The “Fighting Fletcher” and the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club
by Arthur B. Fox (as published in Military Magazine, July 1985)
© Arthur B. Fox
During the Vietnam War the U.S.Navy's role was manifold; the Seventh Fleet patrolled over 900 miles of coastline from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hanoi-Haiphong area in the north. It not only patrolled but gave fire support, provided offshore "airfields," landed SEAL teams and. policed the inland waterways. While aboard the destroyer USS Fletcher (DD-445), I had an opportunity to take part in some of these missions.
On the evening of 22 December 1966, the Fletcher arrived at "Yankee Station" in the Tonkin Gulf. Actually the "station" was a rendezvous area in the gulf, 75-100 miles off the coast of North Vietnam midway between the Vietnamese coast and the huge Chinese island of Hainan. Here, the U.S. Seventh Fleet's attack carriers would launch air strikes against the Hanoi-Haiphong area while destroyers functioned as escorts and "plane guard," assisting with search and rescue missions of downed pilots.
The aerial bombing by the fleet's aircraft was a continuation of Rolling Thunder," initiated in August 1964 in conjunction with the U.S. Seventh Air Force.
On this occasion, an Air Force F-4 jet fighter had crashed in the gulf a short distance from us. We raced at maximum speed of 35 knots (about 40mph) to give rescue assistance. The search continued through the frigid night, but the rough seas finally claimed two more American pilots when the mission ended the following morning.
Our 24-year-old ship received orders to meet a tanker and replenish our fuel and much-needed ammunition supply. A mission on the "gunline" in the south could be expected at any time. In anticipation of heavy firing missions to come, the 56-pound shells for our two 5-inch gun mounts were hoisted aboard. With cargo nets swinging, the heavy seas lapping at the decks, and bosun mates screaming, we finally stowed all the ammunition in the magazines below deck. The casualties from the hundreds of rounds of ammo handled consisted of only a few bruises and broken fingers.
As we headed southwest for the coastline of South Vietnam, the gulf over the stern soon glowed with napalm bursts, sharp flashes from artillery and bombing missions near the DMZ. Now excited and ready to join the fight, the crew crowded the deck in anticipation of action. But the shoreline continued off our starboard side and the fighting soon faded. behind us.
At last, on Christmas Eve, we arrived in the vicinity of DaNang to join the USS Hull (DD-945). But after picking up extra radio equipment, instructions, mail, the ship headed north again. On Christmas Day, the Fletcher's mission dictated a station a few hundred yards offshore, a short distance from Hue; the ancient capital of Vietnam. Here we prepared to support a party of Marines struggling to free a tugboat grounded on a small sandbar near shore. Although the Christmas truce was in effect, "Mr. Charles" forgot and a few AK-47 rounds "pinged" near the tug. The Fletcher prepared to administer covering fire in the afternoon, amid building seas and winds. The tug remained fast aground, but, due to fears of a sudden storm, the crew was quickly and safely removed from the stricken craft by the Marines, thus ending the mission there.
As the crew gobbled down a quick Christmas dinner, the Fletcher rapidly executed a 180-degree turn and headed south again. We arrived at Cape Mai about 70 miles south of DaNang in the middle of the night. Elements of the Third Marines needed our fire support since a search and destroy mission was commencing at dawn. The choppy seas warned of stormy weather to come, and visibility decreased to a few hundred yards, making Navy and Marine air support or bombing runs impossible. With the assistance of Marine and Navy gunnery "spotters", the Fletcher commenced its first firing mission as the sun peeked over the murky South China Sea.
"One gun, five salvos, fire for effect", screamed the fire controller through his phones. Mounts 51 and 52,our twin 5-inch guns, opened fire and, within seconds, ten 56-pound high explosive shells commenced their nine-mile trip to soften up the VC. Unfortunately, we could not see the effect our detonations had. We rotated in six-hour shifts, six hours in the mounts (a crew of eight manned the guns) and six hours on deck maintenance duty. Sleep was grabbed when possible, but with firing missions around the clock, little was had. The night erupted with "star-shells", illumination rounds fired either to support our troops or harass the enemy.
Finally, on New Year's Eve, after four days of firing, other ships on the line exploded with a fiery outburst of rounds that appeared to end enemy resistance as the Marines completed their mission and withdrew. We meanwhile welcomed the respite to replenish our supply of ammunition and food. Climbing over piles of spent shells, we retired from the guns.
Our engines cranked up, and the Fletcher withdrew a few miles from the gunline to await supply.
"Happy New Year's, crew," ,cracked the loudspeaker, "time to UNREP (Underway Replenishment)!"
As we stumbled out of our racks at 4a.m., New Year's Day, 1967, the cargo ship approached our port (left) side.
"Get the hell on deck!" yelled the bosun mate. Twenty-foot waves crashed off the main deck as we migrated to the upper deck between the smokestacks to await supplies.
"Heads up," yelled the chief, "the damn lines are coming over, look alive you clowns!"
