Was The Easter Offensive A Success?
Military History | Vietnam War
Despite the appalling result of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Operation Lam Son 79, the offensive into Laos in February 1971, the Nixon administration’s strategy of “Vietnamization” and drawdown of U.S. forces continued at a precipitous pace. As far as a vocal segment of much of the American population was concerned, the United States could not get out of Vietnam fast enough. As U.S. troop strength in Vietnam dropped from 475,200 at the end of 1969 to 334,600 at the end of 1970 and 156,000 at the end of 1971, U.S. deaths dropped accordingly, from 11,780 to 6,173 to 2,414 in 1971 (the peak was 1968 with 16,899 U.S. deaths). Of the U.S. troops in Vietnam at the end of 1971, only about 10,000 were ground combat troops and the rest were advisors and support, and even that number was on a glide slope to go below 30,000 by mid-1972.
As U.S. forces in Vietnam drew down, debate raged within the upper reaches of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) military and government about what to do next (while their negotiators played rope-a-dope at the Paris Peace Talks). One faction favored a continuation of Chinese-style low-intensity guerilla war in South Vietnam. This faction had been ascendant for years, but the disastrous losses suffered by the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam during the failed 1968 Tet Offensive didn’t leave much for the North to work with. (Although Tet was viewed as a psychological and political victory for the Communists, it was a severe military defeat.)
Another North Vietnamese faction increasingly advocated that the time would soon be right for a major conventional invasion of the South. In the ARVN Lom Son 719 offensive into Laos (intended to cut the North Vietnamese “Ho Chi Minh Trail” supply route to the South), the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) inflicted a decisive and embarrassing defeat on the U.S.-trained and -equipped ARVN force, throwing them right back out of Laos in a pell-mell retreat (and shooting down over 100 U.S. helicopters while they were at it). Buoyed by this victory, reduction in U.S. forces, anti-war opposition in the United States, and miscalculating that in an election year the Nixon administration would not respond aggressively to an offensive, the North Vietnamese spent most of 1971 preparing for an offensive. Despite nearly constant U.S. air attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Vietnamese would move tens of thousands of men, hundreds of tanks, and huge stocks of supplies into position to attack by early 1972.
Another major factor in the North Vietnamese decision to commit to a conventional offensive was that although U.S. combat capability in Vietnam was weakening by the day, large quantities of Soviet and Communist Chinese arms and other war material were flowing into North Vietnam, mostly by sea through the port of Haiphong on the Gulf of Tonkin.
Although the mainstay of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force’s (VPAF) four fighter regiments was still the elderly (but highly maneuverable) MiG-17 Fresco (one 37-millimeter and two 23-millimeter cannons), increasing numbers of newer model MiG-21 Fishbeds with AA-2 Atoll infrared air-to-air missiles were joining the force. North Vietnamese air defenses were being upgraded with more SA-2 Guideline missiles and launchers, newer and better networked radars and ground-control intercept (GCI) capability, as well as more and larger-caliber radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The ground forces were being equipped with hundreds of T-54 tanks, PT-76 light amphibious tanks and armored personnel carriers, and 130-millimeter artillery. Air defense of the ground forces was dramatically upgraded with the introduction of SA-7 Grail shoulder-fired infrared-seeking surface-to-air missiles, as well as the ZSU-57-2 tracked mobile radar-directed AAA guns (these would present a highly lethal threat to helicopters and South Vietnamese A-1 Skyraiders, but posed a severe danger to jets as well).
U.S. Navy leaders, whose advice on how to conduct the war had generally been ignored by U.S. political leaders, were concerned that the unimpeded import of war material into North Vietnam by sea could result in no good. Key Navy leaders at the time included:
- Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff
- Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations
- Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (his son a POW in North Vietnam)
- Admiral Bernard A. Clarey, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet
- Vice Admiral William P. Mack, Commander U.S. Seventh Fleet
- Rear Admiral Robert S. Salzer, Commander Naval Forces Vietnam/Chief Naval Advisory Group
By 1972, the entire sizable U.S. Navy “brown water” riverine forces had been turned over to the South Vietnamese navy, which was also taking increasing responsibility for Operation Market Time off the coast, interdicting North Vietnamese attempts to infiltrate supplies to Communists inside South Vietnam by sea. U.S. Navy ships and reconnaissance aircraft still continued this mission, albeit with fewer assets committed. The South Vietnamese navy would actually acquit itself quite well over the last years of the Republic of Vietnam.
Of note (because I was a naval intelligence officer), the Seventh Fleet Detachment Charlie at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon had been downsized to about eight personnel, but was still charged with coordinating the air campaign with the co-located Seventh Air Force commander. The intelligence officer for the det was frocked Lieutenant Jake Jacoby, future director of naval intelligence and three-star director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
11 January: First Navy SAM shot at North Vietnamese Aircraft Since 1968
Destroyer Leader USS Fox (DLG-33, later CG-33) fired two RIM-2 Terrier surface-to-air missiles at a North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed fighter that was flying near the North Vietnamese airfield at Vinh (near the coast about halfway between the De-Militarized Zone—DMZ—and the Hanoi/Haiphong area). Both missiles missed. This was the first such shot since nuclear guided-missile cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN-9) shot down her second North Vietnamese MiG fighter with a RIM-8 Talos surface-to-air missile in June 1968 at a range of 59 miles. (Long Beach shot down her first North Vietnamese fighter, a MiG-21, also near Vinh, on 23 May 1968, the first North Vietnamese aircraft downed by shipboard surface-to-air missile.)
18 January: USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) Returns Briefly to Gulf of Tonkin
Nuclear attack carrier Enterprise joined attack carrier Constellation (CVA-64) on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin as part of Task Force SEVEN SEVEN (TF 77), after returning from a month-long foray into the Indian Ocean in response to the December 1971 India-Pakistan War (this resulted in the independence of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh). Having been on deployment since June 1971, Enterprise shortly commenced her return transit to her homeport. Enterprise was commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Ernest “Gene” Tissot, Jr., who flew 50 combat missions in Korea and 250 in Vietnam, receiving two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” and five Distinguished Flying Crosses, among other combat awards.
(The 1971 India-Pakistan War included some of the most intense naval action since World War II. It included a surprise attack on the Pakistani port of Karachi on the night of 4/5 December 1971 by Indian Osa-class missile boats that sank a Pakistani destroyer and a minesweeper, and badly damaged another destroyer. In turn, on 9 December, the Pakistani submarine Hangor sank the Indian frigate Khukri, the first ship sunk by a submarine since W0rld War II. The Pakistani air force then bombed and badly damaged one of their own destroyers.
Aircraft from the Indian carrier Vikrant attacked numerous targets in East Pakistan and then, Pakistani submarine Ghazi sank off the Indian naval base at Vishakhapatnam on the Bay of Bengal due to an explosion of unknown cause.)
19 January: First Navy MiG Kill Since 1970
While escorting an RA-5 Vigilante photo-reconnaissance mission over Quang Lang Airfield south of Hanoi, an F-4J Phantom II of VF-96 off Constellation sighted a section of two North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters. The F-4J, flown by Lieutenant Randall H. “Duke” Cunningham and his radar intercept officer (RIO) Lieutenant (j.g.) William P. “Irish” Driscoll, maneuvered undetected behind the MiGs. Cunningham declined the recommendation of Driscoll to fire an AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missile, opting to close in behind the lead MiG for an AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided missile shot. At the last moment, the MiG pilot detected the incoming Sidewinder and maneuvered to avoid it. Both MiGs made a run for it, and in a winding pursuit, Cunningham blew the tail off a MiG with his second Sidewinder shot. This was the first MiG downed by Navy aircraft since 28 March 1970, and the 36th confirmed MiG and the 10th MiG-21 downed by Navy aircraft during the war. It would also be the first of five kills by the Cunningham/Driscoll duo, which would make them the first U.S. “aces” of the war.
29 January to 5 February: Talos ARM Shots at North Vietnamese Radars
During this period, Navy surface forces executed a plan initiated by Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer to attempt to set up a SAM trap for North Vietnamese MiGs, which continued to harass U.S. reconnaissance missions. The North Vietnamese declined to take the bait. However, on 3 February, guided-missile cruiser USS Chicago (CG-11) fired a long-range RIM-8H anti-radiation (ARM) variant Talos SAM at a North Vietnamese radar site near Thanh Hoa, while USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5), did the same at a radar site near Vinh. The missile from Chicago missed, while Oklahoma City hit a radar van. This was credited as the first successful combat surface-to-surface guided missile shot in U.S. Navy history. Although no MiGs were downed, these shots and another three from Chicago succeeded in forcing North Vietnamese ground-controlled intercept (GCI) radar sites to stand down for several days.
(Oklahoma City was commanded by Captain John J. Tice and was serving as the Seventh Fleet flagship for Vice Admiral William P. Mack. Chicago was commanded by Captain— later Rear Admiral—Thomas W. McNamara.)
31 January: The Phony Lull
The comparative lull in fighting in South Vietnam continued throughout January. Navy aircraft only flew eight tactical sorties in South Vietnam and only several protective reaction strikes in North Vietnam.
21 February: Nixon Visits China
President Richard M. Nixon commenced the first visit of a U.S. president to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting with Chairman of the Communist Party Mao Tse-tung (now Mao Zedong, under newer transliteration). President Dwight D. Eisenhower had previously visited Nationalist China (Taiwan) in June 1960, the only previous presidential visit to China. The visit had major global geopolitical repercussions, including driving a wedge between North Vietnam’s two biggest supporters and suppliers of weapons, China and the Soviet Union. North Vietnam, which was taken by surprise by the visit, was deeply suspicious of Chinese motives, concerned that China was about to sell them out. Relations never really recovered (in 1979 China and Vietnam went to war with each other, both sides claiming victory, but the Vietnamese giving the Chinese a serious bloody nose). Soviet support for North Vietnam continued unabated, almost all of which still came by sea to the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong.
21 February: “Red Crown”
Among the unheralded heroes of the war were U.S. Navy radarmen and air controllers on board U.S. cruisers in the Gulf of Tonkin (call sign “Red Crown”), who provided radar warning and vectors for numerous successful intercepts of North Vietnamese fighters. On the night of 21 February, Radarman First Class Bill Bunch, on guided-missile destroyer leader USS Sterett (DLG-31, later CG-31), vectored two U.S. Air Force F-4D Phantom II fighter-bombers toward a North Vietnamese MiG over Laos. Bunch then detected a contact behind the F-4s and realized the North Vietnamese were trying to set up a trap with the first MiG as bait. Warned and then vectored by Bunch, the F-4s turned the tables on the trailing MiG and shot it down with an AIM-7E Sparrow AAM. This was the first MiG kill by Air Force aircraft directed by a Navy controller, and the first successful Air Force night intercept of the war. On 30 March, during her next line period, Sterett was to assist in the downing of two MiG fighters.
Over the years, much has been written trying to explain why the Navy had a much better kill ratio versus North Vietnamese aircraft during the war than the Air Force. Significant credit was rightly given to the Navy’s institution of Topgun, but the advantage provided by geography (much shorter flight from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin than from USAF bases in Thailand), as well as a key advantage provided by shipboard air controllers, also made a big difference. A number of Air Force fighters were shot down on bombing missions. In actuality, in an apple-to-apples comparison of pure fighter vs. fighter engagements, the Air Force kill ratio was about the same as the Navy’s.
29 February: Three Carriers on Yankee Station (Two On, One Off)
During February, the number of carrier tactical sorties into South Vietnam increased to 733 amongst increasing signs of an imminent major North Vietnamese offensive, erroneously estimated to commence with the Vietnamese Tet Holiday (as had happened in 1968). During the month, three U.S. carriers operated at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, maintaining a rotation to keep two on station at all times. Constellation, commanded by Captain J. D. “Jake” Ward, had commenced deployment 1 October 1971 with Carrier Air Wing NINE (CVW-9) embarked, while Coral Sea (CVA-43), commanded by Captain William H. “Bill” Harris (later a rear admiral), had deployed 12 November 1971 with CVW-15 embarked. Coral Sea and Constellation were both on their sixth Vietnam combat cruise. The newest arrival, replacing Enterprise, was Hancock (CVA-19), commanded by Captain Albert J. “Jack” Monger (later a rear admiral), deploying on 7 January 1972 with CVW-21 embarked.
Hancock’s air wing was still flying A-4F Skyhawks and F-8J Crusaders, while Constellation was flying F-4J Phantom, A-7E Corsair II, and A-6A Intruder aircraft. Coral Sea’s air wing was configured the same as Constellation’s except for older model F-4Bs and a Marine Corps A-6 squadron. Each carrier also had a mix of detachments of photo-reconnaissance, airborne early warning, and tanker aircraft, as well as helicopters.
6 March: MiG-17 Shoot-Down
Another air-to-air engagement occurred when an F-4B of VF-51 off Coral Sea, flown by Foster “Tooter” Teague and RIO Ralph Howell, was escorting an RA-5 Vigilante photo- reconnaissance mission over Quang Lang Airfield. The radarman on “Red Crown” reported North Vietnamese MiGs. Teague sighted and engaged one with a Sparrow radar-guided missile that appeared to hit, and then had to break off to engage another MiG, firing a Sidewinder too close to arm. The second MiG escaped and destruction of the first could not be confirmed (and was denied by the North Vietnamese after the war). Two F-4Bs of VF-111 off Coral Sea attempted to engage the escaping MiGs and the jet flown by Lieutenant Gary L. Weigand and RIO Lieutenant (j.g.) William C. Freckelton, downed one of them (a MiG-17) with a Sidewinder up the tailpipe only 150 feet above the deck.
(PIRAZ is an acronym for “Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone.” The PIRAZ station was first established in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1966. A cruiser (“Red Crown”) with a capable anti-air warfare capability would remain on the PIRAZ station with the mission to track enemy aircraft to providing warning to strikes, vectors for fighter intercept, assistance to search-and-rescue efforts, and ensuring no enemy “leakers” mixed in with returning Navy aircraft).
10 March: “Protective Reaction” Strikes
The last major U.S. Army ground combat element, the 101st Airborne Division, departed Vietnam.
Increased enemy SAM activity in the “panhandle” of North Vietnam resulted in a significant increase in the number of “Protective Reaction” bombing missions. Between 5 January and 10 March, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft flew 90 such missions in North Vietnam (compared to 108 in all of 1971). The commanding general of the Seventh Air Force, General John D. Lavelle, took a very liberal view of the rules of engagement (ROE) for such strikes, reasoning (correctly) that the North Vietnamese SAM, GCI, and radar sites were all part of a network, and that if any of them fired a missile or demonstrated hostile radar emissions, then any of them could be struck. This resulted in Lavelle being recalled to Washington on 26 March, accused of conducting 28 unauthorized strikes (out of 25,000 sorties), which caused a media uproar, a congressional investigation, and Lavelle having to resign “for health reasons,” losing two stars in the process. Many years later, declassified material showed that Lavelle had been authorized by President Nixon to do what he did, and the Air Force has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to have his four stars posthumously restored.
The Navy’s approach to the problem of increasing North Vietnamese SAM activity was different than that of the Air Force, but more dangerous. Navy aircraft would deliberately “troll” for SAM launches, and when the North Vietnamese took the bait, would then have justification for a protective reaction strike against the offending site.
16 March: HA(L)-3 Disestablished
The last helicopter gunships of Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) THREE “Seawolves” retrograded to the United States on 6 March and the squadron was officially disestablished on 16 March. Operating from converted tank landing ship tanks (LSTs), the Seawolves were one of the most combat-decorated units in U.S. Navy history. Since being formed in April 1967 as an all-volunteer unit to provide critical close air support to U.S. Navy and Army riverine operations, the Seawolves had earned six Presidential Unit Citations and two Meritorious Unit Commendations. In 120,000 combat sorties, Seawolves personnel had been awarded five Navy Crosses, 31 Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit (with Combat “V”), 219 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 101 Bronze Stars, 156 Purple Hearts, and hundreds of lesser combat awards (including 16,000 Air Medals). The cost was 44 Seawolves killed in action.
23 March: Paris Peace Talks Suspended
After months of North Vietnamese intransigence at the Paris Peace Talks (characterized by interminable wrangling over the shape of the table), the U.S. delegation finally got fed up and suspended the talks due to lack of progress. As it turned out, the North Vietnamese were just stalling as they prepared for their major conventional invasion of South Vietnam.
30 March: False Alarm?
With the failure of any North Vietnamese offensive to materialize during the Tet holiday, Navy strike missions in support of South Vietnamese forces decreased to 113 in the month of March. Significant intelligence of an impending offensive was then dismissed by many as a false alarm, with U.S. media and politicians accusing U.S. intelligence of crying wolf. The lull, however, was completely phony, as the North Vietnamese completed massive logistical preparations for an attack despite the U.S. air attacks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. A degree of complacency set in after the non-offensive and the U.S. ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker, and commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), General Creighton W. Abrams, chose this time to be out of the country.
At noon on Good Friday, 30 March, 30,000 troops and 100 tanks of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 308th Division and two independent regiments attacked across the Demilitarized Zone (a line the North Vietnamese had insisted was inviolate through months of negotiations) into South Vietnam’s northernmost province, Quang Tri. At the same time, the NVA 304th Division attacked from Laos into the western flank of the ARVN, blowing right through Khe Sanh. The combined attacks took the ARVN 3rd Division by surprise. The massive assault was accompanied by numerous T-54 tanks and lighter PT-76 amphibious tanks, as well as heavy organic air defense capability.
The NVA force quickly overran and destroyed the ARVN fire support bases along the DMZ, leaving South Vietnamese forces in Quang Tri with no organic artillery support. The offensive, dubbed the “Easter Offensive” by U.S. press, was timed to coincide with heavy monsoon rain conditions, severely degrading U.S. and South Vietnamese airstrike capability.
The U.S. Navy immediately responded with naval gunfire support from surface combatants offshore, severely impacting NVA ability to use the coast road, but could do little against NVA movements further inland. Aided by an Air Force OV-10A Bronco with a U.S. Marine observer (that would subsequently be shot down), the first U.S. ships in action were the ships of Task Unit 70.8.9: Buchanan (DDG-14), Joseph Strauss (DDG-16), Waddell (DDG-24), and Hamner (DD-718). The U.S. ships received 58 rounds of shore battery fire, but suffered no damage, as they pounded North Vietnamese troop movements day and night.
At the time of the NVA attack, carriers Hancock and Coral Sea were on station in the Gulf of Tonkin conducting “Steel Tiger” air strikes across the southern panhandle of North Vietnam into NVA supply lines through Laos. In response to the North Vietnamese attack, President Nixon ordered the execution of Tactical Air Command Operation Plan 100 “Constant Guard” to provide air support to the remaining U.S. advisory and support personnel in South Vietnam, but these strikes were severely hampered in the first week by the monsoon conditions.
USS Constellation (CVA-64) flight deck crewmen ready an A-6A Intruder of Attack Squadron 165 (VA-165) for launching, during Vietnam War operations in the South China Sea, 25 April 1972. Photographed by PH3 Ronald F. Reichwein (NH 98613).
1 April: VAL-4 “Black Ponies” Withdrawn from Vietnam
Despite the North Vietnamese offensive, some aspects of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam were already too far along to halt.
The last U.S. Navy combat force in Vietnam left the country on 1 April. Light Attack Squadron FOUR (VAL-4), the “Black Ponies,” had been established in January 1969 flying OV-10 Bronco twin-engine light bomber/observation aircraft borrowed from the U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Navy’s only land-based attack squadron commenced operations in Vietnam in March 1969, providing close-air support to U.S. riverine and Mekong Delta operations, as well as supporting Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) operations, flying 21,000 combat sorties and dropping 11,000 tons of ordnance.
VAL-4 was credited with killing 4,487 enemy combatants and destroying 3,288 structures, 2,119 bunkers, 1,036 sampans, and one steel-hull trawler at a cost of seven aircraft lost, six pilots and one observer killed in action; eight pilots, one observer and one enlisted were wounded in action. VAL-4 was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, two Navy Unit Commendations, and one Meritorious Unit Commendation. Commander Robert D. Porter was the last commanding officer of this squadron.
2 April: North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Reaches Outskirts of Quang Tri
After all Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) firebases in Quang Tri had been overrun, and following a short halt to regroup, NVA units reached to within 1.5 kilometers of the city of Quang Tri, the provincial capital.
3 April: Constellation and Kitty Hawk Ordered to Gulf of Tonkin
On orders from Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., the carriers Constellation (yanked out of a port call) and Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) were ordered to the Gulf of Tonkin. Kitty Hawk, under the command of Captain Owen H. “Obie” Oberg (later Rear Admiral) had deployed from home port on 11 February 1972, with Carrier Air Wing Eleven (CVW-11) embarked.
4 April: Operation Freedom Trail
President Richard Nixon granted authority to U.S. forces to bomb (or shell) targets in North Vietnam up to the 18th parallel (i.e., 60 miles north of the DMZ). This was quickly expanded to the 19th parallel with “special strikes” with specific authorization even further north, designated Operation Freedom Trail. Many of the post-1968 (post–Rolling Thunder) restrictions were gradually lifted. By the end of April, unlimited strikes were authorized as far north as the 20th parallel (just south of Hanoi and Haiphong) with special strikes authorized further north, with approval.
6 April: More Naval Gunfire Support
More U.S. Navy surface ships joined in the gunfire support effort, including striking targets north and south of the DMZ. South of the DMZ, Waddell was joined by Lockwood (DE-1064), Lloyd Thomas (DD-764) and Everett F. Larson (DD-830). With the prevailing monsoon conditions, degrading air support, and the loss of the ARVN firebases, gunfire from these ships was the only artillery support the ARVN had, but the weather also made airborne spotting difficult as well. North Vietnamese artillery returned fire. Waddell received extensive counter-fire that littered her decks with shrapnel but resulted in no direct hits or serious damage; a surface burst five feet off the starboard bow caused superficial damage to the anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) launcher and AN/SPS-40B radar. During three weeks in April, Waddell fired over 7,000 rounds of 5-inch ammunition, and by 21 April had to go to Da Nang Harbor to be re-gunned by repair ship Hector (AR-7). Waddell’s experience was typical of the ships on the gunline.
U.S. Navy ships north of the DMZ participated in Operation Freedom Trail, shelling North Vietnamese coastal targets as far north as the 20th Parallel (just south of Hanoi/Haiphong). Ships engaged to the north included Buchanan, Hamner, and Joseph Strauss joined by Richard B. Anderson (DD-786). Chicago (CG-11) joined in and fired a Talos antiradar (ARM) missile at a radar site for a probable kill. Much of this shelling occurred at night, and return fire was very common, occasionally dangerously close. By May, 15–20 surface ships would be on the gunline up and down the coasts of North and South Vietnam. (The peak of shelling occurred in June, with 117,000 5-inch rounds expended that month).
7 April: Four Carriers on Station
Constellation joined Kitty Hawk, Coral Sea and Hancock at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. By the end of the first week in April, Navy carrier-based aircraft had flown 680 sorties, despite the atrocious weather, in support of beleaguered ARVN forces, mostly in the vicinity of Quang Tri City, which was almost completely encircled. However events to the south soon resulted in Constellation and Hancock being sent south to “Dixie Station” off South Vietnam as the rest of the North Vietnamese offensive became apparent.
After several feints along the border of Cambodia and South Vietnam (that began on 2 April), the NVA launched another attack on 5 April, overrunning several border towns. It quickly became apparent that this was the main effort in the south. The massive three-division attack from Cambodia into Binh Long Province, quickly besieged the provincial capital, An Loc, located only 65 miles northwest of Saigon along a main road. At points during the resulting brutal battle NVA forces approached within 40 miles of the capital, although An Loc continued to hold at great cost.
With the introduction of SA-7 Grail infrared missiles and mobile radar directed anti-aircraft artillery (courtesy of the Soviet Union), South Vietnamese helicopters and A-1 Skyraiders took extensive losses. U.S. Air Force (USAF) airborne forward air controllers (FAC) were overhead 24-hours a day, directing B-52 “Arc Light” raids (eventually about one every 55 minutes) that were coming not just from bases in Thailand, but also all the way from Guam. The B-52 raids had impressive shock value, but tactical aircraft played a key role as well, particularly the carrier-based aircraft off Constellation, especially the A-7Es with a gun and very accurate pin-point bombing. NVA armor, initially an advantage, became increasingly a liability in the face of air power, especially as the weather improved later in the month. In one particularly pitched battle near An Loc, nine out of ten NVA tanks were destroyed. Nevertheless, the battle for An Loc would go on for weeks.
8 April: Saratoga Med Cruise, Never Mind
Atlantic Fleet carrier Saratoga (CV-60) was preparing for a Mediterranean deployment, when she received orders to deploy to Vietnam instead. Commanded by Captain (later promoted to vice admiral) James R. “Sandy” Sanderson, Saratoga deployed on 72-hour notice and would arrive on station in the Gulf of Tonkin on 11 May, with CVW-3 embarked. (With the ongoing retirement of the antisubmarine warfare [ASW] carriers, carrier air wing composition on the attack carriers was changed to incorporate more ASW aircraft, intended to make the carriers more multimission capable.) Although the new S-3 Viking carrier ASW aircraft was not ready yet (first deployed in 1974), Saratoga deployed with extra ASW helicopters and was the first to have her designation changed from attack carrier (CVA) to carrier (CV).
10–13 April: Medal of Honor for Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, U.S. Navy SEAL
During this period, Navy SEAL Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, U.S. Naval Reserve (USNR), was engaged in the largest, longest and most complex search and rescue operation of the Vietnam War, for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, which he received in March 1976. His citation reads as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a SEAL Advisor with the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team, Headquarters, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. During the period 10 to 13 April 1972, Lieutenant Norris completed an unprecedented ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within heavily controlled enemy territory in Quang Tri Province. Lieutenant Norris, on the night of 10 April, led a five-man patrol through 2,000 meters of heavily-controlled enemy territory, located one of the downed pilots at daybreak, and returned to the Forward Operating Base (FOB). On 11 April, after a devastating mortar and rocket attack on the small FOB, Lieutenant Norris led a three-man team on two unsuccessful rescue attempts for the second pilot. On the afternoon of the 12th, a Forward Air Controller located the pilot and notified Lieutenant Norris. Dressed in fishermen disguises and using a sampan, Lieutenant Norris and one Vietnamese traveled throughout the night and found the injured pilot at dawn. Covering the pilot with bamboo and vegetation, they began the return journey, successfully evading a North Vietnamese patrol. Approaching the FOB, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Lieutenant Norris called in an air strike which provided suppression fire and a smoke screen, allowing the rescue party to reach the FOB. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, undaunted courage, and selfless dedication in the face of extreme danger, Lieutenant Norris enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
The citation does not even begin to capture what really happened. On 2 April, a flight of two USAF electronic warfare B-66s (EB-66s) were escorting three B-52 bombers when one of the EB-66s (an EB-66C configured for signals intelligence collection), call sign “Bat-21,” was shot down by two North Vietnamese SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. This was a surprise as this was the first time that the SA-2 launchers had been moved south of the DMZ. Only one wounded crewman survived, but the pilot and other aircrewmen were killed when the second SA-2 hit the plane before they could get out.
Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton, USAF (Bat 21 Bravo), who survived the ejection, parachuted right in the middle of 30,000 North Vietnamese troops crossing the DMZ accompanied by the densest concentration of antiaircraft weapons ever observed south of the DMZ including the first appearance of the Soviet ZSU-57-2 self-propelled radar-guided dual 57mm guns and SA-7 Grail shoulder-fired infrared-seeking missiles. With his top secret access to Strategic Air Command sensitive information and detailed knowledge of intelligence collection and surface-to-air missile (SAM) countermeasures, his capture would have been an intelligence prize for the Soviet Union.
Over the next days, the search and rescue (SAR) effort for Hambleton resulted in the loss of five additional aircraft, eleven deaths and the capture of two others due to intense North Vietnamese ground anti-aircraft fire, which also seriously damaged 16 other aircraft (one of those captured, Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Larry F. Potts, reportedly died in a North Vietnamese prison but remains unaccounted for). On 6 April alone, over 80 SAMs were fired at rescue and supporting aircraft; it was estimated that Hambleton and at least two other downed airmen were surrounded by five or six NVA battalions. Finally, on 8 April, the commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, ordered a halt to airborne SAR efforts due to the losses.
U.S. Marine Corps Colonel (and a future commandant of the Marine Corps) Alfred M. Gray recommended a covert ground rescue operation. Lieutenant Norris, who had barely made it through initial SEAL training, was one of only three SEAL officers and nine enlisted remaining in Vietnam, and was awaiting orders to leave the country having concluded his “last” mission in the Mekong Delta. Norris was dispatched from Saigon to participate in a rescue mission led by Lieutenant Colonel Edwin “Andy” Anderson, commander of the Joint Personnel Recovery Center. Anderson’s first effort came under intense NVA fire that wounded him, all South Vietnamese officers and troops, and killed one South Vietnamese commando, leaving only Norris and five South Vietnamese Sea commando frogmen to attempt the mission.
In an unbelievably harrowing solo infiltration (Anderson and the five commandos provide overwatch), Norris succeeded in bringing out First Lieutenant Mark Clark (grandson of the famous World War II general) who had been co-pilot of an North American Rockwell OV-10A Bronco shot down during an earlier attempt to rescue Hambleton (the other pilot was captured). After Clark was exfiltrated, NVA mortar and artillery fire on the outpost killed two of the five remaining commandos.
Norris went back in for Hambleton with the three surviving commandos, two of whom balked while deep in enemy territory, although Norris convinced them that survival depended on the group staying together. After this failed attempt, Norris tried again, going north by sampan disguised as fishermen with the one commando he thought he could trust, Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet of the South Vietnamese navy. In yet another harrowing infiltration, Norris found the wounded and severely weakened Hambleton, and with Petty Officer Kiet, hid Hambleton under branches in the boat and made it past NVA patrols, who fired on the boat multiple times. Norris was getting ready to go behind NVA lines yet another time, when that downed pilot was surrounded and killed by NVA troops.
Norris was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but he initially declined to fill out the required paper work. Norris did strongly support Kiet for a Navy Cross. Norris would be severely wounded in a SEAL mission on 31 October 1972, during which SEAL Engineman Second Class Michael E. Thornton saved Norris’s life, and would also be awarded a Medal of Honor (the last of 14 awarded [by date of action] to Navy personnel during the war). Thornton actually received his Medal of Honor first, in October 1973 (Norris spent over three years in the hospital). In addition to the Medal of Honor, Norris was ultimately awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars with Combat “V,” Purple Heart, Navy Commendation with Combat “V,” Presidential Unit Citation and numerous unit and campaign awards. Petty Officer Kiet was awarded a Navy Cross, the only member of the South Vietnamese navy to be so honored.
