Battle of Brandon Bay – Part II

Battle of Brandon Bay – Part II

Submitted by: LCDR Jim Chester (USN Retired) – 5/21/09

BATTLE OF BRANDON BAY.

The 3 ships formed up in a loose line abreast about 1945, all at four boiler, split plant operation, running lights off and about 2030 we went to General Quarters (GQ), (Battle Stations) and we started our run at 35,000 yards from the beach building up to 32 knots. Soon we were at 32 knots and at about 28,000 yards from the beach we started zigzagging. The zigzag legs were about 3,000 yards long and all preplanned. TU 77.1.1 started taking counterbattery at about 28,000 yards from the beach with the USS Cochrane and USS McCaffery taking the brunt of it. I was plotting the navigational information and computing the indirect fire control data for relay to the Firecontrolmen manning the MK68 fire control computer. At 32-33 knots there is no room for mistakes. You get it right the first time or not at all.

At 22,000 to 24,000 yards the radar picture cleared sufficiently for the Combat Information Center (CIC) team to get accurate fixes and to start the indirect fire control solution. Ranges came down pretty fast. The information flow was fast and furious, but pretty smooth. Virtually everyone was operating at optimum performance, despite lack of sleep. The bridge forgot to pull in the after lookout and he was tucked down in the MK 6 Fanfare torpedo decoy aluminum deck shield with MT 53 going off right over his head with numerous enemy shells splashing close aboard and exploding in air bursts around him. He survived the battle, but I don’t think his hearing was ever the same.
About 18,000 to 20,000 yards from the beach, we took a airburst very close aboard to the starboard CIC watertight door and we were all stunned. Close call! I immediately went back to work plotting the mission and checking my data. OS2 Bob Dunham was on the navigational radar scope and OS2 Steve Champeau ran the air picture. He kept a very close eye out for MIG’s and did coordination with friendly aircraft in the vicinity, if needed. OS3 Benoit manned the surface radar scope, looking for enemy patrol boats. LCDR “Wild” Bill Hill, our Executive Officer (XO) was the Evaluator (now called the Tactical Action Officer [TAO]) and made the overall battle decisions in CIC on a command by negation basis. The Commanding Officer (CDR Bob Pidgeon), the Weapons Officer (LCDR Mike Austin) were on the bridge and I believe the Engineering Officer (LT Holland) was the Officer of the Deck (OOD).

A few minutes after the close aboard airburst, I heard about 15 explosions close aboard in the forward hemisphere of the ship. All of a sudden my mind drew a blank and heard ENS Chuck Hall yell at me to get back to work. I know it was only two or three seconds before I got back to work, but those were the longest seconds of my life. It has never left my mind. At about 14,000 yards from the beach, we did the final check on the indirect fire control solution and found that we were right on our primary target.

At 12,000 yards from the beach, we turned to our final approach (zigzag) leg before paralleling the beach and opened fire with MT 51 at the primary target. After firing about 15 to 20 rounds, MT 51 had a material casualty and the Captain and the Weapons Officer sent the great GMGCM Blaney forward outside the skin of the ship where shrapnel was now flying all over the place to fix the gun mount. In a very short amount of time he fixed MT 51 and we resumed firing. To us in CIC after running 7 miles under fire, it seemed like an eternity before we resumed fire. We finished firing the primary target just as we were getting ready to do a high-speed turn to starboard to form a loose line of column. The high-speed turn to starboard wound up in a loose line of column. By the way, I don’t think anybody had done greater than 30 knots divisional tactics in battle since WWII.

We used about 15-20 degrees of rudder and heeled quite a bit. As soon as we steadied, we checked the indirect fire control solution once more, found that we were on target and then resumed fire, this time on our secondary target. By this time we were under extremely heavy fire at point blank ranges from enemy shore batteries (9,500-10,000 yards) from the beach. The bridge reported being smothered with shell splashes and often blinded by the bright orange air bursts of enemy Able Able Common (AAC) airbursts. I heard QM3 Ginsburg (now CWO4 Ginsburg, US Coast Guard) say over the sound powered phones, “Oooui, Eeee, Aaah, Wow Man” then he announced the ship just took about 15 airbursts over the forward part of the ship all at once. Everyone topside could hear the woosh of flying shrapnel. At this point none of us realistically thought we would see the morning dawn…. Including me. As my Dad told me there are NO atheists in combat. He was so right!!! I remember OSSA Larry Bota, an atheist yell out about this point “God get me out of this”. After the battle we reminded him of what he said. He was shocked and probably changed forever.

