The mining of their mobile base by Viet Cong frog- men on Thanksgiving night 1967 transformed
brown-water Sailors to firefighters during one of the
most tragic evenings for the service of the Vietnam war.
YRBM 16 was a yard repair, berthing and messing
barge assigned to Vietnam as a support vessel for riverine forces participating in Operation Game Warden.
It could support up to 300 Sailors along with 21 river
patrol boats (PBRs). It contained a tactical operations
center as well as maintenance shops, berthing areas, a
large sick bay, a laundry facility and messes.
Patrol boat Sailors loved the barge’s amenities, which
included air-conditioned sleeping quarters, superb Navy
chow, regular movies and even a “beer barge.” Alcohol
was forbidden on U.S. Navy ships, but the YRBM got
around this regulation by allowing the crew to drink beer
with an alcohol content of 3. 2 percent on the pontoon
platform used for loading and unloading PBRs. Pabst
Blue Ribbon (aka PBR) was the preferred brand.
At all times sentries, armed with M14 rifles, manned
watch stations fore and aft. Early in the YRBM’s 1967
deployment, these watchstanders would lob concussion
grenades into the river at irregular intervals to deter
swimmers but the practice was soon abandoned after
crew members complained that the explosions were
preventing them from getting adequate rest. Instead, the
commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Villard Blevins Jr., generally anchored the barge in areas of the river inaccessible
to swimmers. In November, the barge was anchored in
the middle of a mile-wide section of the Ham Luong
River in an area of swift currents.
On Thanksgiving night, the YRBM 16 galley went all
out to produce a quality holiday meal. Satiated by turkey
with all the trimmings, most of the crew had long since
retired for the night when the attack occurred at 0115
on Nov. 24. A water mine exploded, creating a gaping
18-by-17-by-9-foot hole in the ship’s hull below the
waterline on the starboard side. The blast penetrated parts
of a fuel tank, the ship’s engineering space and a berthing
area for enlisted Sailors. Fire quickly gutted the engineering and nearby shop spaces. Water began pouring into
the ruptured hull and the barge began sinking, eventually
settling 9 feet into the river until it became buoyant.
The blast caused an air-conditioning duct to break
loose and block a ladder leading out of the River Section
522 enlisted berthing area. One Sailor became trapped
under the duct and died. Others drowned because
they could not get around the obstruction before water
flooded the compartment.
Another Sailor who died was Electronic Technician
(Communications) 3rd Class Robert Lyndon Gray from
the ship’s company. When the general quarters sounded,
Gray immediately went to his battle station on the crow’s
nests — a lookout 40 to 50 feet above the waterline atop
the main mast. Smoke from the burning diesel tanks
soon enveloped the tower. As the mast began to heat
up from the burning diesel, he tried to climb down the
ladder but hot metal soon burned through his hands,
forcing him to jump. Gray was transported to a burn
unit in Tokyo, where he later succumbed to his wounds.
The men most responsible for preventing the barge
from sinking were Boatswain’s Mate Chief Michael P.
Quigley and Lt. Jim Dykes, the commander of River
Section 522. Quigley rallied the crew and fought the
fires until flames forced him to abandon ship. His calm
presence in the chaotic environment inspired many to
try to save the barge. Dykes ordered several of his PBRs
to begin pumping foam into the fire, using portable fire
pumps. He sent others to Ben Tre to fetch more foam
Many others also were involved. The Army had firefighting supplies rapidly airlifted to Ben Tre. The tank
landing ship USS Hunterdon County, which had been
operating 30 miles away at the mouth of Ham Luong,
arrived at the scene at 0330 and began assisting with
the firefighting efforts.
Damage control parties finally extinguished the fires
and brought flooding under control by 1600 on Nov.
24. YRBM 16 was later towed to Japan for repairs. In
all, the blast killed seven Sailors and wounded 14.
Despite the tremendous damage, the Sasebo repair
yard overhauled the ship in less than eight months and,
by August 1968, YRBM 16 was back in action in Vietnam.
The ship proudly served as a U.S. Navy brown-water
support vessel from September 1968 until September
1971, when it was turned over to the Vietnam Navy and
renamed HQ-9612. n
Dr. John Darrell Sherwood is a historian at the Naval History &
Heritage Command. His newest book, “War in the Shallows: U.S.
Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968,”
can be downloaded here: go.usa.gov/cnK8w
Don’t Give Up the Barge:
The YRBM 16 Mining
By JOHN DARRELL SHERWOOD
WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG 44 SEAPOWER / JUNE 2016