The 1988 Hollywood movie Bat-21 depicts this event, starring Gene Hackman as Hambleton. However, at the time, Norris’s actions were still classified, so he is not depicted in the movie. During the Vietnam War, 3,883 personnel were rescued as a result of SAR efforts at a cost of 45 aircraft and 71 lives. The Bat 21 action resulted in numerous lessons learned and significant changes to combat search and rescue equipment, procedures, and doctrine.
12 April: NVA Attack into Central Highlands
The third major thrust of the NVA offensive commenced with a major attack from Cambodia into the central highlands of South Vietnam with the initial primary objective to take the city of Kontum, then reach the coast and cut South Vietnam in two. After initial success, the NVA held up for three weeks, which gave the ARVN time to regroup and hold Kontum, and more time for U.S. air power to pound the NVA. Aircraft from Hancock, which had moved south to Dixie Station, concentrated on hitting NVA forces around Kontum, while Constellation aircraft concentrated on An Loc, although aircraft from both carriers attacked targets in both places. Kitty Hawk and Coral Sea concentrated on the Quang Tri area and targets in North Vietnam proper as part of Operation Freedom Trail.
13 April: B-52 Strikes in North Vietnam
Three Kitty Hawk A-6A Intruders of VA-52 struck two North Vietnamese SAM sites as a diversion for a strike by 18 B-52 bombers on Bai Thuong airfield, a forward staging base for MiG fighters located about 60 miles southwest of Hanoi. Twelve SAMs were fired at Navy aircraft but all were avoided. This was the largest and closest strike to Hanoi since the end of Rolling Thunder in 1968. This airfield would be attacked multiple times by bombers and carrier aircraft over the next several months.
14 April: Navy Surface Strikes Move Northward
The Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized the Seventh Fleet forces to strike targets further to the north in North Vietnam. Joseph Strauss fired on two SAM sites ashore near Vinh, with destroyers Higbee (DD-806) and Bausell (DD-845) conducting suppressive fire. Nine destroyers were conducting gunfire missions north of the DMZ by this time under Task Unit 77.1, joined on occasion by the Seventh Fleet flagship, Oklahoma City. These ships fired 11,679 rounds at numerous SAM and AAA (antiaircraft artillery) sites, radar installations, coastal artillery positions, bridges, road junctions, and other targets.
16 April: Operation Freedom Porch Bravo
With authorization from the Secretary of Defense on 14 April, U.S. B-52 bombers struck a petroleum storage facility near Haiphong in a one day operation designated Freedom Porch Bravo. Coral Sea, Kitty Hawk, and Constellation aircraft flew 57 sorties in support of the bombing mission. The North Vietnamese fired over 100 SAMs at U.S. aircraft. Concurrently, Oklahoma City and four destroyers fired 600 rounds into the Do Son peninsula, just outside the entrance to Haiphong harbor, the first surface gunfire attack that close to Haiphong during the war. Enemy counter-battery fire was ineffective. The strikes near Hanoi and Haiphong caused an outcry in U.S. press and political circles accusing the Nixon administration of “widening the war” instead of ending it.
Meanwhile in the south, with adverse weather still a major factor, U.S. Navy aircraft flew 191 strike sorties in the second week of April, most to the north and west of Quang Tri before the full scope of the offensive thrusts at An Loc and Kon Tum became apparent. With attacks on three fronts, the NVA had committed the equivalent of 15 divisions (about 140,000 men) along with 600 tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Also on 16 April, during the ongoing battle for An Loc, NVA artillery hit an ARVN ammunition dump near the city, blowing up over 8,000 artillery rounds in a massive explosion. However, by this time ARVN forces in An Loc were receiving as many as 1,000 incoming NVA artillery rounds every day and only had one artillery piece left that had not been destroyed, thus forcing almost complete reliance on air strikes to beat back repeated NVA assaults, which were resulting in thousands of NVA casualties and dozens of destroyed tanks.
19 April: Air Attack on USS Higbee and the Battle of Dong Hoi
Oklahoma City (DLG-5), Sterett (DLG-31), Lloyd Thomas (DD-674), and Higbee (DD-806) were firing on coastal targets around Don Hoi, North Vietnam when they were attacked and bombed by two North Vietnamese MiG-17s. At 1700, Sterett radar detected three hostile contacts inbound. Two MiG-17s subordinate to the 923rd Fighter Regiment of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF), each armed with two 550-pound bombs, commenced an attack on Oklahoma City and Higbee. Given the short distance from the beach there was almost no time to react. The first MiG-17 overshot Oklahoma City on his first pass, circled around and dropped both bombs on a second pass that both missed and did only minor damage to her stern.
The second MiG-17 scored a direct bomb hit on Higbee’s after 5-inch gun turret. Luckily, the 12-man gun crew had just evacuated the mount due to a hangfire with the round stuck in the barrel, so no one was killed and only four were wounded, although the turret was destroyed. (Of note, during Lloyd Thomas’s 1970 deployment, while firing on coastal targets about 11 September, her forward 5-inch gun turret suffered an in-bore explosion that demolished the turret, killing three crewmen and wounding ten others).
Witnesses to the MiG attack on Higbee adamantly stated one of the MiG-17’s was downed by a Terrier missile from Sterett and another probably downed. Conversely, Vietnamese accounts seem very detailed and clear that both jets recovered safely, although one overshot the runway and ended up in an arrester barrier with little damage – without digging up Sterett’s original after action report I’m not going to solve this discrepancy. (In some accounts this is described as the first air attack on a U.S. ship since World War II. This is incorrect as heavy cruiser Rochester (CA-124) was lightly damaged in an attack by two North Korean aircraft off Inchon, South Korea in September 1952. Liberty (AGTR-5) was badly damaged in an attack by four Israeli jets in June 1968, and there is significant evidence that Swift Boat (PCF-19) was sunk by a North Vietnamese helicopter in June 1968.
Some accounts state a North Vietnamese Styx anti-ship missile was fired at the U.S. ships from shore and was shot down, but this is not confirmed in official documentation either; if true this was the first such attack and probably the only one. The U.S. ships did move to a safer distance offshore, at which point Sterett detected two high-speed surface contacts shadowing the force on a parallel course, assessed to be North Vietnamese P-6 torpedo boats. As darkness fell, Sterett engaged the two suspected torpedo boats with her 5-inch gun and sank them. The radar picture was described to be very confused at the time, and there appears to be no post-war confirmation of any lost North Vietnamese torpedo boats on this date.
North Vietnamese training for an anti-ship mission commenced in 1971, and ten pilots of the 923rd fighter regiment were trained with the assistance of a Cuban advisor. The aircraft had also been specially converted to carry bombs for the mission. The aircraft had deployed from Kep airfield in the north of North Vietnam the previous day, via Vinh airfield before arriving at Gat airfield, where the specially trained and selected crew took custody of the MiGs
In a separate incident on the same day as the air attack on Higbee, Buchanan (DDG-14), George K. MacKenzie (DD-836), and Hamner (DD-718) were shelling bridges near Vinh, North Vietnam, when two motor patrol boats (assessed to be Shanghai-class) were observed approaching from behind an island. MacKenzie opened fire on the boats, forcing them to reverse course. A few minutes later, Buchanan received incoming fire from a 122mm shore battery. An airbust above Buchanan holed the ship, killing one Sailor and wounded six others.
The U.S. Navy quickly responded to the attacks on the ships with airstrikes on Vinh airfield. Once the heavily camouflaged Khe Gat airfield, where the MiG ship-strikes launched from, was located two days later it was pounded by a 33-carrier plane strike, reportedly destroying one MiG and damaging another on the ground. As a result of the North Vietnamese attacks, the U.S. Navy ceased close-in daylight operations off the coast of North Vietnam, but continued extensive nighttime shelling.
With a shattered turret and impaired steering and propulsion, the damage to Higbee was pretty severe, but Commander Ronald R. Zuilkoski and his crew were able to gain control of the flooding. Higbee made her way to Subic Bay for initial repairs in the floating dry dock Competent (AFDM-6), and then to Japan where her turret was replaced. Higbee then returned to the gunline. (Of note, Higbee was named after Lenah S. Higbee who became chief nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital in 1909 and the second Superintendent of the Nurse Corps in 1911; she was the first living nurse to be awarded the Navy Cross, for her actions during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic – three other nurses had previously been awarded posthumously.)
25 April: Blunting NVA Attacks at An Loc and Kontum
As weather conditions improved, U.S. carrier aircraft increased attacks against NVA forces that had invaded South Vietnam. A-4F Skyhawks from VA-55, VA-164, and VF-211 off Hancock pounded NVA positions around Kontum and Pleiku in the Central Highlands. The situation on the ground was so dire that even the F-8J Crusaders of VF-24 and VF-211 were pressed into service in a ground attack role, each carrying a 2,000-pound bomb under each wing, aimed with manual gunsight. The Crusader’s four 20mm cannons were put to good use as well. At the same time VA-165 A-6A Intruders and A-7E Corsair II light attack bombers of VA-146 and VA-147 off Constellation inflicted severe casualties on NVA forces besieging An Loc and attempting to advance toward Saigon by road.
27 April: F-4B Downed in Air-to-Air Engagement
An F-4B Phantom II of VF-51 off Coral Sea flown by Lieutenant Alfred “Al” Molinare and Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lieutenant Commander James B. Souder was shot down deep in North Vietnamese territory by an AA-2 Atoll infrared-seeking air-to-air missile from a MiG-21. Both Molinare and Souder survived the ejection and spent the rest of the war in the “Hanoi Hilton.”
As Richard B. Anderson (DD-786) was shelling positions in North Vietnam, four ocean-going junks closed to within 8,000 yards and opened fire. Anderson returned fire, sinking three of the junks and badly damaging the fourth.
28 April—NVA Noose Tightens on Quang Tri
Despite 13,000 air attacks since the start of the North Vietnamese offensive which had held 40,000 NVA troops and 50 tanks just outside Quang Tri, the defense of the city was becoming untenable, and the NVA was about to close the last avenue of escape.
30 April: Five Carriers on Station
Carrier Midway (CVA-41), with CVW-5 embarked, deployed on 10 April 1972 and reached the Gulf of Tonkin on 30 April, bringing the number of U.S. carriers on station to five. Midway was commanded by Captain William L. Harris, Jr. (later promoted to rear admiral).
30 April: Better Weather (and More Carriers) Equals More Airstrikes
By the end of April, Navy carrier-based aircraft had flown 4,833 strike sorties over South Vietnam and 1,250 in North Vietnam. The Navy average per day had increased from 240 to over 300 for a monthly average of 270 per day. The U.S. Marine Corps contributed 537 strike sorties as Marine aircraft returned to Da Nang in South Vietnam.
1 May: Fall of Quang Tri City
Although U.S. airpower inflicted many NVA casualties around Quang Tri and had complicated NVA logistics by destroying every bridge between the DMZ and My Chanh River, the remaining ARVN forces commenced a withdrawal to the south toward Hue City. The withdrawal would turn into chaos as 20,000 civilian refugees were mixed in with retreating military on the only road out. NVA on both sides of the road fired indiscriminately into the crowds resulting in what would be known as “the Road of Horror.” The South Vietnamese government reported that approximately 5,000 civilians were killed (the NVA said “only” 2,000). Supported by strikes from Navy F-4s, an Air Force task force of “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters (HH-3E) extracted 132 personnel including Vietnamese and 80 U.S. advisors, just before the fall of Quang Tri. The loss of a provincial capital was a major blow to the prestige and credibility of the South Vietnamese government.
6 May: MiG-17 Fresco and Two MiG-21 Fishbeds Downed
As U.S. airstrikes into North Vietnam intensified and approached closer to Hanoi and Haiphong than ever before, North Vietnamese air and SAM–AAA opposition intensified as well. At 1410, an F-4B of VF-51 off Coral Sea flown by Lieutenant Commander Jerry “Devil” Houston and RIO Lieutenant Kevin Moore shot down a MiG-17 over Bai Thuong airfield with an Air Intercept Missile (AIM)-9 Sidewinder.
Later in the day at 1825, two F-4J Phantom IIs of VF-114 off Kitty Hawk engaged two MiG-21 fighters while covering another strike on Bai Thuong airfield. One F-4J was flown by Lieutenant Commander Kenneth W. “Viper” Pettigrew and RIO Lieutenant (j.g.) Michael J. McCabe. McCabe detected an incoming radar contact at 25 miles. When Pettigrew gained visual, the contact turned out to be a tight-box formation of four MiG-21s. Pettigrew’s wingman was Lieutenant Robert G. Hughes and RIO Lieutenant (j.g.) Adolph J. Cruz. Hughes had the best position on the MiGs so Pettigrew directed Hughes to engage first. Hughes turned into the MiGs. His first Sidewinder shot was out-of-envelope, yet still guided, and knocked a MiG out of formation, which then hit the ground. Hughes then fired two more Sidewinders at the lead MiG, but he missed his target. By this time, Pettigrew was alongside and both wound up firing a Sidewinder at the same MiG. Hugh’s last sidewinder took a chunk off the MiG’s tail while Pettigrew’s sidewinder flew up the MiG’s tailpipe and blew the jet apart. Hughes and Cruz were given credit for the first MiG-21. Pettigrew and McCabe received credit for the second.
8 May: Second MiG Kill for Cunningham and Driscoll
Two F-4Js of VF-96 off Constellation were conducting a sweep ahead of a carrier strike package heading for a truck staging area near Son Tay. Lieutenant Randall “Duke” Cunningham and RIO Lieutenant (j.g.) William “Irish” Driscoll were in the lead with wing aircraft piloted by Brian Grant. As the F-4Js neared the target, the “Red Crown” cruiser in the Gulf of Tonkin warned of a flight of MiGs coming from the direction of Yen Bai airfield, but then the cruiser lost radar contact. After making a couple turns trying to sight the MiGs in the haze, Red Crown regained radar contact and reported the MiGs closing from behind at 20 miles. The next transmission from Red Crown was garbled.
All of a sudden, a MiG-17 dove out of the clouds and hit Grant’s jet with gunfire. When Grant increased speed and began to pull away, the MiG fired an Atoll. Warned by Cunningham, Grant narrowly avoided the missile with a high-G turn, but the MiG was still on Grant’s tail. Grant sighted two more MiGs coming head on, but Cunningham remained focused on taking the MiG off Grant’s tail. Cunningham’s first Sidewinder was a miss but it caused the MiG to break off and attempt to flee whereupon Cunningham hit the MiG-17 with a second Sidewinder causing the MiG to crash. By this time the other two MiGs were on Cunningham’s six-o’clock, but a series of high-G diving turns shook them off and the MiGs bugged out. This was the second kill for the duo of Cunningham and Driscoll.
Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson, USN, circa 1970–72. Rear Admiral Robinson lost his life in a helicopter crash on 8 May 1972, while serving as Commander, Cruiser Destroyer Flotilla 11, and Commander, Cruiser Destroyer Group Vietnam, Seventh Fleet (NH 85525).
