Vietnam War river patrol boat

To most of you, PBR probably sounds like a medium-strength beer you’d find tucked away in a fraternity fridge. But I’m not talking about Pabst Blue Ribbon here. Instead, this PBR – the Patrol Boat Riverine – was one of the most important gunships that played a key role in protecting American troops during the Vietnam War.

As the conflict escalated in the 1960s, the US military realized the need for a relatively small but nimble craft that could navigate the shallow rivers of Southeast Asia. So they contacted Hatteras, a luxury yacht manufacturer based in New Bern, North Carolina, to build a prototype.

Instead of executing an entirely new design, Hatteras shrunk their 41-foot-long fiberglass family cruiser into a 31-foot fighting machine. A working prototype of the Patrol Boat Riverine was ready to go in just six days – very impressive, considering the long list of modifications. In addition to making the boat much shorter (and wider) than before, Hatteras moved the engines farther forward. The propellers were replaced with jets, which improved ground clearance and avoided the problem of prop snagging. All of these modifications made the boat ideal for supporting troops in the shallow waterways flanking the Mekong River.

The jet propulsion system was not exactly what you would find in an F-4 Phantom II fighter jet. Believe it or not, it was made by Jacuzzi. The PBR had a series of intakes under the hull, protected by fine mesh, to supply water to a paddle wheel. The turbine then forced water through the second stage at incredibly high speed before blasting it out of a nozzle at the back of the boat.

In the case of navigation in shallow waters, this jet propulsion is far superior to traditional propellers, with less risk of grounding. Why? Because the only obstacles sticking out the back of a jet boat are the nozzles themselves; this gives them much better ground clearance.

Task Force 116, also known as the “Brown Water Navy”, used its PBR fleet to provide fire support to troops and counter-insurgency operations. Its main purpose was to block the movement of hostile forces, which involved keeping open the sea lanes to Saigon and intercepting those resupplying the Viet Cong.

A PBR crewman tends to his air-cooled twin .50 caliber machine gun mount as his craft patrols the Vung Tau River in Vietnam in April 1966.

National Archives K-31263

Each PBR operated with a crew of four: a captain, gunner, mechanic and sailor. All were cross-trained for each other’s positions, meaning the boat could operate if one or more of the crew were to be killed in action. On the water, these craft usually sailed in pairs, led by a patrol boat.

Given their relatively small size, there was little room on board to mount heavy machine guns and other armament; the most featured twin .50 caliber machine guns forward, a .50 caliber aft, and one or two light machine guns port and starboard. That might sound like a lot, but one of the Achilles’ heels of the PBR was its fiberglass, which wasn’t exactly, let’s say, bulletproof. Of course, there was armor to protect the coxswain and the gunner on the .50 caliber in the bow. However, the PBR’s greatest defense was its agility and speed made possible by its jet-powered design.

usn riverboat on patrol
A U.S. Navy Bell UH-1E huey flies over a PBR boat in Vietnam, circa 1967.

USN

When attacked, PBR pilots would move at full speed near the bank itself – a high-risk strategy, as a wrong move would mean running aground and becoming a sitting duck for enemy fire. This high-speed shock and awe strategy made it very difficult for downed enemies to train their weapons on the patrol craft as it flew by the river.

Unfortunately, there are very few original PBRs left. We’ve saved so many iconic aircraft like the aforementioned Phantom, the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, and even the Bell UH-1 helicopter (aka the Huey). However, no one thought of saving such an interesting craft as the PBR. To this day, one of the only remaining patrol boats is moored at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The majority of those on the water are replicas that had to be built from scratch using Hatteras’ original plans.

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Earnest A. Martinez