Monday, April 30, 2012

40 years ago: My stint in 'Nam

Forty years ago this spring, I was a newly trained radioman heading to my assigned ship, the USS Preble, DLG-15, a guided missile frigate heading for deployment to Vietnam. I happened across these records taken from the logs of the Preble. (Italics are my comments). Unfortunately by doing this chronologically, the lead is buried -- the Preble was the last U.S. naval ship to be hit by enemy fire in the Vietnam War.
During the spring of 1972, The USS Preble participated in local exercises and continued training for her next WESTPAC (Western Pacific) deployment. On 31 July, Preble departed Pearl Harbor, enroute WESTPAC. Preble stopped at Midway Island on 3 August for fuel, 10 August at Guam for fuel (and some Olympia beer! I swear we must have had some deal with Olympia because it was all over the place.) and finally arriving at Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines on 13 August. Preble departed Subic Bay on 18 August for duties in the Tonkin Gulf.
On the night of 22 August, Preble sailed into the combat zone, off Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, and took station near the gun line. (This is where it all became real. Tracer shells, flares and thick acrid smoke in the dead of night made the arrival a scene from Dante's Inferno.). She was assigned picket ship duty in the Gulf of Tonkin, performing the functions of both North and Mid SAR (Search and Rescue) commander, concurrently, the first and only warship to carry out such a simultaneous assignment during the entire course of the war.
On 28 August, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., Chief of Naval Operations, and Vice Admiral J.L. Holloway III, Commander of Seventh Fleet visited Preble (To this day, I still don't know why they came. But thanks to Zumwalt, we were able to sport beards and had beer dispensers in the barracks. He was not-so-affectionately called the "hippie admiral" by the old salts.)
On 30 August, Preble was assigned duties as South AAW (AntiAircraft Warfare)/SAR controlling "ALPHA" air-strikes and air activity in the Hon La Anchorage. On 12 September, Preble's combat information center picked up a distress beeper from a downed A-7 Corsair off the USS Saratoga (CVA-60). Preble vectored USS Wiltsie (DD-716), the closest rescue ship, to the exact spot for a successful recovery. Four days later, on 16 September, Preble picked up the beeper from an Air Force F-4 Phantom downed in the Gulf, near Dong Hoi. Within 25 minutes of the aircraft hitting the water, Preble had pinpointed the downed pilots, launched her motor whaleboat, and safely recovered both air crewmen. (The following day, the pilots did a low pass fly-by that scared the hell out of everyone - to say thanks).
On 19 September, Preble was relieved and proceeded to Subic Bay, R.P arriving on 21 September. On 23 September Martial Law was declared in the Republic of the Philippines. (We were still allowed off base in Subic Bay and saw some pretty raw action against the Filipino residents perpetrated by their own troops. It felt like we were in two war zones.)
n 1 October, Preble departed Subic Bay, R. P., arriving on Yankee Station in the South China Sea on 3 October, to become plane guard for the USS Saratoga (CVA-60). (Actually our orders were to place ourselves between the aircraft carriers and any attacker. A common fear at that time was North Vietnamese Komar gunboats would emerge from the rivers with Styx missiles and attack the aircraft carriers. I don't know of any case where that actually happened.) On 15 October, Preble was detached from Saratoga and returned to the Gulf off Dong Hoi to resume South SAR/AAW picket duties. At times the monotony of the 'box patrol' was broken, when Preble was called on to maintain small arms proficiency by intercepting the tide of full rice bags which enemy supply vessels often loosed toward the shore. "Operation Pocket Money", the mining of North Vietnam's ports and rivers, had made it too hazardous for the communist freighters to get their cargo ashore otherwise. (This was a time for some comic tension relief with the absurdity of using .50 caliber machine guns to sink rice bags).
On 2 November, armed reconnaissance aircraft under Preble's control spotted an enemy convoy of some 150 trucks. The ship requested additional aircraft and directed them to the target area. After the smoke cleared, the final bombs damage assessment stood at 80 percent. Soon thereafter, combat operations against North Vietnam were curtailed, as the Paris Peace Talks progressed. Preble departed the Gulf of Tonkin for port visits to Hong Kong and Kaohsiung (Taiwan), before proceeding to Subic Bay for reprovisioning and repairs.