The lead-weighted guidelines thumped around in the darkness. Our red-filtered flashlights reflected off wire baskets revealing "Willy-Peter" (white phosphorus) shells coming over. We pulled crate after crate of ammo across the wire cable connected to the supply ship's winches. Finally, with the first orange rays of sun reflecting off a now calm sea, the UNREP ended (one of 60 during the cruise), and we slowly slid south for a new assignment.
This time the 173rd Airborne Brigade in II Corps needed support. Our mission with the Marines repeated itself here as we nightly lobbed shells at the VC routes of infiltration. Two days later; new orders arrived: Plane guard - Yankee Station.
Our destination over 800 miles away, we steamed full speed north, with orders moving us from 12 to 21 degrees north latitude. Twenty-six hours later, we pulled behind the 76,000 ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), 75 miles from Haiphong Harbor, North Vietnam.
"What a dichotomy," I thought. "One of the newest ships in the Navy teamed with us; a 376-foot, 2,000-ton ancient tin can." But the Fletcher had made her mark in history, especially during World War II. Such battles as Guadalcanal, Tassafaronga, the Gilbert Islands, Hollandia, New Guinea, Mindoro, Corregidor and Borneo graced Fletcher's logbook. In 1950, the 445 sailed to Korea and won additional ribbons at Inchon, Amgak, Sak To Island, Hungnam and Wonsan.
Plane guard is a mixture of thrills and boredom. For over a week, we trailed a few hundred feet behind the huge "gray wall" as she launched jet fighters to attack bombers; F-4s, F-8s, A-4s, and A-6s -- some seven-ton bomb loads under their wings. Bombing missions continued, weather permitting, around the clock. Since winter in the Tonkin Gulf is a 40-50 degree, shrouded, turbulent, washwater gray sky, missions were sporadic and always dangerous. The seas were forever threatening, menacing existence even below decks.
A twin-engine, 25-ton F-4 fighter hitting the carrier's deck at over 150 miles per hour, with nothing but wire cables stretched across the deck to catch the plane's "belly-hook," had to be seen to be believed.
This after ducking anything from a SAM missile to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire. Crippled planes became a common sight. Pilots and planes punctured by shrapnel hits could at times "limp" back to the carriers, but sometimes missed the cable lines in the dark or, misjudged the carrier's deck completely and plunged the six-story drop into the saline drink. when this happened, our whaleboat was dropped into the sea and headed for the plane, usually in the company of helicopters that were leaving the carrier at the same time. Rescue operations succeeded more often than not.
After the Enterprise, other missions would follow. We eventually guarded the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), Bonne Homme Richard (CV-31), Coral Sea (CV-43), Constellation (CV-64) and the Bennington (CVS-20) before the cruise ended.
Another mission soon followed plane guard -- Operation Sea Dragon,"the Purple-Heart zone". On 25 October 1966, the U.S. Navy had initiated surface operations against North Vietnamese coastal traffic. Eventually, Seventh Fleet vessels roamed as far north, as the 20th parallel (about 200 miles north of the DMZ). Patrol in this dismal coastal area remained tense and only on occasion did we relax. Although several ships had come under direct Vietnamese artillery fire, with some casualties, the Fletcher escaped without mishap. Shore bombardment was authorized in this area only in "self-defense."
The call of "General Quarters" constantly echoed through the ship as vessels approached. Huge North Vietnamese junks consistently glided along the coast, but never failed. to halt when ordered by our skipper. Under cover of our 30 caliber machine guns and BAR personnel, the junks came alongside the Fletcher and our boarding parties searched under the decks for signs of ammunition and arms for use in the south. But we found little and eventually were relieved.
After several weeks of sea duty in the South China Sea and Tonkin Gulf, our rusty, salt-encrusted ship pulled out of line and steamed 1,000 miles north to Kaohsiung (pronounced Cow-Shung), Taiwan, for much needed repair and refitting, and, for the crew, well deserved R&R.
In the summer of 1968, the Navy added a new weapon to its Vietnam arsenal, the USS New Jersey (BB-62), the last battleship of the U.S. Navy to see action. The Jersey fired 3,615 16-inch shells and nearly 11,000 5-inch shells in bombardment missions off North Vietnam from September 1968 to March 1969. The 1,900-pound shells from her 16 inchers were capable of hitting targets over 23 miles away. Unfortunately, the Fletcher's crew only saw the New Jersey "at rest" in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, prior to her cruise to WESTPAC.
Additional note: the USS Fletcher, Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Five, was decommissioned in 1969. All that remains are her wheel and ship's bell, which are now a part of he new Fletcher, DD-992, commissioned in 1980 at Biloxi, Mississippi. The old Fletcher's crew holds annual reunions at different locations each year.
Webmaster note: the two cruises Mr. Fox describes were from November 1966 to May 1967, and February 1968 to August 1968. Fletcher made one final WESTPAC cruise from November 1968 to May 1969 and was decommissioned in August 1969. On that last cruise, Fletcher’s crew got to see the New Jersey in action in Vietnam. On one occasion Fletcher and New Jersey simultaneously rearmed from an ammo ship. The second USS Fletcher DD-992 was decommissioned in October 2004. The reunions Mr. Fox mentions still take place every year and now include crewmembers of both the DD/DDE-445 and the DD-992.