H-074-1: The Easter Offensive—Vietnam 1972, Part 2
6 September 2022
H-Gram 074, Attachment 1
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
(I recommend reading H-Gram 070/H-070-1 for a full background on the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive.)
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.
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.
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.
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 18.104.22.168 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 22.214.171.124 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.
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’s escape 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
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.
Previous H-grams on Vietnam
H-Gram 008/H-008-6: USS Forrestal Disaster, 29 July 1967
H-Gram 009/H-009-3: Overview of U.S. Navy Operations in Vietnam to 1967
H-Gram 010/H-010-7: Lieutenant William C. Fitzgerald and Lieutenant Vincent R. Capodanno
H-Gram 017/H-017-1 and H-017-2: Tet Offensive and Operation Rolling Thunder
H-Gram 019/H-019-1 and H-019-2: PCF-19 and Lieutenant (j.g.) Clyde E. Lassen
H-Gram 022: End of Rolling Thunder
H-Gram 025/H025-2: USS Enterprise Fire, 14 January 1969
H-Gram 028/H-028-1: U.S. Navy Valor in Vietnam, 1969
H-Gram 031: Frank E. Evans (DD-754) Collision with HMAS Melbourne, 3 June 1969
H-Gram 041/H041-5: Loss of SS Badger State, December 1969/January 1970
H-Gram 043/H043-2: Vietnamization and U.S. Navy Prisoners-of-War, 1969–70
H-Gram 059/H-059-2: U.S. Navy Operations in the Vietnam War from November 1970 to December 1971
H-Gram 069: Vietnam War Veterans Day
H-gram 070/H-071-1: The Easter Offensive—Vietnam 1972, Part 1