Another story of USS George K. Mackenzie
By: Jim Barton
April 17, 1972. It has been 44 years. Amazing. There are many days I remember in the Vietnam War. I try to remember this one every year. It was not the most intense day of combat but it was noteworthy in the excitement and in the loss.
We were young and sailors once. I was overdue in returning from a 1971-1972 WESTPAC deployment as a 25-year-old Operations Officer and General Quarters (GQ) Officer of the Deck aboard USS George K. Mackenzie (DD-836).
After refueling on the 17th we joined the Task Unit (77.1.2) made up now of USS Buchanan (DDG-14), USS Benjamin Stoddert (DDG-22), USS Hamner (DD-718) and us. We were conducting gunfire operations near the city of Vinh about 175 miles north of the DMZ. Vinh was a priority target because of its airfield, fuel storage sites and military installations including a PT boat base in the harbor area. There were also three offshore islands, Hon Mat, Hon Nhieu (Ngu) and Hon Me, known to have coastal artillery.
The southernmost of these islands was Hon Mat suspected to have long range artillery hidden in caves.
We began our run at Vinh in a line abreast at GQ around noon in a circuitous route from the north to a point offshore of the mouth of the Lam Song River where we were to begin firing and then regress seaward. Mackenzie was the northernmost of the Freedom Train ships.
At 1255, we opened up on Hon Me Island about 5 miles on our starboard beam from which we had been receiving what we believed was heavy machine gun or 20mm fire. We ceased fire about 5 minutes later noting secondary explosions on the island. Having now turned to our firing course, our job was to protect the column to the north from counter battery fire which had begun from a position ashore. We engaged the counter battery while Buchanan and Stoddert continued their direct fire on the principal target, the PT boat base, with their longer range 5”54 guns (approximately 6000 yards’ greater range than ours). Incoming hostile fire was noted all around our formation but all ships held steady with the mission.
We noted secondary explosions in the vicinity of the target which we believed might have been coming from the oil storage area. Almost immediately the lookouts and I observed two incoming PT boats at a distance of 11000 yards, our maximum effective gun range. I identified these boats as Soviet-style North Vietnamese Project 183 (P-6) boats. The boats were equipped with two twin 25mm cannons forward and aft (range about one mile) and banks of torpedo tubes port and starboard. The latter was the biggest threat. The torpedoes were advertised as having a maximum range of about 3 miles (6000 yards). To be effective they had to be launched much closer.
This meant the boats would be under the arc of our radar controlled guns. Being the closest ship with the best angle, we shifted targets with our aft gun mount (Mt. 52) with its two barrels from the counter battery ashore to the incoming boats which were being tracked at a speed of 45 knots. We held our speed in the firing formation at 17 knots. Because of this, the PT boats were closing fast.
At the Captain’s directions, I maneuvered Mackenzie slightly to starboard toward the coast in order to bring Mt. 51 to bear on the boats. Now we could fire at them with four 5 inch guns instead of two. With the barrels nearly pointed back toward my position on the Bridge of the ship I looked down and saw the Mt 51 Mount Captain Boatswain Mate First Class Salada with his head poking out of the hatch atop his mount; he looked at me, smiled, gave a thumbs-up and commenced fire on the PT boats.
Aft in Mt. 52 as Mount Captain was Stanley “Bags” Baggett, a 2nd Class Gunners Mate. Stan had already opened up on the boats. Stan and I have talked about this engagement over the years. We are friends to this day. He was in the best firing position aft and told me Salada loved the extra angle he got from me so he could bring his mount to bear on the PT boats. Over the course of the next few minutes, we poured considerable 5-inch ammunition down on the boats in a mix of variable time fuse ammo set to trigger off the mechanical time fused explosions from the high capacity ammo we were firing. We were creating a wall of steel designed to kill the personnel on board and/or sink the boats.
The lead boat soon went up in an explosion and the second boat turned to shore. By this time, the primary firing mission had completed, the task group commander ordered a turn and we were racing from the coast at a speed of 34 knots, weaving furiously as we were taking considerable incoming fire from the installations ashore and from the offshore islands. We continued firing at the second boat as we turned away. But we could not confirm a kill because we shifted our attention and fire counter-battery at the coastal artillery sites. We later received confirmation of the second PT Boat kill.
We were receiving incoming on our port and starboard quarters and astern, as were the other U.S. ships. The closest of these rounds was impacting within 25-50 yards so that we were getting sprayed by some of the fragmentation. We had no direct hits. Captain Anderson was moving from one Bridge wing to the other while I was ordering the maneuvers for the ship and executing the weave. Occasionally he would ask, “How are we doing Jimmy?” I would respond, “Real good Skipper”. The energy level among the Bridge team members was high. I tried to remain calm and concentrated on the task at hand with incoming landing seemingly everywhere.
At 1337, about 1 ½ hours into the operation on the way out of the area, Buchanan reported being hit by incoming. The shell penetrated the superstructure between the aft gun mount and missile launcher and exploded in the middle of the damage control party killing Seaman Leonard R. Davis and slightly wounding seven other personnel. Damage was isolated. Leonard Davis had received the full impact of the incoming artillery blast.
Just before 1500, the ships were far enough from the coast to slow down and regroup. One thing was clear and that was these daytime strikes without air cover could be hazardous to your health. Mackenzie had fired nearly 350 rounds of 5-inch ammunition. Buchanan left for Da Nang for repairs and for transfer of Seaman Davis’ remains. The remainder of the ships regrouped for another raid that evening. And so it went.
I salute you Leonard Davis and I remember you this day and every day. You made the ultimate sacrifice.
The author is a retired career US Navy Surface Warfare Officer whose assignments at sea include duty in all Line Departments in the Destroyer and Auxiliary Forces up to and including command of a Frigate. Ashore he served in key national policy positions on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations.