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Combat and Crisis Experiences of Admiral James L. Holloway III


Photo #: NH 103825  Lieutenant Commander James L. Holloway, III, USN,

Then-LCDR James L. Holloway III on board USS Boxer (CV-21) in 1952, during the Korean War. He was executive officer and, briefly, commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 52 (VF-52) during this time. Aircraft in the background include a F9F-2 Panther fighter at left and a F4U Corsair strike fighter at right (NH 103825). 

World War II

USS Ringgold (DD-500)

After an accelerated graduation from the Naval Academy, Ensign Holloway’s first operational assignment was as assistant gunnery officer in the commissioning crew of the new Fletcher-class destroyer Ringgold (DD-500), reporting in December 1942. In the first months of 1943, Ringgold conducted sea trials and work-ups along the Atlantic coast and escort operations in the Caribbean until she transited the Panama Canal in July 1943 en route Pacific Fleet operations. On 31 August/1 September, Ringgold participated in the screen for the Fast Carrier Task Force strikes by Essex (CV-9), Yorktown (CV-10), and Independence (CVL-22) on Marcus Island, deep inside the Japanese outer defense perimeter, which was also the first combat action involving the new F6F Hellcat fighter.

Although LTJG Holloway detached shortly after the Marcus operation, Ringgold maintained a reputation for excellence in gunnery accuracy. This included (unfortunately) an accidental night attack (approved by RADM Harry W. Hill, commander of Southern Attack Force off Tarawa) on the surfaced submarine USS Nautilus (SS-168), on 19 November 1943. Ringgold hit the submarine at the base of her conning tower with a 5-inch round on the first salvo, which fortunately failed to detonate, and Nautilus was able to continue her mission. The next day, Ringgold was one of the first two destroyers to enter the lagoon at Tarawa, where she was hit twice by Japanese shore battery rounds that didn’t detonate, but holed the ship. As Ringgold’s crew fought the flooding, she continued to bombard Japanese positions, providing the best fire support to the Marines ashore on Tarawa on that bloody day. I include this because of the impact that the commissioning crew has on the future “personality” and combat capability of the ship, and Ringgold was one of the best.

USS Bennion (DD-662) and the Battle of Surigao Strait

In December 1943, LTJG Holloway reported as part of the commissioning crew for the new Fletcher-class destroyer, USS Bennion (DD-662), this time as gunnery officer. From his battle station in the Mark 37 director atop the bridge, Holloway controlled the ship’s five 5-inch gun mounts, her two quintuple banks of torpedo tubes, and directed the 40-mm and 20-mm anti-aircraft guns, as well as the ship’s fighter-direction team. After sea trials and work-ups in the Atlantic, Bennion deployed to the Pacific and participated in the invasion of Saipan and Tinian in June–July 1944, and of the southern Palau Islands, including Peleliu, in September. At Peleliu, Bennion provided extensive close-in gunfire support to Marines ashore, emptying her magazine three times in one week. (On 1 July 1944, LTJG Holloway was promoted to lieutenant).

Subsequently, Bennion provided fire support to U.S. Army troops who had gone ashore on Leyte on 20 October 1944. A Japanese shore battery returned fire and a near miss on Bennion sprayed the ship with shrapnel, which narrowly missed LT Holloway, but severely wounded his assistant gunnery officer (who lost an arm) and one of Holloway’s petty officers in the director. On 24 October, as Bennion was maneuvering with other Seventh Fleet units in preparation for the expected Japanese attempt to force their way into Leyte Gulf via Surigao Strait, the Bennion came under Japanese air attack. Holloway’s 5-inch guns shot down one Val dive-bomber and her 40-mm guns knocked down a Japanese Zeke fighter-bomber close aboard.

From his position in the Mark 37 director, LT Holloway could stick his head out the upper hatch and have an almost 360-degree view of the developing battle and, via the high-powered optics of the director, he had the best view of the enemy of anyone on the ship. As the Japanese force of two battleships (Fuso and Yamashiro), one heavy cruiser (Mogami), and four destroyers commenced their penetration of Surigao Strait from the south, Holloway could track their progress as they came under multiple unsuccessful attacks by U.S. PT boats after midnight on 25 October 1944. He could then see the devastating torpedo attacks by two U.S. destroyer squadrons, which sank Fuso and two Japanese destroyers, and severely damaged a third destroyer. However, the situation rapidly became confused due to smoke, shore interference with radar, flash blindness and other factors.

