Working the Gun Line

USS Beale (DD-471) crewmembers use a fire hose to cool the barrel of the ship’s forward 5″/38 cal gun. Note the jumble of empty shell casings near the gun mount. Possibly taken during Beale’s mid-1966 naval gunfire support operations off Vietnam. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 103718

During the Vietnam Conflict from just May 1965 to June 1968, U.S. surface warships fired over 1.152 million rounds of ammunition. One destroyer fired over 48 tons of ammunition in a 48 hour period – over 1,300 projectiles. Such high-tempo operations required destroyers providing naval gunfire support to replenish from AEs sometimes several times a week, and store shells temporarily on deck or in mess areas while clocking back in to answer calls on the gun line.

The barrels of the USS Boston, an 8-inch gun cruiser, were worn nearly smooth.

USS Boston (CA-69) Fires a salvo of eight-inch shells at enemy positions, while operating off the coast of the Republic of Vietnam during her 1969 deployment to the Western Pacific. Photographed from a helicopter flying nearby. This photograph was received by All Hands magazine on 12 November 1969.  NH 98300

Secretary McNamara announced that heavy cruisers due to be decommissioned would stay on the Naval List to add weight to the gun line.

This proved critical when the heavy cruisers USS Canberra and USS Newport News gave sustained support to ground forces combating the enemy’s Tet Offensive.

Forward 8-inch main guns of the heavy cruiser USS Newport News and spent cases after a mission off Vietnam.

In her last tour before decommissioning in 1970, the USS Saint Paul (CA-73), a Baltimore-class cruiser fired 3,000 rounds of 8-inch projectiles, often catching hell from shore batteries in return.

USS St. Paul (CA 73) fires at the Cong Phu railroad yard as it is bracketed by North Vietnamese shells in this August 1967 photo

The USS New Jersey, during her single 1968-69 deployment fired over 1,200 16-inch projectiles – proving especially effective in counter-battery fire against North Vietnamese Artillery.

"USS New Jersey in Vietnam" Painting, Tempera on Paper; by John Charles Roach; 1969; NHHC Accession #: 88-197-CE Launched in 1942, New Jersey (BB-62) saw service in WWII and Korea before being decommissioned in 1957. In 1968 she was reactivated and outfitted to serve as a heavy bombardment ship in Vietnam. At recommissioning, she was the only active battleship in the U.S. Navy. Between late September 1968 and early April 1969, she participated in Operation Sea Dragon, providing offshore gunfire support against inland and coastal targets. Soon thereafter, the Navy decided to reduce heavy bombardment forces in Southeast Asia. New Jersey was again decommissioned in December 1969.

“USS New Jersey in Vietnam” Painting, Tempera on Paper; by John Charles Roach; 1969; NHHC Accession #: 88-197-CE Launched in 1942, New Jersey (BB-62) saw service in WWII and Korea before being decommissioned in 1957. In 1968 she was reactivated and outfitted to serve as a heavy bombardment ship in Vietnam. At recommissioning, she was the only active battleship in the U.S. Navy. Between late September 1968 and early April 1969, she participated in Operation Sea Dragon, providing offshore gunfire support against inland and coastal targets. Soon thereafter, the Navy decided to reduce heavy bombardment forces in Southeast Asia. New Jersey was again decommissioned in December 1969.

This sparked Major General Jim Jones in the 1980s, who as a young Marine officer in Vietnam called in direct NGF support from New Jersey to save his unit, to recall about the 24-mile arc of the Black Dragon’s 16-inch gun range offshore, “Within that arc, the WAR evaporates; the enemy quickly learns that there are better places to be and things to do than to serve as a target for these fires that actually alter the terrain.”

Gratefully, we still have ironmen with us today who worked the shells and corrected the fire, and they are sharing their experiences.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum has been running a great series of first-hand interviews with the men who worked the gun line.

John Uhrin, USS Cone (DD-866), recalls when sleep deprivation resulted in an unexpected target destroyed.

Bill Palmer, USS Goldsborough (DDG-20), recalls the near-constant operations necessary for ships on the gun line.

Herb DeGroft, a Marine NGFS aerial observer, discusses how calling naval gunfire support worked during his time in Vietnam. Interestingly, he flew almost exclusively with Army and Air Force FACs.

Jerry O’Donnell, USS Davidson (DE/FF-1045), describes arriving on the gun line under fire by the North Vietnamese.

Charlie Pfeifer, USS Richard S. Edwards (DD-950), recounts his experience on the gun line during the Tet Offensive.

Tony D’Angelo, USS St. Paul, details the satisfaction of rounds on target and the danger of swapping fuses on the ship’s guns.

Tony D’Angelo, USS St. Paul, remembers conducting harassment and interdiction fire, along with supporting the Marines near the DMZ, during his deployment to Vietnam.

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