG and “others.” It was a concrete block building with metal hip roof and one controlled entrance, no windows. The fence was about 10' high with a barbed wire top. Those who were there called it the "Super Spook" building.

There were three piers for the PTFs. Pier One was the primary pier for Nasty class PTFs in early days. Floating pier sections were able to berth six boats. Pier Three was a floating pier section off of Pier One used for small craft and Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) assigned to base. Pier Four had floating sections used by the NAD’s Swift boats. Pier Two had floating sections used in the early days to berth the “gassers.”

PTFs 1 and 2 were the “gassers” because they used 115 octane gasoline for power. They were never refueled at the pier, but instead moved out to a buoy. Trucks delivered the gas through a hose floating on the water.

I believe the other PTFs that came had diesel engines which could be refueled at the piers.

There was a cove at the base of Monkey Mountain at which the SEALs set up a small base with finger piers and a floating dry-dock.

The PTFs were also known as “Nasty-class” high speed patrol craft, of Norwegian design. They were built of wood. Initially they used gasoline, then switched to diesel.

Camp Tien Sha was on the enemy hit-list and received many enemy attacks. NVN agents were all around the area watching. One report of a US pilot overflying the camp said he received ground fire. The pilot said the area was infested with Viet Cong.

Recall CPO Sullivan, mentioned earlier. He wrote that the officer in charge of the NAD was Lt. Cathal “Irish” Flynn, shown here. He wrote that ST-1 had 16 SEALs, known as Detachment Golf. As an aside, Flynn would rise to the rank of rear admiral, as shown in the photo. He was the first active duty SEAL promoted to flag rank.

Sullivan has written that the site he and CPO Raymond had set up for Operation Vulcan in 1962 along the beach below Monkey Mountain at Da Nang was expanded. Sullivan, now on his second tour to the RVN, wrote:

“It (the old Vulcan training area) was now a group of five separate training sites spread out along 4 or 5 miles of beach. The Headquarters was on the northern end of the beach, and that was where the SEAL advisors were housed. Each site was separated and segregated to keep the personnel from contact with each other for security reasons. Each site was designated for a specific mission. SEAL personal were assigned to train a particular group of agents for their mission and only that mission. Usually there were two SEALs assigned to each group, but in a few cases it took up to four. We had graduated from operating from Junks to ‘Swift Boats,’ and then to the ‘Nasties.' This was a definite improvement in our speed and armament capability. All the boats were heavily armed.

“Our group of agents came from the remaining Vietnamese trained in Taiwan for the Vietnamese UDT (Underwater Demolition Team), but not chosen for the First ‘Vulcan’ operation. There were twenty of them. There was also an interpreter in the group. He was a noncombatant and used only to explain our English to the group, and their Vietnamese to us. We held a short course with the group on what American commands that they must know immediately without the need of an interpreter. We didn’t want the need for an interpreter if we were in the middle of a firefight.”

The SEALs were to only transport the commandos to NVN and were not to disembark the PTF. They could watch the commandos and listen to explosions they set off. Those who survived returned to the PTF.

NVN Swatows often chased after them. Sullivan even commented that he fired the PTF's .50 cal and is sure he “got some good licks in.”

Steve Edwards, author of “Stalking the Enemy’s Coast,” published by the Navy’s Proceedings in February 1992, wrote this:

“...Did U.S. Navy SEALs ever go north on these (OP 34-A) missions? The official answers to these questions have always been ‘no’ ...We now know that U.S. Navy SEALs did go up north.

“In a June 1980 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute, Captain Phil H. Bucklew (shown here), an almost legendary figure in naval special warfare, addressed the 34-A missions specifically: ‘Our SEAL contingents would train Vietnamese SEALs and supervise. They were not allowed to go north of the demarcation line, though they did at times...’”

Edwin Moise, in his book Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, wrote that US policy clearly forbade the US military from going along on combat missions against the NVN. He wrote:

“Captain Phil H. Bucklew, who as head of the Naval Operations Support Group was responsible for the US Navy personnel in question, believes that they habitually violated the prohibition. Indeed he is not aware of any cases in which PTFs from Da Nang went on combat operations without American personnel aboard.”

On May 27, 1964 a Nasty crew captured a NVN junk boat and six passengers. CIA ran a top secret resistance training center at Cu Lao Cham island off Danang, and the captives were taken there for interrogation.

Cu Lao Cham was also known as Paradise Island. It was also called “DODO” Island. Operations here began in May 1964 as a detention center for fishermen captured by the RVN Navy (VNN) in NVN waters. The operations used to capture them specifically for the “Sacred Swords of Patriotism League” (SSPL). The SSPL was a CIA developed, MACSOG executed operation involving pyschological warfare operations. The Cu Lao Cham project was codenamed “Mint,” for “Maritime Interdictions.”

