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Home arrow History arrow APSS-282 and LPSS-282 History arrow POINTE DE KIM BONG or FROGS ON THE ROCKS
Written by Gerry Young   
Oct 13, 2011 at 12:11 PM

This submarine officer's closest approach to combat in Vietnam

This isn't really a sea story, in the sense that it's funny or profane. It's just a factual recounting, so far as my memory is still functional, about a night operation off Vietnam in the spring of 1968.

I was still Weapons Officer, and John Tate had relieved Bill Green as Commanding Officer a month or so earlier. I believe this may have been our first Vietnam operation since John took command.

 (Editor's note: Photos are being formatted - come back soon.)

We were several weeks into our operations when we were tasked to work at a specific beach on a particular night. This was in the northern part of what was referred to as ‘I Corps' (pronounced ‘eye corps'). I Corps was the northernmost section of South Vietnam, extending from north of Cam Ranh Bay up to the DMZ - the dividing line between South and North Vietnam. And the beach for the night was at Pointe de Kim Bong.

The little Mapquest flag on the map to the left shows where Pointe de Kim Bong is. The DMZ in those days was just north of Hué, which you can see near the top of the map. History buffs will recall that a few months early, during the Tet Offensive, some of the heaviest fighting was in Hué. Of course, we kicked the VC's and NVA's butt during that offensive, but it was nevertheless hailed by the press as a huge setback to our operations in Vietnam. But back to the story.

This looked like a routine operation. As usual, we were going to lock out the embarked UDT team, who would then go in on rubber boats (in Navy nomenclature, the kind we carried was referred to as an ‘IBS,' meaning ‘inflatable boat, small.') TUNNY carried a number of these - my memory is we had about half a dozen on board, but usually only needed two or three for a normal UDT operation of this kind.

We had the lockout procedure down to a science after more than a year of doing these operations. TUNNY had about a dozen men on board who were officially Navy-qualified scuba divers. Each night we operated, two of these operated as ‘safety divers,' performing a variety of the tasks involved in getting the UDT team out of the submarine and into their boats, with their radios and weapons, while keeping the submarine entirely submerged. If you read Al Barkis's article on the website - ‘The Night the Vietnamese Fisherman Tied up to the Periscope,' you'll get an explanation of what these guys did on a nightly basis, from the viewpoint of one of the safety divers.

Each morning, when we were on the surface a good distance off the coast, the Weapons department gang would re-rig the forward deck and boat lockers for the upcoming night's operation. Here's a photo of Bob Christman in the summer of 1968 supervising this daily chore. Bob had taken over Weapons from me in July when I moved to Engineering Officer to replace the famous Don O'Shea, who'd been transferred to GRAYBACK, the boat that was to take TUNNY's place in a year or so.

You can see the hoses coiled on the deck. These were air hoses for topping off the IBS's after they came to the surface, and to supply air to the ‘hookah' rig that we sometimes used to provide an alternate means for the UDT to reach the surface. We also had to re-stow the boats in their lockers, rig the lanyards to partially inflate them as they rose to the surface, put newly charged air tanks on deck for emergency use by the divers, and so on.

But the Pointe de Kim Bong incident was months before this picture was taken, and I was still Weapons Officer.

I suppose we were a little cocky about our mastery of the technique of safely locking out a UDT or SEAL team. We'd locked out, believe it or not, well over two thousand men over the past year. That sounds like a lot, but we were at sea, usually off Vietnam, about 70% of the year and probably doing lockouts at least 80% of those nights. And a typical embarked UDT team was over a dozen people. Do the math.

This particular night was not going to go as planned, despite all our experience and skill.

As usual, the first group we locked out was the team leader, his radioman, and a third frog. The radio was carried in a watertight metal box. Our safety divers had already been out for a while, checking the gear and opening the boat lockers to release the two IBS's. Each boat had a lanyard attached to a CO2 bottle. The natural buoyancy of each rolled-up boat, from air trapped inside the rolls, would let it float up slowly. After a few feet, this would pull the lanyard, which would in turn release the compressed CO2 gas to partially inflate the boat. So by the time the first UDT group locked out, their boats would be waiting on the surface. They'd need to be fully inflated, but one of the divers would bring up the top-off hose, connected to the TUNNY's 225-psi air system, so the frogs could ‘top off' each boat to its fully-inflated condition before giving the hose back to the diver. There's nothing worse than trying to paddle a partially inflated IBS, I'd been told, especially through surf. But I was to find out that in fact, there was something worse that could happen to an IBS.


