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 officially called, “The 1972 Spring-Summer Offensive.” Certain South Vietnamese literature refers it as “Red Fiery Summer,” since this campaign by North Vietnam was sustained through the spring/summer months until October 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.
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. Sterett launched their Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopter, to operate as an airborne spotter for the gunfire mission. 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. It was there that the Highway was vulnerable to naval gunfire.
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. Upon commencing their firing run, all three ships began receiving heavy counterbattery fire from shore. The North Vietnamese shore batteries didn’t score any direct hits on Oklahoma City, Higbee or Lloyd Thomas but many of the incoming rounds appeared to bracket the ships. Oklahoma City did report shrapnel damage to her superstructure from some close aboard rounds.
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.
USS Higbee, Oklahoma City and Lloyd Thomas exited the area to the northeast, accompanied by the Sterett. Sterett roughly paralleled Higbee’s course and making oblique course changes as they headed away from the battle area in order to keep Sterett’s forward missile main battery unmasked.
Later that afternoon shortly after 1800, Sterrett and Higbee were attacked by high speed patrol craft launching what were believed to be Styx anti-ship missiles. Sterrett successfully repelled the attack with Terrier missiles, and then, with their 5-inch/54 caliber gun, firing rounds of air fragmentation at the radar position of the two-patrol craft, which resulted in enemy losses and the sinking of both patrol craft.
The idea that Sterrett had shot down a missile with a missile 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…to read 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
The stories in these posts and the book; “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir,” reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been recreated from memory. Dates, times, and locations were recreated from declassified U.S. Navy records and others. Photographs used are either public domain or owned by the author. Illustrations and maps used were either created by the author or in the public domain. The stories in these posts and the book are solely the opinion of the author and not the publisher, Richter Publishing, LLC.
*Image was found in public domain or it could not be established after reasonable search, that any claim existed to the image. Image used for illustrative purposes only and is not the property of the author. Where ever possible credit for the image is indicated in the caption.
- 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
- US Navy vs. Cruise Missiles? – the Battle off Dong Hoi. EagleSpeak, March 28, 2005. http://www.eaglespeak.us/
- First-Hand: The Naval Tactical Data System in Combat – Chapter 7 of the Story of the Naval Tactical Data System. By David L. Boslaugh, Capt. USN, Retired. Vietnam, the Real Service Test. ethw.org/
- 1972 Sterett Cruise Book. USS Sterett Association Cruise Books/1972. http://www.sterett.net/