8 May: President Richard Nixon Orders Mining and Bombing Escalation
With the fall of Quang Tri and the increasingly desperate situation around An Loc and Kontum, as well as his being incensed by the duplicity of the North Vietnamese at the now-suspended Paris “peace talks,” President Richard Nixon ordered a major escalation of the bombing effort in North Vietnam. Nixon stated, “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” Nixon also ordered the mining of North Vietnamese ports and rivers, something Navy leaders had been strongly advocating for years to cut off the unimpeded supply of Soviet war material.
In anticipation of Nixon’s decision, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Admiral Thomas Moorer on 4 May ordered Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to ready the long-standing mining plan for execution. The mining effort would be code-named Operation Pocket Money, and the combined bombing and mining effort would be termed Operation Linebacker (replacing Operation Freedom Trail). Linebacker would be a sustained bombing campaign against military installations, storage facilities, and transportation networks (many targets which had previously been off-limits) with the intent to choke off supplies to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) offensive in the south, as well as to inflict enough painful damage to force the North Vietnamese to resume negotiations in good faith.
President Nixon’s decision was quite bold in that it was an election year and antiwar sentiment in the United States was reaching an all-time high. Such action also risked disrupting the planned summit between Nixon and General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev scheduled for 22–30 May in Moscow (it went ahead as planned and included the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), which resulted in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, as well as the signing of the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement, and led to a period of lessoned tensions known as détente). Nevertheless, the South Vietnamese Army was on the verge of collapse, putting at risk the entire Vietnamization program. Morale in South Vietnam was at an all-time low as many thousands of refugees fled the NVA advance. The situation was so dire that Nixon arguably had no choice but to take risks to alter the downward spiral.
Navy leaders had advocated for mining North Vietnamese ports, especially Haiphong, since before the war. Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp (Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet [CINCPACFLT] 1963–64 and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command [CINCPAC] 1964–68) had pushed tirelessly and after retirement had even gone public. After World War II, Admiral Moorer had been involved in a study of the effectiveness of Allied mining of Japanese-occupied Haiphong in 1943–44 (it had been very effective) and therefore had a keen personal interest and advocacy.
Nevertheless, the Navy’s recommendation to mine Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports was repeatedly refused by the Johnson administration and early Nixon administration out of fear it would lead to conflict with Communist China or the Soviet Union or both. In the meantime, Soviet ships brought in the tanks, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), fighter aircraft, and tons of other military equipment that would kill many American service members. Although much Chinese military aid came overland across the border (through areas that had been off-limits to bombing), significant amounts came by sea into Haiphong as well. It was the apparent downturn in relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Soviet Union in 1969–70 (previously viewed as a monolithic Communist bloc) that led some senior civilian leaders in the U.S. government to believe that more aggressive action could be taken without necessarily resulting in widening the war.
The execution of Pocket Money was timed to coincide with a 2100 Eastern Standard Time prime time television speech by President Nixon announcing the mining and expanded bombing campaign, which necessitated a daylight operation.
8 May: Death of Rear Admiral Rembrandt Robinson
In preparation for the execution of Operation Pocket Money, Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson (commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla 11 and commander, Seventh Fleet Cruisers and Destroyers) and three of his staff flew by helicopter from his flagship Providence (CLG-6) to Coral Sea (CVA-43) to confer with Rear Admiral Damon Cooper, commander, Attack Carrier Striking Force, Seventh Fleet (Task Force 77 [TF-77]) in the Gulf of Tonkin. Robinson was a rising superstar, having been selected for early promotion three times. He had served in combat at Okinawa aboard LST-485, and again during the Korean War aboard English (DD-696), where he was awarded his first Bronze Star with Combat “V.” He received his second Bronze Star with Combat “V” while in command of Destroyer Squadron 31 (DESRON 31) for Vietnam War operations. He had previously served as a liaison between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer and the president’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger. During that tour he was extensively involved in updating plans for mining Haiphong harbor that had first been developed in 1965.
Upon conclusion of the coordination conference, Robinson’s helicopter was making a final approach on Providence when it suffered an apparent power failure, toppled over the side into the water, went inverted, and sank. The crew and Robinson’s aviation officer survived, but Chief of Staff Captain Edmund Taylor, Jr., and Operations Officer Commander John M. Leaver, Jr., were never found. Robinson’s body was recovered. His cremated remains were subsequently buried at sea from destroyer Orleck (DD-886). Robinson was the only Navy flag officer to die in the Vietnam War combat zone.
9 May: Operation Pocket Money Execution
Carrier Air Wing 15 (CVW-15) on Coral Sea was designated to execute the first Pocket Money strike. The commander of CVW-15, Commander Roger E. “Blinky” Sheets, would lead the strike. (Sheets had taken command when the previous commander, air group [CAG], Commander Thomas E. Dunlop, was downed by a SAM and killed on 6 April 1972.) Air Wing Mine Warfare Officer Lieutenant Commander Harvey Eikel played a key role in planning. The mine laying mission would be conducted by three A-6A Intruders of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 (VMA[AW]-224), each with four 1,000-pound Mark 52-2 magnetic bottom mines, and six A-7E Corsair IIs of VA-22 and VA-94, each with four Mark 36 Destructor (DST) acoustic bottom mines. (The Mark 36 DST was a Mark 82 500-pound general-purpose bomb converted to a mine with a Mark 75 modification kit, which included a magnetic-influence firing mechanism. Some accounts state that all nine aircraft carried Mark 52-2 mines—happy to hear from anyone who knows for sure.)
During planning for the mine laying operation it was determined that the weight of the Mark 52-2 mines would both slow the A-6s considerably and preclude the use of auxiliary fuel tanks. There weren’t enough nose caps (only six) for all the mines, which would further increase drag. As a result Coral Sea would need to approach to within 100 nautical miles (NM) of the coast for launch.
To protect Coral Sea, Chicago (CG-11), Sterett (DLG-31), and Long Beach (CGN-9) took station within 40 miles of Haiphong between Coral Sea’s launch position and the coast. At the planning conference the night before, it was agreed that the cruisers would shoot down anything flying higher than 500 feet. A separate surface action group would shell North Vietnamese antiaircraft sites on the Do Son peninsula 6 NM west of the entrance to Haiphong harbor. This bombardment force consisted of Berkeley (DDG-15), Myles C. Fox (DD-829), Richard S. Edwards (DD-950), and Buchanan (DDG-14).
An EC-121M Constellation (electronic intelligence collection variant) launched in the early morning from Da Nang Air Base to support the mine laying mission. Kitty Hawk launched 17 strike sorties against a railroad siding at Nam Dinh as a diversion, although weather at the target necessitated diversion to alternate targets at Thanh at 0840 and Phu Quy at 0845. The surface action group, led by Captain Robert Pace in place of Rear Admiral Robinson, commenced shelling the Do Son peninsula.
At 0840 on 9 May, an EKA-3B Skywarrior (tanker/electronic countermeasures) of Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 135 (VAQ-135) Detachment 3 and the three A-6As and six A-7Es launched from Coral Sea. The EKA-3B orbited in support while the rest of the aircraft headed for Haiphong, led by Commander Sheets.
At 0849, Chicago radar detected three MiGs launching from Phuc Yen airfield. Chicago fired two RIM-8 Talos long-range surface-to-air missiles, downing one MiG at a range of 48 miles and causing the others to turn away. (A different account says Chicago detected two MiGs in a holding pattern and shot one down with two Talos missiles.) Chicago was on her fifth Vietnam War deployment and had actually commenced a return transit home to San Diego when she was recalled to the Gulf of Tonkin on 3 April due to the North Vietnamese offensive. Commanded by Captain Thomas P. McNamara, Chicago returned to positive identification radar advisory zone (PIRAZ) duty, receiving the call sign of “Red Crown.” Between her return to the Gulf of Tonkin and late May, air intercept controllers on Chicago would be credited with assisting in the shoot down of 14 MiGs by U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force fighters.
Bombardier and navigator Captain William R. Carr, USMC, in the lead A-6 with Commander Sheets (if you’re the CAG you get to fly Marine aircraft too) had the critical role of determining the correct azimuth and time of release. At 0859, the first of 12 Mark 52-2 mines went into the inner channel of Haiphong harbor, which was only 1,000 feet wide. At the same time, the six A-7E Corsair II light attack aircraft, led by Commander Leonard E. Giuliani, laid 24 Mark 36 DST mines in the outer channel. All mines were in by 0901. The mines had all been set to “positive arm” (with 72 hour delay). Only 3 of the 36 mines would fail to arm. One A-7E failed to drop on the first pass, circled around, and dropped the mine on a second pass. Although heavy antiaircraft fire and heavy losses were anticipated, the raid appeared to have caught the North Vietnamese by surprise and no aircraft were lost. Despite shelling from U.S. Navy ships, the Do Son SAM site got off three missiles, but none hit.
Upon radio transmission from Commander Sheets that the mines were in the water, Rear Admiral Howard Greer (commander, Carrier Division 3) sent a flash message to the White House. President Nixon was already speaking live to the nation on television as the mines were being laid, and he wound up initially speaking very slowly until he received assurance the aircraft were off target. In his speech, Nixon announced that ships in Haiphong had three days to get out.
All mines were set for a 72-hour arming delay to allow for merchant ships in Haiphong to exit. There were 37 neutral vessels in Haiphong (“neutral” technically included one East German Communist bloc ship and 16 Soviet, five Chinese, three Polish, and two Cuban ships), but only one British and four Soviet ships took advantage of the delay and got out; the rest were trapped for over 300 days until the “peace accords” were finally signed in early 1973. (The United States used an offer to clear the mines as an inducement for the North Vietnamese to reach an agreement.) The mines were actually set to deactivate in 180 days, and therefore had to be reseeded as the negotiations dragged on.
The initial mine laying strike was only the first of many. The same day, A-6s from three carriers would sow mines at six other lesser ports both north and south of Haiphong, and some of these strikes encountered heavy antiaircraft fire, although only one aircraft would be lost on any mining mission and that was later in 1972. Pocket Money would continue until the last mission on 16 January 1973 by an A-6 Intruder of VA-35 off America (CVA-66). During the course of the campaign, 108 Mark 52-2 and at least 11,603 Mark 36 Destructor (DST) mines would be sown in 1,149 sorties from 10 aircraft carriers in Haiphong in virtually every port, bay, estuary, navigable river, and ferry crossing in North Vietnam. The mining halted all exports from North Vietnam and dramatically reduced imports of all kinds, particularly weapons. The North Vietnamese tried to compensate by bringing in more material via rail from China, but with many of the previous bombing restrictions lifted, this created additional lucrative targets for U.S. aircraft. North Vietnamese coastal shipping was also drastically reduced.
Of interest, on 4 August 1972, dozens of mines spontaneously exploded. It was assessed this was caused by a coronal mass ejection on the sun that triggered a geomagnetic storm, and resulting magnetic radiation triggered the mines. This theory was confirmed in 2017 by scientific researchers.
Commander Sheets would retire as a captain in 1982 with 285 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, with two Legion of Merits with Combat “V,” nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, and other combat awards. Sheets ended his after action report thus: “The overall reaction of the aircrews involved in the mining was one of pride, elation, and the gnawing feeling we had somehow missed our TOT [time on target] by seven years.”
10 May: Operation Custom Tailor
A cruiser-destroyer force conducted another raid on Haiphong to enable the ongoing aerial mine effort by suppressing antiaircraft batteries ashore. Task Unit 77.1.2 (TU-77.1.2) was led by heavy cruiser Newport News (CA-148) and guided-missile cruisers Providence (CLG-6), and Oklahoma City (CLG-5), along with guided-missile destroyer Buchanan (DDG-14) and destroyers Hanson (DD-832) and Myles C. Fox (DD-829). Newport News had just arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin after departing Norfolk on 13 April.
At 0200 on 10 May, the officer in tactical command (OTC), Captain Walter F. Zartman, commanding officer (CO) of Newport News, ordered the formation into line abreast with Hanson on the left, then Providence, Newport News, Oklahoma City,and Buchanan. Myles C. Fox was ordered to take station to the northeast to block any North Vietnamese patrol boat activity. At 0345, the five cruisers and destroyers in line abreast turned into a line ahead, their formation parallel to Cat Ba Island, on which the airfield and other military installations were the primary target. At 0347, the U.S. ships opened fire. Newport News fired 77 8-inch rounds and 40 5-inch rounds into Cat Ba as the two CLGs and the DDG fired hundreds of 6-inch and 5-inch rounds.
Hanson concentrated on suppressing initially vigorous shore battery fire from the Do Son peninsula, so the other ships could concentrate on Cat Ba. At one point Hanson actually entered the outer Haiphong harbor (steering clear of mined areas), making her the last U.S. ship to do so during the war. Commanded by Commander Ian McEwan Watson, Hanson was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for her actions.
When enemy shore batteries opened up on TU-77.1.2, they proved to be inaccurate in the darkness. After 30 minutes, the U.S. force departed, and extensive fire from enemy 152-milimeter (6-inch) artillery rained down inaccurately. None of the U.S. ships were hit during the operation.
In the first two days after the commencement of Operation Linebacker, U.S. Navy warships shelled multiple targets along the entire length of Vietnam, in North Vietnam at night and in the South whenever needed. The arrival of Newport News with her 8-inch guns proved particularly useful. By 19 May, U.S. surface ships fired 41,689 rounds into North Vietnam and 83,529 against NVA targets in South Vietnam. Since the beginning of the Easter Offensive, about 60 U.S. surface ships operated along the coasts, usually in groups of three destroyers or a cruiser and two destroyers. Those in the North made an average of three strikes per night at supply line choke points and other military targets.
10 May: Execution of Operation Linebacker
Operation Linebacker (later known as Linebacker I) had four major objectives:
- Isolate North Vietnam from overland supply from China by destroying bridges and rolling stock between Hanoi and a buffer zone near the Chinese border.
- Destroy marshaling yards and primary storage areas, particularly petroleum.
- Destroy transshipment points.
- Eliminate or severely degrade the air defense system.
By choking off the source of supplies, the overarching objective was to starve the North Vietnamese forces in the South of material and munitions needed to continue the offensive. A big difference between the Johnson administration during Rolling Thunder and the Nixon administration during Freedom Trail and Linebacker was that the Nixon administration left operational planning to on-scene commanders and greatly loosened target restrictions—in other words, far less micromanagement from Washington.
Operation Linebacker commenced on 10 May, with 414 sorties (294 by the U.S. Navy and 120 by the U.S. Air Force) resulting in the largest air-to-air battle of the entire war. Multiple targets were struck, including the Paul Doumer (Long Bien) Bridge, Yen Vien railroad switching yards, Hai Duong railroad switching yards, and Haiphong petroleum storage yards. Although the approximately 200 MiG interceptors of the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) preferred to avoid direct engagements with U.S. fighters (preferring instead to ambush isolated attack aircraft), attacks on targets so close to Hanoi and Haiphong forced them to rise to the occasion (sorry). Eleven North Vietnamese MiGs (four MiG-21s and seven MiG-17s) were shot down in aerial combat, eight by U.S. Navy fighters. Two U.S. Air Force F-4s were lost in air-to-air combat. The North Vietnamese fired over 100 SAMs, downing two U.S. Navy F-4s.
The first target was the massive cantilever Paul Doumer Bridge on the northern outskirts of Hanoi, at the time, the only bridge over the Red River connecting Hanoi and Haiphong. It had been bombed in 1967 and one span had dropped but been repaired. It was damaged by a joint Navy-Air Force strike on 10 May. It would have to be attacked again in August 1972 using Walleye television-guided bombs. Another bridge attacked was at Hai Duong, over a tributary of the Red River about halfway between Hanoi and Haiphong. There is a very famous photograph of a VA-195 “Dambusters” A-7E off Kitty Hawk flown by Mike A. “Baby” Ruth coming off the target with bombs bursting on the bridge below.
Another target in the morning was the Haiphong petroleum products storage area, struck by Carrier Air Wing 9 (CVW-9) aircraft off Constellation (CVA-64). An F-4J Phantom II of VF-92 flown by Lieutenant Curt Dose (a recent Navy Fighter Weapons School [TOPGUN] graduate) and RIO Lieutenant Commander James McDevitt was flying wing for a section of fighters protecting the strike. Alerted to enemy fighters launching from Kep airfield north of Hanoi, the flight maneuvered to within close proximity of the airfield at very low altitude to engage the enemy flight. In the fight that followed, Dose downed a MiG-21MF with two AIM-9 Sidewinders; one exploded just below the aircraft and the second went up the tailpipe of the MiG and exploded, downing the aircraft and killing the pilot. Dose then fired a Sidewinder at a second MiG-21 that barely missed. Dose’s fourth Sidewinder hung on the rail. Dose’s section lead fired three Sidewinders at the same MiG without a hit. (This MiG-21 was flown by Dang Ngoc Ngu, a North Vietnamese ace with seven kills.) The MiG-21s were so recently delivered they still had Soviet markings. Dose then had to make it through a hail of AAA fire at low altitude. Dose was awarded a Silver Star (McDevitt probably was too, but I can’t find it).
The afternoon strike by CVW-9 aircraft on the heavily defended Hai Duong railroad yard was an epic in the history of U.S. naval aviation. The 35-plane strike was planned and led by the commander of CVW-9, Commander Lowell F. “Gus” Eggert (call sign “Honeybee”), who would be awarded a Navy Cross for the action while flying an A-7E Corsair II. On Eggert’s wing was Lieutenant Charles W. “Willy” Moore Jr. of VA-146 (the “Busybees”) on his second Vietnam combat tour (Willy would later lead Strike Fighter Squadron 131 (VFA-131) in a strike on Libya in 1986 and command U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Fifth Fleet from 1998 to 2002 during Operations Infinite Reach, Desert Fox, and Enduring Freedom—I was his intelligence officer [N2] for most of it). (Note, the voice calls of the Hai Duong strike were actually recorded, and a transcription is on the internet.)
The strike launched from Constellation at 1130 (from “Dixie Station”). The strike package of A-6A Intruder and A-7E Corsair II aircraft also included seven F-4J Phantom II fighters of VA-96, each armed with 2,000 pounds of ordnance for flak suppression. (For two straight years, VF-96 had been awarded the Clifton Trophy as the most outstanding fighter squadron in the Navy.) As no AAA was readily apparent on the inbound run (often a harbinger of MiG activity), the VF-96 F-4 flak suppressors dropped their bombs on a warehouse area adjacent to the target. As the strike package was rolling in on the target, somewhere between 16 and 24 MiGs (depending on the account) were closing in (about 36 were launched but not all engaged). The F-4s climbed to meet the threat.
As the attack aircraft were coming off a very successful strike on the target, with numerous direct hits on key railroad infrastructure by 30,000 pounds of bombs, the entire railroad yard was observed to be ablaze. MiGs began to roll in on the attack aircraft, which were at an acute disadvantage. Because of a shortage of Sidewinders, the A-7Es didn’t have any, and many of their M61 20-milimeter rotary canons weren’t working. The A-6s had neither missiles nor guns. A number of the attack aircraft soon had MiGs on their tails. An A-7E, “Busybee 5” flown by Commander Fred Baldwin, made repeated “dry” firing passes to get a MiG-17 off the tail of “Busybee 6” flown by Lieutenant Allen Junker, who didn’t have a working canon either. By radical maneuver, the two A-7Es thwarted the attacks of a veteran North Vietnamese pilot.
The F-4s had to get in with the attack jets in order to clean MiGs off tails, resulting in the biggest dogfight of the Vietnam War. An F-4 flown by Lieutenant Steven C. Shoemaker and RIO Lieutenant (j.g.) Keith V. Crenshaw downed a MiG-17 with a Sidewinder. Another F-4, flown by Lieutenant Michael J. “Matt” Connelly and RIO Lieutenant Thomas J. J. Blonski, downed two MiG-17s with Sidewinders. Connelly and Blonski would each be awarded a Navy Cross for the fight against overwhelming odds.
Another VF-96 F-4J in the fight was flown by Lieutenant Randall “Duke” Cunningham and RIO Lieutenant (j.g.) William “Irish” Driscoll, with two air-to-air kills already to their credit. As in the previous engagements, Lieutenant Brian Grant was Cunningham’s wingman. Cunningham had begun the day with a Dear John letter from his wife asking for a divorce and was not scheduled to fly, but CAG Eggert assigned him to fly the flak suppression mission at the last moment.
As Cunningham came off the target, Driscoll reported many enemy aircraft coming up from behind. Two MiG-17s got behind Cunningham and his wingman, with Cunningham in front by 1,000 yards. The MiGs missed their target as Cunningham broke hard and the MiGs overshot, the lead MiG below and his wingman above. The MiG wingman made a mistake trying to climb, exposing his underside for a brief moment. Cunningham fired a Sidewinder up the MiG wingman’s tailpipe and the aircraft exploded. Another MiG-17 then got on Cunningham’s tail. Cunningham tried to drag the MiG in front of Grant so that his wingman would have a shot, but by then Grant had two MiGs on his tail. At that point both Cunningham and Grant went into afterburner and escaped the MiGs.
At a higher altitude, Cunningham could see down below about eight MiG-17s in a defensive wheel formation (this standard Vietnamese tactic involved MiGs following each other in a circle so that an attacking aircraft getting behind a MiG would immediately find another MiG behind it). Cunningham and Grant were looking to attack the wheel formation from above, when the executive officer of VA-96, Dwight Timm, flew by with two MiGs on his tail and another under his belly. Cunningham told Timm to break hard to starboard, so he could take a shot at the MiG underneath him. Not realizing there was a MiG below him, Timm was slow to comply out of concern for the MiGs behind him. By this time, Driscoll was calling out four MiGs behind and two others coming head on. Finally Timm broke hard to starboard, and Cunningham fired a Sidewinder causing the MiG to explode. All aircraft then went to afterburner and escaped the MiGs.
The air melee was winding down as all the jets on both sides were starting to run low on fuel. To that point, one F-4 (“Silver Kite 212” of VF-92 flown by XO Commander Harry Blackburn and RIO Lieutenant Stephen Rudluff) had been downed by 57-milimeter or 85-milimeter AAA. Both men ejected with good chutes and were seen to land about a few hundred yards apart. Rudluff was released as a POW in 1973. Blackburn was not released and the Vietnamese initially denied any knowledge of him. However, in 1986 the Vietnamese returned remains they had “discovered” that were then positively identified as Blackburn. The exact time, place, and cause of his death remain unknown.
As Cunningham was coming south from Hai Duong heading back to Constellation he encountered a camouflaged MiG-17 nearly head-on. The MiG aggressively opened with a forward firing pass. Cunningham went vertical up to 12,000 feet, and as he pulled over the top at 6 Gs, expecting to see the MiG below heading away, he was shocked to find the MiG had matched his climb and they were canopy to canopy about 400 feet apart. There is some reporting that the MiG pilot was North Vietnam’s leading ace with 13 claimed kills to his credit.* Regardless, what followed was an epic one-on-one duel between two really great pilots, with the advantage constantly shifting back and forth. Both aircraft were probably reaching critically low fuel state (Cunningham definitely was), but the Vietnamese pilot blinked first and made a fatal run for it. Cunningham fired a Sidewinder that destroyed the MiG. As it exploded, he fired his fourth (and last) Sidewinder. The MiG crashed with no chute observed. (*North Vietnam’s leading ace was Nguyen Van Coc with nine kills. He was no longer flying in combat after 1968 and is still alive today. It was VPAF practice to paint red stars on the tail for kills by the plane, regardless of who flew it. MiG-17 3030 had about 13 kills and was the one shot down by Cunningham on 10 May.)
After downing their third MiG of the day and fifth overall, the duo of Cunningham and Driscoll were the first U.S. aces of the war from any service (the Air Force wouldn’t get their first ace until August 1972). By this time, there was serious doubt whether Cunningham had enough fuel to make it back to Constellation. He was flying through an area with a concentration of SAMs. His radar warning gear picked up nothing, but just then a Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (VQ-1) Lockheed EP-3 called out a SAM warning. Cunningham saw the SAM, which had possibly been launched optically, too late to do much about it, and the SAM exploded about 500 feet above him, severely damaging his aircraft.
With his hydraulics malfunctioning, Cunningham gradually lost control of the aircraft as he nursed it to the coast. Finally, as the plane gyrated out of control and caught fire, Cunningham and Driscoll were forced to eject. Luckily they came down in the water and were picked up after only 15 minutes by a Marine helicopter from Okinawa (LPH-3). The North Vietnamese fired SA-2 SAMs at the rescue aircraft but missed high.
Cunningham and Driscoll were each awarded a Navy Cross and a Purple Heart for this engagement, to go with two Silver Stars awarded to both for previous kills on 19 January and 8 May. Both Cunningham and Driscoll retired from the Navy at the rank of commander. Sadly, Cunningham’s second career as a Republican congressman didn’t end so well.
The strike and air battle by CVW-9 wasn’t the only action that afternoon. At about 1400, an F-4B of VF-51 off Coral Sea flown by Lieutenant Kenneth L. “Ragin Cajun” Cannon and RIO Lieutenant Roy A. “Bud” Morris downed a MiG-17 with a Sidewinder.
Of 11 MiGs downed on 10 May, U.S. Navy aircraft accounted for eight. Of those eight, seven were by planes of CVW-9, six by planes of VF-96, and three by Cunningham and Driscoll.
After the first day of Operation Linebacker, large strikes occurred regularly but most raids consisted of armed reconnaissance flights, which sought out and destroyed elements of North Vietnamese air defense and logistics capabilities within three main areas near Hanoi and Haiphong. Many such targets had previously been off-limits during Rolling Thunder. In the initial months, U.S. Navy aircraft flew 60 percent of strike sorties in North Vietnam and 25 percent of those were at night, giving the North Vietnamese no respite.
13 May: Amphibious Operations
The Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force, Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), centered on amphibious assault ship Okinawa (LPH-3), landed South Vietnamese marines in a raid miles behind NVA lines in Quang Tri Province. The Okinawa ARG conducted additional raids with South Vietnamese marines on 24 May and then a landing on 29 June. Dock landing ship Alamo (LSD-33) would emplace a five section causeway on the coast east of Quang Tri to facilitate logistics support by South Vietnamese utility landing craft (LCUs) and mechanized landing craft (LCMs) to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces that, with the aid of U.S. air support, stopped the NVA advance on the city of Hue and began to push the NVA back.
11 May: An Loc Holds
The North Vietnamese Army commenced what would be their last major push on An Loc. After firing about 8,000 rounds of artillery onto the city, the shelling ceased at 0430 as the attack commenced from all sides by 5,000 NVA troops and 40 tanks. However, U.S. and South Vietnamese tactical aircraft and helicopter gunships quickly pounced. B-52s then pounded NVA positions about once every hour. NVA casualties were extremely heavy and the attack stalled. Foul weather prevented tactical air strikes on the night of 12–13 May, which prompted the NVA to make one last attempt. This was thwarted by a U.S. Air Force 15,000-pound bomb and fuel-air explosives.
Although NVA shelling of An Loc remained heavy, the NVA shifted their effort to the ARVN relief column battling its way up the highway from Saigon. Here, aircraft from the recently arrived carrier Saratoga (CVA-60) and the recently arrived Marine A-4s of Marine Aircraft Group 12 (MAG-12) at Bien Hoa airfield would play a key role in blunting this NVA thrust. Saratoga arrived off Vietnam on 17 May, making six U.S. carriers engaged in turning back the Easter Offensive. The Marine attack squadrons VMA-211 and VMA-311 arrived at Bien Hoa on the same day.
By 16 May, the NVA offensive at An Loc had reached its culminating point, although it would take until 12 June before the ARVN could drive the last NVA troops out of the city. NVA activity would continue around An Loc for months, but the worst of the threat was over, and the route to Saigon secured, thanks to U.S. air power and the courage of the stubborn ARVN defenders of An Loc.
18 May: Two MiG-19s Downed
New target sets were approved for Linebacker strikes in North Vietnam, to include power plants, shipyards, and a Haiphong cement plant. Of 200 U.S. Navy sorties into North Vietnam on 18 May, 60 were in the Haiphong region, including a strike on the Uong Bi power plant near Haiphong.
At 1730, two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19s were downed by two F-4B Phantom IIs of Fighter Squadron 161 (VF-161) off Midway (CVA-41). One F-4B, flown by Lieutenant Henry A. “Bart” Bartholomay and Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lieutenant Oran R. Brown, downed a MiG with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. The other F-4B, flown by Lieutenant Patrick E. Arwood and RIO James M. “Mike” Bell, used a newer variant, the AIM-9G Sidewinder, for the kill.
23 May: Two MiGs Downed by a Single F-4B
Guided-missile destroyer leader Biddle (DLG-34) had just arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin on 15 May and relieved Sterett (DLG-31) on the northern search and rescue (SAR) station. At about 1745 on 23 May, controllers on Biddle vectored two F-4Bs of VA-161 off Midway toward enemy MiGs. The F-4Bs were supporting a strike on the Haiphong petroleum products storage. The lead F-4B was flown by Lieutenant Commander Ronald E. “Mugs” McKeown and RIO Lieutenant John C. “Jack” Ensch. The two F-4Bs wound up overhead Kep airfield, one of the largest MiG bases in North Vietnam.
As the two F-4Bs turned to pursue two MiG-19s, they were unpleasantly surprised to discover six more MiG-17s in the air. A MiG-17 got on McKeown’s tail, and in an effort to regain advantage, McKeown stalled his jet, which then went into an end-over-end tumble (not a Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization [NATOPS] approved maneuver); this did, however, cause the MiG to overshoot. McKeown fired a Sidewinder, but the MiG broke hard at the last instant and the missile missed. McKeown then engaged a different MiG-17 that passed in front of him; this time the shot was perfect and blew off the MiG’s tail. McKeown then immediately turned to engage a MiG that had gotten on his wingman’s tail and shot it down with another Sidewinder.
McKeown and Ensch were each awarded a Navy Cross for the engagement. Ensch would be shot down in August 1972 and held as a prisoner of war (POW) until his release in March 1973.
The same day, an A-7B Corsair II of Attack Squadron 93 (VA-93) off Midway flown by Commander Charles E. Barnett was shot down. Barnett was killed. His remains were returned in 1988. The North Vietnamese claimed it was an air-to-air kill, but U.S. records indicate a SAM hit. Barnett had previously survived being downed by a SAM in 1966 while flying an A-4 Skyhawk of VA-195.
24 May: Continuous Night Ops
Task Force 77 aircraft commenced constant night operations over Vietnam, weather permitting, relying on the A-6A Intruder (and the more capable A-6B Intruder on Kitty Hawk [CVA-63]) and A-7E Corsair II aircraft. At times, night sorties would account for 30 percent of the total.
26 May: Ineffective Shore Battery Fire
During a bombardment of the Ha Trung petroleum storage area by U.S. Navy surface ships, North Vietnamese shore batteries fired 175 rounds of artillery at the ships with no effect. Throughout the campaign, shore battery fire was common, but hits were not.
31 May: Statistics
U.S. Navy aircraft flew 3,949 attack sorties into North Vietnam in May compared to 1,250 in April. U.S. Navy attack sorties into South Vietnam dropped from 4,833 in April to 3,290 in May. This was compensated for by an increase in Marine sorties in the South from 543 in April to 1,502 in May with the arrival of more Marine aircraft in-country. U.S. Navy aircraft struck 2,416 targets in North Vietnam in May, up from 719 in April. Target categories included railroads (16 percent), roads and trucks (14 percent), storage areas (13 percent), and bridges (10 percent). U.S. Navy aircraft shot down 16 North Vietnamese jets in May, including 11 MiG-17 Frescoes, two MiG-19 Farmers, and three MiG-21 Fishbeds. The U.S. Navy lost six aircraft in May, two F-4 Phantom IIs and two A-7 Corsair IIs to antiaircraft artillery (AAA) and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. One F-8 Crusader and one RA-5 Vigilante were lost to unknown causes, but none were believed to be due to enemy fighters.
As of July 1972, six attack carriers were engaged in strike operations against North Vietnam and North Vietnamese ground forces in South Vietnam. This was the greatest concentration of U.S. aircraft carriers since World War II, equaled only the Desert Storm deployments in 1990–91. These carriers, along with the recently departed Constellation (CVA-64), and Coral Sea (CVA-43), played a key role in blunting the major North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam that commenced on 30 March 1972, as well as playing a key role in the initiation of strike operations into North Vietnam (Operation Linebacker) and in the aerial mining campaign against North Vietnamese ports and coastal waters (Operation Pocket Money).
The carriers operated from both Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam and from Dixie Station off South Vietnam, rotating back to Subic Bay, Philippines, for rest, recuperation, and upkeep. The carriers off Vietnam in July were Hancock (CVA-19), commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Albert J. “Jack” Monger, with CVW-21 embarked and deployed since January; Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Owen H. “Obie” Oberg, with CVW-11 embarked and deployed since February; Midway (CVA-41), commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) William L. Harris, Jr., and, after 31 July, by Captain (later Admiral/CINCPAC) Sylvester R. “Bob” Foley, Jr., with CVW-5 embarked and deployed since April; Saratoga (CVA-60), commanded by Captain (later Vice Admiral) James R. “Sandy” Sanderson, with CVW-3 embarked and deployed from the U.S. East Coast since April; America (CVA-66), commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Burton H. Shepherd, with CVW-8 embarked and deployed since June; and Oriskany (CVA-34), commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) John C. Barrow, with CVW-19 embarked and deployed since June—and on her seventh Vietnam War deployment.
Following the significant aerial battles at the inception of Operation Linebacker in May, and heavy losses by the North Vietnamese air force, enemy air activity dropped off in July and even more so in August, as did launches of surface-to-air missiles. The older North Vietnamese MiG-17 and Mig-19 aircraft declined to engage. In fact, the only North Vietnamese aircraft even sighted in the air in July and August were the newer MiG-21 Fishbeds, and then only a very few of them. A major factor in the drop-off in air activity and SAM launches was the effect of finally mining North Vietnamese ports, which quickly caused the North Vietnamese to begin conserving ammunition as their previously unimpeded avenue of resupply from the Soviet Union and Communist China was cut off. Navy leaders, who had unsuccessfully advocated for mining the ports for years, refrained from publically saying, “We told you so.”
17 July: USS Warrington Damaged by U.S. Mines
Warrington (DD-843) was a Gearing-class destroyer, commissioned just after the end of World War II in September 1945. She was the third ship named after Lewis Warrington, a distinguished U.S. Navy officer (awarded a Congressional Gold Medal) in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, who later served as acting Secretary of the Navy when Secretary Thomas Gilmer was killed as a result of the “Peacemaker” gun bursting during a demonstration firing on USS Princeton in February 1844 (which also killed Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and luckily not President John Tyler). The second Warrington, Somers-class destroyer DD-383, was lost in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of September 1944, along with 248 of her officers and crew (five officers and 68 crewmen were rescued).
Based out of Newport, Rhode Island, Warrington had a bit of an unlucky career. In January 1955, it collided with destroyer Power (DD-839), fortunately with no casualties. In July 1964, Warrington lost steering control during a highline transfer, colliding with destroyer Barry (DD-933), fortunately again without severe damage to either.
Warrington had been upgraded to the FRAM 1 Mark 1 (Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization) configuration, which added an anti-submarine rocket launcher (ASROC) and torpedo magazine, and replaced the No. 2 twin 5-inch gun mount with two triple Mk 32 12.75-inch ASW torpedo launchers. In the upgrade, she also received a hanger and flight deck for a Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH remotely controlled ASW helicopter, among other modifications.
USS Warrington (DD-843) underway after her FRAM I conversion, circa 1962-72 (NH 107115).
On 5 June, Warrington departed Newport for her second Vietnam War deployment, transiting by way of the Panama Canal, Pearl Harbor, Guam, and Subic Bay. Under the command of Commander Noel Harper Petree,
Warrington made a quick stop at Danang, South Vietnam, on 15 July, before relieving destroyer Hamner (DD-718) on 16 July for blockade and interdiction duty off the coast of North Vietnam. Early the next morning, Warrington was conducting operations in company with destroyers Hull (DD-945) and Robison (DDG-12), when the group came under rapid and heavy shore battery fire. The ships took evasive action and none were hit.
Later on 17 July, without warning, two underwater explosions six seconds apart close aboard Warrington’s port side inflicted severe damage to its after fire room, after engine room, and main control room. Somewhat miraculously there were no serious casualties. Warrington was able to exit the area at 10 knots. Hull came alongside and transferred additional repair personnel, pumps, and shoring equipment, as well as additional feed water to help maintain boiler operations (and several movies). However, the degree of damage forced Warrington to shut down its propulsion plant and the cruiser was taken in tow by Robison. During the night of 17–18 July, damage control was complicated by flooding from ruptured fuel oil and fresh water tanks, and the crew worked mightily to keep the ship afloat.
On 18 July, Robison passed the tow to Reclaimer (ARS-42) for the tow toward Subic Bay. The tow was passed again to Tawakoni (ATF-114) on 20 July, and Warrington arrived at Subic four days later. During this period, Warrington’s crew was able to keep progressive flooding in check. The Subic Bay Ship Repair Facility improved the habitability and watertight integrity of the ship.
On 22 August, the president of the Board of Inspection and Survey, Rear Admiral John D. Bulkeley (Medal of Honor recipient of World War II PT-boat fame) led a team onto Warrington. The inspection concluded that the ship was unfit for further service, making the cruiser the largest U.S. Navy ship knocked out of the war permanently due to damage. On 12 September, Secretary of the Navy John Warner approved Bulkeley’s recommendation. The ship was decommissioned at Subic Bay on 30 September and much of her equipment was salvaged. She was subsequently sold to Taiwan in 1974 for spare parts, cannibalization, and scrapping. Warrington would be awarded a Vietnam Service Medal with star for her two deployments, and a Combat Action Ribbon for the mine strike.
After the incident, fragments of a specific fuse associated with U.S. Mk 36 Destructor mines were found among damage on Warrington, in addition to fragments of Mk 82 bomb casings. The Mark 36 was a Mk 82 500-pound bomb converted to an air-delivered bottom influence mine using an add-on kit. On 1 December 1972, the U.S. Navy announced that the cause of damage was that Warrington had set off two U.S. Mk 36 mines, making the event an accident. That the damage wasn’t fatal was probably due to the depth of the mines.
The announcement was vague on how it had happened, but there was speculation that a pilot had jettisoned two mines in that area, for whatever reason, without notifying any higher authority of the danger area. (Dropping two Mk 36 mines required two independent actions, so it was unlikely they were dropped inadvertently. Also, if a mine needed to be jettisoned, it was supposed to be dropped in an unarmed configuration, but these two were very much “live.”) However, an account from the Naval Magazine at Subic Bay stated Warrington ignored a warning message and entered a known jettison area (although that may be true, it wouldn’t be the first time a ship failed to receive a message either).
Two weeks after Warrington’s accident, the destroyer Hollister (DD-788) set off two Mk 36 Destructor mines. Fortunately, damage to Hollister was far less severe and she continued operations. (Of note, Hollister was named after three brothers killed during World War II: one was missing in action after a German air attack on destroyer Plunkett (DD-431) off Anzio, Italy, while the other two were killed when escort carrier Liscome Bay [CVE-56] was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine near Makin Island—as was Doris Miller, the first African American awarded a Navy Cross).
On 9 August, Hollister was part of three-ship formation that conducted a daylight raid on the Quang Yien storage complex, at the north end of the North Vietnamese “panhandle,” (not far from the original “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” in 1964). The ships received 250 rounds of hostile fire from heavily fortified Hon Me Island, none of which hit, while returning 193 rounds. The intended target (a large ammunition cache) was destroyed, while the U.S. ships suffered no casualties in what was considered one of the more daring destroyer operations of the war.
According to one account, on 10 August 1972, Hollister became the first U.S.Navy surface ship to fire a surface-to-surface missile in combat, destroying a North Vietnamese radar site. The account does not state what the weapon was. However, on 3 February 1972, Oklahoma City (CLG-5) fired a RIM-8H Talos anti-radiation missile variant at a North Vietnamese radar site, credited by some as the “first” surface-to-surface missile launch. Hollister possibly had her ASROC launcher modified to fire the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile, although Vice Admiral Holloway’s account of Operation Lion’s Den (27 August) stated that Rowan (DD-782) had the first experimental modified ASROC launcher and fired a Shrike for the first time in combat during that operation. So, one of these accounts is incorrect.
18 July: Jane Fonda’s Most Unforgettable Role
Although the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive had ground to a halt, in large part due to the effective application of American air power, anti-war sentiment in the United States still ran very high. Such sentiment was also increasingly present in the crews of Navy ships, resulting in a number of incidents of sabotage. On 10 July 1972, a computer system on attack carrier Forrestal (CVA-59) was damaged by arson while in port Norfolk. On 19 July, Ranger (CVA-61) suffered damage to her reduction gears due to sabotage while operating off San Diego.
By 1972, over 300 Americans had traveled to North Vietnam, at the invitation of the North Vietnamese government, to witness conditions in the country. These were mostly anti-war activists and pacifist teachers and pastors, who were shown what the North Vietnamese wanted them to see. In July 1972, the famous and popular actress Jane Fonda, who had become a very outspoken critic of the war, received such an invitation and visited North Vietnam. She was shown damage to the North Vietnamese dike system that was claimed to be deliberate (it was not).
During her two weeks in North Vietnam, Fonda made several anti-war radio broadcasts after visiting hospitals, schools, and factories that had been damaged by American bombs—according to the North Vietnamese. (There was no doubt collateral damage to civilian infrastructure, but there is also an aspect of anti-aircraft fire that many do not grasp: that which goes up, must come down.) On her last day in Vietnam, Fonda was filmed and photographed while sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun, smiling and laughing. It was this image that earned her the sobriquet “Hanoi Jane,” as well as the enmity of many veterans of the war. While Fonda’s visit, radio broadcasts, and anti-aircraft gun photos were inflammatory enough, it also sparked exaggerated and many cases outright false claims that continue to circulate on the internet today. Although Fonda would never apologize for her anti-war activism, in later years she did repeatedly apologize for the anti-aircraft gun photo: “It was the most horrible thing I could possibly have done.”
19 July: Biddle’s Surface-to-Air Engagement
On the night of 19 July, radar onboard guide-missile destroyer leader Biddle (DLG-34, later CG-34) was tracking U.S. Navy BARCAP fighters escorting a damaged A-6 Intruder medium attack jet with a wounded bombardier/navigator returning to carrier Midway (CVA-41) from a mission over North Vietnam. Under the command of Captain Edward W. Carter (later rear admiral), Biddle was serving as the PIRAZ (Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone) ship in the northern Gulf of Tonkin, about 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. It had relieved Sterett (DLG-31) on 14 July, and was in company with her “shotgun,” Ross F. Gray (DE-1054, later FF-1054). Biddle’s mission was to ensure no enemy aircraft attempted to mingle with returning U.S. aircraft to conduct a surprise attack.
USS Biddle (DLG-34) underway in Hampton Roads, Virginia, April 1969 (NH 106547).
It was a black night with no moon and high overcast. There was no ship on the northern search and rescue (SAR) station as it was anticipated to be a slow night, as weather limited flight operations. One of the BARCAP left the area escorting the A-6 while the other commenced air-to-air refueling. A request by Biddle to Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) to launch the Alert 5 combat air patrol (CAP) was denied as the next two BARCAP fighters were scheduled to be launched soon to relieve the patrol already in the air. Captain Carter later reported having received intelligence that the North Vietnamese were gearing up for another ship attack (following the one on Higbee [DD-806] on 19 April 1972) and were awaiting an opportunity when the BARCAP was weakened, such as what occurred on this night. (Biddle had a Naval Security Group detachment on board, monitoring North Vietnamese radio traffic.)
At about 2215, the Naval Security Group indicated MiG activity of concern south of Hanoi. Biddle’s radar then detected two North Vietnamese MiGs (some accounts say three MiGs) heading toward the coast, where the MiGs would nearly always turn away. This time they kept coming. As the MiGs passed the 20-mile line at high speed, Lieutenant Ralph Muse (the senior officer in the combat information center [CIC] at the time), called for the captain, but quickly realized he would not get there in time, nor was there time to request permission to fire from Seventh Fleet.
As the MiGs reached nine miles out, Muse, on his initiative, ordered a salvo of two Terrier surface-to-air missiles fired at the lead MiG, simultaneously with the call to General Quarters. Biddle increased speed to 25 knots and initiated evasive maneuvers. Captain Carter ordered Gray to stand clear, as the Terrier launcher was loaded with two more missiles. Some accounts say these were then fired at the second MiG, other accounts say they were not fired yet at this point.
Based on radar and report of a down-range explosion by one of the BARCAP, as well as sightings by lookouts on both Biddle and Gray, the first MiG was assessed as destroyed. The other MiG (or MiGs) turned away and was able to evade the second Terrier salvo (if it was actually fired).
A few minutes after the first missile salvo, Biddle’s surface search radar detected two (or three) more MiGs coming very low and very fast at only seven miles away. Both air search radars then picked up the targets, but the fire control radar could not get a lock. Captain Carter ordered a turn in order to engage the targets on the port side with missiles and guns. Biddle’s 5-inch gun was down with an inoperative amplidyne motor and could only be trained in manual mode, while the 3-inch gun was optically guided. Another salvo of Terrier missiles was fired anyway, and the guns conducted rapid barrage fire with proximity-fused shells—54 rounds from the 5-inch and about 28 rounds from the 3-inch gun.
