Hobart in Vietnam: Follow-up letters
by Ian Callaway and David Holthouse
Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here
Ian Callaway (left) is at the Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) plotting desk in HMAS Hobart. The Raytheon AIM-7 Sparrow (right) is a semi-active air-to-air missile that homes at up to Mach 4 on a target illuminated by its launcher’s radar out to maximum ranges of 20 to 32 miles (depending on the version). Launch weight is a hefty 225 kg (500 pounds) and the Sparrow measures 3.66 metres x 203 mm (12 feet by eight inches) with a wingspan of one metre (3 feet 4 inches). The expanding steel rod warhead carries 40 kg (88 pounds) of explosive. (F-16 net graphic.)
Harry Daish’s story of the second HMAS Hobart deployment to Vietnam from March to September 1968 (Newsletters 76 and 77) filled in some of the gaps left by the official histories published over recent years. It is a pity that the full details of what happened on board Hobart and in the operational area around the DMZ on the morning of 17 June 1968, do not seem to be available. I don’t believe they were investigated thoroughly at the time and although I was the ship’s Gunnery Officer, I was never formally asked to describe the events of that night, as I saw them.
In the context of the political environment of the Vietnam War, I have always assumed that no formal inquiry was held and no timely detailed conclusions about the incident were released, because the RAN did not want to embarrass the US. But because the incident was not looked at thoroughly, the full details of what happened on board and in the area and the lessons for the RAN and the relevant US military commands were never discussed, at least not at the working level.
I don’t know if this can be called a cover-up, which suggests that the RAN had something to hide. I don’t believe it did.
I can fill in a few details of the gun engagement, amplifying Harry’s account.
I was awakened in my cabin by the shock wave that went through the ship when the first missile struck. I reached the Ops Room before the second missile hit and, in addition to feeling the shock wave, I heard what sounded like tons of glass smashing against the after Ops Room bulkhead. Following these attacks, the state of the ship’s gun and missile systems were as follows:
a. both missile systems were unserviceable, due to major shrapnel damage to the missile radar aerials and director room equipment, and
b. the gunfire control system was down due to the loss of gyro stabilisation and the missile directors.
There was also a previous radar defect. Mounts 51(forward gun) and 52 (aft gun) were operational, but both were showing signs of a breech problem that was spreading through all 5”/54 fitted gun mounts. This followed recent re-barrelling in Subic with the latest modified barrels. Initially there was turmoil on AA Control as the port after lookout, ORDSEA Butterworth, had just been killed by missile warhead shrapnel from the first attack. Other members of the AA Control crew were in shock. They had narrowly escaped a similar fate.
ORDSEA Raymond J. Butterworth (left) was killed in the action and ME Graeme H. Sculley DSM won the only medal awarded during Hobart’s deployment for taking over talker duties in Repair 5, despite severe trauma that included a broken leg and witnessing the death of Chief Electrician Hunt.
I was told later that the AA Control Officer, CPO Miller (an HMAS Hobart I Pacific War veteran, who had seen such carnage before) quickly got his team of lookouts back to their duties when he barked, “This is what you joined up for; now get back to your job.”
Very soon after, AA Control was able to report that a swept wing aircraft had overflown the ship and they continued reporting what they saw and heard.
SPA 50 display
In the Ops Room, I stationed myself at the SPA 50 display at the starboard end of the Evaluator’s desk. The SPA 50 was displaying an unstabilised SPS 10 picture and on the 20 nautical mile scale an aircraft could clearly be seen in the vicinity of the ship. As this aircraft turned towards the ship from a position about 12 miles out and just to the right of the rotating ships head marker, I spoke to the Mount 51 captain, LSEA Stokes, using the ship’s dial telephone and ordered him to train on 010 relative, elevate to 30 degrees and then to “fire”.
The order meant fire the gun immediately with whatever ammunition was available in the loader. The gun mount fired five rounds towards the approaching aircraft when it was at about four miles. The aircraft turned away towards the south without attacking the ship.
AA lookouts in HMAS Hobart, monitoring enemy coastal battery fire.
