"Banging Holes in the Land"


June 9, 1972 - New York Times Magazine

"Banging Holes in the Land"
--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 hootches.

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 to load.

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 plane.

"Several trucks destroyed, several structures destroyed, several secondaries," says Anderson. Haynes, who has noticed the cloud of smoke rising from the explosion, smiles approvingly.

"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 tanks."

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 Center.

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 entirely modern.

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 to comment.)

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 miles."

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 have won."
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 ports.

" 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.

Helo accident on fantail of Providence/ approx 2200 hours/May 9, 1972.

{2nd} 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 it too."

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 my sleep."

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 a confrontation."

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 like this."


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