When Don Fentzlaff joined the Coast Guard in 1962, he hoped to serve our country, but he never imagined to be working alongside prisoners of war in Vietnam to carry out a highly classified mission.
At first, Don worked on a weather ship, going out to sea for forty-five days at a time. On one of the voyages the ship got caught in a perfect storm while at sea.
“At 2:00 AM the ship broached sideways to the waves,” he said. “At 48 ¾ degrees, our ship would flip over. Our ship reached 48 ¼ degrees, before finally righting itself.”
Sometimes they would arrive back at port on what looked like a ghost ship after the wind and waves tore the radio antennas and paint off the ship.
After two years of working in New York City as a CG radio operator, Don heard Washington DC Coast Guard Headquarters was looking for six enlisted volunteers to assist 18 officers. It wasn’t disclosed what they would be doing, but he decided to put in for the position.
He met other volunteers on the train ride down to Washington. After they got to headquarters, the men were checked for top secret clearance until they were narrowed down to six men – including Don.
Once the six men were selected, more details of the operation were disclosed. They would be doing land surveys for a highly classified new technology to help in the war effort. They went through Secret Service training in defensive tactics and weapons handling.
They were told that they were now acting as civilians and not as Coast Guard members. They were given $500 each with orders to get civilian clothes before flying out to an unknown destination.
Within days the team was flying to Thailand.
The surveys were in support of Operation Tight Reign – an operation to set up a newly developed top-secret type of Long-Range Navigation (LORAN) station, Advanced LORAN D.
The land surveys were the preparations necessary to build the 650’ radio towers and stations in Southeast Asia used to transmit the LORAN signals. This new LORAN was crucial to the Vietnam War effort and was used by all five branches of service. With this navigation, pilots could enter the coordinates into the system while flying and be flown to the destination automatically.
“The plane would fly you there – just like a GPS . . .,” Don said. “It had an accuracy of ten feet, when 1500 miles from the transmitting tower. It was really top secret stuff.”
This LORAN was used to find downed pilots, high altitude bombing, low level fighter aircraft support, and more.
The team of 24 would be surveying land for stations in both Thailand and Vietnam. They cleared out tapioca fields, iron wood forests and impenetrable jungle to do the surveys.
In some locations, their living quarters had no windows or roof, and their meals included military rations from 1949. Cockroaches and rats infested their building at night, and the men would bet on whether the cockroaches or rats would win nightly fights.
“We worked with local people wherever we went,” he said.
When surveying for one of the towers off the coast of South Vietnam, the team had the help of prisoners of war from the Con Son Island prison.
“The prisoner work was beautiful,” he said. “We treated them no differently than any of the other workers.”
The team spent over a month working with the prisoners who were initially cautious around them. After a couple of weeks, they realized the Americans weren’t going to cut off their heads like propaganda had taught them. In fact, the prisoners grew to respect their new bosses.
“They treated us royally,” Don said. “They gave the best coconuts to us first and when we were done they gave us a feast fit for a king. . . A bond was formed with these prisoners. It was amazing!”
Now Don is sharing his story with everyone in his new book And You Thought the Coast Guard Doesn’t Go To War.
He didn’t think of writing the book until after his son-in-law, Colin, asked about what Don did in Vietnam. After researching Operation Tight Reign on the internet, he found an article with Don Fentzlaff’s name. “’That’s you!’ he said. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”
Don contacted the historian from the website. They had been searching for one of the original 24 men for years, trying to learn their story and the details of the first stages of the classified operation that had been declassified just several years prior.
Don was encouraged to write about the events that took place in Southeast Asia. He sent several chapters to the historian, which were published on the official USCG History site, and was encouraged to complete the work.
“The Coast Guard is the most active military service in the United States,” he said. “You just can’t imagine the different kinds of jobs that the Coast Guard does, with so few people.”
Don recently had the honor of presenting a graduation certificate to a friend’s son who entered the Coast Guard.
“It’s a tough service, but a prouder bunch of guys you’ll never find,” he said. “It’s a real brotherhood.”