‘NOT NOW!!!’— and not one life lost
I want you to sit in a secured comfortable chair and hold on to this commentary for dear life until you’ve completed reading it!
Perhaps the first time you heard, “NOT NOW!” was spoken by either parent or one of your teachers. If you were on the destroyer USS Turner Joy the night of Jan. 12, 1973, you knew “NOT NOW” wasn’t only an emphatic order from Commander Rob Pigeon. It was a prayer and a pleading demand to the aft fire room’s “Black Gang” to keep the engineering plant “on line” while retiring from extremely heavy enemy radar-controlled artillery fire from Brandon Bay’s shores near Vihn, North Vietnam.
Numerous near misses from enemy shore batteries had caused shocks to Boiler 2A while maneuvering at 32 knots. Captain Pigeon’s worst nightmare was Boiler 2A would blow up, their ship would be dead in the water and sink from accurate shore fire. A majority or all of the ship’s crew would be KIA, killed in action.
When a ship’s Public Address system blurts out, “General Quarters, General Quarters All Hands Man Your Battle Stations!” Every officer and enlisted man immediately raced up ladders, down ladders and through passageways. The last person in each water tight compartment secured the water tight door, making the ship, almost unsinkable! After hundreds of drills, each sailor operated on automatic. This is vital. Everyone has to be a team member. (Do you remember Jim McKay announcing the opening to ABC’s, The Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”)
In late 1972 the Turner Joy was retrofitted with three 5” gun mounts with the latest Forward Looking Infrared, FLIR, television with Laser pinpoint accuracy capable of firing a 5” round every 1.5 seconds. After exhaustive testing, the Turner Joy was hurriedly deployed across the Pacific for two days of high-level briefings in Hawaii. The ship refueled in Hawaii, Midway, and Guam. While at Subic Bay, Philippines the ship spent two days receiving her final combat load. Some of the crew were fortunate to see Bob Hope’s 1972 USO Christmas tour with Fran Jeffries singing “Silent Night.” The ship was assigned to Vietnam on Dec. 31, 1972.
On the night of Jan. 12, 1973, the Turner Joy was assigned to Surface Striking Force, North Vietnam Task Unit 77.1.1 for Operation Linebacker II Strike Operations. Operation Linebacker II involved 40 B-52 bombers from Guam dropping 900 tons of high explosives, 100 fighter bombers and 40 Combat Aircraft. The three destroyers of TU 77.1.1 were the USS Cochran, DDG-21, the USS McCaffery, DD-960 and the USS Turner Joy, DD-951. The USS Cochran was a guided missile destroyer in command. 2,000 yards on its north was the McCaffery. The Turner Joy was 2,000 yards south of the Cochran. At 20:30 hours the three crews went to “General Quarters.” At 35,000 yards, 20 miles, from the NVA, North Vietnamese Army’s, shore batteries the three destroyers turned west and increased their speed to 32 knots. At 28,000 yards TU77.1.1 commenced their preplanned zig zag “legs” of 3,000 to 4,000 yards to confuse enemy fire control radars.
At 14,000 yards everyone in CIC did a final calibration of their electronics. The NVA radar guided artillery tracked the location to where each destroyer had fired their last round. Our destroyers were zig zagging at 32 knots so they were closer than where they fired their last round. At 10,000 yards our destroyers made a 15 to 20 degree turn at 32 knots to starboard running parallel to the shore allowing each destroyer to fire all their mounts at the enemy targets. “Crossing the T” was a classic broadside sailing maneuver from the days of “Iron men and wooden ships.”
Can you imagine what that night engagement looked like to the North Vietnamese on the receiving end? It was something similar to the Fourth of July and your worst nightmare! The barrel of the Turner Joy’s forward 5” became so hot it became translucent. You could actually see a shell travel through the barrel!
During the battle the B-52s dropped their 900 tons of high explosives on key industrial targets. The blast overpressure from many miles inland was so intense it shook the 4,000-ton destroyers for 45 seconds. The ships thought they had been hit.
On several occasions during the attack the XO, Bill Hill, fired chaff into the air to give the NVA’s radar false readings. Chaff was developed and dropped by allied bombers in WW II to give German radar false-readings from millions of small strips of aluminum foil slowing drifting downward.
Towards the end of the 90-minute battle the Strike Commander ordered the Turner Joy to give cover fire while the Cochran and McCaffery disengaged and returned to their base. The Turner Joy covered their rapid withdrawal. With her tactical edge, she engaged the enemy for 10 minutes. Captain Pigeon shouted over the Command and Control circuits, “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
At 11,000 yards from the beach, the XO fired chaff which helped evade the enemy counter battery fire for two minutes. The Captain ordered violent 30 degree left and right zig zags while LTJG Steve Penner engaged both aft 5” guns with precise hits on shore targets.
At 16,000 yards the captain noticed a decrease in the pitch of the turbines powering the ship at 32 knots. He emphatically yelled into the interior communications circuit to the boiler room, “NOT NOW!”
Instantly, Throttleman Bill Lefurgey tuned out his fear of the boiler exploding which would have vaporized the “Black Gang.” For 20 minutes Bill used his knowledge, training and instinct to keep the boiler manually online for the ship to get 35,000 yards, beyond the range of shore artillery. Bill collapsed at the aft throttles. His performance was theoretically impossible and worthy of the Medal of Honor.
The ship slowed to 10 knots and was secured from General Quarters. The crew’s prayers were answered. The exhausted crew had big smiles, were shaking hands vigorously with back slapping. There are NO atheists in a foxhole or on a ship at General Quarters!
After 46 years Bill Lefurgey has been recommended for the Medal of Honor, four BTs have been recommended for the Navy Cross. Director Officer Steve Penner has been recommended for the Silver Star and several key crewmen have been recommended for other combat awards.
Can you imagine the greeting the crew received from loved ones and family when they stepped off the gangplank on June 22, 1973 in their home port, Long Beach, Calif.? “His eyes are blue, his shoes are black, out of my way, MY SAILOR’S BACK!” Long Beach had a “mini baby boom” in April 1974.
Being outgunned 5 to 1 during that intense 90-minute Battle of Brandon Bay 46 years ago, not a single American sailor’s life was lost. “Do you believe in Miracles?”
FYI, the Turner Joy’s captain, Commander Rob Pigeon, was a 1958 graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy with John McCain. The ships’ CIC, Combat Information Center, was the electronic eyes and ears of the ship, commanded by the ship’s XO, Executive Officer, LCDR Bill Hill. The CIC’s crew was OS 2 Jim Chester, Navigational plotter, OS 2 Bob Dunham, Radar Operator, OS 2 Steve Champeau, Anti-Air Coordinator, Lt. Jim Chapman, Task Unit Surface Tactics Coordinator, OS 3 Benoit, backup Surface Search Radar Operator, Ensign Chuck Hall Gunnery Liaison Officer, OSSN Doug Church, advising Lt. Chapman from radar repeater and Ensign Mike McNallen and his crew on Target Designation System for enemy small boats. The Turner Joy’s crew were part of the U.S. Navy’s last surface battle, similar to the intense Pacific Naval battles during WWII.