Battle at PIRAZ

Battle at PIRAZ

‘Battle at PIRAZ.’

The hostile engagement between North Vietnamese MIGs and USS Biddle, a US guided missile DLG/CG, on July 19, 1972. Five MIGs attacked the Biddle. Two were shot down and three chased off by the ships Terrier AA missiles and guns.

Thanks owed to Mr. J Treadway, for his suggestion and advice on this work.

Prints will soon be available

Don’t Fiddle With the Biddle

As of 18 July 1972 no North Vietnamese aircraft had attempted to attack a ship on PIRAZ duty, even though the ships were positioned only about 30 miles off their coast. This was probably due to their desire to avoid the ships’ surface-to-air missiles, not to mention the barrier combat air patrol (BARCAP) fighters always circling near the PIRAZ ship. This situation was about to change, however. USS Biddle (DLG 34), under the command of Capt. Edward W. Carter, was on PIRAZ station that night, and even though bad weather resulted in few U.S. flights over North Vietnam, Biddle’s CIC crew noted lots of NV air contacts. Sometimes Biddle was tracking up to 15 MiGs simultaneously, and they seemed to be practicing at a probable dive bombing range.

The guided missile frigate USS Biddle (DLG 34). U.S. Navy photo

The following night, the 19th., started just as quietly. It was totally black outside with no moon and a high overcast. Again there was no U. S. air activity over North Vietnam except for the flight of one carrier based A-6 Intruder ground attack aircraft that had made a bombing run and was returning – damaged and copilot wounded. Commander Task Force 77 told one of the two BARCAP fighters to escort the damaged A-6 back to the carrier Midway. With half of the BARCAP gone, Lieutenant Ralph Muse, Biddle’s CIC Ship’s Combat Evaluator, radioed the Seventh Fleet command center aboard the carrier Kitty Hawk to ask that two ‘alert’ fighters be launched to fill in the gap. Seventh Feet replied back that the next flight of regular BARCAP fighters were to be launched within the hour, so the alert fighters would not be needed. The Seventh Fleet watch officer noted there was nothing going on that night anyway. That left the Biddle CIC crew feeling a little more vulnerable to air attack and heightened their lookout for suspicious air activity.

Most PIRAZ ships carried a detachment of U. S. Naval Security Group translators whose job was to constantly monitor NV voice radio communications and let the PIRAZ ship’s CIC crew and Seventh Fleet know what they were hearing. They were universally called ‘spooks.” Lt. Muse called the spooks and asked if they were hearing any unusual NV voice conversations. Their reply was, ‘check the area south of Hanoi on your radar.’ Muse told his ship’s weapons coordinator (SWC) to check the area and he immediately picked up two oncoming targets that could only be MiGs. They were over the water, moving fast, and headed straight for Biddle. While on PIRAZ duty, guided missile frigates normally had two Terrier missiles loaded on the launcher rails and ready to fire. Biddle was ready. Within seconds the SWC had the two Terrier radar directors locked on to the leading MiG.

The MiGs were into less than nine miles, and a warning signal went off telling the CIC crew that the ship was being painted by MiG fire control radar. Lieutenant Muse passed the word on the ship’s general announcing system, “Captain to the CIC please,” but he knew he was going to have to take action before the CO could get there, and he definitely did not have the time to radio the Seventh Fleet watch officer to get permission to fire. He was going to have to “bet his bars” that they were MiGs, and fire the missiles. His next command was on the general announcing system, “Clear the Fo’c’sle” – where the Terrier launcher was located. Next commands were: “Fire One” and “Fire Two, ” after which he called for the ship’s general quarters alarm to be sounded.

Next, Muse ordered the launcher reloaded, and the fire control radars shifted to the second MiG. The launcher was ready again within thirty seconds, and by that time Capt. Carter had arrived in the CIC. Almost simultaneously the bridge watch saw an explosion on the horizon and the lead MiG disappeared from the radar. The missile kill apparently convinced the second MiG pilot it was pointless to continue the attack, and the eavesdropping spooks confirmed that the pilot had radioed his controller that he was returning to base.

The destroyer escort USS Gray (DE 1054) was Biddle’s ‘shotgun’ PT boat destroyer during their Battle at PIRAZ. U. S. Navy photo

About fifteen minutes after the second MiG had turned away, Biddle’s NTDS surface search operator called out that three targets were approaching Biddle ‘on the deck’ at 500 knots, and only seven miles out. Seconds later the operators of both air search radars detected the targets, and the lead target was assigned to a Terrier fire control radar. At the same time Capt. Carter radioed their escorting ‘shotgun’ destroyer, USS Gray, and told them they were relieved of motor torpedo boat protection duty, and to protect themselves from the MiGs. The MiGs were so low that the Terrier fire control radars were having difficulty getting a lock on.

Capt. Carter ordered a turn so that the MiGs would be broadside on the port and ordered the five-inch gun mount at the stern and the port side three-inch gun amidships to fire at zero degrees elevation. It was called ‘barrage’ fire. Finally, they got missile system radar lock and two more Terriers were fired at the close-in MiGs. There is some question whether they scored a hit because by that time five-inch and three-inch projectiles were exploding to port, triggered by their radar proximity fuses. The spooks called the CIC and told them one of the MiG pilots had radioed his controller that he had the ship on his fire control radar and was going to ‘kill’ it. The five-inch gun crew fired 54 rounds without pause until the cease-fire was given. The three-inch gun fired an estimated 28 rounds before jamming.

It is possible the Terrier missiles accounted for one of the three MiGs and likely that a second MiG was brought down by barrage gunfire. In any event, all participants agree that the third MiG passed directly over the ship – but there was no explosion. One can only conjecture why. Possibilities are a wounded pilot, a pilot distracted by intense gunfire, he was over the ship before he could react, or the bomb was a dud that landed nearby in the darkness but did not explode. Crewmen on the shotgun destroyer Gray told them that watching Biddle in action was like the fourth of July – with the huge flashes of missile launches, gun muzzles blazing, and projectiles exploding out over the water.

For a complete account of Biddle’s ‘Battle at PIRAZ’ the reader is referred to James A. Treadway’s book Hard Charger! – The Story of the USS Biddle (DLG-34), published by iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0-595-67313-1 [Author’s note, Jim Treadway was an NTDS data system technician aboard Biddle at the time of the Battle at PIRAZ.]