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Operation Market Time

The Bucklew Report, as it became known, put into words what many American advisors, commanders, and officials believed was happening in South Vietnam during the pre-1965 American military advisory years of the Vietnam conflict. Communist North Vietnam was violating the Geneva Accords, which had established an independent North and South Vietnam. It was sending into South Vietnam a steady stream of men, materiel, and supplies to the Communist Viet Cong guerillas in order to overthrow the democratic government there. The Bucklew Report defined the problem and made a number of suggestions to solve it. But evidence was needed to officially allow direct American military action. Approximately a year later, in March 1965, it was literally uncovered in the Vung Ro Incident.

Named after the many marketing vessels that were targeted for searching, Market Time was created on March 11, 1965, as a combined U.S. Navy and Coast Guard effort.

Vung Ro is a small bay located near the city of Qui Nhon, near the central coast of South Vietnam. Army Lt. James S. Bowers was on patrol in his Huey that day covering an area that took him over the South China Sea in the Second Coastal Zone. As he banked over Vung Ro, he sensed something wrong with a tree-covered island below. When he flew closer he discovered that the “island” was in fact a small ship cleverly camouflaged with potted plants on its deck and superstructure. Bowers immediately radioed in his discovery to Second Coastal Zone senior advisor Lt. Harvey P. Rodgers, USN. Air strikes and beach assaults were promptly launched. The result was a captured North Vietnamese supply ship and a spectacular find of cached supplies, explosives, weapons, and ammunition originating from a number of Communist countries and designated for use by the Viet Cong. In addition, troops discovered numerous North Vietnamese charts and assorted military papers. Among them were documents revealing that members of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA’s) 338th Division were stationed in the region and that the trawler had been constructed in Communist China and was unit K.35 of the North Vietnamese Naval Transportation Group 125. This incident, and other events, helped transform the largely advisory American presence of Military Assistance and Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAG-V) to the active American combat force effort, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

PACV, Market Time

One of the U.S. Navy’s PACV hovercraft on patrol in Vietnamese waters assists in the searching of suspected boats for smuggled goods and contraband. Here, crewmembers pursue the search of a Vietnamese junk. National Archives photo

Administratively, three task forces were created to interdict Communist water-borne traffic: Task Force 71, Task Force 116, and Task Force 117. Task Forces 116 and 117 operated on the inland waterways as the River Patrol Force and the Mobile Riverine Force, respectively. Task Force 71 was commanded by the U.S. Seventh Fleet and designated the Vietnam Patrol Force. Then, on July 31, 1965, operational command was transferred to the Naval Advisory Group (NAG), and its name was changed to the Coastal Surveillance Force, or Task Force 115. Ultimately, Naval Forces Vietnam (NAVFORV), activated on April 1, 1966, assumed command of Task Force 115 and became responsible for it for the rest of the war. Task Force 115 was the Coastal Surveillance Force and conducted its missions under the code name Market Time.

Named after the many marketing vessels that were targeted for searching, Market Time was created on March 11, 1965, as a combined U.S. Navy and Coast Guard effort. Though its primary task was to interdict the flow of Communist supplies, Market Time ships performed other missions as well. These included naval gunfire support for troops engaged on or near beaches, as blocking forces in encirclement operations near the coast and on large rivers, in transporting troops and evacuating civilians, participating in medcaps (Medical Civil Action Program), and, as most of the waterways were uncharted, aids to navigation and other tasks.

Market Time consisted of three squadrons, two Navy and one Coast Guard. Navy Boat Squadron 1, operating along the coast, was composed of five divisions. Coastal Squadron 1, operating at sea, contained six divisions. Coast Guard Squadron 1 contained three divisions. Bases were located at eight sites ranging from Da Nang in the north to An Thoi on the southern tip of Phu Quoc Island off the Cambodian border.

Market Time operated a three-ringed patrol system that employed both surface vessels and aircraft. Shallow draft vessels, principally PCFs (Patrol Craft, Fast) and Coast Guard cutters, known as WPBs, as well as some gunboats and, for a brief period, Patrol Air Cushion Vehicles (PACVs), sometimes working with the South Vietnamese Navy (VNN) and other times independently, operated the innermost ring along the coast and in river mouths. Deeper draft ships, such as coastal mine sweepers and high endurance cutters (WHECs), operated in deeper water within 40 miles of the South Vietnamese coast. A combination of ships, including WHECs, radar-equipped destroyer escorts (DERs), and minesweepers, and observation aircraft, initially A-1 Skyraiders and later P-3 Orions, conducted surveillance in the outermost ring in international waters.

The task confronting the Market Time forces was daunting in the extreme. The road network in Vietnam, both North and South, was primitive. As a result, commerce and travel were conducted primarily over water on the thousands of miles of rivers, canals, and seacoast. On average, more than 60,000 sampans and junks alone traveled and fished the seas and waterways. In addition, the 1,200 miles of South Vietnam coastline from the 17th parallel in the north to the Cambodian border in the south was a smuggler’s dream. And what was useful for a smuggler was ideal for the Communist government of North Vietnam seeking to supply Viet Cong guerrillas. Prior to 1965, seaborne infiltration of materiel from North Vietnam was conducted at will by the Communists. Intelligence estimates stated that during this period as much as 90 percent of all arms and supplies to the Viet Cong came from the sea.

Though a number of shallow-draft vessels were used in coastal operations, the workhorse was the PCF more commonly known as the “Swift boat.” The Swift boat was created by Sewart Seacraft of Burwick, Louisiana. It was a 50-foot, all-welded aluminum alloy boat that oil companies used in the Gulf of Mexico to transport crews to and from offshore drilling rigs. They were snub-nosed craft that displaced 19 tons and had a draft of 3.5 feet. A maximum speed of 28 knots was provided by two diesel engines that drove two screws. Armament for the combat-modified Swift boats started with a twin .50-caliber machine gun mounted in a gun tub on top of the pilothouse. The fantail was mounted with an over-under arrangement of a .50-caliber machine gun atop an 81mm mortar. An original order of 54 Swift boats was increased in September 1965 to 84 to ensure more thorough surveillance of the coast.

Rear Adm. Ward, Market Time

Rear Adm. Norvell G. Ward, commander, Coastal Surveillance Force, discusses Market Time Operations with staff in the operations center of the USS Krishna. National Archives photo

Examples of the daunting task before the Market Time forces are underscored by three weekly reports issued by the Intelligence and Reporting Subcommittee of the Interagency Vietnam Coordinating Committee. On April 27, 1966, one report details that during a seven-day period, Market Time forces searched 4,686 junks and 18,446 people, detaining 18 junks and 110 people. The May 18, 1966, weekly report indicates that they searched 4,054 junks and 16,950 people, detaining five junks and 94 people. And the report of May 25, 1966, states that 5,340 junks and 21,543 people were searched, and two junks and 99 individuals were detained.

Many boarding parties did what they could to counteract the negative feelings by giving the civilian crews food from their stores or medical assistance.

As it was impossible to search every vessel encountered, searching broke down into two categories: “boarding,” which was the actual, and detailed, physical inspection of the craft and its cargo; and “inspecting,” which meant a visual examination while positioned beside the suspect craft as identity papers, manifests, and other documents were checked.

Because of their experience in customs inspections, Coast Guardsmen assigned to Market Time came with extensive practical knowledge in what was required. They created a priority system for boarding. This priority scheme (from highest to lowest) was: vessels transiting the area; junks fishing or operating in restricted areas; fishing boats anchored and not working nets; and finally fishing boats working nets.

Invariably for the innocent, Market Time inspections, conducted under the shadow of well-armed, tense, potentially trigger-happy crews, were disruptive, insulting, and dangerous. For those who made their livelihood off the sea, the consequences also had a clear negative impact in time lost for fishing. Many boarding parties did what they could to counteract the negative feelings by giving the civilian crews food from their stores or medical assistance. The Viet Cong naturally attempted to exploit this resentment and were not above claiming that the Americans conducted atrocities of one form or another during their searches. The Market Time forces were well aware of this situation and responded in a variety of ways. One of the most effective was having the corpsman on board make a “house call,” as it were, and provide medical assistance to the crew of the vessel being searched.

Life aboard a Market Time vessel consisted primarily of two extremes: hours of boredom under a punishingly hot tropical sun on the one hand, and brief periods of tension and life-threatening danger on the other. Still, such duty was not without certain benefits. For example, captains of Market Time ships possessed what in the Vietnam War became a luxury, and it made them the envy of their higher-ranking counterparts on the more powerful warships in the Seventh Fleet. Because direct-link communications difficulties made micro-managing from Washington, D.C., impossible, the captain of a Market Time ship had autonomy. It was one of the few times in the war where command authority truly rested with the man on the scene.

