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Looking Back through Time

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River Division 593 was born on May 1, 1968, when Lt. William Straight and his men, then at NHA BE RVN, received a message from Commander Naval Forces Vietnam activating River Section 544. Although, Straight had no boats at the time, he started the process of setting up a new unit. On May 4, 1968 the first three new MK-II river patrol boats (PBR's) hull numbers 752, 753, and 754 arrived and Straight's men took possession. Test firing the weapons begins the same day, and boat trials started the next morning. On May 17, 1968 the final seven boats, hull numbers 755, 756, 761, 840, 841, 842, and 843 were received. Section 544 was now a complete section.

After only three months of operations as River Section 544, during which hundreds of hours had been logged on patrol, a major restructuring within Naval Forces Vietnam came about. On September 1, 1968, with a new organization in place, River Division 593 emerged from an already legendary start and continued in the traditions of the great American "Brown Water Navy".

In the first months of operations the division was based at NHA BE U.S. Naval Base, and was assigned the task of patrolling the rivers and waterways of the Rung Sat Special Zone. Rung Sat in Vietnamese means "Killer Jungle" and had been a very bad area even before the United States became involved in Vietnam. The Rung Sat was of special importance to U.S. forces and their war effort because the main shipping channels from the South China Sea to the capitol of Saigon lay mainly in the rung sat. Its rivers and jungles were infested with Viet Cong Guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army Regulars.

The Rung Sat was approximately four hundred square miles in size and in the monsoon season, eighty-five percent of it was under water. The eastern boundary was along the Thi Vi River (Song Thi Vi) this area known as the Thi Vi-Go Gia area, because of the rivers, was very lush and green and provided many areas for the enemy to hide. It was known that the headquarters for all of the Rung Sat was in this area, but it was never found. The division spent many hours patrolling this area and it seemed that every day a patrol would be involved in a fire fight that resulted in injury, death, or at least damage to a boat. The western boundary of the rung Sat was the Soi Rap River (Song Soi Rap) this river was largely defoliated on the eastern bank, but because the western bank was out of the Rung Sat it was left alone. This side was a jungle maze of thick tropical growth that offered great cover for the enemy and served as a major staging area in his attacks on Saigon. This was the first area that we patrolled in the zone, and was where the legend began.

The division was moved from one side of the zone to the other and then to the Long Tau River (Song Long Tau) this was the major shipping channel from the South China Sea to Saigon and sixty percent of all the supplies for the war effort came up this river. The Long Tau flowed through the middle of the zone and was very narrow in several spots. If the enemy could have sunk a ship in any one of these areas, it would have blocked the main shipping channel for a very long time. The division was on constant patrol on this river, and not one ship was ever lost to enemy rockets while the "Iron Butterfly" was present.

The division took its assigned task to heart and began cleaning up the area with a vengeance. Although several of the men were wounded in action during this time, it was not until the eighth day of November that the division had its first member killed in action. During a fire fight that afternoon Chief Quartermaster Ted Smith was killed instantly when he was hit by an enemy rocket while aiding one of his men whom had been wounded earlier. The death of Chief Smith had a sobering effect on the rest of the men, and everyone was more determined than ever to do the job.

In Vietnam, when one area became more important, units would be moved in to patrol it. This also came about when the enemy moved his main base of operations from one area to another, units were then required to move into the new area and patrol it. River Division 593 was one of the first divisions on the Vam Co Dong River when "Operation Giant Slingshot" began its strangle hold on Viet Cong Communist aggressors and North Vietnamese army supply routes from Cambodia to Saigon.

The giant slingshot area was a wedge-shape piece of land bounded by the Vam Co Dong River (Song Vam Co Dong) on the north and the Vam Co Tay River (Song Vam Co Tay) on the south. The handle of the slingshot was formed by the Vam Co River (Song Vam Co) which was partially in our old operation area, the Rung Sat. The slingshot area was just north of the Mekong Delta and just below the famous Plain of Reeds; Cambodia was to the west. It was an easy two-day march from Cambodia to Saigon with a supply/rest stop in the wedge. This was why we were sent in; they wanted this pattern disrupted and the enemy to be denied this area for his operations.

The USS Harnett Country LST-821 was moved up river from the South China Sea to the bridge at Ben Luc and was utilized as an operating base for 593 and a detachment of Seawolf Helicopters. Ben Luc was commercial center at the junction of the Vam Co Dong River and Highway 4, the main overland link between Saigon and the Delta area. The division remained on this operation From December 12, 1968 to March 25, 1969. During this time Lt. Bill Straight was relieved by Lt. LA Bissonnette and the division lost PBR 753 when two enemy rockets during a firefight hit it on February 16, 1969. The boat burned out of control, even with a gallant effort by its crew, it could not be saved, and was finally blown up. Luckily no one was killed in this action, but the division had already had one man killed on Sling Shot on January 17, 1969 Engineerman Second Class Terry Simison was shot in the head by an enemy AK-47 round during a fire fight and died on the med-vac in route to the field hospital. So, when no one was killed on 753 everyone in the division felt relieved. This feeling would be short lived because on February 17, the day after losing 753, Petty Officer C.A. McCafferty was hit by an enemy rocket during a heated fire fight and was killed instantly. The rivers and canals in the Slingshot Operation area were narrow, to say the least. The banks were covered with lush thick jungle, and many bunker complexes were hid in the high banks and tree lines that bordered the river. The enemy had a strong hold here and did not want to give it up. The firefights were often and brutal and came with no warning. Charlie soon realized that the "Iron Butterfly" was as determined as he was, and that the ratio of dead he was giving up was to high a price to pay. Soon the area was being by-passed by the majority of enemy units, and the firefights were less frequent. Over fifty percent of the casualties were suffered by the men of River Division 593 during its stay on operation "Giant Sling Shot". Everyone was happy when word came down that the division was moving back to NHA BE on March 25, 1969 and would, again, be patrolling the Rung Sat special zone.

