June 13th – A Day to Remember
By Captain Jim Barton, US Navy (ret)
I retired from the US Navy in August 1994, one month shy of 30 years since I enlisted in the Navy Reserve back in 1964. I opened a Virginia-based consulting company after several months and soon found myself hired and working in Mclean, VA as a Program Manager for a company for whom I had consulted. In January 1997, I was asked by my boss to set aside the commercial international industrial engineering projects I had been working on to take over a large maritime shipbuilding project for the Navy and DARPA. I soon found myself in office spaces on North Fairfax Drive in Arlington, VA. To my surprise, several of my former Navy buddies were working on this project, either with my company or with our two principal corporate partners. One of these guys was my second commanding officer in USS George K. Mackenzie (DD-836), Captain US Navy (ret) Gordon Monteath. Gordon relieved as Commanding Officer in June 1972. He had big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Captain US Navy (ret) Curt Anderson, was beloved by the crew. While I considered Curt Anderson my mentor, Gordon ten years my senior, proved himself right from the start. I felt extremely comfortable with him in command.
Gordon and I had been in contact off and on again over the years since we served together in Mackenzie in 1972, he as Commanding Officer and me as Operations Officer. Now we were working in close proximity again and telling the stories of our experiences back in the day. I really enjoyed this new environment and camaraderie. Soon after my arrival, Gordon confided in me that he was interested in moving back to San Diego and that he was trying to convince his boss to allow him to relocate. In just a month or so it happened; Gordon was off to the West Coast. I was sorry to see him go but I was happy for him that he would be able to stay with the company and be able to live in the area where he wanted to retire. In April 1997, I received a call from him. He said all was well but he wondered if my business would bring me out to the West Coast in the summer. As several of my sub-contractors were located in the San Diego area and because our corporate headquarters was in La Jolla, I told Gordon that I was sure I would be out there several times that year. He asked me if I could meet him on June 13, 1997, at the Mexican restaurant (Pico de Gallo) we used to frequent in Old Town San Diego. I said I would set my calendar and we arranged to meet.
On June 13th, I drove my rental car to the outskirts of Old Town and parked. I walked inside the Old Town market place and its bustling tourist activity to the agreed upon spot. Commander Jim Hazlett (US Navy – ret), who worked with me in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1980s and who now worked with me on the project accompanied me. He knew Gordon as well from the work inside our company. Gordon greeted us with big hugs as is his custom and margaritas all around. He is a heck of a guy and was a great Commanding Officer. He remains my good friend to this very day. After we had had our first couple of toasts, Gordon looked at me and asked, “OPS, do you know the significance of this day?” I canvassed my brain before confessing that I did not. He said to think back, 25 years to be exact; and so I thought and it dawned on me – June 13, 1972 – what we called the “Battle of Vinh” and perhaps the scariest engagement of my naval combat experience. I looked at him and said, “How could I have forgotten that horrendous day, just four days short of my 26th birthday; and now four days short of my 51st. Yes, I remember it; the Battle of Vinh”. Gordon responded that I won the prize, and he then stated that there was something which he had been meaning to give me all these years later. He reached below his chair and retrieved a shopping bag which he handed to me. I took it and removed what was inside. And there before me was a wooden plaque on which was mounted, not a ship’s crest as one might think but; a jagged piece of metal. It was fragmentation from one of many collected that day in 1972 of exploded incoming North Vietnamese 130mm artillery ordnance. And on the plaque was mounted a brass plate with a simple inscription that said, “Battle of Vinh June 13, 1972”. I was taken aback and overwhelmed by the gift. And then we recalled together the story of what transpired that day. It went something like this
Backing up a few days before on June 7th, with Gordon Monteath newly in command, a new task unit, 77.1.2 was formed consisting of Newport News, Berkeley and Mackenzie for strikes in the northern SAG area. On the 10th during a night engagement off Vinh, we received considerable incoming hostile fire. I was a bit startled as some of the rounds were landing ahead of Mackenzie. I was steering to avoid them with a weave. I could clearly see the splashes on the port and starboard bows ahead. We were beginning to believe that the North Vietnamese were using radar to guide their fire, but on this occasion, we had no confirmation that they were employing it. On each occasion, we returned fire in the direction of the incoming fire. This pattern was repeated on the following couple of nights. Normally the North Vietnamese gunners would wait until we were on our firing course or egress route before opening up on us. And when that happened our job was to return fire.
On June 12th we rearmed and refueled and returned to the holding area for the next night’s activities. Early on the morning of June 13th Newport News, Berkeley, Stoddert and Mackenzie formed for an attack in the Vinh target area. After completing a single two-hour mission around 0230, we went to GQ again an hour later for another run in at the target area. On the earlier run, we had received no hostile fire. Whether we had received intelligence information or whether we were simply changing things up to do another run so quickly on the heels of another, I don’t recall. But we headed toward the target area at high speed at 0330. Mackenzie was assigned to the north closest to Hon Me Island. It was a clear night. Stars were out as was the moon and we could see the silhouette of the island and shore as we approached. Apart from some small arms fire from the island, we encountered nothing of significance as we approached. There were just the eerie flashes from US aircraft strikes inland which almost looked like lightning.
Our job was counter battery. Newport News with 8-inch turrets was the principal shooter. We finished the mission, made our 90 degree turn to port with the other ships for our egress route on a southeasterly course at 30 knots when it happened. All hell broke loose. At 0400 we saw gun flashes on the starboard beam from what we believed to be Hon Mat Island. All ships began receiving fire and I gave rudder orders to commence our weave. Hon Mat was out of Mackenzie’s gun range; but even if it hadn’t been, the target line was obstructed by Newport News to starboard. I had a bad feeling about this as Electronic Warfare reported the detection of fire control radars to starboard. Almost immediately Mackenzie was bracketed port and starboard by intense incoming. Some of the rounds were impacting in the water with splashes higher than our SPS-40 radar platform. We knew the North Vietnamese gunners were using long range (15 mile) 130mm guns. We were feeling their effect as they were hitting around Mackenzie with deadly accuracy. I ordered all Bridge personnel except the helmsman and myself to hit the deck and take cover. The CO was in an exposed Bridge wing position under cover and ordering counter battery fire at Hon Me and Hon Nhieu Islands from which we were now also receiving fire. The flashes, particularly from the air bursts were bright. One exploded in the air forward of the Bridge and for a moment I thought the windshield had been penetrated. The shock from the explosion had loosened the bolts holding the compass repeater with its bearing circle in front of me, and one of them caught me in the right eyebrow with pretty good force. The compass was dangling on only one support and pretty much useless. For a moment I thought the next round might penetrate the Bridge as they had on several on other ships before. The explosions were erupting everywhere. I was pumped up with adrenalin, trying to keep my mind on the helm and lee helm orders as we kicked Mackenzie up to 35 knots, actually overtaking Newport News for a moment or two. Lieutenant (junior grade) Steve Smith, the Communications Officer, was Tactical Communicator on the Bridge; and it was he who transmitted our status to Newport News. The voice on the other end was an African-American naval officer whose name I do not recall but who I bought a drink (or three) for in Subic later. He had a deep calming and reassuring voice. Their call sign was Thunder. Our call sign was Tempest. As Steve would send out the status crouched in the corner of the Bridge, the voice on the other end would respond, “This is Thunder, Roger, Out”. With all of the explosions going on around us and over us, I feared for the Weapons Officer Lieutenant Jack Hughes and the others, signalmen, and lookouts, on the Signal Bridge. They had virtually no place to take cover. But my job was to get us out of there and try not to get hit.
In the meantime, Newport News engaged the batteries on Hon Mat, cave guns we believed, and reported several secondary explosions. Whether they destroyed the gun installations or whether they discouraged the North Vietnamese from shooting, it was all over by 0446. Roughly 45 minutes of intense combat seeming like hours. We noted in Mackenzie’s Ship Deck Log over 100 rounds of incoming in close proximity to the ship. There were far more than that all around the formation. In the engine room and fire rooms, the crews later maintained they could hear the echo of every one of them. We did an assessment of damage and determined no significant damage. We had several areas of superstructure hit and innumerable amounts of shrapnel which hit the deck but no casualties and no significant hit to the ship. After we secured from General Quarters, Jack Hughes appeared from his position in Weapons Control and reported he had spent most of the engagement on the deck as did everyone else on the Signal Bridge. We went below together, and in the light of the Wardroom he observed the abrasion above my eye and I noted his raincoat riddled by fragmenting rounds. Neither of us was really hurt and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were glad to be alive and ready for some sleep. I was scheduled for the 08-12 watch as Officer of the Deck so; my sleep was going to be short.
I went down to my stateroom in After Officer’s Quarters, converted the couch into my rack and I sat there for a minute. And for the first time I shook uncontrollably; and I wondered for a moment if I was going to make it home. These thoughts I quickly set aside, rolled over and fell fast asleep until the Messenger of the Watch awakened me a couple hours later to get ready for the next watch. And so it went.