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The Vietnam War: The Swift Boat vs. the Destroyer

Military History

The Vietnam War: The Swift Boat vs. the Destroyer

Its destroyers and other warships being too large, the U.S. Navy developed the Swift Boat to patrol coastal areas and rivers during the Vietnam War.

Its destroyers and other warships being too large, the U.S. Navy developed the Swift Boat to patrol coastal areas and rivers during the Vietnam War.

by Michael Haskew

In addition to standard aircraft carrier and warship patrol operations in the open sea, naval action during the Vietnam War developed a character of its own. While the U.S. Navy maintained responsibility for more traditional functions, the interior waterways of Vietnam became an area of operations that required a different approach.

Since the early 20-century, the patrol workhorse of the U.S. Navy had been the destroyer, which rose to prominence during the two world wars. Destroyers provided perimeter security for formations of surface ships, anti-submarine and antiaircraft defenses, and search-and-rescue duties among others. These warships rendered invaluable service; however, during the Vietnam War the ocean-going vessels were unsuited for operations along the deltas, coastal areas, and rivers of the country.

A Holdover From World War II

The American Fletcher-class Navy destroyer was a weapon of World War II. Armed with main batteries of five-inch guns, 40mm Bofors antiaircraft weapons, 20mm cannon, torpedoes, and an array of machine guns and automatic weapons, these were formidable warships, and a number of them remained in service through both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. These destroyers displaced 2,500 tons fully loaded, were more than 375 feet long, and their draft exceeded 17 feet.

Clearly, a smaller warship was needed to navigate the confines of Vietnam’s coastal areas and to patrol the waterways of the country’s interior. By 1965, the Navy recognized the need for such craft, and the primary weapon of the so-called “Brown Water Navy” was born. The Patrol Craft Fast (PCF) became commonly known as the Swift Boat and was the most prominent of the Navy’s riverine patrol craft during the Vietnam War.

On February 1, 1965, an extensive naval staff study titled Naval Craft Requirements in a Counter Insurgency Environment was published. It concluded that the requirements of patrol, combat, and interdiction of communist troop and supply movement along the rivers of Vietnam presented unique challenges. Further, the document specified the basic capabilities of a new type of riverine craft to fulfill the brown water role. Among these were superb reliability, a non-wooden hull, speed of up to 25 knots, the capability to sustain operations during patrols of up to 500 miles, quiet running, shallow draft, and armament capable of limited offensive operations.

Its destroyers and other warships being too large, the U.S. Navy developed the Swift Boat to patrol coastal areas and rivers during the Vietnam War.

The Swift Boat

The Swift Boats were 50 feet long and constructed of welded aluminum hulls. With a beam of about 13 feet and a draft of roughly five feet, they were well suited for narrow spaces. Their General Motors 12V71 Detroit Diesel engines provided 480 horsepower with a range of 750 nautical miles at a speed of 10 knots and 320 nautical miles at 21 knots. The Swift Boats were initially armed with twin-mounted .50-caliber Browning machine guns in a turret atop the pilothouse, another .50-caliber in an over-under configuration, and an 81mm mortar. The standard crew was six, including a skipper, boatswain, radar and radio operator, engineer, and two gunners.

The first Swift Boats reached Vietnam in October 1965, and about 100 of the Mark I and Mark II variants were ordered by the Navy through 1967. Another 33 of the slightly larger Mark III boats were delivered to Vietnam between 1969 and 1972.

Add Your Comments


  1. Posted August 27, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    The Swift Boat was an effective weapon, but the PIBBER (PBR) was also an effective weapon system, and actually often carried more armament than the larger Swift Boat. A friend of mine was the “cox’n” of a PBR in Vietnam and, in addition to driving the boat, he had his own weapons in his open cockpit – a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun and a brace of hand-grenades. That he needed and used these weapons speaks to the close quarters that both types of vessels encountered as they patrolled Vietnam’s brown water waterways. There were also left-over RAG boats from the French occupation of South Vietnam, and a host of vessels (including a helicopter carrier) converted from various surplus landing craft – many returned to service after duty in WW-II and Korea). These are fascinating in their own right. Squadron-Signal produced an excellent photo/history book – Riverine – which may be out of print but is certainly available on Amazon and eBay. It’s got a decent brief history, plus lots of photos of the various brown water patrol craft.

    • Posted August 27, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      For those more interested in 3-D representations of these craft, the Swift Boat, the RAG boat and the PBR have all been made into model kits – the first two by Monogram and the latter by Tamiya of Japan. All are widely available, though they go in and out of production. Ebay is a good source for them, as are modeling-supply websites such as Squadron Mail Order and Sprue Brothers. I currently have unbuilt kits of each one, and the kits are well-made and easy to assemble without a lot of prior experience. For those who want to “see” their history as well as to read about it, these kits are strongly recommended. The Tamiya kit is several generations more recent than the Monogram kits, and it shows, but the other ones remain faithful replicas with sufficient detail to grace any mantlepiece or book shelf.

    • Gremlin
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      The Swifts also were armed with AR-15s (pre M-16s), pistols, shotguns, a grenade launcher, an 81mm mortar (muzzle loading, recoiling, trigger fired or drop fired), sitting atop a .50 MG, and a twin fifty atop the pilot house. All in all the PBR was outgunned, but more maneuverable with the Jacuzzi nozzles instead of propellers/screws and, with a draft of only two feet or so, it could get to places a Swift never could.

  2. Posted November 27, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Please visit and page down to the July 11th post. Read up from that point and end with the July 19th entry. This is a pictorial essay with comments on each picture posted. The essay chronicles the detecting, shadowing and ultimate capture of a 120-ft steel hulled North Vietnamese trawler, code named, Skunk Alpha. It was gunned down at the mouth of the Sa Ky River on Mui Batangan, in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, on July 15, 1967. The trawler was carryiing more than 90 tons of ammunition and supplies for the awaiting Viet Cong and NVA forces in the area.

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