MACSOG used former NVN inhabitants who had the right dialects etc. to pose as SSPL members and seize the fishermen. American members of MACSOG travelled below deck so they were not seen. The MACSOG Command History states:

"Covert boat and landing team operations were conducted against the coast of North Vietnam to interdict enemy coastal shipping, capture prisoners for interrogations and psychological warfare exploitation, and to force North Vietnam to increase its coastal defenses."

The SSPL members told the fishermen Paradise Island was “liberated territory,” and that the island was a secret training camp for the resistance that would liberate the NVN from the Chinese communists.

I’ll stop this discussion here. You get the idea. Let’s turn to the Navy’s Desoto Missions.

The US Navy began Desoto missions at sea in April 1962. Desoto is an acronym for Dehaven Special Operations off TsingtaO which were conducted in the Yellow Sea area April 14-20, 1962.

The USS DeHaven (DD-727) was an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer. Mobile signals intelligence (SIGINT) communications and electronic intelligence-COMINT and ELINT vans were placed on the destroyer. Navy operators from the Naval Security Group (NSG) intercepted Chinese communications and electronic emissions.

The Desoto Patrol was a response to Chinese efforts to extend China’s territorial waters. There were three objectives:

  • Assert freedom of the seas
  • Realistic training
  • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collection

The Navy ran the initial Desoto patrols offshore China and up the Korean and Soviet coasts as far as the Soviet Gulf or Strait of Tartary. This map does not reflect the tracks the patrols took, but instead is meant to give you a sense for the geography.That geography would change as you will see.

RAdm. James W. Montgomery, USN, DeHaven’s captain, said,

“The special operation was a then highly-classified intelligence gathering and probing excursion by USS DeHaven into waters that had not been visited by Pacific Fleet men-of-war since the late 1940s.”

The second Desoto patrol was conducted by the USS Agerholm (DD-826), a Gearing-class destroyer, from the Gulf of Tonkin around China’s Hainan Island and off the coast of NVN. The Agerholm’s patrol was the first such SIGINT patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea targeted mainly at North Vietnam.This was a marked change from the China mission of the Dehaven.

The National Security Agency (NSA), the US agency responsible for SIGINT operations abroad, wrote:

“By December (1964), the (Desoto) patrols had been extended to the coasts of Korea and North Vietnam. The rationale was to support special operations under OPLAN 34-A.”

As commandos conducted their nighttime insertion raids into the NVN, the NSG operators aboard the Agerholm monitored NVN reactions, support the commando raids with the resulting intelligence, and help obtain order of battle and capabilities information. The commando missions themselves did little damage to NVN. But the raids yielded a lot of very useful intelligence.

Between February and March 1964, the USS John R. Craig (DD-885), a Gearing-class destroyer, conducted the second Desoto patrol. Her authorized closest point of approach to North Vietnam was 8 nautical miles (nm) to the mainland and 4 nm to offshore islands.

In late February into early March 1964, the USS Craig (DD-885), a Gering-cass destroyer, conducted the third Desoto patrol offshore NVN. The NSG crew embarked intercepted the NVN tracking the Craig on this mission. NSA reported,

“(NVN) radar stations tracked the USS Craig and DRV (NVN) naval communications referred to her by hull number. Although the SIGINT from the Craig’s mission wasn’t voluminous, it did contribute to new insight into DRV tracking station locations, equipment and capability.”

By the end of July 1964, OPLAN 34-A MAROPS was launching almost every day out of Tien Shah peninsula, Da Nang. On July 30, VNN naval commandos staged a midnight amphibious raid on the NVN islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu in the Gulf of Tonkin. Most operations consisted of small amphibious raids and bombardments of shore targets in the NVN by fast armed motorboats.

The focus of the Desoto missions changed in character. They were now to support OPLAN 34-A; that is, determine NVN coastal activity which would cover those areas targeted by OPLAN 34-A commando raids.

The idea was to gather intelligence to support such operations. The alphabetic points show the Desoto mission start and stop points, the latter serving as loitering areas. Desoto crews might not know such operations were planned or were occurring. The purpose was to cause the NVN to react, to do something that would give insights into its naval capabilities and intentions.

The fourth Desoto patrol mission offshore the NVN was conducted by the USS Maddox (DD-747) in July 1964, for about three days, up and down the NVN coastline. The Maddox mission was the first to sail up and down the entire NVN coastline. Furthermore, she would sail while OPLAN 34-A missions were underway.

CINCPAC eased the restrictions, telling Maddox she should stay eight nautical miles from the coastline but could approach to four miles of any of its islands. At the time of the VNN OPLAN 34-A operation, the Maddox was 120-130 miles away, positioned along the 17th parallel, roughly where the DMZ divided North from South Vietnam.

NSA reported,

“Her (Moaddox) mission was to observe the junk fleet suspected of transporting guerrillas to the south, obtain navigational and hydrographic data and acquire intelligence on the NVN Navy. The latter item was of considerable importance, first because the Geneva Accords of 1954 specifically prohibited the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) (NVN) from having naval forces and second because of SIGINT’s role in detecting DRV naval activity.”