The safety diver waiting outside the escape trunk door would reach his hand in and let the first person to lock out - usually the team leader - grab onto him. He'd then guide the swimmer out of the trunk and over to the ascending line. This was a light line tied off to TUNNY's superstructure and buoyed up by an inflated life jacket. The swimmer would then swim up the line, exhaling all the way, just the way we used to be taught at the escape training tank in New London for buoyant ascent.

After the three swimmers in the first group had been locked out, we shut the door to the escape trunk, drained down the trunk, opened the lower hatch, and put the next group in.

Except this time, before we could lock out the second group, the safety divers reported to us on the DUCS circuit that the first group wasn't in the boat. (DUCS was a bone-conductor audio system that allowed us to talk with the divers. This was, I believe, a technology developed in the U.K. Bill Green tells me we obtained the DUCS technology from the UK Royal Navy Special Boat Section, courtesy of Captain John Moore RN.  Captain Moore was with Submarine Squadron Seven stationed in Singapore - Tunny had embarked them in 1966 or 1967 for a training exercise.)   

Or maybe we actually locked out the second group and they told us their teammates were missing - it's been a long time. Maybe one of the safety divers will read the website and chip in with his own recollections.

Well, having a swimmer group vanish was a new development for us.  The command team in the conn heard this on the 37MC, which DUCS was tied into, and John Tate decided to abort the operation for the night, surface, and attempt to retrieve the missing frogs.

Since the radioman had been in the group we'd locked out, we started off by attempting to contact them on the assigned radio frequency. But there was no joy there. We cruised around the area on the surface, but in the pitch-dark night there wasn't much chance we'd spot them visually.

Hours later, with tension on the boat rising steadily, we finally got a radio call from our lost frogs. The call came, as I recall, exactly at the ‘flare pull time' - the predetermined time when the team, if they were in difficulty on the beach and couldn't communicate via radio, would pull a white flare to get our attention. Maybe the froggies got confused about when it was OK to come up on the radio, but it was good to hear from them.

They told us they'd been swept away from the IBS's by an unexpectedly strong current, and finally came ashore on a rocky point. They were a little banged up and scraped by the rocks, but were otherwise in good shape. And they'd really appreciate someone to come and pick them up - they were in no condition to try to swim out to the submarine, even if they knew where it was.

John Tate fixed me with what I remember as a steely gaze. "You lost them," he told me firmly. "You go get them."

Well, that sounded fair enough, although I wasn't totally sure I was to blame for them not getting to the boat (but more about that later). So I went to the assistant UDT team leader, a salty ensign, and asked for his suggestions. He told me we'd need three frogs to buddy-swim out with the three on the rocks, and suggested I take two others with me in the boat for contingencies. Forty-plus years later, I don't recall why he didn't accompany me on this little adventure. Maybe he was smarter than he looked.

And I should mention that an IBS is a seven-man boat. I had a degree in engineering, but my math skills weren't with me that night, because I saw nothing wrong with taking six people off on a trip to gather three more and bring everyone back in a boat designed to hold only seven.

I do clearly remember standing on the after deck as we watched my Weapons Gang attach an outboard motor to the transom on an IBS.  I was handed a pistol I wasn't familiar with. In those days the only pistol I'd fired had been the 1911 Colt .45. I looked at this strange weapon and negotiated a trade-in for an M-16 rifle, a weapon I was much better acquainted with.

And off we went, the six of us in our little rubber boat, heading, with help from the TUNNY's navigation team guiding us by radio, toward the little rocky outcrop on Pointe de Kim Bong. It was completely dark out on the water, and TUNNY was naturally running at darken ship. But inland we had the usual nightly show with flares and occasional air strikes or artillery going on to give us something to look at.

We arrived at what we guessed was a spot reasonably close to the rocky point, but still well out of the surf, and the three buddy swimmers slipped over the side and swam toward shore. That left me and the two other froggies sitting placidly in our little boat and rubbernecking at the fireworks shows going on inland behind the first range of coastal hills.

I was probably thinking this was a nice little adventure that I could reminisce about later when I heard a loud ‘bang' and watched as the swimmer sitting nearest the bow flew backwards out of the boat, clutching at his chest. The other swimmer and I promptly put our weapons in the bottom of the boat and slid over the side. We both assumed the other swimmer had somehow been shot. I realize now this was highly unlikely - we were sitting in a dark boat hundreds of yards offshore, with nothing behind us to silhouette us. But I suppose some enterprising VC or NVA soldier might have found a Starlight scope and was using it. Anyway, being in the water instead of sitting up in the boat like a nice target seemed to be a good idea.

We were trying to talk with the swimmer who'd been knocked overboard, but he was incoherent for a minute or so. Finally he managed to let us know that he hadn't been hit by any sort of weapon - the front tube of the IBS had exploded. So now we had half of a seven-man boat and hey! - here came the six UDT from the beach to join the three of us in the water. And the submarine was several miles offshore from us, so she wasn't going to be of any immediate help.  Unless we had a true emergency, TUNNY wouldn't venture in on the surface very close to shore, even on a dark moonless night.

Well, it turned out the UDT had been trained in what to do when part of your boat catastrophically deflated. By propping a few paddles and rigging a few lines, they were able to truss up the front of the boat into a fairly rigid structure. Of course, we still had a boat that would only hold a max of three people, and there were nine of us.

The ‘solution,' if such an elegant term can be used, was to have three people in the boat, one of them operating the outboard motor. The other six - three on each side - would hold onto the lines that ran along each side of the IBS. The problem was that when we were all clinging on - did that make us Klingons? - the weight-load on the boat was enough to sink the stern so low that the outboard was underwater. I was one of the water people, by the way - the ones in the boat were the lost lockout group, who'd all been banged up and scraped a bit.

Did you realize that an outboard motor can run entirely submerged for a brief period of time? Neither did we, but our slow progress back to the boat was made by brief spurts of propulsion with the motor underwater, after which we'd all let go of the lines, the boat would bob up a bit, the engine would gasp for air and begin running at full throttle again, and we'd repeat.

I have no idea how long it took us to get back to the boat, but it seemed like a very long time. Nevertheless, it was still pitch dark when we got back, so it couldn't have been more than a couple of hours.

For some reason, Captain Tate and my fellow officers thought the whole thing was hilarious. I was a little less amused for a while, but was finally able to admit there were some pretty comedic elements to the whole caper, beginning with our (my) decision that putting nine people in a seven-man boat was perfectly fine. To be fair to myself, if the front tube hadn't blown up, this wouldn't have been a real problem. The seven-man limitation mostly applies to when the boat is being paddled, with three rows of two paddling and one in the back steering. We could have gotten all nine in and motored back with very little difficulty. Of course, half a boat was an entirely different issue.

In the post-op wrapup, we learned that one of the men in the first lockout group hadn't been able to reach the IBS - he just drifted off. The other two, obeying the buddy swimming rules, followed him.  Apparently there was a fairly strong current there, or at least that was his story. But our safety divers hadn't had any problems with the current. And you'd think that guys who were superlative swimmers, as everyone in UDT was supposed to be, wouldn't have had much problem with a knot or two of current. It's been too long for me to remember all the details, but one possibility is that the guy who was swept off was the one with the radio canister. If so, he really only had one hand to swim with and might have been more at the mercy of the current.

So far as TUNNY was concerned, the ‘fix' for making sure this wouldn't happen again was to run a line from the top of the ascending buoy to an IBS, so the froggies could hold onto that once they surfaced. We never again ‘lost' a swimmer, at least so long as I was on board. But the whole incident provided a lot of material for me to harassed about when all I wanted was to enjoy my meal in the wardroom.

And that's the closest, thank God, that I ever came to actual combat. Not very close, we can all agree, but enough for me. 

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Last Updated ( Oct 13, 2011 at 12:14 PM )
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