Chapter Four-Part I
Combat Actions of the U.S.S. Turner Joy (DD-951)
As witnessed by LCDR Jim Chester US Navy (Retired)
Assigned to the Combat Information Center (CIC) as leading Operations Specialist holding the rank of E-5 and rate of OS2 aboard the destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD-951), the last all gun destroyer ever built for the US Navy, Jim Chester and his shipmates participated in the Vietnam War on a grand scale. Following a routine overhaul and upgrade to the latest in Naval Gunnery and advanced fire control, the TJ joined two other destroyers on Operation Linebacker II January 6, 1973. Later during those surface striking operations operating with the USS Cochrane (DDG-21) and the USS McCaffrey (DD-860), in Brandon Bay outside Vihn, North Vietnam on January 12, 1973, our task unit fought that engagement that later had great historical impact. The ensuing encounter turned out to be the last classic pitched night surface gun battle in Navy history fought at 32 knots using divisional tactics, with the brunt of the combat at point blank range for Navy warships. That one action lasted about 100 minutes and during that time we took hundreds of rounds of counter battery, mostly at point blank range.
Chester shared his recollections of that event with me, For five years afterward, I dreamed about that battle nearly every night, often seeing a picture of that portion of the world in a series of endless explosions. The following morning after that battle and two more strikes that night, after being in CIC all night mostly at General Quarters, I took a walk outside on the main weather deck. While on the forecastle I noticed that some of the dipoles on the AN/SPS-29 bedspring radar antenna were shot away. Also the weather decks were littered with shrapnel. Evidence of a challenging night!
The TJ ran a strike mission near Haiphong in the early morning hours of January 15, 1973 just prior to the cease fire for North Vietnam at 0800, before turning south where she joined an armada of fifteen destroyers and frigates. They formed a line beginning at the southern boundary of the DMZ and stretched southward. From his ship Chester could see large numbers of communist troops, tanks, towed artillery and trucks brazenly standing out in the open. The guns of the Turner Joy took aim. On one fire mission she fired forty rounds of Variable Time Fragmentation (VT-Frag) High Explosive air-bursts over the heads of fifty to sixty NVA soldiers some 800 meters away, which killed them all. At one point a tank rumbled down the beach and began to turn its turret toward the TJ but before he could fire, We lined him up in the crosshairs of our FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared Radar) and fired one round from Mount 51 and blew him to smithereens, Chester remembers.
For two weeks the TJ was engaged in nearly non-stop combat action against enemy forces along the coast, immediately south of the DMZ. Just prior to the last day of the war early in the morning of January 27, 1973, we replenished with ammunition and fuel. We decided to overload the ship with 5-inch ammunition and turned supply berthing into a magazine. We had just over 3,000 rounds of 5-inch ammo. The ship was designed to carry 1,800 rounds of 5-inch projectiles and powders. One of the many combat actions that took place that day and how it happened is best reported by Chester himself.
