Consider the barracks ship. Boxy and somewhat nondescript, they are fixtures along the waterfronts of shipyards that service US Navy vessels around the world. They provide berthing, messing, and other miscellaneous functions for the crews of vessels being commissioned, decommissioned, or undergoing major overhaul or rehab work during their life cycle. While this isn't exactly a Cinderella story, fifty years ago a self-propelled barracks ship, a variety of Landing Ship, Tank (LST) built too late to take part in World War II, was plucked from obscurity in Newport News, Virginia, to become an unusual kind of flagship nearly 9,000 miles away.
As the US Navy became more deeply involved in defending the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, also known as South Vietnam) from its communist northern neighbor fifty years ago, Naval Forces Vietnam had to contend with a riverine type of combat environment on a scale not seen since the Civil War. While the Navy’s research and development emphasis had been going into defeating an increasingly sophisticated Soviet blue water threat, a decidedly low-tech brown water infiltration of the RVN by communist guerrillas was continuing apace, complicating American efforts to bring stability to the country.
The Mekong Delta, situated south of South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, comprised most of the southernmost portion of the country. (Vietnamveteransmemorial.homestead.com)
By 1966, after several years of a enforcing a blockade and patrolling the main waterways along the RVN’s 1,200-mile coastline, it was becoming clear that this approach was insufficient in defeating enemy National Liberation Front (Viet Cong, or VC) insurgents, who were using the Mekong Delta, home to over a third of the country's population, as a base of operations. A more integrated approach between the US Army and Navy was called for, and coordination would begin at the top. Gen. William Westmoreland, Commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Rear Adm. (Upper Half) Norvell G. Ward, Commander, US Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), conceived of a strike force to take the fight to the VC in their innumerable hiding places within the delta: the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). Within the MRF, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division would work hand-in-glove with the Sailors of the Riverine Assault Force manning hundreds of small riverine craft.
In his book War in the Shallows: U.S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968 (2015), historian Robert Sherwood of the Naval History and Heritage Command wrote:
The MRF kept enemy forces in the [Mekong] delta on the defensive and allowed MACV to focus forces in other areas of the country, secured the vital and populous “bread basket” of South Vietnam, and provided essential backup to the three ARVN divisions there. In many respects, it served as the cornerstone for General William Westmoreland’s southern flank.
Although a shore base called Dong Tam (which roughly translated into “united hearts and minds” in Vietnamese) was created for the MRF from land dredged from the delta, the joint operation’s emphasis on mobility necessitated forming mobile bases closer to the action, where front lines were constantly in flux. As during the Civil War a century before and the First World War 50 years later, the Navy would have to press whatever vessels were on hand into action. Unlike both earlier wars, during which civilian vessels were modified for dangerous war deployments, there was a ready resource for the MRF at depots and shipyards around the country. Ships originally built to support amphibious landings during World War II were pressed into service as the massive counterinsurgency effort in the Mekong Delta got underway, involving up to 30,000 Sailors at its height.
The Landing Ship, Tank (LST), first produced in 1942, with the last decommissioned in 2002, could deliver much more than tanks. All manner of vehicles, even railroad cars, were delivered by the lumbering, flat-bottomed marvels. Some of the over 1,000 LSTs built during the 1940s were modified during construction to such an extent that their classification changed. Becoming anything from battle damage repair ships (ARBs) and landing craft repair ships (ARLs) to even mini aircraft carriers, LSTs and their derivatives were some of the most versatile ships ever built for naval service. Built too late to see any action during WWII, the self-propelled floating barracks ship USS Benewah (APB-35), named for a county in Northwest Idaho, more than made up for it after arriving fifty years ago in Vietnam to become a flagship in the Navy’s first “great green fleet.”
After two decades of serving miscellaneous support roles for the Navy Reserve and the Seabees, Benewah could be found serving as a barracks ship, temporarily housing the crews of new ships being built at Newport News Shipbuilding, near the mouth of the James River in Hampton Roads. In July 1966, as the MRF was in its formative stages, Benewah was reacquired by the Navy and sent to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for conversion to a brigade command ship. In addition to new quad-40 mm cannons and 3-inch guns, along with .50 caliber and 7.62mm machine gun mounts, her onboard medical facilities were greatly enlarged, and as a finishing touch, a large helicopter platform was installed above it. She was recommissioned on January 28, 1967, and sent to Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, for training.
The chief's lounge aboard USS Benewah (APB-35) was a place for senior Navy NCOs to relax between operations against communist insurgents in the Mekong Delta, and sported a rather large television (for its time). (NHHC image)
Although she emerged in fighting shape, Benewah’s haze gray finish did not exactly befit her role in a venture that would place Soldiers and Sailors on equal footing. This would be remedied during a stopover in Pearl Harbor en route to Vietnam, where she was painted olive green. The MRF’s new 328-foot long flagship arrived on April 23, 1967, and immediately began operations as a mobile support base for over 1,000 Soldiers, Sailors, and a variety of assault craft belonging to the Riverine Amphibious Assault Force (TF-117). Benewah was far from just a place for MRF members to shower, sleep, and get a bowl of ice cream. Her Joint Tactical Operations Center monitored and jammed enemy communications while directing assault operations along the delta's 3,000 nautical miles of waterways.
Benewah was ultimately joined by several other self-propelled barracks ships modified for MRF service such as USS Colleton (APB-36), USS Mercer (APB-39), and USS Neuces (APB-40). They served as the core of a formidable Mobile Riverine Base fielding 3,600 Soldiers and Sailors and their heavily-armored monitors, Armored Troop Carriers (ATCs), and river patrol boats (PBRs) as they fought to stem the insurgency.
By late 1970, the war in Vietnam, which saw that the reemergence of monitors in riverine combat operations for the first time since the Civil War, and the reappearance of trench (or immersion) foot as an endemic condition for the first time since the First World War, was over for Benewah. After roughly three and a half years of frontline combat service, earning 11 battle stars in the waters of both Vietnam and Cambodia, the former flagship, one of the most decorated of the entire war, was transferred to Naval Base Subic Bay. Benewah was decommissioned there in 1971 and subsequently transferred to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which made an unsuccessful attempt to convert her into a hospital ship. She now rests on the sea floor somewhere off the archipelago after being sunk as part of an artificial reef.