Using the same procedure, Mount 51 fired another five or so rounds towards this aircraft while it circled threateningly to the south-east. During this period I heard of reports from USS Boston and USS Edson that they also were under attack. Hobart retreated rapidly eastwards by keeping North Vietnam astern and the aircraft finally departed the scene.
Miraculous survivors on that night were the members of the .50 calibre machine gun crew. They were sitting down next to their weapon on top of the Ikara magazine and just forward of the first exploding warhead. Most of the shrapnel passed over their heads and they suffered relatively minor injuries.
HMAS Hobart was the first of the DDGs to deploy to Vietnam with a ship’s company that had no benefit of pre-commissioning and sea workup training in the United States. A few of the first tour people remained onboard for the second deployment, but the bulk of the ship’s company was new to DDGs and their weapons systems.
There was no pool of DDG-experienced personnel available to provide shore training and shore training facilities were not available in Australia. Most of the gun system personnel had not previously seen or received training on the equipment with which they were to go to war and fight.
The USN gun system drill book had to be rewritten in the month immediately before the start of the sea workup, to make as much use as possible of existing standard RAN procedures. The results achieved during the gunnery workup were abysmal and the gun system was not fully operational until Ford Instrument Company technical representatives rectified the many matériel problems that existed, on arrival in Subic.
The first successful Naval Gunfire Support practice firing for the second deployment team was on the Subic range, immediately before departure for the gun line and the Vietnam War.
Official historians seem to have ignored the very special difficulties faced by HMAS Hobart’s ship’s company for the ship’s second Vietnam deployment. It is a pity that no effort has been made to correct this omission.
David Holthouse, who was Hobart’s EO at the time, adds …
Harry Daish’s article brought back some memories. I was Hobart’s Engineer Officer (EO) during her, and his, second deployment to Vietnam and readers might be interested in some impressions from below 1 Deck. I almost said “from the starting platform” but that was David Blazey’s action station, together with CERA Kevin Fanker, the youthful and efficient Chief Tiff, and his engine and fire room teams; mine was Damage Control Central (DC Central).
Hailstorm of fragments
Like Ian Callaway, I was soundly asleep when the first missile hit us, but the initial shock and noise followed by a hailstorm of fragments – rattling around in the cross passage and on the door to the officers’ after cabin flat – fixed that. We’d all taken to wearing USN khakis with RAN collar insignia during the deployments. They seemed especially useful for Plumbers, as one could fuel ship, or visit the machinery spaces and eat in the wardroom without a change of uniform in between, but Pussers’ white overalls were my choice that morning: you’re into them in a whole lot less time which, maybe, is also true of the new Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniforms (DPCUs). I hope so as they don’t have much else to commend them.
Damage inspection. The jagged tear (left) attests the efficacy of the expanding rod shrapnel warhead of the AIM 7 and explains why some of Hobart‘s radar was not functioning.
Repair 5, the midships Damage Control Base, was just forward of the other end of the cross passage and on the way to DC Central. I stopped to discuss damage control with my very calm and capable Chief Stoker, John Scott. The lights were out, but we had torches and there was some illumination in the main passageway from electrical arcs and small fires in the overhead. The passage was smoky and smelt of fire.
There were no casualties in the vicinity, but this was to change tragically with the arrival of the second salvo, moments after I left the Repair 5 team and continued forward to the hatch down to DC Central. None of us knew who or what was the enemy, but the impacts were a whole lot more convincing than the sounds made by near misses from North Vietnamese shore batteries when heard from below the waterline. I decided that the second salvo coming in so soon and so impressively probably meant we were in big trouble.
Chief Electrician Ray Hunt was killed in this second attack and the wounded included Engineering Mechanic Graeme Sculley, a member of the Repair 5 team, who received a DSM for his bravery that morning.
Like Ian Callaway, I was never interviewed about the incident, which is a pity as it would have provided an opportunity to correct some errors in the record. For example, it has always been held that we were hit by three missiles, one on the first pass and two on the second.
