Forging the Steel Within You
Operation Sea Dragon
Fighting for your country on a ship is much different than hand to hand combat. You never really saw the enemy but the threat and the incoming shells were invisible demons that could snatch away your life at any moment!
This is not about the politics of war or police action, whichever people want to call it. I was never really at the Bird’s Eye view of the war. Many of the offensives had a name, but often we weren’t told because our higher ups didn’t feel we had a need to know. We only knew that we faced the enemy in different spots on different days. Our view of the war was event by event as we found ourselves in them. Later, we would become aware of the names of battles from literature or from the medals we earned.
This is not about those who opposed the war or those who supported the war. It is about men, mostly young men, who went where they were ordered and did what they were told. Women fought in the war, but none were assigned to the ships I served on, so I cannot tell women war stories first hand.
I stood on the Bridge of a Destroyer, excited with body thrust forward, as we charged the land. Our large cannons (5″50 twin barrel gun mounts) bellowed fire, smoke, and Willie Peter (White Phosphorus) shells. I kept my whirring super 8 mm movie camera to my eye as much as possible, as the enemy shells splashed the waters about us.
I was a lad just turning 21 years old on this, my first Viet Nam tour of duty. I was a skinny, short sailor dressed in the relaxed garb of khaki shorts and a tee shirt. The East Indies were hot and humid this time of the year. I was a complex person. I had a deep, serious, emotional side, and yet, a smile came easily to my face as I greeted each person and each new day. My Scottish wit danced with my Irish temperament causing me to say things that even bewildered myself in events where humor was not necessarily the best response.
But, there I was, on the bridge maintaining sound powered phone contact with Sonar Control. The Sonar crew was watching for possible underwater obstacles as we stormed the beach. I would have to break from taking my movie as new reports would come which I would have to relay to the Officer of the Deck.
I can still hear the roaring boom of the guns and feel the shudder of the ship as each shot blasted from the two barrels of the forward gun mount.
The shells left the gun barrels in this manner. First a giant tongue of fire flashed from the long, narrow, tapered, steel tube. An ear splitting blast, much more intense than the rumble of explosions you experience in the movies, assailed your ears. Then a huge smoke ring circled from the barrel as if some giant was playing while smoking a cigarette. Before you recover from the first shot, the next was on its way.
We were a part of the Sea Dragon Offensive, I would find out later. Our duty? Run full speed towards the beach, thundering away at the enemy. Then, using the fathometer, sonar, and the charts, we were to turn in sufficient time at the last possible moment to keep from running aground. As we turned broadside to the enemy, all our guns, one mount fore and one mount aft, would let loose. The ship shook and jerked. It seemed to moan because of the tremendous stress on its body as it shouldered the guns that blasted away.
The enemy would cut loose with everything they had because of their chance of bringing down an American war vessel. I can still hear the shot whizzing in the air above us sounding like angry bees. The water would splash upwards in fountains poked into the sea all around us as the enemy shells struck the water.
Then, we would turn and head back to safer waters, our after guns blazing at the enemy.
But, with all the noise and thunder, our guns were just a diversionary gambit. We were the pawns being moved forward on the board, setting up action with the bishops, rooks, and queens.
As we did our sacrificial duty, the Aircraft Carrier would send its jets to rain devastation over the playing field. Other times, the Cruisers with their powerful 8″ guns or the Battleship with its terrible 16″ guns would hurl their shells at the enemy as they spotted the flashes of the shore guns that fired on us. The shells from the battleship screamed and rumbled like runaway freight trains passing over our heads and on to their targets on the land beyond us.
We were in the midst of a man made hail storm complete with flashing lightning, roaring thunder, and gloomy smoking clouds as the anger of war marched all around us. Death strode alongside us, a giant twice as tall as our ship, his vaporous black tunic flowing in the breeze. See now, his hungry, sharp, and bloody sickle, ever ready to harvest our ripe young bodies.
