This is the last post in the Compass series that chronicled the first 14 heroes the Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters have been named for. These men and women, who stood the watch before us, lived extraordinary lives as they lit the way for sailors in times past, braved gunfire in times of war and rescued those in peril at sea. As Coast Guard heroes, their stories are a constant reminder of our service’s legacy. As the namesake of the Coast Guard’s newest patrol boats, they will inspire the next generation of Coast Guard heroes.
With contributions from LTJG Ryan White
The Vietnam War saw Coast Guardsmen performing brave actions during wartime operations as they risked everything they had, day after day, to serve the United States of America. Nowhere is this sacrifice more evident than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. There, on panel 37W – line 46, you will find the name of Heriberto Hernandez, a Fireman aboard Coast Guard Cutter Point Cypress who made the ultimate sacrifice as he braved enemy gunfire in South Vietnam.
In the spring of 1968, just three years after enlisting in the Coast Guard, Hernandez, a native of San Antonio, Texas, deployed for duty in Vietnam. Known by his shipmates as “Eddie,” he served on board the 82-foot Coast Guard Cutter Point Cypress, which along with 16 other patrol boats made up the Coast Guard component of Operation Market Time. As part of Operation Market Time, Hernandez, with 285 Coast Guardsmen, patrolled 1,500 miles of the Vietnamese coastline.
It was December 5, 1968, when Hernandez departed the Point Cypress to participate in routine small boat operations along the unsafe Ca Mau Peninsula, located on the southern-most tip of South Vietnam.
Hernandez joined the cutter’s executive officer and a visiting Coast Guard officer in a patrol up the Rach Nang River. The men were carrying out a reconnaissance mission up the river to locate any Viet Cong presence along the waterway.
As they motored along the river in their fourteen foot Boston Whaler, they identified a shoreside bunker manned by Viet Cong. The small fiberglass outboard powered boat offered no protection when they came under intense automatic weapons fire from the Viet Cong manned bunker.
The Viet Cong continued to fire on Hernandez and his crew with automatic weapons, piercing the boat’s structure. Eventually, the small boat was able to evade the ambush, but not before Hernandez and the other two crewmembers were severely wounded.
Hernandez was taken back to the Point Cypress, but his wounds were too extensive and he died surrounded by his shipmates. For his bravery as he faced the enemy, Hernandez was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat “V” device.
A special place in the Coast Guard’s history
The coastline of Vietnam proved a challenge for Naval Forces Vietnam due its unique inland and coastal waters. Soon after the start of the war, Coast Guard units were recognized as the ideal platform with the necessary expertise of small boat operations, and the Secretary of the Navy requested use of the Coast Guard’s 82-foot patrol boats. Together, with other Naval vessels, the patrol boats formed Coast Guard Squadron One and began their work in Vietnam July 30, 1965.
Alan Dillenbeck served with Hernandez aboard the Point Cypress from 1967 to 1968. Dillenbeck’s tour in Vietnam ended a few weeks before Hernandez was killed, however, he remembers Hernandez for the kind of man he always was:
“Eddie’s and my deployment overlapped by just a few months, however, working with him made a huge impact on my life,” said Dillenbeck. “He had a formidable presence. There was no one who I would have felt more comfortable with watching my back. Eddie was perhaps the toughest and most fearless person I’ve ever met.”