Some Relief at Watch Condition II

From “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”

“A story on what most Americans don’t know about the Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.”

During early December 1972, my ship USS Rich (DD 820) had spent the previous five days attached to Commander Task Unit (CTU) 71.1.1 comprised of three ships, the USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7), the destroyer USS Rowan (DD 782), and our ship. Over the five day period, our task unit had conducted strike missions attacking North Vietnam Army (NVA) positions on Hon Co (Tiger) Island, then northward along the North Vietnam coastline to the vicinity of Brandon Bay. Operations had been essentially around the clock and the crew was beat and dead tired. Early morning on December 6th, was spent completing an ammunition on-load from USS Mauna Kea (AE 22) with the Standard Tensioned Replenishment Alongside Method (STREAM) of transfer and then a Fueling at Sea (FAS) replenishment with USS Cacapon (AO 52).

USS Rich (DD 820) a Gearing class (FRAM I) destroyer. [Public domain]

Early that afternoon, our ship was released from CTU 71.1.1, and we had orders to report to CTG 75.9. It would be back to the gun line in Military Region I (MR1) for us. The assigned Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS) station for our ship was back to Point Allison, near the DMZ. The ship went to Watch Condition II. For watch standing, that shifted everyone back into the six-hours on and six-hours off watch rotations. Over the radio, we reported in with the naval gunfire liaison officer (NGLO) and Marine spotter shortly after noon. By 1330 we received the spotter’s radio call for our first gunfire support mission. It was right back in the NGFS saddle for us. By the end of the watch, our ship had fired 363 HE rounds on various targets designated by the Marine spotter. Ho hum. What had seemed exciting less than two weeks before now was, well, routine.

USS Rich Deck Log Entry excerpt on December 6, 1972.
Quang Tri Province just south of the DMZ. While stationed at MR1 for NGFS often kept us very close to the entrance of the Cua Viet river.

Many of us had not had more than two or three consecutive hours of sleep in the past five days. Now that we were back in the six and six hour watch rotations, if you could find a place to sleep, getting four or five hours of sleep at a time was possible. Doesn’t sound like much sleep, does it? But it was just enough sleep to break the grip on our state of chronic fatigue. Looking back, it seems amazing how well young 20-somethings could withstand the rigors of not having much to eat, no or very few showers, no racks for some, and little to no sleep. Our physiological state probably also aided us in feeling little to no stress from repeatedly tempting the gunners on the NVA coastal defense batteries to kill us. I know many of us by this point had grown more accustomed to the experiences of our ship being fired on by the NVA. I found at least for me, the stress caused by combat action was mitigated or offset by the need for sleep or trying to meet my other basic human needs. The bad news was, we knew we would probably have to go back and do it again, but not today.

From one six-hour watch to the next, the ship was called upon for gunfire support missions mainly around the Cua Viet River. On December 6, from 1333 to 2312 we fired 453 HE rounds onto an array of targets north of the Cua Viet River as designated by the ANGLICO[1] Marine spotter. During the mid-watch from 0040 to 0300 on December 7, the ship fired 145 more HE rounds on targets as called in by the Marine spotter. By 0300, we had fired 598 HE rounds into the area north of the Cua Viet River area in the past 14 hours.

I distinctly remember the night of December 6, for one simple reason: I was able to get a little over five straight hours of sleep. After getting off watch at 1800, I was physically and mentally spent. The prior five days of getting little to no sleep had caught up with me. I went to the operations berthing compartment and found an empty rack away from the mount 52 upper handling room. I removed the “fart sack” (a type of fitted bed sheet with an opening at one end for sliding over the length of a mattress) from my mattress. After lying down on the empty rack’s mattress, I got inside of my fart sack, much the same as one would get into a sleeping bag. The fart sack was long enough to cover me from head to toe and protected me from all the dirt, paint chips, and insulation that rained down from the overhead every time mount 52 fired. I went out like a light.

Rich’s forward gun mount 51. Twin 5-inch/38 caliber guns. Photo by shipmate Ron Ciervo.

I woke up and got up a little after 2300 to get ready for the mid-watch. I felt good; the sleep had helped me considerably with my fatigue issues. As I appeared from the dark, one of the guys working outside the upper handling room looked at me in disbelief. He asked, “Were you sleeping in here?” I told him yes, and pointed toward the rack where I had been sleeping. He said, “Man, that’s unbelievable; we’ve shot over 200 rounds in the past five hours.”

I remember telling him that I hadn’t heard them. To me, this experience proved that if a human being was tired enough, they could sleep through just about anything, including soundly sleeping for five hours while one deck below a firing 5-inch gun….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.

1. U.S. Marine Corps 1st Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO). A Fleet Marine Force detachment consisting mainly of forward artillery observers, close air-support specialists, and radio operators.

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