HMAS Hobart in Vietnam
by Harry Daish
Part 1 of 2
This tale started as a story for grandchildren eager to learn details of their grandfather’s service in a destroyer in Vietnam.
In late February 1967 I was a senior Lieutenant of 16 years service, having just returned from three years exchange service with the Royal Navy, where I qualified as a Direction Officer. This course trained me as an Air Intercept Officer and Operations Room specialist. On completion of the course I served for two years in the RN aircraft carriers HMS Centaur and Victorious, where my primary duty was the control of jet fighters.
After a brief leave period in Australia I joined HMAS Hobart, just in time to sail for Vietnam for a six-month deployment as Australia’s first naval unit to be committed to that conflict. My feelings towards my profession at that stage were lukewarm because very long periods of separation during sea duty had made family life difficult. This feeling was offset to a degree by the excitement of finally going to war, having missed out on Korea in the early 50s and the Suez War in 1956. This was, after all, what the interminable years of training in mock warfare were designed for. As for Vietnam and its history, I was totally ignorant.
HMAS Hobart II (DDG-39) was a Charles F Adams class guided missile destroyer that displaced 4526 tons (full load) on a 133 x 14 x 4.6 metres (437 x 47 x 15 feet) hull. Two steam turbines provided 70,000 shp, which drove the ship at 33 knots. Commissioned 18 December 1965, her complement varied from 310 to 333 and armament included one SAM launcher, two 127 mm (five-inch) guns, one Ikara ASW launcher and two triple ASW torpedo tubes.
Like most of the ships company I swallowed the Menzies spin that Vietnam was a domino and bastion against the encroaching “Red Tide of Communism”. As it fell, so would Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia and finally it would be our turn. At this stage public sentiment in Australia was decidedly pro-war, much more so than the divided manner in which the Australian people greeted Howard’s foray. In fact our reasons for entering both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts most likely stemmed from the need to appease our American allies. That, and the delight that political leaders from all persuasions seem to get from committing their countries to war, as long as they don’t have to suffer the hardships and dangers involved. And let’s face it, John Howard in a slouch hat would not deter many enemies.
After briefings in Subic Bay in the Philippines, Hobart sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin to join a Destroyer Task Unit as part of the US Seventh Fleet. We were mainly assigned to “Sea Dragon” operations, attacking North Vietnamese targets north of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) on the17th parallel of latitude. Operations south of the DMZ were code-named “Market Time”. These provided gun-fire support to allied forces in their actions against the Vietcong (VC) primarily, but also some regular North Vietnamese Army units. The allies comprised US, Australian, Republic of Korea (ROK) and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units.
During our very first night on station we were given a very clear example of the “fog of war” and the trick that nervous and overactive imaginations can play on those new to war. During the night, the Task Unit’s (TU’s) radar operators detected small fast-moving contacts homing in on us. No doubt with the Tonkin Gulf incidents firmly in mind, the TU went to Action Stations and opened fire in unison. After some 300 rounds of five-inch ammunition were fired, we finally twigged that our “dangerous” targets were really flocks of birds. The prevailing radar conditions were abnormal with a low atmospheric layer trapping their transmissions, creating highly spurious contacts. Since then, I’ve always thought that a similar condition occurred with the destroyers USS Maddox and Turner Joy, triggering the second Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964. Everything that I have read subsequently on the subject seems to bear this out. (“From little acorns do large oaks grow.”)
Under the command of CAPT Guy Griffiths DSC (later RADM, AO DSO DSC) our first six-month deployment passed very rapidly. We operated mostly off North Vietnam and came under fire from North Vietnamese coastal batteries as we closed the coast for gun firings on a number of occasions.
Ed note: Fairfax (1980, p. 45) says Hobart, the first warship to carry the new Australian white ensign into action, came under fire nine times, fired 9204 rounds on 1050 targets and steamed 52,529 miles in her first deployment.
The enemy fire never hit us, although on occasion their fall of shot was close enough to litter our decks with shrapnel. As my action station was Action Officer of the Watch on the bridge I had a grandstand view of proceedings. The drill on spotting enemy fire was to alert the Operations Room, order full speed ahead and put the wheel hard over to clear the scene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the enemy’s fire control systems were fairly primitive and so the accuracy of their shot rapidly fell away.
