Carrier Operations in Vietnam
From the beginning of the conflict in Southeast Asia, the Navy played a key role in support of American strategic objectives. On 3 August 1950, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group(MAAG), Indochina, arrived in Saigon to administer the material assistance program. During the next four years, as part of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program, the United States delivered military aid totaling $2.6 billion, including two light aircraft carriers, renamed by the French Bois Belleau and La Fayette. As early as March 1950, the Seventh Fleet commander, with destroyers Stickell (DD 888) and Richard B.Anderson (DD 786), visited Saigon while 60 plans aircraft carrier from Boxer (CVA 21) overflew the city.
In the spring of 1954, the fleet's presence took another form in Southeast Asian waters when the French military effort in Indochina reached a climax at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Responding to pleas from the French, who were fighting desperately to hold on to their isolated bastion in the mountains of Tonkin, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed an aircraft carrier task force and supporting units into the South China Sea. At various times Wasp (CVA 18),Essex (CVA 9), Boxer, and Philippine Sea (CV 47) steamed off the Indochinese Peninsula prepared to launch their aircraft against Communist forces besieging the French base.
In 1959 North Vietnam initiated a long-term campaign aimed at destroying the government of South Vietnam. Pathet Lao Communists were attempting to overthrow the pro-Western Royal Laotian Government. The Navy was called upon to demonstrate American determination to oppose these actions. One of the means adopted was a show of force by the fleet. During September 1959, in the autumn of 1960, and again in January 1961, the Seventh Fleet deployed multiship carrier task forces into the South China Sea as a deterrent to further Communist guerrilla attacks on pro-American forces in Laos and as reassurance to friendly governments of U.S. resolve to stand by them. Although the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese supporting forces withdrew in each crisis, in the spring of 1961 their offensive appeared on the verge of overwhelming the pro- American Royal Laotian Army. Once again the fleet sortied into Southeast Asian waters. By the end of April most of the Seventh fleet was deployed off the Indochinese Peninsula preparing to initiate operations into Laos. The force consisted of Coral Sea (CVA 43) and Midway (CVA 41) carrier battle groups, antisubmarine support carrier Kearsarge (CVS 33), one helicopter carrier, three groups of amphibious ships, two submarines, and three Marine battalion landing teams.
Communists overran the pro-American defenders of Nam Tha on 6 May 1962, renewing fears for the survival of a non-Communist Laotian government. Determined to preserve the status quo and at the same time reassure American allies, President Kennedy again ordered the Seventh Fleet into the South China Sea. The Hancock (CVA 19) carrier group and the Bennington submarine hunter-killer group steamed to a position off Danang.
Beginning in May 1964 a major part of the Seventh Fleet was deployed off the South Vietnamese coast to show U.S. determination to preserve South Vietnam and the now pro-American Laotian government of Souvanna Phouma. For the remainder of the year, up to three carrier task groups steamed at the soon-to-be famous Yankee Station, the operational staging area at 16N 110E. Aside from a naval presence, carriers supported U.S. policy with low-level aerial reconnaissance of suspected Communist infiltration routes in eastern and southern Laos. The Navy's participation in this joint Navy-Air Force operation, designated Yankee Team, was inaugurated on 21 May by two Chance-Vought RF-8A Crusader photo reconnaissance planes from Kitty Hawk (CVA 63). The aircraft discovered a Communist military presence in the Plain of Jars region, from both a photographic record and direct hit on one plane by antiaircraft fire.
For two hours on 04 August 1964 the American destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy, covered overhead by carrier aircraft, evaded what lookouts and sonar rated as torpedoes and fired on contacts, visually identified by Turner Joy crewmen as P-4 motor torpedo boats. Thereafter, the ships headed for the Ticonderoga carrier task group steaming around the entrance to the Tonkin Gulf. US leaders were convinced that North Vietnamese naval forces had attacked U.S. ships in international waters. Accordingly, President Johnson ordered U.S. naval forces to prepare for a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam and that it be carried out at 0800 local time on 5 August. Although the short warning time and operational difficulties delayed the actual launch of aircraft from Ticonderoga and Constellation (CVA 64), both positioned in the South China Sea, 16 aircraft from the first carrier struck the petroleum storage complex near Vinh at 1320. Other Ticonderoga flights attacked the enemy Swatow gunboats and P-4 PT boats at Quang Khe and Ben Thuy. Douglas A-l Skyraiders and A-4 Skyhawks from Constellation's Carrier Air Wing 14 then bombed and strafed the North Vietnamese naval craft near their bases at Hon Gai and in the Lach Chao Estuary. The results were impressive.
The Johnson administration reacted vigorously to Viet Cong mortaring of an American advisors', compound at Pleiku, South Vietnam, on 7 February 1965. Johnson ordered a one-time, "tit for tat" reprisal strike on enemy barracks in North Vietnam. That same day Coral Sea's Air Wing 15 and Hancock's Air Wing 21 conducted Flaming Dart I, a multiplane attack on Dong Hoi. On the 1Oth, carrier forces were ordered to respond to yet another Communist attack, this time the sabotage of the American quarters in Qui Nhon, which resulted in 54 casualties. The following day, as the U.S. and South Vietnamese Air Forces hit Vu Con, 95 aircraft from Ranger, Hancock, and Coral Sea, in Flaming Dart II, bombed and strafed enemy barracks at Chanh Hoa. But even as the Flaming Dart operations were underway, U.S. leaders decided that continued Communist resistance demanded resort to the last stage in the program of military persuasion, a sustained and increasingly intensive bombing effort in North Vietnam. The Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, the Yankee Team and Barrel Roll programs in Laos, and the fleet's presence in the South China Sea would continue for years.
