Excerpt 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 1973, the war in Vietnam was essentially over. However, for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, January 1973 would prove to still be busy conducting numerous and dangerous combat operations.
USS Rich (DD 820) was scheduled to depart Singapore on the morning of New Year’s Eve—Sunday, December 31. After my duty day on Thursday, that left me Friday and Saturday to get off the ship as much as possible before we departed. The orders for the ship were to proceed back to Subic Bay for one day to refuel and to refit the ship, then proceed to Vietnam for duty back at Yankee Station and MR1, the gun line. The word on the ship was that this time we would be going back and would be staying in Vietnam probably for the duration. How long would the duration be, and what did it mean for our ship and crew? Nobody seemed able to say.
We had seen in the news that the peace talks in Paris between the U.S., the South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese had collapsed in mid-December, and we knew that Operation Linebacker II had started back in Vietnam. At least for now, all the news sources indicated that for the immediate future it was not known if the North Vietnamese were willing to continue negotiating any type of peace agreement.
By now, the crew had established its favorite bars or watering holes in Sembawang Village. The preference for most was to spend what time remained in Singapore just lying low, relaxing, and enjoying the live bar bands. A number of guys had settled in by pairing up with the Malaysian and Thai bar girls to take best advantage of the temporary but pleasant companionship they provided. The hard partying and heavy drinking was over. Now, it was more about wringing the best we could from every remaining hour until it was our time to leave.
On Sunday at 1100, the ship got underway from the dock at the ANZUK Naval Basin and proceeded outbound into the waters of the Singapore Strait. It took a little more than an hour to make the passage around the northeastern coast and eastern coast of Singapore Island. Then the ship was back in the Western Pacific Ocean. By early afternoon, the ship completed the scheduled rendezvous with USS Midway (CVA 41) and took our assigned station off the carrier’s stern. Our Christmas break was over, and we would bring in the New Year of 1973 while underway, bound for Subic Bay.
Upon leaving Singapore, USS Midway and our ship were actually scheduled to first divert further south to cross the equator (0 degrees latitude), then proceed back north. Singapore is at latitude coordinate 1º 17.4’ N, about 77 miles north of the equator. For whatever reason, the trip to the equator was canceled and after we kept our rendezvous with USS Midway, she set a northbound passage speed of 25 knots. Many in the crew were disappointed at the lost opportunity to become a “Shellback” and having to remain in the “Pollywogs” status.
A “Trusty Shellback” was a sailor who had previously crossed the line (equator) and had been initiated. Shellbacks had to prove they were true Shellbacks, so they always kept their Shellback certificate or wallet card with them, attesting to their Shellback status. The Trusty Shellbacks were disappointed at the lost opportunity to initiate the Pollywogs during the “Crossing the Line” ceremony and initiation. There seemed to be some sense of urgency for our ships, or at least USS Midway, to get back to the Gulf of Tonkin.
The ship arrived back at the Subic Bay Naval Base late afternoon on January 2. We moored port-side-to outboard of USS Tucker (DD 875). Some of the crew not in the duty section were allowed liberty that evening, but their liberty expired on board at midnight. Surprisingly, not many bothered to go ashore. Most of the evening through early the following morning was spent topping off the ship with freshwater and refueling from an alongside oil barge.
That same night, personnel from the Subic Bay weapons department and our weapons crew changed out all four 5-inch gun barrels on mounts 51 and 52. The 5-inch/38 caliber bore was rated to fire 2,000 rounds before needing replacement. We had far, far, exceeded that in December. At 0900 the next morning, we got the ship underway from Subic Bay and proceeded out into the South China Sea. The orders for our ship were to rendezvous with USS Midway and escort her to Yankee Station.
At 2313 that night, our ship caught up with USS Midway. Midway’s base course was 270 degrees, speed 22 knots. She assigned our ship to take station two miles astern of her. The next morning, Midway gave our ship permission to steam independently while we affected several engineering repairs. By early afternoon, with our engineering repairs completed, we regained station with Midway. Once again, our ship was put on plane guard duty off Midway’s starboard quarter at 1,500 yards.
The second day out of Subic Bay, we hit really bad weather. High winds and big seas had the ship rolling and pitching heavily. That morning at breakfast, one of the new crew members that had checked on board the ship in Subic Bay sat next to me. He was a fireman in the engineman rating fresh out of “A” school, and this was his first time at sea. He asked me if it was always this rough of a ride. I explained to him that destroyers rolled and pitched a lot. He began to tell me that he had spent the night watching the forward emergency fire pump, which was on the line because the main fire pump was down.
He added, “The seas were so damn rough in the forward part of the ship as it was coming out of the water, and the fire pump kept losing suction. That’s all I did all night long, shutting down the pump every time it lost suction and restarting it to get suction again.” I smiled and told him there were a lot of things on board that had to be nursed along to keep them working. Then he asked, “You live in after berthing, right?” I told him that I did.
Next, he asked, “Is it normal for water to be sloshing around on the deck in there all the time?” I remember telling him that, yes, that was normal. He shook his head and said, “I guess if this is destroyer life, I’ll just have to get used to it.”
Our ship stayed with USS Midway, primarily providing plane guard during flight operations. Escorting Midway and plane guard duties became the routine for the next several days until 0920 on the morning of January 6, when the bridge crew and the lookouts sighted an aircraft launching from the carrier’s flight deck and crashing into the sea. We immediately passed the word throughout the ship to “man the recovery detail.” The captain arrived on the bridge and took the conn.
Midway helicopters conducted the primary search with our ship assisting. At 0928, eight minutes after the crash, the helicopter marked a position in the water with a floating smoke signal was marking an area of aircraft debris. The commander of task group (CTG) 77.3 ordered our ship to recover as much of the debris as possible. For nearly an hour and a half, our deck and rescue boat crews worked, using grappling hooks and line.
At about 1130, one of Midway’s helicopters arrived over our deck to load all recovered aircraft debris. The crashed aircraft was an A-7B Corsair II. The pilot had ejected from the airplane but had been killed.
During that night, we saw a message that the radioman brought up to the bridge about an explosion on board USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7) while operating off the coast from Saigon in South Vietnam. USS Wilson was the same ship we had worked with during the night raid attacks in North Vietnam in December. Two sailors had been injured from a premature shell explosion in Mount 51. The explosion had destroyed about one foot of the gun barrel on one of her 5-inch/54 caliber guns. What had happened on board USS Wilson had been one of our major concerns in mid-December when our 5-inch/38 caliber guns began had begun experiencing frequent foul bore casualties.
The next several weeks, the routine turned to serving as plane guard ship for USS Midway during her flight operations and completing underway replenishment at sea for FAS or to take on stores about every third day. Escorting aircraft carriers burned a lot of fuel. Destroyers as escorting and plane guard ships were constantly changing course and speed to stay on the assigned station. To intercept other ships often required speeds in excess of 18 knots, and in some cases staying at speed in excess of 25 knots just to keep up. Those types of higher speeds served to suck down fuel and boiler feed water fast… If you would like to read more stories from 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.