The Long Blue Line: Eddie Hernandez and small boat operations in Vietnam

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by Dr. William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

Profile view of Point Cypress showing 50-caliber machine guns mounted on the fantail and amidships with 81mm mortar/50-caliber combination mounted on the bow. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

Profile view of Point Cypress showing 50-caliber machine guns mounted on the fantail and amidships with 81mm mortar/50-caliber combination mounted on the bow. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

Fast Response Cutter namesake Heriberto Segovia Hernandez volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1968. Known as “Eddie” by his friends and shipmates, Hernandez was assigned to the 82-foot Coast Guard patrol boat Point Cypress, which served along the Cau Mau Peninsula on the southern-most tip of South Vietnam.

Point Cypress deployed regularly to interdict arms smuggling, support troop movements, provide fire support against enemy positions and gather intelligence. To gather intelligence, Point Cypress sent its smallboat, a 14-foot fiberglass Boston Whaler outboard motorboat, on reconnaissance missions up Vietnam’s shallow inland waterways.

Hernandez served regularly on these hazardous missions and, when in port, he visited other patrol boats to get advice and discuss best practices with more experienced smallboat patrol veterans. During smallboat operations, he rode point in the bow of the Whaler holding the M60 machine gun with bandoliers of extra M60 rounds draped over his chest.

A well-worn flak vest and World War II-vintage battle helmet provided his only protection from automatic weapons fire or rocket propelled grenades.

Hernandez with shipmate Petty Officer 2nd Class Alan Dillenbeck, the WPB’s Vietnamese translator and another shipmate standing on the fantail behind the 13-foot smallboat. Photo courtesy of Alan Dillenbeck.

Hernandez with shipmate Petty Officer 2nd Class Alan Dillenbeck, the WPB’s Vietnamese translator and another shipmate standing on the fantail behind the 13-foot smallboat. Photo courtesy of Alan Dillenbeck.

On Oct. 5, 1968, Hernandez participated in a reconnaissance mission on the Ca Mau Peninsula in which his force came under heavy enemy fire, but Point Cypress and another patrol boat managed to destroy enemy river barriers, fortified structures, bunkers and armed sampans before withdrawing.

A few weeks later on Nov. 9, he deployed in the smallboat on a gunfire damage assessment mission near Hon Da Bac Island, on the west side of the Ca Mau Peninsula, to assess a fire support mission just completed by a U.S. patrol vessel. During this mission, Hernandez’s smallboat located and destroyed four enemy sampans.

After the Navy launched Operation SEALORDS (Southeast Asia, Ocean, River and Delta Strategy) in late 1968, Hernandez frequently volunteered for reconnaissance missions into rivers and canals in enemy territory—many of them never before penetrated by friendly forces.

These missions helped to determine whether the waterways could be navigated by U.S. patrol craft, such as Coast Guard patrol boats, or the Navy’s newly introduced shallow-draft swift boats and river patrol boats.

In the first few days of December 1968, Point Cypress conducted daily smallboat operations and gunfire support missions, destroying three enemy bunkers and damaging three more.

On Dec. 4, the cutter rendezvoused with a Royal Thai Navy gunboat to embark Commander Charles Blaha, deputy commander for Coast Guard operations in Vietnam. Blaha visited the patrol boat to familiarize himself with Division Eleven cutter operations and evaluate the effectiveness of Salem Ops smallboat missions. Blaha and Point Cypress Commanding Officer Lt. j.g. Jonathan Collom planned to deploy Blaha and the Whaler the next day to determine the depth of the Rach Nang River for Navy Swift Boat operations, and to see whether the Rach Tac Buo River intersected the Rach Nang somewhere upstream.

A smallboat mission with four crew, including Hernandez in the bow. Weapons included smallarms and M16s with only battle helmets and flak vests providing crew protection. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

A smallboat mission with four crew, including Hernandez in the bow. Weapons included smallarms and M16s with only battle helmets and flak vests providing crew protection. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

Point Cypress’s executive officer, Lt. j.g. Gordon Gillies, would serve as coxswain and Hernandez volunteered to ride point in the bow.

