Engaging the Enemy from Main Control
By: David ‘Mac’ McAllister
It was 1967 and our 45th day on the gun line, the entire crew was weary and tension was violin string taught; however, moral was high. We were operating with the USS Canberra doing Sea Dragon operations well to the north of the Vietnamese DMZ; engaging the coastline with 5”/38 caliber gun fire while the Cruisers heavier guns concentrated on primary supply line targets further inland. Although, having received counter battery fire several times during the past month and a half we had not yet sustained a direct hit. The odds were mounting though and weighed upon us all as the General Quarters alarm sounded once again and we scrambled to our stations setting material condition Zebra as we went.
Main Control was my GQ station and as I slid down the ladder, feet landing on the upper-level deck plates with a metallic thud, the messenger scampered back up, disengaged the locking mechanism on the scuttle and with a dull thump it slammed shut and was dogged down tight. Seven men and 60,000 horses were now sealed off from the rest of the ship within a watertight tomb well below the waterline. If one tended toward claustrophobia this was not the place to be. Main space ventilation was set up with the exhaust fans running on high while the supply vents were set for low speed. The negative pressure created by this configuration tended to keep main space heat and humidity confined to the engineering spaces. With Zebra set, the normal flow of fresh topside air through the scuttles was closed off and the space temperature would rapidly rise in these close and sealed quarters.
Main space ventilation was set up with the exhaust fans running on high while the supply vents were set for low speed. The negative pressure created by this configuration tended to keep main space heat and humidity confined to the engineering spaces. With Zebra set, the normal flow of fresh topside air through the scuttles was closed off and the space temperature would rapidly rise in these close and sealed quarters.
Being the lower level man, my responsibility was to maintain the machinery online and rolling over in standby that recovered condensate from the main engine, turning it into feed water in the deaerating feed tank and returning it to the boilers via the main feed booster and main feed pumps for regeneration back into steam. The lube oil pumps supplying main engine lubrication were also under my cognizance. Needless to say, plenty to do under normal circumstances; however, at a heightened sense of awareness during General Quarters, all of my senses were fine tuned to detect changes in noise, pitch, smell and yes taste – you can taste fear. As the reports of “Manned and Ready” from the other three main engineering spaces, shaft alleys, repair five and Damage Control Central were received, the final report of “Engineering Manned and Ready” was passed to the bridge via the 1JV phone circuit. We would make our stand and fight the enemy from here.Signaling that we were making our firing run into the beach, the ship heeled over to port and dug in as the main engines answered up to a
Signaling that we were making our firing run into the beach, the ship heeled over to port and dug in as the main engines answered up to a twenty-five-knot bell. As we closed the distance and brought the main battery within range the ship shook powerfully as mounts 51 and 52 opened fire pounding our foe with 5”/38 caliber gunfire. With a turn to starboard and speed reduction to 10 knots, we commenced our firing run parallel with the beach. Lobbing six-gun salvos at pre-designated targets, this is when we were at our most vulnerable; exposing ourselves as a fat slow target for the well concealed powerful shore batteries known to exist there. The hope being was that they would take the bait, roll those big guns out and fire upon us thereby exposing them for destruction. Meanwhile, the Canberra’s rounds were screaming overhead falling farther inland, hopefully disrupting targets along Charlie’s vital supply lines known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Communication between the lower level and upper level was via bell and voice tube. A single ring on the bell was a normal “I want to talk to you”; while repeated rings indicated an emergent communication. By now I knew well what repeated rings meant during Sea Dragon Ops – counter battery. The bell rang several times in a row shortly after we commenced our firing run – we had commenced receiving counter battery.
A hard turn to starboard accompanied by an all ahead flank bell and the order to make black smoke was an indication to disregard all acceleration tables and make best possible speed as soon as possible because we were turning mount 53 to the beach, limiting our size as a target and haulin’ ass outta Dodge. The incoming shells were falling not only all around us but well out ahead along our escape route. We would later find out that we were being taken under fire by several shore batteries with the advantage of different firing arcs at their disposal. Charlie was always claiming to have sunk one of us but it seemed that he was serious about making good on the propaganda today and we were his target.The muffled thump of the incoming rounds being taken close aboard exploding underwater was immediately followed by the
The muffled thump of the incoming rounds being taken close aboard exploding underwater was immediately followed by the tinny spray of shrapnel as it laced against the underwater hull of this 1940’s vintage tin can. I could hear our messenger of the watch starting to jog around the evaporators on the upper level. A black kid from Mississippi, I had asked him once where he thought he was running to; to which he replied “I don’ts knows, I just feels better when I’m a runnin”.
As the frequency of incoming rounds close aboard increased, my attention was now diverted from the machinery to a near constant vigilance for hull integrity. I couldn’t help but wonder how much that old hull had been stressed over the past twenty plus years and two previous wars as it was peppered with shrapnel yielding explosions. Although I kept telling myself ‘the water is your friend, it’s absorbing the concussions and decelerating the shrapnel’s lethalness.’ I really wasn’t convinced, but as my messenger friend above put it – “I feels better”. The acidic taste in my mouth testified to the stressfulness of the situation and in spite of the heat and humidity my sweat felt cold and skin clammy.
As we made for the safety of the open waters of the Gulf, the ship lurched and shook as mount 53 continually laid round after round back at those inflicting harm our way. To this day I believe our mount 53 gun crews could give the then new 5’/54 caliber automatic mounts a run for their money with rounds fired per minute. It was a constant barrage for what seemed like an eternity. Charlie had us bracketed walking rounds in on us while we gave back all that we were getting. I later spoke with SM1 and he said this about his view from the signal bridge “It wasn’t all the rounds hitting around us that worried me as much as the rounds splashing down several thousand yards ahead of us that we still had to transit through that frosted my nuts”.
As with things of this nature, it stopped as suddenly as it started. The word “Now set material condition Yoke” came as a welcome call to a relatively intense poker hand in which we were all gambling for the highest of stakes – our lives. As the scuttles to Main Control were opened and the freshness of the topside air spilled into the space you could feel a collective sigh of relief rise up and meet the heavy humid air of the Gulf of Tonkin.
After securing from general quarters a mini FOD walk down was conducted to pick up the shrapnel on deck; much of which was sent off for analysis with some being pocketed as war souvenirs. Although we sustained no direct hit that day, the stacks were riddled and holed from air bursts; while flying proudly at the mast, Old Glory showed that she had taken a few as well. Come to find out, we had silenced two of Charlie’s shore batteries evidenced by the secondary explosions that followed our direct hits and many inland targets had been reported by spotters as destroyed. We were intact with minor shrapnel damage and no injuries once again – another successful mission.
As I sat on a bit gazing back in at the beach now several miles distant, I realized that my mouth was not as dry any longer and that the acid taste had been neutralized. The trembling and realization that I was scared shitless would soon pass for we would be doing this all over again in just a few hours; that being the nature of Sea Dragon Operations. Strangely though, through it all I held no animosity; just the pride of knowing that I belonged to the US Navy and a team of Blue Jackets that, today, had collectively kicked Charlie’s ass a little bit.
David “Mac” McAllister a native of California, now resides in the Ozark Mountains of Southwest Mo. Having served in Asia for the majority of his 24-year Navy career, he now divides his time as an over the road trucker, volunteer for local veteran repatriation events and as an Asia Sailor Westpac’rs Association board member and reunion coordinator. In his spare time, he enjoys writing about his experiences in Westpac and sharing them online with his Shipmates.