U.S. Merchant Marine, Military Sea Transportation Service, and Military Sealift Command in Vietnam

In February 1951 the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) aircraft carrier Windham Bay, was the first large ship to navigate the Long Tam River since 1925. While the ship was docked at Saigon (French Indochina) 17 hand grenades were tossed at the ship by terrorists.

The Military Sea Transportation Service was established in 1949 to provide sea transportation to the military as a successor to the Army Transportation Service. MSTS operated a fleet of ships and had charter agreements with commercial shipping firms. MSTS was succeeded by Military Sealift Command.

In 1954, after the partitioning of Vietnam, MSTS evacuated Vietnamese refugees from North to South Vietnam. USNS Howze was one of many MSTS ships involved in "Passage to Freedom" bringing 300,000 refugees and 200,000 tons of Cargo from North Vietnam. [Your webmistress arrived in the United States in 1949 on the USAT General R. L. Howze as a refugee of World War II.]

SS Overseas Rose with landing bargesThe Military Sea Transportation Service had the job of bringing war supplies to Vietnam -- 10,000 miles from the Pacific coast. MSTS had four separate customers to serve: the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. MSTS ships were staffed by "civilian" crews, but carried 95% of the supplies used by our Armed Forces in Vietnam including bombs and ammunition into combat zones under fire. Crew members were given Navy grades and rank identification in event of enemy capture. During Vietnam, MSTS first utilized roll-on/roll-off ships and container ships which speeded loading and unloading.

[SS Overseas Rose with landing barges lashed across her deck]

MSTS took about 100 Victory ships out of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (mothball fleet), repaired them, and assigned them to private companies for operation to carry ammunition across the Pacific. MSTS carried guns, tanks, trucks, trains, riverboats, barges, helicopters, bombers, fighters, reconnaissance planes, food, fuel, and medical supplies. By 1965 MSTS had 300 freighters and tankers supplying Vietnam, with an average of 75 ships and over 3,000 merchant mariners in Vietnamese ports at any time.

Early in the Vietnam War, troop ships such as the USNS Upshur, Geiger, and Gordon carried two thirds of U.S. troops to Vietnam; later, most American troops traveled by air. However, Korean troops were transported by MSTS throughout the war, with the first 2,000 coming on the MSTS Mann in March 1965. In August 1966 USNS Patch and Darby carried troops 12,500 miles from Boston to Vietnam, the longest trooplift in U.S. military history. In October 1966 the converted Liberty ship SS Benjamin Chew and the SS Meredith Victory were added as troop carriers. Men and equipment of the Army 1st Cavalry Division went to Vietnam aboard the baby flattops USNS Kula Gulf and Point Cruz which were taken out of mothballs to transport the 434 aircraft and other equipment. Other escort carriers which saw WWII duty included the USNS Core, Card, Croatan, and Breton.

Da Nang harbor was the home of the Marine Amphibious Force Logistic Command which handled the gear necessary to support 81,000 Marines. MSTS brought 96% of their war materiel including tanks, airplanes, ammunition, and food -- including ice cream.

USNS Point Cruz loaded with CH-47 helicopters, F-5 fighters SS Baton Rouge Victory under tow
USNS Point Cruz loaded with CH-47 helicopters, F-5 fighters and truck trailers in 1968 Damaged SS Baton Rouge Victory under tow

Between 1965 and 1969, MSTS carried 7.6 million tons of supplies for the Air Force, about half going directly to Vietnam, the rest to staging areas in the Pacific. MSTS delivered the goods "Special Express" and kept some of its 19 ammunition ships anchored offshore near combat areas as floating warehouses to ease storage problems experienced by the Air Force. SEA Express was the name of the program which delivered other Air Force supplies from Oakland, California to Saigon between 1965 and 1967, in an average of 23 days.

In 1965, US Coast Guard Squadron One, composed of 17 patrol boats was sealifted to the Philippines for Vietnam duty on the SS Pioneer Myth, SS Transcaribbean, SS Aloha State, and the SS Ocean Cloud. MSTS delivered bulldozers, cranes, steel and cement for use by Navy Seabees. MSTS and the Merchant Marine transported oil and aviation gas to support Navy fleet operations.

In 1968 MSTS sealifted 19 million tons (39 billion pounds) of cargo to Vietnam for the Army at a cost of $570 million. The MSTS Corpus Christi Bay, which housed an Army aviation-maintenance battalion, was positioned as necessary along the coast of Vietnam to provide aircraft maintenance facilities.

arrival of the USNS Core in SaigonMSTS and chartered ships delivered to many ports in Vietnam during this "War Without a Front." The following were among the 46 precautions to be taken by the crew of the SS President Garfield (and other ships) during the particularly hazardous 35 mile river transit to Saigon:

  • Bridge personnel in helmets and flak suits.
  • Sandbags around bridge. Wheelhouse doors and windows open.
  • Grenade screens secured on portholes.
  • Engineers to go to full engine speed at first indication of attack without notifying bridge.
  • Only necessary persons on duty in Engine Room or on open deck. Off duty crew spread out in alleyways.
  • Purser standing by with medical kit.
  • Fire fighting equipment ready. Bilge and ballast pumps warmed up, ready to use.
  • Towing wires ready for tow without assist from ship crew. Both anchors ready for dropping.

[Security for arrival of the USNS Core in Saigon, whose sister ship, USNS Card, was sunk in 1964 by a mine placed by skin divers]

Maps and Saigon Pilot's Guide http://grambo.us/atav/pilot.htm

Just as in World War II and Korea, merchant mariners in Vietnam were subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Effective December 1966, the military was granted authority to take disciplinary action against merchant mariners.

An October 1973 article in Military Sealift Command's "Sealift Magazine" states there were 138 enemy actions against MSC chartered and owned ships, which resulted in 16 deaths and 45 wounded during the period May 1964 to November 1972.

In 1975 MSTS helped evacuate refugees from Da Nang and later, Saigon. On March 28, 1975 the Pioneer Commander, the Pioneer Contender and the Navy's U.S.S. Miller evacuated about 10,000 refugees each. Returning the next day when the Communists had already overrun Da Nang, the ships evacuated thousands more.

On May 12, 1975, the SS Mayaguez was seized by Kmer Rouge. US marines suffered heavy casualties during the attempted rescue of the 39 seamen and the ship. Six mariner volunteers from the USNS Greenville Victory received Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for their role during the action. Capture and Release of SS Mayaguez by Khmer Rouge forces in May 1975

Harbor at Cam Ranh Bay

[Harbor at Cam Ranh Bay]

San Francisco Memorial to Mariners who died on the SS Baton Rouge

Memorial to Mariners who died on the SS Baton Rouge Victory
San Francisco Embarcadero, Pier 45 [photo by L.A. Wood, Berkeley]


Vietnam action and casualties (names of dead or missing mariners)
USNS Windham Bay 2-51 17 hand grenades thrown at ship while docked in Saigon  
SS Ocean Evelyn 11/10/63** Accidental death Ivan C. Harrison
SS Bunker Hill 3-7-64 * Tanker exploded, burned, and sank. Old Navy sunken bomb suspected. Capt. M. J. Abraham
R. H. Blake
Harold Schmidt
Ronald Lockwood
Robert Smith
USNS Card 5-2-64 Baby flattop sunk by mine near Saigon One killed acording to one source
SS Bengal Mail 9-22-65 Saigon George Bogdanovich
SS Express Baltimore 12-65 O'Laughlin and Bailon went ashore in Qhi Nhon or Da Nang in order to fetch the Captain, as the ship had received orders to shift to another location. They were apparently captured. O'Laughlin's remains were found in a grave at Hon Gan Point. Bailon is still listed on the Library of Congress database as a POW/MIA. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/powquery.html Ruben Bailon
Stephen O'Laughlin (Third mate)
SS Lorinda 2-66 Ambush  
SS Baton Rouge Victory 8-23-66 Limpet mine placed on hull by swimmer and detonated from riverbank near Saigon killed engine room crew. Left 12 by 45 foot hole Raymond Barrett
John A. Bishop
Earl Erickson
James W. McBride
Timothy N. Riordan
Robert J. Rowe
Charles B. Rummel
SS Eugene Lykes between 6-66 and 9-66 Sniper fire during passage up the Saigon River  
SS Young American 10-11-66 Riding in a jeep that hit a land mine while ashore Daniel J.
SS Enid Victory 12-20-66 Explosion in engine room of ammunition ship en route to Vietnam (Name of second assistant engineer unknown)
SS Flying Gull 12-65 to 5-66 Sniper fire during passage up Saigon River  
SS Elmira Victory 11-66 to 3-67 Hit by enemy fire in Qui Nhon harbor while waiting to offload ammunition.  
SS Margaret Brown 2-67 Explosion in engine room while at Qui Nhon harbor Charles R. Sandino
SS Amiee Lykes 4-9-67 Hit by enemy fire in Long Tau River 18 miles southeast of Saigon.  
SS Express Virginia 8-67 Propeller damage in Saigon  
SS Berea Victory 10-25-67 Bombs placed in hold and in "Mike" boat by Vietnamese civilians while docked at Qui Nhon. Explosion and fire kill 12 in LCM and 5 Army on ship. 10 Army and 10 mariners wounded.  
SS President Buchanan 11-18-67 "Considerable" damage from gunfire in Long Tau River  
SS _____ 12-1-67 Saigon Isiah Harris
SS Seatrain Texas 12-67 Damaged by "floating explosive device" while anchored at Nha Be near Saigon  
SS Cornell Victory 1967 Saigon ---- Findley
---- Ripp
Columbia Banker's Steamship Co. 1-31-68 Miller was killed as he was caught in a cross-fire during fighting between United States troops and enemy Vietnamese in front of the American Embassy in Saigon. (Seattle Times, Seattle WA, 16 Feb 1968)
Michael C. Miller (28 years old from Seattle)
SS U.S. Tourist 2-14-68  Ammunition ship hit by 9 shells at Cat Lai. Minor injuries and damage  

