Wednesday 11 January 2023

The Test Of Time: Vietnam’s U.S.-Made Naval Ships

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The subject of U.S.-made military equipment in active service with Communist Vietnam has fascinated military enthusiasts and analysts alike. For all their fascination however, relatively little has been written about the continued use of U.S. military equipment by unified Vietnam after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. On the rare occasion that the subject has been covered, most attention has gone towards the operations of captured aircraft like the F-5E, C-130 and UH-1. North Vietnam is estimated to have captured more than 1.100 aircraft and helicopters from the Republic of Vietnam Air Force. Equally significant numbers of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) ended up in its hands, some of which to this day still bolster the inventory of the Vietnamese People's Army.
In stark contrast, only a small number of naval vessels were captured by the victorious North. Shortly before North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on the 30th of April 1975, almost the entirety of the Republic of Vietnam Navy's (RVNN) fleet set sail for the Philippines, where most of the ships were subsequently incorporated into the Philippine Navy. Only those vessels that were under maintenance or ships too small to make the sea journey to the Philippines were captured by North Vietnam. Operating little of a navy itself up until that point, North Vietnam eagerly incorporated these vessels into the Vietnam People's Navy (VPN).

This included almost the entirety of South Vietnam's Mobile Riverine Force (which was unable to evacuate because of the small size of its craft), including Patrol Boats, River (PBRs), Patrol Craft Fast (PCFs), Assault Support Patrol Boats (ASPBs) and Mobile Riverine Bases. Socialist Vietnam would operate some of these craft for several more years, but eventually discarded all but a few of the PCFs, which still see service to this day. Of course, their intended purpose of fighting the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta was lost with the defeat of the South. North Vietnam also took over the LVTP-5/LVTH-6 amphibious assault vehicles of the South's Marine Division, which however too were quickly discarded.
Though all but a few of the RVNN's capital ships had escaped Vietnam for the Philippines, the North still encountered the Edsall-class destroyer escort RVNS Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4), the Barnegat-class frigate RVNS Phạm Ngũ Lão (HQ-15) and the Admirable-class minesweepers RVNS Kỳ Hòa (HQ-09) and RVNS Hà Hồi (HQ-13) when it overran the last of the South's harbours. Three Landing Ship Tank (LSTs), three Landing Ship Medium (LSMs), 13 Landing Craft Utility (LCUs) and up to 25 Point-class cutters were also found and subsequently taken into service by the VPN. Very few ships were scuttled by the South, and most captured vessels could be incorporated with little repairs necessary.

Vietnamese BTR-50 APCs disembark from a former South Vietnamese Landing Ship Medium (LSM) during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978. Note the dual 40mm gun position on the bow.

The largest vessel incorporated into the Vietnam People's Navy was the Edsall-class destroyer escort RVNS Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4), which was captured while undergoing maintenance in Saigon. [1] The ship was recommissioned as T.03, later changed to VPNS Dai Ky (HQ-03). Originally commissioned in 1944 by the U.S. Navy as the USS Forster, she saw service as an escort in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during the Second World War, and was later transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard before deploying to Vietnamese waters during the 1960s. She was eventually transferred to South Vietnam in 1971 along with her sister ship the USS Camp (which escaped to the Philippines in 1975).
Though anything but modern by 1970s standards (or even by 1960s standards, for that matter), the VPNS Dai Ky (HQ-03) was still the largest naval vessel ever operated by Vietnam until 2011. Its armament at the time corresponded to the ship's role as an ASW escort and later as a coast guard vessel, consisting of two radar-guided 76mm guns (one of which can be seen in the header image), several Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft (AA) guns and 533mm torpedo tubes. [1] The VPN initially retained this armament, but eventually up-armed the vessel using mainly the empty gun stations from when it was still armed to the teeth during her service in the Second World War.

This included the replacement of the front 76mm gun by a large calibre anti-tank or anti-aircaft gun presumably of Soviet origin, while the second empty gun station (where during WW2 another 76mm and later a Hedgehog anti-submarine weapon was installed) received another gun of the same type as installed on the front gun station. The 533mm torpedo tubes were replaced by twin 37mm V-11 gun stations on either side of the ship, while the rear 76mm gun was retained with another unidentified large calibre gun placed slightly abaft. The anti-aircraft defences were further strengthened through the addition of four 14.5mm ZPU-4s (two on either side).