According to the plan, the nine destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 56, under the command of Captain Roland Smoot, would conduct the third torpedo attack, doing so in three sections of three. One section of destroyers would proceed down the east side of Surigao Strait; one section would attack head-on in the center or the strait; and the third section, which included Bennion, would attack down the west side of the strait. The idea was to catch the Japanese column in a simultaneous multi-directional attack so that, no matter which way it turned, it would expose itself to torpedoes. The multi-directional part of the plan worked, but the simultaneous part did not. Bennion was the last destroyer in the third section and would make the last attack and be exposed the longest to Japanese counter-fire, which Holloway could clearly see through his optics as the Japanese responded to the first two destroyer attacks.

In the confusion, RADM Jesse Oldendorf, thinking the Japanese had turned away, gave the order for Smoot’s division to attack. Only after it was too late did Oldendorf learn that the remaining Japanese ships, battleship Yamashiro, heavy cruiser Mogami, and destroyer Shigure, were still advancing at high speed and would be in effective range of the U.S. battleships and cruisers (which had crossed the Japanese “T” at the north end of the strait) before Smoot’s destroyers would be in range to launch effective torpedo attacks. With no time to wait, Oldendorf gave the order for the battleships and cruisers to open fire while Smoot’s destroyers were between the U.S. battle line and the Japanese column. This was a very dangerous place for the destroyers to be and destroyer Albert W. Grant (DD-649) paid the price, getting caught in the crossfire and severely damaged by Japanese and mostly American shells.

As Bennion was commencing her attack run, Holloway could see hundreds of U.S. battleship shells and thousands of U.S. cruiser shells passing overhead, many impacting the Japanese ships, which nevertheless kept coming and shooting. Bennion and the other U.S. destroyers were under orders not to fire their guns until torpedoes were away (a lesson from previous battles), so as not to give away the torpedo attack or draw fire to themselves. However, under the circumstance this was pretty much moot. With the gunfire and starshells from both sides, the Japanese could see Bennion and the other destroyers and were blazing away with main and secondary armament. Bennion sailed through the splashes of numerous near misses.

At a range of about 6,000 yards, after the first two destroyers in the third section launched their torpedoes, Holloway fired five of Bennion’s ten torpedoes (the destroyers were under orders from Oldendorf to fire only half their load). Holloway’s target was the “second battleship.” (However, by this time, Fuso had already dropped out and sunk, and Mogami had closed up behind Yamashi—to be fair, Mogami was misidentified as a battleship in just about every sighting report in the war.) After the third section fired their torpedoes, Yamashiro turned, causing the torpedoes to miss, but catching one from Smoot’s flagship Newcomb (DD-586) from the other direction. In the smoke, Holloway lost sight of the Japanese ships until Yamashiro appeared at a range of only 3,000 yards. Holloway recommended to the commanding officer, Commander Joshua Cooper, that they fire the last five torpedoes despite the orders, as a capital ship that close was too good a target to pass up. Cooper concurred, and ordered the launch. One of those torpedoes is believed to have hit Yamashiro and may have been the nail in the coffin, as Yamashiro had already been hit by about four torpedoes and dozens of heavy- and medium-caliber shells. She shortly after rolled over and sank with almost her entire crew.

At dawn, Bennion and several other destroyers were ordered to pursue Japanese forces down the Surigao Strait to finish off any cripples. Mogami and Shigure had escaped and the only Japanese ship still afloat was the destroyer Asagumo, whose bow had been blown off by one of the first salvos of U.S. torpedoes. Asagumo had still valiantly tried to continue into the battle, but the damage had proved too severe and she was attempting to limp away, although with her torpedoes she was still potentially dangerous. Bennion was ordered to finish off Asagumo. Holloway opened fire at 10,000 yards, hitting on the third salvo. At 6,000 yards, Holloway shifted to rapid continuous fire and, as Bennion closed to 2,000 yards, Asagumo sank with 191 of her crew (39 were rescued, an unusually high number). Shortly after, a Japanese Zeke fighter-bomber dove out of the clouds with almost no warning. Holloway shifted fire to the Zeke, with a direct hit on the nose of the aircraft.

