Combat Action in 1972

We left Subic Bay, PI and crossed the South China Sea to arrive in the Gulf of Tonkin on Yankee Station March 1, 1972.  For the next 2 weeks we were on plane guard duty for the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) as part of Task Force 77.  We then went back to Subic Bay for maintenance as well as a change of command ceremony for our Commanding Officer.  March 21st we were on our way back to Yankee Station with the USS Coral Sea.  April 2nd and 3rd we were relieved of planeguard duty to go on an anti-submarine exercise with a sub and a couple other surface vessels.  April 4th-7th saw us back to chasing the USS Coral Sea during flight ops.  We then spent from the 8th-20th of April offshore of Military Region One on Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS) missions.  At this time we were in support of the troops of the ill-prepared 3rd Division of the ARVN.  We were firing in at targets that were radioed to us by a forward observer or spotter.  These targets consisted of troop concentrations, artillery sites and some road segments.  The Vietnamization or demilitarization plan was happening by this time so these attacks were in direct support of South Viet Nam’s Army since US troops had been significantly pulled out.  At this time there are about 130,000 Americans still here.

A "contract" spotter

Our shot caller.

During one of our periods on the gunline we had a contractor spotter flying a small high-wing plane calling in targets for us.  That day after we secured from GQ, I went up on deck and got a photo of him as he flew out to sea to give us a wave (photo at left).  I recently heard from a Gunners Mate who was part of our crew that the tactic we sometimes used was to play “chicken” with the shore artillery.  We would go in and “shove a stick in the hornets nest” and draw enemy fire towards us.  The captain would allow this to go on for several minutes before we would come to starboard and haul ass out of there, zig-zagging toward open sea.  This was diversionary in that it allowed larger gun platforms, such as the USS Newport News (CA-148) to freely pound targets with their 8 inch guns, without excessive maneuvering.  I think the USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) was also firing from a few miles out.  The weather in early April was overcast during the tail end of the monsoons, which kept a lot of the bombing action slowed down.  NVN ground troops were taking advantage of this cover and that’s what was keeping us busy.  I recall it was early April when we had a problem with a boiler and the 5” gun so we went down south to Da Nang, where a crew went ashore in the Captains gig to get replacement parts at the base there.  By this time we were informed that our visits to Thailand and Singapore were cancelled because we were needed here in the Gulf of Tonkin.  So we effect repairs and head back to the gunline off of Quang Tri to help the ARVN who were losing ground fast due to a recent invasion of 200,000 men coming from the north over the DMZ.  This was a real test for them (ARVN) since the US had withdrawn thousands of US troops by this time.  The south’s army was running into leadership and morale problems and were getting pushed back.  Of course, President Nixon publicly states to the nation that the competence of the South Vietnamese Army is just fine without US advisors.  This invasion became known as the Easter Offensive (or Spring Offensive).  We were awarded the Navy’s Combat Action Ribbon during this time.  President Nixon had responded to this invasion with the renewal of air strikes into North Viet Nam above the 20th parallel.  This became Operation Freedom Train.

USS Francis Hammond (DE-1067 Radar Gang circa 1972

Thanks to Jim Marino for the photo!

I may have lucked out and been on watch in CIC during some of the re-arming, but did get to experience it once.  Ammo and powder cases were delivered either by a vert-rep operation or an un-rep.  Either way, you received pallets of the 5” shells as well as the powder cases while underway from a supply ship, out at sea, away from any chance of enemy fire.  These were usually delivered aft, which meant it involved a working party for all hands that were not actually standing a watch.  The shells were passed person to person, along the deck, down the stairway and forward to the magazine.  I was in the line up forward just a few steps from my bunk in the Operations berthing compartment.  The magazine was another 40 feet forward of here.  As we passed the ammo from man to man, occasionally one of us would take one of the 50-60 lb. shells and lay it on a bunk, writing a nasty message on it to Ho Chi Minh with a felt pen, then get it moving back in line.  We knew Ho Chi Minh died 3 years prior, but he was still the face you put on Hanoi and the NVN effort..

Up north of the DMZ was a task group made up of the USS Sterrett (DLG-31), the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD-764), the 7th Fleet Flagship USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) and the USS Higbee (DD-806).  The USS Sterrett was credited with downing a MIG and a Styx missile in the Dong Hoi battle.  This was the battle in which a member of our Destroyer Squadron 9 out of Long Beach, CA, the USS Higbee had a 500 lb. bomb dropped on its aft 5 inch gun by a MIG 17, destroying the entire gun mount.  There were 4 sailors injured, but it could have been much worse.  The gun mount had just been evacuated after a round stuck in the barrel, known as a “hang fire”.  If not for that there would have been 12 men manning the gun mount and immediate area.  The Sterrett took out the MIG with Terrier missiles.  As the Higbee was being escorted from the area they sunk 2 approaching North Vietnamese torpedo boats.  Their mission up in the Dong Hoi area was to stop the flow of NVN troops, supplies and other coastal targets that were heading south down the coastal highway,  which were trying to reach the battle front down where we were in Quang Tri Province.

April 21st would find us back on Yankee Station yet again with the USS Coral Sea.  An interesting note of the bombing attacks during April in Operation Linebacker.  Those orders to conduct the daily bombing runs over North Viet Nam in the Hanoi area came down from the Admiral John S. McCain, Jr.  This was even after he knew that his son, LtCDR John S. McCain III (now Senator-AZ), was imprisoned in the area after being captured when his A4 Skyhawk was brought down with a missile over Hanoi.  When we were over there he had already been a POW for about 5 years.  Now that had to take some real courage and dedication to the war effort for the old man to be ordering those flight ops!

Russian "Fishing" Trawler

Russian “Fishing” Trawler that followed us around on Yankee Station

Much of the time when we were on Yankee Station we had a “shadow.”  It was a Russian trawler named the AGI Kursograf.  It was loaded with antennas everywhere and it was no secret why they were there and what their mission was.  It seemed that they were always several hundred yards off of our port quarter and probably quite busy during flight ops.  They were most likely monitoring all sorts of radio traffic from us, the aircraft carrier and aircraft.  I suspect when flight ops would commence, that they were sending “heads-up” messages to Hanoi.  It was in international waters, so there wasn’t anything you could do about it.  The only time I ever saw anyone onboard the trawler was on May 1st, which is a Russian holiday.  There was a half dozen guys out on deck shirtless, with loud music blaring from their speakers.  During our radio transmissions we used codes for tactical actions and maneuvers, but I suppose a database could be constructed eventually by listening and watching.  Who really knows how they used all the intel they gathered.  We had a “Red” phone we used sometimes for secure comms between vessels.  We also sometimes had to use a little magic wheel decoder for authentication to make sure you were communicating securely.  I’ve read that Russian warships were also in the Gulf in ’72, but don’t recall if we ever saw or encountered them.  For the most part, they were just there monitoring operations, since they, like China, had a vested interest in what was going on in North Viet Nam.

On May 8th and 9th we were detached from our planeguard duty to proceed to help the USS Providence (CLG-6) on a Search and Rescue mission.  On May 8th a meeting was held aboard the USS Coral Sea with some high ranking officers to plan their timing of events that were to occur simultaneously with President Nixon’s announcement to the nation that we were mining Haiphong Harbor.  Some of the officers from the USS Providence were being flown back to their ship when a terrible accident occurred.  As the helo was making it’s approach to the cruiser at 2245, one engine malfunctioned, sending the helicopter into the side of the ship and turning over in the Gulf.  I still remember being awakened for the mid watch (0000-0400) that night and thinking it would be another boring evening of following the Coral Sea, but instead informed we were steaming for a SAR mission.  Admiral Robinson’s body was recovered several hours later by one of Coral Sea’s helo’s.  Some crew members and a commander survived.  Some of the high ranking officers were never found.  Admiral Robinson was the only Admiral to lose his life in Viet Nam.  Since some of the planners of the next days missions were now gone, the execution of those missions fell to individual captains for the surface attacks on the Do Son Peninsula.  This was a diversionary attack to draw attention from the Coral Sea’s Marine A-6A’s and Navy A-7E’s dropping the mines in the harbor with their 3 day armed delay.  Several cruisers and destroyers took part in this attack on May 9th.  The USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) also took part in the diversion by sending aircraft to attack an area to the southwest of Haiphong Harbor.

May 10th during Operation Linebacker, was the bloodiest day of the war for air battles.  Eleven MIG jets were shot down, which was the most of any day during the war.  1,000 SAM’s had been fired at American aircraft, downing 7 in early May.  This offensive was made up of Navy and Air Force aviators conducting strikes, bombing runs and dogfights.

After some more plane guard duty we were to proceed to Subic Bay for repairs, maintenance and much needed rest.  This ended a period of being at sea for 53 straight days.  I believe that at that time, it was considered a long period at sea for a ship of this size.

