By Pete Soderman
May, 1966, aboard an American Destroyer — somewhere off the coast of Vietnam
I was in the middle of a heated game of follow-the-bitch with some guys down in the engineering spaces, when the 1MC crackled to life with the familiar “BONG, BONG, BONG! General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations, this is not a drill!” Rinse, repeat.
We threw down our cards, jumped to our feet, and scrambled for the ladder heading topside. Well, I did pause for a moment to snatch the score sheet, after all, we played hearts for a nickel-a-point, and I was ahead. At the top of the ladder, we went our separate ways. I was headed for the bridge wing.
I clambered up another ladder, and popped out of a hatch on the main deck, just forward of mount Two, the ship’s aft five-inch twin mount. I was on the starboard side, and looking out, I could see the shore through the twilight haze, so we were heading South, towards DaNang, and at quite a clip. The old can must be making thirty knots or better, I guessed, as I ran forward.
I took the mid-ship’s ladder up to the 01 deck, scampered up another ladder to the signal bridge, and from there up to the bridge wing. I grabbed a helmet and life jacket from an opened stowage locker, and took a moment to look around. It was a beautiful, clear night with a three-quarter moon, and calm seas. We were about a mile off-shore, and in spite of the gathering darkness, I could clearly see the white line of the beach, and the tree-line beyond it. I could smell the jungle, in spite of the thirty knot breeze generated by our passage. I hoped this was a rescue mission – perhaps another downed Phantom that was too banged-up to make it to the bird farm — it was a good night for it.
As I put on my sound-powered phone, the last call to GQ blasted over the intercom. I checked that the selector switch was turned to the primary gunfire control circuit, which I shared with both mount captains, the gun director, and the central fire control room.
My job was phone talker for the Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Breckenridge. He needed a talker who was familiar with the fire control systems, and also had a good working knowledge of what was going-on in the gun mounts and handling rooms. I stuck my head through the open hatch leading to the bridge, and checked the pit log. We were making 32 knots, about as fast as this old bucket could go.
The other stations on my net had checked-in with me by the time Lt. Breckenridge showed-up. He was pretty cool, for a trade school guy, and we got along very well. We played chess a couple of times a week, and I even let him win every once in awhile.
“Hey, Taylor, glad to see you beat me up here this time,” the Lieutenant said with a broad grin. I was notorious for being late to all things military.
“Good evening, Sir, can you let me in on what the hell is going on?”
We were standing on the starboard bridge wing, just outside the enclosed part of the bridge, and only a few feet from the Captain, the Exec, and the rest of the bridge crew. He moved a little closer, and spoke almost in my ear. “About twenty minutes ago, we got an order from the carrier to fire some ground support around a village about nine miles inland. We’re almost where we need to be. Tell Two to load, oh, say four willie peter per gun, and have One load HE.”
HE stood for High Explosive, our standard round for use against surface targets. Willie peter (wp) was white phosphorous, a round we used primarily for spotting. It made a big flash and started fires.
“Roger that, Sir.” I pressed the transmit button on my mike. “Mount Two, bridge, load four willie peter per gun, then HE. Mount One, HE all the way.” I liked being the Gunnery Officers talker — I was in the middle of every shoot.
“Mount Two, roger that.”
“Mount One, roger.”
Another three minutes went by, and finally, the Captain got on the 1MC.
“This is the Captain speaking. We have been ordered to fire a ground-support mission for a Special Forces unit that is under attack and in danger of being overrun. We will fire under the direction of a spotter on the ground. The ship will be in optimal firing position in approximately five minutes, both mounts will be ready to shoot at that time.”
He didn’t sign-off, he never did. Our Captain Harris was an arrogant bastard,
I could hear the Captain through the open door to the bridge. “All ahead full, make turns for twenty knots.”
“Ahead full, twenty knots aye, Sir. Engine room answers ahead full, twenty knots.”
So, we were coming down from our mad dash, must be close. Two minutes later, we slowed to fifteen knots, then five.
“Mount Two, bridge, you ready, over?”
“Mount Two, ready to shoot. Willie peter loaded in both guns, three more in the stack, out.” Terry Burke, the mount Two Captain was a poker-buddy of mine. His voice sounded firm and even, ready for anything.
“Sir, both mounts ready to shoot.” I had already heard from mount One, those guys started ready anyway.