Any damage the ship suffered was usually caused by the concussion of our mount 51 forward gun, trained as far aft as possible to carry out counter-battery fire against the enemy guns. Our primary concern was that we might come under attack by North Vietnamese MiG aircraft or even land-based or seaborne Styx Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs) that our Intelligence indicated they possessed. Fortunately for us, they were never used against us, which proved somewhat ironic in view of later events.
The reason that I find it hard to remember exactly just how many times we were under fire (perhaps strange when it seems somebody is definitely trying to take your life) is because most of the time I operated like a zombie. Our gunline tours lasted about six weeks. Throughout that period we kept watches six hours on and six off. On top of that, the whole crew went to Action Stations, sometimes several times a day, whenever the captain assessed the ship was standing into danger and always when closing the North Vietnamese coast. I reckon that our efficiency levels dropped 50 or 60 per cent and stayed there. This sort of stress is no doubt partially responsible for some of the mistakes that occur in warfare, sometimes with fatal results.
To compound matters, whenever we did get the opportunity to recharge our batteries, during visits to such exotic ports as Subic Bay, Singapore, Hong Kong or Kaohsiung, we usually partied instead, snatching what sleep we could on transit to or from the gunline. It was never enough. Strangely perhaps, we never set foot in South Vietnam during my two tours of duty there. The closest we ever came to that was while operating inside Da Nang Harbour, firing at targets in the surrounding hills.
When assigned to “Market Time” operations, we supported allied units in all four military regions of South Vietnam, from the US Marines in I Corps in the north to mainly ARVN units in the southern area, IV Corps. Our offensive activities usually consisted of gunfire support ordered by a spotter aircraft which would also report our fall of shot to improve our accuracy. We could also be called upon by local army commanders for gunfire support on an ad hoc basis. These were usually daytime activities. At nighttime we were frequently ordered to carry out H and I firings (Harassment and Interdiction). Provided with lists of pinpoint targets where Intelligence thought the VC might congregate, we fired a single five-inch shell at different targets throughout the night at intervals of about 20 minutes. I have grave doubts as to the effectiveness of this procedure in successfully prosecuting the war, but it sure harassed the hell out of those of us who were trying to sleep at the time.
The targets we attacked were seldom seen by us and were usually several miles inland. We would be ordered to fire at targets such as truck parks; VC in the open; enemy trenches or tunnel areas; VC structures; sampans and even enemy animals, which I always presumed were water buffalo and many others. The Gun Damage Assessments that were later released often seemed fairly feeble: “50 metres of trench and two bamboo structures” for instance, balanced against sometimes hundreds of rounds of ammunition expended often didn’t seem to quite add up in my mind. Sometimes the targets seemed a bit suspicious and I recall on at least one occasion when the Captain refused to engage them. This was not a problem with the USS Boston, a heavy cruiser on the gunline during our second deployment, if an email from one of the officers that I read recently is accurate:
On June 16, Boston was steaming up from Hue to the DMZ and got clearance from the lst Marine Division to take target practice at a Buddhist pagoda (suspected NVA troop shelter). This bad karma must have made the gods angry because that night (or early Sunday a.m.) we were attacked by one (or more) jets near Tiger Island.
Some might say, serves you bloody well right!
One memory I have is an incident that occurred while on bridge watch one brilliant Sunday morning off the South Vietnamese coast. It was a peaceful and idyllic scene. Suddenly the peace was shattered by the loud sound of bombing nearby, accompanied by the sight of high water spouts among a group of South Vietnamese fishing boats, peacefully plying their trade. High overhead two USN A4 fighter-bombers streaked back to their carrier on Yankee Station, having offloaded their unexpended ordnance. Of course I do not know whether a vicious attack had been carried out on those boats or whether it was some kind of accident, but it is not too difficult to imagine the former when you recall the absolute contempt that many Americans held for the Vietnamese, southern as well as northern. The fishing boats suffered no damage that I could ascertain.