The new direction in American strategy jelled during a meeting in Washington on 15 March 1965 of the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment. The President authorized the Pacific Command to carry out a systematic bombing campaign against North Vietnamese lines of communication, military installations, and logistic facilities south of the 20th parallel. Thereafter, the Rolling Thunder program focused less on influencing the enemy's will than on hurting his actual physical capability to support the military venture in the South. Much the same occurred with the Yankee Team and Barrel Roll operations in Laos. The Seventh Fleet's naval air forces were given somewhat greater latitude in target, ordnance, and aircraft selection, in operational control, and in other tactical considerations.
From the South China Sea, the Seventh Fleet's Attack Carrier Strike Force mounted the Rolling Thunder bombing and Blue Tree tactical reconnaissance operations in North Vietnam; the Barrel Roll, Steel Tiger, and Tiger Hound bombing and Yankee Team reconnaissance efforts in Laos; and the ground support mission in South Vietnam. Except during the period in 1965 and 1966 when the aircraft carrier supporting operations in the South sailed at Dixie Station, the carrier task force was deployed at Yankee Station (after April 1966 at 1730'N 10830'E). Generally, before August 1966, two or three carriers operated in Task Force 77, and after that date the number was often three or four. On each ship a carrier air wing controlled 70 to 100 aircraft, usually grouped in two fighter and three attack squadrons and smaller detachments. However, the number depended on the size and class of the carriers, which varied from the large-deck 65,000-ton Forrestal-class ships to the 27,000-ton, World War II Essex-class ships.
On 26 October 1966, during this intense period of battle action, the carrier force suffered a tragic mishap. A seaman on board Oriskany (CVA 34) improperly handled a flare that ignited other munitions, soon setting the forward half of the carrier ablaze. By the time the fire was extinguished, after a three-hour struggle, 25 naval aviators and 19 other officers and men were dead. Knocked out of action, the ship sailed to Subic Bay for personnel replacements and repairs; however, Coral Sea soon replaced her on station.
Another catastrophic carrier fire, this time in Forrestal, occurred during these successful operations. The ship had only been at Yankee Station for several days in July when a Zuni rocket was accidently touched off on deck. The rocket set off a chain reaction of explosions and fire among 750-pound bombs, fuel, and other inflammable materials. Firefighting parties extinguished the fire on deck in little over an hour, but the conflagration below decks raged on for 14 hours. The cost of the fire was high. One hundred thirty-five men were killed or missing and 63 more were injured. The loss of 21 planes, partial destruction of 31 others, and damage to the ship put Forrestal out of action for many months. It never returned to Yankee Station.
That the enemy's post-Tet offensive in South Vietnam during the fall of 1968 was weak and of short duration can be ascribed in part to the success of the interdiction effort mounted by the Seventh Fleet. However, the entire Rolling Thunder antiinfiltration program was only partially successful. Heavy weather, operational restrictions, and Communist determination to win in the South made prosecution of the air campaign difficult. As a result, the enemy was able to receive foreign support, supply his forces in the field, and launch large-scale offensives against U.S. and allied armies. Nonetheless, the three-year campaign by Task Force 77 forced the North Vietnamese to divert tens of thousands of regular and paramilitary troops, critical civilian workers, and untold material resources to keep open their lines of communication. Because of the fleet's air and surface operations in Laos and North Vietnam, the enemy's attacks in the South were long-delayed, under-strength, and short-lived. Rolling Thunder was essential to the success of American arms on the battlefields of South Vietnam.
Seventh Fleet operations during the post-Tet years also reflected the diminishing American role in the war. The prohibition against bombing North Vietnam, which went into force on 1 November 1968, limited the number of lucrative targets available to Task Force 77 to those in Laos, South Vietnam, and eventually Cambodia. Aerial operations in those countries also were limited by the seasonal Southwest Monsoon, which lasted from May to September. And beginning in 1970, the Navy mandated stringent measures to conserve fuel, ammunition, and aircraft to cut operating costs. As a result, the monthly average during 1968 of three attack carriers deployed at Yankee Station decreased to two ships from 1969 to 1971. Similarly, the 1968 monthly average of between 5,000 and 6,000 attack sorties in Southeast Asia dropped to between 3,000 and 4,000 sorties from November 1968 to mid-1970. From then until the end of 1971, naval air units averaged 1,000 to 2,500 strike sorties in Laos and South Vietnam. In this three- year period, the Navy dropped over 700,000 tons of ordnance on the enemy, while losing 130 aircraft and many of their crews.
On 2 April 1972, soon after it became apparent that a major Communist effort was underway, President Nixon ordered his Pacific forces to strike that region of North Vietnam nearest to the DMZ by air and sea. By 9 May, the entire country, excluding a buffer zone 30 miles deep along the Chinese border and a number of sensitive targets, had been opened to Navy and Air Force attack. During April, the first month of operations, the Seventh Fleet resumed the interdiction campaign that ended in November 1968. Task Force 77 swelled to include five carriers, Constellation, Kitty Hawk, Hancock, Coral Sea, and Saratoga (CVA 60). The addition of Midway to the task force in May would make this the largest concentration of carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin during the war.
On 27 January 1973, U.S., South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and Viet Cong representatives finally signed the long-sought cease- fire agreement at Paris. Under its provisions, the Communist agreed to release all American prisoners of war within a space of two months in exchange for U.S. military withdrawal from South Vietnam and the U.S. Navy's clearance of mines from North Vietnamese waters.
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