Breckinridge repeated what I said to Captain Harris, who barely grunted in reply. The Exec, Lieutenant Commander Ben Cunningham, was bending over the chart table in the center of the bridge. I snuck a peek at the chart and saw we were about twenty nautical miles north of DaNang.
The bridge talker, who had the ship’s radio room on his circuit, spoke up. “Captain, the radio room has the spotter.”
“Pipe it out here” the Captain said, walking over to where the radio mike was hanging from the roof of the bridge. The speaker beside it crackled to life.
“Black widow, black widow, this is diamond, over.”
The Captain responded, “Diamond, diamond, this is black widow, read you five-by-five. What do you have for us, over.”
“XO, stop and get a fix.”
“Aye, Captain. All stop.”
“All stop aye, engine room answers all stop.”
The Exec took radar bearings on two points he could see on the chart, and triangulated our exact position. We would need it to figure a true bearing to hit the coordinates diamond would give us.
“Black widow, diamond, requesting one round willie peter, map coordinates_______”
“Roger that, diamond, we will commence fire in one minute, over.”
The Exec worked feverishly on his charts for about twenty seconds, then turned, raised his head and shouted to us on the bridge wing. “Mr. Breckenridge, true bearing two, eight, four, range one, niner, one, double oh.”
I repeated the data to Central Fire Control, where the guys cranked it into our ancient, analog Mark 1A gunfire control computer. It would take that true bearing and range to the target, factor in wind speed, direction, the ships current compass heading, speed, roll and pitch. Gears would turn, sprockets would click, servos would hum, and the correct relative bearing and elevation would be fed to our two twin mounts.
“This is the Captain, I have the con. All ahead one third, make turns for three knots.” We needed some way on to maintain steerage for the shoot.
“All ahead one third, three knots aye, Captain. Engine room answers all ahead one third, turns for three knots.”
“Bridge, fire control, we’re ready to shoot, trigger closed and locked.”
“Bridge, roger that.” That meant they were ready, and had locked the trigger on their firing key in the closed position. There were several firing keys, which resembled the butt and trigger assembly of an automatic pistol. There were three in each gun mount, one for each gun captain, and one for the mount captain. There was one on the bridge, and one in main fire control. Typically, the fire control key, the bridge key, and the mount captain’s were locked in the activated position. As long as the computer was working okay, the bridge wanted to shoot, and the mount captains didn’t see anything wrong, the firing decision was up to the individual gun captains. They had their eyes on the two sailors loading the gun, and the gun itself.
“Captain, fire control and mount Two ready,” I said, I was standing three feet from the man, sometimes military protocol didn’t make sense.
“Very well, Officer of the Deck, close and lock the bridge firing key.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
“Gunnery Officer, fire when ready.”
“Aye, Sir. Taylor, go to auto and shoot.”
“Aye, Sir. Mount Two, switch to auto.”
“Two aye… in auto.” In the bright moonlight, I could see the barrels of the aft twin mount slew to a firing position off the starboard quarter under the control of the computer. They were ready.
“Mount Two, shoot.”
No matter how prepared I was, that first salvo always made me jump. The Captain and the First Officer rushed out to the wing. We were all anxious to see if we could spot the explosion. The target was over nine miles inland, so we didn’t expect to see much. As it was, we saw nothing. The next thing we heard was the spotter.
“Black widow, black widow, this is diamond. Left five, up two. Request two rounds wp, over”
“Diamond, black widow, roger that.”
“Go, Taylor,” Breckenridge said nodding.
“Fire control, bridge, left five, up two, live key. Mount Two, close keys.” We would shoot when fire control was ready this time. As soon as they made the corrections they would fire.
“Fire control aye.”
Both barrels fired simultaneously. A few seconds later we heard from the spotter, “Black widow, this is diamond, dead on. Request continuous fire. I say again, continuous fire, over.”
Breckenridge reminded the Captain that we had to clear the rest of the wp out of mount Two before we could resume fire from that mount.
The Captain decided to try and take the easy way out, “Diamond, this is black widow, request permission to fire five more rounds of willie peter before switching to HE, over.”
“Black widow, that’s a negative on the HE, repeat, that’s a negative on the HE. Continue fire with willie peter, continue fire with willie peter, over”
“Holy shit!” I muttered, and a couple of the officers on the bridge grunted as well. I couldn’t believe this bloodthirsty bastard! Nobody fired wp at people.
I hesitated until Breckenridge nudged me and said, “Get ‘em started, kid.”
“Aye, Sir, but it will be ten minutes before we’re ready to shoot again.”