Looking south from the area of Hue toward Da Nang

We were in Subic, Bay PI for almost 3 weeks.  That gave us a long time to relax from the routine of the previous few months.  Many of us headed to the PX to blow our extra combat pay on stereo equipment, cameras, fine china and things like that.  I think it was at this time I bought my first “real” stereo system.  It was later in the cruise that I bought my Pentax 35mm SLR camera.  The extra money was nice since I was an E4 making less than $400 per month with a wife and child at home.  I think we got something like an additional $160 per month when in a war zone (even if there for only 1 day that month).  Then there was another level of pay when actually involved in hostile fire.  It only slightly softened the sting of being there.  In CIC we had a false floor, so when you peeled back the rubber floor matting, then unscrewed and removed a deckplate, you could find 24” deep voids around the miles of wiring running through there for all our electronic gear.  We squirreled away large boxes of speakers, tuner/amps, turntables, tv’s, etc. to take back home.  After that 3 weeks we went offshore from the Philippine island of Luzon for machinery trials and then again crossed the South China Sea for the Gulf of Tonkin.  The first couple of weeks of June 1972 were spent on escort for the USS Sterrett who was providing anti-air warfare.  After a few days there, the Sterrett was relieved by the USS Chicago (CG-11).  Both of these ships were know for their AAW capabilities and were credited with direct and indirect downing of MIG’s.

Shore Bombardment

Shore bombardment off of Military Region 1

You can see more details of our 70 NGFS missions like dates, areas, targets, range etc. from my article titled Gunline Records HERE.

June 19th and we’re back on the gunline somewhere in the vicinity of Hue or Quang Tri.  We spend a couple of weeks there, providing NGFS by day and performing H&I at night in support of the VNMC in Operation Song Thanh.  Targets consisted of VC posits and artillery sites.  If I recall, it was during this stint on the gunline that an incoming round dropped about 10 yards off of our port beam.  I was in CIC manning the surface search radar and heard the popcorn-popping sound of shrapnel hitting the port bulkhead (1/4″ aluminum?) about 15 feet from me.  Bobby Theal heard about an incoming round from the port lookout and ran from CIC to the 01-level hatch to grab a quick shot of the concussion on the water with his Kodak.  You can see that photo here.  We again earned the Navy’s Combat Action ribbon.  Here we are on June 28th and I’m wishing I could be with my daughter on her 1stbirthday.  Happy birthday, Kim!  Early July found us supporting the 1st Division ARVN with artillery, troop and tank targets in the Thua Thien region.  Several nights of H&I missions were run during this period of Operation Lam Son 72.

Around July 9th we head to Hong Kong for some much needed R&R and “show the flag”.  We never get there because a typhoon cuts us off after we rode into it a ways.  So we turn and head for the naval base at Subic Bay.  This aborting of the Hong Kong visit was not our first liberty cancellation of the cruise.  Earlier in the year we were supposed to go to Singapore and Sattahip, Thailand for liberty and to “show the flag”, but it was cancelled with the activities of the Easter Offensive and other operations where we were needed. The place where we got to see the most liberty was Olongapo City in the PI.  More about that one in another article.  We did get to visit Hong Kong on the 1973 Westpac, however, as well as Kaohsiung and Singapore.  This sea period ending back in Subic completed 36 days at sea.  After less than a week there, we sail to Guam, refuel, head for Pearl Harbor and then arrive in Long Beach, CA on August 5, 1972.  About a week later it’s reported that the last U.S. combat ground unit has left South Viet Nam.  What a wild 7 months of events, places and people I’ll never forget!

DE-1067 ribbons at end of Westpac 1972

The bronze star seen in the Vietnam Service ribbon was not earned until our 1973 Westpac.

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21 Responses to Combat Action in 1972

  1. Rod Ries ("Rip-Off") GMG3 5' 54 gun mount says:

    Heya, Dennis…When’s the book come out and movie deals start rolling in?
    No, seriously, good job sailor!
    Hey, saw the three thank you/welcome home letters you posted. I had completely forgot about them. What I do remember tho is that we got a unit/ship commendation from President Nixon at some point before he became the scapegoat for all crooked politicians (my goodness, that sounds redundant, eh?). I was wondering if you remembered it and if anyone has a copy.
    Hey, we weren’t Seal Team 6, but we did kick some butt, eh?
    Keep up the good work, bud!

    • Rod, funny you should mention the Unit Commendation from the President. Someone else has mentioned it to me, but I honestly don’t remember anything like that. If we had received something like that, it would have made it into the Westpac ’72 cruise book, I would think. Nixon was probably lying. Scapegoat or not, he was the head crook!

      Dennis

    • Dan O'Riley says:

      Was on Sterett 1972 we did receive a Navy Unit Commendation for that Cruise and it sounds like you guys were in and around us during that cruise I would imagine you got one too! Didnt get a PUC some thought we should have but I think Nixon was too busy with other stuff to notice!

      • Dan, yes I remember that we operated with you guys on the Sterett in ’72 a few times. Maybe it was on some AAW missions? I don’t recall exactly. It was mentioned to me by one of my shipmates that thought we had earned a NUC or the PUC, but if we did I would think it would show on my DD-214 and it doesn’t.

        -D

  2. Another memory of 1972 was when we were in SEATO exercise, Operation Seahawk. This was a wargame with naval forces from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand, as well as the United States. This was right after our short stay in Manila before going to the Gulf of Tonkin for the first time and I think it was conducted in Philippine operating areas. We were at GQ and in the Combat Information Center the radio chatter between ships was usually very regimented and “by the book”. There was a time when we were supposed to be taking the shot on a hostile target, but the target aquisition was running long for some reason. Then, we hear this crisp British accented voice come across one of the radio channels, “Shoot bloke, or surrender the fowling piece!”. We had a good laugh and I still remember that line, to this day.

  3. Jeff Zavada says:

    My name is Jeff Zavada. I came on board in Long Beach in 71 in time for the first West pac. I was on deck watch the day that round came in. I remember the officers following the Capt. and running to the other side of the bridge. The next year I struck RD and later became an OS. I was also in charge of the secret locker that DC had. I remember we got a new Chief and had to change all the combinations on the safes and file cabinets. He, the chief couldn’t remember the combo for the safe and we had to call in a safe cracker. We forged the signatures of all the uppers on a request chit for the day off and they couldn’t remember signing the chit.

  4. Jeff, good to hear from you! Funny story about the safe! Keep the memories coming!

  5. Bobby (Stubby) Daniel says:

    More good stuff Dennis. One of the things I remeber about the SEATO exercise and working with the UK ships is that quite a few of our Radarman started talking with Ausie accents. Scott, John and you in particular. I believe it came down from the Bridge for us to stop mocking them.

    • Funny! I don’t remember that, but it sure sounds like something we would do. It probably wasn’t the only time the bridge came down on us. We had our fun, but always got the job done!

      Dennis

  6. johnlegry says:

    My crew was out of there in ’68, but we had much the same mission, although I was primarily assigned to Guam as part of Naval Courier Service for the Naval Security Group at Anderson Air Base. Most of ’68 was spent resisting Tet and mini-Tet offensives – there were at least three. Our dogging Russian trawler sat off Guam’s north coast at the three-mile limit on the end of the B-52 airstrip, listening to our transmissions. 52s flew two sorties per day 24-7. One arrived in Hanoi about lunchtime, the other ended the work day at five p.m. or so. The air crews had box lunches and one day a returning 52 broke formation, dropped over the trawler, opened the bomb bays, Russians went over the side into the sea, and the Americans dropped their lunch garbage on their decks. Russian embassy complained, of course; we apologized, of course, and a good time was had by all save for a few wet Russians.
    Nice writing, Den. Wakes up a lot of memories.

    • AL Wellman says:

      I was aboard USS Chicago enroute back to CONUS when the Easter offensive extended our WestPac deployment. Rear Admiral Robinson had transferred his flag from Chicago to Providence at the scheduled end of our WestPac deployment. We spent most of our time on PIRAZ station off Vinh; but dodged a few coastal artillery rounds off Haiphong during the Operation Pocket Money aerial mining at the beginning of Operation Linebacker.

      I remember the trawler operating off Guam. We stopped at the Naval Fuel Depot every time we crossed the Pacific; and the trawler was always stationed offshore to report ships arriving or departing WestPac deployments. When we had a fireman aboard who spoke Russian, the XO would call him to the bridge and direct him to address the trawler over the loud speaker as we passed.

      The fireman may have enjoyed an opportunity to get out of the hot boiler room for some fresh air and scenery; but I’ve often wondered just how literally he translated the XO’s comments wishing the trawler fishing success. I was disappointed our XO couldn’t come up with a wittier salute for a meeting which could have been predicted days in advance. Whatever was said failed to provoke any response from the trawler.

      I recall the battle of Dong Hoi; because my father-in-law had served aboard Higbee at the end of World War II. Anyone else remember Higbee’s steam locomotive whistle on the main deck amidships blown at the end of successful unreps?

