According to one veteran of the river war in Vietnam, ‘The Mekong Delta’s quiet at night, so quiet you can hear a pin drop for a klick [a kilometer].’ And for the crew of USS Westchester County, LST (landing ship, tank) 1167, the night of November 1, 1968, had been no exception — until 0322 hours, when a team of VC swimmers almost succeeded in turning the ship into a fireball.
Originally designed to transport and land troops directly onto a beach, in late 1968 Westchester County was serving as a temporary home and base to 175 soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division’s 3rd Battalion, 34th Artillery, and to the crews of Navy River Assault Division 111. Assigned as support ship for Mobile Riverine Group Alpha, ‘Wesco,’ as she was known throughout the fleet, was anchored midstream on the muddy My Tho River, 40 miles upstream from the coastal seaport of Vung Tau. Clustered in a rough semicircle around the LST were the Brown Water Navy command ship USS Benewah, the repair vessel USS Askari, two large barracks barges, a small salvage vessel and scores of squat, green armored assault craft. All were fully loaded with fuel and ammunition.
Tied to Wesco‘s starboard side and cushioned from the ship’s hull by a 50-foot-long teakwood log called a ‘camel’ were three ‘ammis,’ huge aluminum pontoon barges linked together that served as combination pier, loading dock and ammunition and gasoline storage depot. The 25 monitors, assault support patrol boats and armored transports of River Assault Division 111 were moored to the ammis. On the ship’s main deck were five fully fueled Army helicopters; below, on the tank deck, more than 350 tons of high explosives and ammunition were stored.
Operating out of Yokosuka, Japan, the 384-foot-long LST was one of many World War II and postwar amphibious workhorses pressed into service with the Brown Water Navy. She was no stranger to the coffee-colored rivers of the Mekong Delta, and on the night of November 1, the ship was almost at the midpoint of her fifth combat deployment to the Republic of Vietnam. So far, the cruise had been routine — for a combat tour — filled with hot, humid, seven-day workweeks, little liberty time ashore and the always-present chance of VC attack.
Nevertheless, morale was high. The ship’s engineering department had recently taken the coveted Squadron ‘E’ for excellence, and the award was now proudly displayed on her bridge. With only one month left in the delta, Wesco‘s 132-man crew looked forward to offloading their mobile riverine ‘guests’ and sailing for Singapore and a well-deserved period of rest and recreation.
It was a typical night on the river. The ship was darkened, with only navigation lights showing. Forward and aft, 3-inch rapid-fire guns were loaded and ready, manned by reduced crews. Armed lookouts were posted on deck. A roving petty officer made sure that gun crews and sentries remained alert. A full watch was in place on the bridge, and in the engineering spaces the’snipes,’ as engine-room personnel were known, stood ready to answer all bells. In the distance, muffled thumps could be heard as picket boats made their rounds, dropping concussion grenades to ward off enemy frogmen. Below decks, in the crowded berthing compartments, the silence was disturbed only by the whir of air-conditioning fans and the murmurs of sleeping men.
But as the crew slept, a team of VC frogmen evaded the picket boats and silently approached the ship. The messenger of the watch had just gone below to wake the oncoming duty section when two enormous explosions ripped into Wesco‘s starboard side. A pair of swimmer-delivered mines, each estimated to contain between 150 and 500 pounds of explosives, had been simultaneously detonated directly beneath the camel.
Compressed between the pontoons and the LST’s hull, the force of the explosions was driven upward, shredding steel plating, rupturing fuel tanks and blasting into the berthing compartments. One of the ammis seemed to leap out of the water as a huge spray of oil, water and hardwood splinters was thrown into the air. In an instant, visibility within the ship was reduced to zero as lighting was knocked out and the air filled with clouds of choking steam and vaporized diesel fuel.
In the crowded sleeping areas, the blasts rolled an entire deck upward and back, like the tongue of a shoe, leaving only a cramped crawl space jammed with twisted metal and mangled bodies between the deck and bulkhead. Below, in the Army berthing spaces, men, bedding, weapons, ammunition and personal gear were hurled across the compartment as two gaping holes opened the interior of the ship to the muddy waters of the My Tho.
Shock waves reverberated across the water, and Wesco began listing to starboard. General Quarters was sounded throughout the ship as men groped in the tangled darkness to reach battle stations or aid wounded shipmates. The LST’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. John Branin, had been pitched from his bed by the blast. Thinking his ship was under rocket attack, Branin picked himself off the deck, struggled into his pants and dashed for the bridge.
Just beneath the main deck a volcano waited to erupt. Two-thirds of the tank deck, running nearly the entire length of the ship, was being used for ammunition storage. More than 10,000 rounds of Army 105mm and 155mm high-explosive ammunition were stored there, closely stacked alongside pallets of 20mm ammunition, boxes of C-4 plastic explosive, Claymore mines, white phosphorous ammunition and cases of flares and pyro-technics. In the wake of the explosions, loose and damaged ammunition lay scattered about the deck. Clouds of highly flammable vaporized fuel hung in the air. With just one spark, the entire contents of Westchester County could easily go ‘high order.’
Amidships on the second deck, in the hard-hit senior petty officers’ compartment, Hospital Corpsman 1st Class John Sullivan struggled to breathe as he regained consciousness. An emergency battle lantern from the deck above cast a hint of light through the diesel fog in the devastation around him. Thrown from his bunk, Sullivan found himself lying half on the deck and half in a gaping hole that had suddenly appeared six inches away from where he had been sleeping. Dazed and disoriented at first, he instinctively pulled himself away from the opening. Below, unseen in the darkness, the waters of the My Tho poured into the ship. Sullivan felt a burning sensation in his right leg. A large chunk of flesh had been torn from the inside of his knee. With the General Quarters alarm sounding faintly in the background, the blast-deafened corpsman became aware of muffled cries for help. Gingerly, as much by feel as by sight, Sullivan skirted the hole in the deck and began crawling through the gloom, across the wreckage and toward the source of the voices.
On the bridge, Commander Branin and his executive officer, Richard Jensen, faced a grim situation. Early reports indicated severe damage amidships and suggested heavy casualties, especially among the senior petty officers. Movement about the ship was extremely hazardous on oil-slick decks. Communications between repair parties and damage control central was almost negligible. On the tank deck, clouds of vaporized fuel and tons of ammunition provided the potential for an explosion of hellish dimensions. And while it was now clear that the LST was not being rocketed, there was a very real possibility that the VC had planted more than two mines.
But for the moment, Branin’s attention was occupied by a more immediate problem. Wesco‘s list was increasing as tons of river water continued to flood into ruptured compartments. As the ship heeled, charts, publications, shattered glass and overturned equipment began to slide across the bridge deck. For an instant Branin thought, ‘She’s going all the way over!’
If the LST was to be saved, the list had to be corrected — and corrected fast. Twenty-four years of naval service and an intimate knowledge of the Wesco‘s unique capabilities gave Branin his solution. Designed for amphibious assaults, the landing ship was equipped with a sophisticated ballasting system. By flooding a series of huge internal tanks, the ship was designed to be able to partially sink herself onto a beach and offload her armored cargo through a set of massive bow doors. After that, it was simple to pump out the ballast, refloat the ship and back away. Since depths on the tidal rivers of the Mekong Delta can change rapidly and become quite shallow, Wesco‘s forward ballast tanks were already flooded as a precaution when the mines exploded. Branin knew that if the hull in the forward part of his ship was still watertight, he could ‘deballast’ the LST’s forward starboard tanks and, theoretically, offset the tons of water flooding in amidships.
With so many of the senior petty officers killed or wounded, many of the ship’s vital stations had to be quickly reorganized. Junior petty officers and nonrated men stepped up, instinctively taking charge at battle stations suddenly undermanned and without leaders. As watertight doors were being closed throughout the ship, 22-year-old Petty Officer 2nd Class Rick Russell found himself alone in the LST’s forward pumping station. Discovering little damage in the forward section of the ship, Russell made contact with the bridge by sound-powered phone, reported in and stood by for orders. Almost 30 years later, Branin still gives his youthful shipmate credit for reversing Wesco‘s list by ‘doing exactly as he was told.’
Miraculously, there was still electrical power to the pumps and, with Branin’s damage control officer relaying precise instructions, Russell began the complex process of deballasting the forward starboard tanks. While the captain held his breath, instructions were passed, valves opened and pumps started. As water was forced from the tanks, the rate of list began to decrease. Groaning, Wesco straightened herself out and slowly started rolling back.
Because of the darkness and devastation, a detailed investigation of the ship’s condition was still extremely difficult, but with an hour and a half before first light, damage control and rescue efforts continued. Soundings indicated that the flooding was being brought under control as compartments next to the devastated areas were sealed off.
Over the next half-hour the situation began to stabilize, but deep within Wesco‘s mangled second deck berthing compartments, hospital corpsman John Sullivan knew only that there were wounded men still trapped in the destruction around him. After feeling his way through the choking darkness of the senior petty officers’ quarters, Sullivan finally located his injured shipmates. Sandwiched between the remains of their bunks and tons of tangled steel, two sailors lay pinned in the wreckage. Sullivan hollered for help and began first aid.
