Expanded story from: “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”
“Another story on what most Americans don’t know about the Navy’s role in the Vietnam War?”
On August 27, 1972 the Battle of Haiphong Harbor also known as Operation Lion’s Den, occurred involving one of the few ship-to-ship naval battles of the entire Vietnam War. This raid, which took place off the Do Son Peninsula and Cat Ba Island area at the entrance to Haiphong Harbor was carried out by Task Unit 77.1.2., which included four ships: USS Newport News (CA 148), an 8-inch gun cruiser; USS Providence (CLG 6), a 6-inch gun missile cruiser; USS Robison (DDG 12), a guided-missile destroyer; and USS Rowan (DD 782).
The purpose of the raid was to knock out coastal defense and SAM sites as well as other military targets in Haiphong Harbor or the “Lion’s Den” as it was often called. Captain John Renn, the commander of Destroyer Squadron 25, led the raid from USS Robison (DDG 12) and Admiral James L. Holloway III, the Seventh Fleet commander, also participated as an observer on USS Newport News (CA 148).
At 2200, Newport News went to general quarters (GQ) as it approached the area in column with the other ships. Admiral Holloway joined the skipper of Newport News, Captain Walter F. Zartman, on the bridge, but assured the captain that he was just an observer and “would stay out of his hair.” The four ships approached the channel at 25 knots and began firing on targets two and a half miles southeast of the Do Son light.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) shore batteries soon returned fire, giving the U.S. ships excellent aim points for counterbattery fire. Unlike U.S. Navy projectiles, which employed flashless powder, the powder in the NVA rounds caused brilliant muzzle flashes. It was later estimated that enemy gunners fired approximately 300 rounds at American ships that night, but none found its mark.
Newport News ceased firing at 2333 and prepared to egress from the harbor. Captain Zartman informed Holloway that all of the ship’s targets “had been covered” and that secondary explosions were noted at Cat Ba airfield and an ammunition dump. A short period after cease fire, Combat Information Center (CIC) reported a surface target, designated Skunk Alpha, at 10,000 yards bearing 088 degrees, heading for Newport News at high speed.”
The P-6-class Soviet-manufactured fast patrol boat had waited to ambush Newport News in the vicinity of Ile de Norway. Numerous rocks and pinnacles near the island made it difficult for Newport News‘ radars to lock onto the patrol boat. The patrol boat’s relative bearing was also dead ahead, making it impossible for the cruiser’s 8-inch guns to fire a low angle shot (an electronics antenna on the forecastle blocked such shots).
Newport News swung hard to the starboard to unmask the battery and commence firing. Within minutes, the contact appeared to be on fire. CIC then informed the bridge of two additional patrol boats 16,000 yards dead ahead. Newport News came hard port to bring its guns to bear on the new targets—a heading that now put the ship on a collision course with the shoals of Ile de Norway.
The zigzagging approach of the patrol boats combined with darkness and the confusing effect of the cruiser’s own fire made it difficult for the 21,000-ton ship to sink these tiny targets. When a call came in from Providence about a possible fourth contact, Holloway told Zartman that he was going to call in air support. “Attention any Seventh Fleet aircraft in the vicinity of Haiphong,” Holloway announced on a special Navy frequency reserved for such emergencies, “This is Jehova himself aboard USS Newport News with a shore bombardment force in Haiphong Harbor. We are engaged with several surface units and need some illumination to help us sort things out.”
“Jehovah, this is Raven Four Four, inbound with a flight of two Corsairs. We have flares and Rockeye [cluster bombs] aboard,” Lieutenant (jg) William W. Pickavance of Attack Squadron 93 replied. Holloway cleared the two planes to attack. One of the A-7s illuminated the area with a flare while the other dropped a Rockeye, which along with gunfire from Newport News and Rowan, finished off the targets. Later, intelligence analysts credited Newport News with destroying one boat, Rowan with damaging a second, and the A-7 with “possibly sinking” a third.
Following the engagement, Newport News rendezvoused with Providence and Robison and steamed southward along Vietnam’s coastline to the area of Quang Tri Province to provide Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops with naval gunfire support…If you would like to read more stories about naval warship combat actions in Vietnam as recounted in my book “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.
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©2018 George Trowbridge