Despite slim resources, Market Time forces had a growing impact on ship-borne supply movement. So great was their success, in fact, that the North Vietnamese began re-directing their logistic efforts inland onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The stage was set for what would become the largest naval combat action between ships, both in terms of number of vessels and in scope of territory, in the Vietnam War.

In January 1968, North Vietnam launched a nationwide operation in South Vietnam during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. The Tet Offensive, as it became known, was a series of attacks throughout the country conducted primarily by the Viet Cong. One of the Tet Offensive’s goals was to inspire a popular uprising against the government. Initially, the Communist forces achieved tactical surprise, which ultimately led to their victory on the political front. But, militarily, allied units quickly responded and ultimately delivered such a crushing blow to the Viet Cong that it was never again an important factor in the war.

Point League Market Time

The Market Time Coast Guard Cutter Point League stands off in the foreground as a 100-foot steel-hulled trawler burns in the background. Point League forced the trawler aground near the village of Ba Dong, South Vietnam. Salvage crews removed an estimated 250 tons of contraband from the ship. National Archives photo

The tide of military action during Tet was turning in MACV’s favor when Rear Adm. Kenneth L. Veth, COMNAVFORV (Commander Naval Forces Vietnam) sent a message to Market Time and other forces under his command that read in part:

Enemy losses are now reported at about 44,000 KIA plus over 7,000 captured or detained all together equal to at least 100 VC/NVA [Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Army] battalions. Although captured documents and prisoners indicate the enemy plans to continue attacks and harassment he obviously must be hurting considerably. Now is the time to strike him. Now is the time to resort again to our basic philosophy of concentrate and clobber. Consider it preferable to eliminate one enemy unit than to take small attrition from several.

By this time, the Communists had transferred most of their logistics transportation to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the advantage of transiting Laos and Cambodia (in violation of their neutrality) was offset by the extra time and facilities required by overland transport. Though the waterways were more risky, the advantage of speed, and the necessity of expedited resupply during the offensive, made the risk acceptable for the Communists. The stage was set for what would become the largest naval combat action between ships, both in terms of number of vessels and in scope of territory, in the Vietnam War. On the night of Feb. 29, Market Time ships were involved in four widely-separated engagements: near the 17th parallel and Da Nang in the north, near Nha Trang in roughly the middle, and off the Ca Mau peninsula, the southernmost tip of South Vietnam.

Hostilities began when the Coast Guard cutter Androscoggin intercepted a  100-foot-long North Vietnamese Sa Ky-class trawler that was attempting to breach the inner barrier south of Da Nang. The Androscoggin issued a challenge that the trawler ignored. Warning shots from the Androscoggin were answered by return fire from the trawler and the night-time engagement commenced. Androscoggin was soon joined by the cutters Point Welcome and Point Grey and helicopter gunships “Shark 6” and “Shark 9.” Despite fierce return fire and evasive action, the trawler was trapped. As soon as he realized he could not escape, the trawler’s captain headed toward shore. Unable to follow because of the shallower depth, Cmdr. W.H. Stewart of the Androscoggin ordered nearby Navy WPBs and PCFs to move in for the kill. The trawler captain managed to beach his ship, and at 0235 a huge fireball erupted from the enemy ship as it destroyed itself.

At the same time, off the Ca Mau peninsula, a second Communist trawler was intercepted as it attempted to breach the inner barrier. This enemy vessel came under attack by the cutters Winona, Point Grace, Point Marone, and Point Hudson supported by Navy PCFs. The U.S. forces poured heavy gunfire into the trawler that soon burst into flames and then spectacularly exploded.

The third trawler was caught in the inner barrier northeast of Nha Trang by a combined force of Swift boats, Vietnamese junks, VNN (South Vietnamese Navy) Fleet Command ships, and an AC-47 aircraft. As with the action near Da Nang, the captain of the trawler ordered it to be run onto the beach, where it was destroyed. Ultimately, salvage operations conducted by the allies succeeded in removing tons of supplies, including seven 82 mm mortar tubes with 745 rounds of ammunition, 70 AK-47 automatic rifles, 39 RPG-2 rocket launchers with 81 cases of rocket rounds, and 28 cases of 7.62 mm ammunition.

