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?”
Many Americans probably believed that by 1972, the war in Vietnam was essentially winding down. However, for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1972 would prove to be a busy year of conducting numerous and dangerous combat operations. An example of events that year happened in late March 1972, with an action taken by North Vietnam, which came to be called “The Easter Offensive of 1972.”
On March 30, the North Vietnam Army (NVA) invaded across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into South Vietnam sending fourteen North Vietnamese divisions backed by more than three hundred tanks. A significant number of NVA troops and armor vehicles were moving down Highway 1. This action by North Vietnam was a blitzkrieg, with conventional mechanized assault by troops well-equipped with armor, artillery and antiaircraft weapons.
In response to North Vietnam’s invasion, Navy task unit 71.1.1 ships were assigned to provide naval gunfire along the coast of Vietnam north of the DMZ. As part of this operation, on April 19, a group of Navy ships were lining up for a gunfire mission off the coast of North Vietnam near Dong Hoi. Previous air strikes had been reported to have softened up the area and intelligence reports suggested that there were no viable enemy aircraft operating in the area.
Along the coast of North Vietnam the Dong Hoi Gulf was a unique and active area. The coastline was mountainous and Highway 1 went through a pass very near to the Gulf of Tonkin. There was the point south of Brandon Bay where the highway could be attacked by naval forces and naval gunfire.
The ships assigned to the task unit were USS Sterett (DLG-31), a destroyer leader, guided missile ship, USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5), a guided missile cruiser, along with two Gearing class destroyers USS Higbee (DD-806) and USS Lloyd Thomas (DD-764). The task group’s operation on the afternoon of April 19, would later become to be known as the Battle of Dong Hoi Gulf.
At 1600, Oklahoma City, Higbee and Lloyd Thomas began their firing run against identified targets near the vicinity of Dong Hoi. Sterett was assigned to provide additional anti-aircraft cover with her Terrier missile system. Oklahoma City, Higbee and Lloyd Thomas ran parallel to coastline from north to south for the first firing run then they executed a return firing leg back towards the north.
Near the completion of the northward firing run, task group ships detected several air targets amongst the mountains. At around 1710, a single MiG aircraft came out of the mountains and headed for USS Higbee dropping a single 250 pound bomb. It was a near miss with no damage. The MiG circled back, but this time scored a hit on the destroyer’s after 5-inch/38 caliber gun, mount 52. The blast from the bomb, combined with exploding ready ammunition peeled open the top and sides of mount 52. Fortunately, the ship had just evacuated the gun mount due to a misfire and no one was inside. Four men in the upper ammunition handling room below mount 52 were the only injuries.
Meanwhile, Sterett had fired a Terrier missile at the attacking MiG, but missed. A second fired Terrier missile did not miss. Soon after the first MiG had started its attack, a second MiG, began to descend from the mountains, starting an attack run but then turned back toward the mountains. The second MiG briefly came into range of Sterett’s missiles and two missiles were fired at it. The MiG and the two missiles all disappeared from the ship’s radars at the same time, and a second Sterett MiG kill was assumed.
Later that same day, Sterrett and Higbee were attacked by high speed patrol craft launching Styx anti-ship missiles. Sterrett successfully repelled the Styx attack with Terrier missiles, and then, with her 5-inch/54 caliber gun, firing air fragmentation rounds at the radar position of the two-patrol craft, which was believed to have resulted in enemy losses and the sinking of both patrol craft. This later proved to be not true. What the Sterrett might have seen were phantom radar contacts likely caused by other Navy ships positioned to their north. However, this battle did result in special armaments and sensors being provided to destroyers for combating low flying aircraft and anti-ship missiles… If you would like to read about my journey from the Midwest to serving on board a Gearing class destroyer in Vietnam as recounted in, “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
1. How the U.S. Air Force and Navy Saved South Vietnam in 1972: Why the Vietnam War could have been lost even sooner. By Michael Peck. https://nationalinterest.org/blog
2. US Navy vs. Cruise Missiles? – the Battle off Dong Hoi. EagleSpeak, March 28, 2005. http://www.eaglespeak.us/
3. Styx anti-ship missiles. A surface-to-surface, anti-ship missile that became operational with the former Soviet Navy in 1958. A solid-fuel booster launched the missile, and a built-in rocket engine sustained its flight. It had a range of about 26 miles. The Soviet Union supplied its allies with Styx missiles, including North Vietnam.