  7. Jeff Zavada says:

    Good morning DC. Just sitting here having a cup. Do you remember the time Stanley tossed the desk off the 01 level after the chief told him to get rid of it. Stanley and someone else took it the stud level and let it go. Sitting down at the park at the end of the mole was a shore patrol truck as it went over the board.

    The other thing I’m struggling to remember (don’t know why) is the rust boat deck. I was working the as boat hook during that time. I know it came from the snipes, but can’t remember how it came to be.

  8. Leslie Birch says:

    Dennis, I have a photo on a naval Facebook page, there is discussion as to when it was taken, during 1972 SEATO exercise or a separate trip up top in 1982. Do you have FB or email i can send you the pic ?

  9. Ron Rubay says:

    Dennis, I was on the Thomas up on the signal bridge talking to the Higbee when she got hit. We were right behind her for the bombing run. Loved seeing the Sterrett take take that MIG out. Was an amazing site to see her two birds on the rail and then fly. Very scary day. After we towed the Higbee back to Saigon we got a good look at the gun mount. Split open like a banana. Still had a round in the barrel. Had to take the gun mount off in Subic. She was in for repairs for about 3-4 months. Watched her sail out and back on the line. Thanks for the memory.

  10. Ron Rubay says:

    By the way, the mission was called “Night Train”.

  11. Patrick Conley says:

    I came on board in the Summer of 71 and I was on watch the day of the incoming round. I was a BT and it very nearly scarred us to death since we were blind down in the hole and had no idea what was going on above. All we knew is that it was quiet and then BOOM and we got a bell change for Flank ahead.
    Pat Conley (BTFN at the time)

  12. Scott Gillespie says:

    The picture of “our shot caller” reminds me of one afternoon in CIC. We were in radio contact with the pilot. He was flying over the jungle looking for targets for us. He comes on the radio in the calmest voice and says, “I’ll be back in a minute, I’ve a SAM on my tail.” Someone turned to me and said, “what did he say?”. “I think he said he had a missile on his tail.” Somebody wanted to call him back and have him confirm. I told them to leave him alone, if he had a missile coming his way, he didn’t want to hear from us. So I’m on the scope and I watch these two targets emerge from the land mass. I’m thinking, “Holy Hell.” The second target is closing real fast on the first, but as it gets close, almost merging, the first target turns real sharp, cutting a donut. This gains him a little space and then the second contact starts closing again. They did this little dance three or four times and finally the second target couldn’t match his turn, flew off in a different direction, and disappeared from the scope. About that time our spotter comes back on the radio, says “OK, I’m back.” One of our guys asked him if he’d said he had a missile on his tail. “Yeah”, he said, “but I got rid of it.” One guy in a single engine, Piper Cub looking, aircraft. no weapons, no speed, out dueling a Surface to Air Missile. Captain Cool.

    • Scott, I do remember the radio transmissions with the spotter while we were in GQ or a relaxed GQ, but nothing specific. Good recall, man! When he said after the mission he was going to do a fly-by for us, that’s when I bailed out of CIC with the camera and grabbed the shot. I remember being quite impressed that this guy was flying through all sorts of shit flying up from the jungle and then to see this little POS single prop fixed wing job. I remember that he was a “contractor”, since most of our forces were going home at the time. Must have been some good money in that job! Dude had some mad skillz, as the kids say!

  13. Joe Wozniak says:

    Hi Dennis,
    The info in your blog sure brought back some fond menories. As Bob Hope said, “Thanks for the memories”. I was BT1 Wozniak in-charge of # 1 fireroom on the Larson, 1971-72, both tours in Vietnam.

    Do you recall any info from the ships deck log when me and a couple others flew off the ship in a Huey, and went in country to Firebase king? I don’t remember the month in 72, but it was between March & June.
    I went on and spent 30 WONDERFUL YEARS in the Navy, fortunate to have advanced to Master Chief, and finally retired as a commissioned officer, CWO-4.

    Great read, thanks again.

    God bless you, all our shipmates, veterans, and active duty troops.

    Joe Wozniak

    • Joe,
      Thanks for your comments. You may have me confused with someone else. I was never stationed aboard the Larson, though we operated with her over in the Gulf, if I recall correctly. I am curious though why a couple of squids would be flown into an inland firebase. Thanks for your extended service!

      Dennis

      • Joe says:

        Dennis, we volunteered to go in-country for a couple of days, to see the war from a different perspective, (John Wayne want a be’s,) better known as “Stupids.”
        The ship never looked better after we returned.

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