The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

The Swift boats project - A 47-year-old legend!

Malta Independent Friday, 20 July 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

The Vietnam War ran for nearly 20 years –

1 November 1955 to

the fall of Saigon on

30 April 1975 with

US military involvement ending

on 15 August 1973

A war, the like of all miserable conflicts, which also served to instigate research, development and manufacture of new weapons and the strengthening of existing arsenals – a true case where difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions.

In such an environment on 1 February 1965 a US Naval Advisory Group, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, came out with a report entitled the ‘Naval Craft Requirements in a Counter Insurgency Environment’, where the PCF project was conceived.

The report emphasised that no intensive effort has been made to develop a COIN (Counter Insurgency) craft specifically suited to perform the many missions needed to combat insurgent activities – actually the US Navy did not care about small, shallow draft patrol craft before, and were caught short. Yet by June of that year, ARPA, a government research unit, discovered that a crew boat used to support the off-shore oil drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico had most fitting characteristics to the required vessel, with three of the main requisites being: 1. Reliable and sturdy; 2. Non-wooden hull, with screw and rudder protection against groundings; 3. Self-sufficient for 400-500 mile patrol. An immediate visit by a team of experts to boat builders, Sewart Seacraft in Berwick, Louisiana led to the Navy buying then and there the rights to the drawings for the “swift boat”.

The Navy Bureau of Ships eventually had demanded more than 50 military modifications to the commercial design yet in spite of all these changes, the first four boats were delivered to the US Navy in a mere 40-day span. The overall swift boats order list was made up of: 104 ‘Mark I’ model (1965), 46 ‘Mark II’ model (1967) with a modified deck house set further back from the bow, and 33 ‘Mark IIIs’ (1969-1972) which were a larger version of the ‘Mark IIs’.

The first group of Patrol Craft Fast (PCFs), also known as swift boats, arrived in Vietnam in October of 1965 and initially were used as coastal patrol craft, but their shallow draft and low freeboard limited their seaworthiness in open waters. These limitations plus the difficulties the smaller, lighter armed Patrol Boat River (also known as Pibber or PBRs) were facing in the interior led to the inclusion of swift boats to patrol the interior Vietnamese waterways made up of some 1,500 miles. Approximately 3,500 men served as crew or as support personnel on swift boats from 1965 to 1973.

Although in all, 193 PCFs were built, only about 110 served in Vietnam and the two training bases in California; with remaining PCFs being sold or given to nations friendly to the United States.

The Malta connection

One of these friendly nations to the United States was Malta.

In fact on 16 January 1971, PCFs 813 and 816 (both Mark II PCFs), were loaded aboard the USS Wood County LST-1178 at Little Creek, Virginia, departing three days later for Malta. The Wood County arrived in Valletta’s Grand Harbour on 6 February 1971 and discharged the two swift boats now referred to as C-6823 (PCF 813) and C-6824 (PCF 816). Their designations were changed to C23 and C24 on 5 April 1971 during the official handover ceremony to the Armed Forces of Malta by the then US Ambassador to Malta, Mr J C Pritzlaff. Patrol craft forenames C23 and C24 were later changed to P23 and P24. The Maritime Troop, today known as the Maritime Squadron, of the Malta Land Force was established in November 1970 and the ex-US ‘Swift Class’ Patrol Craft were the first boats of the squadron’s fleet and operation.

This was 41 years ago when initially the swift boats were used in an anti-contraband role, and served to improve co-ordination on marine-related duties with the Police Force, customs authorities and Fisheries Department. Due to the small size of Malta, the role of the Maritime Squadron and of its vessels hardly changed. Here the duties are vast and comprise of an amalgamated coast guard, customs, marine police, fisheries protection and search-and-rescue unit. Naturally, the volume of operations has increased dramatically throughout the years and since Malta’s entry into the European Union on 1 April 2004 the volume of operations continued to surge in matters related to fisheries, border control and ship safety in particular.

Proudly and diligently the tough little swift boats have been well taken care of by the AFM Maritime Squadron’s seamen, as these directly experienced Malta’s diverse maritime-related existence right the way from 5 April 1971 to 18 April 2010 when P23 and P24 were decommissioned – 39 solid years of remarkable service.

The lifespan of a boat is similar to that of a human – made up of bright and pleasant episodes as well as of dark and sorrowful incidents. Naturally, all on-board happenings of whatever sort are shared and experienced by the crew that sail and live aboard. It is recorded that 50 US navy swift boats’ sailors lost their life and over 350 were wounded in the line of duty. Unfortunately, a dark and sorrowful incident is also linked with the swift boats bond with the Armed Forces of Malta.

