“Another story on what most Americans don’t know about the Navy’s role in the Vietnam War?”
My ship, the USS Rich (DD 820), was on deployment from our home-port of Norfolk, Virginia to the Western Pacific (WESTPAC). We had originally been assigned to the gun line just south of the DMZ along the 17th parallel. The Dong Hoi Gulf is to the north of the DMZ. By late 1972, this area, and areas further north to Vinh and Brandon Bay, were now the “hot” areas.
Our ship mostly provided naval gunfire support (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 were extremely reliable and very effective against medium range targets and coastal defense guns.
After our earlier experiences during the months of November and December of 1972 with Linebacker operations and on the gun line, many in the crew were becoming more optimistic about our immediate future and were okay with the idea of staying out at Yankee Station. Since the first week of January 1973, our ship had been assigned to Commander Task Group (CTG) 77.3. Now instead of gunfire support or running strike missions along the North Vietnam coastal areas our ship was mostly assigned to serve as a plane guard or escort ship to the aircraft carrier USS Midway whenever she ran flight operations.
Yankee Station was a designated point well away from the coast of Vietnam out in the Gulf of Tonkin. The open sea area was used by Task Force 77’s Navy aircraft carriers to launch air strikes into Vietnam. While the point’s official designation was “Point Yankee,” generally everyone referred to it as Yankee Station.
A plane guard ship was tasked to recover the aircrew of planes or helicopters which might have to ditch or crash in the water during aircraft carrier flight operations. While approaching the carrier to land or following a failed landing, aircraft might ditch or crash. In that event, the plane guard ship proceeded to the approximate position of the aircraft, and their rescue boat was launched into the water to rescue the aircrew.
One comment heard on the mess decks summed up how many in the crew were feeling: “This plane guarding shit beats the hell out of getting our ass shot at every other goddamn night.”
In the interim period since the ship had last been on the gun line in mid-December, we had received a considerable number of new crew members on board. You could detect looks of disbelief on the new crew members’ faces as guys would sometimes recount our earlier experiences on the gun line or during Linebacker operations. My thought was that if we did go back, they would just have to see it for themselves, then they would believe it. I hoped we wouldn’t, but as it turned out, we went back.
The next morning at 1113 on January 20, our ship was ordered to detach from USS Midway and CTG 77.3 and report to CTG 75.9. We were to proceed to the area of MR1 at Point Allison, back on the gun line. I guess the 7th Fleet staff had decided our ship had been having it too good for too long. It was our turn back in the barrel.
After detaching from USS Midway, the ship was brought around to a new course of 265 degrees (west), speed 25 knots. Apparently, we were going to race ourselves in covering the distance back to MR1. At 1600 that afternoon, we checked in with the naval gunfire liaison officer (NGLO) and the U.S. Marine Corps 1st Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) Marine spotter. We shifted back into Watch Condition II, with watch rotations six hours on, then six hours off.
Less than 30 minutes later, our ship was providing gunfire support on targets in several areas located just south of the DMZ. The now-familiar area between the Cua Viet River and the DMZ seemed to be the hot area once again. The conditions here had remained the same; it was like we had never left.
Now back on the gun line, the tempo of gunfire support missions was reduced from what it had been in December. For the next day or so, our ship was only firing 50 to 90 rounds per six hour watch rotations, which was much less than we were accustomed to. During the mid-watch on January 22, we fired 160 HE rounds into target areas inland of the sand dunes north of the Cua Viet River, just to the south of the DMZ. During this gun fire mission, we did get six or seven rounds of counterbattery fire from NVA positions, but none of the incoming salvos were closer than maybe 400 or 450 yards.
These NVA shore battery positions appeared to be located about two miles north of the DMZ at a coastal point of land called Cap Lai, also known as Mui Lai. However, it seemed almost as if they really didn’t want to kill us, or they were just piss-poor gunners. The counterbattery fire coming from Cap Lai was not big-gun HE projectiles such as we had experienced elsewhere. Here, the counterbattery splashes were much smaller and closer together. We guessed the NVA was firing anti-aircraft cannons at us, definitely not much bigger than 40 millimeters. The ship stayed at Watch Condition II and did not go to GQ stations.
One of the new crew members on watch asked me, “Are they really shooting at us?”
I replied, “Yes, but it’s really no big deal.”
I could just make out the guy’s face in the low light; he was looking at me in kind of a weird way when he said, “Man, you’re crazy.” …To read “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