The Battle of Dong Hoi Gulf
By: Jim Barton
Something we noted, and it coincided with the earlier Sea Dragon Operations Lessons Learned, was the presence of large numbers of fishing boats off the coast. While fishing is a normal livelihood for these people, interspersed among them were boats with antennas which we knew to be enemy spotters. The Rules of Engagement (ROE) by this time did not allow us to engage these boats which meant the effectiveness of the incoming rounds could be reported to the North Vietnamese gunners ashore. That would soon change. But much of this was actually being directed from the White House since the first incursion across the DMZ by the North Vietnamese and our responses to it. This is a lousy way to do business. I actually received and read several messages from the White House.
A thing we noted was the peculiar arrangement of fishing stakes. A fishing stake is a long bamboo pole with a bag of rocks attached in a net to its bottom. Normally fishing nets are strung between the poles and the nets are tended to by the fishing boats periodically throughout the day. What Sea Dragon participants and we noted was that there were rows of fishing stakes that ran parallel to the coast near Vinh. There were no nets on some. These ran in rows with what appeared to be 50 meters or so spacing. The North Vietnamese gunners and spotters were using these stakes as optical markers to direct fire against our ships as we passed through the rows. It was a well laid out killing zone and improved the accuracy of their guns.
The North Vietnamese did not routinely use radar to direct the firing of their guns. When they did they could be jammed or targeted. As the months passed they used fire control radar more frequently for their coastal artillery. Anyway, after secure voice conversation on April 17th among the CTU, the ships CO’s and planning teams, we went to GQ around 2330 for a firing run in the same area as that of the 17th under the cover of darkness. Although damaged from the earlier run, Buchanan participated in the raid. Her entire aft section, gun, and missile launcher were useless. But Mackenzie had earlier gone on a firing run with only the reciprocating fire and bilge pump providing fire main pressure. I guess CO’s and Commodores wanted their ships in the fight. We did not have the luxury of “destroyers-a-plenty” yet. We fought with who and what we had. Fortunately, on that run, we did not experience any counter-battery fire.
Another concern was close in our minds. We had been receiving frequent messages indicating a higher level of enemy aircraft (MIG) threat. In the course of the war to date, there had been many MIG engagements but no attacks on US surface units. Nevertheless, we were in a heightened state of readiness. There was a primary MIG airfield in the vicinity of Vinh and others situated along the North Vietnamese coast. We expected the aircraft from Yankee Station would take out the airfields. That apparently had not happened as strike packages were working to stop the North Vietnamese advance and crushing other infrastructure. It proved a costly oversight.
On April 18th, the damaged Buchanan was detached to tend to the transport of Seaman Davis’ remains and to proceed to Da Nang to effect repairs. Command of the task unit remained with Commodore Choo-Choo Johnson who shifted his flag to Stoddert. We were soon joined by Higbee as a replacement for Buchanan and our task unit proceeded to refuel and rearm.
By this time, Freedom Train Operations were being conducted by two SAG’s each under the command of a Commodore (DESRON Commander). The numbers in the SAG’s varied from 3 to 6 CRUDES ships; and while often operating in close proximity to one another for mutual support, the SAG’s normally were separated by 30-70 miles.
Other WESTPAC Destroyers were providing gunfire support, others missile duties and others still providing escort duties for the carriers. Because of their single gun mount and single screw which restricted their speeds below 30 knots, the Garcia and Knox class DE’s were assigned important duties on Yankee Station or NGFS south of the DMZ. Very few if any ships at this time had the luxury of liberty port visits. Some would rotate to Subic Bay for repairs before heading back again.
After replenishment on April 18th, the northern SAG, less Higbee who rejoined the southern SAG, proceeded back to the vicinity south of Vinh. At one point it appeared we would go instead; but for continuity, we stayed with the northern SAG and Higbee joined the southern SAG.
As events would have it, this would prove to be prophetic for us. Higbee joined with the 7th Fleet flagship, guided missile cruiser USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5), the guided missile frigate USS Sterett (DLG-31), and USS Lloyd Thomas (DD-764). My friend Lieutenant Dave Lee from Midshipman days and Destroyer School was on board Lloyd Thomas as Chief Engineer. He and I would serve together again as commanding officers of frigates in the same Mayport Destroyer Squadron some 15 years later. We remain good friends to this very day
Once Mackenzie and company arrived at the northern SAG area, we set GQ again on the evening of April 18th and proceeded to fire at targets in the vicinity of Vinh. After 45 minutes into the mission, we were once again under heavy 130mm fire from counter battery as we left the coast. The range of these smooth bore guns was 30K yards, exceeding the range of even the 5″/54 ships. For Mackenzie’ we were out-ranged by 6 miles.
During the engagement, we noted numerous splashes on our port and starboard quarters. That is a good thing. The last thing an OOD wants to see, which was often the case, were geysers as high as the SPS-40 radar on the bow. For nearly four hours we fired at targets ashore and traded gunfire with North Vietnamese artillery sites. In all, we counted about 30 incoming rounds in the vicinity of Mackenzie and other splashes near the other ships in the SAG. After completion of the firing runs, we proceeded to replenishment for fuel and ammo.