This was the initial assessment and report. On closer inspection, once we were alongside in Subic, it was clear that a substantial dent, concave from outboard, in the side of the starboard Ikara magazine, well forward of the “reflecting corner” created by the empty boat space where the two missiles that armed themselves had exploded, could only have come from a piece of a fourth missile. My guess is that this one hadn’t armed itself and broke up on impact with the sea and we copped a piece of it.
After daylight the Captain asked for an estimate of the number of holes we’d sustained; he needed this for his battle damage report. My Chief Shipwright “Brick” Bradford and I were on the upper deck organising cosmetic repairs so that Hobart could enter harbour as shipshape as possible. The aim was to cover the worst of the holes using taped on grey PVC sheeting, damage control plugs and wedges, quick drying cement and a lick of ship’s side grey paint.
David Holthouse seems well justified in his claim that “200” only accounted for the “bigger holes”.
Why do we do these things? My estimate of 200 covered only the bigger holes, the ones we were attempting to hide, but the number was thereupon written into the annals of history. Of course there were many more: probably twice the number. There was also some pretty impressive structural damage too, including the base of the after funnel that was largely removed, and one leg of the ammunitioning jackstay tripod, completely shot away. The expanding warheads from the two armed missiles had opened jagged zip lines in the starboard superstructure, but did not penetrate 1 Deck.
While the Chief Chippy and his team were doing their best to hide the battle damage as we made our way to Subic, a column of RN ships, no doubt on passage from HK to Singapore for a jolly, crossed our bow, did a hard right and steamed down our starboard side for a good look. How did they know? It seemed quaint then, and still does, but I remember feeling glad, perhaps for the first time, that the RAN had adopted its own distinguishing white ensign two years earlier.
Representatives of the Subic Bay Ship Repair Facility (ShipRepFac as I recall) came on board before we entered harbour and by the time we were alongside they’d given me their estimate of the time to repair the ship: a scarcely credible 28 days, working three shifts. This estimate was later confirmed and would have been met, but for difficulty in sourcing material for the replacement tripod leg.
Repaired in 30 days
In the event the repair took 30 days, thanks largely to the good humour and drive of the ship supervisor (“Hoss”), whose parting gift was a pair of white overalls left over from his previous job at the Navy Yard in Jacksonville, Florida. They became my painting overalls at home and wore out eventually, but a rectangle cut from the back and bearing the blue embroidered legend “SUPSHIPJAX”, is framed on my workshop wall.
Turning the ship around as they did, in a way that Garden Island Dockyard (GID) could not have imagined, was a remarkable achievement. We were set, I thought, to be warmly welcomed back to Sea Dragon by our USN friends but unhappily this was not to be. First the Surface Search Radar (SPS10) and then Long Range Air Search Radar (SPS52, I hope I’ve got that right) played up, leading to much frustration all round, and we departed for IV Corps.
Harry Daish mentioned that the Board of Inquiry did not seek input from Hobart. I suspect that FOCAF or Navy Office got some sort of a guernsey though, because word filtered through to us that the RAN had turned down a US offer to pay for the repair, on “fog of war” grounds – friendly fire happens and where will it all end if allies start paying each other for their mistakes – which seems sensible.
I believe the Phantom that attacked us was part of the US Seventh Air Force, based in Thailand. A sad story that did the rounds at the time was that the commanding General or second in command, I forget which, was in the back seat of another Phantom some weeks later when it was shot down in flames. The pilot ejected safely but the removal of his canopy swept the flames aft and the General was engulfed.
The missile from our Phantom’s second salvo, which did not arm itself, did massive damage. It entered the small arms magazine through the transom as a projectile and took out the watertight door. This must have acted like a piston as the missile continued forward along the passageway containing the Engineer’s workshop’s bolt stave rack, made a hole in the main deck outside the workshop and penetrated the next watertight bulkhead forward. It finished up on a bunk in the after seamen’s mess. All this was due to kinetic energy and residual rocket motor thrust (if any).