On January 27th in the late afternoon, the fighter-bombers were again working south of the DMZ. While watching this action, I saw Cdr. Harley Hall and his RIO LCDR Al Kientzler get shot down by what looked like enemy shoulder launched Strela Surface to Air missile. We could see the smoke trail of a missile up to their aircraft. There was also intense Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) fire and we could see the tracer rounds arching up at the aircraft. I earlier heard him on the Military Air Distress (MAD) frequency yell, “Oh s@*#, Mayday, Mayday” I ran outside from CIC just in time to see both CDR Harley Hall and LCDR Al Kientzler eject from their F-4 Phantom II Fighter-Bomber. The first thing I remember when I ran outside is that enemy tracer rounds were everywhere. Both Harley and his RIO after they punched out took AAA ground fire all the way down until they landed. It appeared that one of them was hit in his chute coming down because we could see that aviator go limp in his chute. While they were floating down in their parachutes, I watched an OV-10 Bronco; call sign Nail 89 make at least two climbing passes just to the west of the parachutes trying to create wind to push the parachutes out to sea. While under intense fire from ground troops as we were close to shore, I watched them using 10 X 50 big eyes binoculars and then fixed their position on the ground. They appeared to land on a small island or sand bar in the delta confluence of Dam Cho Chua River and the Qua Viet River about 4,400 meters from our position. I ran back into CIC and fixed the position and immediately we swung our automatic 5 inch guns into action without orders laying down a barrage to the West and the North of their position which was all enemy controlled territory to keep NVA troops away from their location. There were tens of thousands of enemy troops out there and they looked like ants through the big eyes. There was an immediate effort to extract them with a rescue helicopter vectored into the area along with other inbound strike aircraft to keep the NVA away from them. Our airborne spotter (call sign Covey 115 as I remember) later called in a more detailed fire mission for us and other ships to lay down ìdanger closeî covering fire. Before the rescue chopper got to the area, we had established communications with Harley on the MAD frequency and he reported to us that enemy troops were converging on his position. About two minutes later he reported on MAD they had just captured him and executed his RIO. We could hear the chatter of close automatic weapons fire in the background over MAD. That was the last transmission I ever heard from Harley Hall. About 20 minutes into the rescue effort where we saw the ìBig Motherî SAR Helo coming from the Southeast flying low level through six miles of heavy ground fire taking repeated hits and then about 300 meters from the extraction point to pick up Harley and Al, all of a sudden the pilot was struggling to keep his badly shot up helo in the air. At that point the pilot radioed that he could see a downed American aviator being lead off into the bushes heading West by enemy troops! We assumed it was the pilot; Harley Hall. Myself and others watched the helo wobble in the air and finally the pilot turned around and flew back through the same six miles of heavy ground fire taking more hits. WE could not believe our eyes. The NVA fire was far too heavy for a rescue helicopter to get in there. After the aborted rescue attempt by the “Big Mother” helo, nearly 50 minutes had gone by and we were wondering about the fate of Nail 89. There was much discussion about the fate of the downed F-4 Taproom 113 crew and the missing OV-10; Nail 89 and its crew. During a lull in the discussion where the Gun Line Commander who was the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) and the SAR Coordinator were discussing options about how to proceed over Navy Red (UHF Secure Voice Radiotelephone), we also noticed a slight lull in the combat action so I went outside for a smoke with BM2 Dave Mader. We were back along the starboard catwalk near the aft starboard corner of the O-2 level superstructure of CIC where Dave Mader and I were leaning on the rail in our flak vests, helmets and wearing side arms and talking about the actions of the last hour, when the next thing we knew a enemy air burst presumably from a towed 130 mm artillery piece had gone off on the starboard side adjacent to the ship and we were both blown back. Dave was blown right into the starboard bulkhead of CIC and I was blown into the corner of the bulkhead superstructure and back around the corner. This was the second time I had injured my shoulder in combat action in less than a week. Dave and I got up and shook ourselves back to reality and ran to our battle stations. We were both stunned! Just after getting back into CIC, the discussion about the assumed loss of Nail 89 started up again and the OTC suggested that we insert a Navy Seal Team to try to extract the crew of Nail 89 and possibly find the downed crew of Taproom 113, which was Harleyís and Alís aircraft. During that time we were engaged in another fire mission and heard bits and pieces of the conversation on Navy Red about the impending Seal Search and Extraction Operations. At the point it was approaching five days without any sleep due to the heavy night and day combat and so NOT sure whether what I heard after that point was accurate. I vaguely recall hearing that the Seals did get ashore and find the bodies of the Nail 89 crew, but could not get to the small island where Harley and Al had landed due to heavy enemy resistance. It was now late in the evening and I remember the OTC discussing on Navy Red whether or not he should be calling off further SAR efforts because he did not want to risk more American lives due to the ìtime late of the rescue effortî, the cost of two aircraft already lost plus two killed and several wounded. Since the cease-fire was only about 10 1/2 hours away and because of heavy enemy resistance effort where the level of heavy combat had been the fiercest of the war, it was decided to call off any further rescue efforts. In retrospect it was a good decision by the OTC, but how we hated to give up. I carried that guilt for 34 ë© years before I let go after speaking on the phone to Mary Lou (Hall) Marino in early August of 2007. I finally got closure from those combat actions.
