By: Jim Barton
For nearly 3 weeks we had been attacking installations along the North Vietnamese coast with essentially no air cover. On April 23rd, we had gotten the word that carrier aircraft had severely damaged a North Vietnamese coastal freighter which was partially aground in somewhere between Ha Thien and Dong Hoi well south of Vinh. The ship was loaded with weapons material and its cargo was a priority target.
The recomposed northern SAG was tasked by COMSEVENTHFLT to go finish the job and destroy the waterborne logistics craft (WBLCs) which were offloading from it. This was a job better left to aircraft we thought as we closed the coast without air cover in daylight. It was a three ship mission.
In a line abreast with USS Benjamin Stoddert (DDG-22) in the center, USS Hamner (DD-718) to its starboard side at 1000 yards and USS George K. Mackenzie (DD-836) to port at the same distance, we approached the coast for the mission. It was a very clear morning, free of the usual dust and smoke which normally filled the air. Firing was to commence at a range of five miles but we were to approach the coast as close as two miles. We wanted to see what we were killing.
The plan called for Stoddert as the point shooter to begin firing on the way in with Hamner and Mackenzie watching for counter-battery fire and engaging, we were then to simultaneously execute a turn south at the two-mile point while Stoddert continued to fire. This was slightly different than the tactic we had used from previous raids. The idea was to maximize rounds against the WBLCs and then get out. In this area, there were no known coastal artillery fixed sites so approaching that close was a risk the OTC was willing to take.
I had the Deck and simply suited up with my flak jacket and helmet as we went to General Quarters as I was also the GQ OOD.
Digressing a bit, by now “Duke” had been stenciled on my flak jacket. This came from an earlier incident, my first in evasive maneuvers when encountering enemy incoming. “In Harm’s Way”, a John Wayne flick, was one of my all-time Navy movies. After Pearl Harbor and aboard the old sway back, John Wayne told the OOD to evade enemy incoming by steering for the last splash. This resonated with me I suppose.
On the way out of an earlier run at Vinh, we were encountering incoming and I broke from the zig-zag and steered for the last splash. The next one hit where the previous one had hit close aboard. The CO asked me what in the H*ll I was doing. I of course mentioned “In Harm’s Way” and the John Wayne tactic. A nervous chuckle came from bridge watch personnel when the Skipper yelled the H*ll with John Wayne and get back to your random weave. Lesson learned. Never again. But next GQ, the stencil was on my flak jacket and it was there to stay. I was now Duke.
On the way in on this raid, Stoddert commenced firing as planned with her forward 5″/54 gun in rapid fire at the surface contacts. Upon direction from Stoddert and not receiving any hostile fire, Hamner and Mackenzie followed suit each firing from the forward gun mounts as well at the WBLCs. There were lots of rounds exploding in and around the target area with good effect.
From my position on the Bridge, I noted about four minutes into the mission what appeared to be dust in an area along a hillside just north of the target area and from another to the south. It was a hilly area and it looked as though dust was coming from a couple notches in the hills. The signalmen and lookouts reported it as well. We were pretty close to the beach by now. WBLCs were scattering everywhere, what was left of them anyway. Lots of smoke filled the target area from the WBLCs and the freighter now pretty much ablaze.
As I tried to discern what this strange “dust” was with my binoculars it instantly dawned on me what we were dealing with as I made out shapes in the notches. We are talking literally seconds. I alerted the Captain that this was not dust at all; but rather smoke from discharging coastal artillery firing in the direction of the formation. The Signalmen using the Big Eyes confirmed it as well. They were 4-5 mobile artillery pieces apparently positioned to provide protection for the WBLCs and grounded freighter, and they were now firing at our formation from locations north and south of the target area. We called out counterbattery shifting from the primary targets and engaged the southernmost artillery. Hamner did as well to the north.
Immediately, I observed several splashes in close proximity to Stoddert. And suddenly from my location position less than a half mile on the port beam of Stoddert, I watched three rounds land near Stoddert, and one incoming round penetrated Stoddert’s port bow obliterating the second painted “2”. A signal came up from the OTC over secure voice and we were ordered to withdraw at high speed and execute a zig-zag. Mackenzie was initially blocked from firing counter-battery by Stoddert. Hamner began its turn and commenced firing with its aft gun mount toward the north. Rather than hauling out abeam of the smoking Stoddert, the OTC directed us to provide covering fire for Stoddert and Hamner as we were now closest to the target area. I ordered a turn to starboard and we rolled in behind Stoddert as it turned away to the southeast on the egress course with smoke billowing from the hole in the bow. Hamner was on Stoddert’s port beam by now also running a zig-zag but also firing. As we passed behind Stoddert and Hamner, we drew fire from the artillery. Although damaged, Stoddert continued to fire at the WBLCs on the way out. We were now northernmost ship with clear firing bearings at all the coastal artillery.
Now in a good position to provide cover fire, we concentrated with both barrels each from our forward and aft gun mounts at the artillery ashore with some effect. This was direct fire controlled from the Director but if I am not mistaken initially both gun mounts initially engaged using mount-controlled local fire. Bags Baggett can confirm or deny that one. Then we began our own egress. At high speed on the way out the mounts were under Director control. I was too busy to pay attention to the details of the guns as I was busy conning the ship.
Although I turned the ship away from the coast and commenced a weave at high speed, we were able to keep Mount 51 out of the stops and bring it to bear on the targets. As the closest unit to the action now, most of the incoming was being directed at us with numerous splashes aft ahead and on each beam. Unlike the area near Vinh, there were few fishing stakes to avoid and the accuracy of the coastal artillery while close aboard and intense was not accurate. As we were executing the egress first to the northeast and eventually east-southeast to catch up with Stoddert and Hamner, the volume of incoming rounds, however, was high. I spied a number of fishing vessels ahead of me, so I steamed directly through them. In doing so, the artillery ceased fire long enough for us to adjust away from the coast at high speed. We were clear of hostile fire except for a few rounds.
The three ships proceeded to the holding area off the coast and Stoddert began making repairs to its bow. I watched into the evening the light of welding torches at work in Stoddert. The shell struck Stoddert forward in the windlass room. Although it was put out quickly, the resulting fire destroyed a medical storeroom and the degaussing cable requiring repairs by ship’s force. Thankfully no one was killed. Stoddert continued with her mission and later that night the three of us refueled and rearmed.
Around noon the next day (24th of April), Mackenzie was detached from the SAG to proceed independently to join USS Long Beach (CGN-9) for PIRAZ Shotgun duties in the Tonkin Gulf well north of 19 degrees Latitude for a few days. While this was serious work as well, to many of us the break in action almost seemed like a vacation of sorts.
We would soon return to Freedom Train/Linebacker as this was non-stop action against the north. We were now past the time we were supposed to have headed home from WESTPAC. Three more months would pass before we actually returned to San Diego.
The point of all of this is that daytime destroyer missions without air cover was foolhardy. We finally figured it all out. But nighttime strikes were hazardous as well.
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.