After checking our fire control solution for the third target, we started firing at our third preplanned target about 9,600-9,800 yards from the beach. Shortly after firing, the fire control director slewed around the horizon and from CIC we saw 40+ enemy guns firing at us from the remote monitor for the FLIR in CIC. As I looked at all the enemy guns firing at us, I counted as many guns as I could. I recall counting 44 enemy guns probably 130mm (5.1”) or larger. The recent intelligence, less than 48 hours old was right on the money. About this time we took another pattern of shells close aboard and I heard the Electronic Warfare (EW) Specialists yell out “B240Z…J-band”. After a second pattern of shells landed close aboard, the XO fired off Stack Chaff pneumatically from the remote controls in CIC. The enemy B240Z trajectory adjusting radar locked on to the chaff cloud and the highly accurate counterbattery fell off. If we had not been going 32+ knots, we would of been hit for sure. The chaff cloud showed up on the AN/SPS-10 radar screen with enemy counterbattery shells impacting all around it.

By this time all ships had fired their tactical targets, all of a sudden we thought we had sustained a direct hit. The ship shook violently. After checking all key control stations, we discovered we had not sustained a direct enemy hit, but it was the enormous blast overpressure shock wave of the B-52’s hitting with some 900 tons of bombs. They had dropped all at once and as near as I can remember, we were 11,000 to 12,000 yards from the drop area. The blast overpressure shook us like we were a kid’s rattle being shaken violently. About this time, the Surface Strike Commander ordered the high speed retirement of the USS Cochrane and USS McCaffery. We were ordered to stay behind with our vastly superior conventional firepower and cover their retirement. This was turning into a classic pitched W.W.II style surface gunnery battle for us. Over the next 10-12 minutes (probably longer), we engaged numerous counterbattery sites, often shifting to direct fire to take advantage of the laser beam for instantaneous range of fire control solution(s). We positively knocked out several enemy shore batteries to the North and to the West. We shifted back to indirect fire control and took out three or four more counterbattery sites. I saw many secondary explosions at the enemy counterbattery sites from nearby ammo cooking off.

Somewhere between the direct fire and the indirect fire, the ship did a high speed 180 degree turn to parallel the beach (Vihn, NVN) going South. After we steadied up, I looked at the ship’s pit log (speed indicator) and we were doing 33 knots. Incredible! About this time I heard the Captain order the “TJ” the “hell out of there”. I had heard him shouting this over the 21MC and other key command and control internal circuits. We did about a 90 degree high speed port turn to the East. Shortly after steadying up, again counterbattery became very accurate and was once again very heavy. Again the EW’s announced “B240Z…J-band” radar and the TJ commenced violent evasive maneuvers to avoid counterbattery. After another pattern of enemy shells landed very close aboard, the XO fired another slug of Stack Chaff and again the enemy counterbattery fell off as the B240Z radar acquired the chaff cloud (erroneous target).

During this time, upon commencement of our retirement, we were engaging enemy counterbattery sites with our after gun mounts (MT 52 and MT 53). Our return fire seemed uncharacteristically accurate for a destroyer retiring on violently evasive zigzag courses in excess of 30 knots. Somewhere during this time frame, I believe we took a hit very close aboard, which I believe put a hole or a leak into a freshwater tank, but I am not 100 percent sure. We later lost a lot of freshwater due to a large leak or hole, so I am reasonably sure this was the cause.

During our high speed retirement, the throttleman nearly dragged the boilers and the generators off the line while firing the after mounts and doing the violent evasive zigzag maneuvers. The customary whine of the engineering plant started to wane as the load was beginning to be lost. I distinctly heard the Captain yell down over the 21MC to Main Control just two words…”NOT NOW”. Right after that you could hear the whine of the turbines and generator’s come back to their customary pitch. Believe me when I say that if we had dropped the load that night, we surely would have been sunk by enemy counterbattery being directed by those damn B240Z radars.

At about 28,000 yards from the beach, the heavy volume of enemy counterbattery finally fell off us and in another minute it was gone. At about 35,000 yards from the beach we secured from GQ (Battle Stations). I remember that Chuck Hall and I were so relieved to be alive, that we shook hands vigorously with huge smiles on our faces. Then I did the same thing all over again with the XO, Bob Dunham and Steve Champeau. I then lit up a well-deserved cigarette. To this day it seems miraculous that we survived the amount of enemy counterbattery that was brought to bear on our ship. We all lived through this, worked as a well trained and veteran combat team and we all survived. By the grace of God we were very lucky.

This was the last fully engaged, totally pitched surface gunnery battle in U.S. Navy history. We had been outgunned 5 to 1 in sheer numbers of gun barrels. We had fought the entire action at speeds over 30 knots, had inflicted maximum damage on the enemy and emerged nearly unscathed. The next morning I was out on the weather decks, looked up and saw part of the AN/SPS-29 radar “bedspring antenna” shot away. However, the 29 radar performed great despite damage to the antenna and the waveguides from enemy shell fire. There was also a lot of shrapnel all over the weather decks. Somewhere around 2130 we started preparing for the night’s next two surface strikes, but none like the Battle of Brandon Bay. Every surviving crewmember in those ships, especially the USS Turner Joy remembers the battle of Brandon Bay. It is forever etched in my memory.

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