Early on April 19th, we proceeded out to sea for underway replenishment then worked our way back toward the holding area for evening strike operations. The area around Dong Hoi and that of Vinh were the two primary strike areas. First, however, we moved to the southern sector while the southern unit refueled and rearmed in the late morning. When the southern SAG returned to the Dong Hoi sector we moved to the north. The SAG’s changed places in this way at times and rotated duties so that each could be rearmed and refueled.
Around noon on the 19th, we had actually been at a location about 14 miles of the Dong Hoi strike area but some 50 miles at sea. This turned out to be the very site of the northern SAG’s subsequent action. Another flash traffic MIG alert was received, this time, a warning indicating MIG’s had gone “feet wet” in a couple of runs, each time returning to the airfield near Vinh.
And so, with the southern SAG’s return, we slowly moved north to the Vinh holding area about 50 miles off the coast. By 1600, the two groups were separated by less than 40 miles. A discussion was had in our SAG on secure voice about the MIG threat and Stoddert in our SAG was assigned missile protection duties. Sterett, the AAW picket ship with its longer range missiles, provided cover for both SAG’s. Radio and radar ranges were extraordinary that day. We were listening to UHF communications well beyond the horizon. The same was true for the surface search radar.
In the southern SAG, Oklahoma City with COMSEVENTHFLT embarked, was doing duty as a gunship with its longer range 6-inch battery. She was escorted by Higbee and Thomas.
For some reason, the aircraft passed down the beam of Oklahoma City, dropped at least one bomb and it struck Higbee on the aft gun mount. No one was killed. Four sailors were injured. The ship had just evacuated the gun mount due to a misfire and no one was inside. Accounts of the engagement vary, North Vietnamese being different than American. Sterett claimed one downed MIG and before it could get a second salvo against the other, the retreating aircraft was low over land and the fire control radar dropped its lock. North Vietnam claimed no losses. In the ensuing confusion, Sterett claimed it was being attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats and took them under fire. This later proved to be not true. This may have been phantom radar contacts likely caused by our position to the north.
On this occasion, I had been in CIC working out coordinates and charts for the evening strikes. I stepped out on to the Bridge to get some air and almost immediately over the secondary SAG circuit we heard lots of chatter from the southern SAG. Then we heard that they were under attack by MIG aircraft. We were riveted as the tense voice came from Higbee saying they had been hit by a bomb followed closely by the engagement by USS Sterett with missiles against what turned out to be two attacking MIG-17 aircraft. The apparent target must have been USS Oklahoma City with Commander 7th Fleet embarked.
The North Vietnamese claimed also to have bombed Oklahoma City sustaining light damage but that has never been substantiated. As I listened to the voice reports of the battle, Oklahoma City did not report being hit. There was discussion via secure voice circuits about our SAG proceeding south to assist but that did not happen. We continued with or mission planning which included hitting the MIG airfield near Vinh that evening.
One of the lessons learned from this is that the US Navy surface ships operating without air cover were vulnerable but that US AAW Picket ships like Sterett provided adequate protection. Photos taken by one of the Sterett’s crew clearly show the MIG being destroyed by a Terrier missile. I have not seen those photos but in subsequent briefings and in the classroom years later, I learned that Sterett had killed the MIG at close range, so close in fact, that it was said that the kill occurred before missile booster separation had occurred.
If this is true, it is tantamount to hitting the aircraft with a rock because the missile was not yet in its guided mode. Eye witnesses saw a MIG aircraft completely destroyed by a direct Terrier missile strike at only a few thousand yards and pieces of the virtually disintegrated MIG fell into the sea in view of the eye witnesses. Requiring repair, Higbee steamed to Da Nang and they tied up alongside the damaged Buchanan.
Over the next few weeks, repairs were made to Higbee. Rather than attempting to replace the aft gun mount, welds were made to the deck and compartments below. Higbee returned to the gun line as a single mount NGFS ship and provided carrier escort duties before returning home from deployment. When the ship returned to duties after repairs we cheered its arrival. With the call sign of “Truck”, she proved herself Ram tough.
In the northern SAG, we began our runs again at targets in the vicinity of Vinh from 1930-0100 on the 20th. Around noon, we went in again for another strike for 1 ½ hours and once again from 1600-1730. One of these targets was Hon Me Island which Stoddert, Hamner, and Mackenzie shelled repeatedly during the early morning hours of the 20th. Around noon, we re-attacked the area and shifted to a potential air threat which we engaged. We also fired upon and destroyed an enemy shore battery during counter battery fire. We then proceeded to the holding area to regroup for our evening operations.
In the evening, having received intelligence that the North Vietnamese had positioned several PT boats at an anchorage near Cape Falaise, our SAG proceeded to the coast. Nearing the coast in the darkness we engaged and destroyed an approaching surface contact just before 2200. We shifted fire to the anchorage and support facility and noted secondary explosions as a result of gunfire from the three U.S. ships.
And so it went. No rest for the weary.
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.