The idea of being back in the Rung Sat had not yet settled in when the Division had its first member killed in action. GMG3 Thomas L. Brown, Forward gunner on PBR-756 was killed on the night of April 9th when an Enemy B-40 rocket flew out of the dark during a fire fight, and cut his Gun tub in half. Petty Officer Brown was killed instantly.

During the months that followed, the Rung Sat Special Zone was again the operating area for the "Iron Butterfly," the symbol of River Division 593 worn proudly on the right shoulder of every man in the division. There was no canal, no waterway, no corner of the Rung Sat Special Zone that the "Iron Butterfly" did not patrol in its relentless search and pursuit of the enemy. Another member of the division was killed in action during this time. Petty Officer D.L. Tucker went down in a firefight on July 6th many other crewmen were wounded in countless actions against the enemy and the legend of the "Iron Butterfly" grew.

On July 4, 1969, River Division 593 again received orders to move its base of operations. This time it was assigned duty in direct support of the U.S. Army First Infantry Division and the 5th Division of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam on the upper Saigon river were already strong traditions and legends would be built on, strengthened and renewed in the months ahead.

The "Iron Butterfly" showed her colors on both the Saigon and the Thi Tinh Rivers, and the close proximity of this operating area to the large enemy complex in the tunnels of Cu Chi more than guaranteed the division plenty of action.

The division remained in this area on joint and combined operations from July 4, 1969 to September 26, 1969, the results of the division efforts, as noted by Commander Naval Forces Vietnam and his Vietnamese counterparts were astronomical. Over two hundred enemy soldiers were killed in action by division patrols. Several tons of enemy supplies, including many very important documents were captured.

Several major enemy offenses against the strategic bridge at Phu Coung were stopped before they could reach the area by division night water born guard posts. One of these efforts was perhaps the longest firefight engaged in by any naval unit during the war. The legendary Chief Bob Monzingo led this all-night action, the Iron Butterfly's own rogue warrior in the middle of September and resulted in several deaths among the camp of the enemy and numerous supplies captured.

On September 15, 1969, an eight boat patrol left Phu Cong in route to support a company of the 101 Airborne. It was ambushed, before making its scheduled link up, with the Army Company. Several men on the lead boats, along with the Division Commander, Lt. Bissonnettee were wounded. One boat had over fifty holes in it from enemy fire. Although the patrol had to stop long enough, after suppressing enemy fire, to dust off the wounded the operation proceeded as planned. Lt. Bissonnette refused to be evacuated with the rest of the wounded until the mission was complete.

Because of the constant contact with the enemy everyone is the division was looking a bit haggard and needed a rest. A sigh of relief was heard by everyone when, on September 26, 1969, the division was moved back to Nha Be and the Rung Sat Zone, because even as bad as this area was, it was not nearly as bad as being on the upper Saigon.

This time the stay in Nha Be would be very short lived. The division was back in Phu Coung in November 1969 working with several local Army units and patrolling the river night and day. In December of 1969, Lt. Bissonnette was relieved by Lt. Alan Deroco, whom was Five Ninety-Threes' third commander and would be its last.

Two more men of the division were killed in action during this stay on the upper Saigon. FN N.C. Estes was killed in action on January 17, 1970 and Gunnersmate Seaman Frank Jacaruso was killed on March 12, 1970. He was also, the last. After another brief stay in Nha Be the division was ordered to the Cambodian border to lead the American assault across. During April and into June of 1970 the division operated off of the USS Benewa (APB-38) and the YRBM-20 anchored in the Bassac River.

Division 593 had been an active participant in the Vietnamese turn over program ordered by commander Naval Forces Vietnam and had received its first eleven Vietnamese sailors, for training, back on March 26, 1969. In the fifteen months that followed over one hundred Vietnamese sailors were trained by and fought along side their American counterparts and friends of the "Iron Butterfly".

On June 30, 1970 at Chau doc along side the USS Benewa on YRBM-20 River Division 593 was turned over, to the Vietnamese Navy. So ended the name with the lowering of the last American flag, but not the legend.

During its short twenty-six month history, over two hundred men served in River Division 593. All of them volunteers and all of them professionals. Seven courageous men of River Division 593 lost their lives while serving in Vietnam. Personnel of the "Iron Butterfly" were in action much of the time, and were decorated often. Medals received by division personnel included one Navy Cross, at least eight Silver Stars, more than sixty Bronze Stars, over fifty Navy Commendation Medals, more than twenty Navy Achievement Medals, over ten Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, and close to one hundred Purple Hearts.

James D. Davy