Salute to a Forgotten “Victory at Sea” Memory

A short, stocky stranger walked up the driveway! It was the month of May and garage sale time in an effort to downsize. I was particularly interested in this approaching individual because he wore a prominent Veteran’s Cap with embroidery, “Veteran of the USS Newport News.” I welcomed him, thanked him for his service and struck up a conversation. Hal was his name, a likeable guy who didn’t mind sharing some of his tour of duty adventures.

About the ship. The USS Newport News (CA-148) was a Des Moines class heavy cruiser, launched on March 6, 1948. She was the first fully air-conditioned surface ship in the United States Navy. And the last all-gun cruiser in commission in naval history. The ship had a top speed of 31 knots (about 36 mph) , powered by 4 General Electric turbine engines. Armament included 9 x 8-inch cannons, 12  x 5-inch/38-caliber guns, as well as 12 x 3-inch/50-caliber guns. The average crew consisted of 1,667 officers and enlisted personnel.

During the early stages of her duty life, the USS Newport News was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea. As flagship, she participated with the Sixth Fleet in major fleet exercises and midshipman training cruises from 1950 to 1962. The ship also participated in NATO exercises as flagship of Northern European ports. One of her most historic events was during the Cuban missile crisis. As flagship of the Atlantic fleet, the USS Newport News and the USS Leary, her destroyer escort, teamed up for a showdown to stop the Soviet vessel Labinsk. It was ordered to move away from Cuban waters or face destruction. The USS Newport News continued to patrol the area during the crisis…assisting in the blockade and even a missile count, until the tense situation was declared “in the clear.”

Several times, the heavy cruiser returned to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., for refitting and overhaul to increase her combat capabilities. That’s because her next mission was patrolling the coast of North Vietnam as part of Operation Sea Dragon…the U.S. Navy’s effort to destroy enemy waterborne craft, military targets and enemy supply routes. It was reported that Newport News conducted 156 strikes against the enemy. As a result, 325 North Vietnamese coastal defenses were taken under fire. More than 17 waterborne craft were sunk and another 14 were damaged. Several enemy bunkers, radar sites, bridges, barges, trucks, and roads were destroyed. The ship was under hostile fire on several occasions, but effectively countered and silenced the enemy batteries. On one occasion, the ship exchanged fire with 20- to 28 separate shore batteries at the same time off the coast of North Vietnam. More than 300 enemy rounds bracketed the cruiser’s position with shrapnel, but luckily it sustained no direct hits. This encounter led American observers to nickname Newport News as, “The Gray Ghost from the East Coast,” which remained with it throughout her 3-year Vietnam deployment.

An ace in gunfire support! The ship continued to offer Naval Gunfire Support near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) sometimes firing around the clock. According to Hal, he recalled an instance he’ll never soon forget. Seems our Third Marine Division land forces were pinned down and needed some heavy-duty support to knock out the enemy. They radioed the Air Force for help. But all available aircraft were out on other key missions. But the Air Force brass gave the Marines a backup phone number for assistance. It was the USS Newport News, cruising the sea 23 miles off shore. The conversation went something like this: “Hello Turkey Shoot? Wolverine Marines need immediate on-shore fire support.” Coordinates were provided and the rest was up to the gunners aboard ship. “Now hear this…” the ship’s crew scrambled. It was an active “green light” fire mission. To the desperate Marines under withering enemy fire, time was critical. After 10 minutes had passed, the Marine officer called back in haste. “Hello Turkey Shoot, what happened? Did you forget about us?” The reply was, “No Sir, ordinance is on its way. It takes 15 minutes to arrive. Should be any minute now.” Suddenly, all hell broke loose onshore. The salvos were directly on target, completely silencing the enemy with massive destruction, leaving the Marines unscathed and able to advance! Truly a “Victory at Sea” naval moment of celebration!

During the total period of this deployment, a record was set. Newport News fired 59,241 rounds of high explosive (HE) ordinance, while conducting a total of 239 observed and 602 unobserved missions against the enemy. Hooya!

Bad news. While on its third combat tour in 1972, and while in action off the DMZ, Newport News had an on-board accident. Seems a defective auxiliary detonating fuse caused an explosion in her center 8-inch gun of number two turret. Nineteen sailors were instantly killed, along with another 10 injured. The damaged gun was removed and plated over. The proposal to refit the gun from another decommissioned ship proved to be too expensive. So the damage was not repaired. Operations continued near Vietnam until the end of the conflict. As time passed, it was determined to be too costly for further refitting for continued service.

Newport News was decommissioned in June, 1975. It joined the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard’s, “Mothball Fleet.” Eventually the ship was sold for scrap and dismantled. A museum dedicated to her crew is maintained in Quincy, Mass.

It was a pleasure to meet ship veteran, Hal. A salute to the historic Newport News, her honorable crew and their loyal commitment to service. Salute to America’s Navy, a Global Force for Good!

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One Response to “Salute to a Forgotten “Victory at Sea” Memory”

  1. Kyle80's

    This is a really awesome story. I liked your in depth info about the Des Moines class heavy cruiser. Rock N Roll.