A Sea Story, by Robert Brazauskas

I served aboard as an STG3 from March 1965 till Aug 1966. There is an interesting story that occurred during that time period that you may be interested in.

During our West Pac tour 65-66, we spent the first month or so shore bombarding with the aid of A1 spotters. This occurred down south. I remember our Thanksgiving dinner was postponed until December 9th because on Thanksgiving we were at General Quarters (shore bombarding VC villages). We spent Christmas and New Years Eve in Da Nang. We had to bring the ship out at night, the marines were having difficulties with sniper fire at night. This was before Tet. We were in DESRON13.

On March 14 we were serving at SAR station, we received a communique ordering us to pick up a pilot who had ditched in Haiphong harbor. There was a carrier, the Kitty Hawk, I believe, that was stationed at Yankee station, a point north in the South China sea. Their pilots were hitting the Chinese border supply lines. They were told if they were hit, try and make it to the Gulf where SAR destroyers would pick them up.

We were down south in the Gulf when we got the call, it took us quite a while to get there, even at full speed. We were attended by the USS Edson, also a member of DESRON13. As it happened COM was riding the Edson. In Haiphong harbor there is an island, the pilot had ditched between the island and the mainland. By the time we got there, Yankee station had dispatched a helocopter to pull the pilot out. There was heavy artillary on both the island and the mainland. The chopper was brought down by crossfire.

By the time we got there there were seven men in the water, and a second chopper was arriving at the scene. COMDESRON13 took the Edson straight toward one of the mainland batteries, he ordered the Isbell to run between the island and the mainland, drawing fire while the second chopper rescued the downed men.

I believe the Edson took some shrapnel and accompanying injuries at which point they withdrew. After making one pass through the Isbell needed to turn and go back through because the rescue was not yet complete. I think the original downed pilot was the only death casualty. On our second pass through, they were walking up our wake with shells. At the last minute we were put on a war cam and successfully made it out of there.

We were told not to write home about the incident, I think because the Island was a lot closer than 11 miles. When we got back into Subic there were newspapers from Longbeach telling the story of the Edsons ‘great’ battle. While I was in the two ships never came into the same port at the same time. Before coming back to the states we stopped at Sasebo Japan for almost a week.

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6 Responses to “A Sea Story, by Robert Brazauskas”

  1. Vince Nelson Says:

    This report is generally correct but my memory is somewhat different on details. I was CIC officer at the time on the Isbell

    I think the date was March 16, 1965. My recollection was that the unit command ship was USS Berkeley, a DDG. not Edson. Edson was in Destroyer Squadron 13 but was primarily an ASW and gun ship as were we but the Edson was much newer, larger, and of a different design.

    The island in question was Hon Mat Island near the Vietnamese city of Vinh, well south of Haiphong.

    The incident was started when an Air Force F 104 photo-recon plane flying out of Thailand was shot up and made it to just off the shore of N. Viet Nam. The crew of two bailed out but were only a short distance off the beach. An Air Force amphibious plane (Albatross) landed to pick up the men in the water. It had a crew of six. According to the report we got, the Albatross took a direct hit from a mortar and was destroyed adding six more men to those to be rescued.

    The Isbell was 30 miles off the beach so it took us an hour with four boilers on-line to reach the point where it was reported the incident occurred. This point was on a line between the north end of Hon Mat and the mainland, closer to the mainland. We were ordered to search south from the reported location putting us in the channel between Hon Mat and the mainland. I think the channel was less than a mile wide. The Berkeley searched to the north where she had clear sea room at every point to the east. Berkeley later reported she got a hole from shrapnel in her forward peak tank (water tank) well above the water line. She had an enthusiastic press release writer.

    The channel between Hon Mat and the mainland was surveyed at less than 30′ by the French when last surveyed in 1954. We drew 26′ at the sonar dome. The deepest part of the channel was right up against Hon Mat. At one point I went out to the bridge and looked toward the island and was startled to see how close we were to the island – less than 100′.

    We never saw any debris or an oil slick from the incident. I wonder if we got an accurate location for the incident. We went down the channel to the south, turned around heading north and were just clearing the north end of Hon Mat and – not having seen any evidence of the incident -turned around to once more go south through the channel. At that time shore batteries opened up on us. We had plotted the gun batteries on our chart from information from air recon missions. We began indirect fire at these points on our chart. The gun director, manned by our supply officer, Walter Pritchard, soon picked up the gun flashes on the beach in its optics and switched to direct counter battery fire. They reported a number of secondary explosions from hitting the enemy’s ammunition supply.

    We had been leaving a trail of mud in the channel and had lowered our speed a few knots because the ship was planing due to the high speed and shallow water. The planing was causing the screws to drop down closer to the sea bottom. We continued south past the southern end of Mon Mat and, as I recall at least another half mile because there was a shallow reef that extended south from the island. The estuary of the Red River emptied into the Gulf at this point and when we had good water we turned east and headed back out into the gulf. The Captain (Mark B. Lechleiter) believed we were being fired at by 105mm artillery. The enemy rounds were falling around us and we had air bursts over the ship. There was some shrapnel on the deck but the ship did not sustain a hit that did any damage.

    The Captain, who was a conventional ordnance specialist and whose next assignment was teaching gunnery at the Naval Academy, believed that the 105mm rounds were fused for anti-aircraft and the radio proximity fuses were detonating prematurely. Being in CIC with 1/4 inch aluminum bulkheads, we were very thankful that the rounds detonated prematurely or I wouldn’t be writing this note. The gunfire followed us out to about 13,000 yards. We fired about 256 5″ rounds in 23 minutes.

    The report we got was that a helicopter was driven off from the site by automatic weapons fire but a second helicopter got in and picked up the two F 104 crew and three of the Albatross crew. Not having enough lift to take out the Albatross skipper he remained in the water until another helicopter picked him up. Two of the Albatross crew remained unaccounted for; they were who we were looking for. We later learned that they had been killed outright when the Albatross was hit. We heard that both the Albatross skipper and the helicopter pilot received high decorations for bravery.

    Our skipper may have gotten orders to create a diversion. If so, it was not communicated to me. I thought we were there in a direct rescue effort for the missing aircrew.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Vince Nelson

  2. Vince Nelson Says:

    In reviewing my note I see that I had two typos: the date was March 16, 1966 (not 1965) and one time I misspelled Hon Mat as “Mon Mat”.

  3. timothy g thorne Says:

    Vince, I think you have the incident pretty accurate. I was the starboard lookout aboard USS ARNOLD J. ISBELL that day. We made two passes and on the second pass as I recall, all hell broke out with shore battery fire. Large buildings were mapped on the first sweep, and I would think they were destroyed on the second sweep. I observed many explosions of what seemed to be armaments, being used at us.

    It was the USS BERKLEY DDG!5 that was operating with us in the Gulf of Tonkin that day.

    One comment. We had a great crew, great leadership, and I would do it again. GOD BLESS all our military and their families.

    • Greg P Says:

      My good friend, Bob, the author of this passed away several years ago. He was great guy and I miss him dearly. Love you, Bob.

  4. Alfred Martinez Says:

    Thank you guys, for clarifying the story, years later. It was a moment in time, I will never forget.

    RM2 Alfred Martinez, Sr.
    San Jose, CA

  5. bill brazil Says:

    i was on the isbell at that time i was in gun mount 52 i would do it again to i will never forget it

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