LT Holloway detached from Bennion a couple weeks after the battle as he had orders to flight school. The skipper of Bennion, CDR Joshua Cooper, was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions in the Battle of Surigao Strait. Holloway would be awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V for Surigao Strait and a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V for previous actions during his tour on Bennion. Bennion received a battle star (one of eight total) and would subsequently be awarded a Presidential Unit Commendation for her actions under kamikaze attack off Okinawa in 1945.

Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V citation:

“For exceptional service…while serving as Gunnery Officer of the USS Bennion during operations against the enemy from 11 June to 6 Nov 1944. His skillful direction of the ship’s gunfire against enemy troops, shore installations, and hostile aircraft contributed materially to the effective protection of our ships and troops ashore. In addition he coordinated the exposed elements of the ship’s fighter-direction team, thereby contributing to the destruction of enemy aircraft by our supporting aircraft.”

Bronze Star with Combat V citation:

“For meritorious service…in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Battle of Surigao Straits on 25 October 1944. Passing important fire-control, radar and visual data to the Combat Information Center Team, he contributed materially to the assistance given by his ship in sinking a hostile battleship in a night torpedo attack, and…aided in the destruction of a disabled enemy destroyer.”

Korean War

Designated a Naval Aviator (HTA) on 23 January 1946, Holloway flew SB2C Helldiver dive-bombers before transitioning to jet fighters (HTA stands for “Heavier than Air”). During his aviation career, he accumulated about 2,700 flight hours (1,000 jet and 1,700 prop) with 202 fixed-wing carrier landings. (At some point, Holloway’s log books were lost, so these are estimates).

After the outbreak of the Korean War, LCDR Holloway was assigned to Fighter Squadron 111 (VF-111) in August 1951, flying F9F-2 Panther jet fighters and deploying to Korea embarked on the carrier USS Valley Forge (CVA-45). Valley Forge had launched the first Navy strikes of the conflict on 3 July 1950 (the North Korean invasion commenced 25 June 1950) and a VF-111 pilot achieved the very first kill of a jet (a Mig-15) by another jet in aviation history in November 1950.

Commencing in October 1952, Holloway took part in Valley Forge’s fourth Korean combat deployment (the only carrier to deploy four times in the war). While embarked, LCDR Holloway served as the operations officer for Air Task Group 1 (a Korean War designation for a carrier air group/wing). Holloway was awarded a second Navy Commendation Medal:

“…[For] meritorious service…as Operations and Administrative Officer of Air Task Group ONE, engaged in air combat against Communist forces in North Korea, from 4 Dec 1951 to 10 Jun 1952….He contributed materially to the damage inflicted on the enemy by Air Task Group ONE by sound planning. His contribution to the combat effectiveness of ATG 1 was of immeasurable value.”

Valley Forge was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation for the deployment, which ended in June 1952.

In August 1952, LCDR Holloway became executive officer of Fighter Squadron 52 (VF-52), the other fighter squadron in Air Task Group 1, embarking on the carrier Boxer (CVA-21) and deploying for Korea in March 1953. During this deployment, LCDR Holloway reached 55 combat missions flying the F9F-2 Panther jet fighter. He was awarded three Air Medals for “meritorious achievement in aerial flight” during the periods 14 May–2 June, 3–16 June, and 5–23 July 1953. During this time, as the Armistice Talks were nearing completion, combat operations ramped up considerably as both sides tried to improve their positions, with most Navy carrier flights focused on interdiction of North Korean and Chinese supply lines. On 25 July 1953, the carriers of Task Force 77 flew a Korean War record 538 offensive and 62 defensive sorties.