We stood. We trembled with fear and pride as we looked death in the face with silent resolve. It is not ours to reason why, it is ours to do or die! And since we did not die, we continued to do, not thinking about the one shell from the enemy, or the beaching of the ship, or the short shot from the battleship, or an explosion in our gun mount magazine, which could whisk us from this world to eternity in the fraction of a second.
We followed our Captain, Old Yellow hair William Chattleton, Custer and Patton resurrected, a Commander and the Captain of our courageous crew. This swaggering leader was a glory hunter looking for a promotion to Four Striper. He took his duties and assignments to the extreme, always volunteering for the most dangerous assignments. We knew we served the most ambitious man we would likely meet in our lifetime. Those, like me, who loved his steel nerves and guts would follow him to the grave if he commanded it. We were that loyal. Those who chaffed under his command hated him as much as we loved him. They would curse him blatantly behind his back. The tension between the faithful and the disillusioned was always high.
He charged that beach so breathlessly that one of the officers on the bridge hid under the plotting table in fear, yelling, “We’re going too far! Turn about now or we’ll crash aground!”
But on we went, “Steady…Steady…Now!”
Over the ship’s announcing system, the words sang out, “Stand by for heavy rolls!”
Then, the Captain’s voice rang out, “Helmsman! Right full rudder! Keep coming about!”
The Helmsman responded with a hearty, “Aye, aye, Sir! My rudder is full right! Waiting for a course order, sir.”
“After guns, fire as soon as you clear the superstructure.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Called the Weapon’s Officer, a tall, wide shouldered man busy focusing his binoculars on the forest just beyond the beach, looking for hints that the shells were hitting in the target area.
The ship shook violently as if it would break in half as the rudder went full right at the high speed we were traveling. It rolled hard and, as I held onto a nearby bridge stanchion for support, I knew that anything not tied down was scooting across a deck in the bowels of the ship. The clang and rattle of stuff sailing about assaulted our ears as the whole ship pivoted past forty five degrees on its port side.
Just when I thought the ship would never right itself, it began slowly at first, and then more rapidly moved to its upright position, our United States flag whipping on the after yard arm.
After running parallel to the beach for a short, but seemingly eternal, time; the Captain barked the orders, “Right full rudder! Come to course Zero Niner Zero!”
The Helmsman yelled back. “Aye, Aye Sir! My Rudder is right full, coming to a course of Zero Niner Zero, Sir!”
The Captain’s voice, confident and firm, would respond, “Very Well, Helmsman.”
“Forward Battery, cease fire as soon as the superstructure masks the shore! After Battery, continue firing until ordered to cease!”
The Weapons Officer responded, “Aye, aye, Captain!” And then he relayed the message to the gun captains of each gun mount.
Once again the ship was turning, this time to retreat from the beach battle and set up for another run.
As we headed back to sea, the after guns blazed the beach behind us, thundering their power in a victorious trumpet, until the shell bursts no longer touched the shore.
I’ve read in a book that your mind makes a tape of events. When you go through certain new times, it will play back the emotions of that past event. This is true, for in later times, I would be placed in a crisis and I would relive the thrill of these glorious days at sea and know that nothing I have faced in life since can match that which I was a part of so long ago! God forged steel within me that withstands the strongest gales of life. I think part of that steel is from the hull of the ship I rode in those days off the coast of Viet Nam. The USS Forrest B Royal DD872 has been tattooed on my heart and mind forever.
I think of a song that goes, “I’ve anchored my soul in the Haven of rest. I will sail the wild seas no more…” and my heart saddens for there is within me a love for the sea and the feel of courage as we stood our posts on a vessel of metal that went in harm’s way.
I ache to ride the wild seas just one more time!
But, maybe a boon for you, I will let you ride the wild seas with me as I bind them in a book. The cover may not be leather, but I will sign the book with my tears as I think of those days and pass them on to you.
May you, as you face a tough decision or a new job, be able to face the uncertainties with boldness knowing that courage and toughness is not just something you earn when facing death in a war. No, it is something that we can each embrace as we face our own battles in life!