Without light to work by, the corpsman treated his patients by touch. One of the wounded men was still conscious; a large, metal support hook had been driven through his arm. The other sailor wasn’t making any noise at all. Sullivan probed the top of the man’s head — it was mushy, but he was still breathing. Both sailors had multiple injuries. After treating their wounds as best he could, Sullivan was able to pry the men free and, with the help of an impromptu rescue team, evacuated them to a higher deck. According to Sullivan: ‘We didn’t obey a whole lot of first-aid rules on moving victims. At the time, it was just a matter of getting them the hell out of there.’
Of the 11 men quartered in the first class petty officers’ berthing area, three had been in other parts of the ship on watch; five were killed outright. Sullivan and his two wounded shipmates were the only sailors to emerge alive from the compartment after the explosions.
After evacuating the wounded men from the remains of the first class quarters, Sullivan headed for the bridge to find out where else he was needed. Along the way, the hospital corpsman realized that his leg was still bleeding and what clothing he had been wearing at the time of the explosions was long gone. Sullivan was able to find a pair of pants and a pair of shoes that fit, but his leg would have to wait.
By now, every crew member still able was hard at work. As soon as it became evident the ship was not under sustained attack, Captain Branin released nonvital men from their topside battle stations to assist with rescue and casualty evacuation. Until blowers could clear the lower decks of vaporized fuel, the use of cutting torches was out of the question. Chain falls, pry bars, come-alongs and screw jacks were used to free men trapped in the wreckage. Battle lanterns and portable lighting equipment provided illumination. On the ammunition-laden tank deck, an attentive fire party stood by with hoses at the ready while sailors gingerly went about the work of collecting damaged ammunition, gently setting it aside until it could be disposed of.
In the flooded fourth-deck troop compartment, the inrush of river water and diesel oil finally abated, stabilizing at a depth of 6 feet. But inside the 88-man berthing area was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Rescue teams were held up by an impenetrable tangle of debris. Sheets, blankets, pillows, M-16 rifles and duffel bags were intermingled with shredded metal lockers, bunk stanchions and an incredible jumble of personal gear. Another hazard facing the rescuers was a bewildering assortment of grenades, mines and ammunition, brought back aboard the ship in violation of regulations by soldiers returning from the field. Once all the trapped and injured survivors were evacuated, the compartment was abandoned until a complete investigation could be conducted. The next day, salvage divers removed the remains of five soldiers who had been crushed in the explosions.
At first light, as boats shuttled rescue equipment and wounded men to and from the scene, the scope of the VC attack and the damage resulting from it became obvious. Wesco‘s hull was scarred by a pair of gaping, 10-foot holes, and the ship still listed 11 degrees to starboard. On the oil-soaked main deck, two of the Army choppers were wrecked beyond repair. The inboard ammi, miraculously still afloat, was grotesquely crumpled, its forward third punched inward by the force of the blasts. Dozens of damaged light anti-tank rockets, Claymore mines, blocks of C-4 plastic explosive, flares, grenades and other loose ordnance lay strewn across the ammi’s twisted deck. The pontoon’s guard shack was a jumble of splintered timber; Petty Officer 3rd Class Harry Kenny, the sailor who had been manning this post, was missing. Several armored assault craft moored to the ammi were severely damaged and in danger of sinking. The teakwood camel was no longer in the water. The forward half of the enormous log had been vaporized, and a telephone-pole-sized chunk of the remaining 25 feet had been driven through the ammi’s aluminum hull with the splintered remainder scattered over the decks of the pontoon and LST.
While a corpsman from River Assault Division 111 tended to casualties in sick bay, John Sullivan returned to the devastated starboard-side berthing areas. Two men had been discovered still alive in one of the partially flooded lower compartments. A huge sheet of steel had pinned them and their bunks against the overhead. Directly below the men, sunlight and the waters of the My Tho River entered the ship through a 10-foot-wide hole. Once again Sullivan made his way into the wreckage and stayed with his two shipmates for more than an hour, rendering first aid and giving encouragement. Slowly, the metal was pried back far enough to pull the wounded sailors free. A Boston whaler was then driven directly into the ship through the hole to take them to safety.
About 1100, Sullivan himself finally left the ship to receive medical attention. Once his wounded leg was sewn up, the corpsman returned to the LST for his most difficult task of the day, identifying and fingerprinting the bodies of his dead shipmates.
Several days later, after unsuccessfully attempting to assess the full damage to his ship where she lay, Branin reluctantly gave orders to beach Wesco, and the LST was gently run aground on the bank of the My Tho near Dong Tam. At low tide, enough of the hull was exposed to enable the captain to plan temporary repairs.
