Wednesday, May 30, 1972

Navy Takes Viet War Ball And Runs With It

by Patrick J. Killen

SAIGON (UPI) --The change was apparent after a day at sea.

We were a few miles off the coast of North Vietnam aboard the cruiser Oklahoma City, flagship of the 7th Fleet.

"You know," a correspondent said, "it is sort of like the Army-Navy football game. It was the Army's game for a long time. But now the Navy has the ball. You can feel it."

The mood was indeed different. Professionals were on the job. Rotation schedules were junked. Ships recalled. Minor repairs forgotten.

The "new Navy began to get its sea legs shortly after the March 30 attack by Communist troops across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), dividing the two Vietnams.

By April 6, Navy fighter bombers were hitting targets in North Vietnam and destroyers were bombarding installations which had been "off limits" for more than three years.

On May 9, President Nixon announced his plan to mine the entrances to the harbors and waters of the Communist north. It was an all Navy show and top brass in Washington and on "Yankee Station" insist it has been effective.

Vice Adm. William P. Mack, outgoing commander of the 7th Fleet, told newsmen May 22 daily reconnaissance flights and photograph of Haiphong Harbor had convinced him "no ship is going in or out to our knowledge, and certainly the ones claimed by the North Vietnamese to have gone in or out, have not."

May 10 was a day of spectaculars for the new Navy.

Three cruisers, led by the Newport News with her eight-inch guns, and two destroyers pulled close to North Vietnamese coast and hit targets only four miles from Haiphong in what the Navy called "the first multi-cruiser gunfire action since World War II."

Navy publicists began calling the Newport News "the fastest gun in the West" and the Oklahoma City "the gray ghost of the Vietnam Coast."

On the same day, Navy Lt. Randy Cunningham (of San Diego) and his radar intercept officer, Lt. (J.G.) William Driscoll (of Framingham, Mass.) flying an F4 Phantom from the carrier Constellation, shot down three Communist MIGs to become the first "aces" of the war with a total of five Communist planes.

On May 13 and May 24, Navy Amphibious units landed South Vietnamese Marines in two commando raids on Communist-held Quang Tri Province while cruisers and destroyers softened up the defenses.

Capt. J.D. Ward, skipper of the carrier Constellation which was recalled to the Tonkin Gulf while en route home to San Diego, summed up the thinking of the fleet's senior officers this way:

"We are fighting to win now."

Ward stepped out of his captain's chair on the bridge, took off his blue baseball cap and said, "I can't overemphasize how pleased I am personally, as I think the ship and the air wing are, about the turn of the war up here. The president's recent action impresses me as an attempt to win the war."

According to a 7th Fleet handbook, "in August, 1964, two fleet destroyers (C. Turner Joy and Maddox) were attacked by gunboats in the Tonkin Gulf…that act triggered involvement in the Vietnam War."

During the next four years, the fleet grew to 200 ships, including five carriers which regularly sent pilots over North and South Vietnam.

But the fighting was on the ground, in the Ia Drang Valley, at Khe Sanh and Hamburger Hill. With more than 500,000 American militarymen inside South Vietnam, the Navy played a supporting role.

The Nixon doctrine and Vietnamization and the withdrawal of American combat soldiers has now thrust the Air Force and the Navy into key roles.

Vice Admiral James L. "Jim" Holloway III is the son of the admiral who developed the "Holloway Plan," an educational program which provided college education for hundreds of Naval officers.

A young destroyer officer during World War II and a Navy flier during the Korean War, Holloway assumed command of the 7th Fleet on May 23. Only 50, he stands a good chance of eventually making it to the top as chief of naval operations.

He told newsmen his men felt they now had "the authority to do the real job instead of just plugging holes in the dike."

Holloway said, "I just think that what is indicative is that we've never been able to mine before and now we are mining. There is a determination to be more aggressive in a total package.

"If you mine and don't destroy the stocks, you've only got half a loaf. But if you mine and interdict and destroy supply dumps, than you have got a total approach to the problem. That, to me, is really the sense. The mining is the real indicator."

Since March 30, the 7th Fleet has grown to 130 ships with half of them on station off Vietnam. The fleet has six attack carriers (Constellation, Coral Sea, Midway, Hancock, Saratoga and Kitty Hawk) and a seventh, the Ticonderoga, is en route to the Western Pacific. There are about 700 aircraft, five cruisers (Oklahoma City, Newport News, Providence, Chicago and Long Beach and 45 destroyers.

On a day-to-day basis, the Navy keeps some 65 ships on "Yankee Station" off Vietnam. That usually includes three to five cruisers, four to five carriers and 35 destroyers. The total manpower involved in approximately 41,000 including 5,000 Marines. For the entire fleet there are 83,000 men of whom 27,000 are Marines.

Adm. Bernard A. Clarey, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet termed the 7th Fleet "the most powerful of its kind since the end of World War II and surely the most versatile in the history of naval warfare."

Speaking to the officers and men, Clarey said, "There has got to be a feeling of pride and outstanding achievement touching anyone who has anything to do with this incomparable 7th Fleet. In fact it is hard to recall a time where or when the meaning of total sea power, its responsiveness, versatility, flexibility and most of all, its purely unique dependability, has been demonstrated so clearly and so courageously as here in the Tonkin Gulf these past few weeks.

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"Navy Takes Viet War Ball and Runs With It", by Patrick J. Killen, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes Tuesday, May 30, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.