Another vivid memory also involves a US carrier. We received news that the USS Forrestal CVA-59 had suffered a serious fire to seaward of us at the carrier operations area called “Yankee Station” so we proceeded at high speed to render assistance. She presented a horrible picture with the after part of her flight deck a smoking ruin of destroyed aircraft. The tails of some had melted and were drooping over the ship’s side. It transpired that an air-to-ground missile had accidentally cooked off during the engine start operations that were taking place and slammed into the drop tank of another aircraft, creating a raging inferno of exploding bombs, planes and fuel that engulfed the after end of the carrier and caused a large loss of life.
The Forrestal fire.
Tragically many young sailors were trapped in a messdeck just under the after end of the flight deck. About 134 died in the fire and another 161 were injured. I also remember that the prominent US Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, then a Lieutenant Commander, was sitting in his aircraft when flames engulfed it and he escaped by leaping off the nose of the aircraft. He was later shot down over North Vietnam and incarcerated in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton”. He is a prominent part of the jail’s pictorial history. The man has surely led a charmed life.
Ed. note: The fire was caused by a Zuni five-inch rocket firing as a Phantom pilot switched from ground to aircraft electrics during a routine startup, but random electromagnetic radiation cannot be excluded as a cause. Contrary to RN and RAN procedures, all safety clips had been removed and the rockets plugged in “to save time.” The Zuni had insufficient travel to arm the warhead, but it had enough kinetic energy to knock the 300-gallon centreline drop tank off LCDR McCain’s Skyhawk and the rocket’s burning motor ignited the burst tank’s fuel.
Replenishment at sea
The (mostly) monotonous life on the gunline was broken by the frequent need to restock our supplies of fuel, ammunition and food. Commander, Seventh Fleet (COM7THFLT) provided a large number of Underway Replenishment (UNREP) ships for this purpose and the opportunities to leave the gunline, relax for a while and witness the close manoeuvres with the friendly supply ships was always a highlight of the week. It was also a welcome opportunity to obtain movie swaps and to receive mail.
I didn’t spend our R & R periods entirely on partying (as previously stated). Early in our first deployment I took the opportunity of searching out books on modern Vietnamese history and among these I discovered the works of a remarkable French writer who wrote several books about the French Vietnamese War against the Vietminh from the late 1940s until the fall of Dien Bien Phu mid-1954. The author’s name was Bernard Fall and his best book, in my opinion, was Hell in a very small place, about the disaster of Dien Bien Phu which led to the French withdrawal from Vietnam in ignoble defeat.
The Vietnamese “slopeheads” (as some Americans called them) had humbled the mighty French Empire. The French, having chosen a battlefield to suit themselves, which would enable them to resupply their forces with their vastly superior air power whilst forcing impossible supply problems on their enemy (or so they thought), proceeded to build an “impregnable” group of forts. Dien Bien Phu’s Second-in-Command, a gunnery expert called Colonel Charles Piroth, bombastically predicted that “No Vietminh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery”. A few days after hostilities commenced and after two of his three artillery bases had been destroyed, “he pulled the safety pin out of a grenade with his teeth and blew himself to bits, having said the evening before, ‘I am completely dishonoured’” (Karnow, 1983).
Towards the end of the battle there were some 20,000 French troops (mainly North Africans) who had “deserted” and were living in caves and humpies in the middle of the battleground. When the battle ended, 10,000 French Foreign Legion troops who surrendered were marched several hundred kilometres across the top of Vietnam to captivity and eventual release. Only 2,000 survived. They later fought in Algeria with a certain degree of ferocity (the symmetry of history?). Bernard Fall, whose writings may well have beneficially influenced the reporting of the “American War” in Vietnam, was regrettably killed in the early days of that war when he trod on a landmine.
Armed with my newfound knowledge I used my ample spare time as an Operations Room watchkeeper to read a large amount of the signal traffic that crossed the Ops Desk. This is not just hindsight, but I really did form a view that the Americans were repeating the mistakes of the French in the earlier war. We displayed the same hubris; how could these “slopeheads” possibly defeat a mighty power such as the US? So we tried to defeat the lowly communist cadre carrying supplies on his bicycle down the Ho Chi Minh trail with B-52 bombers. Apart from anything else, the economics were lousy and sure to defeat us in the end.
