Remembering the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club 50 Years Later
By Al Wellman
Fifty years ago the US Navy established PIRAZ station off the coast of Ngh An Province about fifteen miles east of the island of Hon Truan. For the next several years, a guided missile cruiser with a destroyer riding shotgun patrolled back and forth at twelve knots maintaining a Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone to detect any North Vietnamese MiGs hiding among Navy aircraft returning to Yankee station aircraft carriers after air operations over North Vietnam.
The continental shelf around PIRAZ station was a good fish habitat which had sustained a population of Đàn seafarers for centuries. Although the Navy regarded the Đàn sailboats as North Vietnamese lookout posts carrying mines or screening torpedo boats waiting to attack patrolling warships, most were simply homes of three-generation families. Navy watchstanders scanning the boats with binoculars could determine each crew consisted of mother, father, children, and aging grandparents.
Like many Vietnamese, these unfortunate Đàn were simply trying to maintain their subsistence lifestyle on the battlefield of the industrialized world. When fishing conditions were good, hundreds of Đàn sailboats made PIRAZ station PPI radar scopes look as if someone had cast a handful of luminous salt over the screen. CIC personnel attempting to avoid collisions were overwhelmed by the number of radar contacts as the PIRAZ ships plowed through the clustered fishing boats at twelve knots. Most Đàn sailboats carried no lights, but I recall investigating a light dead ahead one night and discovering it was a Đàn standing on the bow of a sailboat holding a cigarette lighter over his head hoping to avoid being run down. Most of us made frequent course changes to avoid every boat we could see, but there were dark nights when our first visual contact was a Đàn sailboat bouncing along the side of the ship as we passed. A few senior officers would instruct their watchstanders to, "Maintain present course and speed. They are the North Vietnamese enemy, after all."
The Đàn had historically been perceived as outcasts by people living ashore. They may not have been our enemy fifty years ago, but a few years of dodging patrolling warships day and night may have converted them. As additional encouragement for the Đàn to vacate their fishing grounds, one cruiser captain decided to conduct a gunnery exercise for his 5-inch guns. To avoid the obvious implication that the Đàn sailboats were the target, the cruiser's motor whaleboat was launched to tow a floating target through the fishing fleet. Aside from their proximity to the gunnery target, the whaleboat crew was apprehensive about the prospect of an independent operation amongst the more numerous Đàn sailboats, but hoped the presence of two large warships would discourage retaliation.
Although Navy brass felt it confirmed the presence of North Vietnamese military observers aboard the Đàn sailboats, it may have been coincidence a MiG took off from Vinh shortly after the cruiser began firing. The cruiser promptly discontinued the gunnery exercise and held a steady course away from its whaleboat to keep the MiG in the engagement arc of the guided missile launcher and fire control radars. The destroyer followed to screen the cruiser. At a distance of a few miles, the warship silhouettes still seemed fairly close to the whaleboat crew. But during the distracting MiG encounter, the cruiser lookouts lost track of their proverbial whaleboat needle in the haystack of Đàn sailboats.
The MiG maneuvered around the maximum range of the cruiser's guided missiles for several minutes, but landed before the cruiser could launch a missile. The patiently waiting whaleboat crew was only vaguely aware of their peril in the gathering evening twilight until their signalman interpreted a flashing light message from the cruiser to its accompanying destroyer: "Can you see my whaleboat?"
The whaleboat crew promptly informed the cruiser of their bearing, and were recovered before darkness fell.
Subsequent collapse of oceanic fisheries has forced many Đàn to find work ashore, where they have largely been assimilated into local populations hopefully enjoying better health care, education, and government services. I wonder if any Đàn elders still tell stories of their encounters with the 7th Fleet Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.
Al Wellman was a Guided Missile (GM) officer who stood Officer of the Deck (OOD) watches aboard a Navy cruiser in the Positive Identification RADAR Advisory Zone (PIRAZ) from 1970 to 1972.