"Banging Holes in the
June 9, 1972 - New York Times
"Banging Holes in the
--The Vietnam war from the deck of a U.S. cruiser
an article by Donald Kirk
Aboard USS Providence
South China Sea
Through the binoculars on the signal bridge one discerns specks
of people walking along a beach littered with sampans and
Beyond the beach rise green paddy fields and woods fading
rapidly into a distant skyline of blue peaks and haze. Occasionally
one also sees white or black puffs of smoke hovering gently
on the horizon, but for the most part the view of Quangtri,
the first South Vietnamese province to fall entirely to the
North Vietnamese in the current offensive appears deceptively
tranquil and calm.
It is only at odd moments in fact, that the Air Force spotter
plane swinging in lazy circles some 10 miles inland finds
a target worth a shot. If he does happen to see a "bunker
complex" or "supply dump" or "truck traffic,"
he radios the nearest ship--at the moment one of three cruisers,
including this one, or one the dozen destroyers patroling
a 200 mile stretch of coast south from the DMZ.
A warrant or senior petty officer in the Combat Information
Center, two decks below the main deck of the Providence, sights
one or more of the ship's five guns on a computer, then telephones
a petty officer in one or two forward turrets and tells him
On the bridge, Capt. Kenneth G. Haynes, the skipper, a pleasant
Texan whom most of the men seem to like, watches while one
of the ship's 6-inchers, the largest-sized gun on the vessel,
roars and sends a 130-pound projectile over the shoreline
a couple of miles away. Several minutes later Lieut. Comdr.
Gerald Anderson, assistant weapons officer, standing on the
deck below him, shouts back the news from the F.A.C. or forward
air controller, the term for the propeller-driven spotter
"Several trucks destroyed, several structures destroyed,
several secondaries," says Anderson. Haynes, who has
noticed the cloud of smoke rising from the explosion, smiles
"That's pretty good," he says, with an air of understated
modesty. "You have to remember we're firing at 50-gallon
oil drums at 10 miles." His smile broadens. "It
would appear we've stopped effective movement of their supplies,"
he says. "This morning we've also been shooting at three
The captain doesn't know yet what happened to the tanks, but
later one of the enlisted men on the signal bridge offers
a somewhat irreverent account of the incident. "We chased
this tank right down the road," he says. "We must
have fired 50 rounds and never touched it. Finally the men
inside all jumped out and hid in a hootch. Then one of our
rounds got them all in the hootch and Tacair (Tactical Air)
got the tank."
The memory of the tank chase provides a moment of sardonic
humor on an otherwise dull day.
Since arriving "on the line" off Vietnam on April
28, the ship's crew of more than 800 officers and men has
been standing watch six hours on and six off---a wearisome
routine that slowly tightens nerves and frays tempers.
Captain Haynes attempts to boosts morale by providing free
soft drinks and keeping the ship's "gedunk," or
snack stand open 24 hours a day, but the men still yearn for
the ease port of San Diego. Besides, few of the younger officers
and almost none of the enlisted men, it seems shares Captain
Hayne's view that the Providence, lobbing an average of 40
or 50 shells a day into Quangtri province, is "here to
see the war end honorably."
In the surrealistic half light inside the 6-inch gun turret,
the sailors who load and ram the shells and powder reflect
the underlying unease of the crew. "it's a rotten game;
we're making no progress; we're just making people miserable,"
says Seaman Glenn Stillman, a bearded Mormon from Bountiful,
Utah. Stillman like most of the sailors, hopes that President
Nixon's decision to mine all of North Vietnam's harbors will
somehow shorten the war, but he is not optimistic.
"He's forcing the other side to make a decision,"
Stillman says, standing beside the gaping breach of an unloaded
6-incher. "This war could build up any time."
The turret captain standing by a phone near the entry to the
turret gets the order to load from the Combat Information
The "bullet" or projectile and powder casing arrive
separately by hoist from below the gun. Stillman and another
seaman pick the bullet from the hoist and place it in the
breach. A third seaman rams it into the gun itself by turning
the switch on an electric hydraulic system. They follow precisely
the same procedure when the powder casing emerges from below.
Finally the breach block closes and the petty officer in the
Command Information Center pulls a trigger that detonates
the powder and fire the projectile.