Hearts and mind
Having decided that we needed to get the local villagers “onside” to deny supply and shelter to the VC, we started the “Hearts and Minds” program. US Marines immediately vowed to “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” The program was not a great success. The allies discovered in Vietnam what the Russians discovered in Afghanistan and what we will discover in Iraq.
A determined people, willing to fight a protracted guerilla war at all costs, will frequently prevail against mighty nations or coalitions. We frankly just don’t have the will to bear the bloody costs involved. Why should this surprise us? Would we just lie down and meekly submit if invaded; would the Americans? Why should the Vietnamese for that matter? They have resisted invasions for two thousand years and still retain their unique culture. McDonald’s may have a better chance of changing them where armed conflict will not.
My enthusiasm for my profession, already at an ebb when I began my Vietnam odyssey, rapidly waned as my distaste for warfare grew. I submitted my resignation, which was denied by the Naval Board on the reasonable grounds that I owed them a number of years service for the exchange time I had spent with the Royal Navy.
So March 1968 saw me back in Vietnamese waters in Hobart for our second deployment, this time under the command of CAPT K.W. Shands RAN. Apart from the “friendly fire incident” that I will cover later, the tour of duty was rather undistinguished. More of the same, but less so. We mainly operated in the waters off South Vietnam, although we did come under enemy fire on three occasions during our sorties to the north. Our second deployment ended in mid-October 1968.
In June 1968 Hobart was engaged in Operation Sea Dragon as Task Unit Commander of TU 77.1.2, with USS Theodore Chandler (DD-717) in company. During 13 and 14 June the Task Unit (TU) carried out successful gun firings on targets just north of the DMZ and in the process were fired on by North Vietnamese coastal batteries, fortunately without damage to either ship.
This was the third time during the deployment that Hobart had evaded enemy fire. The TU then moved northwards.
Having been informed by the gunline commander, USS Boston, that enemy helicopters were re-supplying the garrison of Tiger Island, a small North Vietnamese outpost about 25 miles to the east of the DMZ, we returned south to patrol in that vicinity.
USS Boston CA-69 (ex CAG-1) was a Baltimore class heavy cruiser, first commissioned in June 1943. Reclassified after modernisation in 1952 as the world’s first guided missile cruiser, Boston became the lead ship of a new class that included USS Canberra. The ships displaced 13,600 tons (17,000 tons full load) on a 205.2 x 21.9 x 8.2 metres (673 x 72 x 27 feet) hull. Armament included six eight-inch (203 mm), 10 five-inch (127 mm) and 12 three-inch (76 mm) guns plus two twin-rail Terrier SAM launchers. Boston carried 1142 crew and her maximum speed was listed as 33 knots.
Another destroyer, USS Edson (DD 946), was detached from Market Time (ship and air patrols interdicting coastal traffic south of the DMZ.) They joined us and a patrol was established by the afternoon of 16 June. Prior to this, we had heard that a USN patrol boat had been attacked and sunk in the vicinity of the DMZ. The assumption was that the attacker was a North Vietnamese helicopter.
USS Edson (DD-946), was a Forrest Sherman class destroyer, first commissioned on 15 December 1965. Displacing 4050 tons (full load) from a 127 x 14 x 6.7 metres (418 x 45 x 22 feet) hull, her four 1200 psi boilers fed two turbines that drove the ship at 32.5 knots. Complement was 233 and the ship carried three 127 mm (five-inch) and four 76 mm (three-inch) guns, as well as two Mark 10/11 Hedgehogs and two triple ASW Mark 32 torpedo tubes.
Ops Room Evaluator
I went on watch as the Ops Room Evaluator (basically the senior watchkeeper in charge of the ship in the captain’s absence) at 2200. I felt uneasy about the situation, operating so close to the coast in a “hot” air defence situation. I woke the captain and advised him that my reading of the Rules of Engagement prohibited us from firing on a suspicious aircraft until it had actually attacked us.
Due to the scant warning we would receive of an attacker coming off the shore, the opportunity of identifying friend or foe and actually engaging it would be nigh impossible. I helped the captain draft a signal to the Commander Seventh Fleet (COM7THFLT) suggesting a change to the rules of engagement. This was despatched but failed to elicit a response.
