Monday, March 23, 2020

The Big Guns off Vietnam

A propellant bag for an 8-inch, 55-caliber gun from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command which is now a part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum exhibit, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea, 1950-1975. (M.C. Farrington)

By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

Vietnam is a long and narrow country with an extensive coastline along the South China Sea. This geographic shape rendered North Vietnam uniquely vulnerable to two of the most devastating conventional weapons in humanity’s arsenal during the Vietnam War: aerial assault by carrier-based attack planes and shore bombardment delivered by large warships.

The role of shore bombardment

The North Vietnamese were not unaware of the geographic and military vulnerabilities of their country. Hanoi invested heavily in a truly impressive air defense network for their country. A densely packed and interlocking network of anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and MiG fighters presented a terrifying challenge for American aircraft to penetrate. The heavy losses of American warplanes, ranging from Korean War-era Skyraider ground attack planes to mighty B-52 heavy bombers during the conflict speak for the effectiveness of the air defense network assembled by the North Vietnamese. This being said, thanks to the dominance of the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, there was a second avenue of attack available for assaults on North Vietnamese targets: shore bombardment by warships. Unhindered by North Vietnam’s virtually nonexistent navy, American cruisers constructed a generation earlier ranged freely up and down the coast, attacking at will.

An 8-inch/ 55 caliber naval shell along with the propellant bag appears with an assortment of other artifacts, including a 5-inch/ 38 caliber naval shell in the "War at Sea" section of the exhibit. (M.C. Farrington)
The 8-inch shell

The workhorse vessel for shore bombardment along the coasts of North Vietnam was the heavy cruiser. This vessel, an artificial creation of the Washington Naval Treaty more than forty years earlier, was designed as a multipurpose surface ship capable of fulfilling a wide array of tasks ranging from convoy escort to engaging in large scale naval battles. Between 1929 and 1934, a total of 17 of these ships in four different classes were commissioned into the United States Navy.  They saw heavy action throughout the Second World War, especially in the desperate fighting around Guadalcanal. Due to this active service, a total of seven were sunk by the Japanese Fleet and many others sustaining damage.

Eight-inch/ 55 caliber propellant bag, reverse. (M.C. Farrington)
The charge bag label shows, among other things, that it was produced at US Naval Ammunition Depot Hastings, Nebraska. (M.C. Farrington)
All 17 were roughly similar in appearance and physical characteristics: roughly 600 feet long, displacing 10,000 tons and armed with nine 8-inch and eight 5-inch guns in addition to varying numbers of small caliber anti-aircraft weapons. Unfortunately, these ships proved an evolutionary dead end–poorly protected, inadequately designed and unable to be extensively modernized–the survivors went to the scrap yard with the end of the Second World War. This being said, a unique ship was under construction at Philadelphia in the closing days of peace that would become the prototype for some of the most powerful examples of the heavy cruiser to ever set sail. 

Camouflage Measure 32, Design 14D drawing prepared in June 1944 by the Bureau of Ships for a camouflage scheme intended for USS Wichita (CA 45), showing the configuration of the three 8-inch turrets.  Wichita was ultimately not painted in this camouflage design. (Naval History and Heritage Command image 80-G-174774)
On the morning of December 13, 1937, the hull of a new heavy cruiser, christened USS Wichita (CA 45), slid into the Philadelphia River. It was completed in early February 1939 as the last cruiser to be constructed under the restrictions of the London and Washington Naval Arms Control Treaties. Originally intended as the seventh member of the preceding New Orleans class, the Wichita was instead heavily modified into a unique vessel. Built on a modified Brooklyn-class light cruiser hull with additional freeboard and extra armor, the new cruiser was a far more advanced design than its predecessors. It also mounted its nine 8-inch guns higher to give them greater fields of fire, and she was the first ship in the United States Navy to mount eight new and deadly 5-inch/38 caliber dual-purpose guns. Initially assigned to the Atlantic Theater, the cruiser participated in both the Arctic convoys and Operation Torch.
Upon the successful conclusion of that amphibious assault, the blooded vessel transferred to the Pacific as a replacement for lost vessels. There, it participated in the drive across the central Pacific, including the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa. At Leyte Gulf, it participated in the gunfire destruction of the light aircraft carrier HIJMS Chiyoda and an escorting destroyer. Having earned some 13 battle stars for its wartime service, the cruiser suffered the same fate as so many of its contemporaries: decommissioned and cut apart for scrap in 1947. But before going under the acetylene torches of Union Metals and Alloys Corporation, it had laid the groundwork for a new and more powerful class of heavy cruisers, free of artificial constraints. These ships would go on to form the backbone of the naval gunline for the Cold War. Their name is shared with one of this nation’s great cities: Baltimore.

USS Baltimore (CA 68), plan view, forward, taken at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, October 21, 1944, at the end of an overhaul. USS Indianapolis (CA 35) is in the background. Note the two different types of 8-inch/ 55 caliber guns and turrets mounted on these heavy cruisers, and the paravanes aboard Baltimore. Circles mark recent alterations to the ship. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. (Naval History and Heritage Command image 19-N-74297)
The Baltimore class as these ships were known, of which 17 would be completed, were intended as the evolutionary successor to the preceding USS Wichita and incorporated significant design elements from the contemporary Cleveland-class light cruisers that they so strongly resembled. They were to take the place of the Washington Treaty ships built during the 1920s as these had reached the end of their useful lives. Their role within the fleet was that of a general-purpose escort, capable of fulfilling a wide array of roles, from carrier escort to shore bombardment and would fulfill these roles within the fleet for decades to come. Despite the heavy losses of Allied heavy cruisers during the Guadalcanal campaign, production priority was granted to the smaller Cleveland class as these could be produced faster than the more complex heavy cruisers could.

The first ships reached the Pacific in 1943 and participated in virtually all naval actions until the Japanese surrender with a total of seven seeing action there with an eighth serving in Europe. Despite being in heavy contact with the Japanese, none were lost in battle. However, USS Canberra (CA 70) was severely damaged by aerial torpedoes during the preliminaries to the Battle of Leyte Gulf while sister ship USS Pittsburgh (CA 72) lost its bow to a typhoon in June 1945. Both returned to service. A total of 13 served in the early years of the Cold War with half of them seeing action off of Korea conducting shore bombardments while the remainder reinforced American fleets around the world.

Due to their size and fairly recent construction, a total of five were converted into missile cruisers with the replacement of part of their nine 8-inch and twelve 5-inch guns with a combination of launchers for Terrier, Tartar, Talos and ASROC missiles depending on the specific vessel. These conversions served as late as 1980 in the case of the USS Albany (CA 123). Due to their ubiquity and combination of both heavy guns and potent self-protective abilities, the class served as the backbone of the gunline off of Vietnam bombarding coastal targets, either in response to requests or opportunistically throughout the Vietnam War. The only heavy resistance that they encountered was from the United States Air Force which mistakenly attacked the USS Boston (CA 69) and escorting destroyer HMAS Hobart (D 39) with AIM7 Sparrow missiles, inflicting minor damage on the latter. As powerful as these ships were, they paled in comparison to their eventual successor, a pocket battleship in all but name. Here be monsters.