Preble returned to her South SAR station on 27 November. During mid-December, from the 18th on, Preble's forward air controllers participated in directing concentrated nighttime B-52 raids against Hanoi and Haiphong: part of "Operation Linebacker II."
As Christmas approached, Preble completed her third gunline period, and was enroute Japan for holiday R&R, when a change of orders directed her to take position on the gunline, off the Cua Viet River and the Demilitarized Zone. Preble arrived on station 25 December (Yes, Christmas Day. There were no decorations.), and got her first fire mission. On 27 December, she encountered her first enemy shore-battery counterfire receiving 7 rounds. (From this point on, all radiomen had to wear flak jackets in the radio shack which had a thin outer shell that was pierced). Fragments from 122mm shells littered the weatherdecks after each fire mission, attesting to the numerous near misses that the ship received. Equipped with FLIR (forward-looking infrared) detection, the ship's gunfire interdicted a truck convoy traveling down the coast on the night of 28 December, and destroyed several vehicles, setting off numerous secondary explosions and fires. On 29 December, after having fired 532 rounds of 5-inch/54-caliber ammunition in four days on the gunline, Preble was relieved and departed the Gulf for Sasebo, Japan.
Preble arrived in Sasebo, Japan on 1 January.Transiting the Taiwan Straits, enroute the South China Sea, on 12 January, Preble diverted to assist in coordinating the rescue and recovery of two air crewmen from an F-4 Phantom II downed in nearby waters. From 14 through 23 January, Preble took up picket station between Hon Gio Island and the Dong Hoi coast. Relieved by USS Worden (DLG-18) on the 23rd, the ship returned to the DMZ and gunline duty in support of a South Vietnamese offensive. On 24 January, having laid down gunfire to disrupt an enemy truck convoy and suppress an attacking tank column, the ship took hits from 130-mm shore batteries. An antenna atop the aft mast was destroyed and a shell burst off the port side amidships ripped holes in the superstructure. The Commodore's Cabin was severely damaged, and the port lookout received some minor wounds. (Fragments also pierced the torpedo tubes topside. A few inches more and it would have gotten even more interesting.) (The ship did not know it at the time, but this was the last hit on an U.S. Navy warship by North Vietnamese shore batteries in the Vietnam War.)
Over the next four days, Preble fired 431 rounds supporting the advance of a South Vietnamese battalion. In return, some 169 rounds of North Vietnamese counter-battery fire harassed the ship. At 0800, on 28 January 1973, the ship's 1MC announced that the Vietnam War was over. Preble remained on the gunline until 1 February, when she was relieved to begin her eastward transit to Hong Kong and Subic Bay, and thence to Pearl Harbor.
At Pearl Harbor, the ship (prepared) for a fall deployment to the Indian Ocean area. On 24 September, Preble departed Pearl Harbor for a six-month deployment. After calling at Midway Island and Guam, she reached Subic Bay on 14 October. On 19 October, after fueling and reprovisioning, Preble commenced her westward sail. During two months of special operations, as part of the first Attack Carrier Task Group excursion into the Arabian Sea, she crossed the South China Sea, transited the Straits of Malacca, entered the Bay of Bengal, and proceeded onward to visit the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden. (Special ops means this was a top secret mission being directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Yom Kippur War but that's another story I'll save for a different time. I'm researching more about it now.) Finally, retracing her route, Preble returned to Subic Bay on 17 December.
Preble received the following awards: Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and Combat Action Ribbon. (We also earned three campaign stars.)
With three weeks of upkeep and R&R behind her, Preble departed Subic Bay on 14 January. She began to wrap up her deployment, with port calls at Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, Manila and Singapore, interweaving two more stops in Subic Bay before returning home via Guam and Midway Island. On 22 March, Preble was again berthed at Pier Bravo in Pearl Harbor. (And I went home.)