My other major concern was the air defence situation in the area. The previous watch had tried to establish an Air Defence Net with the USS Boston, whose group was operating some 50 miles to the south of us, but had little success, as did my watch.
We were aware that a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was overflying us but we had no communications with them. During the watch the CAP gradually drifted to the south of us.
Just after 0300 on 17 June the TU was positioned between Tiger Island and the North Vietnamese coast, heading northwest in line ahead with Hobart in the rear. At about 0315 a fast moving aircraft was detected leaving the coast in the vicinity of the DMZ heading seawards before turning towards the TU. My assessment was that it was a CAP aircraft. It approached our starboard quarter and then all hell broke loose as it hit us with a missile. I immediately brought the ship to action stations and turned the TU to seawards away from the threat direction. No attempt was made to contact the aircraft because the very last thing I expected the attacker to be was a US aircraft.
A USN F-4 fires an AIM-7 Sparrow. (Boeing photo)
Initially we were hit starboard side amidships by a single missile. The missile was a Sparrow AIM-7 (air-to-air missile). This weapon, manufactured by Raytheon in the US, was a semi-active homer. Put simply, the attacking aircraft “painted” the target with its radar and the missile flew down the reflected beam.
The warhead was a proximity type with a small explosive encased by a compressed ring of high tensile steel. On detonation, the ring was designed to fly outwards cutting through soft targets such as aircraft fuselages. The missile was not designed for anti-ship use but I did hear that the weapon had been evaluated for such use a year or so before our unfortunate introduction to it, but rejected as unsuitable.
As the warhead exploded, bits of high-tensile steel sliced through the upper deck and aluminium superstructure. Moderate damage was inflicted to compartments below deck. The worst damage (from an operational point of view) was to electrical cable runs in the superstructure. This deprived power to our gun and missile fire control systems and damaged the gyro stabilisation of our radars.
In short, we could still steam at high speed but our effectiveness as a fighting ship was minimal. The body of the missile ended up inside the forward funnel casing. Most regrettably, parts of this missile killed one sailor, a lookout at the after end of the bridge superstructure, and wounded two other junior sailors.
About three minutes after the first attack, Hobart was attacked again and this time was hit by another two Sparrow missiles. The first missile entered the transom, just below the main deck. The warhead did not detonate but caused some damage in two compartments before piercing the after bulkhead of the After Seamen’s Messdeck and coming to rest beside a sailor’s bunk. (Fortunately, he was at his action station by that time.)
A second missile homed in amidships onto the after end of the Ikara ASW missile magazine, detonating and causing severe damage to the magazine and adjacent compartments. Parts of the missile pierced the upper deck and killed a Chief Petty Officer and wounded four other junior sailors as they were running to action stations.
Fired in local control
During this attack one of our gun crews spotted a swept-wing fighter aircraft and fired five rounds of five-inch shells while in local control.
About 15 minutes after this attack our consort Edson was also attacked but suffered no damage. At some stage during this brouhaha the heavy cruiser USS Boston was also attacked, and suffered damage but no fatalities.
Hobart’s bridge, closed up at action stations.
When the action had subsided, our TU joined up with Boston to form a screen around USS Enterprise CVAN 65. She used her Medivac helicopter to transport our wounded to Da Nang. We were relieved as TU Commander by USS Edson and steamed to Subic Bay for repairs, which took about six weeks to complete.
On our way back to Subic Bay we cleaned up the ship as much as possible and in the process found parts of the missiles that positively identified them as American. I recall that we were able to trace our missiles back to the 432nd Tactical Fighter Wing which operated out of the Royal Thai AFB in Udorn, Thailand. Boston claimed to trace her missile debris back to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, out of Da Nang AFB. Both units operated F4 Phantoms.
Command and control problems
There is no doubt that USAF aircraft were responsible for at least most of the attacks that occurred on the night of 16/17 June, although one lengthy piece of internet correspondence tries to implicate UFOs.
