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 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. Ships like mine, USS Rich (DD 820), usually were initially assigned to the Vietnam gun line to provide naval gunfire support (NGFS) to on shore forces. During late November, my ship was mostly providing NGFS to the U.S. Marine I Corps in the northern part of South Vietnam at an area we called MR1. The 5-inch/38 caliber guns on Gearing class destroyers were considered to be extremely effective against medium range targets and coastal defense guns, which made these destroyers ideal offshore gun platforms in Vietnam.

USS Rich (DD 820). A Gearing class FRAM I destroyer.*

In less than two days since our ship had arrived on the gun line, our shipboard life had changed completely. It no longer bore any resemblance to the old normal underway routine. The major changes were not much sleep for anyone and very little time for food. Showers and clean laundry would now be a thing of the past. For the next several weeks, there would be no sleeping in our berthing compartments. For example, the operations berthing compartment where I lived also contained the upper handling room for mount 52, the after gun mount. With ongoing gunfire support missions essentially around the clock, there was constant activity in and around the mount 52 upper handling room.

They had commandeered many racks to hold empty powder cartridge cases. Ever try sleeping directly under a shooting 5-inch gun? Probably not going to happen. When not on watch, at GQ stations, or in the middle of underway replenishment evolutions, sleep was in the form of short cat naps. We napped anywhere we found enough deck room that was out of the way. Many found that their flak jackets also served as quite decent pillows.

Mount 51, twin 5-inch/38 caliber guns letting loose in Vietnam. Photo by shipmate Ron Ciervo.

Another issue that had developed was stowage of the empty powder cartridges cases. Empty powder cartridge cases were being stowed in berthing compartments and anywhere there was available space. In some areas, particularly at night, it was a matter of finding ways to navigate around or through the stacks of empty cartridge cases in order to get around the ship. Typically each morning, empty cartridge cases were moved from below decks to above deck stowage locations. Empty cartridge cases were saved with the intent to transfer them back to the ammunition ships during the next underway replenishment. Normally, the empty cartridge cases were sent back to the ammunition supply ship (then called retro-grade) near the end of each replenishment evolution.

Aft Berthing_820
Aft enlisted berthing compartment during NGFS operations. Our racks became stowage for retro-grade and 5-inch rounds. Photo by shipmate Ron Ciervo.

Meals now mainly came from C-rations, since most of the cooks and mess cooks were assigned to the gun crews, working either in the magazines, handling rooms, or in one of the gun mounts. C-rations, or the Meal Combat Individual (MCI), were distributed around on the ship to the crew at least once, sometimes twice per day. Each C-ration or MCI was packed in a small, rectangular cardboard box. Each box contained individual cans with a meat-based entree item, crackers/candy, a flat spread, and a dessert item.

Meal, Combat Individual or C-rations became our best chance for a meal.*

The C-ration boxes also came with the P-38 can opener and a mini cigarette pack, containing five cigarettes (Marlboro, Winston, and Kools). The P-38s and the cigarettes were the two more popular items. There were some nonsmokers on board who would trade their cigarette packs with smokers for their C-ration canned items. At first, some felt the C-rations were an improvement over the food served in the ship’s galley.

P-38 can opener and mini cigarette pack that came in each C-ration box.*


Area of MR1, Point Allison.

The evening watch (1800 to 2400) back on station at MR1 was uneventful. Starting on the mid-watch, November 29, the first gunfire support mission call came in from the Marine spotter just before 0100. That fire mission lasted until the cease-fire order at 0525, with 174 HE rounds fired. Thus began the routine from watch to watch for the next two days. The ship stayed in its assigned sector ranging offshore from Quang Ngai to the south and near to Cap Lai in the northern part of the sector. During the prior 48-hour period, the ship had fired 375 illumination and high explosive (HE) rounds in gunfire support missions.

USS Hanson-DD832_Mount-51R. Dunn, U.S. Navy [Public domain]
Gearing class destroyer’s mount 51, 5-inch/38 caliber guns firing on targets. Public Domain.*
Hon Co or Tiger Island, about 15 nautical miles off the Vietnam coastline, northeast of the DMZ.

On the afternoon of November 30, the rumor around the ship was that we were going to attack Tiger Island that night. 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.

The rumors about Tiger Island were that the North Vietnam Army (NVA) had many 8-inch/203 mm artillery gun batteries, surface-to-air missile installations, and more sophisticated Soviet (Russian) fire control and coastal radar installations on the island. Many naval ships had previously carried out attacks on Tiger Island and came under heavy counter-battery fire from the island…To read “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and eBooks.

©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.

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