One of the MiGs was hit by something and probably crashed, while one MiG flew directly over the ship but either didn’t or couldn’t drop a bomb, or missed with a dud, as there was no subsequent explosion. Biddle suffered no damage or casualties.
There are multiple accounts of this action, and as is typical (and the bane of historians), these accounts differ in significant respects. For example, Biddle’s 1972 command history reports only four Terriers being fired, while the CIC officer recalled six being fired. Biddle’s missing deck log for that date doesn’t help. Biddle’s after-action report credited the second “possible” kill to her gun batteries, which would make her the last U.S. Navy ship to shoot down an aircraft with manually loaded guns.
20 July: USS Oriskany’s Loose Screw
On 20 July, attack carrier Oriskany lost a propeller and a section of the shaft, limiting her to operations with only three engines. Before being lost, the faulty propeller caused Oriskany to bump up against ammunition ship Nitro (AE-23) during a night replenishment, damaging and putting out of commission one of Oriskany’s deck-edge elevators. The subsequent loss of the screw necessitated Oriskany transiting to Yokosuka, Japan, for major repair.
On 31 July, the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, one of the last U.S. combat units still in South Vietnam, commenced return to the United States.
6 August: Deepest SAR Rescue Since 1968
On 6 August, a VA-105 A-7A Corsair II off Saratoga, flown by Lieutenant James R. Lloyd was on an armed reconnaissance mission 20 miles northwest of Vinh Airfield in North Vietnam when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. An HH-3A helicopter of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 7 (HC-7) Detachment 110 on Saratoga, flown by Lieutenant Harry J. Zinser, with two aircrewmen, launched to attempt a rescue. Supported by aircraft from Saratoga and Midway, Zinser made the deepest penetration into North Vietnam since 1968. In order to locate the downed pilot in darkness, Zinser had to use his landing lights, which attracted heavy ground fire. Despite damage, Zinser was able to rescue Lloyd. (During 1972, HC-7 made 48 rescues, including 35 under combat conditions). Lieutenant Zinser was awarded a Navy Cross;
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Harry Jack Zinser, United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in action on the night of 6 August and early morning of 7 August 1972 while serving with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron SEVEN (HC-7), Detachment 110, embarked in USS SARATOGA (CVA-60). As Pilot in command of a rescue helicopter during nearly five hours of coordinated search and rescue effort for a United States Navy pilot downed in North Vietnam, Lieutenant Zinser, in the face of intense enemy fire, commenced a low-level flight and turned on his landing lights in order to facilitate the search. Although the aircraft was repeatedly hit by ground fire, he continued the search until the downed pilot was visually located. Lieutenant Zinser then carried out a skillful landing, picked up the downed airman and succeeded in flying his crippled aircraft at treetop level back to the safety of SARATOGA. By his outstanding aeronautical skill, courageous leadership and inspiring dedication, Lieutenant Zinser reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
10 August: MiG-21 Shootdown with AIM-7E Sparrow
At 2019 on 10 August, in fading light, an F-4J Phantom II of VF-103 off USS Saratoga (CVA-60) shot down a MiG-21 Fishbed with an AIM-7E Sparrow radar-guided missile. Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Tucker and Lieutenant (junior grade) Samuel B. Edens were given credit for the kill, the only one by Navy or Marine aircraft in August.
Early August: Marine Attack Helos Operate from USS Cleveland
In early August, seven Marine AH-1J Seacobra attack helicopters of HMA-369 embarked on dock landing ship Cleveland (LPD-7), and commenced attacks on North Vietnamese coastal water transport craft. HMA-369 had been activated at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (Okinawa) in April 1972, and was the first Marine helicopter squadron in Marine Corps history to conduct offensive operations. It first embarked on Denver (LPD-9) on 20 June 1972, interdicting enemy barges and ferries, and acting as low flying forward air controllers for Navy strikes (Operation Marhuk). HMA-369 would subsequently cross-deck from Cleveland to Dubuque (LPD-8) for the duration of the war. HMA-369 would be awarded a Navy Unit Citation for this period.
On 23 August, the 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army 21st Infantry became the last U.S. ground unit to withdraw from Vietnam.
27 August 1972: Operation Lion’s Den: The Battle of Haiphong Harbor
In mid-August, the commander of U.S. Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral James L. Holloway III, was informed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) wanted an operation by U.S. Navy ships to destroy targets in the immediate approaches to Haiphong Harbor, which would constitute a rather daring surface action against North Vietnam’s largest port. This plan was driven by JCS Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer, who sought more aggressive action on the part of the Navy to help force the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table.
Although Haiphong had been closed to shipping since the execution of Operation Pocket Money, the aerial mining campaign in May 1972, the North Vietnamese had considerably beefed up defenses around the port. The North Vietnamese had increased the number of search and detection radars, coast-watcher networks, coastal defense guns, gun control radars, surface-to-air missiles, and fire control direction centers. Intelligence reports at the time indicated there was unlikely to be any North Vietnamese air reaction to a night incursion, nor had any enemy torpedo or missile boat activity been detected in the area for some time. The primary threat was expected to be coastal defense artillery, which to that point had a pretty poor record of hitting ship targets—by this time, most U.S. ship captains had little respect for North Vietnamese artillery accuracy. Although a few ships had been hit, none had been seriously damaged, nor had there been significant casualties.
Nevertheless, Holloway did evidence concern that if a ship were to become immobilized by damage or running aground, North Vietnamese artillery had proved capable of devastating barrages on stationary targets. Any attempt to tow a damaged ship would be very dangerous to ships rendering assistance. Given the shallow water, any ship that might be sunk would be liable to be salvaged, or at least to actions that might compromise sensitive weapons, equipment, documents, and other material. Holloway also showed concern about a potential impact on the U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board U.S. Navy ships. Should any enemy get on board an abandoned ship, they would find out whether the ship did, or did not, have nuclear weapons on board.
Despite some misgivings, when the formal JCS tasking message arrived on 25 August via Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), Holloway did not hesitate to accept the mission. The message tasked Seventh Fleet to attack nine targets on the JCS and CINCPAC target list in the vicinity of Haiphong to include Cat Bi airfield, fuel dump, and vehicle storage; the Do San radar; Haiphong SAM sites, the Cat Ba military supply dump; and fire control radars and coastal gun batteries. The ships would be permitted to take under fire without constraint any targets that represented an immediate threat even if not on the target list.
Seventh Fleet tasked the mission to Task Force SEVEN SEVEN (CTF-77), which further tasked it to Task Group 77.1, the Seventh Fleet surface warfare group commanded by Captain John Renn (who was also commander of Destroyer Squadron TWO FIVE [DESRON 25]). Vice Admiral Holloway gave Captain Renn a free hand in planning the mission with the only stipulations being that the heavy cruiser Newport News (CA-148) was to be included, but that the Seventh Fleet flagship, guided-missile light cruiser Oklahoma City (CLG-5) was not. Although like all TF-77 surface combatants, Oklahoma City periodically took her turn on the gun line shelling targets ashore, vibrations from her own gunfire often played havoc with her “fragile” (in Holloway’s words) communications systems. Holloway did not want to risk losing critical command and control capability in the midst of such an operation. (Surface combatants in TF-77 would routinely rotate between escorting the carriers and serving on the gun line, a major reason being to equalize wear and tear on gun barrels, which was considerable when the ships were doing naval gunfire support [NGFS] missions.) Nevertheless, and despite his concern about Oklahoma City’s command and control capability, Holloway decided that he would embark on Newport News in overall command of the operation, but would not assume local tactical control.
USS Newport News (CA-148) on Yankee Station during her first Vietnam deployment in 1967 (USN 1127808).
Four ships were selected to support the operation and were designated Task Unit 77.1.2. The task unit was divided into two task elements. Task Element 188.8.131.52 consisted of guided missile light cruiser Providence (CLG-6), and guided missile destroyer Robison (DDG-12), with Captain Renn embarked as officer in tactical command. Task Element 184.108.40.206 consisted of Newport News and destroyer Rowan (DD-782).
Newport News was under the command of Captain Walter F. Zartman. Commissioned in January 1949, the Des Moines-class heavy cruiser was armed with nine 8-inch/55-caliber guns in three triple turrets, 12 5-inch/38-caliber guns in six twin turrets, and 12 twin mount 3-inch/50-caliber guns.
Rowan was under the command of Commander Robert F. Comer. It was a Gearing-class destroyer commissioned in March 1945. The destroyer was hit three times by North Korean shore battery fire during the Korean War, and modernized to FRAM 1 configuration in 1964. Rowan was armed with two twin 5-inch/38-caliber gun mounts, an 8-cell ASROC box launcher and two triple 12.75-inch Mk 32 antisubmarine warfare (ASW) torpedo tubes. The ship’s ASROC launcher had been reconfigured to fire the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile; this operation would be the first combat use of the Shrike in a ship-to-shore mode.
Providence was under the command of Captain (later rear admiral) Paul C. Gibbons Jr. Originally a Cleveland-class light cruiser commissioned in May 1945, it was extensively modernized into a Providence-class guided missile cruiser in 1957–1959. Providence was armed with three 6-inch/47-caliber guns in one triple turret, two 5-inch/38-caliber guns in one twin turret, and one twin-rail Mk 9 RIM-2 Terrier surface-to-air missile launcher.
Commander Robert L. Lage was the commanding officer of Robison. It was a Charles F. Adams-class guided missile destroyer, commissioned in December 1961, armed with two single 5-inch/54-caliber gun mounts, one twin-rail Mk 11 RIM-24 Tartar surface-to-air missile launcher, one 8-cell ASROC box launcher, and two triple 12.75-inch Mk 32 ASW torpedo tubes.
On 26 August, the four ships disengaged from the gunline off Quang Tri Province in northern South Vietnam, where they were supporting South Vietnamese efforts to re-take the provincial capital, the only one that the Communist Easter Offensive actually succeed in capturing. The ships steamed north independently to rendezvous with the underway replenishment group to top off fuel and ammunition. Newport News loaded 1,000 rounds of 8-inch ammunition from Mount Katmai (AE-16), a record for Newport News. The four ships then proceeded independently at 25 knots to a rendezvous point 70 miles southeast of Haiphong.
On the night of the 26th, the Seventh Fleet flagship, Oklahoma City (CL-91) also disengaged from the Quang Tri area and proceeded north to meet up with the four CTF-77 carriers then on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. At 1400 on 27 August, Vice Admiral Holloway lifted off from Oklahoma City in a helicopter, arriving aboard Newport News at 1505. The helicopter was then sent back to carrier Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) so as not to pose a fire hazard during the impending bombardment. Vice Admiral Holloway then received a brief on the operation from Captain Zartman.
The four ships maneuvered independently on random courses for several hours to throw off any surveillance, but no fishing vessels or other traffic were observed. After nightfall, the ships then joined up at 2000 and formed a column with Rowan in the van, followed by Newport News, Robison, and Providence. The group proceeded in darkness at 25 knots aiming for the Point Do San light, which remained operational throughout the war. The average depth of water toward the end of the run was 45–50 feet, and bottom effect caused the ships to boost power to maintain 25 knots. Some of the targets were at the extreme range of Newport News’s 8-inch guns, which would require the cruiser to go just short of the five fathom line (the ship’s draft was 27 feet) while also remaining outside the area the U.S. Navy had previously mined.
At 2200, the force went to general quarters. The Do San light came into view on schedule. At 10 miles out, Robison and Providence split off to engage targets southwest of Cat Ba, while Rowan and Newport News proceeded into the channel toward Haiphong harbor.
At 2321, Newport News was 2.5 miles southeast of Do San light. The ship turned to course 070 true at 25 knots and opened fire. Rowan’s primary mission was to screen Newport News, but was also assigned to engage two targets in an attempt to stimulate North Vietnamese radar activity to serve as targets for the Shrike. Two Shrikes were quickly fired at radars, although it was unknown whether the Shrikes hit the target or the North Vietnamese shut down the radars to avoid being hit (they had experience with air-launched Shrikes by then).
The extent of North Vietnamese reinforcement became apparent as enemy shore batteries quickly opened up in what Vice Admiral Holloway described as a 45-degree sector of gun flashes. The U.S. ships used flashless powder, but the North Vietnamese didn’t, providing good targets for U.S. counter-battery fire.
At 2330, Newport News turned right to course 090 true to parallel the 5-fathom curve. Providence and Robison were on the starboard quarter commencing their firing runs.
Vice Admiral Holloway stepped outside the pilot house onto the weather deck, apparently to relive his junior officer days as gunnery officer on destroyer Bennion (DD-662).
With his head out of the top hatch of the gun director, Holloway had witnessed Bennion put torpedoes into the Japanese heavy cruiser Mogami and battleship Yamashiro during the Battle of Surigao Strait. Bennion also engaged in extensive gunfire support during the landings on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. At Palau, Bennion emptied its magazines three times in one week. Bennion suffered several casualties from shore battery fire off Samar, Philippines, and was in company with destroyer Ross (DD-563) when Ross was nearly sunk by striking two Japanese mines off Leyte. Vice Admiral Holloway was persuaded to step back inside as shrapnel from North Vietnamese near misses began to pelt the ship.
The Last Battleship Battle
North Vietnamese guns fired an estimated 300 rounds at the U.S. ships. Newport News reported 75 rounds of fairly accurate fire, but with no hits. Rowan received 50 rounds, with the closest hitting only 20 yards away. Robison reported 140 rounds of accurate fire and was actually straddled, with some rounds impacting only 15 yards away. Providence also reported 60 rounds of incoming fire. Although shrapnel rained down on some of the ships, no significant damage or casualties were incurred.
At 2333, Newport News ceased fire. Captain Zartman informed Vice Admiral Holloway that all targets had been covered, with secondary explosions observed at Cat Bi airfield and the ammunition dump. By this time, the four ships had expended about 700 rounds of 8-inch, 6-inch and 5-inch ammunition, and Rowan had fired two Shrikes.
As Newport News was about to change course to egress, its CIC reported a surface contact (“Skunk Alpha”) at 10,000 yards, 088 degrees true, closing at high speed. The contact was immediately designated as hostile, and subsequently identified by night observation devices as a Soviet-made P-6 fast attack torpedo boat. (The widely exported P-6 carried two 533mm (21-inch) torpedoes). The P-6 had apparently been waiting in ambush amongst a group of karst islands named the “Ile de Norway.” The numerous rocks and pinnacles made it difficult to get a lock on the torpedo boat, which was approaching almost from dead ahead. Initially the firing arc was fouled by the new communications antennae on Newport News’s forecastle, which delayed the ship opening fire. Newport News quickly turned hard to starboard to unmask its guns. After several minutes of intense gunfire, the contact appeared to catch fire and ceased its advance.
At this point Newport News’ CIC reported two more high-speed surface contacts at a range of 16,000 yards, approaching from dead ahead with apparent intent to cut off the cruiser’sescape route. In order to engage the contacts, Newport News swung hard to port, which put it on a collision course with the Ile de Norway group. The contacts commenced a zigzag approach, which coupled with the rocks and confusion caused by the splashes of Newport News’s own gunfire, made the fast boats hard to hit. To make matters worse, Rowan fired several star shells that detonated prematurely, so instead of silhouetting the contacts (as intended) the glare of the star shells hid the contacts. By this time, even the 3-inch guns on Newport News were getting in on the action. Providence then reported a fourth contact approaching.
