This story was written soon after the tragedy of 10/01/72. I could probably spend a great deal of time on rewriting and trying to improve the overall grammar and flow of the story. However, the story says what I felt about serving onboard the USS Newport News and events immediately after the explosion. Despite the statement about being able to heal with time, I now know that time will never erase the memory and pain suffered by the crew. This has been reinforced by the comments and actions of fellow crewmembers listed in the Web page devoted to the USS Newport News. We will never forget this night and the tragic loss of our fellow crewmembers.
Gregory A. McCaulley (MAC); HM2/H Division
A Night of Terror
There have been many stories to come out of the Viet Nam conflict, tragic stories of men and guns and of men and planes, but there exists one story little known to many Americans. A story of a mighty ship and her crew, the last of her kind still afloat today. It’s a sad story, heart breaking in it’s own way, for in a few quick seconds twenty young men lost their lives helping to defend a small faraway nation striving for freedom.
I remember reporting aboard the USS Newport News on May 31 1972. As I boarded I couldn’t help but think that she was a magnificent and impressive ship. With her main battery of three eight inch turrets each housing three eight inch barrels, secondary battery of six mounts each housing two five inch barrels, and two mounts of three inch guns, she was a floating monument to ships of the past. It was with this proud feeling that I began my job as a hospital corpsman.
From her first raid on Haiphong Harbor on May 9, 1972, the first cruiser-led assault since WWII, the Newport News was making strikes against North Viet Nam. With each strike my pride in the ship and crew increased, because I felt we were helping to bring the war to an end. With each raid there were numerous times that we came very close to being hit by hostile fire, times when shrapnel could be heard striking the side of the ship or rockets that had missed the ship by a matter of feet. We had made many strikes and provided gunfire support for ground troops with the same fantastic luck for the first five months of our tour.
We were now off the coast of South Viet Nam on a routine gunfire support mission when in a split second the luck of Thunder (our Navy call sign) and her crew had been changed.
As I remember that night, I had gone to bed after working late. It was about twelve o’clock midnight September 30, 1972. I had just fallen asleep when I was awakened by the sound of general quarters. Then I heard the sharp piercing words that I will long remember, "Fire, Fire…Fire in turret two." As it turned out there had actually been an explosion, demolishing the center barrel, which I had not heard. I quickly grabbed my pants and headed for sick bay. I knew there would be injured but to what extent I had no idea. Fighting my way through frantic shipmates I finally managed to reach my station. I found it filled with thick, dense caustic smoke. We tried to stay and care for patients coughing and choking from the smoke but soon found that this was a futile effort. I decided that we had to retreat to the aft part of the ship where the mess decks were located. One of the other corpsmen said, "we have to get permission from the bridge", to which I responded, "to hell with the bridge we’ve got to get out of here." Quickly the hospital ward was evacuated and as I started to leave I heard a voice screaming, "I can’t see!" Searching the ward I found a young seaman, whom I grabbed and led to safety, where he soon regained his sight.
Upon arrival on the mess decks, I saw our Medical Officer working on a patient, who had been over come by the yellow smoke and began assisting in his efforts. We performed mouth to mouth resuscitation, closed chest cardiac massage, started intravenous fluids, and gave an intra-cardiac injection of epinephrine. We worked feverously for about twenty minutes but to no avail. For the first time in my life I felt completely helpless. I had no time to mourn however, for many of my shipmates began to come in suffering from smoke inhalation and minor burns. We started intravenous fluids, gave injections, numerous medications, dressed burns and administed oxygen to numerous members of the crew.
Before we had time to slow down we received two men who needed critical medical care immediately. Thanks to the arduous work and knowledge of our Medical Officer we managed to keep these men stable until they along with several others could be transferred by helicopter to a special medical team abroad the USS New Orleans which had raced to our side to render assistance. This proved to be a true lifesaver, for without their aid, things would have been much worse.
Many times I had to return to the deserted sick bay to retrieve supplies and equipment badly needed in our makeshift hospital. During these minutes I remember praying to God for help to keep us going, for strength to overcome the initial shock and grief, and most of all that no one else was seriously hurt.
It was after such a trip that we received word that at least twelve men had been killed. I could hardly believe what I had just heard and began asking for names, in spare moments, because I knew several of the gunner’s mates. I then found out that one of my friends had been killed. I was so deeply hurt I didn’t know what to say or do. Shedding a few but brief tears I returned to taking care of the injured. My heart was cut in half over this loss and I still ache deep within. I think this is because I was not able to take the time to mourn the loss of my friend right then and there. But there was a job to do, and it just could not wait. In the first twenty-four hours we transferred twenty-one patients and retained about another fifteen on board.
I cannot help but to be proud of every member of the crew, for that night despite the loss of friends and the grief felt deep within, the spirit and efforts put forth by each man were nothing short of a miracle. I noted many acts of heroism and unselfishness that I will long remember. Words are futile when I try to express such love, courage and devotion that were displayed during this night of terror. Had it not been for such actions, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not be here to tell this story.
After the first twenty-four to thirty hours caring for the dead and injured, half of the medical staff were sent to bed. As it turned out all I did was lie there and see the faces of the men whom I had loved as close friends. After about four such hours I managed to fall asleep and actually slept for about three hours before I was awakened by one of the other corpsmen. All he said was, "We need your help."
I returned to sick bay and began treating the men who had been either caught in the smoke or who had been searching for casualties and other wounded. Once again I managed to work another twenty-four hours before going to bed. During this time we examined about 250 patients suffering from some degree of smoke inhalation and administered the appropriate medications and treatments for each. During these days I was truly proud of being a corpsman and knowing I was in some small way helping to care for and lift the spirits of a heart-broken crew.
Soon several of us began to cough and have tight chests, symptoms of smoke inhalation, which we tried to ignore because we knew there was much work to be accomplished. The Medical Officer discovered our distress and lined us up for examinations. He then made sure we all received the appropriate shots and medications. He even tried to put some of us on bed rest, which was like trying to put an elephant in a bird cage. It was amazing to me how we managed to go so long on such little sleep.
As we departed the war zone and headed for Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, the arduous job of paper work was undertaken. Official documents for each casualty had to be typed without error, a task we did not enjoy, but it helped to keep us from thinking about what had happened. Despite this, there were times when I broke down and shed tears over the typewriter when I saw the name of someone I knew or loved as a personal friend.
Just before arriving in Subic Bay we said or final farewells to those who died that morning of October the first. As I watched each flag draped stretcher being carried to the helicopter and heard the crack of each saluting round in the twenty-one gun salute this prayer came flowing from my heart as the tears began to roll down each cheek:
Bless these men oh Lord,
Though they were gone they were not forgotten. For many following days I could see the expressions of emptiness, sorrow and grief on the faces of the crew. I knew each man was suffering from the feeling of helplessness, which had overcome me, a feeling that only time could heal.
Life goes on, no matter what each day may bring and each man has his own moral code, by which, he must live and die. We must all decide in our own hearts whether the war is just or unjust, overcome any doubts and continue to support the Nation we proudly serve. At a moment such as this it is good to recall the words of a great American President, John F. Kennedy. "The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less than a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.
A man does what he must in spite of obstacles and dangers…and that is the basis of all personal morality."
May these 20 brave men forever rest in peace.