Combat Actions of the U.S.S. Turner Joy (DD-951)
As witnessed by LCDR Jim Chester US Navy (Retired)
Another event that happened on that last day of the war that is unique in the Vietnam War Experience is surreal and still sends chills down my spine to this day just thinking about it. Shortly after rearming early in the morning of January 27, 1973, Red Crown called us and informed us that three KOMAR (Soviet built) guided missile patrol boats (PTG’s) were headed down the North Vietnamese coast inside the International 12 mile limit where we could not touch them after the agreed upon ceasefire in North Vietnam 13 days earlier. This was reported to the bridge! While returning to our assigned fire support station, we detected the three KOMAR’s on radar approximately 15 nautical miles away in attack V formation and reported that to the bridge. The OTC came on Navy Red and ordered us to go out and provide cover to the supply ships and all of a sudden we were doing 25 knots. At that point the KOMAR’s hit us with their Square Tie Search and Fire Control Radar and we went to General Quarters and started zigzagging. I picked up an unsecure High Frequency radiotelephone circuit called the Surface, Sub-Surface Surveillance Coordination (SSSC [commonly referred to as triple S C) Net and called the USS Ranger (CVA-61) and blatantly told them to launch their Ready 5 Combat Air Patrol. They rogered out, meaning they would comply! The Electronic Warfare Specialists (EW’s) were frantically bringing up the AN/ULQ-6B electronic warfare jammers and in the meantime the Commanding Officer; CDR Robert Pidgeon USN ordered that all non-essential personnel take deep cover. We had two of three 5 inch guns loaded and ready (Mounts 51 and 53) for a hard kill engagement and also had out Red Eye Surface to Air short Range Missile gunner ready for a second hard kill engagement. On the AN/WLR-1 Electronic Support Measures (ESM) Receiver, we had picked up the spurious search electronic signal of the Square Tie Radar and about two minutes into the engagement as we were running Southeast to support the now fleeing Supply Ships, the signal on the pan trace of the ESM Receiver turned to even amplitude. That meant the North Vietnamese KOMAR’s would fire up to six Styx Surface to Surface Missiles in one minute. The KOMAR’s had to have a steady course for one minute to stabilize the gyros of the missiles before firing. Even though they were still in North Vietnamese territorial waters where by International agreement they were not suppose to be, it was evident to us they intended to fire those Surface to Surface Missiles. I had sent about a third of my men down to deep shelter and those of us that remained were scared out of our wits. We all remembered when the Egyptian Navy KOMAR’s had launched Styx missiles at the Israeli Destroyer Elath at a range of 13 miles during the October 1967 Middle East War and had sunk the Israeli Destroyer with many killed and wounded. They had launched four Styx missiles in that engagement and we were up against six. We could successfully defend against two or three missiles, but the probability of successfully defending against six was less than 5 percent at best in our chances of survival. Unbeknownst to me, Red Crown flying over the Tonkin Gulf at about 30,000 feet had called the Aircraft Carriers and apprised them of the urgent situation and the carriers launched A-7 Corsair II attack aircraft and later fighter aircraft to assist. They had anchored overhead the KOMAR’s just before they had locked on to us with the Square Tie Radar. After several excruciatingly long minutes of being locked on to by the North Vietnamese KOMAR PTG’s, they started to withdraw and finally broke the fire control lock. If they had fired their Styx missiles, few of us would have survived and the TJ would have been lost. Of course the fighters and attack aircraft would have sunk them. By the grace of God and the diligent foresight of Red Crown we were lucky once again and had survived. The wave of relief over us was certainly noteworthy! It still gives me Goosebumps to this day!
The next morning on January 28, 1973, she was selected to fire the last shot of the war to impact near the southern boundary of the DMZ at precisely 0800, which was the time of the ceasefire agreed up at the PARIS Peace Talks. Engaged in firing missions all night, we had hardly any ammunition left. Also Mount 51 had run out of ammunition and Mounts 52 and 53 had quit working after 26 days of night and day firing. We moved the remaining ammunition forward from the magazines of Mounts 52 and 53 about 0715 in the morning, which were only about 35 projectiles and 39 powders. The Captain was growing concerned that Mount 51 might break also, so he ordered that our twin 3 inch gun be manned and ready to fire as a back up just in case. At about 0752, we got our last fire mission from our airborne spotter and fired all but four rounds. At 0759 and 15 seconds, we fired the last Naval round of the Vietnam War with a time of flight of 45 seconds and it impacted at precisely 0800. I left CIC and witnessed Mount 51 fire that round and then saw the Executive Officer, LCDR “Wild Bill” Hill USN go out and retrieve that powder casing. We complied right down to the second and so made more history. Chester remembered that morning well. At 0759 everyone was shooting at everyone else as heavily as they could. Then, about a minute later, it all stopped. The silence was deafening!!!! That was eerie. We had only three 5-inch projectiles and seven powders left on board. In just 24 hours we had fired just over 3,000 rounds of 5 inch 54 caliber ammunition and about 200 rounds of 3-inch ammunition and that does not count the .50 Caliber Machine Gun ammunition. Most of us had not slept in 5 days and we were exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
Locating LCDR Jim Chester was a serendipitous discovery on my part. While putting together War and Warriors, I wanted to write a section paying homage to a former shipmate of mine: Harley Hall. While considering what I was going to say, I accessed the Internet WEB page for the virtual Vietnam WALL, the computerized version of the memorial erected in honor of those killed or missing in Vietnam (see Appendix A and B). Attached to Harley’s name were several digital comments contributed by those who knew him or were touched by his life. There were 26 expressions of respect. Here’s one example:
28 Oct 2004
As a “World Famous Pukin’ Dog”, Harley Hall was the epitome of a Naval Aviator.