At this point Vice Admiral Holloway got on the ultra-high frequency (UHF) guard channel and transmitted in the blind, “Attention any Seventh Fleet aircraft in the vicinity of Haiphong. This is Blackbeard (his personal call sign) on board Newport News with a bombardment force in Haiphong Harbor. We are engaged with several enemy surface units and need illumination to sort things out. Any aircraft in the area give me a call on guard. What we really need are high-powered flares. Blackbeard out.”
A response came back almost immediately, “This is Raven Four Four, inbound with a flight of two Corsairs for an armed recce in Package Six. We have flares and Rockeye on board. I can see all the shooting down there. I wondered what was going on. I am overhead and ready to help.”
Raven Four Four was a flight of two A-7B Corsair attack jets of Attack Squadron Ninety-Three (VA-93) off carrier Midway (CVA-41) heading into Route Package Six (the sector north of Hanoi) on an armed reconnaissance mission. The flight lead was Lieutenant (j.g.) William Pickavance, with his wingman Lieutenant (j.g.) Pat Moneymaker. (Both pilots would retire as rear admirals, and would each be awarded an Air Medal for this engagement—in 2014!)
Vice Admiral Holloway instructed Raven 44 to light the area with flares, report what he could see, and standby for further orders. Within 30 seconds, the entire area between Haiphong Harbor and Ile de Norway was lit by a million-candlepower flare. Raven 44 reported he had Newport News and a destroyer in sight, and a cruiser and destroyer to the east. Then Raven 44 reported two North Vietnamese fast attack boats closing from the direction of Ile de Norway. At this point Raven 44 was cleared to engage the hostile surface contacts, but not to go too low so as to avoid “friendly fire” as both Newport News and Rowan were pouring fire onto the contacts, now that they could see.
As one A-7 dropped a flare, the other attacked a surface contact with Rockeye. The combination of Rockeye cluster munitions and surface gunfire, appeared to destroy three of the contacts, while the first damaged contact was subsequently finished off by an A-7. The closest point of approach of the fast boats to Newport News was an uncomfortable 3,000 yards.
At 2342, Newport News and Rowan were ordered to cease fire, after expending 294 major caliber rounds on the boats. The four ships then exited the area at 27 knots. The after action report stated that all preplanned targets had been covered, with three major secondaries observed. Counterbattery fire from the ships silenced some of the North Vietnamese coastal artillery guns, but shore fire had remained heavy throughout. The U.S. ships expended a total of 710 rounds of 8 and 6-inch ammunition, and two Shrikes. Within that, Newport News expended 433 8-inch, 556 5-inch and 33 3-inch rounds. There were no U.S. casualties and only minor damage to two ships from shrapnel that landed on the weather decks. Vice Admiral Holloway’s account claimed all four surface contacts were sunk. The subsequent Intelligence reporting was somewhat less generous, indicating that Newport News sank one boat, Rowan damaged another, and an A-7 possibly sank a third. (I haven’t found any online account of the North Vietnamese side of the story; like the Japanese and Germans in World War 2, the North Vietnamese would make wildly exaggerated claims of losses inflicted, but tended to be pretty meticulous in accounting for their own losses, at least to themselves).
On 28 August, Task Group 77.1.2 was disestablished. Vice Admiral Holloway returned to his flagship Oklahoma City on a Kitty Hawk helicopter. The ships returned to the gunline off Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam.
Although not repeated, Operation Lion’s Den was considered a success, and was one of the most audacious U.S. Navy surface actions since World War 2, with only some of the operations around Wonson Harbor during the Korean War, and actions amongst the Iraqi-occupied Kuwait offshore oil platforms during Desert Storm to compare. Captain Renn was a combat veteran of World War 2, Korea and Vietnam, and despite leading probably the most daring surface operation of the entire war, apparently the flag-selection board was unimpressed and he retired as an O-6, as did Captain Zartman of Newport News.
31 August: Air Statistics
During August 1972, Navy aircraft flew 4,819 sorties into North Vietnam. There was also a sharp rise in U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) sorties from bases in South Vietnam striking enemy targets in the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam.
11 September: The Only “All-Marine” MiG Kill of the War
At 1802 on 11 September 1972, a Marine F-4J Phantom II of VMFA-333, flying from America (CVA-66) shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed near Phuc Yen (just north of Hanoi) with an AIM-9G Sidewinder. Marine Major Lee T. Lasseter and Captain John D. Cummings were given credit for the kill, the only one by Navy/Marine aircraft in September. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 333 was also the only Marine squadron to fly from an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. This was also the only all-Marine MiG kill of the war. (Marine pilots and naval flight officers (NFO) shared in MiG kills while on exchange with U.S. Air Force and Navy squadrons; this was the only one where the plane, pilot, and NFO were all in a Marine squadron). This brought the total of North Vietnamese aircraft destroyed by Navy/Marine aircraft since the beginning of the war to 55.
During the engagement, Lasseter/Cummings also damaged another MiG-21. Short on fuel, Lasseter was forced to fly directly over Haiphong to reach the sea, where he was hit by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile, causing the aircraft to catch fire followed by hydraulic failure, forcing Lasseter and Cummings to eject over water 35 miles southeast of Haiphong, where they were rescued by an HC-7 HH-3A operating off England (DLG-22). Lasseter’s wingman, Captain Andrew Dudley (and First Lieutenant James Brady) were also hit over Haiphong by flak in the wing and fuselage, causing a massive fuel leak. Dudley’s F-4J then flamed out overwater 45 miles southeast of Haiphong. Dudley and Brady were rescued by an SH-2 off Biddle (DLG-34).
16 September: Quang Tri Recaptured
On 16 September, South Vietnamese Army forces finally recaptured Quang Tri, overcoming stubborn North Vietnamese resistance. Remaining North Vietnamese forces mostly retreated back into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam, although about 10 percent of South Vietnamese territory remained in enemy hands. This effectively brought about the end of the Easter Offensive. The North Vietnamese suffered an estimated 100,000 casualties (approximately 40,000 killed) while the South Vietnamese Army suffered about 32,000 killed (39,587 over the whole year). Estimates of how many North Vietnamese tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed vary widely from 250 to 700 (one of the better estimates appears to be 134 T-54 tanks, 60 T-34 tanks, and 56 PT-76 amphibious light tanks, plus armored personnel carriers). Over 25,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed, and almost a million became refugees. Both North Vietnam and South Vietnam claimed victory.
30 September: Air Statistics
In the month of September 1972, U.S. Navy aircraft flew 3,934 combat sorties in North Vietnam and 1,708 in South Vietnam. USMC aircraft flew 1,296 sorties, mostly from airfields in South Vietnam against enemy targets in South Vietnam.
1 October: USS Newport News Turret Explosion
Normally serving as the flagship for the Commander Second Fleet out of Norfolk, Newport News deployed for Vietnam on 13 April, on three day’s notice, in reaction to the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. The heavy cruiser arrived on the gunline on 11 May and was almost continually engaged in naval gunfire support missions (NGFS) supporting South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) operations in Quang Tri Province, as they first halted the North Vietnamese drive toward Hue City and then gradually clawed back ground from the North Vietnamese.
Newport News was the last U.S. 8-inch gun heavy cruiser still in commission in 1972. With the decommissioning of battleship New Jersey (BB-62) in December 1969 after its single Vietnam War deployment, Newport News’s 8-inch guns were the largest in the U.S. Navy. The ship’s three triple turrets could pump out 90 260-pound shells per minute, to a range of about 18 miles. During Newport News’s time on the gunline, the cruiser had fired over 20,000 rounds of 8-inch shells, and had played the starring role in Operation Lion’s Den (the “Battle of Haiphong Harbor”) on 27 August 1972. Tragedy struck in the pre-dawn hours of 1 October 1972.
On the night of 30 September, while operating off the coast of Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, Newport News completed its third fire mission of the day, firing 34 8-inch and nine 5-inch rounds.
At 0100 on 1 October, Newport News commenced firing and suffered a high-order in-bore explosion of the center gun of the No.2 8-inch gun turret. The hot gasses vented into the turret, igniting multiple casings in the powder hoist. A total of 750-pounds of powder fueled a raging fire inside the turret. All crew members in the upper and lower shell decks of the turret were killed instantly. Four or five crew members in the powder handling room (on the fifth level down) were able to exit through an escape hatch, although one sailor, Seaman Joseph Grisafi, went back in for someone mistakenly thought left behind and subsequently died from toxic smoke inhalation two days later.
Although not known at the time, the explosion was due to the premature actuation of the shell’s auxiliary detonation fuze. The ship’s 1MC announced, “Fire in Turret 2” and the general quarters alarm was sounded. However, the rapid spread of noxious smoke throughout the ship impeded the crew going to their stations. The poisonous gasses included chlorine, phosgene and cordite. Those crew members who could not get to their station were directed to assemble on the fantail. The Commanding Officer, Captain William “Zeke” Zartman reached the bridge at 0104. One crewman tried to open a hatch on the turret, only to have the skin on his hands burned off by the intense heat.
The first responders from Repair Party 1 reached the turret at 0107. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Paul Abretski and Chief Hull Technician Robert Holloway, the repair party ensured electrical power to turret was off and at 0108 began breaking open jammed hatches to the turret. Thick smoke billowing out prevented entry and indicated the fire was still burning intensely. The repair party directed hoses at the center gun pit, pumping in water through a hole caused by the explosion.
Despite this, high temperature alarms in Damage Control Central indicated the fire continued. At 0126, Captain Zartman ordered the magazine flooded, to prevent explosion. All spaces forward of the gun turret were evacuated. The situation in sick bay quickly became critical. A mess cook staggered into sick bay coughing and choking on blood from smoke inhalation and shortly thereafter died. Soon more crew members arrived en masse suffering from noxious smoke inhalation. More than 250 were treated, 36 of whom were in critical condition.
A call went out on the 1MC for all personnel wearing a oxygen breathing apparatus (OBA) to report to Repair 1 as only personnel properly protected could get close to the turret to fight the fire and then enter the turret. It took 30 minutes to put out the fire, and for “red devil blowers” to draw the smoke out.
Damage control efforts continued until 1200 the next morning. Twenty-one crew members suffering from smoke inhalation were transferred to New Orleans (LPH-11), which had larger and more capable medical facilities. A total of 20 crew members died in the initial blast and fire, and subsequently from smoke inhalation.
With power to the ship restored, the first message to Commander Seventh Fleet, went out at 0300. Newport News departed the area at 0743 enroute to Subic Bay, Philippines. ABC News reported on the accident on 3 October, but otherwise the accident resulted in little news coverage. After removal of casualty remains, the turret was sealed. Newport News returned to the gunline on 20 October to continue naval gunfire support, before departing for Norfolk on 28 November after firing a total of 28,295 8-inch rounds during its deployment.
Consideration was given to replacing the turret with one from the decommissioned heavy cruisers Des Moines (CA-134), or Salem (CA-139) but this was deemed not cost-effective. The No. 2 turret remained sealed off for the remainder of Newport News’s service life; the ship was decommissioned on 27 June 1975.
The subsequent investigation was unable to determine why the explosion in the center gun ignited casings in all three powder hoists, nor could it explain why the high-energy flame stopped just above the handling room—a few more feet and the result might have been a magazine explosion with catastrophic loss of the ship and much of the crew. As it was, the deaths of 20 personnel represented the largest loss of life aboard any ship on the gunline during the entire Vietnam War.
The summary of the investigation, led by retired vice admirals Kleber S. Masterson, and Lloyd M. Mustin, is worth a read for its “No B.S.” conclusions;
“The explosion resulted from the high-order detonation of a projectile in the fore of the center gun of turret two, which vented mainly to inside the turret. By some mechanism not clearly apparent, this ignited additional powder charges in all three hoists. The resulting high energy flame propagated downward almost instantly from charge to charge in the hoists, blowing apart the hoist casings between decks in the way of ignited charges, until for some reason also not apparent, the propagation stopped just above the handling room level. Some 720 pounds of powder burned in the hoists. Twenty men died.
“If flame propagation down the hoists had extended a few feet further, into the handling room below the level of the armored deck, the extent of possible further damage and casualties might have been catastrophic. The loading scuttles at the bottom of the hoists would have been no protection if the hoists themselves had blown apart, as they did in the levels above. Events could then have led to a magazine explosion, from which the survival of the ship itself would have been in question.
“In our judgment this casualty was not caused by inadequate manning, training, experience, maintenance or operating procedures in Newport News; nor by defective design of the material involved. Rather we conclude that it was caused by the premature functioning of the projectile’s auxiliary detonating fuze, which resulted from defective fuze manufacture and inadequate product acceptance inspection.
“The Newport News casualty adds emphasis to what, in our judgment, has become an unsatisfactory situation with respect to Navy gun ammunition, specifically ammunition safety for fleet users. Since 1965 there have been 23 shipboard in-bore explosions, which have cost millions of dollars, degraded combat readiness, and taken 24 lives. The rate per shot fired at which these explosions have occurred since that date has increased by a factor of over 25 over the rate for the preceding 19 years since the close of World War II. The hardware defects which cause such explosions are documented and widespread. Statistically, the next fleet in-bore projectile explosion could occur at any moment. It could cost us a ship.
“In our judgment, the correlation is clear between the foregoing situation and the organizational changes of recent years which have degraded command management and control over ammunition technical matters. The chain of command is now so diffuse that effective hard-nosed control, with authority, responsibility and accountability, does not appear to exist. It once did. We consider that it must be reestablished. More lives are hostage until it is.”
The next Vietnam H-gram will cover the period October 1972 to February 1973, and will include:
- “Snuffy” Smith taking down the Thanh Hoa (“Dragon’s Jaw”) bridge
- Race riot on Kitty Hawk
- Agreement for ceasefire and end to Operation Linebacker
- SEAL Michael Thornton’s Medal of Honor
- Collapse of the Paris Peace Talks
- Operation Linebacker II “Christmas Bombing Campaign”
- CSAR for CO of VMFA-333
- Last air-to-air engagements and losses
- Agreement for “Peace with Honor”
- Release of U.S. POWs—Operation Homecoming
- Summary of U.S. Navy role in Vietnam
Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
Sources include: NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS); Nixon’s Trident: Naval Power in Southeast Asia, 1968–1972 by John Darrel Sherwood, NHHC, 2009; By Sea Air and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia by Edward J. Marolda, Naval Historical Center,1994; The Naval Air War in Vietnam by Peter B. Mersky and Norman Polmar, Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co. of America,1986; Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience by John Sherwood, Simon and Schuster, 2001; The Warrington Incident (a True Account) by Chief Mineman (Surface Warfare) Michael Gonzales, Jr., USN (Ret.), at angelo.edu; “Battle at PIRAZ” by James Treadway at ussbiddle.wordpress.com—blog based on the book Hard Charger! The Story of USS Biddle (DLG-34) published in 2005 by iUniverse, co-authored by James A. Treadway, Rear Admiral Thomas Marfiak, USN, and others; “Vietnam: Battle of Haiphong Harbor” by Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.), at uss-newport-news.com; “Fire in Turret Two” by Taylor Baldwin Kiland in Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2012; “Gun Turret #2 Investigation” at https://unm.edu; Investigation Summary Letter “Turret 2 Explosion Detailed Report: 1 October 1971” by Vice Admiral K. S. Masterson, USN (Ret.), and Vice Admiral Lloyd M. Mustin, USN (Ret.), at uss-newport-news.com
Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
Military History | Vietnam War
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