The Town of Brookline will host a series of events on Memorial Day. To commemorate the holiday, Vietnam War veteran Neil R. Gordon shared this remembrance with us.
Forty-four years ago in 1972, the draft was ending, and U.S. ground troops were being steadily withdrawn from Vietnam. American President Richard Nixon, and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT I treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and other weapons’ reduction agreements. Some 70 nations agreed to ban biological warfare. President Nixon made an unprecedented, eight-day visit to the Peoples Republic of China.
In 1972, I was an East Coast sailor, a 23-year-old Signalman, serving in USS Newport News, a heavy cruiser. We were flagship for Commander, Second Fleet, Vice-Admiral Vincent de Poix, and home was Pier 7, at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia. As Cold Warriors, our cruises took us out into the stormy, but otherwise peaceful Atlantic; to Northern Europe, to the Caribbean, and to South America.
But on March 30th, 1972, as American forces were withdrawing from Vietnam, 200,000 North Vietnamese soldiers crossed into the South; the start of the “Easter Offensive.” Nixon responded, ordering the bombing of North Vietnam.
On April 10th, a Monday, the Admiral would again be taking us south, for a month of light training, and warm, friendly, port visits. But Monday came, we didn’t go, and rumors flew. On Tuesday, the Admiral and his staff began packing. On Wednesday, they left the ship.
On Thursday, on just three days’ notice, and on orders that originated in the Nixon White House, USS Newport News, the largest and most powerful all-gun cruiser ever built, backed from Pier 7, left Norfolk, and put to sea.
I kept a log, a diary, starting the day we left Norfolk:
April 13th: “Underway for extended operations.” Officially, no more was said.
Four days later: “Going through the last lock of the Panama Canal.” We stopped for four hours, for fuel.
Ten days after that: “In port, Pearl Harbor. Underway, late in the afternoon.” We stopped for
April 29th (a Saturday), sixteen days after leaving Norfolk: “Crossed the International Date Line.” I do love the Date Line! The Date Line is like a time zone on steroids. If it’s Saturday on this side, it’s Sunday on the other side. And at midnight, it’s even better. Cross the Date Line at midnight, say on Saturday, April 29th, and, a moment later, it’s Monday, May 1st. And that was our plan.
But our Chaplain, Lt. Commander McElroy, a Catholic Priest, bristled at the idea of a week without a Sunday. So as Newport News crossed the International Date Line, our Chaplain cut a devilish deal with Captain Zartman. The plan changed. Sunday followed Saturday, and we skipped Monday, instead. But like every Sunday since leaving Norfolk, this Sunday was a day not just for prayer, but for work, and for training. Both the Chaplain and the Captain had their respective jobs to do.
“May 4th: In and out of Guam,” stopping three hours, for fuel.
Two days later: “Passing through the San Bernardino Straits, to Subic Bay in the Philippines.” We were there two nights; long enough to resupply, rearm, and refuel.
On May 8th, we departed Subic Bay, at 0530. As I curiously noted in my log: “We are doing twenty-five knots, instead of the usual fifteen.”
Crossing the Pacific, we trained day and night, 24/7. But two days after leaving The Philippines, on the morning of May 10th, General Quarters sounded, at 0100, and “Man your battle stations” was followed by a new phrase: “This is not a drill.”
I grew up in Yonkers, New York, and in 1972, my parents still lived there. As my mother heard it, on the six o’clock news:
“Early in the morning, on May 9th, units of the United States Seventh Fleet, led by the heavy cruiser USS Newport News, raced in darkness to within a few miles of North Vietnam’s Haiphong Harbor, and opened fire.”
It’s the Date Line thing … May 10th for me; May 9th at CBS News in New York.
The report continued: “Gunners at Haiphong opened up after the cruisers’ first shot, scattering about 200 shells through the flotilla.”
“Navy men described the assault as ‘smooth but harrowing,’ talking in between booms from the batteries shelling the South Vietnamese coast.”
“Marine Captain Frank Thomas, a spotter, 80 feet up, felt the spray of a near miss. Firemen in the engine rooms heard shrapnel, pinging on the armored hull.”
That’s as our parents heard it, 13,000 miles away, on the six o’clock news.
In the months that followed, Newport News worked along the coast, conducting similar missions up North, supporting Vietnamese troops in the South.
I left the ship in late June, but 1,200 shipmates remained in the Tonkin Gulf, and in harms’ way. As the quip goes, “If the enemy is within range, so are you,” but there were no enemy hits, and no on-board casualties.
On October 1, our luck changed. I wasn’t there, but I might have been.
About an hour after midnight, a 250 pound, eight-inch projectile, a shell with a defective fuse, was loaded into the center gun of Turret Two. As that gun fired, an explosion ripped the turret.
From the starboard wing of the signal bridge, my friend Roy Jones saw orange flame pour from a rear turret door blown away by the blast. Below decks, acrid smoke filled the forward part of the ship, sailors raced to battle stations, and damage control crews converged on Turret Two. This was not a drill.
From the ship’s log, as recorded in real time: “Heavy smoke, in forward part of ship.” “High temperature alarm, in ammunition magazines.” “Captain orders magazines flooded.” “Turret two powder room, flooding.” “Heavy smoke, amidships.” “Water level in Turret Two to second deck.”
One hour later, the fire was out. At dawn, five feet of water remained above the fourth deck. Five hours after the blast, at 6 in the morning, the ship secured from General Quarters. Twenty shipmates were dead. Many more suffered the effects of the explosion, the smoke, and the emotional trauma of that night.
Of days crossing the Pacific, and of many more far from home, I speak this morning of just a few. But overall, Newport News deployed for nine months, seven of them in active, near daily combat.
Of 1,200 American sailors and the ship they loved, was written this: “During operations conducted in the coastal waters of North and South Vietnam, USS NEWPORT NEWS inflicted significant damage upon enemy military installations, storage areas, and supply lines.” “NEWPORT NEWS played a major role in containing the North Vietnamese offensive, and was instrumental in sustaining the South Vietnamese counterattack.” “The consistently outstanding professional performance of the officers and men of USS NEWPORT NEWS reflected great credit upon themselves, their ship, and the United States Naval Service.”
Signed John W. Warner, then Secretary of the Navy
For exceptionally meritorious service while participating in combat operation in Southeast Asia, USS NEWPORT NEWS was awarded the NAVY UNIT COMMENDATION, the unit equivalent of the Silver Star.
On this Memorial Day, as I do every year, I honor the memory of twenty shipmates, of Seamen Harold Acker, Jack Bergman, Ronald Daley, Raymond Davis, Terry Deal, Joseph Grisafi, William Harrison, Robert Kikkert, Edward McEleney, Robert Moore, Stanley Pilot, Ralph Robinson, Richey Rucker, Jeffrey Scheller, David Scott, and Richard Tessman; Boatswain’s Mate William Clark; and Gunner’s Mates Charles Clinard, Tommy Hawker, and Wesley Rose.
I know that you also remember friends and family, classmates and colleagues. To those who knew them, these men and women are more than simply names on a plaque, or on a wall. So take some time today, both to celebrate and to reflect. While we don’t need to mourn them, we do need to remember them, honor them, and appreciate all that they gave.