On 15 September 1967, River assault boats of the Mobile Riverine Force (TF-117) fought one of their bloodiest engagements of the year against entrenched Viet Cong (VC) forces along the Rach Ba Rai Creek in the Dinh Tuong Province, Vietnam. On this day, a naval convoy transporting elements of the 9th U.S. Army Division was ambushed from both sides of the stream by Viet Cong in fortified bunkers. As recoilless rifle rounds and rockets slammed into minesweepers, monitors, and Armored Troop Carriers (ATC’s), Lieutenant Commander Francis E. “Dusty” Rhodes, the commander of the convoy’s 23 assault craft, issued a terse order by radio: “Fire all weapons.” Dozens of Navy guns responded, some at point blank range.
As the line of boats moved deeper into the ambush, the intensity of the fight grew. Some boats slowed while others sped up, but all poured fire from every operable gun. As fast as they could, the gunners fired, reloaded, and fired again. With only sporadic breaks, the battle continued. Round after round struck both troop carriers and monitors. Three minutes after the fight started monitor 111-2 took two rocket propelled grenade rounds. The boat captain managed to beach the monitor while crewmen worked frantically to repair the damage. The job done quickly, the 111-2 lunged again into midstream.
Around this same time, the command and communications boat took two anti-tank rockets on the port 40-mm. gun mount. The rounds caused no major damage, but a few minutes later, the command boat took another hit. This round knocked Commander Rhodes unconscious, but a few seconds later he was back on his feet, ordering his units to regroup and return downstream out of the enemy’s fortified area. After evacuating casualties and reassigning personnel so that all boats were manned, Lieutenant Commander Rhodes again took his task group up the river and was subjected once more to heavy enemy fire. Hard hit for a second time by a large number of casualties, he nevertheless successfully landed embarked army units ashore in the assigned objective area, and set up a naval blockade of the river. When the battle finally ended the next day, U.S. Army troops tallied 213 Viet Cong killed in action, 600 bunkers destroyed, and a large quantity munitions captured. Total U.S. losses stood at 7 killed and 123 wounded, and Navy losses included three dead and 66 wounded—the largest number of combat casualties suffered by the Navy to date in the Vietnam War. For his leadership that day, Rhodes received the Navy Cross.