The Norfolk-based USS Des Moines (CA 134) while operating as flagship of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean during the later 1950s. USS Saratoga (CVA 60) is in the distance. Her 8-inch/ 55 caliber guns are trained out to starboard, while men work on a 3-inch/ 50 caliber twin in the foreground. (Naval History and Heritage Command image NH 45506)
Intended as the ultimate in heavy cruiser technology, the three ships of the Des Moines class, USS Des Moines (CA 134), USS Salem (CA 139) and USS Newport News (CA 148), were the last and largest of the gun cruisers built for the United States Navy.  Over 700 feet long and displacing 21,000 tons at full load, they were closer to battleships than cruisers. The most impressive aspect of these ships was their main armament: nine fully automatic 8-inch guns capable of hurling a 335-pound shell nearly 20 miles at the rate of 90 to 100 rounds a minute.  Supported by twelve 5-inch and 24 3-inch guns, this main battery represented a concentration of firepower exceeded only by a squadron of B-52s or the battleship USS New Jersey (BB 62) itself. They were designed as a response to fears that existing and planned American heavy cruisers were outclassed by their Japanese counterparts due to the latter’s dominant performance off of Guadalcanal. The size and complexity of the ships prevented them from being commissioned until after the Second World War was over.
USS Des Moines (CA 134) at Pier Five at Norfolk in 1954 beside USS Macon (CA 132) and across from the carrier Randolph (CV 15) (Larry Bohn via
All three would go on to serve as carrier escorts and on show the flag missions for the first two decades of the Cold War thanks to their combination of size, speed and firepower. Of the three, only USS Newport News would see action in Vietnam.  Between 1967 and 1973, it would complete three separate tours as part of Operation Market Time, the effort to strangle the North Vietnamese seaborne supply efforts.  It also attacked shore positions along the Vietnamese coast in support of American and South Vietnamese forces with artillery batteries, logistical infrastructure such as roads or bridges and coastal radars being favored targets.   Taken under fire by North Vietnamese forces on numerous occasions, the cruiser was never hit by enemy fire.

On May 13 1968, Tugs ease USS Newport News (CA-148) into Pier Five at Norfolk as she arrives home after a nine-month deployment to Vietnam. (Chief Journalist Elliott. Official U.S. Navy photograph now in the collections of the National Archives, 428-GX-K-48701)
Notably, Newport News exchanged pleasantries with as many as 28 separate shore batteries on December 19, 1967 without being hit once despite having had more than 300 shells fired in its direction. This impressive display of agility earned it the nickname of “the grey ghost of the east coast” from shore observers. The cruiser’s most impressive exploit was Operation Custom Tailor in May 1972. Along with light cruisers USS Oklahoma City (CL 91) and USS Providence (CL 82) and two destroyers, the cruiser attacked the crucial North Vietnamese port of Haiphong inflicting heavy damage on the port facilities and defenses in the last multi cruiser shore bombardment in history. Tragically, five months later a bore explosion in the middle gun of number 2 turret killed or wounded 29 sailors on October 1, 1972, and destroyed the turret, ending its final deployment. The last gun armed heavy cruiser in the United States Navy was decommissioned in 1975 and transferred to the mothball fleet before being scrapped in 1993. Sister ship USS Salem, preserved as a museum ship in Quincy, Massachusetts, has an exhibit dedicated to its sister on board that is accessible to the public.


A warship at its most basic is a mobile artillery battery. In Vietnam, standard artillery consisted of 4.1 and 6.1-inch weapons; potent to be sure but lacking in raw destructive power when compared to the 8-inch monsters of the gunline cruisers. Furthermore, they required a great deal of effort from trucks and the presence of adequate roads to maneuver around the countryside: even the self-propelled M109s, M107s and M110s suffered from this handicap. Warships, by comparison, suffered from no such handicaps.

Capable of delivering a weight of explosives rivaled only by an Arc Light strike from B-52 heavy bombers or a battleship and possessing far more staying power, the heavy cruiser was a potent weapon in the American arsenal. A powerful combination of firepower, mobility, speed and endurance, USS Newport News and her cohorts devastated North Vietnamese targets up and down the coast. An impressive performance for ships originally designed for a very different role a generation earlier.       

Editor's Note: Thomas Grubbs earned a master's degree in military history from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently a park ranger interpreter at Vicksburg National Military Park. His research interest is in the history of the dreadnought battleship.

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