On 7 July 1953 Holloway launched in poor weather from Boxer to lead a strike, only discover that the overcast was far worse than forecast, and further launches were suspended. Nevertheless, Holloway led three other aircraft in an attempt to find targets in North Korea, but found that visibility conditions across the entire Korean Peninsula below 3,000 feet were zero. Holloway’s flight dropped their bombs as ordered through the clouds by radar at the reported position of a Chinese troop marshalling area in North Korea. Joined by two F9Fs from Philippine Sea (CVA-47) that had launched before carrier flight operations ceased, Holloway then led the six-plane formation in a lengthy effort to find a place to land, but every carrier and every airfield in Korea was completely socked in. Nearing fuel exhaustion, Holloway led the group to a safe area and instructed everyone to prepare to bail out. Only at that point, through a small hole in the clouds, did he see part of an airfield. Ignoring radio instructions not to land, he led all five other aircraft in an unconventional approach to a safe landing on a Marston Mat runway. When Holloway later departed, his jet exhaust blew the rudder off an Air Force two-star general’s personal C-47 aircraft.

LCDR Holloway would be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for action on 20 July 1953 (one week before the 27 July armistice) as described in the citation:

“For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Jet Fighter Plane in Fighter Squadron FIFTY-TWO, based on board the USS BOXER, during operations against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 20 July 1953. While leading a strike mission over enemy territory, he diverted his flight from the primary target and quickly briefed his unit for the attack on a large concentration of enemy supply-laden trucks. Despite adverse weather conditions, and although his plane’s instruments indicated possible engine failure, he was greatly instrumental in the destruction of twenty enemy trucks and in causing four secondary explosions.”

ADM Holloway’s official biographies state that he assumed command of VF-52 after the commanding officer was shot down. The commanding officer of VF-52, LCDR Herbert L. Baslee, Jr. was shot down and killed on 17 March 1952 (and awarded a posthumous Silver Star). Baslee’s successor, LCDR James Kinsella was subsequently downed on 21 July 1953 and was initially assumed killed in the fireball. His plane was apparently one of several that had cross-wired rocket and bomb stations and, when he went to fire rockets, dropped a bomb instead, destroying his own plane. Despite this, the cockpit area broke off and was thrown clear when the jet impacted the ground. Kinslee miraculously survived the crash and successfully made it through a minefield to be rescued. Thus, Holloway’s tenure in command actually only lasted several hours. During this period, eight VF-52 jets were shot down, including Kinslee, but by good fortune all pilots were rescued, although several had severe injuries.

Of note, shortly after the Korean War, LCDR Holloway flew the lead aircraft in the filming of the movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which came out in 1954 (and is one of the more historically and operationally accurate movies about the U.S. Navy).

Lebanon and Quemoy-Matsu Crises

In September 1956, CDR Holloway assumed command of Attack Squadron 83 (VA-83), flying the A-4D-2 Skyhawk. His squadron embarked on the carrier Essex (CVA-9) in February 1958 for what turned into an extended 11-month around-the-world deployment. Essex was one of three carriers and 70 ships that reacted to the 1958 Lebanon Crisis, in which the U.S. intervened in August (Operation Blue Bat). Holloway’s squadron provided cover for the landing of over 5,000 U.S. Marines on the beach near Beirut to occupy the Beirut airport. The landings turned out to be unopposed. U.S. forces in Lebanon soon topped over 14,000 and remained for about three months. Of note, the commander of the U.S. naval forces in the Lebanon intervention was Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr. (CDR Holloway’s father), who was the commander in chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean (CINCNELM) aboard the flagship Taconic (LCC-17).

Also in August 1958, a crisis broke out in the Taiwan Strait between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) over several Nationalist-held islands just off the coast of the PRC, with the biggest ones known as Quemoy and Matsu. Communist forces shelled the islands and attempted an amphibious assault, which was opposed by Nationalist naval forces. U.S. Seventh Fleet deployed forces to the area, but also requested additional forces be sent. Essex, with VA-83 embarked, transited the Suez Canal and arrived in the Taiwan Straits area by early October. By that point, the crisis had mostly subsided (for the time being) and Essex continued across the Pacific and around Cape Horn back to the Atlantic.

