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Sealift in the Vietnam War

In the pre-buildup stage, most cargo destined for Vietnam was shipped directly from Continental US depots and vendors to west coast military sea or aerial ports. From these ports it was loaded aboard ships or aircraft and moved either to Vietnam directly or to Okinawa which provided backup support. Cargo shipped directly to Vietnam, for the most part, was initially received at the Saigon water port or the Tan Son Nhut airport. Military cargo was treated very much as commercial or Agency for International Development cargo, with little emphasis on specialized development of surface or air distribution methods, facilities, or equipment.

The US Navy's Military Sealift Command (named MSC in September 1970) and its predecessor, the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), supported U.S forces throughout the conflict in Southeast Asia. In Operation Passage to Freedom, which lasted from August 1954 to May 1955, 39 MSTS transports carried many of the 293,000 Vietnamese who emigrated by sea from North to South Vietnam. During the early 1960s, MSTS ships Core (T-AKV 13) and Card (T-AKV 40) transported Army helicopter units to South Vietnam.

The Commerce Department's Maritime Administration [MARAD] is responsible for the administration of programs authorized by the Merchant Marine Act, 1936 (46 U.S.C. llOl), as amended, and related statutes to aid in the development, promotion, and operation of the American merchant marine, Maritime is responsible also for the maintenance and preservation of vessels in the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF). NDRF, established pursuant to the Merchant Ship Sales Act of 1946 (50 U.S.C. app. 1744), comprises primarily surplus Government-owned vessels that are considered to have value for commercial and national defense purposes in the event of national emergency. In the 1960s NDRF sites were located in the States of Alabama, California, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

When requested, Maritime activates vessels from NDRF and operates them through General Agency Agreements (GAAs) for other Government agencies, principally the Department of Defense (DOD), GAAs are made between the National Shipping Authority-- established in 1951 as an integral unit of Maritime --and shipping companies, acting as general agents, to manage and operate Government-owned vessels in accordance with Government directives or with reasonable commercial practices. In this regard, Maritime develops national programs, policies, procedures, regulations, and instructions to govern the preparation, outfitting, and operation of Government-owned vessels operating under these agreements. Maritime also coordinates all G&J activities performed under the direction of its coast directors--located in New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco--who are responsible for carrying out these activities.

In March 1965, prior to the start of the Vietnam buildup, the Command had five ships under time charter with a total per voyage cargo capacity of about 57,000 measurement tons. During fiscal year 1965, the Command moved approximately 13.2 million measurement tons of cargo. In planning for fiscal year 1966, the Military Sealift Command based its 13.5 million measurement ton required shipping capability on military cargo projections prepared by the military shipper services. However, as a result of the Vietnam buildup, the actual cargo the Command was required to move totaled 20.9 million measurement tons. This increase in cargo exceeded the capability of the Command's fleet, and the Command petitioned the industry to provide additional shipping capability.

Between mid-1965 and late 1966, cargo continued to move primarily by ship. Airlift was used to move the great majority of troops and priority cargo, which accounted for only a small part of the total tonnage moved. Surface cargo, during this period, continued to flow to Okinawa, Vietnam and Thailand causing multiport discharging, although efforts were made to direct shipments to the final destination port.

Initially, most waterborne cargo arriving in South Vietnam was received at the Saigon Port, the only port with deep draft piers except for a small two-berth pier at Cam Ranh Bay which had been constructed in 1964 under the Military Assistance Program. The Saigon Port was a civilian port under the management control of the Republic of Vietnam's governmental port authority. It consisted of ten deep draft berths. US Army cargo was unloaded by Vietnamese civilian stevedores at berths assigned by the civilian port authority. Coordination of military cargo unloading and port clearance was handled by the Navy's Headquarters Support Activity Saigon.

When the buildup began, the port continued to operate in this fashion. Headquarters Support Activity Saigon never knew from day to day how many berths or which berths would be made available to them for the unloading of U.S. cargo. In addition, customs at the Saigon port dictated that cargo discharged from ships be placed on pier aprons to await port clearance by the cargo owner. It was up to the consignee to remove the cargo from the port. Cargo not consigned to US Forces remained on the piers for weeks and sometimes months, creating undesirable and crowded working conditions which adversely affected port operations. Repeated efforts to get South Vietnam to clear the piers were unsuccessful. Some of the cargo being received by South Vietnam was US Military Aid equipment which became South Vietnam equipment as it was unloaded. US Forces were accused many times of improper port clearance because this equipment was olive drab in color. But such equipment frequently proved to belong to South Vietnam and the US Army had no authority to move it.

