Friday, February 19, 2016

Fullbore Friday

Via Sid's suggestion and, the fuzzy-face Navy at its best.
Rowan was a Gearing class destroyer commissioned too late in World War II to see any combat. That changed just a few years later when she was bloodied for the first time during the "Forgotten War" when she took a medium caliber shell hit in her starboard quarter, damaging the after steering compartment and causing a number of casualties. She had been providing counter-battery fire against North Korean shore batteries when she was hit. And counter-battery would prove to be her specialty in another twenty year.
27 August 1972 ... the skipper came on the 1MC again confirming that Rowan was, indeed, going to raid Haiphong harbor in a matter of hours along with Newport News, USS Providence (CLG 6) and USS Robison (DDG 12).
We went into battle well prepared. Rowan was amongst the sharpest shooters in the Navy having had more gunnery practice under combat conditions with the same crew during the few months leading up to this night than few ships have in a lifetime. Moreover, Rowan had just had her guns relined in Yokosuka and the 80 plus rounds of 5" HE that we could put into a precise area in under a minute was devastating. The Shrikes were a plus; but, the plethora of fire control radars in and around Haiphong overwhelmed the four missiles that we had at the ready. In the final analysis, it was the experience and solidarity of her crew that gave Rowan her edge.

Initially it seemed like another LINEBACKER II raid. I felt the ship heal and slow as we turned onto our twenty knot firing run. I heard the guns in action and the Shrikes firing at varying intervals. While the action seemed heavier than normal, it wasn't any more than what I had been expecting. After the firing run I felt Rowan again heal in a tight turn. The blowers in the fireroom just aft increase in pitch and the wave noise from the ship's passage increase as we worked up to the thirty plus knots for our getaway. The command over the 1MC to "Now set condition YOKE" was the next thing we expected to hear. It came in due course and I had just taken off my phones and was opening the scuttle in the hatch above preparing for the "Secure from GQ" command when the captain's voice came over the 1MC. "This is the Captain speaking. It's not over yet! We've two high-speed surface contacts closing fast! Reset condition ZEBRA. Re-man all General Quarters stations."
Then three things happened virtually at once: The whine from the fireroom increased to a crescendo, the height of which I had never before heard as Rowan worked up to over thirty-five knots; she started to heal one way and then reverse her rudder and heal hard over in the opposite direction; and the guns were firing at a frantic rate.
ET2 Richard Spicer kept a contemporary log of his time in Rowan . An excerpt from his log of that night stirred many memories for all that have read it. "27 Aug 72 2230 Hrs. I was at my GQ station in the crypto room in radio central, when we went to general quarters at the start of the operation. It was a good place to be to hear what was going on, as we had tac-air and Navy-red frequencies up on remotes and listening in on the battle group! That was one night I had my life vest on good and secure!" From the log, "Arrived at Haiphong harbor with the USS Newport News, USS Providence, and USS Robison. At 2230 GQ is sounded, 2310 all ships came to firing course. At 2325 all ships are ordered to go "hot" and commenced firing at coastal gun sites, NVA barracks and other targets. ECM in CIC now sees three cross slot gun site radars radiating, and we now are receiving counter battery! All ships are continuing firing at their targets, still receiving counter battery. Oh shit they are hitting real close now! Providenceand Robison turn out to sea as they have fired their rounds at targets, leaving the Newport News and us in the harbor. The Newport News and we keep firing, when ECM gets a bearing on a cross slot radar site and we launch our first Shrike anti-radar missile at it. This is from our new "SOB" system (Shrike on board). [Seven] min. later another cross slot radar is radiating at us and the second Shrike bird is launched. We are still receiving counter battery and lots of it! Newport News is still providing cover for us, with her 8-inch guns. We see another cross slot radar come up and fire our last two shrikes at it, this time hitting the site! With our entire Shrike missiles fired the Newport News and we turn out to sea at 26knts. As fast as we can. We are still taking heavy counter battery, and sonar reports closest hits at 20 yards off the port bow. We are hauling ass out to sea when radar sees Skunk-A at 17,000 yards closing at 48knts. We request to go hot on Skunk-A and turn 180 degrees to go back and provide cover for Newport News and shoot at Skunk-A. We are shooting at Skunk-A, now at 9,000 yards and closing [on the] stbd. beam. Newport News and we continue shooting at Skunk-Alfa when CIC radar sees Skunk-Bravo closing in on us. But we have tac-air cover and they take Skunk-Bravo. The Newport News and we connect on Skunk-Alfa, a torpedo boat with Russian [Stix] missiles on it, and sink it while tac-air sinks Skunk-Bravo!