Friday, 7 September 1984 is considered the worst tragic day suffered by Maltese services personnel – the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) and the Malta Police Corps – in peace-time. Swift boat P23 was on a routine operation carrying a number of illegal fireworks intended to be dumped into the sea when, some two miles off Qala Point in Gozo, this exploded on the deck killing five army personnel crew members and two policemen. The sole survivor, despite being badly injured, managed to beach the craft on Comino. After the incident, the patrol boat was towed for repairs at the Manoel Island Yacht Yard where after having its bow rebuilt it was soon after re-assigned to duty with the Squadron.

On being decommissioned, P23 has become a precious and proud monument at Haywharf, Floriana, a testimony to perceive her history and to be a constant tribute to swift boat sailors who have served and yes, died in the line of duty.

Back to the USA

The AFM’s link with the US Navy’s Vietnam veterans of the Swift Boat Sailors’ Association (SBSA) owes much to the efforts of Bob ‘Axelrod’ Shirley, who between 1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War was in charge of swift boat PCF-45 in the Cam Ranh Bay and Chu Lai areas. He was a great friend and supporter of the AFM’s Maritime Squadron, and their swift-class patrol boat crews. He established this link through the then HQ 2nd Regiment AFM’s adjutant and public relations’ officer, Captain Ivan M. Consiglio, and together they were both instrumental for several activities for interaction between the ex-USN swift boat sailors of the SBSA and their AFM counterparts in Malta, which along the way consequently gave genesis to the idea of having one Maltese Swift PCF return to the USA for use as a memorial.

For it was during one such activity that the initial idea was floated, in March 2003 when the AFM’s Maritime Squadron and the Malta Amateur Radio League (MARL) celebrated with the SBSA the activities of these swift boats in South East Asia and later with the AFM, through Special Event Ham Radio Station which was on the air from the Haywharf Base at the same time as another Special Event Station was operated from an SBSA annual reunion at the Sheraton Waterside Hotel in Norfolk, Virginia, USA.

Commended in Vietnam by his commander for having performed above and beyond his duties, ‘Axelrod’ Shirley fuelled his retirement with great contributions to telling the life stories of young American navy sailors’ experiences during their year’s tour on board swift boats, such as through his website www.pcf45.com . The website also chronicles tributes to the AFM’s swift boats’ service. Bob Shirley was very much actively involved in other swift boat veterans groups until the time of his death in January 2008.

Overseeing the completion of Bob Shirley’s suggestion of P24’s return to the USA is another USN swift boat veteran, Virgil Erwin, PCF 67’s ex-skipper in Vietnam who today is an active SBSA board member, as well as an activist in the Vietnam Unit Memorial Monument Fund and the Admiral Hoffmann Foundation. These nowadays provide financial aid to returning wounded Iraq and Afghanistan service personnel. Erwin also authored the book Cat Lo, a story about young men who volunteer to serve swift boats in Vietnam, and about war’s indelible lesson for those who survive: Life is too precious to waste. Amongst the number of recognitions endowed upon Cat Lo, the book was awarded the 2009 Gold Medal for memoir by the Military Writers Society of America.

Virgil Erwin first visited Malta in June 1967 when serving on board destroyer USS Fred T. Berry (DD 858) which escorted the USS Liberty into Valletta for repairs and to offload her dead after the unfortunate attack by Israeli jets. Since then he has returned to the island three times, and has also established a number of friends locally, one of whom is artist Edwin Galea. In fact, one of Galea’s main paintings is displayed in the San Diego Maritime Museum and another at the US Naval Academy.

Virgil Erwin’s most recent trips were related to the necessary organisation formalities to have the AFM’s P24 shipped to back to the USA, for eventual display at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

“Men of all navies develop an intense affection for the ships they serve, for it is these Sweethearts that protected them from storms at sea and the violence of war. Swift boats in Vietnam were manned by very young sailors and because they brought so many back home from brutal conditions, the bond between boat and sailor is extraordinary.

“And now these sailors are leaving us at an increasing rate and they wonder who will be left to tell their story. These two swift boats have an opportunity to convey the remarkable achievements of these men far beyond living memory. P24 will not rest in a cradle as a static display – she will be revitalised by old swift boat sailors and race gracefully through the San Diego Bay with museum visitors as crew, telling the story of men from Malta and America who served with honour,” recounts Virgil Erwin.

Although missing a formal decommissioning ceremony, the Maltese swift boats P23 and P24 will now assume a new role; a role not only meant for their display at the San Diego Maritime Museum and at AFM Maritime Squadron’s Haywharf Base. Theirs is a commendable monument meant as a tribute to a legend that happened because there were daring men who made it happen: Lest We Forget!

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