After boot camp and Radarman “A” School I spent about 3 1/2 years aboard the USS Francis Hammond (DE-1067) a Knox-class destroyer escort. These were reclassified as a “Fast Frigate” (FF-1067) in 1975. It was the only ship I served on during my enlistment. I did spend 10 days of temporary duty aboard the USS Ticonderoga during a multi-national ASW exercise in February 1971. I was told by some of my shipmates who came from other ships in the fleet how lucky I was to serve aboard a brand spankin’ newly commissioned ship. While I was aboard, we never had the insect and rodent problems that sometimes infested “older” ships.
Here’s some stats of the USS Francis Hammond. It was one of 46 Knox-class vessels, the largest class built since WWII. The ship was 438′ in length, 46′ at the beam with a draft of 25′ and displaced 4100 tons. At the time of de-commissioning, the USS Francis Hammond was the most decorated of the entire class, having seen action in Viet Nam in 1972 and awarded the combat action ribbon as well as Viet Nam Campaign Medal and Viet Nam Service Medal (w/2 stars). She was also awarded the Kuwait Liberation Medal from both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. She was awarded for action against Iran in the 80’s and also for service in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield in the early ’90’s, as well as many other medals awards and honors. The Francis Hammond was also the highest awarded gunnery platform and ASW platform in U.S. Naval history. A full list can be see over at http://www.ussfrancishammond.org/.
After basic training in San Diego, I was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago for several months of Radarman “A” School. Upon graduation there, I was ordered back to San Diego’s 32nd St. base to attend Pre-Commissioning training and from there to Long Beach to board this new ship, that hadn’t yet ever seen any sea duty, just as myself. When I arrived there was still plenty of shipyard activity going on with the finishing touches. While in port we were learning our way around the ship as well as some training exercises. Occasionally, some of us in the “radar gang” were sent to San Diego for ASW (anti-submarine warfare), AAW (anti-air warfare) and EW (electronic warfare) training to fine-tune and advance the skills learned in Radarman School.
During sea trials out of Long Beach in the summer of 1970, it was the first time out to sea for a majority of our crew. I saw lots of my buddies in CIC (combat information center, where I worked) get sick the first time out, but I never did, knock on wood. The closest I ever came to getting seasick was when we rode out a typhoon south of Hong Kong in 1972. I’ll never forget that first time pulling out of Long Beach harbor and sitting at a radar repeater. We were picking up hundreds of pleasure craft as radar blips and were sure we were going to have a collision, but as usual, the bridge had total control of everything visually. We had run through the alphabet designating “skunks”after which we called them skunk alpha-alpha, skunk alpha-bravo, skunk alpha-charlie, and so on. In radar school, I don’t think we ever tracked any more than a few targets at a time!
There were lots of sea trials, training and exercises up and down the west coast during 1970 and 1971. It wasn’t unusual for this ship to occasionally lose all power. One particular instance happened at night during the mid-watch while off of Flattery Rocks on the coast of Washington. We had just plotted a position, that placed us a few miles offshore when everything went off. There was a distinct sound of motors and fans winding down when the power would go off, referred to as “losing the load”. The battle lanterns would automatically come on as the phosphors in our de-powered radar scopes faded in the darkness. That area of coastline is known for its treacherous waters and unforgiving shoreline. The ship was really rocking and rolling. Ashtrays and navigation tools were flying around and it was lucky nobody got a concussion from all the gear adrift in CIC. The engineering crew would always figure out the problem and have us running again shortly. That cruise to Vancouver, BC, Seattle and other Puget Sound locales was to conduct ASW exercises, missile range tests, torpedo launches and guidance systems calibration.
January 1972 saw us heading on our first WestPac cruise as part of Destroyer Squadron 9. Good times in Hawaii and then on to Subic Bay in the Philippines to get outfitted for combat duty in the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. We are now part the the Navy’s 7th Fleet, with the largest fleet buildup since WWII. While in the gulf we would alternate between time spent at Yankee Station on plane guard for the USS Coral Sea, and then to NGFS duty. There were the occasional AAW duties, too. When we would get relieved from Yankee Station and proceed to the Viet Nam coast for NGFS (Naval Gun Fire Support); that was a whole new ball game! All of our close-in shore patrols were in Military Region 1, between Hue and the DMZ, but mostly off of the sandy beaches Quang Tri and Dong Ha. Several nights we were assigned H&I (harassment and interdiction) missions where we would fire at or around targets several miles inland at random intervals just to keep the NVA on their toes. Target coordinates were radioed to us from Army or Marine personnel, but most likely ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam), since the US was in a phase of demilitarization in Military Region 1. These missions were designed to wear down NVA troops as well as disrupt traffic on north to south communist supply routes. I think it was during this time I learned how to sleep “soundly” through almost anything! My bunk was about 40 feet aft and 1 deck below the 5” cannon. I remember one morning waking to a sound that made me think I was sleeping underneath a bowling alley. After a night of H&I missions there was lots of expended shell casings from the 5” 54 caliber MK-42 gun turret on deck above my berthing compartment. In the morning we headed out to rougher water and when broadside to the seas the ship would roll back and forth, sending the brass rolling across the deck until they hit the lifeline netting with a crash and then rolling to the opposite side crashing again. This went on until the deck crew was sent to the foredeck to recover the casings and palletize them. Another inconvenience of being on the gun-line for extended periods was water rationing. When in close to the shoreline our water intakes would clog with silt and seaweed, so we couldn’t make fresh water. It wasn’t at all unusual to go several days without a shower. They called this “water-hours” and any fresh water was directed to the galley for cooking and cleaning. It can get pretty funky with 250 guys living in a pointy metal box in the hot muggy tropics during the monsoon season!
There was a period of time from the end of March to mid-May that we spent 53 days at sea on Yankee Station, gun-line, ASW exercises and a search and rescue mission. That was a long time to be at sea. After that we were in Subic Bay for upkeep and repairs for 28 days. From there we headed back across the South China Sea to the Gulf of Tonkin and Viet Nam for a 28 day sea period.
During Operation Linebacker we were under the command of Cdr. Peter J. Doerr. He liked steaming north along the coast about 2,000 yards offshore while providing NGFS between Hue and Quang Tri, firing from the port side. As incoming fire would start coming toward us we could hear the deck lookouts calling out splashes coming from the beach and getting ever closer. In CIC we would call the bridge and recommend right full rudder and all ahead flank. But it seemed like every single time it was 5 minutes before the skipper would issue the same order to the helmsman. Only once did a shell explode near enough to pepper the port side with shrapnel. From inside CIC it sounded like popcorn when the metal chunks were hitting the 1/4” thick aluminum bulkhead! This was during the Easter Offensive of 1972 and was one of our scarier experiences.
A couple of images during combat activity that really impressed me were B-52 strikes and also watching the USS Newport News (CA-148) firing at targets 5 miles inland. The Newport News was a few miles north of us with that distinctive silhouette. There was no mistaking when it was her that was doing the firing. Lots of fire, smoke and noise coming from those 8 inchers!
One night on the mid-watch we were listening to some of the shore based transmissions regarding air strikes. About the same time we heard some “ooohs and ahhhs” from the pilothouse and could hear thunder. I went up to the bridge and from there we could see the outline of the top of the coastal mountain range running north and south through the DMZ. Behind the outline there was lots of smoke and a bright orange glow out of the night darkness covering many miles of that valley. I remember feeling the vibrations of those bombs clear out to a few miles offshore. It was a very impressive display of firepower from B-52’s! There was more damage to NVA forces and supply lines by our Air Force, Navy and Marine fliers during Operation Linebacker, than in all the rest of the Viet Nam conflict.
One of the reasons for being alert while on radar watch in CIC, was based on some intelligence reports that we received regarding the NVN’s use of Russian-built Mig-17’s that would fly over land at a low altitude and then out over the water to shoot and/or bomb ships close to the beach in a surprise attack. As a Radarman/Operations Specialist, a lot of responsibility was placed on us, keeping alert for fast moving targets, both surface and air, approaching from the west. This fear was realized on another ship in our Destroyer Squadron 9, the USS Higbee (DD-806), during the Battle of Dong Hoi on April 19, 1972. If I remember correctly, they were a ways further north of the DMZ than we were, conducting a shore bombardment mission in company with another destroyer and guided missile cruiser. A Mig-17 swept out from the coast and dropped a 500 lb bomb on their after gun mount. Fortunately, there were only a few injuries aboard the Higbee. This battle resulted in 2 downed Migs as well as a missile shot out of the sky that had originated from an enemy PT boat. The other fear during this time was that it was reported that the North Vietnamese had a strategy where they would come out of a coastal river or bay with these fast boats armed with a couple of telephone pole sized missiles on the sides at about 50 knots and surprise a larger, less maneuverable vessel.
Most of this period of time was spent with many of the same guys I started on board with. There is a certain brotherhood of sailors gained in learning to coexist in tight quarters, under often times stressful conditions. You realize what the basic training of teamwork is all about and how necessary it is to accomplish tasks that cannot possibly be achieved alone. There is a camaraderie or brotherhood that cannot ever be achieved any other way and you never forget the shipmates you served with. I recently tracked down Jim Marino and gave him a call. We talked over some old times, some stuff I didn’t even remember happening. He asked how I even remembered his name after almost 40 years. Funny thing is that I believe I can recall everyone’s name in my division as well as their hometown. For some I can even still remember their middle name, yet cannot remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.
In an odd way I felt sort of lucky to have been able to use the training that was drilled into my head, whereas many people train for years to be ready and not see the practical application for their skills. It’s all a test and you just need to be ready if given the test. It was strange to be caught up in a piece of history that so divided our nation and society. War is not popular, especially since it’s usually politically controlled, as has been the case throughout history. Viet Nam was no exception. I wasn’t proud of what we did in Viet Nam, but I did sign the contract that I would serve wherever they sent me and for that I’m proud.