By Dave Moyer
From the Owasco Chronicles........
Authors note: I have read both Gen. Colin Powell's My American Journey and Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf's It Doesn't Take a Hero. Both authors go into detail about the enemy activity on the Batangan. General Schwartzkopf's description of a "bad-ass place" seemed to describe this jutting piece of real estate perfectly.
It was 9 November 1968 and the Owasco was assigned to Market Time Area Two. The first week or so reflected the normal activity. Detecting and boarding the many small craft and occasional gunfire support missions were conducted without anything unusual happening. This morning we embarked our ship's Doctor, LCDR Spott USPHS, and SN Maison, Corpsman Striker, along with one or two other crewmembers on PCF 75 to conduct a MEDCAP mission at Phouc Than. Phouc Than, a coastal refugee village, was located on the north side of the Mui Batangan about 17 miles northeast of Quang Ngai City. The "75" got underway shortly after 0830 and was accompanied by PCF 70.
MEDCAPS (Medical and Civil Action Programs) were conducted routinely by all Market Time Patrol Vessels. Put simply, a medical team along with a few other personnel would go ashore to assist coastal villagers anyway they could. Much needed medical treatment would be given to the inhabitants with the intent of establishing friendly relations with the locals. The Owasco conducted a total of seven of these forays while deployed with a total of over 430 civilians treated for various maladies. Most were conducted with positive results. All but one -- this one -- were conducted without incident.
We were a bit less than two hours into 1200-1600 watch when PCF 75 radioed that she and PCF 70 were underway to rendezvous with the Owasco to disembark our crewmembers and take on fuel. Since we were now a bit north and about six miles off the Mui Batangan the Conning Officer ordered a slow 180 degree turn to the west to bring us slightly closer to shore and establish a southerly course to put us about five miles directly off Phouc Than. We were just completing our turn and the order was given to the helmsman to steady up on our downward leg when the radio cracked. "FLASH FLASH FLASH.....THE "70" IS HIT....I SAY AGAIN.....THE "70" IS HIT.....FLASH FLASH FLASH. ENFIELD COBRA ZULA (the Owasco's call sign) DO YOU COPY? THE "70" IS HIT AND TAKING FIRE!" Throughout this transmission you could hear the rapid stuttering sound of the twin 50's located in the tub just aft and above the small wheelhouse of the Swift.
The Conning Officer, LTJG James Baur and I, the QM of the watch, locked eyes for a millisecond. I am positive we read each other's minds. Not only were American sailors on those Swifts but so were a few of our own crewmembers. He picked up the radio receiver and "rogered" the message. Without waiting for orders I picked up the ship's mike and requested the Captain's presence on the bridge. (I believe my exact words were "Now Captain to the bridge," a highly unorthodox and non-military way to summon the Captain.) I notified the engineroom that we would need full power ASAP and ran to the chart table to get an intercept course and check its charted depth. I shouted the intercept course and stepped back to the GQ alarm just as the Captain charged through the bridge door. "What's happening, Mr. Baur?" Just as Mr. Baur opened his mouth to speak another radio message started...."FLASH FLASH FLASH.....WE HAVE DEAD AND WOUNDED....ENFIELD COBRA ZULU......DO YOU COPY? THIS IS ENFIELD COBRA VICTOR TWO (PCF 75's call sign.) VICTOR ONE HAS TAKEN CASUALTIES. Mr. Baur never said a word. That plain language message was all the Skipper needed.
The Captain very calmly yet with his usual authority said but a few things. "The Captain has the Conn," was the first. The usual "aye ayes" were given. "Course?" was the second. I answered quickly and added that the engineroom had been notified. "Very Well... Engines ahead full...Sound GQ." was the third.
Communications were established with the Swifts. The 70 was dead in the water and sinking by the stern. The "75" boat was providing cover fire. A third Swift close by charged in and within 20 minutes brought the wounded back to the Owasco along with our Doctor and the situation became clear. The enemy was waiting to ambush the Swifts. They chose the "70" and hit her three times with recoilless rounds. The first two passed through the aluminum hull. The third hit the engine and exploded, killing two and wounding 4, one of which later died on the Owasco. Pumps and damage control personnel were needed to keep the "70" from sinking. Four Owasco crewmen, LTJG Mack, BM2 Sheyer, DC3 Bane and EM3 Switlik were dispatched along with the necessary equipment.
The concern was that once they arrived they might face another attack. The Captain decided that our 5-inch would be used to lay down a barrage along the beach. Two problems existed. The Captain needed to know the location of the enemy ambush. Second, since this was not a free fire zone, permission was needed to fire. The proper request along with a situation report was sent to DaNang. The first problem was solved by an unknown wounded enlisted crewmember of PCF 70. Bleeding and with his right arm in a sling he stood on the port bridge wing next to Captain Fearn with a pair of binoculars literally counting treetops. The position of the recoilless fire was pinpointed and bearings taken. We had the exact spot in our sights and were ready to fire. Unfortunately the return message from DaNang stated that..."Army intelligence has no enemy activity in that sector of the Batangan. Permission to fire denied." The Captain was livid. The rescue Swift was on the way and would arrive in minutes possibly sailing into another ambush. A reply and another request was rapidly sent. The Captain lit up another Pall Mall and just stared towards the beach. A minute went by...then two. He took one long drag and turned to his phone talker. "Commence Firing."
After we laid down about 8 HE rounds a message was received "reluctantly" giving us permission to fire. Our damage control party kept PCF 70 afloat. She was eventually repaired and returned to fight on. The U.S. Navy awarded a few Commendations and Medals to those crewmembers of the Owasco for their accomplishments. The ship's log did not reflect the Owasco firing prior to her receiving permission. We can only speculate on the outcome if that permission never came.
To those involved, I apologize if my 30 year recollection is a bit blurred however this was one of those times that get etched in one's mind. The sort of thing that when one closes his eyes and lets the mind slip back to a long, long time ago the smells, sights and sounds return like they took place yesterday. What made this event unforgettable was that I experienced my first exposure to a combat death. Our Commanding Officer, the late William Fearn made a decision that fateful day. To some military purists that decision could be misconstrued as blatant insubordination, possibly a "career killer." Now that I am definitely older and hopefully wiser I can look back on that decision as courageous. The sometime awesome responsibilities of command are faced differently by different commanders. Captain William R. Fearn came to the crossroads and faced them head on. He did the right thing. He saved lives. Captain Fearn has crossed the bar but if I could possible see him one more time I would remind him of the Batangan Peninsula and salute him once again. This time I wouldn't salute him as I did as a young NCO under his command, I'd salute him for his courage and wisdom that can only be appreciated by a much older and wiser former Coast Guardsman who realizes just how fortunate he was to be there with him.
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