“Wait one, Taylor. Captain, suggest you tell the spotter we’ll be offline for ten minutes to change out the rounds.”
The Captain answered immediately. “Negative, gunner, fire the HE rounds in the hoist in One and Two, I’ll tell the spotter.”
I didn’t wait for a nudge this time. “Mounts One and Two, prepare for continuous automatic fire. Load willie peter in the hoists. Mount One, go to auto.”
“One aye, request you confirm load willie peter in the hoists, over.”
“Mount One, bridge, confirm load willie peter, over.” I would want that goddamn order confirmed too if I was shooting that crap.
I looked up at Breckenridge, I needed his okay to commence fire. For a moment, I thought he was shaking his head, or was it a trick of the moonlight? Then he nodded, and through clenched teeth, quietly gave the order. “Tell them to commence fire.”
“Mounts One and Two, commence fire, commence fire!”
All four guns fired almost simultaneously, sending a tremor through the old ship, and causing her to heel over noticeably to port. All the firing keys were locked closed now, except for the gun Captain’s. They would fire whenever the loaders were clear and the breeches were closed. The firing continued, with occasional corrections from the spotter. We kept waiting for him to switch back to high explosive, but he never did.
I could see the expressions on the faces of the others, frozen by the intermittent muzzle flashes that punctuated the night. I think we were ashamed of what we were doing. Enemy soldiers or not, we were all aware of what these rounds could do to an unprotected human body. The projectiles were fused to explode fifteen feet above the ground, and each contained four tubes of phosphorus, surrounded by enough high explosive to scatter the corrosive chemical over a wide area. White phosphorous burned when exposed to air, and a single drop, landing on unprotected skin, could result in a painful third-degree burn, or even death. Normally, these rounds were only used for spotting, making smoke, or starting fires. They were the gunnery equivalent of napalm.
I stole another look at the chart, and saw that the corrections we were being given were blanketing an area roughly a hundred meters square on the north bank of a small river. It had a name, but I couldn’t read it in the dim red light.
Looking towards the Vietnamese coast, we could now see a dull orange glow outlining a hill in the direction we were shooting. The spotter kept giving us encouragement along with his periodic corrections, telling us how well we were doing running-off the attacking force. I had the feeling it was bullshit, but I kept it to myself.
Finally, the spotter shut us down, and I told the mounts to cease fire. Good thing, because we were nearly out of willie peter anyway. The mood on the bridge was pretty somber, and when the captain secured from GQ, we left the bridge immediately, avoiding each other’s eyes.
Few of the men realized what happened that night, other than those on the bridge and the gun crews. The rest of them knew only that we had fired a hundred and forty rounds, and piled-up a body count, according to the spotter, of ninety-two dead and forty wounded. We had chased a bunch of gooks up a trail, and done our part to help win the war. The Captain had a skull-and-crossbones painted on the outside of the bridge wing, just below our battle ribbons, with the number 92 next to it.
Only a few of us on the bridge knew that we had not chased anyone anywhere. We had burned an area the size of two soccer fields to the ground, and killed or maimed everything within it. I didn’t play chess with Breckenridge again for the rest of the cruise. We only saw each other at morning muster or GQ and seldom spoke, neither one of us could slip back into that easy manner we had before the shoot.
We were the heroes of the squadron when we sailed into Subic Bay a couple of weeks later, as we were the first American Destroyer in the Vietnam war to produce a body count from offshore gunfire. Me? I got drunk.
* * *
June, 1984 — Washington, DC
I was in DC for the annual AFCEA show. Every defense contractor on the planet had a booth at the convention center, showing off their latest weapons system or gizmo for finding people, then killing them. The contractors were trying to sell to the military, and I was an engineer selling high-end computer and data acquisition systems to the contractors.
I was looking for business opportunities, when I ran across a guy at one of the contractor’s booths who had an application that looked like a good fit for us. I invited him to discuss it over a couple of drinks. We quickly determined my stuff wasn’t a good fix for his problem, but we were comfortable, so we spun some war stories. He was an ex- Green Beret who seemed to want to get something off his chest, so I listened while he followed one near-death experience with another. After a few drinks he started to really open up. It’s amazing what we’ll tell a total stranger who we don’t expect to see again.