I was an AME3 and his Plane Captain on that fateful day in 1973. As I strapped him in, I remember how incredibly proud I felt to be his Plane Captain. My lasting impressions of him were his brilliant smile, impeccable appearance and absolute professionalism.
This was our last sortie that day, and as was rumored, could possibly be the last sortie of the war. Aircraft 102, his bird, was down for maintenance, so we had to go with aircraft 113.
When the shocking news came that he had been shot down, I cried uncontrollably, but I knew in my heart that if anyone could survive, it would be Cdr. Hall.
The “Dogs” were awesome as a Fighter Squadron, and we were that way because of Harley Hall and the men he inspired to be like him.
He made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and in doing so, inspired many of us to higher goals.
A shipmate – Tom Chergi, AFCM
This laudatory comment from Chief Chergi was representative of the group in terms of respect and admiration. Each message offered a glowing account of the man they eulogized. All but one, that is. That dissimilar message was from LCDR Jim Chester. His comments came from a man who had never met Harley. He identified himself as an eyewitness to Harley Hall’s Phantom being blown up and its occupants ejecting and going down into a nest of determined enemy soldiers. I was thunderstruck!
13 Apr 2007.
For over 30 years, the actions of January 27, 1973 at the DMZ have never left my mind. I was there when Harley and Al got shot down and saw them eject and I also heard them on Military Air Distress frequency (243.0). I was aboard the destroyer Turner Joy, (DD-951), approximately 4400 yards away just off shore under fire from enemy guns. The first I knew about them being in trouble was a call by CDR Hall over 243.0 saying “Mayday, Mayday” and I cut a direction finding bearing on his position in CIC of the TURNER JOY and then ran outside and saw the two of them eject.
For me, LCDR Chester’s account of events that took place on January 27, 1973, casts a new light on the final chapter of Harley Hall’s life. And, insofar as I can determine, it is an enhancement that has not yet been recounted publicly. I talked by phone with Jim Chester at his home in Nevada. He is a fascinating man with a distinguished career as a Navy Mustang (Former Enlisted who later became an Officer). From his re-telling, above, the accounts of his involvement in the weeks leading up to Harley Hall’s shootdown, you can see that he has a distinctive historical role of his own to play relative to the end of hostilities in Vietnam as a key crewman aboard the USS Turner Joy.
For my purposes, his colorful commentaries of various events at the crash site were particularly riveting: (1.) an attempted rescue by an American helicopter, (2.) covering artillery fire from ships at sea and (3.) the testimony of a Viet Cong soldier who directed gunfire at Harleyís F-4 and later affected the successful rescue of the RIO; LCDR Al Kientzler and also unsuccessful rescue of CDR Hall.
“How in the world did you get your hands on the battlefield journal of that enemy soldier”, I asked. From Nyla Kientzler, the widow of the RIO, he answered. She actually traveled to Vietnam to visit that soldier and she has a lot more to share that relates to that tragic day, he added.
When Chester witnessed Harley ejecting from his wounded jet, he was an enlisted man. But he went on to earn a commission and became a Surface Warfare Officer. Although that’s not a rare career path to follow, it is an achievement distinctive enough to earn one the respected title of Mustang among the Navy’s Officer corps. The fact that Chester was not an aviator but a black-shoe officer (a term reserved for Surface Warfare shipboard sailors) was what caught my attention initially. There, among predominantly brown-shoe Airedale fans, Jim Chester was paying tribute to Harley Hall on the Virtual Wall. He was somewhat of an anachronism; and his entry seemed out of out of place, but there is no doubt is a part of this enduring larger than life fog of war mystery. But what he said was perfectly appropriate and utterly eye opening. He saw Harley go down and he possessed information pertinent to the event that others hadn’t heard before. I had not. Neither had Nyla Kientzler! We both sought him out. He provided the spark that ignited this bonfire.