Editors Note: This article was published during the Vietnam War. We are currently seeking source and background on it.
Her prow knifing into the waters of the Tonkin Gulf, the destroyer Duncan turned her fantail to the sandy coastline of North Vietnam, kicked up a frothy wake, and headed swiftly for the open sea as shells from a shore battery rained around her. Weaving smoothly to the orders of the offficer of the deck on her bridge, the destroyer dodged the exploding shell expertly. Her stern guns belched fire repeatedly as they directed their 53-pound projectiles toward the shore. Finally, the guns on the coast were silent, and crewmen could breathe more easily.
Because of the circuitous river routes and the necessity for unloading supplies from barges and motorized junks in one river, carrying the supplies over mountains and through jungles and reloading them into other boats in other rivers, the direct supply line offered by the Gulf of Tonkin appeared ideal. But since October, the barges and junks that ply North Vietnam's coastline with supplies have run into an unexpected foe. U.S. Navy destroyers a few miles off the coast. Heavy fire from the destroyers' five-inch guns has kept many of the small logistics craft at home, while forcing others to retreat to the relative safety of the inland rivers. Although more hardy North Vietnamese watermen still try their luck with the coastal supply route and frequently steal by undetected, the months since October have brought a large reduction in the number of watercraft headed southward along the coast. Suddenly, inland rivers have become preferable to the gunfire dealt by the destroyers.
Without the gunfire, North Vietnamese watermen still prefer the coastal route to the more roundabout rivers. During the Lunar New Year (Tet) truce, when destroyers and aircraft along the coastline swapped their interdiction role for one of surveillance, nearly ten times the normal traffic along the coastline was reported. The communists were estimated to have moved more supplies during the six-day cease fire than they can normally transport in an entire month.
But even the truce was not without its bad points for North Vietnamese supply chiefs. Because of heavy seas along the coast durig the last days of the extended truce, many logistics craft were left stranded in rivers, their cargoes either offloaded to communist trucks that crowded route 1A, or confined to the rivers awaiting better seas. Although aircraft from Seventh Fleet carriers often team up with destroyers on Operation Sea Dragon, destroyers bring to North Vietnam's coast something aircraft cannot --- staying power.
A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, and older than many of the men who serve in her, the USS Duncan is typical of destroyers on Operation Sea Dragon. Commanded by Cdr. Stanley W. BIrch, Jr. of San Diego, the ship carries a crew of 10 officers and 300 enlisted men. Duncan is on her second seventh month tour in the Vietnam area in the last year and a half, and her crewmen know their business well. The destroyer's search for clandestine craft is a tedious one. While a ship is assigned to Sea Dragon operations her crew is divided into three sections, with one third of the officers and enlisted men on watch while the remaining two-thirds go about their other duties and somehow find time to eat and sleep.
While the ship is on station, her crewmen grumble good naturedly about their 18 and 20 hour days, but most feel that the Tonkin Gulf is the best testing ground for their training. With young and mature alike, morale is high as the men see results of their efforts in the war. Uniform of the day aboard destroyers on Sea Dragon is more often battle helmets and armored vests or "flak jackets," than white hats and chambray shirts, and each ship keeps one gun mount fully manned around the clock.
In the Duncan's dimly lit combat information center, palefaced radarmen maintain a constant vigil over their surface and air search radars, their faces reflecting a subdued green light from the the scopes. Here, in the nerve center of the ship, information on all contacts is collected and evaluated.
Because of the highly-classified nature of the combat information center, its doors bear restricted signs and not even all of Duncan's crewmen have been inside. But the room bristles with activity day and night as the watch sections of radarmen and supervisory officers alternate every four hours. When a radar contact is evaluated as a North Vietnamese logistics craft the ship's crew is called to general quarters; all hands man their battle stations, no matter what time of day or night. At general quarters the double duty of each Navyman becomes apparent, as yeoman become telephone talkers on the bridge, relaying vital information, and the ships barber becomes leader of a repairparty. the welfare of the ship is at stake now, and every man is essential.
Along with other officers and enlisted men on the bridge during general quarters are the captain, and his gunnery officer. Every man on the bridge is clothed in battle helmet and flak jacket, and some wear curious-looking sound-powered phones.
One level above the bridge, the ship's gunfire director resembles a small gun mount without guns. Atop it stands a circular radar antenna. Inside the director, an officer and an enlisted man scan the coastline through high powered optical devices, and when they sight the barge or junk headed southward, they "light off" their fire control radar. Once the radar is locked on a prospective target, a continuing stream of data on the target's movement is fed to a computer deep within the ship.
Built in 1940 and descended from a computer built in 1913, the versatile fire control computer receives information from the director and from enlisted specialists known as fire controlmen. Processing the raw data rapidly, the computer translates it into correct placement of all ship's guns, and in unison the guns turn toward their target, barrels rising and falling in tempo with the slow roll of the ship.
When the captain is satisfied that all is ready he gives permission to commence fire. The first few rounds are fired slowly and deliberately; these rounds are used for spotting or zeroing in on the target.
As they hit, the first projectiles are watched carefully by the officer in the gunfire director. He feeds corrections by sound-powered phone to the fire controlmen, who, in turn, crank them into the computer. Within minutes the guns are perfectly aligned on target.
"All mounts, both guns, two salvos..." shouts the gunnery officer into his phone, and gunners mates in all mounts tense. Her automation has not replaced old-fashioned muscle, as below each mount four men take the bulky ammunition that haas been passed from magazines below and store it briefly to await the call from above.