In this configuration, the VPNS Dai Ky (HQ-03) took part in the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to protect a fleet of former South Vietnamese landing ships against possible Khmer Rouge naval interference. This was not the first time that the vessel had seen recent action, as the South Vietnamese had already used the ship in the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands that resulted in a decisive Chinese victory and control over the disputed islands ever since. With spare parts impossible to acquire, the VPNS Dai Ky (HQ-03) sailed for one more time after the 1978 war before she was decommissioned in 1982. The ship survived as a training hulk until the late 1990s, when she was finally scrapped. [2]

The Barnegat-class frigate Phạm Ngũ Lão (HQ-15) and the Admirable-class minesweepers Kỳ Hòa (HQ-09) and Hà Hồi (HQ-13) had meanwhile been taken over as the Phạm Ngũ Lão (HQ-01), Kỳ Hòa (HQ-05) and Hà Hồi (HQ-07) respectively. The Barnegats had originally been constructed as a class of seaplane tenders during World War II before being reclassified as frigates and passed on to the Coast Guard. A total of seven ships were transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy in 1971 and 1972. Although officially classified as frigates, their armament consisted of just one front-mounted 5-inch/38-caliber (127mm) dual-purpose gun. The Chinese made clever use of this weakness during the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands, constantly manoeuvring behind the two Barnegat-class ships to avoid being targeted.
Presumably unimpressed by the Barnegats' performance during the 1974 Paracel battle, the North Vietnamese almost immediately set out to up-arm the vessel with several 25mm 2M3 and 37mm V-11 gun stations. Although it is sometimes reported that the Phạm Ngũ Lão (HQ-01) was fitted with two launchers for the P-15 Termit anti-ship missile (AShM) on the aft deck and two quad 9K32 Strela-2 MANPADS stations midships, there is currently no photographic evidence to corroborate these statements. [3] Little else is known about the career of the ship except that she was scrapped somewhere during the 1990s or early 2000s. The same applies to the Admirable-class minesweepers Kỳ Hòa and Hà Hồi, which appear to have survived in the role of patrol craft until the 1980s or early 1990s. [4]

One of the few photographs that exist of the Barnegat-class frigate Phạm Ngũ Lão while in (unified) Vietnamese service.

The Admirable-class minesweeper Hà Hồi (HQ-07). Note the 37mm V-11 gun station in front of the bridge and the two 40mm Bofors guns just aft of the lifeboats.

Previously possessing no large landing ships, the capture of three Landing Ship Tank (LSTs), three Landing Ship Medium (LSMs) and 13 Landing Craft Utility (LCUs) was arguably the most significant buttress to the capabilities of the VPN. [5] [6] [7] The size of the LSTs not only enabled them to carry up to 20 PT-76 amphibious tanks or BTR-50 APCs used by the VPN's Naval Infantry, but also allowed them to double as seagoing patrol craft or gunboats. After an uneventful start of their Communist career during the 1978 invasion of Cambodia, two of the LSTs took part in the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish with China. Like the 1974 Paracel battle, the 1988 skirmish again resulted in a Chinese victory and control over the islands. The LST HQ-505 was left heavily damaged after a brave attempt to combat the Chinese's superior firepower and sank as it was towed back to Cam Ranh, Vietnam. [8] The two surviving LSTs continued to remain in active service despite the arrival of two Polish-built Polnocny-B-class landing ships acquired from the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1980, with one even surviving into the modern age in VPN service, seeing use to this day. The LSMs and LCUs were retired and scrapped in the late 1980s with the exception of one LCU that continues to soldier on.

The Landing Ship Tank (LST) Vũng Tàu (HQ-503). This ship remained in service until 2016, all told making for a career of an impressive 72 years.

A Ka-25 ASW helicopter on the deck of a Vietnamese Landing Ship Tank (LST). Note the Polish-built Polnocny-B-class landing ship in the rear. Both of these types continue to see operational service to this day.

In addition to the ships themselves, the U.S.-made armament that equipped them has also weathered the ages. Its remarkable resilience notwithstanding, after the retirement of all but one of the Landing Ship Tanks and several Patrol Craft Fast (PCFs), the number of vessels that are still equipped with U.S.-made armament has been steadily decreasing. The sole remaining Landing Ship Tank is still armed with dual 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikon gun mounts while the PCFs sport a single over-and-under 12.7mm heavy machine gun – 81mm mortar combination mounted on the rear deck.

A dual 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikon mounts on the bow of the Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-501). Additional 20mm guns are located on the aft of the vessel.

The 81mm mortar and 12.7mm HMG combination on the aft deck of a Patrol Craft Fast. The M2 .50 Cal HMG has been replaced by a 12.7mm NSV on this vessel. The same mount but with the original M2 HMG is also still in use.

No doubt battered and rusted after seeing up to 80 years of service with the navies of the U.S., South Vietnam and now unified Vietnam, these relics still serve an important role in the Vietnamese People's Navy today. So far managing to hold on to these blasts of the past, U.S. armament might still see decades of future use in the hands of the Vietnamese. Even while the career of the last large naval ships captured from the South will soon come to an end, the story of U.S.-made naval vessels in Vietnam hardly stops there, with the country being the recipient of two Hamilton-class cutters in 2017 and 2021. Standing the test of time for longer than could ever have been expected, U.S. made armament in Vietnam has managed to outlast even the days of animosity between the two countries.

The sole remaining Landing Craft Utility (HQ-556) that is still in service with the VPN.

A Mi-17 helicopter prepares to land on the last of Vietnam's three Landing Ship Tanks Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-501).

[4] KỲ HÒA patrol ships (1944/1975)
[5] TRẦN KHÁNH DƯ tank landing ships (1944/1975)
[6] NINH GIANG medium landing ships (1944/1975)
[7] LCU1466 small landing ships (1953-1954/1975)