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2016 Larry Stoffregen | Gallery of Memories by whs62.us

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Larry Stoffregen
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Drawing Collections:
Realm of the Golden Dragon
C.D. "Doc" Williams
Then there were Buoy Tenders
 


Battle stations on Saigon River
Author with SNBM Sitton
CGC Basswood in Vung Tao Bay (USCG photo)

 
 
Author on Con Son Island
Author

Hooking up with the Point Cypress in Vung Tau Bay


Bassood at sea off Vietnam. Note the .50 calibers mounted on the forecastle.
 


 

 
We have all read the exploits of our 82' patrol boats of Squadron One in Vietnam as well as those of the destroyer size cutters of Squadron Three. We know there were Coast Guard Advisers to the South Vietnamese Junk Navy and Hazardous Cargo Handlers and of folks assigned to MACV in Saigon. There were also the LORAN Personnel on Con Son Island and at Tan My and you may even know that there were Coast Guard Helicopter Pilots. Several of them flying downed aircraft rescue missions in an exchange program with the other services.
But what do we ever hear of the Buoy Tenders that served in Vietnam? Not much. No, we did not kill the enemy, do off shore fire missions or interdict enemy personnel, weapons or supplies. But we were there. From 1966 to Spring of 1973 four Coast Guard  buoy tenders were assigned to perform intermittent duties for a month or two at a time. These mission assignments took place all up and down the 1000 mile coast of South Vietnam as well as as in the rivers and bays. The four tenders that served in this capacity were the Planetree, the Basswood, the Ironwood, and the Blackhaw.
I served as the First Class Hospital Corpsman on the Basswood from 1966 to 1968. The Basswood was the second buoy tender to serve in Vietnam after the Planetree and subsequently the Basswood was also the last tender to make one of the patrols. The rest of the story will be about my experiences and observations as a "rider" on the Basswood. A rider is what they called crew members that did not have an actual hands-on role in the operation of the ship.

When I made the top of the promotion
list for First Class Petty Officer, the first
thing I wanted to do was get an independent
duty assignment on a ship out in the Pacific.
I received my wish in the form of orders to
the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Basswood
(WLB-388), 180-foot C-Class buoy tender
home ported in Hawaii. When I passed
through the main gate of Base Sand Island I
knew at once that I had arrived at a place for
sailors.
There was the black-hulled Coast Guard Cutter Kukui, a freighter tied there
along with two destroyer-size white cutters, six bout tenders tied up two by two, a
boat house with three 40-footers and just passing by in the channel a 95-footer that
was normally tied up at Pier Four across from the base. I had never even seen a
buoy tender up close, but I was about to.
There was the black-hulled Coast
Guard Cutter Kukui, a freighter tied there
along with two destroyer-size white
cutters, six bout tenders tied up two by
two, a boat house with three 40-footers
and just passing by in the channel a 95-
footer that was normally tied up at Pier
Four across from the base. I had never
even seen a buoy tender up close, but I
was about to.

As I hauled my sea bag up the brow and saluted the colors and the OOD, he saluted back and said "Welcome aboard Doc". A little shiver went up my spine as I finally realized that was me he called "Doc". This was my first assignment as an Independent Duty Corpsman and I was on my own. The messenger took me below to meet the executive officer, my new boss. Then I was shown to my Sick Bay and where I store my gear. As I came aboard I noticed that the ship was very much squared away both inside and out. This ship, built in 1943, was neat as a pin.
I had barely gotten used to the ship, my duties and Hawaii when we had a bunch of major changes. We got a new skipper, a new XO, a new ensign, a new Warrant Bos'un, and a bunch of new seaman. Our new crew included 10 extra bodies bringing our compliment up to 64. With this came the announcement that our homeport was being changed to Apra Harbor in Guam and that our list of assignments was going to keep us underway most of the time for the next year and a half including a deployment to Vietnam.
 
Well the ship was abuzz with scuttle-butt about what we'd be doing in Vietnam. The Planetree, which had been tied up just down the pier from us had gotten underway for WESTPAC and Vietnam a couple of months before and we had heard nothing of her since. It was a busy time and everyone was excited about the journey to our new home port and the subsequent long deployment, none more than me. This was what I'd signed up for, the open ocean to the horizon and beyond and the adventures to be found there.
The first part of the trip took us to Johnston Island, part of the Pacific Missile Range. There was also a LORAN Station there and we had some supplies for them. The next stop was the 180th Meridian, aka the International Date Line, where we held the traditional crossing ceremonies. Following that it was Kwajalein and Eniwetok Atolls and then on to Guam. We were welcomed to our new homeport with fireboats and a welcoming committee of local and military dignitaries.
We were in Guam for less than a week when we left to service some buoys and do some work on Truk and Ponepe in the Caroline Islands. When that work was completed we returned to Guam for exactly three days before we got under way for the long trip. We worked some aids in the Palau Islands and then sailed for the Philippines. It would be my first time there but definitely not my last.
At the Subic bay Naval Station our CO and officers were briefed on our mission in South Vietnam by a group of Navy and Coast Guard officers from MACV in Saigon. We received two additional 50. cal. machine guns to go with the two we already had. They also issued us a couple of cases of M-16 rifles and ammo for them as well as a supply of half pound granular TNT Swimmer Grenades. The ship would be taking four Navy SEALS aboard when we reached Cat Lo in Vung Tau Harbor. When the word of all this got out to the crew  the scuttle-butt would have you thinking we were off to World War Three.

The first trip into Vietnam had nothing to do with Aids to Navigation. We were
going to make a logistics run to our LORAN "C" crew on Con Son Island. Before we
left Subic they put two large reefers in our Main hold ---- one was a freezer and the
other was a chill box. We were to take these to Sattahip, Thailand to the big Army
Supply Depot there and get them filled with frozen and perishable food supplies for
the twenty-nine man crew of the LORAN Station. We did that and while we were
there the skipper had a work detail go to the beach and fill sandbags for our 50.cal
gun mounts, two above the forecastle and two back on the fantail. When that was
done we delivered the supplies to Con Son Island in Vietnam then too the reefer
boxes back to Subic Bay.

The living conditions aboard the Basswood during our time in Vietnam were not a lot of fun. We had a crew of 64 and four Navy SEALS. That's nearly 70 people living on a ship that was usually manned by a crew of just over 50. There was also no air conditioning and we had to keep the portholes closed while in the War Zone. this deprived us of even the smallest breezes we could get into the ship under normal circumstances. It was a sweltering, smelly place particularly for the men packed butt to belly button in the crew's berthing. Then there was the water situation. The ship did not make potable water and we had to take on water when it was available. When it wasn't we were on water hours and sea showers. Those of us who did not do dirty work only got to shower every few days. I would, however, like to say that I would not have traded our lavish living conditions with those of the Army and Marines in the field for even one minute.
Next, we were off to Phu Qua Island and An Thoi. There was a floating base there made up of APL barges and floating docks. The APL's were for housing and eating facilities as well as a repair shop for the Navy Sift Boats and the Coast Guard 82-foot patrol boats of Squadron One, Division 11. Their anchors were not holding them in place during heavy weather. Our mission was to install large Mooring Buoys that would hold the floating facility in place in any kind of weather. We were going to do this using some of the largest ground tackle most of us had ever seen. This was going to be a dangerous and complicated undertaking for our deck crew.
The equipment, chains,buoys and anchors (the size they use on Navy Cruisers) were waiting for us on the beach along with a crane and a large barge. We were hampered by two problems. First, it was some kind of native holiday and they were superstitious about making the crane work as if it had a life of its own. That cost us a whole day. Next were the monsoon rains. Finally we got the barge loaded and alongside the ship.. Then the deck force went about setting it up.
The buoys were 14 feet across and there would be three legs on each buoy with a cruiser anchor at the end of each one of the legs. Holding them together at the buoy was a steel ring that weighed 100 pounds by itself. Part of this gear was laid out on the deck and part on the barge deck. When they were ready they'd knock a big pelican hook open with a sledge hammer and off it all went like a set of giant dominoes. This heavy gear got a foot and a half off the deck and was just a blur as it flew off both the ship and barge decks. God help anyone who got in the way. You would be lucky to find  pieces of them big enough to identify. It took us  longer than we had planned--- thirteen days---- but we got it done and done right and no one was injured or killed in the process. Now off to Vung Tau.
We had work to do at Vung Tu and then up the Saigon River. We were in the process of changing out the old French gas buoy system with our new electric lighted buoys. This sounded good on paper when the planners were dreaming it up, but it turned out to have some unique problems. We would no longer get one of these new buoys set up when some Vietnamese fisherman would pull it apart and steal the Batteries and Lamp for his LBGB (little bitty gook boat). Hey, that's what everyone called them over there. The same thing with the Day Boards and Channel Markers----- this was a very poor country and the peasants could always find a use for good American materials in their daily lives.
So we and the other tenders found that we were doing a lot of our work over and over again. Well there we were in Vung Tau Harbor. We tied up at the Vietnam Navy Base at Cat Lo. While we were there we picked up four Navy SEALS, a lieutenant, two petty officers First Class and one Second Class. During our time off we hoisted a few drinks with some Australian Marines who were assigned there. Then we got a call to do some urgent work up the river. So we did a temporary fix on the Vung Tau Harbor buoys by putting hot packs on them. We would fix them permanently when we returned back down river.
We were about four hours up the Saigon River when we got a radio message telling us that some other Navy SEALS had disarmed the bombs on the harbor buoys. They had mistaken our temporary battery packs for bombs. And that's how things went in the War Zone. So why did we have the SEALS aboard in the first place you might ask. We were going to be working in some hostile areas up the rivers and they would recon the places we needed to go before we went in and stand cover for us while we did our work. Our work went smoothly in the Saigon River and we only had one hiccup.
We were passing up an area along the river that the grunts in Vietnam would call "Indian Country" aka hostile territory. We were at general quarters, at battle stations and manning the guns as we passed this area. The main thing on everyone's mind was that the Navy LST Clark County had taken 19 VC rocket rounds in this very same spot just two weeks earlier. And then we ran aground. So we remained at general quarters for about six hours more until a combination of things allowed us to refloat the ship. We were transferring ballast back and forth running the engines first forward and then astern and finally the tide came in just enough for us to break free.
The rest of our trip up the River went smoothly and we pulled into Saigon and had a couple of days of Cinderella Liberty while we were waiting for some parts and supplies to arrive for us from Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Then it was back down the river and north to Cam Rahn Bay and then Qui Non and finally Danang. We completed all our work in those areas with no problems and then it was off to Bangkok, Thailand for five days R&R then back to the Philippines---- Sangley Point this time. Then home to Guam to get ready for our forthcoming deployment on a Medical Research Mission to the remote outer Caroline Islands.
My time on the Basswood was one of the best tours of my 27-year Coast Guard career This story only scratches the surface of my experiences and adventures on that great old ship. The Basswood had subsequent tours to Vietnam including the last deployment by a buoy tender to that country. By the, however, I was Loran Station in the Southwest Philippines or getting ready to go aboard a 378-foot high endurance cutter in Hawaii and those my friends are stories for another time.....
Saigon River
Loading Buoys
Docked In Apra Harbor Guam
(The original article appeared in Coast Guard Combat Veteran's Associations publication "the Quarterdeck Log)"
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