ABOARD U.S.S. NEWPORT NEWS
(AP) --Cruisers, the giant dreadnaughts that lay out to sea and rain devastation with sniper precision, are back to stardom after three decades of walk-on parts.
Five U.S. cruisers off Vietnam fire hundreds of explosive rounds daily above Hue. They are the Americans' only offensive surface artillery left in the war.
Three swept past Haiphong two weeks ago, with batteries booming, in the first multicruiser raid since World War II, following with darkness strikes just like in the movies they show on board.
But a lot has changed on the massive gunships since their heyday of the early 1940s. Seamen with peace bands around shaggy hair smoke marijuana below decks. Gunners in the turret tell visitors they are ashamed of killing. Young officers express frustration at the war.
But even the great B52s can't match the power and deadly accuracy of the cruisers. The three batteries of triple eight-inch guns on the Newport News can deliver rapid-fire death for hours on end.
Old timers admit the gung-ho has been replaced by a more reflective approach among the crew.
Still, the jobs get done.
"These ships are damned effective," said Capt. Walter Zartman of the Newport News, a naval officer since World War II. The Haiphong strike, for instance, "went like clockwork... Everyone performed magnificently."
In Vietnam, the cruisers mainly use their six and eight-inch batteries for close support of South Vietnamese ground forces, blasting at enemy positions and supply lines.
They work with forward spotters in light planes, and ground directors, sometimes coordinating with bombers and tactical aircraft. Occasionally, their roles mingle, in bizarre combinations.
The Providence, for example, chased a tank down a road with its six-inch guns until, after about 40 rounds, the tank crew fled to a hut. The building immediately took a direct hit and disintegrated.
Then spotters called an air strike on the abandoned tank which was blasted away by a rocket.
Why, navy men were asked, wasn't the tank just rocketed in the first place? "We each have jobs to do..." was the reply.
Newport News is the biggest gunship in the world, but even the smaller cruisers, all with secondary batteries and some with missiles, can devastate a village in minutes.
"And I don't like it," said Signalman Steve Schlemmer, 21, of Placentia, Calif., aboard the Providence, typical of a new breed of sailor who follows orders but asks himself why. "I don't think we have the right to change the landscape of these people, like blasting Olympicsized swimming pools in their backyards."
The "Newpy News" is a 7l7 foot-long city, with its own television station, newspaper, helicopter pad, 28-bed hospital and dental clinic. Normal population is 1,200. Steam turbines deliver 120,000 horsepower to the four propellers, generating enough electricity for a city of 40,000 and distilling 60,000 gallons of water. The ship displaces 21,000 tons.
These vessels make a large target for counterbatteries on shore, and sometimes they take as many hostile rounds as they deliver.
"If you get shot at, you get shot at," said Lt. Ronald Wools of Terre Haute, Ind., on the Providence, who spent time dodging fire at closer range on Vietnamese rivers. "It doesn't make a damned bit of difference."
Strangers on the Newport News, dizzy from the thundering boom of the eight-inchers, forget their vulnerability until counterfire just off the stern splashes water on the fantail.
All the ship can do is steam away at 33 knots, maneuvering artfully, straining to get out of range while the men on decks huddle in flak jackets and helmets, nervously eyeing the air.
Enemy aircraft are even more dangerous, but apart from a MIG which recently tore up the turret on the destroyer Higbee, U.S. ships have been relatively lucky. And they are well defended.
"Actually, I think the morale of the boys has been better since they have gone into combat, doing what they were trained to do," observed on senior cruiser officer.
Many of the crew agree, but others say they were far happier when the Newport News was lying at Norfolk, or the Providence at San Diego, going out for occasional good will or holiday training cruises.
Cruisers have been used for shelling the Vietnam coast off and on during the past five years, playing subordinate role to ground troops and air power. Now they have taken over a leading position.
"What we have is just a piece of mobile artillery," said Rear Adm. W. Haley Rogers, commander of the 11th Cruiser-Destroyer Group, and, he said, they are good at their classic strike role.
As one crewman said, with a resigned look: "Whatever we're doing, we're here. I thought we were going to get out of this war. But here we are."
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