Colleton County had a ‘floating hospital’ named after it during the Vietnam War
by The Press and Standard | May 31, 2018 5:00 pm
Last Updated: May 30, 2018 at 10:15 am
Billy Syfrett of Walterboro was doing a favor for a Texas man when he discovered something quite unexpected.
The man was searching for information on an ancestor who died during the Civil War. But he also mentioned that during the Vietnam War, he served on a ship named the USS Colleton. A history buff, Syfrett wondered if Colleton County had its own ship. So he began researching.
And found it was true. The USS Colleton was named for “a county in South Carolina,” according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The following is a synopsis of some of Syfrett’s research.
The Colleton’s keel was laid on June 9, 1945. She was launched on July 30 and completed in September 1945. But she was too late for World War II and was placed in mothballs and used as a barracks in Boston.
But then came the Vietnam War, and with her shallow draft and flat bottom, the Colleton was well-suited for the river environment. On March 8, 1967 she left Norfolk, Va., for Vung Tau, Vietnam, traveling through the Panama Canal to Hawaii before crossing the Pacific to join the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). After being painted olive drab, covering the bridge and operations areas with angle iron and steel bars, and installing eight .50 caliber and twelve 7.62mm machine guns, she was ready.
The Colleton served as an afloat medical facility with a sickbay of three separate areas on three levels of the ship, connected by ramps. Her flight deck on level one was large enough to allow landing of any type of helicopter, plus she had a winch which swung out over the side of the ship to hoist up casualties that arrived by boat. A triage area was immediately below the flight deck with six treatment areas and an x-ray machine, autoclave and blood bank.
The second level contained a two-table surgery, central material section, storage area, recovery area, ward, pharmacy and a one-chair dental clinic. When the patient load exceeded the 18 beds available in the primary ward area, additional bed space was obtained by using a portion of the petty officers’ quarters. The Colleton’s entire bed capacity was 900 beds.
Medical personnel served from unit, division and Army level medical services, plus the normal complement of the ship. During any period when casualties were being received, all medical personnel worked as one team with no distinction as to branch of service or unit.
The Colleton’s first trip into the Delta came on June 1, 1967 when she transported units 30 miles southwest of Saigon. A week later, she was moved 25 miles closer to Saigon and received her first casualties — 19 helicopters landed on her decks, each carrying an average of five casualties.
In December 1967, the area under her flight deck was gutted and converted into a triage area for the wounded. Two more operating rooms and recovery rooms were added, as well as ramps for transporting the wounded.
Life on the ship
Tom Hain wrote this account of his time aboard the USS Colleton for www.vietvet.org:
“I was assigned to both the USS Colleton and the USS Neuasas at times during my stay there. They were nice to come home to because they had hot showers and tile floors and they weren’t covered with dust like everything on shore was. They were never shot at and never mortared, and it was easy to feel safe, until one of the unconverted LSTs was damaged and a bunch of guys were killed by a command-detonated mine that swimmers attached to the hull. After that, the Navy tossed hand grenades over the side every so often to discourage swimmers. The explosion would ring through the ship like a bell and made sleeping a challenge.
“A large pontoon was tied up alongside each of the ships, and they moved with the ships when we moved anchorage. On the pontoon were the Army supply shacks and storage, and the staging point for the squadrons of converted landing craft and fast boats that would ply smaller waterways. They would tie up six or eight abreast and that would sometimes mean walking from one boat to the next to get to the last one in the line. The crews of the landing craft lived on the boats, and it seemed like jumping a bunch of fences into different back yards on a city street some place. The Army kept a couple of fiberglass fishing boats with big outboard motors tied up to the pontoon too. The Army designation for them was PAB or ‘Plastic Assault Boat’, a name designed to inspire confidence, no doubt.
“The ships would anchor at different places along the river. We would be near My Tho one day and near Dong Tam or Ben Tre the next. The Navy took us to where the war was. The plan worked very well, but it could only work in a war or place like Vietnam.”