“You know,” he said leaning across the small table and lowering his voice, “there were some things that happened over there I’d really like to forget. Like, one time we had been chasing some NVA’s for almost two days, and we finally cornered them in this village. We tried attacking twice, but couldn’t blast them loose. Three of our unit bought it, and finally our looie got pissed-off enough to call for air support. The damn carrier didn’t have anything that wasn’t busy, but they hooked us up with a tin can that was just a few clicks away.”
“They showed-up after nightfall, just as another buddy of mine went down. Most of us wanted to bug out, I mean, what the hell could the Navy do for us? But the looie wanted to make an example of the village. He pulled us back, and called for willie peter, a whole bunch of willie peter. You know what that shit does?”
I was feeling a little sick to my stomach, but I managed to nod, and asked him to go on.
“Man, they burned that shit-hole to the ground! Those guys can shoot. You should have seen those gooks running all over, but they couldn’t get away. The shells came so fast, they didn’t know which way to go. It was like a lightning storm that just moved back and forth over the same area, starting fires everywhere. People and huts just bursting into flames. Blew ‘em to bits. Went on for twenty minutes or so. When it got quiet, all we could hear were screams, mostly it was kids. Kids and women, that’s about all we found there when the fires went out. Couldn’t even get a good body count. Too many pieces, most of ‘em charcoal.”
I didn’t want to ask, but I had to know. “When was this, do you remember?”
“Had to be ‘66, May, I think, it was before the rains.”
I excused myself and headed for the men’s room — in a big hurry. I was gone for some time, and he wasn’t there when I returned. I can’t remember his name, and it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t blame him, of course, he was a just another guy doing his job, and so was his Lieutenant.
The villains were the politicians who fabricated the justifications for that damn war to begin with, but even they were only doing the bidding of the companies across the street at the convention center. So, who did kill those innocents in that peaceful little village on that beautiful moonlit night? Who was responsible?
* * *
October, 1988, Mystic, Connecticut
I was visiting one of my clients, when I ran across an old acquaintance. They had just hired Ben Cunningham, the Exec of my old ship. It had been over twenty years, but we recognized each other immediately.
As we shook hands, I said, “I’m Bill Taylor, great to see you again, Sir”
“I remember your name, call me Ben, please, we’re not in the canoe club anymore.”
“Roger that.” Amazing how fast the renewal of an old association can slide you back into old habits. We agreed to meet for lunch at a local restaurant.
After some polite catch-up, the conversation inevitably came around to our action that night. I told Ben what I had learned and asked him if he knew.
“Bill, neither I nor Captain Harris knew at the time, although I think every one of us on the bridge suspected that wasn’t a normal shoot. Harris and I were told the day we pulled into Subic. We were both pissed as hell, but there was nothing we could do about it. We were ordered to not even spread it around the wardroom, let alone tell the crew. I never told my wife, my kids, or anyone. What good would it do?”
“For what it’s worth, Ben, I’ve never told anyone either. I can’t even talk about being there.”
“We killed over two million innocent Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians in that freaking war, Bill,” he said,“ and nobody gives a damn. I can live with it because we were cogs in a machine, and didn’t even know what the machine was doing until it was too late. It rolled over all of us.”
“Speaking of all of us, how did the Captain take the news?
“That’s right; you were one of those who were discharged when we pulled into Norfolk, so you don’t know. Two days after we got back, Captain Harris hung himself in his cabin. His steward found him the next morning.”
“Oh Christ! Poor bastard.”So the final body count was really 93, I thought.
“Bill, we’re probably the only two members of the crew left who know what really happened that night. Perhaps we should stay in touch.”
We promised we would, but both of us knew it was one of those promises that would never be kept — and it wasn’t.
* * *
February, 2012, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
I haven’t spoken of the incident since that meeting with Cunningham, but it is often in my thoughts. I have watched my country continue to kill millions of innocents all over the world, usually for the financial gain of an insatiable few. Thanks to technology, we’ve certainly become a lot more efficient at it. Instead of a Destroyer with 300 men and a hundred-some rounds of ammunition, or a B-52, we just need one guy playing a video game in a trailer, controlling a drone twelve thousand miles away, and BOOM, another terrorist wedding party bites the dust.
And still, nobody gives a damn.
(Ed. Note: Pete Soderman moved to Ajijic from the United States with his wife, Gethyn, in 2010 following a long career in computer engineering and sales. In 2013, he published a well-received book on addiction and recovery called Powerless No Longer, which is available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audio-book formats. Powerless is also available locally in the LCS library, and at Diane Pearl’s. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the LCS, and as a library volunteer.)