Honoring those who have served: Veterans Day 2020

Jim Magner ... Submitted photo.

Jim Magner of Waukon shares his experience serving in the “Brown Water Navy” during the Vietnam War

Jungles and rice paddies are some of the many images Americans have of Vietnam thanks to the media coverage during the Vietnam conflict over 50 years ago. Movies and television, plus documentaries and newscasts assist in continuing to reintroduce and reinforce memories of this nation’s involvement in, at the time, the United States’ longest war.

The bombings and air support of that conflict are reminders of the Air Force’s contribution to the war effort. The monuments erected often depict the soldiers on the front line, both the Army and the Marines. But perhaps not as much attention is given to the Navy and its presence in this war.

Stationed off the coasts of that southeast Asia nation were aircraft carriers used for the many sorties supporting U.S. troops on the ground. The carrier groups offered support but do not have the same reputation as what the Marines or the fighter or bomber pilots had in this conflict. But the Navy did have a much more upfront presence in the conflict than what is typically depicted, and it was called the “Brown Water Navy.”

The Navy needed a smaller water craft that would be able to navigate and be effective in the many rivers crisscrossing in South Vietnam, plus have a boat that could get in close to patrol and support ground forces on the coastal areas. The larger ships, like destroyers, were much too large for the shallow waters, so the Navy constructed and developed the “Swift Boat.”

After extensive study, Naval engineers decided on a 50-foot long craft, abandoning the idea of a wood hull for a welded aluminum hull, with a beam of about 13 feet and a draft of roughly five feet. This craft needed to be able to run quietly in shallow water rivers and deltas, have the ability to have armaments that can protect as well as be able to be effective in attacking the enemy. There were twin mounted .50-caliber Browning machine guns in a turret atop the pilothouse, another .50-caliber gun in an over-under configuration and an 81mm mortar.

The first Swift Boat, the Mark I, entered service in October of 1965, followed by the Mark II and finally, the larger Mark III, which patrolled the waters of South Vietnam from 1969 to 1972. The Navy utilized 133 Swift Boats over the course of the war as their crew - a skipper, boatswain, radar and radio operator, engineer, and two gunners - added to the American presence in this Southeast Asian conflict.

The Swift Boat Navy became an integral element in the fight against the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and the Viet Cong by enabling the American Navy to travel inland on the many waterways. The swift boat sailors would fire napalm along the banks of the rivers, further removing any cover for the enemy. The efforts of the swift boats stopped resupply, by water, of Communist troops fighting in the immediate vicinity.

During Operation Market Time, weapons and ammunition came to a standstill from 1965 to 1970. The swift boats certainly proved their worth during American involvement in this conflict.

A Waukon resident has numerous memories of his service on the swift boats during the war. Jim Magner is a Navy veteran who spent time on these swift boats. Enlisted in 1966, Magner began his early service on aircraft carriers, three tours on the USS Coral Sea. One of his most memorable experiences was the Coral Sea being sent to the waters off North Korea after the Communists had boarded and taken control of both the crew and Navy intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo.

The Waukon native received new orders following the Tet Offensive in early 1968. Reporting to Camp Pendleton in California, he received a two-week survival training course before being shipped off to Vietnam. Arriving in Vietnam, the 2nd class electrician was assigned to a patrol boat riverine (PBR) and began patrolling days and some nights. Magner was in charge, as an E.M. (electrician’s mate), to oversee the boat’s electrical system. He was also assigned for a time to the Army’s 9th Infantry Riverine Air Boat Division.

This Allamakee County native witnessed the tremendous positives of the swift boats as patrols offered cover for land-based units, provided intelligence of enemy interactions and movements, and presented a powerful presence to active enemy units in the area. They would come under fire, but this seaman did not believe he was any more threatened than if he was patrolling on land.

His PBR had five sailors and it was nothing unusual to come under fire, especially at night, from the jungles bordering the waterways they patrolled. Some of the boats were armed with napalm and or Agent Orange, deploying chemicals on the surrounding vegetation so the enemy had little cover.

Magner remembers that there were large areas near the rivers that were burnt off and appeared as vast wastelands. As the numbers of electricians dwindled, this seaman trained the engine men on what to do electrically on the boat. Magner was then stationed at the naval base Dong Tam full-time.

In 1968, the Navy sent in the LST USS Westchester County up the My Tho River, about 40 miles upstream from Vung Tau near Dong Tam. It was loaded with 10,000 rounds of 105mm and 155mm artillery rounds on its tank deck, and on the main deck were five Army helicopters. A Viet Cong demolition team detonated two mines on the hull of the vessel and caused extensive damage. A total of 25 Navy seamen were killed, the greatest U.S. Navy single-incident combat loss in the war. Magner and his unit were sent to assist the disabled vessel, as a petty officer he was responsible for the security of the ongoing repairs of the battle damage.

The security contingent would drop concussion grenades into the harbor to dissuade any more underwater Viet Cong frogmen. They also assisted in removing damaged ammunition and, as an electrician, Magner and other sailors set up large portable welders on a pontoon with metal sheeting six feet high to ward off snipers.

Welders were also busy repairing the 10-foot holes on the USS Westchester County so the ship could be seaworthy for the trip from Vietnam to Japan to complete repairs. The memory of the attack on the Westchester County still bothers Magner, especially when he was at the scene within hours after the attack. The loss of life and damage has imprinted the most negative memory of the war on him. Months later, Magner received a Navy Commendation for performance of duty as a member of the special repair team.

Magner spent the rest of his tour assisting with numerous base and on-boat duties. In 1969, the Dong Tam ammo dump was hit by rocket fire, which alarmed personnel as it appeared that the enemy was preparing to overrun the base. The ammo explosions caused catastrophic damage followed by preparations for an attack. Following the attack, the Navy evacuated its base personnel and replaced it with the Army 9th Infantry.

As an electrician, one of Magner’s other many duties was to run a projector to show movies to the troops. He remembers a movie screen being destroyed one evening as it began to show a movie with Jane Fonda. There was no follow-up or disciplinary action from the incident as command understood the mindset of their charges. This is one of the lighter moments he recalls during his tour in Vietnam.

A total of 3,500 ‘swifties’ served in the swift boat contingent. So, it is rare to come across a veteran from the Vietnam War who was a member of this special naval unit, but Jim Magner of Waukon can proudly say he was a crewman of that “Brown Water Navy.” His service was just one of many millions who have served in the Vietnam War, whether Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines. But his service was, indeed, unique as it was part of a small but very effective force during that war.

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