This piston effect created an over-pressure in the vicinity, which collapsed joiner (non-strength) bulkheads in the aft section of the ship. The 150 psi fire main was also ruptured – very useful as it turned out, because the deluge found the hole in the deck outside the Engineer’s workshop and eliminated any chance of a fire getting established in the Supply Department’s storeroom below. It must have helped with the SO’s compilation of his outstanding asset register, as it did mine.
The workshop’s longitudinal bulkhead went the way of the joiner bulkheads, and the bench grinder just inside the door took a hit. It was found and duly repaired. Some wag fastened a pair of Vietnam campaign ribbons to its plinth, which were still there when I inspected the ship, as CSO(T) I think, years later.
Repair 3 and Mechanician First Class Fischer in particular had a lively time of it down aft and did a very fine job.
The two missiles that did explode did so within a very few feet of the same place: in the vacant personnel boat space abaft the starboard Ikara magazine, probably just inboard of the spurn-water (a deck-edge lip that drained water).
Boat left behind
The boat had been left behind for repairs in Subic Bay and it was popularly held that it was this that created a hard reflecting corner for the Phantom’s missile guidance radar to lock onto. If so, one might wonder where we would have been hit had the boat been on board.
David Blazey tells me that he and his cabin mate David Campbell are eternally grateful that it was the starboard boat bay, rather than the motor whaleboat above their cabin, that was empty.
(Incidentally, the personnel boat went like a rocket when it got on the step, but getting it there was difficult. Not quite enough power. The trick was for all on board bar the coxswain to stand in a huddle in the bow. Slowly the nose would drop and the speed pick up. Once established on the step the huddle could retire aft and enjoy the fastest boat in town.)
Fortunately there was no third salvo, but the damage to the ship was substantial nevertheless, particularly down aft. I was proud of the way the propulsion and repair teams, and other individuals of course, responded.
A lasting memory of this rather exciting episode is the way people behaved in the action; reinforcing observations made during earlier counter-battery engagements. I think most saw it as an opportunity at last to do what they’d been trained for; maybe even what they’d joined for. They became focussed by it all, they leaned forward at their controls, they did exactly what they were meant to do, they took initiatives and they reported back. Excited and engaged is how I would put it.
It is true, as Ian Callaway says, that the bulk of the second deployment crew had not been trained by the USN, but in some applications perhaps this was a good thing. For example, the RAN achieved far better results from the DDG’s 1200 PSI steam plants than did the USN, and Hobart’s steamies were frequently consulted by USN DDGs in company.
“1200 pound plant get well program”
So bad was their experience that a “1200 pound plant get well program” was introduced into the USN, which continued into the 1980s, I believe. Included in the program was a substantially improved boiler feed water quality standard, the same standard that the RAN had specified for all of its steamships for as long as I can remember. The boot was on the other foot however, when the RAN no longer had steamships, apart from the DDGs, and there was no steam nursery where DDG-bound sailors could cut their teeth. It is an irony that the RAN’s solution was to send them for training to the USN schools.
The Fleet had learnt a lot from the DDG work-ups in the US. Many of the commissioning crews wound up in the Fleet Training Group where this non-USN trained second deployment EO, for one, encountered the Battle Problem regime for the first time. It was good stuff alright, and we all saw the benefits of it on the morning of 17 June.
Life goes on in war, as in peace, and it was somehow reassuring to watch those fishermen Harry mentioned, apparently calmly putting off from the shore in front of their villages for a day’s work – while we hurled five-inch shells over their heads towards Hue, or wherever it was this time.
Army vs Navy life
Life in the Navy: so much more civilised than, say, the Army. But wait! One of my late night tasks was to draft the daily gun damage assessment report to be signalled home. This meant wandering around the CIC and bothering tired and busy people for their inputs, before presenting the draft to the Captain for approval. On one such night the command team was gathered around the plotting table as usual, laying down fire in close support of a unit ashore. I listened to the Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer (NGLO), a LCDR USN, directing our fire to the tree line on the other side of the clearing where he lay in the mud, or the dust, under his vehicle, which had shed a track. A Marine I could understand, but a Naval Officer? What was he thinking?