Excerpts From “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”
“Hit and Run at Hon La.”
It was December 1, 1972. Our ship USS Rich (DD 820) was attached to the Commander Task Unit (CTU) 71.1.1, embarked on board USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7). CTU 71.1.1 was made up of our ship, USS Wilson (DDG 7) and USS Rowan (DD 782). CTU 71.1.1 gave the tactical order for the ships to form up in a loose column formation. The first raid was to attack the island of Hon La less than one mile off the coast of Vinh Son.
There are two small islands just off the coast of Vinh Son, Hon Co and Hon La. The island of Hon La, which is less than one mile off the coast and was known to have coastal defense sites with large artillery and radar sites. The first night raid was to be carried out by the three ships in conjunction with the air raids launched from the carrier fighter/bomber air wings and U.S. Air Force bombing operations. I really think the purpose of our raid was just to tie up North Vietnamese Army (NVA) coastal defenses so their guns wouldn’t be available to use as anti-aircraft weapons.
At 1900 our ship went to GQ stations. USS Wilson was the guide ship for the formation and we took a station off Wilson’s port quarter at 1,000 yards. The course and speed set by Wilson for our small formation of ships was a base course of 000 degrees, speed 24 knots. We were going north in a hurry.
After sunset, darken ship was set including the securing of the ship’s navigation lights. For the night raid operations, ships went totally dark, and we depended upon radar for collision avoidance with the other ships in our formation. Our three-ship formation began its approach to Hon La from the southeast on a base course of 050 degrees, speed 21 knots. USS Wilson was the lead ship 30 degrees off our port bow at 6,000 yards (three nautical miles). USS Rowan was astern of our ship off our port quarter at 6,000 yards. My GQ station for this raid was as the lee helmsman.
At 0034, our speed was slowed to 17 knots, and at 0046, we changed course to 325 degrees (northwest) for nine nautical miles to close the distance to Hon La. At 0119, our ship commenced the three nautical mile leg of our firing run on a course of 248 degrees, speed 23 knots. Mount 51 began firing on the assigned targets on Hon La. At 0127, we changed course to 290 degrees and slowed to 16 knots; we could see the rounds from our ships exploding and impacting almost dead ahead on Hon La and targets farther inland near Vinh Son. We could hear and see USS Wilson firing her 5-inch/54 caliber guns off our starboard bow as she headed off in a northerly course direction. USS Rowan positioned off our port quarter was firing her mount 51 5-inch/38 caliber guns. At 0134, the XO who had the conn ordered “right full rudder,” and as the ship came about to starboard, the XO ordered, “Steady as you go, on course, 027 degrees.”
The ship was now nearly broadside to Hon La, and both gun mounts 51 and 52 let loose with long barrages of 5-inch fire. We stayed on our course at 16 knots for about 2 nautical miles. The IJL phone talker with CIC began to relay EW reports of a J-band fire control radar lock-on and tracking, bearing 265 degrees (south of west) from the ship. Within moments, the EW reported a second J-band fire control radar lock-on and tracking, bearing 295 degrees (west-northwest) from the ship. The XO ordered the helm and lee helm, “right full rudder, engines all ahead flank, make turns for 27 knots.”
Within moments, the next helm command came, “Steady as you go, on course, 095 degrees.” Just as the ship steadied up on the new ordered course, four airbursts detonated with the loud “KEERAACK” sounds of their high explosives above the ship.
From the bridge we could hear hissing noises and a sound like someone was throwing steel bolts at the ship; it was shrapnel coming down like rain. To evade getting hit by the counterbattery gun fire, the XO ordered the steering of a short weaving pattern about the base course of 095 degrees, 15 degrees to port for 30 seconds, then shift the rudder to come back 15 degrees to starboard for 30 seconds, and so on.
We turned our stern toward Hon La, which only left mount 52, the aft guns unmasked and clear to return counterbattery fire as we moved away…. to read more from “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.