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The Hovercraft Goes to War

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Pictured above is the first SR.N5 deployed to Vietnam. Painted with face design of a Vietnamese mythological beast, it was meant to present a fearsome presence on the battlefield.

Bruce Wesson is a Little Rock native, Vietnam veteran, proud grandfather and retired owner and creative director of Wesson & Associates Inc. Wesson was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and from 1967-68 he led a five-man, Department of Defense, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) combat photography film team known as the "MACV Army A Team." One of only two such teams in Vietnam, its mission was to produce material for release to worldwide television networks and media outlets. Their primary objective was to focus on the positive aspects of the mission the United States was conducting in Vietnam. The team, as requested by Wesson, was also authorized to film combat operations.

MISSION: WEAPONS TESTING – SR.N5 HOVERCRAFT
PHOTOG: 1 LT BRUCE WESSON, 221ST SIGNAL COMPANY PICTORIAL
LOCATION: DONG TAM, MEKONG DELTA REGION, SOUTH VIETNAM
UNIT: UNITED STATES NAVY AND 3RD BRIGADE, 9TH INFANTRY
DATE: NOVEMBER, 1967

Bruce Wesson MACV ID Card

I should have known we weren't headed for the usual project when my classified mission orders from MACV Headquarters instructed us to simply report to the United States Navy at Naval Affairs in Dong Tam where we would receive further instructions. There was no unit designation.

The Mekong Delta Mobile Riverine Force

Once there, we were put on a chopper and flown south to a remote location in the Mekong Delta to join a combined U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Infantry unit known as The Mekong Delta Mobile Riverine Force. It was a joint force that comprised a substantial part of the Brown Water Navy in the Delta. (The term Brown Water Navy refers back to the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War when Union forces patrolled the muddy Mississippi River). This revived concept was modeled after lessons learned by the French experience in the First Indochina War and had the task of both transport (of soldiers and equipment) and combat operations. The Riverine infantry units were stationed both on ships off the coast and in land-based locations. The Mekong Delta Mobile Riverine Force concept paired newly created Navy assault boat units with a brigade of Army infantry. The Delta presented a classic venue appropriate to riverine operations such as had not been seen since the Union Navy in the American Civil War. All that was needed was the vehicle concept that would carry the fight to the enemy over land and water with speed and agility.

The Mekong Delta presented a classic venue appropriate to riverine operations such as had not been seen since the Union Navy in the American Civil War.

Two rifle squads of the 9th Infantry Division are placed on the decks of the hovercraft. A close look at the photograph shows the safety harness rigged for the troops: a thin rope hastily tied to a handrail.

Introducing the Hovercraft

The first two SR.N5 Hovercraft were deployed on trial by the Navy to the Vietnam War where they were intended to serve as the patrol and rapid strike craft in the Mekong Delta. The concept of hovercraft being used in this terrain seemed sound, but the idea was controversial. To evaluate its effectiveness, our film team was sent to Dong Tam to document one of the first tactical deployments. Although their mobility was unique and they were capable of speeds up to 75 knots, during this filming assignment it would become clear that their combat effectiveness would be called into question.

The concept of hovercraft in this terrain seemed sound, but the idea was controversial … during this filming assignment, it would be become clear that their combat effectiveness would be called into question.

At dawn on the morning of the first deployment, two rifle squads from the 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, were positioned on the decks of the hovercraft in preparation for a patrol to a tributary of the Song Tien Giang River. In anticipation of casualties, stretchers had been secured to the decks. A close look at the photograph above shows the safety harness rigged for the troops on deck: thin rope hastily tied to a handrail. To protect the squad members from venturing into the firing arc of the onboard .30 cal. machine guns, a blue line was painted on the deck to define the stern limit of the arc. The troops were strongly encouraged to keep their feet and legs behind it.

Vietnam War Bruce Wesson Gunner About Hovercraft Annie's Fanny
Vietnam War Bruce Wesson Gunner Within Hovercraft

The primary weapon of the hovercraft was the WWII-vintage turret-mounted twin M2HB .50 caliber machine guns (left) with a combined rate of fire of up to 1,000 rounds per minute and two .30 cal. side port machine guns, also WWII-vintage. Nevertheless, these were effective and reliable weapons. The .50 cal. machine gun is still in service today.

A Good Idea Goes From Bad to Worse

Excessive engine and prop noise, combined with spray from skirt vents, impaired vision and hearing of the troops confined to the decks. Another problem with the hovercraft being used in this tactical configuration was that the noise level of the engines was as loud as an airplane or helicopter. Later, as we interviewed villagers with our interpreter, they told us that they heard us coming long before we arrived on their rice fields. That would have been ample time for the Viet Cong (VC) on the riverbanks ahead to prepare an ambush or for VC sympathizers living in the village to radio ahead to alert them to our presence.

Villagers told our interpreter that they heard us coming long before we arrived on their rice fields.  That would have been ample time for the VC to prepare an ambush or for VC sympathizers to radio ahead to alert them to our presence.

Hovercraft on Rice Paddy

Hovercraft test maneuverability over levees and rice paddies and assess the troops' tolerance for the rough ride.

Over the Levees and Through the Rice: The Civilian Costs of War

Filmed from above, mobility over varied terrain is observed during the river patrol. Upon careful observation, residents of the distant village can be seen in the upper right of the photograph walking down the road. Drawn by the sound and sight of this strange machine, they sadly witnessed the destruction of a portion of their rice crop. The two troop laden hovercraft maneuvered across levees and through the paddies belonging to the village, flattening the rice and destroying irrigation channels. The extensive damage is seen in the photograph above. Civil affairs personnel at MACV cited this type of disregard for the property and crops of the Vietnamese people as a motivating factor in their resistance to pacification programs of the South Vietnamese and United States governments.

Drawn by the sound and sight of this strange machine, villagers sadly witnessed the destruction of their rice crop. MACV civil affairs personnel cited this type of disregard for the property and crops of Vietnamese people as a motivating factor in their resistance to pacification programs.

Bruce Wesson Vietnam War Hovercraft Incoming Fire

Incoming VC automatic weapons fire can be seen in the distance as a Navy gunner returns fire with onboard .30 cal. machine gun at suspected enemy position.

They Heard Us Coming

A few kilometers further on down the river, we were ambushed. The firepower of the eight heavy machine guns aboard the two hovercraft versus only one or two on the riverbank silenced the VC guns quickly but if it had been a well-equipped and well-planned operation the outcome could have been devastating. The important lesson learned was that the hovercraft appeared unsuited for deployment as intended. Troops transported on the decks were vulnerable to small arms and automatic weapons fire, the skirt and propellers were easily damaged and the excessive noise of the engine eliminated any aspect of stealth. The classified film and photos of the deployment that day were sent to the Department of Defense for evaluation. Analysis of the material taken by the MACV Army A Team confirmed that combat application of the SR.N5 Hovercraft was to would be limited.

The important lesson learned was that the hovercraft appeared unsuited for deployment as intended: troops on decks were vulnerable to fire, the skirt and propellers were easily damaged and the excessive engine noise eliminated any aspect of stealth.

Of the three SR.N5 Hovercraft outfitted, two had been sent to Vietnam. One of those was destroyed in early 1970 by rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and another in August of that same year after which the unit was disbanded. The third and only remaining U.S. Army SR.N5 Hovercraft is currently on display in the Army Transport Museum in Virginia.

LEARN MORE:

AETN Salutes Vietnam Veterans

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"The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night. Episodes will rebroadcast on Tuesday evenings beginning at 8 each night starting Oct. 3.