Vietnam War

USS Enterprise (CVAN-65)

In May 1965, CAPT Holloway assumed command of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVAN-65). Enterprise commenced her fourth deployment, and the first to Vietnam, in November 1965. In December 1965, Enterprise arrived on Dixie Station off South Vietnam and, on the morning of 2 December, launched a 21-plane strike against Viet Cong positions near Bien Hoa City, South Vietnam, the first strikes launched from a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. By the end of the day, Enterprise had generated 125 sorties. One F-4B Phantom II fighter bomber was lost due to either a premature detonation or was fragged by one of its own bombs; the two aircrewmen were rescued and the wreckage was bombed. On 11 December, Enterprise generated a record 165 sorties against targets in South Vietnam.

After the initial strikes, Enterprise moved up to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin with Commander Carrier Division Three embarked and, over the next months, her air group flew numerous missions against a wide variety of targets in the increasingly lethal airspace of North Vietnam. Just before Christmas, Enterprise Air Wing 9 aircraft participated in a 100-plane Alpha Strike with Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) and Ticonderoga (CVA-14) against the Uong Bi power plant north of Haiphong, the first raid on an industrial target in North Vietnam. Enterprise returned to the U.S. West Coast in June 1965. For her record-breaking deployment, Enterprise was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation in addition to a Battle E (six of her seven departments also won the “E”), and Holloway was awarded a Legion of Merit:

 “Through Captain Holloway’s sound planning, organizational skill, and meticulous preparations for combat , Enterprise was able to launch a series of highly effective airstrikes immediately upon its arrival in the South China Sea. Captain Holloway continuously demonstrated aggressiveness, dynamic leadership, superior technical knowledge, and skillful seamanship as he directed the operations of the first nuclear ship to engaged in combat”

Still under Holloway’s command, Enterprise commenced her second Vietnam deployment in November 1966, this time with A-6 Intruders added to the F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks in her air wing. On 26 February 1967, seven A-6A Intruders of VA-35 from Enterprise conducted the first aerial mining of North Vietnamese waterways in the country’s panhandle (President Johnson had reluctantly approved the mining operations, although Haiphong, the major port of entry for Communist-bloc ships bringing war material into North Vietnam, remained off-limits). Enterprise aircraft conducted numerous other strikes against North Vietnamese targets.

For this second deployment, the president of South Vietnam, General Thieu, personally presented Holloway with the National Order of Vietnam Fifth Class and the Gallantry Cross with Palm:

“Captain Holloway personally directed his ship and its embarked air wing in a manner as to provide optimum utilization and the effective marriage of sea and air power in prosecuting a war of interdiction against the enemy. His aggressive combat leadership and outstanding ability to develop and execute highly effective carrier air strikes contributed immeasurably to the planned objective of interruption in the flow of enemy material and personnel from the north.”

CAPT Holloway was the only commanding officer of a carrier to complete two full combat deployments to Vietnam.

Jordan Crisis, 1970

Holloway was promoted to rear admiral on 1 July 1967. In August 1970, he assumed command of Carrier Group 6, embarked on USS Saratoga (CVA-60) and deployed to the Mediterranean just in time for a significant Middle East Crisis. This had been precipitated by a major hijacking event in which Palestinian terrorists hijacked three aircraft, flew them to an airfield in Jordan, and blew them up in front of the world press (fortunately with the passengers removed, but still hostage). By this time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had worn out its welcome in Jordan as their incessant cross-border operations provoked Israeli retaliation. Jordanian armed forces evicted the PLO into Lebanon, an action that provoked Syria into invading northern Jordan. Although a significant U.S. naval force under the command of RADM Holloway reacted to the crises, President Nixon followed the adage, “when your enemies fight, don’t get in the way.” However, Holloway’s force did provide cover for the evacuation of a U.S. MASH unit from Amman, Jordan, at the peak of the crisis. The eviction of the PLO from Jordan became known to the Palestinians as “Black September” and it was the Palestinian splinter terrorist group “Black September” that carried out the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Nevertheless, for his actions in response to the crisis, Holloway was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (his second).

Vietnam War

Operation Lion's Den

On 23 May 1973, Holloway relieved VADM William P. Mack as Seventh Fleet commander, just in time for a major escalation of the fighting in Vietnam and some the most significant naval combat of the war—after most of the American people thought the war was essentially over.