Colleton’s success rate
The USS Colleton’s success rate, illustrated during the 1968 TET offensive, shows that in a 94-day period from Jan. 29, 1968 to May 1969, the Colleton handled a total of 890 casualties, not including regular daily sick calls. Of those, 690 were due to hostile action; 345 returned to duty after initial treatment, 134 were admitted to the ship’s ward for their entire course of treatment, and 411 were evacuated to a hospital after receiving emergency treatment.
The final trip home
The Colleton’s final voyage was in early summer of 1969. Right after leaving the Mekong River on her first day of the trip home, she caught fire in the main control area. Although preparations were made to abandon ship, the fire was eventually brought under control — but with the loss of one engine. Repairs were made in Japan, and the Colleton made it off the coast of Seattle, Wash., before the engine finally died for good, according to an account by David G. McCann, who was on the ship. Then the ship ran out of fuel.
“With wives and kids on board, TV cameras on the pier and the 9th Infantry band beginning to play, we came within a couple hundred yards of our mooring space at pier 91, main control called the bridge and said… ‘the engine is dead and it will never run again.’
“With our forward momentum carrying us toward the dock and the band, the captain ordered the ship’s horn to be blown. Someone pulled on the line sounding the horn, and when he let go, the horn continued to blow! Another order was given for someone to secure the horn which was done in short order, but seemed like hours.
“All the while, the ship was moving forward toward the pier. One more problem came to our attention — there was a Canadian ice-breaker berthed just aft of where the Colleton was supposed to berth. With only forward momentum, the XO or the captain took control of the wheel and glided us past the ice-breaker (within two feet of their port side) and into our final resting place!
“The band was playing on the pier, TV cameras were spinning, and the brass was standing there to greet the first outfit back from the MRF as part of the president’s winding down of the war. If they had only known what had happened on the bridge of the Colleton as she was trying to come alongside the pier. I’m sure from the pier it looked pretty ‘Navy’, but believe me, it was just MRF making it work — without the book.”
The Colleton met her end when she was sold for scrap for $172,226.62 on Aug. 1, 1974 to American Ship Dismantlers of Portland, Ore.
Stats from NavSource Online Amphibious Photo Archive
Benawah Class Self-Propelled Barracks Ship:
Authorized, 17 December 1943, as Barracks Ship (non-self propelled) APL-36
Reclassified Barracks Ship (self-propelled) APB-36, 8 August 1944
Laid down, 9 June 1945 at Boston Naval Shipyard, Boston MA.
Launched, 30 July 1945
Completed in September 1945 and placed in reserve
Commissioned USS Colleton (APB-36), 28 January 1967, at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, LCDR. F. R. Banbury, in command
During the Vietnam War USS Colleton participated in the following campaigns:
Vietnam War Campaigns
Vietnamese Counteroffensive – Phase II
30 April to 31 May 1967
Vietnamese Counteroffensive – Phase V
1 July to 5 October 1968
Vietnamese Counteroffensive – Phase III
1 June to 19 December 1967
18 to 29 January 1968
Vietnamese Counteroffensive – Phase VI
19 December 1968 to 22 February 1969
30 January to 21 February 1968
1 to 21 March 1968
28 March to 1 April 1968
23 February to 8 June 1969
Vietnamese Counteroffensive – Phase IV
2 April 68 to 30 June 68
Vietnam Summer-Fall 1969
9 to 22 June 1969
Decommissioned, 15 December 1969
Struck from the Naval Register, 6 January 1973
Final Disposition, sold for scrapping, 6 January 1973, for $172.226.62, to American Ship Dismantler’s Inc., Portland Ore.
Displacement 4,000 t.
Draft 11’ 2”
Speed 12 kts.
Two quad 40mm AA gun mounts
Twenty .50 and .30 cal machine guns
Diesel 2,975 Bbls
Two General Motors 12-567A diesel engines
Double Falk Main Reduction Gears
Five Diesel-drive 100Kw 120V/240V Ship’s Service Generators
Two propellers, 1,600 shp