Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, you may have heard, commanded a Swift boat during the war in Vietnam. Over the past few weeks, veterans and pundits have argued about what actually happened on Kerry’s Swift boat, but a few Slate readers wrote in wanting some background on the boat itself. What, exactly, is a “Swift boat”?
The proper name for a Swift boat is a PCF, which stands for Patrol Craft Fast. That’s where the swift part comes in. (Some online histories of the Swift boat say the word “swift” is an acronym for “shallow water inshore fast tactical.” However, the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., could not find any record of that derivation.)
In the mid-’60s, the U.S. Navy in Southeast Asia found itself confronted with a problem. The North Vietnamese were ferrying supplies into South Vietnam on small craft that traveled along the coastline. But the Navy didn’t have any small, well-armed, relatively fast boats that could patrol the coast and intercept suspicious vessels. So they turned to a company in Louisiana called Stewart Seacraft, which made aluminum-hulled boats used to take oil-company workers out to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a few months, the first Swift boats were ready. The 50-foot vessels now had .50-caliber machine guns, 81 mm mortars, and several other modifications. In all, just over a hundred PCFs went into service.
At first, the Swift boats were used only in coastal waters. But in 1968, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. launched what was known as Operation Sealords. It was designed to disrupt enemy supply lines inside the Mekong Delta region, and that meant sending boats up the river. Because Swift boats were relatively small, they and their commanders, including John Kerry, got the call.
Bonus Explainer: If you’re wondering whether the kind of boat that featured prominently in the movie Apocalypse Now was a Swift boat, the answer is no. That was a smaller craft known as a Patrol Boat River, or PBR.
Explainer thanks Jack Green of the Naval Historical Center.