Despite the promise of “Peace with Honor” and the massive drawdown of U.S. forces in Vietnam (from over 500,000 in 1968 to 10,000 in 1972), the North Vietnamese violated all their pledges with a massive conventional military invasion of the south. This commenced on 30 March 1972, complete with armored forces, first across the demilitarized zone and then from inside Cambodia. Both South Vietnam and U.S. forces were caught by surprise and, in short order, the South Vietnamese army was in a desperate situation. This North Vietnamese invasion was termed the Easter Offensive.

At the start of the Easter Offensive, there were four U.S. carriers in the Western Pacific, but only two of them, Coral Sea (CVA-42) and Hancock (CVA-19), were on station off Vietnam, with only 140 aircraft. These quickly flew extensive missions in support of South Vietnamese forces. They were quickly joined by Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) and Constellation (CVA-64), with Midway (CVA-41), America (CVA-66), and Saratoga (CVA-60) ordered to augment Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 77. Seventh Fleet quickly grew from 84 to 138 ships. It took a while for U.S. policymakers to come up with a response to the blatant North Vietnamese aggression, but President Nixon finally ordered a massive U.S. air interdiction campaign, dubbed Operation Linebacker, to be conducted by TF-77 and the U.S. Seventh Air Force. Linebacker commenced on 9 May 1972. One of its key parts was Operation Pocket Money, the aerial mining of Haiphong and key North Vietnamese ports for the first time in the war.

Operation Pocket Money included both aerial mining and shore bombardment by surface ships, but got off to a tragic start. As the commander of Cruiser Destroyer Group Seventh Fleet/Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla 11, RADM Rembrandt Robinson, was returning from a coordination meeting aboard Coral Sea, his helicopter crashed while attempting to land at night on the cruiser Providence (CLG-6) and he and some of his staff were lost. Despite this, the operation proceeded as planned, with the first aerial mines timed to hit the water in Haiphong Harbor precisely as President Nixon was making a nation-wide TV address announcing a major escalation of the war. The initial mines were set with a 48-hour activation delay to allow the 37 foreign ships (including Soviet and Communist Chinese) in the harbor to get out, although only a few managed to do so and the rest remained trapped for months. The mines were also set with a 180-day deactivation.

The guided missile cruisers Long Beach (CGN-9) and Chicago (CA-136) covered the minelaying aircraft. The ships were cleared to shoot long-range Talos surface-to-air missiles over North Vietnam and fired on two Mig fighters, downing one. A surface action group (Operation Custom Tailor) including the cruisers Newport News (CA-148) , Providence (CL-82), and Oklahoma City (CLG-5), and destroyers bombarded North Vietnamese targets near Haiphong, while the Kitty Hawk flew a large diversionary strike. This was VADM Holloway’s “welcome aboard” to command of Seventh Fleet.

Throughout the summer of 1972, aircraft from U.S. carriers conducted numerous strikes into North Vietnam, with far fewer rules of engagement restrictions than in the earlier Operation Rolling Thunder (1965–68), but with far more effectiveness (partly due to the employment of new precision-guided weapons, such as TV-guided Walleyes). By the end of 1972, U.S. Navy aircraft laid over 8,000 mines in North Vietnamese coastal waters and another 3,000 in internal waters. U.S. Navy surface ships conducted numerous gunfire missions along the coasts of both North and South Vietnam (in the earliest days of the North Vietnamese offensive, naval gunfire support along the coast road south of the DMZ proved crucial in slowing the North Vietnamese advance, especially since weather was making air interdiction problematic).

Operation Lion’s Den (also known as the Battle of Haiphong Harbor) was planned as a follow-on to the earlier Operation Custom Tailor and took place on the night of 27–28 August 1972. It was one of the most audacious operations by the U.S. Navy since World War II. Four U.S. Navy ships were tasked to penetrate into Haiphong’s outer harbor and shell North Vietnamese coastal defense and surface-to-air missile installations along the coast: heavy cruiser Newport News, guided-missile light cruiser Providence, guided-missile destroyer Robinson (DDG-12), and the destroyer Rowan (DD-782). VADM Holloway boarded the Newport News on the afternoon of 27 August, informing Captain Walter Zartman that he would be an “observer.” The officer in tactical command was Captain John Renn, commander of Destroyer Squadron 25, embarked on Robinson.

