War Stories: Shoreline Pastor recalls Coast Guard battle in Vietnam

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Chaplain Larry Fischer presents a Certificate of Appreciation
to Pastor Stephen Ulmer
Photo by Jerry Pickard
By Jerry Pickard

On Tuesday May 2, 2017 American Legion Post 227 was honored to hear Pastor Stephen Ulmer relate his experiences as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Vietnam.

Steve grew up in Miami, Florida. As a kid he watched the TV show "Victory At Sea", a series about the U.S. Navy's battles in WWII.

He decided to serve his country on a ship at sea.

When he was of age, he applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was not accepted. However, he applied to and was offered a full scholarship to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, graduating with honors in 1963 with the rank of Ensign.

Shipspotting.com  © Dennis R. Szeba
His first assignment was aboard the High Endurance Cutter Ingham (WHEC-35). There he qualified as a Deck Officer and also served as the gunnery officer and later as the communications officer.

Point Gammon
Photo from Stephen Ulmer
In 1965 he was deployed to Vietnam as the Executive Officer on Point Gammon (WPB-82328), a Coast Guard Division 12 boat based in Danang. He spent eight months aboard Point Gammon and then four months as the Operations Officer with Division 12.

In 1966 he volunteered to extend his deployment to become an officer in charge of his own WPB; and in June he took command of Point League (WPB-82304) operating out of Cat Lo (Vung Tau), patrolling the coast and rivers in that area around the Delta region.

Point League had been in Vietnam for four months without seeing much action. That changed when Lieutenant Ulmer took command.

On June 20th at 2:45am a North Vietnamese Trawler was picked up on ship’s radar. It was traveling at 10 knots and headed for the mouth of the Co Chien river.

Lt. Steve Ulmer 1966
Lt. Ulmer notified the Vung Tau Coastal Surveillance Center of the contact, and closed on the ship. When they got in visual range Lt. Ulmer challenged the ship with his signal light. He made four attempts but was ignored by the ship.

He closed to 600 yards and illuminated the ship with his roof mounted search light, revealing a 99 foot steel hulled trawler, momentarily stopped, with a 40 foot junk alongside. The junk was probably delivering a river pilot to steer clear of the shoals at the river’s mouth.

Lt. Ulmer ordered Gunner’s Mate 2nd class A.J. Wright to fire warning shots across the bow of the trawler with their .50 caliber machine gun.

The trawler picked up speed and headed for the mouth of the Co Chien river. Gunner’s Mate Wright fired two more bursts across the bow of the trawler. The trawler then fired on Point League with 12.7mm armor piercing, incendiary rounds.

They were firing at the search light two feet above Lt. Ulmer's head. Some of the rounds were hitting the wheelhouse. Executive Officer Ens. Neil Markle was hit in the head with shrapnel knocking him down. Gunner's Mate Wright was hit in his ankle.

Lt. JG Ulmer and Ensign Tung Tran, the Vietnamese
liaison officer, in the Point League wheelhouse 1966
Lt. Ulmer was temporarily blinded by flashes of rounds from incendiary bullets hitting Point League in the pilot house.

He handed his radio mic to his Vietnamese Liaison Officer, Ensign Tung Tran.

He told Ensign Tung to tell Coastal Surveillance that they were engaged in a firefight and would report details after things calmed down.

When Coastal Surveillance attempted to get more information, Ensign Tung replied (while they were engaging the trawler), "Sorry, we are very busy. We will call back later."

Tung, who is all of five foot two inches tall, was unable to reach the mic bracket near the ceiling, so he placed the mic upside down in an empty coffee cup on the console of the pilot house. This depressed the transmit button on the mic, giving everyone on that frequency a blow by blow account of the firefight for the next forty-five minutes.

The trawler and Point League exchanged fire as the trawler ran for the river entrance. But the trawler was forced aground 100 yards from shore, unable to get into the river. Point League fired illumination rounds and then made three gunnery passes firing .50 caliber and high explosive mortar rounds. The firefight continued in the dark until helicopter gunships and other support elements arrived.

At daylight, when Lt. Ulmer decided to move Point League in closer to check the trawler's condition, they came under heavy fire from the shore.

"They were firing from behind every sand dune," reported Lt. Ulmer, who had his gunners return fire until their guns were silenced and Point League was out of their range.

A pair of F-100 Super Sabre jets arrived and soon cleared the beach with each plane's eight 20 mm cannons. The trawler was hit several times; and an explosion followed by several fires started around 6:15am. It took until 1:15pm to bring the fires under control with the help of several other naval units.

The grounded trawler is burning, and the Point League is about to move in
to put it out. 

ARVN troops moved in on shore, and several ships attempted to pull the trawler off the sand unsuccessfully with a retreating tide. A small fleet of Vietnamese and U.S. Navy ships stayed on station overnight protecting the trawler and its contents. The sea was lit up with ships’ lights.

The next day a VNN ship finally pulled the trawler off the sandbar and towed it to Saigon. Salvage teams recovered over a hundred tons of arms and ammunition from the trawler, all destined for the enemy.

When Lt. Ulmer returned to the support ship, USS Tortuga, he off-loaded his two wounded crewmen and then was rewarded with ice cream for himself and the rest of his crew. Lt. Ulmer finally had time to write his after-action report at 2am on the 21st of June. The next thing he remembered was being evacuated to Vung Tau. He had passed out from exhaustion. After being checked out and after rest he was returned to duty.

The Coast Guard later awarded him a Silver Star Medal for the trawler intercept, and Vietnamese Head of State, Nguyen Van Thieu, personally conferred him the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.  This was only one of two arms-carrying vessels that were captured intact during the entire war.

Tung and Ulmer reunite after 50 years
Photo by Jerry Pickard
After his tour of Duty in Vietnam was complete, Lt. Ulmer became the commanding officer of Coast Guard Base, Mayport, Florida.

Within a year he resigned his commission and attended Dallas Theological Seminary.

Upon graduation he became a Baptist Minister for the rest of his career. He was the pastor of Richmond Highlands Baptist Church in Shoreline for 25 years.

Tran Thanh Tung, his liaison officer, escaped Vietnam with many others in 1975, and landed in Washington state, settling in North Seattle.

The two men reconnected last year after a 50-year separation and discovered that they had been living 30 minutes apart all those years.

Updated 5/21/17 Replace photo of the Point Gammon


Charles “Leonard” Wolff, jr,  November 16, 2023 at 4:46 AM  

Steve was one of my best friends in Highschool. He was one of the most dedicated and upstanding students in my entire class. We were both on the gymnastics team and Steve excelled on the rope climb event and was one of the best in the nation.
He was kind enough to be my chemistry lab partner where he covered for my deficiencies!
In 1967 I met him at Miami Dade CC for 1/2 hour at the refreshment area and discussed that we were were both changing the directions of our lives. Steve had decided to become a minister due his incredible Viet Nam battle experience. I was finally going to study enough to get through engineering. After that brief meeting we did not talk or communicate for over 50 years, when I got a phone call from him. He asked me if I remember the last time we talked and I repeated the exact words we had exchanged. He verified what he had told me and then repeated the exact words I had told him! This had to be our destiny, as how many people would have a brief meeting and over 50 years later both remember that brief meeting and the exact verbal exchange? Within a year Steve, his wife, me and my wife would meet in Washing State at a roadside restaurant when I drove several hours west and Steve drove several hours east! We talked, rehashed old stories and reestablished our longtime friendship. Steve is certainly one of the most special people Ihave ever met in my life!

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