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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!