Working the Gun Line
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.