The possibility of an enemy aerial attack on US Navy ships off the coast of North Vietnam became a reality on Apr. 19, 1972.
US Navy ships operating off the coast of North Vietnam became actively engaged in the air war as combat operations heated up in the spring of 1972.
According to the book The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, the possibility of an enemy aerial attack on Navy ships off the coast of North Vietnam became a reality on Apr. 19, 1972. USS Higbee (DD-806) was five miles off the coast near Dong Hoi, with USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764), USS Sterett (DLG-31), and the Commander of the Seventh Fleet (Com7thFlt) flagship USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5), participating in an Operation Sea Dragon fire mission against transportation targets on Highway One ashore, when radar picked up two bogeys coming out of the mountains and flying low over the gulf waters. Higbee’s crew didn’t know it, but they were about to become the first US Navy ship bombed by an enemy air force since 1945 when she was attacked by a special force that the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) had organized the year before to engage in shipping strikes. When plans were initiated for the 1972 offensive, North Vietnamese leaders realized that the Seventh Fleet would likely re-activate Sea Dragon, in which surface ships had shelled the North Vietnamese coast throughout the years of Rolling Thunder, and the VPAF was directed to create a strike force that could oppose these operations.
Ten pilots of the MiG-17-equipped 923rd Fighter Regiment had been picked and trained in anti-shipping maneuvers by a military advisor known as “Ernesto” from the Cuban Air Force who was a specialist in anti-shipping attack, trained for such a role to oppose an invasion of the island nation by the United States after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The special force was led by MiG-17 pilot and ace Nguyen Van Bay. By March 1972, six pilots were considered capable of flying maritime attack missions. A special hidden airfield had been constructed by the 28th Technical Brigade at Gat, in Quang Binh Province, carefully camouflaged to escape detection by US photo recon flights. Several MiG-17s were modified to carry a 250-kilogram (550-pound) bomb under each wing on the mount for the underwing drop tanks the fighters normally carried. The 403rd Radar Unit moved into position near the Dinh River opposite the port of Nhat Le, where it kept track of US warships operating off the coast.
The day before the planned attack, VPAF pilots Le Hong Diep and Tu De took off from Kep airfield to deliver two of the special attack aircraft, flying to Gia Lam and then Vinh before delivering them to the secret airfield at Gat, to throw off US radar tracking them. Tu De later remembered, “We flew just above the ground after taking off from Vinh, to stay below the enemy radar.” That night, the 403rd Radar Unit picked up four US ships off the coast of Quang Binh Province as they took up station five to seven miles to sea from the villages of Quang Xa and Ly Nhan Nam.
Nguyen Van Bay later recalled the attack:
“Le Xuan Di, and I were preparing for the attack. At 0930 hours, the 403rd radar unit reported four ships 40 kilometers [25 miles] from Le Thuy and 120 kilometers [75 miles] from Dinh, and three ships 80 kilometers [50 miles] from the Sot river. However, due to the foggy weather, we could not take off. At noon the radar unit reported the ships had moved to the south and only two remained in position. By 1500 hours the first group of four ships was 15 kilometers [nine-and-a-half miles] from Ly Hoa and the second two-ship formation was seven kilometers [two-and-a-half miles] from Quang Trach, while three more warships were 18 kilometers [11 miles] from Ly Hoa. At 1600 hours, a new group of ships was spotted 16 kilometers [nearly four miles] from Nhat Le.
“At 1605 hrs we received our orders to take off. When we were over Ly Hoa, we saw the ships and noted puffs of smoke, that they were firing on the shore. We received the order to attack.”
Le Xuan Di turned left toward the fleet, overflying the other ships as he took aim at Higbee and increased his speed. The destroyer had just experienced a “hot round” in one of the two 5-inch guns in her aft mount, and the crew had evacuated onto the fantail when the MiG-17 flew low overhead and dropped two bombs on the ship, then broke to the left. Both his bombs hit the destroyer:
“While Le Xuan Di was attacking his target I flew on, and upon reaching the Dinh river I spotted two ships to the northeast. I was too close, and did not have time for a proper attack, so I overshot them. I had to return for a second pass. Le Xuan Di asked me on the radio: “All right?” I answered “Not really,” since I thought I had missed my target. After returning to base at 1622 hrs, I was told that a 30 meter [99-foot]-high column of smoke was seen out at sea, and later something burst into flames.”
The attackers were over the task force only 17 minutes, with Le Xuan Di badly damaging Higbee’s superstructure and completely destroying the aft 5-inch mount, while wounding four crewmen with his two bombs. Nguyen Van Bay’s critical view of his performance was borne out by the fact that Oklahoma City sustained only minor damage. Sterett claimed to have achieved a radar lock on Bay’s MiG, shooting him down with two Terrier missiles, but Bay successfully returned to Gat airfield. The task force also reported exchanging fire with two North Vietnamese torpedo boats, but the North Vietnamese later stated that none of their ships had participated in the action.
Dong Hoi and Vinh airfield were attacked in retaliation the next day. Several days later, the secret airfield at Gat was discovered and attacked by a 30-aircraft Alpha strike. Higbee managed to steam under her own power to Da Nang despite having a damaged rudder, where she tied up alongside the repair ship USS Hector (AR-7). AP war correspondent Don Davis, who had just come off an assignment aboard USS Buchanan (DDG-14) which was also tied up to Hector, went aboard Higbee and later remembered that the ship’s fantail “looked like a junkyard floating in a pool of dirty oil.” The photo Davis took of the damage would play widely in US newspapers. He also recalled that the local naval authorities weren’t happy there was a reporter present. Interestingly, the official history of USS Higbee in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS) contained a short paragraph recounting the event as late as 2017, but as of 2019, all mention of the event has been removed from the DANFS record and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) record for the ship. When queried, NHHC stated there was no “official record” of such an event. The attack is recorded in detail in Aerial Battles in the Skies of Vietnam, the official history of the VPAF.
The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Bình Giang via Wikipedia, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy