Excerpts 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?”
“Side Trip to Hon Co/Tiger Island.”
It was early afternoon on December 1, 1972. Our 26-year-old U.S. Navy Gearing class destroyer, USS Rich (DD 820) was operating in the coastal waters of Vietnam, south of the Dong Hoi Gulf region, about 15 nautical miles out from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The ship had gone to Watch Condition I, General Quarters (GQ), “battle stations” about 30 minutes earlier. I was at my assigned battle station as the GQ helmsman steering the ship. Just moments before, our ship had finished a shore bombardment attack against the gun batteries and radar sites on Hon Co Island.
Hon Co Island had earned the name “Tiger Island” from U.S. Navy aviators. Navy aircraft were not allowed to return and land on their aircraft carriers while still carrying live ordnance. As such, for years, Navy bombers dropped any unused bombs over Vietnam on Tiger Island since the island was only inhabited by North Vietnamese troops. As a result, Tiger Island was loaded with anti-aircraft gun batteries and fire control radar sites to shoot down any U.S. aircraft flying over or nearby.
We had engaged in this attack on Tiger Island with two other destroyers, USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7) and USS Rowan (DD 782).
The three ships made up our Task Unit (TU) 71.1.1. After each ship completed its high-speed firing run on the shore batteries and radar sites, it turned away from the island. All three destroyers were now moving away from the island in a loose column formation on a base course of 125 degrees (heading southeast by east). We received a signal by tactical radiotelephone from the formation guide ship, slowing the formation speed to 15 knots.
Our ship was about 10,500 yards (5.25 nautical miles) out from the island, when the bridge 1JL/IJS phone talker relayed from Combat Information Center (CIC) that the electronic warfare (EW) station was reporting J-band fire control radar tracking and locked onto our ship. Just seconds later, the phone talker announced that EW was reporting a second locked-on J-band fire control radar track.
Next, the IJL/IJS phone talker relayed the EW report, “Fire control radar bearing 015.” Moments after this report, across a sector starting just aft of our port beam, the sounds of BOOM..BOOM..BOOM..BOOM from the NVA shore guns rapidly firing could be heard throughout the bridge.
The next 15 to 20 seconds were a tough time of waiting. We understood that somewhere up above us there was a lot of steel, lead, and explosives inbound and aimed at us. I readied myself for commands to helm that would be coming from the XO. The lee helmsman stationed to my left nudged me to stand by. I knew we would probably keep our course and speed until we could see a pattern or the fall of the shots, providing they didn’t get us with a direct hit. The first incoming salvo was a four air-burst pattern that detonated directly ahead and above the ship at a range of less than 75 yards. Though it was daytime, white and orange-red light, much like lightning, flashed through the bridge, at the unmistakable loud “KEERAACK” sound of close high explosives. Then there was the distinct whining noise shrapnel sometimes made as it traveled through the air, hissing as it struck the water.
On the bridge, everything came alive with activity. Automatically, the boatswain mate of the watch (BMOW) began taking gyro compass bearings from the port bridge wing gyro compass repeater to the visible muzzle flashes and gun smoke on the island. The IJL/IJS circuit phone talker passed the BMOW’s gyro compass bearings to the weapons officer in CIC. Sonar was reporting over the 21MC intercom close aboard splashes and underwater detonations. It seemed like one after another.
“KERUMPF” noises began as chaff was launched, spreading small metallic pieces overhead of our ship in an attempt to scatter the enemy’s fire control radar signals. The forward lookout reported multiple splashes in the water, starting from 330 degrees on the port bow to 020 degrees on the starboard bow. We all could hear “KEERAACKs” repeatedly, one after the other, as the high explosive rounds in each incoming salvo detonated, giving off bright flashes of white-orange light. Through the front bridge windows, we could see some of the large geysers of seawater created by impacting rounds.
Now, the whining and hissing noises from flying shrapnel seemed to be coming from everywhere. Then the XO commanded, “Engines all ahead flank, make turns for 28 knots,” followed by a command to the helmsman (me), “Left full rudder.”
Immediately, I reacted to the command and repeated back the order, “Aye, left full rudder.” At the same time, I was rapidly rotating the helm wheel to the left until the rudder angle indicator showed left 30 degrees. “My rudder is left full,” I reported…to read “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of the links to various booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.