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BOOK REVIEW: Shore Duty – A Year in Vietnam’s Junk Force

harris-shore-duty-vietnamBy Stewart M. Harris, iUniverse, Inc., New York, NY. (2009)
Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells

The role that the United States Navy played in the Vietnam Conflict is well known; but there are still gaps. While the importance of Naval Aviation, Special Warfare and Riverine Forces have been well-covered by both works of scholarly and popular history, there were other sailors involved in America’s then-longest war. Some of them were attached to the South Vietnamese Navy’s Junk Force; operating out of Coastal Group bases. They were vital to both the interdicting of maritime trade from North Vietnam; as well as prosecuting the war on the ground. Stewart Harris, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant who served as an advisor to one such unit, has ably filled one of these gaps with his well-researched and very readable account.

In 1968, after a four-year tour on destroyers spent hunting Soviet submarines, showing the flag around the Mediterranean and providing gunfire support off the coast of Vietnam, then-Lieutenant Harris was informed that instead of returning to civilian life, he had been extended one year. His time in the “blue-water” Navy was at an end. His eventual assignment, Coastal Group 16 had an ominous background; all three of his predecessors had been killed in action.

It was as a result of this high attrition rate that Coastal Group 16’s Junk Base had been abandoned for some time. As a result of the Tet Offensive and the arms deliveries and stockpiling that had made it possible, CG-16 was ordered back to their extremely vulnerable base.  Located near the Communist stronghold of Cape Batangan, as well as the village of My Lai (whose residents were unsurprisingly wary of any American forces) the Junk Base had no nearby friendly ground units to call on for assistance. Only Naval and Coast Guard vessels offshore, as well as air support could be counted on in case of attack. This was made clear to Harris early on when an ARVN platoon that had been sent to the base was wiped out shortly after it had left the wire on its first day of patrol.

With limited options open for assistance, Harris quickly realized that developing a good working condition with the Vietnamese, both in his command, as well as outside the wire would be vital.  In terms of the local residents, Harris and his men were frequent shoppers in the village market and often rescued fishermen from the unpredictable tidal flows. After contact with the ARVN platoon was lost, Harris was able to coordinate with the village’s de facto mayor for the return of the remains.  He was fortunate that his opposite (and technically the unit’s commander) Dia Uy (Lieutenant) Lang was an excellent officer. The junk force was something of an unloved stepchild to the Vietnamese Navy proper, and those assigned to it had no political connections. The enlisted men were initially barely trained and armed with twenty-year old carbines. (The lost ARVN platoon had actually been sent to give the base additional firepower.) Harris comments that he quickly threw in his lot with Lang, and was rewarded by an excellent working relationship and motivated enlisted force. This enlisted force would eventually excel at both ambushing Communist forces on land (which he believes the real value was), as well as interdicting the maritime traffic from the North (which he believes that the powered vessels employed by both the USN and SVN were eminently more suitable for). There were communication problems with some of those powered vessels, however. In one of the more amusing anecdotes from the book, Harris and his chief enlisted advisor took one of their junks to visit a destroyer operating off the coast. The underlying goal was to see what supplies they could entice out of the crew; but there was also the task of informing the ship’s captain and gunnery officer that despite their orders that the entire coast was to be considered a “live fire” zone, there was a friendly base smack dab in the middle of it. Harris relates in another story where a US Navy gunboat radioed the area coordinator (Harris) for permission to fire on a suspicious looking junk. As he was standing on that very junk, Harris denied the request.

This is a fine book overall. The major criticisms that I have are that the only map is not very detailed, and the volume lacks an index. (A helpful glossary of terms is included, however.) I recommend the book to anyone interested in the US Navy’s role in Vietnam, as well as the interaction between the “blue-water” and “brown-water” fleets.

Nathan D. Wells is an adjunct instructor of History at Quincy College in Quincy, MA.

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  1. Steve S.

    I was a assistant advisor at #16 in 1967. After six months I was transferred to a base further north as senior advisor. Shortly before I was to leave country, #16 was over run and the senior advisor was killed. I and another officer were sent back to try and set up 16 again. Bottom line was that the only ones at the base when we arrived were the ones who “left” during the attack. There was nothing left of the base so we received permission to “close up shop”, brought in a truck to take our stuff out and the base was left to “who ever”. I guess the next occupant was Lt. Harris.

    • Richard Ayres

      I was HM3 there from March to October 1970. It was up and running then for sure.

