By F.H. McCullough, III
Fifty-years ago, in the Gulf of Tonkin, during the evening of May 8, 1972, offshore North Vietnam, a U.S. Navy SH-3 Sea King helicopter was making its approach to the U.S. Navy’s guided missile light cruiser USS Providence (CLG 6), flagship of Rear Adm. Rembrandt C. Robinson, USN, the Commander (i.e., CTG) of various naval surface ships afloat constituting task groups TG70.8 and TG77.7. The helo was returning from a conference aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CV 43) where senior officers met with the Commander of the US 7th Fleet and others at the onset of a major escalation of the Vietnam War.
The helo, with Admiral Robinson, three members of his staff and the helo crew aboard, on approach to the Providence, suffered an operational malfunction, crashing into the fantail of the Providence and fell overboard into the Gulf. Killed in the accident were Rear Admiral Robinson, Capt. Edmund B. Taylor, Jr. USN, Chief of Staff; and Cdr. John M. Leaver, Jr., USN, Surface Operations Officer. The helo crew and the aviation staff officer were able to escape and were rescued. The significance of this accident was later revealed in the events and activities of that evening, May 8, 1972, when Operation Pocket Money (May 10, 1972 to October 10, 1972) and Operation Linebacker 1 (May 10, 1972 to October 23, 1972) were in their initial phases of execution on the direct orders of then President Nixon. Rear Admiral Robinson was the only U.S. Navy admiral to have died in the Vietnam War.
Note: Operation Pocket Money was the naval mining of the North Vietnam coast and harbors; and Operation Linebacker 1 tasked Navy ships with surface action group bombardment from the sea on North Vietnamese costal defense sites and military targets; and Operation Linebacker 2 was the re-activation of significant Air Force and Navy air bombing campaigns against North Vietnam.
In early April 1972, North Vietnamese army (NVA) forces began a land campaign and invaded South Vietnam (SVN), crossing the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries, with significant numbers of regular NVA troops and tanks. NVA troops easily overran the SVN army forces located in I CORPS in Northern South Vietnam. The United States responded by committing its remaining in-country combat units (for the most part, US Marines) and an increasing number of naval ships to counteract the NVA invasion, which has often been referred to as the 1972 Easter Offensive, 50 years ago.
As background, USS Davidson, a US Navy destroyer escort, later reclassified in 1975 a frigate (DE/FF 1045), had returned to Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, (its homeport) from a 6-month deployment to the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) on December 16, 1971; and had enjoyed a 30-day stand-down period post deployment. After January 16, 1972 Davidson began preparing for its next deployment scheduled to begin in August 1972. However, on Friday afternoon, April 7, 1972, Davidson received standby orders to deploy; and on the following Monday, April 10, 1972 departed Pearl Harbor enroute to WESTPAC “at best speed without running out of fuel”, normally a transit requiring about 3 weeks. Davidson arrived at Midway Island noon on April 12, 1972 and refueled, departing at 4 pm that afternoon. Arriving at Naval Station Guam 6 o’clock in the morning on April 19, 1972 (with less than 5% fuel) and departing at noon, the ship arrived at Subic Bay at 9am on April 22, 1972. Departing Subic at 12:01am on the morning of April 25, 1972, Davidson, joined other US Navy ships positioned just offshore of the DMZ at 4 o’clock pm April 26, 1972, having completed an underway replenishment (UNREP) for fuel enroute. Within an hour of arriving, Davidson was tasked with its initial Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS) fire mission. Equipped with two (2) 5-inch/38-caliber afloat naval guns, Davidson commenced gunfire support for troops ashore and continued engaged in naval gunfire for the duration of its deployment, ending October 17, 1972. Davidson returned to Pearl Harbor on November 10, 1972, completing a deployment lasting just over 7 months.
Davidson was one of few DD’s or DE’s initially on scene at the DMZ at the onset of the Easter Offensive with a helicopter landing deck and hanger capability. On May 4, 1972 Rear Admiral Robinson and staff arrived onboard Davidson just before noon; and were transferred by Davidson’s motor whale boat (MWB) to the nearby guided missile destroyer USS Benjamin Stoddert (DDG 22), where the then Gunline Commander (CTG70.8.9) was embarked on the nearby guided missile destroyer, USS Waddell (DDG 24). A commander’s meeting met onboard the Stoddert until 3:47pm when RADM Robinson and staff departed by helo back to the Providence, then located well north in the Gulf of Tonkin, closer to Haiphong/Hanoi, North Vietnam.