SS U.S. Explorer 2-18-68
SS Neva West

Guerrillas hit both ships with 75mm shells.  
SS Arizona State 2-25-68 Hit by three rounds recoilless rifle fire 18 miles southeast of Saigon in the Rung Sat Special Zone.  
Tug Patrick 2-25-68 Received small arms fire while traveling up the Long Tau River, 10 miles southeast of Saigon in the Rung Sat Special Zone.  
Tug Michael 4-7-68 En route to Vung Tau. James Almony
Wallace Prous
SS Tulane Victory 4-25-68 U.S. Navy river patrol boats and armed helicopters broke up a Viet Cong rocket attack on the ship as she moved up the Long Tau River about 16 miles southeast of Saigon. There was slight damage.  
SS Del Sol 5-1-68 Ship came under automatic weapons and rocket fire on the Long Tau River about 12 miles southeast of Saigon. There was slight damage.  
SS ____ 5-2-68   Larry Kelly
USNS Fentress (T-AK 180) 5-3-68 Rocket and machine gun attack on the Long Tau River about 15 miles southeast of Saigon. There was slight damage.  
SS Hyria Shell 5-7-68 Under enemy fire in the Rung Sat Special Zone 16 miles southeast of Saigon. No damage.  
SS Fairland 5-10-68 Hit by 4 enemy rockets while in the Long Tau shipping channel 31 miles southeast of Saigon. Light damage.  
SS Transglobe 5-15-68 Received 4 rocket or recoilless rifle hits on the Long Tau River about 11 miles southeast of Saigon. There was light damage.  
SS Fairland 5-15-68 Rocket or recoilless rifle attack on the Long Tau River about 11 miles southeast of Saigon. There was light damage.  
SS Cuba Victory 5-24-68 Mined while discharging ammunition at Cat Lai, killing two tug boat crew and three stevedores. Ship suffered significant mechanical damage.  
SS Whittier Victory approx. 3-68 to 6-68 Mortar and rocket attack while in harbor at Newport, upstream from Saigon  

USNS Lt. Robert Craig 8-22-68

Struck by enemy rocket after unloading ammunition at Cat Lai. Minor damage.  
SS Santa Clara 8-22-68 Struck by enemy rocket while unloading ammunition at Cat Lai.  
SS Transglobe 8-30-68 Hit by enemy heavy weapons on the Long Tau River about 14 miles southeast of Saigon. There was one casualty and minor damage to the ship.
Captain awarded Meritorious Service Medal for outstanding action while under repeated attacks 1968-1969
Ernie Goo
SS Fred Morris 11-13-68 Struck by enemy rocket-grenades on Long Tau shipping channel 14 miles southeast of Nha Be. Unknown damage.  
SS U.S. Defender 11-17-68 Da Nang Jack Bernard
SS Empire State 11-68? Explosion and fire in engine room en route Da Nang killed Third Engineer Eugene Green [or Greene]**
USNS Geiger 11-68? First Officer was lost overboard while carrying Republic of Korea troops from Pusan to Qui Nhan and Na Trangh Name not known
33 attacks on merchant ships including 1-1-69 to 5-17-69 33 attacks on shipping between Saigon and Vung Tau. These attacks were of rocket, rocket grenade, mine or MG fire.  
SS Maury 2-3-69 Grounded at Phan Rang Bay, extensive damage  
SS Lafayette 3-19-69 Hit by enemy rocket while in the Long Tau channel from Vung Tau to Saigon. Minor damage.  
SS American Racer 3-22-69 Rocket attack in the Long Tau River 13 miles southeast of Saigon. No damage.  
SS Robin Grey and 4 other merchant ships 5-12-69 Five Merchant ships ships were attacked in Long Tau River. SS Robin Grey was the only merchant ship hit by rocket or rocket-grenade causing minor damage and wounding one merchant seaman.  

SS Jefferson Davis 5-17-69

Hit by rocket or rocket-grenade causing minor damage and wounding two merchant seamen on the Long Tau River about 25 miles southeast of Saigon.  
USNS Truman Kimbro 8-11-69 Rocket hit ammunition ship near Cat Lai in the Saigon river  
Dredge Davidson 11-17-69   Willie Williams
Swarthmore Victory 1969 Several direct hits from an ambush  
SS Badger State
Explosion among 8,900 bombs and rockets while en route to Vietnam. Crew forced to abandon ship in gale, bomb rolled out of hole created by explosion, capsizing liferaft. Mohamed Al-Muwallad
Gilbert Baker
Sam A. Bondy, Jr. (third mate)
Bennie Brown
Joseph Candos
Leonard Cobbs
Nelson Fabre
Ali Abda Gazaly
Richard D. Hughes
Edward Hottendorf
John Jenkins
Edwin Jones
John Kaleiwahen
Richard Murray
Francisco Nunez
Raymond Reiche
Floyd Rilling
Jose Rodriguez
Calvin Smith
Leonard Scypion
Kinnie Woods
Robert Ziehm
SS Transglobe and SS Venus Victory 2-3-70 Rocket and small arms attack on thein the Rung Sat Special Zone on the Long Tau River. No casualties or major damage.  
USNS Petrarca 2-26-70 Floating mine exploded under ammunition ship in Cat Lai harbor; 2 crew injured  
SS Washington Bear 2-27-70 At mile 29 while transiting SAigon River en route to SAigon vessel was attached from shore by rockets and small arms. Some hull damage.  
SS Madaket 4-9-71 Ship caught fire while unloading cargo of fire bombs  
SS American Hawk 6-14-71 Underwater explosion beneath hull while docked at Qui Nhon  
SS Green Bay 8-17-71 Sank after underwater explosion of Vietcong frogman's device while discharging military supplies in Qui Nhon  
USNS Pendelton Mortar attack on the Saigon River  
SS Seatrain New Jersey Notorius for being shot up more than any other U.S. merchant ship. Had many symbols of rockets and mortar bombs painted on her bridge wing, each denoting an attack  


Casualty list of 56 dead or missing in action in Vietnam compiled by Professor Michael Gillen, Pace University and by American Merchant Marine at War **personal correspondence.
* uncertain if Bunker Hill was in Vietnam service. We would appreciate additional information about action and casualties in Vietnam.

Vietnam Mariners Lack Veteran Status

U.S. Merchant Marine served on ships that brought supplies to Vietnam during "The War Without a Front." They brought mail, Hueys, ammunition, food, medical supplies, and more. They brought the troops in and brought home many of those named on the Vietnam Memorial, "The Wall." These mariners were killed by mines, rockets, snipers, and explosions. Some are Missing in Action and presumed dead. They paid the Supreme Sacrifice while serving their country. They should be recognized as veterans. Their names belong on The Wall

By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia, Edward J. Marolda, Washington: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1994
Sealift Magazine, October 1969
Personal correspondence from Professor Michael Gillen and others
Naval and Maritime Chronology 1961-1971. Compiled from 10 years of Naval Review. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press
Seattle Times, Seattle WA, 16 Feb 1968
Crew, Donald I. and Boucek, Robert J. "The American Merchant Marine in the Vietnam Conflict." Kings Pointer, Fall 1982

Merchant Marine Medals


www.USMM.org ©1998-2013. You may quote material on this web page as long as you cite American Merchant Marine at War, www.usmm.org, as the source. You may not use more than a few lines without permission. If you see substantial portions of this page on the Internet or in published material please notify usmm.org @ comcast.net