Dana Perkins who was a SM3 at the time was manning his GQ station on the exposed signal bridge. Perkins relates, "I remember the night of the Haiphong Harbor pretty well. I don't think they passed the word of our objective until shortly before General Quarters, as I'm sure the mission was of utmost importance and secret. Also I think that they didn't want us to have much time to think about what was about to unfold. As a signalman I was on the highest point on the ship and had a clear view of all the action. Myself and three other signalmen were manning the Redeye shoulder fired missiles, loaded, armed and ready to squeeze the trigger in the event the time should come. When we started to see the lit shoreline and the lighted buoys of the harbor, make no mistake about it, the tension was high. All of a sudden the whole shoreline lit up with counter battery, spewing bright fireballs as each round was fired at us. The North Vietnamese weren't using flashless powder like we had. At one time I remember counting about 22 shore batteries rapid firing at the squadron. The shells were dropping all around us like seagull shit, leaving thunderous columns of white spray as they splashed into the ocean. Some of the shells were proximity and burst in the air. I remember one shell passed over the Rowanand burst in the air, causing the shrapnel to hit the side of the ship. I think it put some heavy-duty dents on the starboard side of the ship along the upper outer passageway. Luckily no one was hit! The whole time the ships in the squadron were firing on their intended targets with gunmounts and Shrike missiles. It was like the most intense 4th of July display I'd ever seen. The Newport News was off our port side at about 270 relative position, rapid firing her 8-inch guns and launching missiles as fast as they could get them off the deck. All of a sudden the word came over the sound powered phone that we had 2 torpedo boats, (Russian Osha class I believe) about 80 feet long coming out to attack. The guys in the magazine were jamming whatever shells they could get their hands on into the hoist. The first round that we hit one of those boats with was actually a practice starburst round and it tore right through it. The second round did explode. I think an A-6 Intruder came in and finished it off with an air to surface missile. The Newport News I believe sank the other boat. All I could think about the whole time was how un-watertight some of those hatches on the old Rowan were. Luckily we got past them and then the word came in that there were some inbound bogeys [MiGs] headed our way. I white knuckled the pistol grip of that Redeye missile and prepared for whatever was about to happen. At about 30 miles inbound we pushed the power button and the gyro on the missile head whined as it spooled up. Adrenaline was in overdrive by now. Then at about 20 miles out, we got word that they turned away and were outbound. I guess they knew the deck was stacked against them! As we turned away (at probably flank speed I might add), the shore batteries were trying their damnedest to get in a few last shots at us. We were out of sight of land and an occasional round was still reaching us and splashing into the ocean. The whole event probably didn't take 15 minutes but seemed like an eternity with all the action going on. The next day I remember as a chill passed through me, they told us that we weren't that far from the mines that were dropped at the harbor entrance. Thanks for that comforting bit of info." Note: The air support, whether it was an A-6 Intruder or an A-7 Corsair II, came from an attack squadron flying from USS Coral Sea (CV 43).

That's how it was to the best of our fading memories. A veteran destroyer with a veteran crew fighting the U.S. Navy's last night surface gun battle. Perhaps, also, it was the last of a long tradition of destroyers placing themselves between a heavier ship and harms way.

This was originally posted on 19 Feb 2010.

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