At 2200 on 27 August, the four-ship task unit (TU 77.1.2) went to General Quarters as it approached Haiphong. Providence and Robinson peeled off about ten miles from Haiphong to attack targets to the southwest, while Newport News and Rowan penetrated into the channel to the harbor. At 2300, Newport News opened fire with her 8-inch guns at the primary targets. Rowan fired four Shrike anti-radiation missiles at North Vietnamese radar sites (Rowan had been specially equipped with a “Shrike on Board” system mounted on her ASROC launcher).

During the course of the 33-minute engagement, North Vietnamese coast defense artillery fired about 300 rounds at the U.S. ships. Although none hit, many came as close as 15–20 yards. Newport News had shrapnel on her weather decks, but no serious damage. Holloway spent part of the battle outside the pilot house to “experience the battle” as he later said, probably to the consternation of the skipper. The North Vietnamese lacked flashless powder, so their guns proved vulnerable to U.S. fire and most were silenced. The U.S. ships ceased shelling at 2333 after expending about 700 rounds of ammunition and noting at least five major secondary explosions ashore.

As the U.S. ships were exiting the area, a North Vietnamese P-6 (Soviet-made) torpedo boat was detected lying in ambush and was taken under fire by the cruisers. Two, possibly three (accounts vary) more PT boats were detected and taken under fire, but proved very difficult to hit. At one point, the skipper of Rowan interposed his ship between Newport News and the threat from possible torpedoes. Finally, the first PT boat was set on fire by gunfire from Newport News and Rowan. At this point, VADM Holloway decided that air support was necessary and got on the radio announcing himself as “Jehova himself” calling for air support. (In the Operation Lion’s Den exhibit in the Cold War Gallery of the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, DC,  you can listen to Holloway’s transmission). Two A-7 Corsairs from Coral Sea responded and bombed the PT boats with Rockeye cluster munitions.

Like the Battle of Surigao Strait many years before, a night action in constricted waters fought mostly with radar proved to be as confusing as ever. The exact number of Vietnamese PT boats that engaged and were sunk is not certain—at least two, possibly as many as four. Intelligence later credited Newport News with destroying one PT boat, Rowan with damaging a second, and an A-7 with “possibly” sinking a third. During the course of the battle, with Holloway aboard, Newport News expended 433 8-inch, 532 5-inch,and 33 3-inch rounds of ammunition.

The rest of Holloway’s tenure as commander of Seventh Fleet lacked the personal danger of Lion’s Den, but was still extremely challenging. As a result of the determined application of U.S. air power (of which U.S. naval aviation flew the most sorties), the North Vietnamese invasion was beaten back by October 1972 and “peace talks” resumed. The North Vietnamese went into their usual stall mode for negotiations, and President Nixon responded with an escalated bombing campaign known as Operation Linebacker II (or the “Christmas bombing campaign”), using B-52 bombers to hit previously off-limits targets around Hanoi. The B-52’s proved vulnerable to North Vietnamese SA-2 guided missiles and suffered considerable casualties before being relegated to safer areas. However, the bombing did the trick in forcing the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table and reaching an agreement (which they broke in 1975 and overran all of Vietnam when the United States declined to respond with the same degree of airpower as in 1972).

VADM Holloway had to deal with two major accidents involving U.S. forces off Vietnam during his tenure. On 1 October 1972, while firing on North Vietnamese positions, Newport News suffered an in-bore explosion of the center 8-inch gun in the Number 2 turret, killing 19 men and wounding 10 more. Newport News continued with her combat mission. After initial casualty evacuation and clean-up, the turret was deemed not cost-effective to repair and was sealed up for the remainder of the ship’s operational life (she was decommissioned in June 1975). This accident was the greatest loss of life by U.S. ships on the gun line during the Vietnam War.

On 28 July 1973, Holloway was relieved by VADM George P. Steele, and would be awarded his third Distinguished Service Medal. 

Sam Cox, Director of Naval History, 2 December 2019

Published: Wed Dec 11 16:34:09 EST 2019