According to after-action reports, Hernandez embarked the Whaler with the two officers the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1968. Hernandez brought the M60, while the others brought M16s and an M79 grenade launcher with spare rounds. The smallboat proceeded first to the mouth of the Rach Nang River, then over to the mouth of the nearby Rach Tac Buo. The smallboat probed the shores of the Rach Tac Buo for a connecting tributary with the Rach Nang.

The brief survey up the Rach Tac Buo indicated that there was no navigable connection with the Rach Nang, so Gillies steered the Whaler back to the mouth of the Rach Nang. The smallboat crew then radioed Point Cypress for further instructions. They received orders to proceed cautiously up the Rach Nang to find the location of village huts, bunkers and fortified positions for future fire support missions. In addition, the smallboat received orders to destroy the nearest hooches using the M79 grenade launcher and highly flammable night illumination rounds. The smallboat proceeded with the mission and closed to within thirty yards of the structures on shore.

A smallboat mission showing dense cover provided by foliage along Vietnam’s inland waterways. Hernandez is seated in the boat on the left. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

A smallboat mission showing dense cover provided by foliage along Vietnam’s inland waterways. Hernandez is seated in the boat on the left. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

As the smallboat approached the huts, the crew noticed an armed Viet Cong guerilla entering a shoreside bunker. Blaha fired a volley at the fortification with his M16 and the Viet Cong returned fire. As soon as he heard the gunfire, Gillies gunned the engine and the Whaler motored away from shore, but it was too late to dodge the hostile fire. With only their flak vests to protect them against the enemy rounds, each man suffered severe bullet wounds. Hernandez was hit near the chest and slumped into the bow of the Whaler while the officers received gunshot wounds to the head, back, shoulders, arms and legs.

Blaha radioed Point Cypress that they had been shot-up and were motoring toward the mouth of the Rach Nang. As they proceeded toward the river’s mouth, the Whaler received more incoming fire from shore. Blaha did his best to suppress it with bursts from his M16, but the enemy fire held no tracer rounds, so he failed to pinpoint the enemy positions within the foliage on shore. As they approached the rendezvous point with Point Cypress, Blaha and Gillies grew faint from blood loss and Hernandez remained slumped in the bow, alive but in pain from his wounds.

After Point Cypress had received the message from Blaha, Collom had sounded general quarters and sped the patrol boat toward a rendezvous point at the mouth of the river. Once on scene, the 82-footer embarked the smallboat and wounded men. Next, Collom radioed a request for a medevac from the Navy’s floating support base on board the anchored landing ship, USS Washoe County. During the half-hour transit to the landing ship, Point Cypress’s crew did their best to stabilize the wounded in preparation for the helicopter medevac from the Washoe County to a local field hospital.

When Hernandez was brought on board Point Cypress, he was still conscious, but the bullet that struck him passed through his upper torso causing heavy internal bleeding. His wounds proved too grave to treat with the limited medical supplies on board Point Cypress and he passed away just as the patrol boat approached the Washoe County to take on mooring lines.

Hernandez’s body was flown back to Travis Air Force Base and then returned with a Coast Guard escort to his family in San Antonio.

On Dec. 14, 1968, he was interred at San Fernando Cemetery with full military honors.

Hernandez posthumously received the Purple Heart Medal and Bronze Star Medal with a “V” device for valor. His Bronze Star citation read,

“Fireman Hernandez’s professional skill, courage under enemy fire, and devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

In October 2015, the Coast Guard commissioned Fast Response Cutter Heriberto Hernandez in his honor. He was a member of the long blue line and the first Hispanic-American cutter namesake recognized for Coast Guard combat service.

Eddie Hernandez practice firing the M60 machine gun from a standing position on the deck of Point Cypress. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

Eddie Hernandez practice firing the M60 machine gun from a standing position on the deck of Point Cypress. Photo courtesy of Gordon M. Gillies.

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