“There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush,” ruminated the character Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech–and nothing happened.” Although Conrad was writing about a French warship off the coast of Africa in the late 19th century, his words also might have described the thoughts of many destroyer and cruiser Sailors during the Vietnam War. Firing at far away targets obscured by thick tropical foliage, these Sailors rarely saw the effects of their efforts. The only visible sign of success was an incoming round from an enemy shore battery or the occasional secondary explosion. Their actions, however, were strongly felt by the enemy.
During the Sea Dragon naval bombardment campaign (25 October 1966–31 October 1968), Navy surface ships struck a variety of coastal targets along the North and South Vietnamese coast ranging from surface-to-air missile sites and coastal gun emplacements to bridges and boat repair facilities. Sea Dragon forces also sank or damaged over 2,000 enemy logistics boats plying the coastal waters of North Vietnam. In response, enemy coastal gunners often dueled with American destroyers and cruisers. During the summer of 1967, Communist batteries fired on American NGFS ships an average of 10–15 times per month. By the end of the campaign, hostile fire had damaged 29 surface ships, killed five Sailors, and wounded another 26. There were other dangers. On 1 October 1972, one of Newport News’ 8-inch guns exploded, killing 20 Sailors and injuring numerous others. The accident represented the single largest loss to the bombardment squadron during the Vietnam War.
With the exception of a small number of “protective reaction” strikes against enemy air defense sites, bombardment against North Vietnam ceased in late October 1968 and did not resume until the Communist Easter Offensive in 1972. During the early days of that campaign, surface combatants provided beleaguered South Vietnamese troops in the Quang Tri Province with 24-hour artillery when bad weather prevented aircraft from providing much in the way of close air support. After President Nixon resumed bombing attacks against North Vietnam on 10 May 1972, Navy cruisers and destroyers again began launching strikes against North Vietnam. One of the largest of these attacks occurred on 27 August 1972 in the Haiphong-Cat Bi area.
The purpose of the raid was to knock out coastal defense and SAM sites as well as other military targets in Haiphong Harbor or the “Lion’s Den” as Sailors often called it. The Navy plan called for Newport News (CA-148), Providence (CLG-6), Rowan (DD-782), and Robison (DDG-12) to enter the area under the cover of night. About ten miles off the coast, Providence and Robison would peal off to hit targets southwest of Cat Bi, and the other two ships would enter Haiphong channel. With its 8-inch/55 guns, Newport News would be the pair’s heavy hitter, focusing on the nine most significant targets. Rowan was to screen Newport News and take out coastal defense sites with her 5-inch/38 guns. Rowan also possessed an antisubmarine rocket launcher that had been converted to fire Shrike missiles—an antiradiation weapon designed to silence SAM site radars.
Captain John Renn, the commander of Destroyer Squadron 25, led the raid from Robison. Vice Admiral James L. Holloway III, the Seventh Fleet commander, also participated as an observer on Newport News. Neither officer worried too much about North Vietnamese shore batteries. “The guns being used were field artillery pieces and not designed to track moving targets,” Holloway later explained. However, if a ship became immobilized within range of one of those guns, it would only take a few minutes for enemy gunners to completely decimate it. Both pairs of attackers would be well within range of these guns as they attacked their targets at Haiphong and Cat Bi.
At 2200, Newport News went to general quarters as it approached the area in column with the other ships. Holloway joined the ship’s skipper, Captain Walter F. Zartman, on the bridge, but assured the captain that he was just an observer and “would stay out of his hair.” The ship approached the channel at 25 knots and began firing on targets two and a half miles southeast of the Do Son light.
Shore batteries soon returned fire, giving the U.S. ships excellent aim points for counterbattery fire. Unlike U.S. Navy projectiles, which employed flashless powder, the powder in the North Vietnamese rounds caused brilliant muzzle flashes. Sailors in the rigging reported the enemy’s gun positions and fire. It was later estimated that enemy gunners fired approximately 300 rounds at American ships that night, but none found its mark.
At one point, Holloway stepped outside the pilothouse to experience the full sensation of the battle. “The rush of wind, the hot blast of the guns, and the acrid smell of gunsmoke differed little from what I had experienced on board the destroyer Bennion (DD 662) in World War II,” he recalled. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Holloway had served as the Bennion’s gunnery officer when she torpedoed a Japanese battleship and sank an enemy destroyer.
Newport News ceased firing at 2333 and prepared to egress from the harbor. Captain Zartman informed Holloway that all of the ship’s targets “had been covered” and that secondary explosions were noted at Cat Bi airfield and an ammunition dump. Overall, the four American ships expended 700 rounds, causing five secondary explosions. Rowan also fired two Shrikes at a radar site east of Haiphong.
As the two men went over the night’s target list, a telephone talker tugged the captain’s sleeve. “Captain,” he said. “Combat Information Center (CIC) reports a surface target, designated Skunk Alpha, at 10,000 yards bearing 088, heading for us at high speed.” According to Holloway, intelligence sources “seemed to agree that torpedo- or missile-equipped high-speed patrol craft would not be a problem,” so this contact came as a bit of a surprise.
The P-6-class Soviet-manufactured fast patrol boat had waited to ambush Newport News in the vicinity of Ile de Norway. Numerous rocks and pinnacles near the island made it difficult for Newport News’s radars to lock onto the patrol boat. It’s relative bearing was also dead ahead, making it impossible for the cruiser’s 8-inch guns to fire a low angle shot (an electronics antenna on the forecastle blocked such shots).
Newport News swung hard to the starboard to unmask the battery and commence firing. Within minutes, the contact appeared to be on fire. CIC then informed the bridge of two additional patrol boats 16,000 yards dead ahead. Newport News came hard port to bring its guns to bear on the new targets—a heading that now put the ship on a collision course with the shoals of Ile de Norway.
The zigzagging approach of the patrol boats combined with darkness and the confusing effect of the cruiser’s own fire made it difficult for the 21,000-ton behemoth to sink these tiny targets. When a call came in from Providence about a possible fourth contact, Holloway told Zartman that he was going to call in air support. “Attention any Seventh Fleet aircraft in the vicinity of Haiphong,” Holloway announced on a special Navy frequency reserved for such emergencies, “This is Jehova himself aboard USS Newport News with a shore bombardment force in Haiphong Harbor. We are engaged with several surface units and need some illumination to help us sort things out.”
“Jehovah, this is Raven Four Four, inbound with a flight of two Corsairs. We have flares and Rockeye [cluster bombs] aboard,” Lieutenant (jg) William W. Pickavance of Attack Squadron 93 replied. Holloway cleared the two planes to attack. One of the A-7s illuminated the area with a flare while the other dropped a Rockeye, which along with gunfire from the cruiser and Rowan, finished off the targets. Later, intelligence analysts credited Newport News with destroying one boat, Rowan with damaging a second, and the A-7 with “possibly sinking” a third.
Following the engagement, Newport News rendezvoused with Providence and Robison and steamed down the coast to Quang Tri Province to provide ARVN troops with gunfire support. A little over a month later on a similar mission south of the DMZ, one Newport News’s 8-inch gun barrels exploded, killing19 Sailors and injuring another ten. The accident represented the single largest loss to the NGFS squadron during the Vietnam War. Hence, the Navy’s cruiser and destroyer Sailors and their warships did their part in the Linebacker campaign.