COMSEC Team 3, Vung Tau:

In late February, my friend Mac was transferred south to Vung Tau, which was located on the coast of the South China Sea about 40 miles southeast of Saigon.  We had a small team there and I was hopeful that I would also get orders there. 

In the meantime, we were in the process of closing the monitoring station on Monkey Mountain.  We disassembled the radios and tape recorders and prepared them for transportation elsewhere, but I was surprised to learn that much of the other equipment like typewriters, chairs, desks and monitoring positions were to be dismantled with axes and sledgehammers and thrown over the cliffs into the sea.  I now know that this was not unusual in wartime situations – the costs of shipping such stuff home were prohibitive, but as we wielded the axes on our former workspace and even cooked hot dogs on the remains, the absurdity of the situation was not lost on we young sailors.

In late March 1970 I received orders to COMSEC Team 3 located in Vung Tau.  The area was an in-country R&R site so I knew that it was pretty secure.  The city itself was beautiful and was located on Cap St. Jacques, and the architecture was that found in most French colonial urban areas.  Our team was co-located with Inshore Underwater Warfare Group 1 (IUWG-1) Western Pacific Detachment, and a detachment of Australian Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel that manned the Harbor Entrance Control Post.  Our small base was on the grounds of an old French fortification with a commanding view of the sea approaches to the entrance to the Saigon shipping channel which ran up the river through the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ) – or Forest of Assassins.   The RSSZ was a tangle of mangrove swamps and tidal marshes that were used by the Viet Cong to harass the shipping going into and out of Saigon.  Vung Tau was also very near the mouth of the Mekong River delta and South Vietnamese and US Navy riverine forces were stationed at the Cat Lo Naval Base and support aircraft at Vung Tau Air Base just north of the city.

CTR2 Fred Bumgarner at Vung Tau

The activities which were the focus of our team’s monitoring efforts were all related to Operation Game Warden (Task Force 116) units whose purpose was to deny the resources of the Mekong River delta and its waterways to the Viet Cong.  Those units included river patrol boats (PBRs) of River Divisions 53 and 54, UH-1 Seawolf helicopters of Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 3 (HAL-3), OV-10A Broncos (Black Ponies) of Light Attack Squadron 4 (VAL-4), specially outfitted Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) which served as floating bases for both the PBRs and Seawolves, such as the USS Hunterdon County (LST-838), various ocean and river minesweepers (MSOs, ASPBs and ATCs), Seal Teams, and Marine advisors to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) forces in the region. 

At Vung Tau we operated out of a specially configured small box-like van that contained our radio receivers, tape recorders, typewriters, and antennas.  The van was just big enough for two monitoring positions and a desk for administrative purposes. The workspace was air conditioned, a bonus because our living quarters were open screened hooches with concrete floors.  The temperature during my four-month tour was very pleasant.   We had the advantage of being right on the South China Sea and being elevated just enough to catch a nice breeze.  Because of this climate, South Vietnamese President Thieu’s summer palace was located just a quarter mile down the hill from our base.  Just up the road from our base was an Army tropo communications site with its’ big dish antennas that allowed it to propagate secure radio waves using the principle of tropospheric scatter. 

Our routine on the base at Vung Tau revolved around our watch schedules.  The day watch was most busy.  There was a chief petty officer (CPO) in charge of our detachment who pretty much stayed in his air-conditioned room located in one of the large concrete bunkers of the old French fortifications on the base.  The chief was on his third tour in Vietnam where we thought he was hiding from his wife and kids.  There also was a first-class petty officer and he was our analyst and processing and reporting specialist.  He and the chief focused on liaison with the monitored entities and made suggestions on how to protect their comms from exploitation based on our monitoring efforts. If we could hear their communications, it was certain that the enemy was also listening.  The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had a signals intelligence effort in Vietnam, and it was to the detriment of the war effort that many on our side doubted the enemies’ skills in that area.  Operation Purple Dragon revealed and attempted to address operational security (OPSEC) issues in Vietnam, including COMSEC weaknesses.

Much like Da Nang, we were close enough to “hear” the war as it unfolded in the Mekong Delta rivers and the Saigon shipping channel up through the Rung Sat to the west and northwest of our location, but physically removed from the threats of the combat itself.  I can still remember many of the voice callsigns associated with the riverine operations, such as “Sepia”, the callsign for the radio receiver site on the other side of Vung Tau, “Five Days Whiskey”, for the PBRs of one of the river divisions of CTF 116, “Moon River”, the CTF 116 command element that directed many of the activities on the rivers, “Shapeless”, one of the minesweepers in the area, “Seawolf” and “Black Pony” for the supporting helos and OV-10’s that provided critical air cover for the riverine operations. 

By mid-1970 the US and South Vietnamese leadership was prepared to attack the NVA and Viet Cong sanctuaries just across the Cambodian border to the west of Saigon.  The areas described as the Parrot’s Beak and the Fish Hook were the focus of the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) and US ground units supported by aerial bombardment.  Beginning 9 May and continuing throughout June, South Vietnamese and US naval units attacked up the Mekong River with more than 140 vessels in an attempt to seal off the Mekong area while the ground forces continued applying pressure to the west and south near the Parrot’s Beak.  I remember looking out from our base at Vung Tau one afternoon and seeing a continuous line of vessels in the sea, from the naval base at Cat Lo around Cap St. Jacques and to the mouth of the Mekong River.  We knew a major effort was underway and the level of communications traffic on the radio confirmed it. 

CTR2 Fred Bumgarner  pictured with Fred the monkey

While we were busy, our time off watch was spent playing basketball on our helo pad, which had a basketball net mounted on two poles that easily could be removed when helos were inbound to our location.   We also had a boat, water-skis, and round mini-surfboards that were ideal for the flat beaches of Vung Tau.  On days when the minesweepers swept the waters off the beach below the lighthouse, we could ski.  Our small base had a bar, and because of the Aussies stationed with us, we received a regular supply of good Australian beers and ales such as Fosters and Victoria Bitters.   They were a welcome relief from the Falstaff and Schlitz which we normally had in the bar.  We occasionally had movies to watch and we were close enough to Saigon that the AFVN radio station was easily received and appreciated.  We also worked out with weights, had beard-growing contests, and played with “Fred”, the pet monkey who the Aussies kept on a long-tethered rope.  Fred would lay in your lap while you went through his fur with your fingers looking for stuff.   He then would jump on your shoulders and work through your hair returning the favor.   This “mutual grooming” ritual was very relaxing.

In August, our team was told that we would be closing the Vung Tau monitoring site.  We were directed to prepare the monitoring van for pick-up, and on a hot afternoon I was handed a radio and told to speak with the pilot and crew of a huge CH-54 Army Skycrane helo which came and lowered a cable which was then attached to our van.  With an incredible downdraft and roaring noise, the helo lifted the van and carried it to Vung Tau Airbase.   Three of our team members, including me, were ordered to Saigon where we were able to spend two days relaxing in the Hotel Lei Li while awaiting further orders.   I remember listening to a Filipino band playing Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the hotel’s roof top bar.   The band had a limited set list, which included “In a Gadda DaVida”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, and “Purple Haze”, but the audience was appreciative and listened to the songs repeatedly while we sipped our Ba Mui Ba (“33”) Vietnamese beer.  The more Ba Mui Ba the better they sounded.

Featured Photo: PBRs are at Dong Tam (west of My Tho and not shown on the Game Warden map) Photo attributed to Doug Lindsey on the YRBM-17, a support vessel for those boats.  Had to use his photo because I lost the developed film I took on the river patrol out of Nha Be

Written by Fred Bumgarner