By way of information, it is important to note that Covey 115 was a totally different air controller than ìKingî. Whereas King was an Air Force four-engine turboprop C-130E in-the-sky battlefield command and center for the entire battle area, Covey 115 was a Air Force OV-10 Bronco over the battlefield both over land and water ship providing close coordinating support to air and sea combat operations. Here Covey 115 was much like the US Forest Service command and control aircraft used in fighting large forest fires. Here, the airborne observer watched ground action and the enemy troop formations and coordinating the Supporting Arms to deal with the situation. They tracked activity on the ground and in the adjacent waters of its assigned area of surveillance and close control.
Aircraft with airborne radar and electronic reconnaissance equipment were an integral part of Naval Operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. The aircraft that accomplished this mission was a Aircraft Carrier launched E-2B Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning Command and Control Aircraft that flew a pattern over the Tonkin Gulf for overall battlespace management. His call sign was Red Crown and his mission turned out to be very valuable in saving lives. The purpose of this set-up was to alert allied planes and ships of the presence of (1.) MIGs, (2.) potential SAM firing locations and (3) the presence of other dangerous enemy assets such as fast-moving patrol boats with missile-firing capability. With large, wild bands of communist fighting forces harassing downed American airmen, Red Crown involved itself in efforts described by Jim Chester.
Chester continued his description of what happened next.
We then started working on getting our five-inch guns into action, laying down cover fire in an attempt to get the now swarming NVA off of them. Listening on MAD (Frequency 243.0 MHZ), when we heard that CDR Hall had just been captured and he also reported that his RIO had been killed by the NVA; this changed the course of the ensuing action.
After we saw the rescue helo trying to get out of there after aborting the rescue attempt; Red Crown and King were reengaging in coordinated air operations once more. I can still see that helo trying to get in there and out again. It is still vivid in my mind. I wondered how he could stay in the air with so much ground fire being directed at him. We did our best to provide more covering fire. Red Crown then directed air assets into the area where the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control aircraft, call sign King took over control. We were assigned the additional duty of flight following of friendly aircraft departing the area back to the Aircraft Carriers in the Tonkin Gulf. This Joint effort worked like clockwork and still amazed to this day how smooth it went as far as coordination between the Air Force and Navy!
Chester’s ship had been shooting for so long and so forcefully that it was running low on ammunition. Some 775 rounds had been expended in one hour from approximately 1620 to 1720 in supporting the rescue effort. Earlier in the day approximately about 1:45 PM we had all three of our five guns and our twin 3-inch guns shooting at troops and vehicles in the open at close range. In five minutes we poured out approximately 660 rounds of fire and blew huge holes in enemy troop formations. The sight of one destroyer with that amount of firepower engaging land forces on that scale is mind boggling to this day in my mind. WE were ordered to go seaward and keep about 2,500 meters from the beach at that point. Somewhere between 1415 and 1430 we got the order to cease fire and 9 B-52ís came and dropped their bomb loads on the enemy troops, killing about 2,500 NVA soldiers and destroying allot of equipment. We were only 3,300 meters from their drop zone. I watched that whole Arc light strike through the big eyes and felt the blast overpressure about one and a half miles away! I could see the bodies of hundreds of NVA soldiers and it was a gruesome sight. Later after expending the 775 rounds in one hour after the SAR effort, we starting running low on ammunition. Up to that point the TJ had fired over 2,000 rounds of 5 inch and about 200 rounds of 3 inch, so, out of necessity, the TJ went back to the control of the Forward Air Controllers to shoot coordinated fire missions.