River Craft

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River Craft. Small, shallow draft vessels have played supporting roles in virtually every American conflict since the Revolutionary War. Pole boats, said to be 60 feet long, 8 feet wide, and drawing 2 feet or less when fully loaded, ferried George Washington's army across the Delaware.

In the Civil War, Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac was saved, barely, by Union gunboats pushing up the James River to cover his retreat from before Richmond in the ill‐fated Peninsula campaign. On the western rivers, small steamboats outfitted with cannon, mortars, and protective armor contributed greatly to Union victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Island Number 10, the Battle of Shiloh, and the Siege of Vicksburg.

The first three Union gunboats on the Mississippi were converted side‐wheelers, averaging 180 feet in length, with 42‐foot beams, and drawing about 6 feet of water. They carried 8‐inch and 32‐pounder guns. These were followed quickly by seven stern‐wheelers (Eads boats or “Pook's turtles”), armored at the bow and outboard of propulsion machinery by 2.5‐inch iron plate. These had a length of 175 feet, 51‐foot beams, and also drew 6 feet—the maximum thought practical for operations on the upper rivers. This was the nucleus of the Union's western flotilla, a river fleet that would number in the hundreds by war's end and include boats outfitted with monstrous 15‐inch siege guns.

An interesting variant of the Union river gunboat was the “tin‐clad,” armored with thin sheets of iron for protection from small‐arms fire. It carried 24‐pound howitzers and a small number of sharpshooters. About seventy of these were built; they were used primarily to patrol the smaller tributaries of the Mississippi.

The South, seriously deficient in shipbuilding facilities, machine shops, and mills capable of rolling iron plate, still managed to put scores of gunboats on the western rivers. Virtually all were converted from civilian use. Some Confederate boats were “cotton‐clads” whose crews and vital engine spaces were shielded by tightly compressed bales of cotton. Armed rams achieved the most notable of the few Southern successes in the losing campaign for control of the Mississippi basin.

In the Vietnam War, river craft were assigned a more prominent role than in any war since the one on the American western rivers a century before. In the virtually roadless Mekong Delta, whoever controlled the waterways controlled the land, and the U.S. “Brown Water Navy” patrolled a vast network of rivers and canals throughout the country, from the demilitarized zone in the North to the Ca Mau peninsula in the South.

River craft that saw service in Vietnam fell roughly into two categories: World War II landing craft conversions; and new construction patrol boats adapted from commercial designs.

The LCM (landing craft, mechanized) provided the hull and machinery for a wide variety of “heavy” boats assigned to the Riverine Assault Force, the naval arm of the joint Army‐Navy Mobile Riverine Force. These 56‐foot, diesel‐powered craft displaced more than 60 tons and had a draft of about 3.5 feet. On the rivers they could make little better than 6 knots, a terrible handicap when operating in adverse currents and tides. The LCM conversions included the “monitor,” the armored troop carrier (ATC), and the command and control boat (CCB).

The monitor, so called because of its slight resemblance to the Civil War ironclad, carried a 40‐mm cannon and a .50‐caliber machine gun in a forward turret. An 81‐mm mortar and two M‐60 machine guns were mounted amidships, with one 20‐mm cannon and two .50‐caliber and four M‐60 machine guns aft. A few monitors had powerful flamethrowers mounted forward—from the name of the popular cigarette lighter, these were called “Zippo” boats.

The ATC was designed to carry forty fully armed combat troops. It mounted two 20‐mm cannon and two .50‐caliber and four M‐60 machine guns. Some ATCs were decked over to permit the landing and takeoff of helicopters. Several carried water cannon capable of washing away bankside bunkers; these, inevitably, were nicknamed “douche boats” by the sailors who crewed them.

The armament on the CCB closely paralleled that of the monitor. Sometimes called a commandement (a name borrowed from an earlier French boat), it was designed as an afloat command post and came equipped with additional communications and radar gear.

The 50‐foot assault support and patrol boat (ASPB) was the only new construction craft built for the Riverine Assault Force. It displaced about 35 tons and could make 15 knots in ideal water conditions. It mounted one 20‐mm cannon, one 81‐mm mortar, two .50‐caliber machine guns, and two automatic grenade launchers. Due to low freeboard and numerous other design flaws, the ASPB was not well received by the Brown Water Navy.

The principal craft employed by the navy's River Patrol Force was the 31‐foot patrol boat, river (PBR). Adapted from a recreational design, its fiberglass hull had a 10‐foot, 6‐inch beam, and it drew only 9 to 18 inches. It was powered by two 220‐horsepower diesel engines driving Jacuzzi high‐speed jet pumps. Having neither rudder nor screws, the PBR was maneuvered by altering the direction of the jet nozzles; its speed rated at 25 knots. It carried twin .50‐caliber machine guns forward and .30‐caliber machine guns and a grenade launcher aft.

As U.S. participation in the Vietnam War drew to a close, virtually all of the river craft comprising America's Brown Water Navy were transferred to a Vietnamese Navy ill‐prepared and ill‐equipped to receive them. Relatively few are still operational, either in the U.S. Navy's inventory or in that of the victorious Communist government of Vietnam.
[See also Navy, U.S.; Swift Boats; Union Navy.]


E. B. Potter, ed., Sea Power—A Naval History, 1960.
Bern Anderson , By Sea and by River, the Naval History of the Civil War, 1962.
Frank Donovan , River Boats of America, 1966.
Thomas J. Cutler , Brown Water, Black Berets, 1980.
Edward L. Beach , The United States Navy—200 Years, 1986.
R. L. Schreadley , From the Rivers to the Sea, 1992.
R. Thomas Campbell , Gray Thunder, 1996.

R. L. Schreadley