TPCF 19 was a “Swiftboat”: 50 x 13.5 x 5.9 feet (15.24 x 4.1 x 1.8 metres) displacing 23.5 tons and constructed mainly of aluminium. Powered by two 480 hp GM model 7122 marine diesels, they had a separate six-kW 120V AC generator. Maximum speed varied considerably, according to the sea state. In still water they might reach 32 knots. The boats carried radar, radio, and a searchlight. Armament included twin .5 inch machine guns above the cockpit. Another dual purpose .5 inch machine gun and an 80 mm mortar/grenade thrower was mounted on the centreline aft.
There may be some doubt in the case of the sinking of PCF 19, which “disappeared in a flash of light” after reportedly engaging enemy helicopters the previous night. One main question to be solved is whether PCF 19 was sunk before or after Boston’s alert that Tiger Island was being re-supplied by enemy helicopters. Whichever way it went, somebody in the military hierarchy gave the green light to USAF Phantom Squadrons to hunt for enemy helicopters in the vicinity of the DMZ and Tiger Island without providing adequate procedures to ensure the safety of allied naval units.
Unfortunately, while I have had one joy-ride in an F-4, I have not seen its radar picture in a night time operational setting. Like many others, I find it inconceivable that Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) in a Phantom could confuse a 3000 ton destroyer, a 35000 ton destroyer and a 17,000 ton heavy cruiser with helicopters on their radar screens. But that is just what they did. They didn’t fire AAMs to cripple surface vessels, they fired them thinking that they were firing at air targets. The nights around 16/17 June were pitch black with no moon, which may have prevented visual identification, but surely they must have seen something on the sea surface.
Ed. note by Fred Lane:
After initial contact in those days, fighter aircraft radars were deliberately adjusted to give the smallest practical echo size, thus tuning out nearly all target size information. There are frequent night conditions when even the best-trained aircrew see no difference whatsoever between sky and sea. Some ship lights stand out but Australian ships tend to take their blackout very seriously and show little or no aircrew-useful light. Ship anti-collision lights, if switched on, look just like a helicopter’s. By contrast, nearly every tiny boat in an Asian fishing fleet shows much more light, including at least one very big bright white floodlight. A Sparrow attack requires the pilot to concentrate on cockpit instruments and Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) directions. RIOs typically give 100 per cent attention to their radar. When attacking a target below 1000 feet at night, pilots dare not spare more than a fleeting glance outside. At typical Sparrow firing ranges, say between 10 and 20 miles, a blacked out RAN warship is invisible during a deliberate search at night, never mind a fleeting glance.
The essential problem here was that the action took place in an area where two separate operational areas joined and three different arms of the military were involved (four if you include the US Marine Corps).
No local area tri-service commander
There was no single overall command and control and even our small efforts to bring some order to the air defence situation failed. Why weren’t we informed that USAF Phantoms were operating aggressively in our area? Why weren’t they informed of our presence? I shall never know.
As the Evaluator in Hobart, with an intimate knowledge of the events surrounding the attack on us, I was required to scribble a few observations on a scrap of paper the next morning, and that was the end of it. I believe that some sort of inquiry was held in Da Nang subsequently, but we didn’t participate and I never saw any findings. The incident was essentially covered up, which has permitted nonsensical stories to be posted on the web concerning UFOs and ghosts in the “Green Ghost” (Hobart’s Vietnam nickname). And still we wonder!
In April 2004 I visited and set foot on Vietnamese soil for the first time to enjoy the genuine friendliness and hospitality of the people, to be seduced by their beguiling culture, to eat my fill of their wonderful cuisine and, in the process, to lay a few old ghosts to rest. It was a humbling experience to meet a people on whom we had inflicted so much grief and evil but who held few grudges for the greater good of building a new Vietnam.
One day as we drove through the forests of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam I was admiring the lush forested hillsides until I noticed something amiss. The forests were composed of imported fir and eucalyptus trees, planted in a nationalistic frenzy of superhuman activity in the years following the end of the war, to replace the trees destroyed by the defoliant, Agent Orange.
The forests were quiet. The birds had not returned.
Fairfax, D. Royal Australian Navy in Vietnam. Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra, 1980.
Fall, B.B. Hell in a very small place: The siege of Dien Bien Phu. DaCapo Press: Cambridge, 1966.
Karnow, S. Vietnam – A history. Viking Press: New York, 1983.
Part 2: Hobart in Vietnam – the Follow-up Letters