Authors: C.R. Ryder
By C.R. Ryder
Boatswain’s Mate Ridley Ford
In terms of ugliness and raw power, no ship has ever come out of a Navy shipyard that can be compared to a battleship. The Missouri was no exception and she was a fine and final example of a noble breed. Armed to the gills, hard as steel and swift in the water: 887 feet overall, beam of 108 feet, draft of 29, of 45,000 tons displacement fully loaded, rated speed of 33 knots, nothing existing in any navy of the world that outgun her conventionally.
Her true value was measured in the guns on her deck and the Tomahawks in her magazines.
Commissioned in 1944, the USS Missouri was the final battleship built by the United States. Nicknamed Mighty Mo or Big Mo, it went into action during height of World War II.
The USS Missouri was the ship that held the Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. She was, as of 1990, also one of the last two active US Navy battleships. She had been due to be decommissioned, but with the rising conflict with Vietnam the Missouri was granted a reprieve, however temporary, from the scrap yard.
I was assigned to the Missouri directly out of training and my first deployment was to the Indian Ocean. My second began in early August 1990 when we sailed to Indochina with the rest of the fleet.
We left Long Beach in May with 1467 men onboard including 60 officers and 50 Marines. It was supposed to be a six month cruise. None of us could imagine that it would be a year before we returned home.
The big guns loomed over me as I made my way to forecastle. No one thought we would ever see those fired in anger again and they might not. Instead we had brought another weapon to the fight. Deep in the ships innards were dozens of Tomahawk missiles. They were a weapon untested in combat and none of the old heads had much faith in them.
The Tomahawk was powered by a small air-breathing engine rather than by huge rockets that lifted the big fat ICBMs above the atmosphere. The Tomahawk was basically a pilotless torpedo-shaped airplane. It was a fire and forget weapon, preprogrammed to its target, guided by internal computers from the moment it left the launcher until it found its target. The onboard computer had TERCOM, terrain contour matching, which compared the ground below with a computerized map allowing it to correct course as needed. Its accuracy was rumored to be so good that they could fly hundreds of miles and hit within inches of its intended target. The Tomahawk could protect itself as well, it flew low, hugging the earth, giving a radar return one one-thousandth smaller than that of a B-52 bomber, and was equipped now also with electronic countermeasures (ECM) to confuse or jam enemy radars making it almost impossible to detect, track and intercept.
We sailed through a storm getting here. Rumor was that it might become a hurricane or a typhoon as they were called in the Pacific. Despite getting knocked around Task Force fleet was over ninety percent combat ready by the time we reached our destination.
We were all just waiting for the word.
As this was only my second time at sea I didn’t know how to feel. My first, and what was supposed to be the Missouri’s last, had been cut short when the Vietnam Embargo was announced so most of the guys didn’t count that one. I was being mentored by old time loader named Bella. He was a career E-6 and went only by his first name. Everyone called him Bella.
Even the captain.
“I was raped by a dolphin once.” He told me when I first met him that spring. “I can tell you from experience that you just want to go limp. The more you fight the more he thinks you’re another dolphin. If you just let it happen he might finish his business and move on. You fight back and then he’s going to take you under. That horny dolphin will put you under a rock or stuff you in an underwater cave if he has to keep you still. Nobody escapes from them raping caves. Understand?”
I didn’t, but much like surviving sexual assault by a marine mammal you just wanted to let Bella say his peace. Bella wasn’t someone you understood. Bella was someone you survived. Asking too many questions would only feed the crazy.
I found my mentor on the tip of the forecastle smoking a damp cigarette the morning we arrived in position in the Gulf of Tonkin.
“We’re here.” He said blowing smoke from his mouth. The ship had turned into the wind.
“Is that a real thing?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
It was a spot in the ocean like any other he explained. Water as far as the eye could see. Bella, Chief Barnes and Captain Bishop were the only ones who had been here before. The rest of us couldn’t have pointed to it on a chart, but the GPS knew exactly where it was.
Bella explained that Yankee Station was the point for carrier operations into Old North Vietnam. We were about 190 km east of Vietnamese city of Dong Hoi, located at 17° 30' North and 108° 30' East. The Missouri was part of an aircraft carrier battle group consisting of the USS John F. Kennedy, the USS Saratoga and the USS America along with various support ships.
“There’s a Dixie Station too. It’s to the south. Our last surviving brother is down there with the Midway and the Ranger.” Bella said referencing the Wisconsin, the only other battleship still on active duty.
The Kennedy pulled into position with the Saratoga to the north and America further south.
The task force was in a position to enforce the embargo or commit strike operations if it came to that. We didn’t really think it would.
“In another world we’d be off the coast of Kuwait or Korea right now. But that’s not what’s real for us. It’s like that Star Trek episode where Spock has the beard and the Enterprise is a pirate ship. In some other world this isn’t even the Missouri. We’re the Illinois or the Kentucky and its crewed by intelligent dogs or robots. But not in this world. In this world it’s us and this is what we’re up against. Understand?”
“Understood,” I said not understanding.
“This Second Vietnam War, Vietnam Two if you like, will be the last hurrah for the battleship and for classical over the beach fire support. It’s going to be all satellites, drones and missiles going into the Twenty First Century. Big Mo and I are just going to be relics of the past.”
He lit another cigarette and stared at the ocean.
Vietnam was a hard country to threaten. We already had a trade embargo against them and they were pretty poor to begin with. It was difficult to take something away from someone who didn’t have anything to begin with.
We watched the destroyers fan out. Rumor was they were headed for the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Whatever we were doing here was about to begin.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Adams
“The United States Navy is mobilizing two battle groups, led by the USS John F. Kennedy and USS Midway, to the area.”
“When do they arrive?”
“They should be in position now.”
I was impressed with operations thus far. The “Vietnam Syndrome” turned out to quickly be nothing more than a myth. America’s lack of combat since the end of the Vietnam War, which in recent days the press had been referring to as VW1, but often more commonly V1, was more due to a lack of a national threat rather than a lack of American will power. There was a genuine fear that after the complete failure to save South Vietnam from communism, after over a decade of war, public opinion seemed allergic to the idea of using American power in other parts of the world. There was even a movement to retreat the country into isolation.
Basically though we had fifteen years of peace and spent the time beating ourselves up over it. Americans were only happy when they were fighting something. It was in our DNA.
National public opinion was so strong about recovering the POWs that the politicians were falling over each other trying to get a handle on the situation. Committees were formed, plans were discussed, most involved inspections and economic actions where others called for war now and everyone seemed to go a little crazy.
Except for the military.
The military did what it always did. They waited for orders.
Captain Alex Jackson
AH-64 Apache Pilot
Fort Rucker, Alabama
People were pissed. It was all over the news. I had never seen everyone so galvanized in my life. I would not see it again until eleven years later when the twin towers fell. As a country we spend most of our time pretty divided. Most of the fighting we do is against each other. It was moments like this, no matter how tragic they are, that made you feel good inside.
Staff Sergeant Frank Wayne
Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska
A war could not have come at a better time. The Soviet Union had just crumbled and their economy was in shambles. China was not the powerhouse they became in the next century and they had just ended their own war against Vietnam. The North Koreans and Castro were pitching a fit, but when didn’t they?
Corporal Mason Lee
Camp H.M. Smith
We Marines all heard and we were pissed. This Marine hoped that we were going in right away, but This Marine had been in the military too long to think that was going to happen. Things like this took months to run up.
Still we could sense something was coming. Leave for the holidays got denied and some leave on the books got cancelled. Someone on high got the word. As for the rest of us all we could do was wait for the word.
This Marine wasn’t worried about going to Vietnam or getting killed. This Marine was worried all the action would be over before we got a crack at them.
Major Mike Lewis
Air Force Reconnaissance Pilot
I flew so much my ass bled.
Hemorrhoids were common among pilots. Hours and hours in the seat with extremes of pressure and temperature applied to your body and something had to give. Personally I blame the seat. Ergonomic was a word I would not hear until the late nineties and these seats were definitely not that. No one wanted to do anything about it either. You talk to the old guys and they were proud that the damn thing seats hurt so badly. They all had back problems so that was telling.
Anyway it was a better place to spend the war than the jungles below us. I had become intimate with the Vietnamese cities with all my flyovers. There was Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Cam Ranh and Da Nang were right on the coast. Last there was the monolith of Hanoi in the north with Haiphong and Hong Gai nearby. Hanoi’s lights were always on all night.
There was also Lao Cai further north. I didn’t get much further north than Hanoi. We were giving China a wide birth. That was one bear no one wanted to poke.
We concentrated our reconnaissance on a list of sites we received from the Pentagon and DIA. They were all suspected second tier prisons where the POWs could have been held. They included Quyet Tien, Thanh Phong, Bai, Ha Son Binh, and Tan Lap-Phu Tho.
It was pretty lonely up here. The way things were going at Andersen I didn’t think I was going to be the only thing in the air for long.
Lieutenant Colonel William Carter
Air Force Intelligence Officer
Defense Intelligence Agency
We were still running down leads on the possibility of POWs. The data we collected all led to ambiguous conclusions and became redundant. The only way to get hard answers was to either get the Vietnamese to talk or go into the jungle and look for ourselves. With that in mind Carol got the word from the big floating head also known as leadership to go and look into the MIAs identified in the Thailand Box.
We used football positions as code words for the individuals. I got the quarterback, Gunnery Sergeant Brandon Bible, whose remains, which consisted of only his decapitated head, had been returned to his family. He was buried with full military honors by a surviving sister and other extended family in a Veterans cemetery in Laramie, Wyoming two weeks prior to the beginning of the embargo.
Now our job was to find out what had happened to him.
“You knew Brandon?”
“I did. We met at Fort Hood.”
“You were injured in combat?”
“We both had the clap if I remember correctly. Brandon might have had syphilis. I get them mixed up. Hey don’t write that down.”
“I’ll just put you were both in the hospital.”
“What did you think of Brandon?”
“Good man. Never gave me a moment’s trouble. He could carry his own pack. Even uphill. That was all we could ask of a guy then.”
“Were you there when he disappeared?”
“I was at Firebase Ponderosa with him. He was with Alpha Squad on patrol when he disappeared. I was with Bravo. So no I didn’t see him get captured.”