USCGC Heriberto Hernandez, Named For A Coastguard Hero Who Was Killed In Vietnam

The 14th fast response cutter, Heriberto Hernandez, undergoes acceptance trials in the Gulf of Mexico.
The 14th fast response cutter, Heriberto Hernandez, undergoes acceptance trials in the Gulf of Mexico.

On October 16, 2015, the United States Coast Guard gained a new Cutter. The 154 foot Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter was named after a Coast Guard hero, Heriberto “Eddie” Hernandez, who gave his life for his nation during the Vietnam War.

Hernandez was born in San Antonio Texas. He attended John F. Kennedy High School but left at the end of his second year so he could join the Coast Guard. Enlisting in 1965, he signed a 4-year contract, just as the Vietnam War was escalating. Growing up, and in the Coast Guard, he enjoyed boxing and was well known for being both cheerful and strong.

The United States Coast Guard were involved in Vietnam from 1965 following a North Vietnamese trawler explosion in Vung Ro Bay. The US Navy had been having difficulty with patrolling the coastal waterways, islands, and swamps of the country. This was something the USCG was prepared for, with its extensive history of small boat operations. 

After Vung Ro, Operation Market Time came into effect, which used USCG personnel and vessels to patrol as much of the South Vietnamese waters as possible. Coast Guard vessels probed into every nook and cranny, trying to root out the Viet Cong insurgents, who used the waterways to transport equipment and troops. 

It was dirty, hard, and dangerous work. The 8,000 men who carried it out have often been overlooked in history.

The commissioning of USCG Squadron 1, in 1965. In all 8000 US Coast Guardsmen would serve in Vietnam, the majority in Squadron 1.
The commissioning of USCG Squadron 1, in 1965. In all 8000 US Coast Guardsmen would serve in Vietnam, the majority in Squadron 1

Hernandez joined this select group of Coasties in 1968, coming aboard the 82-foot cutter Point Cypress in the spring. The Cypress was patrolling off the coast of the southernmost Peninsula of Vietnam, Ca Mau. 

The area was a Viet Cong hotbed, and the Point Cypress was kept busy, reconnoitering up the rivers and channels of the Peninsula. The cutter would moor somewhere along the river, then send out a patrol in her 13 foot Boston Whaler small boat. The fiberglass outboard craft was fast but lacked protection. The crew sat completely exposed, and going out on patrol was always risky. Despite the risk, the coast guardsmen would perform these patrols often.

The operating theater for Operation SEALORDs, which used CG and Navy vessels to hunt down the Viet Cong on many of the small waterways of South Vietnam.
The area for Operation SEALORDS, which used CG and Navy vessels to hunt down the Viet Cong on many of the small waterways of South Vietnam

In October and November 1968, the Point Cypress performed numerous reconnaissance missions which quickly became combat patrols. They intercepted enemy sampans, destroyed Viet Cong bunkers, and assisted in mapping the various rivers in the region. Their work helped prove the theory that smaller patrol craft could effectively project American firepower deep into the jungle waterways. 

The Navy’s SEALORDS program followed, which used Patrol Boat Rivers (PBRs) and Swift Boats to prevent Vietcong action in the area. As part of SEALORDS coast guard personnel performed ever increasing patrols in their Boston Whalers and small boats. Eddie Hernandez, now a fireman, often volunteered for these missions. He had a cheerful demeanor and loved to be in the thick of the action.

USCGC Point Kennedy in her Vietnam colors. She was Point Cypress's sister ships, and served alongside her in Squadron 1.
USCGC Point Kennedy in her Vietnam colors. She was the sister ship to Point Cypress and served alongside her in Squadron 1

On December 5, 1968, Eddie volunteered for his last mission. The day before, Point Cypress had rendezvoused with a vessel from the Royal Thai Navy and USCG Commander Charles Blaha came on board. 

Blaha was the Deputy Commander for USCG operations in Vietnam and wanted to familiarize himself with the cutters, and their activities in the area. Blaha, and the skipper of Point Cypress, Lieutenant Junior Grade Jonathan Collom, devised a plan to determine the depth of the Rac Tac Buo River where it connected with the Rach Nang.

Eddie volunteered to ride point, his usual position and sat at the bow of the Whaler with his trusted M60 machine gun. Commander Blaha and Lieutenant Junior Grade Gordon Gillies (the cutter’s executive officer) were also on board, armed with M16 rifles, and one M79 grenade launcher. The three men moved out at 14:30, proceeding cautiously up the river, Eddie constantly scanning the forest line for movement.

After a brief survey, they determined the Rac Tac Buo did not connect with the Rach Nang, and the crew radioed back to the Point Cypress asking for further instructions. They were told to inspect some of the grass huts and fortified positions on the Rach Nang to determine new targets for Navy fire missions.

Their small boat sped up the  Rach Nang, each man inspecting every piece of the vegetation as they sped past. There were usually few signs to give away an enemy ambush. The men scanned everything from floating debris to anything bent or lashed together at 90 degrees. The crew saw a few small grass huts up ahead, and the three men tensed, preparing for the worst.

Suddenly a man appeared, running from one of the huts to a riverside bunker, disappearing into it. Commander Blaha took aim with his M16, and let off a short burst of fire but the rounds impacted off the surface. Flames burst from the bunker’s opening; the Viet Cong fighter had returned fire which came directly towards the small boat. The first round struck fireman Hernandez just outside of his flak jacket. He collapsed while Gillies spun the little craft around, trying to get out of the line of fire.

Round after round poured into the boat, hitting Blaha and Gillies whose right arm was severely injured, rendering it useless.  After alerting the cutter to the situation, Blaha continued to pour rounds towards the bunker, but to no avail. The lone Viet Cong gunman kept up his fire.

As the small boat was approaching the rendezvous point with the Point Cypress, Blaha and Gillies were growing faint, having lost significant amounts of blood. Hernandez was still at the bow, groaning from pain, but still clinging to consciousness. In the bottom of the boat, blood was mixing with the brown water which poured in from the many bullet holes in the hull.

The men made it back to their cutter and were immediately given medical attention. They had to stay alive until they reached the LST USS Washoe County, 30 minutes away, to be medevacked to land. While Gillies and Blaha survived, though just barely, Hernandez died of excessive internal bleeding from his wounds, not making it to the LST.

Heriberto “Eddie” Hernandez died on December 5, 1968. For his actions during the Vietnam War, from numerous patrols into the Ca Mau, to search and destroy sorties, and the unfortunate patrol which took his life, he was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat V, as well as the Purple Heart. He was the first Hispanic Coastguardsman to be awarded those medals for combat action.

Gabe Christy

Gabe Christy is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE