The USS Windham County LST-1170
U.S. Navy LST U.S.S. Windham County (LST-1170), similar to the one in this story, off the coast of South Vietnam, 1966. U.S. Navy photo.

Confusion at sea

By Larry Rogers

We first suspected there was a problem when a U.S. Navy radar plane swooped down to within 40 feet of the LST (Landing Ship, Tank) that was transporting our unit, B Battery, 1st Battalion, 83rd Artillery, from Saigon to Dong Ha, a port city just south of the DMZ.

“Strange,” my pal Jenks Norwalk said, as the plane flew away, turned, and headed back toward us again. The aircraft repeated this maneuver, and then repeated it again. “What’s going on?” I wondered.

It was 1968, and it had been a peaceful voyage down the Saigon River to where it flowed into the South China Sea, and then up the coast of South Vietnam – a five-day respite from fire missions. Our LST had a crew of South Korean nationals, but I wouldn’t have given this a second thought if not for the fact that the USS Pueblo had been captured by the North Koreans just a few days earlier. “Can we trust these guys?” Norwalk jokingly asked me.

A few weeks before, with the Tet Offensive looming, our unit had moved from Ham Tan to Bien Hoa – this was the longest distance a heavy-artillery battery had moved during the war so far. It was about 80 miles, and had been done in one day.

Then several days after Tet, on February 10, we had moved from Bien Hoa to Newport, a part of the Saigon-area port complex, and loaded onto the LST to head for Dong Ha.

From the morning our LST departed Newport, we enjoyed sea breezes, card games, and writing letters home. I remember flush toilets and hot showers. I slept on deck one night. It was a welcome change from the way we had been living.

Now it was ending. We had sailed a long way north, and had now turned toward shore – toward Dong Ha – we presumed. But suddenly, the LST turned around, the hills behind us growing smaller and smaller as we sailed farther away from the shore we had been sailing toward just a few minutes earlier. The radar plane, which had been buzzing us, flew away, and two U.S. Navy destroyers joined us and began escorting us south.

Later, we found out what had happened: The radar on our LST had become inoperable. Our crew of South Koreans had become disoriented, and without realizing it, had crossed the DMZ.

When the radar plane had spotted us we were already 17 miles north of the DMZ, within 10 miles of the coast, and headed toward shore. We were in danger, and didn’t realize it.

Every man in our battery, along with the four 8-inch howitzers, the LST, and its crew, could have been captured by the North Vietnamese.

“And this happening only a few days after the Pueblo had been captured by the North Koreans!” Norwalk said. “How suspect would our Korean crew have been?”

Had that radar plane not spotted us on the 16th of February, 1968, the international repercussions (not to even mention personal repercussions) would have been enormous.

 

Larry Rogers is a poet/singer-songwriter whose poems have been published in literary magazines around the country. He served with B Battery, 1/83rd Arty in Vietnam, 1967-68, and lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas.