Sometimes Size Does Make a Difference
From the Owasco Chronicles
By Dave Moyer
USCGC Owasco WHEC-39
255 feet (o.a.) Displacement 2000 tons
Main Armament -- 1 Five Inch 38 Cal.
USS New Jersey BB-62
890 feet (o.a.) Displacement 52000 tons
Main Armament -- 9 Sixteen Inch 50 Cal.
I remember seeing her for the first time. The Owasco was headed north to take station off the coast of Vietnam with a patrol area in I Corps bordered on the north by the DMZ. I climbed up to the flying bridge to relieve the signalman of the watch and just stared off the starboard side at what looked like an underway continent. We were never alone in this patrol area. Either a heavy cruiser or the one and only battlewagon in commission at the time were nearby. We knew she was going to be there but few were really prepared for the first time they laid eyes on her. There she was just 1000 yards off our starboard bow. Unbelievable, awesome, majestic and I’m sure I could use a hundred other descriptions and still not fully describe her. My respect for her size and ability increased two-fold after experiencing her firepower. Three examples follow.
The Market Time Patrol vessels in this area were constantly being tracked by the enemy. A small island just north of the DMZ (we called it Tiger Island but I think the charted name was Han Gio) had a radar tracking station on its southern end. Occasionally “chicken tracks” would show up on our radar screens. I was told that these “tracks” were caused when both radar antenna sweeps met or something along that order. In any event, shortly before the great Washington gurus decided on a total bombing halt the New Jersey was sent north to do something about it. She fired for a few hours. The following day my fellow quartermasters and I made the necessary chart corrections. The southern 500 yards of Tiger Island no longer existed. We simply erased the old shoreline and drew in a new one exactly one-quarter of a nautical mile north of the original. She literally wiped it off the face of the earth.
The second example was a learning experience. We never saw her fire more than one barrel at a time. I can only imagine the sound and force of all nine being fired simultaneously. When she would be called in close for a gunfire support mission, the Owasco’s job was to station herself between her and the beach acting as a buffer in case the North Vietnamese decided to send out something to do her harm. (Lord only knows what that would have been.) We’d always lay off about 1500 to 2000 yards from her. The very first time we did this everyone was watching and waiting. One of her sixteen inch barrels on her forward turret elevated. About ten seconds went by until a large black plume of smoke poured out of the gun. Because of our distance from her it took about a second for the thunder to reach us. That’s the best way to describe it….thunder. The shell is so large that we could actually follow it with the naked eye. Everyone from Captain on down was momentarily speechless. Then the bridge phone rang. It was the Engineering Officer. The concussion did something to the evaporators. The blackgang did manage to fix the problem in a relatively short period of time but from that point on we always posted with our opposite side to the New Jersey.
The final example could be described as a rather humbling experience. The Jersey was out refueling and a gunfire support mission was received. The spotters wanted the big gun but since they were temporarily off the line we went to GQ and got the coordinates. They found some deep and fortified bunkers just within range of our five inch. Two “willy peters” were fired for spot. The spotters gave us an “on target” and called for five “HE’s”. The five rounds left the barrel in rapid succession and we waited for the results. “On target, On target, On target” cracked over the radio. The Skipper’s face broke into a smile and he lit his ever present Pall Mall cigarette. Unfortunately the smile quickly disappeared when a few moments later the spotter added, “target is not destroyed.” He ordered a cease fire. They’d wait for the Jersey to return. Two hours later the Jersey let loose with one single round. The same spotter came back with, “round was long but cease fire. Target is destroyed.” Guess bigger is sometimes better.
I was on the signal bridge the day the Jersey was leaving the line. She was rotating back to the states and unbeknownst to her Captain and crew, never to return to Viet Nam. She called us up on her signal light and asked the Owasco to pass close to her starboard side. She launched her helicopter and, as the two ships exchanged passing honors, a picture was taken. I always considered that gesture a sign of respect and possibly admiration felt by officers and crews on both decks. That photograph was proudly included in the Cutter Owasco’s WestPac cruise book.
The USS New Jersey never returned to the line. The ship was so feared by the North Vietnamese that their delegation threatened to leave the Paris Peace Talks if she returned. Hell of a way to fight a war.