The overloaded port facilities and the operational necessity to selectively discharge cargo to get high priority cargo ashore before less urgently required items resulted in excessive ship turn-around time which increased the total number of ships required. This situation was complicated as cargo was manifested by broad categories only, for example, general cargo, making it impossible to locate specific items. Holding the ships for lengthy periods resulted in demurrage charges of from $3,000 to $7,000 per day per ship. Also the inadequate and insecure railroads and highways forced the distribution system to rely heavily on shallow draft vessels for transshipment of cargo between the Saigon Port and other locations, and intratheater airlift between Tan Son Nhut air terminal and other locations. The problem was further aggravated by a shortage of shallow draft vessels both military (LCMs and LCUs) and civilian assets, which were used for offloading cargo from deep draft vessels at ports not having adequate berthing facilities for the larger ships. Civilian lighterage as well as military landing craft, primarily LCMs and LCUs were used for this purpose.

There was insufficient berth service available on ships operating on routes from the United States to Vietnam to meet the increased cargo requirements. Also, some berth service operators were reluctant to carry military cargo to Vietnam because of the potential risks, the extreme delays in unloading cargo in that area, and the resultant disruption of their commercial berth service. Much of the additional cargo was ammunition which was more suitable for shipment on time charter ships than on berth service ships because of safety factors, loading and unloading priorities, and incompatibility with certain commercial cargo which created stowage and scheduling problems for berth service operators.

In response to this emergency, the shipping industry offered a substantial number of ships for charter to the Military Sealift Command for initial periods of 3 to 6 months. Many of the ships offered were available because of a strike on the east coast of the United States which prevented these ships from being used for shipment of commercial November 1965, the Command asked the industry to extend the charters on the ships initially offered and to make more ships available to meet the escalating cargo requirements. The industry responded in various ways, some ship operators agreeing to charter extensions, others offering additional ships for charter, and others recommending that the Command petition the Maritime Administration to activate ships from the Reserve Fleet citing the unavailability of additional ships. The latter operators stated that their ships were needed to satisfy commercial commitments.

In July 1965, Maritime, at the request of the Navy's Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), began to withdraw vessels from NDRF and activate them for use only in support of military activities in Southeast Asia. Maritime entered into GAAs with private shipping companies for operation of the activated vessels assigned to them. The activated vessels were designed and constructed prior to or during World War II. In October 1966, at the peak of the general agency program in support of military activities in Southeast Asia, 172 vessels (161 activated from NDRF) had been assigned to 40 general agents. By December 31, 1968, the number of vessels had decreased to 144 and were assigned to 34 general agents.

During the period July 1, 1965, through December 31, 1968, the total cost of reactivating and operating Government-owned vessels in the GAA program amounted to about $614.3 million. During the same period, GAA vessels made 1,464 voyages and carried over 7.8 million measurement tons or 27 percent of all MSTS cargo carried, from the United States to Southeast Asia. In addition to these GAA vessels, privately owned commercial vessels carried 19.3 million tons, or 66 percent of the total, and the MSTS-owned fleet carried another 1.9 million tons, or 7 percent.

As a means of easing serious congestion and ship delay, The Army's the Military Traffic Management and Terminal Service (MTMTS) in 1966 initiated a practice of sending full shiploads to single ports of debarkation in theater whenever possible. It continued this practice throughout the war. Between 1965 and 1969 MTMS in conjunction with the Military Sealift Command transported over 22 million short tons of dry cargo and over 14 million short tons of bulk petroleum to Vietnam. MTMTS provided support for the Vietnam War through cargo operations at its Military Ocean Terminals at Oakland CA, (MOTBA), Bayonne, New Jersey (MOTBY) and Sunny Point, NC (MOTSU) as well as commercial ports. In the earlier years of the war MTMTS shipped soldiers by surface from its Western Area (primarily Oakland). By 1967 as troops rotated to Vietnam in small groups or individually, fewer soldiers went by surface; most were airlifted to the theater.

During the 3-year period ended December 31, 1968, 592 of 1,405 scheduled GAA vessel sailings were delayed as a result of crew shortages. On the basis of vessel operating costs of from $2,700 to $3,500 a day, exclusive of fuel costs 9 we estimate that over $7 million in additional operating costs were incurred due to these delays of up to 36 days. Despite the efforts of Maritime, the Coast Guard, maritime unions, and general agents to alleviate the crew shortage problem during the 3-year period, these GAA vessel sailings from U.S. ports were delayed more than 2,200 days as a result of crew shortages.

It was apparent that additional port facilities would be required in the Saigon area. The 1st Logistical Command made this known to Commander U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, who directed his staff to develop plans for the facilities now known as Newport. Construction began on this fifty million dollar facility in early 1966. In April 1967, the first deep draft vessel was discharged at the Newport facility. Also, during this period, several other ports throughout Vietnam were in the construction phase.

By the end of December 1967, the ports in use by the Army numbered 10; Saigon, Qui Nhon, Cam Ranh Bay, Vung Ro, Vung Tau, Cat Lai, and Nha Trang were the deep draft ports; Dong Tam, Phan Rang and Can Tho were the shallow draft ports. These improvements in port capabilities brought about a reduction in the average time a deep draft ship waited for a berth in Vietnam ports from 20.4 days during the most critical period of 1965 to the 1970 average of less than two days.

The rapid development of deepwater ports in Vietnam brought an expanded need of navigational aids for preventing vessel accidents. South Vietnam's small aids-to navigation force with its one buoy tender could not meet the demand. Coast Guard buoy tenders in the Pacific made periodic trips to Vietnam installing and maintaining buoys. A Coast Guard Aids to Navigation (ATON) Detail was set up in Saigon to coordinate workloads for these visits as well as keeping buoys and range markers lighted.

At the height of the military buildup more than 300 merchant ships were engaged in the sealift of materiel to Vietnam. The Coast Guard Merchant Marine Detail resolved merchant seaman problems and ensured that these ships moved in and out with as little delay as possible.

Although MSTS officials assigned the highest shipping priority to military unit movements, followed by shipments of ammunition, refrigerated products, and other types of cargo, delays for vessels involved in military unit movements have also been experienced. For example, during one military unit movement, two GAA vessels' sailing dates were each delayed more than 1 week because of crew shortages, which resulted in late arrivals of the two vessels at destinations in Southeast Asia by 8 days and 15 days s respectively. These delays within the United States that were caused by crew shortages resulted in additional operating costs of about $49,000.

Ammunition shipments to Southeast Asia were also delayed considerably as a result of crew shortages. Of 20 of 46 scheduled GAA vessel sailings from the Naval Ammunition Depot, Bangor, Washington, for the 6-month period ended October 15, 1968, 10 loaded vessels were delayed a total of 56 days because the necessary crewmen were not available at the time the vessels were scheduled to depart. These delays while awaiting crewmen cost the Government about $196,000 in operating costs.

Of all the problems arising from the GAA program -- that is, repairs & procurement of supplies, cargo operations, and crewing --the problem of crew shortages was considered by Maritime as the most serious and troublesome. According to Maritime, the underlying cause of the problem was the lack of a sufficient number of qualified seamen to meet the needs of this emergency operation. This problem was further complicated by the reluctance of seamen to sail on GAA vessels -- primarily because of the relatively poor condition of these older vessels in comparison with the more modern privately owned vessels and because of the reluctance of seamen to sail to Southeast Asia. Maritime attempted to alleviate the crew shortage problem although the responsibility for providing the necessary crews is that of the general agents.

Cargo requirements continued to escalate until a peak of 30.6 million measurement tons was reached in fiscal year 1969. The Military Sealift Command met these requirements by increased use of all-types of shipping capability -- nucleus, berth, charter, and Reserve Fleet ships. On January 1, 1969, the Command was operating 144 Reserve Fleet ships and had 130 break-bulk cargo ships under charter, the latter group representing an estimated 1.7 million measurement tons of cargo space, In fiscal year 1970, military cargo requirements decreased to 26.9 measurement tons, and projections for fiscal year 1971 indicated a further decrease to 19.5 million measurement tons.

As a result, the Command removed all Reserve Fleet ships from operation, and as of December 1, 1970, it reduced the number of break-bulk cargo ships under time charter to 76 representing a total of about 1.1 million measurement tons. By December 31, 1970, the number of time charter ships had been further reduced to 63.

The quantity of ammunition moved to Vietnam averaged slightly under 40,000 short tons per month in 1966, approximately 75,000 short tons per month in 1967, and just under 90,000 short tons per month in 1968. In February and March of 1968, receipts exceeded 100,000 short tons per month. The problems in Continental US ports encompassed an initial lack of adequate ship bottoms, the glutting of ports with ammunition cargo, and an inadequate number of berthing facilities. The resolution of these difficulties was relatively easy when compared to those faced in Vietnam. The lack of adequate ports and port facilities in Vietnam required initially that all ammunition had to be offloaded onto barges and lighters for transport to shore. From the shore it was moved by truck.

Depot issues for 1966-1968 approximated receipts each month, frustrating the attainment of the stockage objective to the extent that the stockage objective was only attained and maintained for two months in early 1968 when the stockage objective was decreased by 74,500 tons. Had the capability existed to routinely offload each ammunition ship as it arrived, the stockage objective could have been maintained to the extent of availability of assets from Continental U.S. almost from the beginning. The situation was compounded by the Army's responsibility for offloading Air Force munitions at Cam Ranh and Saigon. In 1965 Air Force tonnage alone increased from 2,576 short tons in January to 23,000 Short tons in December 1965. Air Force munitions requirements also increased each year.

During fiscal year 1969 DOD spent about $255 million for the ocean transportation of ammunition. Most of this ammunition was shipped to Southeast Asia. The responsibility for ocean transportation of ammunition was divided between two single-manager agencies -- the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Military Traffic Management and Terminal Service (MTMTS). MSC, under the Department of the Navy, was responsible for providing ships to move cargo. MTMTS, under the Department of the Army, arranged with MSC for ships and coordinates the movement of the cargo to the ports.

Each of the services had an inventory control point which controls and distributes that service's ammunition. The using commands submit requisitions for ammunition to their respective inventory control points, which, in turn, notify MTMTS of the need for shipping space. MTMTS selects the port, requests a ship from MSC, and provides shipping activities with instructions regarding the port of departure from CONUS, the mode and routes to use when shipping to the port, and the day the shipments shmld start arriving at the port. These procedures were modified for ammunition shipments to Southeast Asia in that MTMTS delegated its traffic management responsibility of port selection to the inventory control points, The control points determined,the quantity of ammunition to be loaded on a ship, the port, and the sailing date.

Until early 1970 Victory-class ships under General Agency Agreements were the principal class of ships used to transport ammunition to Southeast Asia. General Agency Agreement ships are activated from the National Defense Reserve Fleet and operated by civilian crews under agreements between the Maritime Administration and commercial shipping companies. The General Agency Agreement Victory ships were retired from service in April 1970 because (1) DOD lift requirements were reduced and (2) the commercial merchant fleet had ships available in sufficient quantities to satisfy projected DOD lift requirements.

Many of the obsolete U.S. flag ships were disappearing from the US Merchant fleet because of the decrease in military cargoes and the chartering of more modern ships in lieu of the obsolete ships. This loss of U.S. flag ships was offset to an undetermined extent by the addition of modest numbers of larger, faster, and more modern ships and by the contemplated fiture construction of 300 new ships over a IO-year period as authorized by the Merchant Marine Act of 1970.

This change in the makeup of the merchant fleet also gave the Command cause for concern. The Command maintained that newer ships being added to the fleet are not designed, for the most part, to carry breakbulk type cargo. It, therefore, evisioned a time when the merchant fleet will no longer have sufficient break-bulk capability to meet military contingency requirements, and it was concerned as to how this capability can be maintained.

Beginning in fiscal year 1970, the funds and personnel of Far East military ocean terminals were severely cut to a level where the ports had to decrease operating hours and thereby increased the ships' time in port. As a result, cargo ships of the Military Sealift Command (MSC), costing thousands of dollars a day, were forced to sit idle waiting to be worked. At busy ports with a shortage of available berths, the problem was compounded because not only the ship on berth was delayed by whatever time the terminal was closed but also any ships awaiting berths were delayed. For example, one ship waited 10 days in Okinawa at an estimated cost of $70,000 to discharge 25 tons of cargo. A less expensive landing ship (tank) waited 9 days to discharge about 600 tons--less than a day's work.

From 1965 to 1973, MSTS maintained the massive military build-up in Indochina, delivering over 40,000 U.S. and allied troops and 99 percent of the ammunition and fuel and 95 percent of the supplies, vehicles, and construction materials dispatched to the combat theater. At the height of the war, MSTS operated a fleet of 527 reactivated World War II ships and chartered vessels managed by offices in the United States, Japan, and South Vietnam.

Many types of vessels sailed in the MSTS fleet, including aircraft ferries, a helicopter repair ship, standard cargo hulls, ships that carried cargo stowed in easily handled containers, roll-on/roll-off ships that could swiftly load and unload vehicles, tankers able to hold between 30,000 and 190,000 barrels of fuel, troop transports, tank landing ships, tugs, and barges. The Navy's sealift effort ensured that the half-million-strong US contingent in South Vietnam was well supplied and armed to fight the determined Communist foe.

When North Vietnam launched its major conventional onslaught against South Vietnam in March and April of 1975, the Navy called on MSC to evacuate friendly Vietnamese troops and civilians from the northern and central regions of the country. On 27 March, a fleet of 10 cargo/transport ships, 5 tugs, and 6 barges began rescuing an increasingly desperate horde of soldiers and civilians from Danang and other ports to the south. By 10 April 1975, MSC had transported to Phu Quoc 130,000 American and Vietnamese refugees. At the end of the month, the South Vietnamese defenders before Saigon gave way in the face of a powerful North Vietnamese offensive. Between 29 April and 2 May, when the operation ceased, the MSC ships embarked more than 50,000 evacuees. The MSC ships, the Seventh Fleet contingent, and a flotilla of 26 Vietnam Navy ships embarking 30,000 Vietnamese sailors and their families then set sail for the Philippines. Thus closed the last act in the long Vietnam drama.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:24 ZULU