Cmdr. Herbert Ogier (right) was in command of the Maddox, Captain John Herrick (left) was embarked on the Maddox and in command of Destroyer Division 192, a two destroyer task group, the other destroyer being the USS Turner Joy (DD-951), a Forrest Sherman-class destroyer, Cmdr. Ronald Barnhart, Jr. in command.

On July 31, the Maddox turned northward on a course up the coast, staying about 12 miles offshore, but on a course that would pass by Hon Me Island. Also on July 31, the Maddox intercepted NVN communications indicating the “American imperialists” had shelled one of their fortifications. The Maddox did report sighting NVN patrol craft pursuing several unidentified vessels, but the Maddox made no attempt to investigate.

On August 1, 1964, NSA alerted the Navy that the NVN was reacting with more belligerence to these Desoto missions and warned the Navy that the NVN Navy might attack one of the destroyers. Nonetheless, the Maddox continued her patrol northward that put her on a course past Hon Me Island. SIGINT intercepts reported a NVN naval entity informing the location and course of an enemy ship which correlated to the position and course of the Maddox. Shortly thereafter, an intercepted NVN naval message said it had been “directed to fight the enemy tonight.” The Maddox was notified of this report. The NVN then continuously tracked the Maddox and several messages were intercepted pre-positioning NVN warships for attack.

On August 2, 1964, the Maddox sighted five naval vessels, three PTs and two probable Swatow-class PGMs along with a large fleet of about 75 junks some 10 miles north of Hon Me Island. The Maddox changed course twice to avoid the patrol boats, reached the northernmost point of her patrol track, and turned to the south. Shortly after turning south, the NVN issued a command message instructing that the time had come to close with the “enemy” and employ torpedoes. The Maddox was notified of this message.

The NVN patrol boats did attack. I will not go into the details other than to say the Maddox requested air support, she fired warning shots, she maneuvered to avoid torpedoes, she attacked the NVN vessels, air cover did arrive on scene, and the Maddox withdrew. She had rendered one NVN patrol boat dead in the water and burning, with two other vessels heavily damaged but still underway.

On August 3, 1964, President LBJ ordered the Maddox to be reinforced by the USS Turner Joy. He sent both ships back to the area. The NVN remained interested but took no hostile action. However, VNN patrol boats did run up the coast and bombarded a radar installation at Vinh Son and a security post at Mui Ron. NVN patrol boats pursued them back to Da Nang without incident.

On August 4, 1964, both the Maddox and Turner Joy returned to patrol but north of where the incidents had occurred. During the evening, Capt. Herrick’s crew spotted several enemy vessel contacts some 25-35 miles away and air contacts. He asked for air support. Fighter aircraft launched from the carriers USS Ticonderoga and USS Constellation. While the US Desoto destroyers reported losing contact with the aircraft, they did report enemy vessels approaching and closing fast.

The Turner Joy began firing and dropped depth charges once the vessels approached within 4,000 yards. The Maddox did not see these vessels on her radars and could not locate them. Then some among the Maddox crew aid they spotted a torpedo coming at them and skimming beneath the surface. Both destroyers took immediate evasive actions. There was quite a bit of activity thereafter.

On August 4, 1964, at midnight, LBJ spoke to the public about what became known as The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

As a result of the August 2 and August 4 incidents, the Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution served as Johnson's legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of official US warfare against North Vietnam. As would be be reported, there were many questions about the August 4 "attacks." But that had little impact, The war was omn.


  1. I was there 1966-67 NSA Danang and also Chu-Lai thank you for the post.

  2. I was there 1967 - 1968 TET. 19 years old. never forget.

  3. I was a radarman on uss dale dlg19 1965 to 68. it was close to midnight patrolling Tonkin gulf close to land when I tracked nvn fast boats and migs on radar closing us. went to GQ along with cruiser uss Chicago
    and air craft carrier (don't recall which), captain Webster appeared by my side in pajamas and a "tommy gun",Al Capone style, and a cigar in his mouth.
    he said "Whatta you got son?"
    he wouldn't allow my watch replacement to take over.
    we watched the enemy boats and migs turn around and head home.


    “The USS EDWARDS (DD-619), a GLEAVES-CLASS DESTROYER, conducted the second Desoto patrol offshore the NVN in April 1963, and covered more of the NVN than did the USS Agerholm. The EDWARDS circumnavigated China’s Hainan Island and then headed down the NVN coast. The EDWARDS did not record any NVN reactions…”

    USS Edwards DD619 was decommissioned in 1946

    From the NSA’s “Chronology of' Events of 18~20 September 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin” Declassified | Released 02.13.2006

    USS Richard S. Edwards DD-950

    You’re Welcome

    1. Fritz, I'm glad you capitalized "YOU ARE WRONG." Wehn I'm wrong, I'm big time wrong. And you are big time correct and I applaud your eagle eye and resulting comment. I have repaired the article but I confess I will look at it again in a day or so and go over it all again. I do not know how I messed it up that badly, but I did. Thanks again. Ed