Burning Trawler, Market Time

U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel aboard a Vietnamese Navy junk battle flames on a 97-foot Viet Cong trawler, which contained approximately 80 tons of arms and supplies being smuggled. National Archives photo

The fourth trawler was intercepted by the cutter Minnetonka in the international waters of the outer barrier near the demilitarized zone of the 17th parallel that marked the border between North and South Vietnam. As the Minnetonka pressed home its attack, the trawler quickly reversed course and headed north, whereupon the Minnetonka resumed its patrol station.

Though North Vietnam eventually did win the war, that victory would not come for another seven years, and then, tellingly, three years after the departure of all U.S. military forces. The impact of Market Time in overall operations during the conflict was one of the great successes of the American effort. A Department of the Army study said of the Coastal Surveillance Force: “Operation Market Time has been judged to have produced significant results and is credited with forcing the enemy to change his logistic operations extensively. In early 1966, it was estimated that the enemy accomplished three-quarters of his resupply by infiltration from the sea. By the end of 1966 this was reduced to an estimated one-tenth of the total resupply.”

Gen. William Westmoreland, commanding general, MACV, noted that Market Time’s success forced the Communists to extensively change their logistics operations. In November 1968, Westmoreland praised the naval forces of Market Time, stating, “Market Time forces have successfully blocked intrusions by sea, forcing the enemy to use the long, torturous Ho Chi Minh Trail, thus affecting significantly his ability to properly sustain his forces in the South.”

By the time President Richard Nixon ordered the implementation of his Vietnamization program, Market Time had so interdicted the flow of seaborne supplies as to make their contribution to the Communists’ war effort negligible.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2006 Edition.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-11069">
    Larry Doyle Sr.

    I was with Patrol Squadron Two (VP-2) and was over the 3rd trawler when this occurred. This story failed to mention the Patrol Squadron’s effort during Market Time. I know that VP-1, 2, 17 & 42 were involved over the duration of Market Time, there may be more & I apology for any that I may not have remembered. For our effort on Feb 29/Mar 1 68, our crew (Crew 8), officers were awarded the Air Medal & the enlisted men were awarded the Navy Achievement Medal W/Combat “V” device. I was the ordanceman in Crew 8 and flew approx. 60 combat patrols. We tracked the trawler & stayed with it during the duration until it’s blowing up. I have documentation to confirm all information.

    Larry Doyle (AO-3 A/C) Patrol Squadron Two (VP-2) 1965-68

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-11073">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Dear Mr. Doyle,

    This article fails to mention a lot of things! At best, it’s a summary of the action. Inevitably, it has to leave out so much stuff. I’m working on a SEAL history article for Defense Media Network’s parent company and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the founding of the SEALs. That is a bearcat of a balancing act trying to get as much information into an article, as opposed to a book.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-12415">

    Dwight, I am a second cousin to Navy SEAL One member Bill Machen, the first Navy SEAL killed in combat in Vietnam. He was a part of Task Force 116 in 1966, and was taking part in operations there when he later found his demise. I see this article did fail to mention SEALS, and a few other things that the US Military were doing in this zone. I have a facebook site dedicated to Bill (and other SEALS’s) memory, and am an avid researcher of such historic things. If you have any info you (Or anyone reading this article) would like to share about SEAL Team 1 and 2, or Bill respectively, I would love to see it. You can email me at Thanks,

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24058">

    I was an ordanceman in V.P. 6 crew 3 flying P-3 Orions. We ran Markettime ops.from MAR.69 to Nov.69. Our squadron got the Navy unit commedation for running these ops.I think it would be a good idea to acknowledge all groups that were involved in markettime rather than just a few.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24073">

    The article was intended to show the part special operations forces, and the progenitors of special operations forces, played in the operation. It wasn’t possible to include all the participants within the scope of the article, but that doesn’t mean in any way that we don’t appreciate the part everyone played in the operation.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-45641">

    I was on the USS Black DD666 we were part of Operation Market time. Along with the USS Higbee DD-806 we spent 80% of our 7 month deployment at sea as first U.S. warships to use the infiltration surveillance methods. You failed to mention destroyers as part of this operation.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-45644">

    hey chuck might as well take down the sight if you don’t want to accept comments.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-45656">

    Don’t know what you mean Russ. There’s a lag sometimes because we do sort through comments for Spam, but barring anything profane or abusive, we encourage commenting, and all comments are accepted.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-45664">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Russ, unfortunately I failed to mention destroyers (though I did mention the task forces and fleets involved, thus implying their use) or include the information you mentioned. This was not meant as a slight. Given the vastness and timeframe of Market Time, it was inevitable that something would not be included.