Stillman complains somewhat querulously about his work. "It's
too hot and I'm only getting 5.5 hours sleep a day,"
he says. It is partly because the Providence is an old ship
commissioned at the Boston Naval Yard near the end of World
War II, that it lacks the new machinery needed to transfer
bullets and powder automatically from hoist to breach.
Then the ship was refitted in the late nineteen-fifties, it
was provided with what her official history call "the
highly sophisticated and effective Terrier missile system
and a nuclear capability." The history does not even
mention her basic conventional weapons, admittedly less than
Captain Haynes argues that the missile system, occupying the
space of the two gun turrets in the aft portion of the ship,
"will be nice to have" for shooting down enemy aircraft.
But no one seriously expects the opportunity to arise. (In
any case, says one sailor, eight practice rounds fired by
the missile system were all duds; purse-lipped officers refuse
In the wardroom relaxing on sofas around a coffee
table decked with copies of Life, business Week and U.S. News
and World Report, an intense, crew-cut commander seriously
criticizes the Navy's failure to outfit its ships with enough
of the newest best guns.
"The United States is making a big mistake in not having
more gun-ships," says the officer, who did a previous
tour on a ship blockading the southern coast of Vietnam from
enemy munitions traffic. "Take a look at these destroyer
escorts we have around here," he says. "They have
just a single gun on some of them. If we're to have a Navy
and remain No. 1, we should have more ships with more guns."
Another lieutenant commander admits the Navy needs "more
ships available to do the job" but still praises the
guns on the Providence for their accuracy. As evidence, he
says that one of them "destroyed a truck today from 10
How much do such little success stories really mean? On the
Providence, as in almost any other American military setting,
the answers seem to vary according to rank and dedication
to the service. At the apex of the pyramid on the Providence,
Rear Admiral William Haley Rogers, commander of the entire
"cruiser-destroyer flotilla" of Quangtri, believes
implicitly in the efficacy of shore bombardment. "Cruisers
have large guns and are very good at it," says Admiral
Rogers, a tall swarthy man who wears a blue sports jacket
with the emblems of a couple of his previous commands. "I
can't think of anything more important than what we're doing
now in terms of the defense of the South Vietnamese cities
south of Quangtri."
Discussing the weapons at his disposal, Rogers talks as persuasively
as an Air Force pilot advancing the need for bombing or an
infantry commander explaining why you can't win a war without
ground troops. It is up to young ensigns and lieutenants,
few of whom hope to make a career in the Navy, to point out
some of the more obvious flaws in the official logic.
"Until a year ago we had the infantry over
here and we didn't interdict enemy supply lines but there's
no infantry. If we'd done both at the same time, we might
The crux of the ensign's argument is that mining the ports
of North Vietnam will hardly win the war for South Vietnam
if the South Vietnamese are incapable of fighting effectively
on the ground. As for whether or not the shelling of Quangtri
province will permanently impede the flow of supplies further
south, the ensign assumes the question is meant as a joke
and laughs good-naturedly in reply. "I guess the war
will go on for another 10 years," he says. "I happen
to be rather conservative, I think we should have taken all
these steps five years ago."
The lack of a real sense of purpose disturbs many sailors
who might otherwise entirely favor the war. "I'm for
fighting the war," Signalman 3rd Class William Dunn,
a fair-haired Californian who has been on the ship for the
past two years., "but I don't know if it's being fought
right." As far as Dunn is concerned, the ship "ought
to have more raids like that one off Haiphong" on May
10 (1972), nearly 19 hours after President Nixon went on the
radio and television announcing that "all entrances to
North Vietnamese ports will be mined to prevent access to
these ports and North Vietnamese naval operations from these
" Dunn, manning a telephone on the bridge
of the providence, knew the ship was heading toward Haiphong
harbor when he spotted a beacon on the headland south of the
entrance to the Red River channel.
accident on fantail of Providence/ approx 2200 hours/May 9,
NAVY UNIT COMMENDATION from 20 April 1972 to 1 December 1972
"We weren't any further out than maybe
four miles," says Dunn, "I put everything together
and figured we were making a raid on Haiphong." The Providence,
all its lights out, was sailing full speed ahead at approximately
30 knots in a line with two other cruisers, the Oklahoma
City and the Newport
News, and two destroyers, the Buchanan and Hanson.
"We saw a merchant ship lit up like a Christmas tree,"
says Dunn. "It began moving out to sea as we came in.
All the lights inside the harbor were on, too. It looked like
downtown L.A." The North Vietnamese may have caught the
cruiser-destroyer striking force on their radar, but basically
the raid came as a surprise.
The ships, within 200 yards of the first buoys
marking the channel, cut their speed to 18 knots, turned and
then began firing broadside toward the shoreline. Within four
minutes North Vietnamese coastal-defense batteries were returning
fire. "All you could hear was the whistle of the shells,"
says Signalman Apprentice Joseph Stankiewicz, who watched
the engagement from the port side. "Then all the lights
of the harbor went out at once." The battle, the first
multi-cruiser strike since World War II, lasted only 15 minutes
but it seemed much longer. "You could see these muzzle
flashes on the beach," says Stankiewicz. "You got
the feeling if anything hits, it'll land in you lap."
The Providence fired some 60 rounds at a "barracks complex,"
a fuel storage point and some of the coastal defensive sites.
Then, still in line with the other ships, it turned, resumed
full speed and left as quickly as it had come. Stankiewicz
and Dunn heard some of the enemy shells landing in the water
but none of the ships was even scratched. "Everything
was just fantastic," says Dunn. "It was the most
beautiful operation I've ever seen. This ship just turned
fantastically. I'm glad I got out to talk about it.
The next day Captain Haynes went on the public-address system
to compliment and humor the crew. "You gotta be doing
this fun," he said, "because it's a crazy way to
make a living."
Captain Haynes now tries to minimize the raid. "Just
another fire mission," he says but in retrospect its
purpose appears to have been far more important than any of
the men quite imagined at the time. The aim apparently was
to soften North Vietnam's defenses before American planes
began dropping the mines into the channel. "I wish John
Wayne could have been there," says Quartermaster 3rd
Class Steve V. Schlemmer. "He'd have dug it." Schlemmer,
who admits having joined the Navy "to get out of this
stuff," declares that "Billy Graham would have liked
For the men of the Providence, the strike off Haiphong may
well have been the climactic point of their tour. Almost immediately
after the raid, the ship began sailing south and may remain
here for some weeks. Without either the excitement, the tension
and danger of battle or some the ease and amenities of home,
as the officers are aware, men grow restive and unhappy, lax
and lazy. "All we're doing now is banging holes in the
land, making a few Olympic-sized swimming pools," says
Schlemmer, whose father served as a Navy aviation mechanic
in World War II. "It's far enough away so the guilt of
killing people doesn't bother me, but it's still cutting into
Not that shelling Quangtri is entirely a one-sided proposition.
Sometimes particularly from around the mouth of the Cua Viet,
a river 10 miles south of the DMZ, enemy gunners have the
temerity to fire back. The men on the deck wear flak jackets
and helmets whenever the ship sails within 10 miles of Cua
Viet, once a waterway for American vessels carrying supplies
for bases near the DMZ.
Living up to their reputation, the North Vietnamese fired
some 30 rounds one day at the Newport News while it was shelling
"bunkers" and "storage depots" near the
Cua Viet. None of the rounds found their mark that day, but
enemy shells have hit several destroyers over the past month.
Even this danger, however may recede as North
Vietnamese gunners begin to conserve their ammunition. Nor
is there much chance that the cruisers will strike again at
any of the North Vietnamese ports, since they now run the
danger of running over the mines.
The only other possible threat may be that of Soviet minesweepers,
accompanied by destroyers and cruisers, attempting to cut
new channels into the ports. On the Providence, however, neither
Admiral Rogers nor Captain Haynes regards this possibility
at all seriously. "You could take any situation and postulate
it," says Rogers, "but I can't think of anything
that has occurred that would cause the Soviet Union to go
to war. I don't think we've given them any reason to make
Assuming that Rogers is correct, then, one can only predict
a long dull tour for the men on the Providence, not to mention
some 40,000 on the other 64 ships now cruising the waters
off Vietnam with the rather large exception of the pilots
flying from five different carriers. "It can be pretty
miserable here," says Captain Haynes, "but we have
a job to do."
In the 6-inch turret, Seaman Stillman agrees and disagrees.
"This is such a low level of human existence," he
says. "I don't see why we should go on playing games