With the help of a repair division from Askari and a team from Naval Support Activity, Dong Tam, Wesco‘s crew worked around the clock for the next 14 days, building a cofferdam to keep the river at bay, cutting away mangled steel and binding up the LST’s wounds.
But before the temporary repairs could be completed, Branin and his men faced one more challenge. A local shortage of structural steel plating and I-beams threatened to keep the ship in its vulnerable riverbank position until a shipment of the critical materials could arrive from a repair base in Japan or the Philippines. Not willing to wait, Branin decided to follow a time-honored Navy tradition and sent a party ashore for a little ‘midnight requisitioning.’ That evening at an Army engineer compound near Dong Tam, Branin’s men located a stockpile of portable bridging equipment, complete with assorted I-beams and plenty of steel plating. Within hours the ‘borrowed’ I-beams and patches were cut to size and welded into place on Wesco.
On November 14, 1968, with the help of a large Navy tug, the crew of Westchester County refloated their ship and steamed down the My Tho, outbound for the South China Sea and a 2,500-mile voyage home to Yokosuka for dry-docking and permanent repairs. Wesco‘s passage home was not to be an easy one. Along the way, the wounded LST lost a race trying to outrun a typhoon. Rough seas caused cracks and ruptures in the temporary repairs, and the ship’s damaged holds began taking on water. By the time the LST entered Tokyo Bay on November 25, flooding from the hole in the aft part of the ship had overwhelmed pumps capable of pumping 3,200 gallons per minute. Once again, parts of the damaged areas were flooded to the waterline.
This time the crew was ready. Watertight doors and well-braced bulkheads sealed off flooded compartments from the rest of the ship. Well-tested damage control parties stood by, confident of themselves and of Wesco‘s ability to take whatever was thrown at her.
At 1000 hours the next day, battered but unbowed, Westchester County passed the Yokosuka breakwater and steamed into her home port. Obvious patches marked where the VC mines had torn into her side, and her main deck was still piled high with debris cut away dur-ing the repair effort. But topside, the ship sported a fresh coat of haze-gray paint, and while the special sea-and-anchor detail scrambled to make her fast to the pier, a veteran crew manned Wesco‘s rail.
When the final casualty figures were tallied, they showed that 17 crew members of Westchester County had been killed in the explosions; five 9th Infantry Division soldiers died in the wreckage of the troop compartment. Also killed in the attack were one sailor from River Assault Division 111, one South Vietnamese Navy sailor and one South Vietnamese ‘Tiger Scout’ interpreter. Twenty-two crewmen had been wounded. The 25 KIAs lost in the mining of Westchester County represent the U.S. Navy’s greatest single-incident combat loss of life during the entire Vietnam War.
In a postwar analysis of the attack, retired Army explosives expert Captain Robert Shelley expressed his opinion that the mining had been a well-planned and executed enemy operation that fell just short of becoming an unparalleled allied disaster. Shelley, whose 21 years of active service included 14 years with explosive ordnance disposal, two tours in Vietnam and command of the unit tasked with clearing the Suez Canal after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, said that had Westchester County‘s cargo of ordnance gone high order, the resulting blast would have been equal to that of a small nuclear weapon, destroying the ship instantly and generating an enormous wave capable of capsizing other good-sized vessels. Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel would have been spilled into the river, with tons of unexploded ammunition and automobile-sized pieces of the ship being hurled into the shoreline, the local town, and onto ships anchored several thousand yards away. According to Shelley, had the mining of Westchester County been entirely successful, it could have easily resulted in immobilizing or destroying the entire Mobile Riverine Force. Shelley credits the action and quick thinking of Wesco‘s crew — and a slight miscalculation in the VC’s placement of their charges — for averting a tragedy that, terrible as it was, could have been incalculably greater.
Following repairs in Japan, Westchester County continued to make regular deployments to Vietnam until the end of the American involvement. By the time she was decommissioned in 1973, Wesco had been awarded three Navy Unit Commendations, two Meritorious Commendations and 15 Engagement Stars, a combat record matched by only two other LSTs. More than 36 awards and commendations were awarded to the ship’s crew for its performance during and immediately after the November 1 attack. Lieutenant Commander Branin received the Bronze Star. Hospital Corpsman First Class John Sullivan was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Branin and Sullivan later retired from the Navy, and today both men live in Ramona, Calif.
In 1974, USS Westchester County was turned over to the Turkish navy, where she continues to serve as TCG Serdar (L 402).
This article was written by Navy veteran and documentary filmmaker Gene Frederickson and originally published in the August 1998 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!