Hydro Racing

Vietnam-era Navy river patrol boat available for tours during Water Follies

Loud and colorful hydroplanes will be on the Columbia River this weekend, but a less flashy boat also is expected to draw crowds in Columbia Park.

A 31-foot drab green and black Navy river patrol boat like those used in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam 40 years ago will be available for tours today through Sunday.

PBRs, which stands for "patrol boat riverine," were the Navy's answer for fighting an enemy in the battlefields of the jungle and delta. Lightweight, fast and powered by a pair of turbo-charged engines, the boats could reach more than 35 knots and literally turn 180 degrees within their own length.

Richland High Class of 1966 graduate Alan Stephens knows. He was an engine man on a PBR in the Mekong Delta for six months in 1969.

Stephens, who now lives in Kent, brought the PBR to Water Follies and will lead the tours. Visitors will be able to climb onto the boat, go inside the control house, walk to the stern and see below deck.

The boat in Columbia Park is fully operational and the only one still registered to the Navy, Stephens said. It is maintained by the organization Gamewardens of Vietnam, which keeps it at the Everett Naval Station, Stephens said.

Although the Navy's river patrol boats were built in Bellingham -- and based on the hull design of a pleasure cruiser -- PBRs had no room for comfort features. They were a spartan marriage of horsepower and firepower.

Each boat had a crew of four and carried a set of twin 50-caliber machine guns on the nose, another 50-caliber single on the rear, an M-60 machine gun amidships and a 40mm grenade launcher.

But for all the 9-ton boat's armament, it was a virtual sitting duck when not skimming across the water. Enemy bullets easily penetrated its half-inch fiberglass hull, so the best defense was to be on the offense, Stephens noted.

One of the boat's best features was its ability to maneuver easily in as little as 9 inches of water, thanks to the prop-less jet propulsion system that could carry the hull through shallow and weedy waterways.

PBRs like the one that will be on display at Water Follies this weekend constituted the Brown Water Navy, whose mission was to interrupt enemy supply lines on the rivers and to inspect any suspicious boats.

Night runs were common, and action with the enemy was frequent, Stephens said. PBR sailors called themselves river rats and wore black berets as part of their distinctive uniform.

Vietnam veteran Eric Brown of Richland was at Columbia Park on Thursday when Stephens and a driver pulled in with the PBR on its trailer.

"It's the greatest thing I've seen since 1970," said Brown, who was on the crew of an assault support patrol boat working with PBRs during the war.

Brown happened upon the boat just as Stephens was pulling into the park.

"It brings back lots of memories, both good and bad," Brown said.