That evening, May 4th, at 11:00 pm, Capt. E.C. Kline, USN, COMDESRON 15 (also referred to as Commodore), (the oversight commander for the forward deployed WESTPAC destroyer squadron attached to the 7th Fleet) having assumed command of the gunline ships (TG.70.8.9), transferred his flag via MWB to Davidson in the dark of night. Davidson coincidentally was configured with a combination of extra berthing spaces, added radio/communications equipment and an expanded Combat Information Center (CIC) space, as the 1965 commissioned DE, configured as an ocean convoy escort with a specialized capability for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), had been designed and outfitted to accommodate an embarked convoy commodore and staff. Davidson continued in its support role as flagship for the gunline commander while at the same time providing significant and timely naval gunline fire support for South Vietnamese and U.S. Marines ashore, as with few exceptions, all US combat units had been withdrawn prior to April 1972. Due the greater reliability of its hand-loaded 5”/38cal naval guns—designed and built before World War II– Davidson often found itself having to replace other ships armed with “modern” mechanical 5”/54cal naval guns that more often than not could not maintain their automatic rates of fire due to mechanical jamming and malfunctions. This active schedule of NGFS missions continued non-stop from May 4, 1972 to May 10, 1972, specifically; and throughout the remainder of its deployment.
During the period April 26 to May 9, 1972, Davidson conducted six underway replenishments from Navy supply ships for stores, fuel and ammunition in addition to its gunfire missions. Davidson fired a total of 11,997 rounds in total during its deployment, of which 1,197 rounds were fired May 8-9, 1972, alone. Davidson’s two (2) ammunition magazines held a total of 1,200 rounds of ammunition and powder.
At approximately 11:30pm on MAY 8, 1972, Davidson’s CIC personnel focused on a very strange communication over the secure voice communications circuit—”the RED Phone”. The Airborne Early Warfare (AEW) aircraft was calling out to a heretofore unrecognized call sign—the ‘coded’ voice designator identifying a person or specific unit– that was not answered immediately. Only after Davidson’s CIC personnel determined that the call sign was the not-often-used administrative call sign for COMDESRON-15, did the purpose of the AEW’s urgency become apparent. After providing a long-count so the aircraft could home-in and radio-direction-find on Davidson; and establish good communications connectivity as a relay to the cruiser Providence (located well north in the Gulf of Tonkin), was it revealed that Robinson and his staff had perished in the helo crash. As the next senior officer in the Gulf, Commodore Kline was tasked with the responsibilities as Commander of two (2) groups of ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, TG70.8 and TG77.7, (in addition to his gunline commander duties as CTU70.8.9) now embarked aboard the Davidson. Almost simultaneously, Davidson’s radio center (and its 13 radio personnel) became a bee-hive of activity as the Providence (with its several hundred radiomen), Commander Seventh Fleet, Naval Communications Station Philippines and the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., all required communications circuits be established so that the conduct of the now emerging Presidential action orders could be passed along to 7th Fleet commanders and units. Consequently, activity aboard the Davidson was hectic as staff and ship’s company worked to follow and execute orders from higher authority while simultaneously continuing its own gunfire missions and providing staff support for the increasing numbers of Navy ships on scene.
Comments made by Kline that evening and the following morning indicated that he was “surprised” by the scope of activities and responsibilities thrust upon him. The helo accident was NOT, obviously, foreseen or anticipated; but one has to wonder what the Commander’s meeting of May 4, 1972, was all about, requiring an admiral’s helo transfer from the northern Tonkin Gulf to the gunline and; presumably, a briefing on up-coming events by a senior admiral to selected subordinates. (Note: Robinson had previously been an assistant to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prior to assuming his duties afloat; and the Presidential action orders for Operation Pocket Money and Operation Linebacker 1 and 2 have been attributed to Secretary Kissinger and his staff.)
THE SIGNIFICANT EVENT
There was one additional event on the evening of May 8th and morning of May 9th that has not been revealed in earlier recollections or documentation of that night. By coincidence, at approximately 1:00 am May 9, 1972, the USS Newport News (CA-148), the largest U.S. Navy cruiser afloat at the time, “reported in” to the South Vietnam operating area, having earlier left the Philippines; and reported to CAPT Kline, the gunline commander, for instructions. Commodore Kline began a conversation over the secure “red phone” with the Commanding Officer of the Newport News, recalling that the two had been roommates at the Naval Academy together; and CAPT Kline very artfully indicated to his former classmate and roommate, Captain Walter F. Zartman, USN, Commanding Officer of the Newport News, the events of the evening and the death of RADM Robinson; and, at the end of the commentary, indicated that he, CAPT Zartman, was now the senior officer in the combat zone; and by the rules within Navy Regulations, he should take command, in lieu of himself. (NOTE: Davidson’s 1st Class Ship’s Yeoman was awakened to fetch an onboard copy of Navy Regulations 1948 that Commodore Kline quietly referenced throughout his conversations with Captain Zartman). In a most interesting discussion between the senior Navy Officers, heard throughout the Tonkin Gulf on the Red Phone, the Commanding Officer of the Newport News declined the succession to command, indicating as having just arrived and his unfamiliarity with WESTPAC and the activities at hand, deferring to CAPT Kline, junior in number to himself, to continue in his recently designated combat command function.
NOTE: Newport News had departed its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, having served as 2nd Fleet Flagship, at 4:00 pm on April 13, 1972, arriving in the Gulf of Tonkin having traveled 11,400 miles at an average speed of 23.2 knots with brief fueling stops in Panama, Pearl Harbor, Guam, and Subic Bay.
Aboard Davidson, the ship’s company present in CIC at the time marveled at the proceedings! A senior officer had deferred to a junior officer to preserve the continuity of command during a significantly stressed and complex period of time. It was remarkable to listen to that exchange between two officers who were intimately involved in the escalation of the significant combatant event at the moment; and to appreciate that the continuity of command (and subsequent completion of the mission) was paramount to either of their individual roles at the time. It must also be noted that CAPT Zartman may have had other instructions as Newport News, according to its own deck logs, proceeded farther into the Gulf of Tonkin and engaged North Vietnamese shore facilities with its powerful 9 (nine) 8”/55 cal. guns later that morning with several additional ships as a part of TG 77.7.1/2. NOTE: Newport News also carried 12-5”/38s, 24-3”/50s, and 24-20mm guns, the most heavily armed naval cruiser at the time, anywhere.
Interestingly, Newport News had departed Subic Bay on May 8, 1972 and the ship’s history and deck log indicated it arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin at 6:30pm May 9, 1972 (some 17 hours or so after the earlier conversation with Commodore Kline aboard Davidson at about 1:00am that morning), whereupon Newport News participated as a component of TG77.7.2, along with two (2) additional guided missile cruisers (Providence and Oklahoma City) and six (6) destroyers; and proceeded to bombard Haiphong Harbor and Do Son Peninsula at 2:00 am, May 10, 1972. At 9:00 am on May 10th, Newport News was detached from TG77.1.2 and reported to CTG70.8.9 (i.e., CAPTAIN Kline); and began NGFS operations adjacent to the DMZ in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam with the first of 246 8-inch rounds fired at 5:40pm May 10, 1972.
Additionally, it should be noted that during the period of this command succession and transactions, as previously mentioned, Davidson continuously conducted NGFS missions throughout May 8th and May 9th, firing 1,197 rounds, emptying its magazines and requiring an ammunition replenishment from the USS Pyro (AE 24) during the afternoon and early evening hours of May 9th before returning to the Gun Line, all the time coordinating with the embarked staff the entirety of the NGFS response to the North Vietnamese aggression; and responding to the requirements of Presidential Orders that had been activated. USS Providence (CLG 6) sortied south to Davidson’s NGFS position near the DMZ and Commodore Kline, COMDESRON 15, transferred his command and flag to the cruiser at 4:45pm May 10, 1972. Davidson received, in part for its response and activity of May 8-10, 1972, the Navy Meritorous Unit Commendation award; and for an earlier surface gunfire engagement on April 26-27, 1972, with a North Vietnamese gun emplacement at the mouth of the Cua Viet River at the DMZ, the Combat Action Ribbon.
These recollections are documented by notations in various official ship Deck Logs and have been provided by the actual participants of Davidson’s (DE/FF 1045) CIC, Radio and Bridge watch standers at the time of the events; and have been summarized by the following former Navy personnel on watch at the time and participating in the actual events of May 8-10, 1972, some 50 years ago: YN3 Matthew Bozek, Navigation and NGFS Watch; RD/OS3 Dan Kroeger, CIC & NGFS Watch Supervisor; Retired RMCS J. Camarena, USN, Senior Radioman; Retired Commander (then LTJG,) S.G. Morris, USN, CIC Duty Officer and Communications Officer; and then LTJG. F.H. McCullough, III, CIC Duty Officer and Operations Officer; USS Davidson (DE/FF 1045).