On August 2, 1964, four North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox (DD731). This did not turn out well for the North Vietnamese. Between American guns and air support, one NV patrol boat was left dead in the water with the remaining badly shot-up. The Maddox took a few machine-gun hits.
In spite of leftist propaganda, the attack on the Maddox actually took place — unlike the “Turner Joy” incident that due to bad equipment, bad weather and jittery nerves was mistakenly reported at first as an attack.
LBJ went to Congress with it even though he knew then that no second attack had occurred. LBJ characterized the “attacks” as “unprovoked.” Well, the North Vietnamese were guilty of a lot of sins, but their attack — while unwise — was not “unprovoked.”
The CIA had been running the “Nautilus” program in South Vietnam. While some of it dealt with intercepting North Vietnamese weapons being sent along the coast into the South, the program also had a more “aggressive” side to it:
As part of Operation 34A (also known as OPLAN 34A), junks would carry Vietnamese frogmen into Northern waters where they would sabotage naval facilities, radar installations and the like. Soon the increased number of North Vietnamese Swatow and P4 gunboats made that decidedly unhealthy, so the Americans scraped up a couple of tired PT boats (1950 manufacture date) and began training South Vietnamese officers and crew. But something better was needed. As the White House saw it, the North was behaving badly and needed some surreptitious “slapping down…”
It was decided that while the program must remain covert, it needed to be under the American military, not least because of its far greater resources. On January 1, 1963, the program was handed off to Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG). (For information regarding the epic story of SOG, see SOFREP’s past articles under “SOG,” especially those by John Stryker Meyer.)
SOG decided right off the bat that they needed something hot. Unexpectedly, the Norwegian Navy had just what they were looking for: The Norwegians had gotten tired of the Soviets poking into their waters and then being long gone before a cutter could intercept them. So in 1957, they deployed the “Nasties.”
The Nasties were made from laminated wood — years later, the American knockoff, the “Osprey,” would be built of aluminum, which was far more problematic than wood. The boats had two supercharged engines deploying 3,100 rabid horses: On a return trip (without the full fuel load) a Nasty could make 55 knots (63mph). At 20 knots the Nasties could travel 1000 miles without refueling. The Soviets quickly abandoned the game.
The U.S. ordered 14 Nasties from Norway for service in South Vietnam. Their American naval designation would be Patrol Torpedo, Fast (PTF).
By the time Nasties deployed in Vietnam, the typical armament was a 20mm on each side, a 40mm on the stern, an 81mm mortar and a .50 caliber machine gun on the bow. Sometimes a 57mm recoilless rifle was deployed upfront as well.
These boats should not be confused in any way with the PBR’s and other boats used on Vietnam’s rivers, canals or shallow harbors. Nasties had a deep draft that made them unsuitable for “brown water…”
The Nasties were deployed to Vietnam, along with Norwegian instructors who were Norwegian Royal Navy regular and reserve officers. The Americans routinely referred to them as “The Vikings.”
SOG had a lot of resources at hand and a varied selection of personnel to choose for manning the boats. They had USMC intelligence officers, some Navy SEALs and some Recon Marines in addition to U.S. Navy officers and enlisted servicemen. But none of the Americans could be committed north of the 17th Parallel.
The South Vietnamese crews were pretty good, but training boat commanders was like training race car drivers or fighter pilots. The South Vietnamese naval officers were the pick of the litter with some right out of their naval academy. They would need a lot of training., but the Nasties needed to be operational yesterday.
SOG tried to get a waiver for American officers to command the boats, but brass kept chirping “plausible deniability,” since the missions would be publicly denied and nobody wanted an American officer, dead or alive, falling into North Vietnamese hands.
Then somebody got the bright idea: Norwegians were not Americans! The plausibility of Norwegians being in Vietnam was ignored. This was when Vietnam was still an “exotic” war and “wild ass solutions” were relatively common.
When not training, the Norwegians were homesick and bored to tears. But given the opportunity to go “Viking” when the proposition was put to them they all stepped forward. They had already been working with the Vietnamese crews and had a good rapport. It didn’t seem to bother them that their service, their King… and their country had not approved this. Norwegian (and some other) accounts in later years disingenuously refer to these “wild hairs” as “mercenaries” in lieu of dealing with their true military status.
Night raids were launched. Sometimes they could get divers ashore with explosives. Other times they used their weaponry to savage naval facilities and installations. Both right before and right after the attack on USS Maddox, the Nasties had made night raids. Since at full speed a Nasty was 10 knots faster than the fastest North Vietnamese patrol boat the North Vietnamese could not intercept them. Frustrated, the patrol crafts went after the American destroyer, thinking (wrongfully) that it was functioning in a major support role.
North Vietnamese patrol boats were under standing orders to “close and kill.” Not unreasonably, given how badly they were outgunned, the North Vietnamese avoided contact whenever possible. NVN patrol boat might suddenly develop “engine trouble” just before coming into range of the Nasties, or they would radio that they had “lost contact” when they had done no such thing.
Only one Nasty was lost in combat; its engine holed and the crew had to be taken off by another boat. All other losses involved boats running up on a sandbar or the like.
Out of the four boats that attacked the Maddox Hanoi has one of them in a museum.
While the Norwegians made splendid combat commanders, the fact was that they were not mercenaries, but rather loyal sons of Norway. When not in combat, they were all homesick. As a matter of some real concern to SOG, they were also talkative… especially when “in their cups” in the company of Vietnamese bar girls. So, the qualification of Vietnamese boat commanders was assigned the utmost urgency.