A DICEY NIGHT UP NORTH

By Chuck Packer
Copyright 1999

 

  Without a crew a ship is but soulless, cold steel. USS Rowan (DD 782) had a crew and that crew gave her her soul.  But, Rowan was also a warship and, as such, she needed a raison d'Ítre. This she found, for the second time, in the Vietnam War.  Rowan was complete, in her element; and, it was August 1972.
  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 years.  Between Korea and Vietnam she was always on the move, experiencing the mundane and the exceptional.  That's another story for another time.
  I reported aboard Rowan in October 1971 just hours before she got underway for an extended WesPac deployment that was to last well past the end of the war in January 1973.  She was on her way with the other four ships of DesRon 15 for forward basing in Yokosuka, Japan.  Through a convoluted set of circumstances, not atypical for the U.S. Navy, she was my fifth ship and I had barely been in the Navy for two years.  I had just turned twenty.
  Then, Rowan's crew was typical for a Gearing class destroyer.  A former shipmate of mine, Tarry Shirkey, from USS Bainbridge (DLGN/CGN 25), a squared-away, nuclear, guided missile cruiser, recently wrote that he was in a Gearing (USS Hawkins [DD 873]) for a bit prior to Bainbridge and the crew was right out of  "McHale's Navy".  Well, yes.  I felt like Brer Rabbit in my own briar patch.  Rowan wasn't my first can.  But, she was my only true love.  You never know a man's true character until you observe him under extreme pressure.  The same can be said of a crew.  Combat is the catalyst that brings out that character, or proves it wanting.  The character of Rowan's crew was never found wanting.  Combat jelled us.  I came to know what Nelson meant by his "Band of Brothers".
  The first assignments given Rowan were the typical ones for a can's WesPac deployment during 1971 and early 1972.  While we chased a few birdfarms, i.e., provided plane guard duties for aircraft carriers operating on Yankee Station, most of our time was spent on the gunline.  We'd position Rowan on a fixed set of coordinates on a watery grid in the South China Sea a mile or two off the coast of South Vietnam: A floating, yet fixed, artillery battery in support of Marine and Army ground troops.  We'd take a three position radar fix every quarter hour to be sure that the absent current and equally absent wind had not moved us from our peg on the map, a verification just as easily performed by noting the accumulation of lifeless, empty Pepsi-Cola cans littering the glass-like sea that simultaneously pointed out our lack of movement and insidiously marked the passage of time like the sands of some bizarre hour glass counting out the hours, the days.
  That all changed in the spring of 1972.  The North Vietnamese were continuing to stall at the Paris peace table and President Nixon was running for re-election.  Operation LINEBACKER II was borne thereof and the four Gearings of DesRon 15 were called into action as counter-battery ships for an intense, extended assault on the logistics and infrastructure of North Vietnam.  Rowanand her crew became members of the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club.
  For the first few months of LINEBACKER II, Rowan would usually accompany three other ships in night attacks of the Ho Chi Minh Trail or associated transshipment points where we would provide suppression against shore based counter-battery while the other warships shot up the target with their "superior" 5"/54's.  We would steam in at twenty-five knots, turn on a dogleg firing run at twenty knots, and turn-around-and-get-the-hell-out at well over thirty knots.  During this time Rowan would put the director on any gunfire flashes from the beach and walk the guns onto the flashes.  With up to four raids a night, Rowanbecame real proficient.  We were the hunting guides making the area safe for the less experienced "shooters".  After a while the Navy decided to mount Shrike anti-radiation missiles atop our useless ASROC launcher giving us the capability to knock out the fire control radars of the enemy guns.  We were, to my knowledge, the only ship so armed.  The first night after our initial use of the Shrikes, we received only brief fire from the beach as the North Vietnamese showed marked reluctance to light off their fire control radars for any length of time when Rowanaccompanied the strike group.  This changed on 27 August 1972, the night we went all the way up North.
  In mid-afternoon of that day the skipper, Commander Robert Comer (rhymes with homer), came on the 1MC telling us that Rowan was awaiting word from ComSeventhFlt, VAdm James Holloway III in USS Newport News (CA 148), concerning a possible raid on the main North Vietnamese harbor of Haiphong.  That announcement lit a brushfire of discussion, apprehension and, of course, scuttlebutt.  Succinctly:  What did this mean for us?  We had less than two hours to ponder this thunder stroke when 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).  While I'm sure he added words concerning his confidence in our abilities and in his intention to bring us through safely, they were drowned in the cacophony of fear and panic that were beginning to evade my conciseness.  However, I still vividly remember five more or less instantaneous, distinct thoughts and occurrences.
  I remember standing on the starboard weather deck just forward of amidships when the announcement was made.  Then Rowanchanged course north and put on twenty-five knots while starting to light off the third and fourth boilers and bring them on line.  I thought of the confused night surface battles of the Solomons campaign in 1942 where destroyers took tremendous punishment resulting in much loss of life and the severely injured sailors that were left fighting for life in the choking fuel oil fumes and flames, having abandoned their sinking ships.  Preston, Monssen, Gwinn, Barton, and too many other cans went down with their dead and trapped crews during these type of night battles for which Rowan was now headed at her best speed.  I remember thinking that I had to get a grip on my emotions because the green boots aboard would be looking to us "old salts" for cues and examples.  Perhaps leadership would be too strong a word.  Lastly, I remember the peace I experienced when I accepted that I could quite possibly die that night.
  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.
  Rowan 's battle that night is best told through the experience of her crewmembers, some of which are related below.  Briefly, after the four ship task unit had fired on their assigned targets, Providence and Robison retired to the Southeast leaving Rowan and Newport News on their own, as no doubt intended.
  My perspective was limited.  During the raid and ensuing battle I was at my battle station in the forward emergency generator room below the scullery and fire control/IC compartment, just forward of the forward fireroom.  I was the electrician's mate on the emergency boards and I had an engineman to assist in the operation of the diesel that powered the 100 kW emergency generator.  While I manned the electrician's phone circuit, it gave little detail of what was happening.  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.  I thought, "[expletives deleted] here we are in a night surface battle after all and the high-speed contacts were missile boats with ship killing Stix missiles".

 On the lower level of the forward engine room my mate, Bob "Bogie" Bogenholm, was manning his battle station.  Bogie relates, " 27 August was a night that this snipe (at 19 years old) could not forget.  My GQ station was on the lower level of the forward engine room.  Of course, being only a FN I missed a lot of (need to know basis) information.  I remember hearing the guns and holding on during a couple of quick maneuvers so as not to slide across the deck.  I was thinking "this is some serious sh*t and at the same time, wishing I was topside to see what was going on.  Not knowing, I think, was the hardest part.  I could hear the turbines pick up some drastic R[evolutions]s and feel the deck plates start to vibrate.  I knew we needed to get somewhere in a hurry and knew the old girl would get us out of there.  When I hear ex-grunts talk about being on patrol or setting an ambush, this night gave me the feelings that help me relate to what they went through."

  One of the few snipes that did see what was going on was Bryson "Fats" Riordan, MMC (Ret.) then a MM1 whose battle station was on the bridge. "My GQ station was 1JV phone talker on the bridge and as always it was my job to let the CO know the condition of the engineering department.  Prior to the attack on Hiaphong Harbor, I had the watch in Main Control [in the] #1 engine room making sure all 4 boilers were on the line and superheat was up and the plant was up.   I was relieved prior to GQ by Chief Understall and the Chief Engineer [LT Hubble] and went to the bridge to get into battle gear, for me weighing 230 lbs., I had the largest flak vest and had my own set of sound powered phones.  We [Rowan ] were to act as a shield for the Newport News and to make the second pass after the USS Robinsonand USS Providence made their run.   We were receiving counter battery from the beach and could feel the concussions as they walked to as close as 20 yards.  The Skunk Alpha was approaching at 40 plus knots and Mount 52 was engaging and making direct hits as far as what I could tell the USS Newport News' after guns could not depress low enough to engage the target.  The USS Newport News took the credit along with us scoring hits on the Motor Torpedo Boat.  All I know is Fire Control telling the Captain that we had scored hits.  Chief Understall was yelling in my ears wanting to know what was going on.  It was the darkest night that I had seen on the bridge.  All I could see was the gun flashes from all the vessels and a couple of the closest water bursts.  As far as being able to see aft there was nothing that I or anyone on the bridge could see, especially with all of the doors closed.  All I know was that I was laughing at Understall and me knowing that he was scared as shit, I was afraid but there was nothing that I could do"

  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!  This was a very tense operation for me, I know I thanked God for making it through it with just minor flak damage to the ship!
 
Spicer, also, provided a signal from ComDesRon 15, Captain Kline, published in Rowan's POD (Plan of the Day).  It reads, "Received a debriefing today from CO, USS Newport News on your actions up North on the 27th Your gutsy maneuver to help cover for the major ship against the PT boats was in the true tradition of the destroyer navy!  It was probably the first time since WWII that the situation had presented itself and Rowan responded without hesitationThat you were in on the kill is further testimony to the accuracy of your shootingWell Done to all hands."

  Yet, there was one among Rowan 's crew that night that had possibly the best vantage point.  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.

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