      • Chad Pennington

        I was there from dec 69 thru dec 70. Remember the red beard well :)

        • Hugh M McIntosh

          Hello, Chad—

          For a few decades now, I have been grateful for your leadership of the Coastal Group 16 crew.
          LTjg Hugh McIntosh

      • Montie LeStrange

        I was there in 70 with a small detachment of Seabees assigned to build housing for the sailors living there. Remember it well.

  2. David Hoch

    My brother Lt. CMDR. Wesley A. Hoch was adviser to Vietnam’s navy 4th District Junk Force 1963-64. He wrote a book about his tour, “Dai UY Hoch” . He writes in detail what it was like very early on in the war.
    Sincerely, Dave Hoch Korea Vet.

  3. The senior officer at group 16 was Lt. Joe Lang. Joe later became Co of USS Westchester County (LST-1167) after a stint in Washington at Bupers, I believe. He requested the Westchester after she had been mined in the My Tho River in fall of 1968 with major loss of life. LCDR Lang was a super CO.
    When the Westchester County Assn. was established in 1993, Joe Lang was one of the first former crew members contacted for membership.
    Joe passed away at his home in Florida in Spring of 2015. He will be remembered by all who knew him as a professional sailor, excellent ship commander and a friend to all who knew him.

  4. CG-16 was overrun in retalliation for the capture (15 July 1967) of a North Vietnamese trawler carrying more than 90 tons of ammunition and supplies destined for the awaiting enemy forces in and around the Mui Batangan area in Quang Ngai. I was the radio / radarman aboard Swift Boat PCF-79. Our bosun, BM1 Bobby Don Carver, fired an 81mm white phosphorous round into the trawler’s starboard side pilot house door.

  5. William Montgomery, LCDR,USN, Ret

    I was the Senior Adviser to Junk Division 43 out of An Thoi in 1964-65. I’m interested is sharing notes/stories with any other Junkies from Nam

    • John Keith

      With 43 At Ha Tien 10-69 to 7-70 then on Hon Tre Island off coast of Rac Gia until 9-70 En 2

    • Robert Park

      I was Adviser w/ Bill Rodder @ Junk Div 12–my VN tour 6/65–6/66–greeted @ Ton Sunit w/ Bodies of my shipmate on USS Braine Bill Brown’s body returning from up country on VN C-47 that was to take me North.

      My E mail [email protected]— shoot me an E, Cdr–I’m near Norfolk

  6. Served in Coastal Group 45 at Kien An/Rach Gia June ’67 to June ’68 Served with Ltjg Richard Emerson, Tom Moore, and another officer (Lt), cannot remember his name, but that is no loss. All three were Academy grads, how lucky we were.
    Chief RM was Gerald Simpson, BM1 was Joseph “Porky” Prokopetz. EN1 Norm Selby.
    I was assigned as base defense PO as well as engineering advisor. Spent my year at the base with base ambush team under VN Troung Si CHA (who later proved to be a VC )as well as our hooch mama san) Yes, we were busy with operations during this time frame!
    June ’68 transfered to Cu Lao Re Island, eleven miles of coast of Chu Lai. This was a VN radar site on this island. U.S.Army and Air Force personnel also had operations on this island.
    1973 served as “A” Division Chief aboard USS Cleveland (LPD-7) during operation to clear out all mines that had been dropped by our Navy air folks. A Captain (Aviator) who was CO of a squadron of aircraft that dropped the mines in Haiphong harbor, was my CO on the Cleveland at the time that we were working with Navy mine sweepers to clear out the mines. I believe this was operation “END SWEEP”. Captain Robert E. Kirksey retired as a Vice Admiral. Unfortunately, died at too early of an age. A great skipper. RIP, Admiral KIRKSEY>
    Second VN tour, Spring ’73 to early Summer ’73 found me promoted to ENC at Saigon Shipyard as a Engineering Advisor to VNN seagoing vessels. Served with BTCM/WO-1 Robert Wallace and Francis Drake ENCS (SS).
    This Engineman enjoyed 22 years active duty with a wonderful Navy, great shipmates and SUPER people who worked for me during my years in the Navy.
    Unfortunately, Richard Emerson has also passed. A smart, energetic and “get-it-done” officer. I would follow him anywhere, anytime.
    The sailors that served in Coastal Groups were always lacking quality VNN personnel, quality arms, other that what we could steal and barter from the Army SF guys in Can Tho, and the vessels we patrolled in, you gotta be kidding me! Junks too slow to catch a turtle. Give me a PBR anyday!
    GATOR SAILOR: Al Wittich, ENC, USN, (ret) Bronze Star, Purple Heart
    email: [email protected]

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