As the four stand poised next to mechanical hoists, an order is called down from the gun mount for high explosive projectiles. Simultaneously, two of the four grab steel-jacketed 53-pound projectiles and hoist them above. At the same time the two others place yard-long powder casings in hoists.
"Commence fire," barks the gunnery officer, and after a short pensive slience the ship's six five-inch guns roar simultaneously. The ship convulses, as if she knew the result of her fire.
On the bridge, cotton has been stuffed into ears to guard against the guns' noise, and eyes are glued to binoculars. Men in the gun mounts see the guns blur as they recoil, and hot shellmen move in to catch the spent powder casings.
From a distance of four miles, a projectile reaches its target in 15 seconds, and before the 15 seconds have passed, the gun crews have again readied their guns to fire. Again they fire and again the ship shudders. The men on the bridge feel heat on their faces from flames spewed by the guns nearest them, and the pungent smell of burnt gunpowder is heavy in the air.
Eyes on the bridge continue to peer through binoculars as the first salvo hits its target. In seconds the second salvo reaches the barge. The sound from the explosion of the first salvo then reaches the ship and, on it's heels, comes the sound of the second explosion.
The distant barge is torn apart by a fireball and in seconds, masked by billowing black smmoke, the communists have lost more ammo and have one less barge for transporting materials to the South.
Often destroyers team up with planes from Seventh Fleet carriers on Operation Sea Dragon. Using airborne spotters as their eyes, the ships can remain nearly ten miles off the coast and lob their projectiles toward the coastline with pinpoint accuracy.
On the bleak morning the Tet truce came to an end, two spotter aircraft worked with Duncan and her running mate, the destroyer Cunningham. Throughout the morning the destroyers remained at least five miles from a river mouth, destroying several logistics craft holed up in the river.
Because of the rain and haze, the craft under fire could not be seen from the ships. But thanks to the keen spotting of the airborne observers, many enemy junks and barges were destroyed.
"This is fivo-)-one," drones the pilot in a southern drawl. "that last salvo was a little long and to the left. Drop 25 yards and come to the right 100." As the information is fed into the computer the aircraft clears the area.
"Mounts one and two, both guns, six salvos..." orders the gunnery officer. "Let's get some boats," says the gunnery officer, deadly serious. "Commence fire."
Seas are heavy, with the ship rolling as much as 20 degrees from her upright position, but the two forward gun mounts fire on cue, their four barrels flaming in unison, then dying like giant match sticks in a high wind.
Over the beach, the spotter receives word from the ship that the salvos have been fired as he comes out of a low-hanging cloud. "Beautiful," crackles his voice over the radio. "you can fire another couple of salvos where these last ones went." And after a brief pause: "there are about 30 more boats in that same area."
The greyhound, as destroyers are often called, and her flying friend could work together all day, but the spotter must return to home plate, his carrier, for fuel. "I'll see y'all again this afternoon," he says, "and lets see some more of that fine shootin'. This is five-0-one out." And the radio goes silent except for a quiet hiss.
The ship's general announcing system in its tin voice passes the word known to all hands as a prelude to rest, at least for some: "Set material conditions 'yoke' throughout the ship." And the ship is relaxed from full battle radiness to a conditioned readiness.
"Secure from general quarters. . ." and personnel shuck their bulky flak jackets and helmets. Yeomen stow their sound-powered phones and return to their typewriters. Damage controlmen begin their job of systematically inspecting the ship for damage. Commissarymen trade their life jackets for chefs' hats.
Gun crews climb from their gun mounts and set about their task of "polishing brass," retuning the spent brass casings for stowage until they can be transferred back to ammunition ships in trade for full ones.
At his desk, the ship's operations officer begins the day's report to seniors on how many rounds were fired and how many craft were damaged and destroyed. Before nightfall the report will be transmitted by radio to a task unit commander - - a Navy Captain - - who, in turn, will consolidate reports from all Sea Dragon ships and send them, along with his evaluation, to Radm. Mark W. Woods, commander of the Seventh Fleet's Cruiser-Destroyer Group.
Serving as the task goup commander directly responsible for Operation Sea Dragon and a number of other operations, Radm. Woods is embarded in his flagship, the guided-missile cruiser Long Beach. At a morning briefing each day, Adm. Woods and his staff officers examine carefully the previous day's actions on Operation Sea Dragon, providing guidance and direction to the operation and determining future strategy.
The report completed and transmitted, and the guns and their crews seeking rest after a long day, word comes from Duncan's combat information center --- one large waterborne logistics craft is headed out of a nearby river.
Duncan's commanding officer is notified and makes the decision to fire on the craft from the ready gun mount, the one manned around the clock, and not to call his crew to general quarters. The ship is well out of range of enemy shore batteries.
Although most crewmen take little notice of the long gun mount firing, the engineering department personnel regard it as quite an event. Normally confined to their engine rooms and fire rooms far below deck during general quarters, the engineers welcome an opportunity to see the big guns fire.
The few rounds fired and guns again secured, engineers disappear back into their holes, mess cooks clean their mess decks from the evening meal, a night baker takes possession of the galley, and other crewmen begin to work again at what they could not finish during the day's 10 hours of general quarters.
And so go the days on Operation Sea Dragon off the coast of North Vietnam. The routine is broken only by replenishments at esa, by unexpected tasks such as retrieving downed fliers off the coast, and by occasional letters from home.
The night watches which come with every day are accepted as the unalterable truth. Although lost sleep can't be replaced, no one complains seriously. They don't have time.
Last update: Tuesday, July 18
©Copyright 2001 USS Duncan DDR 874 Crew & Reunion Association The information you receive on-line from this site is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing,