Local Vietnam veteran sails war-era boat
Published 7:00 am Tuesday, August 9, 2016
One local resident had the opportunity to relive his years as captain of a Vietnam-era SWIFT boat.
Fred Smallwood, a retired Navy captain and U.S. Coast Guard licensed commercial captain, sailed the SWIFT PCF-816 on a commemorative voyage through several California ports recently.
During the Vietnam War, Smallwood served as an officer in charge of a similar vessel, the PCF-78, performing coastal surveillance and interdiction efforts. Smallwood, and other SWIFT boat crews, were responsible for inspecting boats entering the South China Sea from the north.
“We did our job too well,” Smallwood said.
After a few years, enemy routes had changed and “we weren’t catching anyone coming that way anymore,” Smallwood said.
The 50-foot aluminum hull boats were designed to cruise through waters as shallow as four-and-a-half feet and at a speed of up to 30 knots, Smallwood said.
There were over 80 patrol boats in Vietnam at one point in the war, Smallwood said. The boats that remained intact after the war were turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy.
PCF-816, owned by the Maritime Museum of San Diego, is the only operational vessel of its kind left in the U.S., Smallwood said. Other non-operational boats are housed in various museums.
This particular vessel never saw combat, but was used to train sailors before they deployed, Smallwood said.
Smallwood captained the boat for the first half of its voyage, leaving San Diego on July 12, stopping in ports at Oceanside, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Port Hueneme and Santa Barbara, Smallwood said.
“It was a lot of fun…the sights and sounds and smells are all as they used to be,” Smallwood said.
Smallwood was on board with 13 other veterans who had also been on one of these patrol crafts during Vietnam, but hadn’t thought about it for 50 years, he said. During the trip the veterans shared experiences and swapped stories.
“We drew quite a crowd every place we went,” Smallwood said.
When the crew stopped at Newport Beach, they picked up two former South Vietnamese Naval officers who had also operated SWIFT boats, Smallwood said.
The journey was sponsored by the SWIFT Boat Sailors Association who hopes to conduct similar trips, Smallwood said.
Smallwood successfully finished his journey on July 23 and, under a new captain, the boat made the return trip to San Diego, arriving home on August 6.