They were all used to the sound of the 8-inch guns. The crew of the USS Newport News (CA-148) had been “on the gun line” since 11 May 1972, on station off the coast of South Vietnam providing heavy gunfire support against enemy troops and bunker positions in the Quang Tri City vicinity. She was the only heavy cruiser left in the Navy, and she delivered more firepower at a greater range than any other ship at the time. Her guns could fire 90 rounds per minute at a range of almost 18 miles, delivering projectiles that weighed 260 pounds apiece.
By October 1972 the United States was trying to end the Vietnam War. The nation was in full negotiations with the North Vietnamese at the Paris peace talks. Part of what assisted the Americans at the bargaining table was Operation Linebacker II, a massive bombing campaign ordered by President Richard Nixon in response to North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive, launched in an effort to improve its negotiating position in Paris. The Newport News’ firepower capability was a critical component of the campaign; she was deployed from her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, on 13 April—with three days’ notice—and assumed her role in Linebacker II.
Gunfire Slightly Off-Key
According to the ship’s command history, on the night of 30 September the crew had just finished the third mission of the day, firing 34 eight-inch and nine five-inch shells. For the sailors, the sound of the guns had a certain rhythm to it, and their ears could detect any variation in the gunfire or the ensuing reverberation. In fact, most of the ship’s crew could sleep right through the daily—or nightly—bombardment routine. Machinist’s Mate Second Class Charles Perkins was sleeping when he was awakened at almost exactly 0100 by one of the eight-inch guns. It just didn’t sound right.
Then he heard the announcement on the 1MC: “Fire in Turret Two!” The entire crew was ordered to general quarters (GQ) or to the fantail, whichever was more accessible. Confusion reigned in those first few minutes.
The commanding officer, Captain William “Zeke” Zartman, rushed to the bridge and arrived at 0104, according to the ship’s deck log. From there the view was more clear. “I saw the blast of fire and smoke that was billowing out where the barrel and the turret met,” recalled then-Commander Ingolf Kiland, the operations officer on the bridge at the moment of the explosion. “It was obvious something bad had happened. So we pulled away from the gun line.” An 8-inch projectile in the bore of the center gun of Turret Two had exploded prematurely, setting off several casings in the powder hoists. The extent of the damage was unknown at this point. The officers and crew responded immediately, relying on their training and instincts to assess and control the damage.
Gunner’s Mate Seaman Randall Richard Jordan had been working for several hours in Turret Two, trying to fix one of the microswitches in the powder hoist of the center gun. After spending some time degreasing it, he got it working just before 0100, so he decided to take a smoke break. He exited the port hatch, climbed down the starboard ladder, and was about to light a cigarette when he suddenly had the wind knocked out of him. He fell hard on the deck, knocked unconscious by the concussive force of the blast. He regained consciousness a few minutes later, only to witness a fellow crew member desperately trying to open the hatch. He watched in horror as the sailor recoiled and screamed in agony, the skin of his hands burned off by the intense heat.
Deck-log records indicate that the first responders to the scene from Repair Party I, led by Chief Warrant Officer Paul Abretski and Chief Hull Technician Robert Holloway, arrived at 0107. They ensured electrical power to the turret had been secured. Then they felt the rear bulkheads. Within a minute, at 0108, they were breaking open the jammed doors—only to have smoke escape in a billow around their heads, hampering their initial efforts. In addition, high-temperature alarm panels were being reported by Damage Control Central. It was clear a fire was raging inside the turret.
Damage Control and Haunting Memories
Captain Zartman ordered the flooding of the magazines at 0126, and Repair Party I personnel began directing hoses toward the center gun pit. All spaces forward of the turret were evacuated. According to the official investigation report, they first focused their efforts on the gun barrels, not knowing if they were loaded. When Machinist’s Mate Third Class Donnie Freeman heard the call go out for all “OBA men” (those crew members who had access to an “oxygen breathing apparatus” and could readily don one) to report to Turret Two, he rushed forward and arrived as the firefighters were starting to direct their hoses down the barbette.
Freeman was a number-one nozzle man and immediately joined in the effort. “There was still heat in there and visibility wasn’t good,” he recalled. “We didn’t know the conditions of the guns or the breeches.” He was 19 years old and admittedly terrified. “I don’t remember how long I was in there, but I’m guessing 15–20 minutes and then I was relieved. I [spent] 34 years in the fire department and I don’t recall ever being as scared.” The memories of the smell of burning flesh stay with him even to this day.
It took 30 minutes to fully extinguish the fire and to clear the smoke using “red devil blowers” that were rigged to the top of the turret, but not before some 720 pounds of powder had burned. With the fire under control, the major threat to the ship had been extinguished. But the crew was still concerned about the possibility of other explosions. The damage-control work in Turret Two was far from finished.
Hull Maintenance Technician Third Class Merle Bonner had just finished standing watch and was in his rack when he heard the call on the 1MC. He and his bunkmate, Fireman William Sansoucie, jumped up and headed to their GQ station. There, they met up with Senior Chief Hull Technician William Hayes, who had just reported from the chief petty officers’ berthing compartment. According to the official investigation report, Hayes recognized the rolling smoke heading toward them as the product of ordnance combustion, and he assumed it was noxious. He and the assembled group of approximately 14 members of Repair Party II—including Bonner and Sansoucie—donned their OBAs and headed toward the turret to render assistance.
They arrived at the turret just after the fire had been extinguished and the flooding had been secured. It was shortly after 0200. “We went inside and down to the second level, looking for hot spots,” recalled Bonner. And then they assisted in removing the bodies—either by carrying them or hoisting them up the ladders with block and tackle. Bonner estimated he was in the turret for hours, as he remembered having to change his OBA canister several times.
Death in a Greenish Fog
Petty Officer Perkins’ GQ station was sick bay, and by the time he arrived there the air was thick and full of an eerie green smoke. It was rapidly seeping through the hermetic maze of passageways and, just as quickly, through the ventilation system. Perkins moved slowly through the fog. Someone—he doesn’t remember who—knocked on the secured passageway door that led from sick bay forward toward the turret. He opened it, and a mess cook who was obviously suffering from smoke inhalation was dropped in his arms. Perkins cradled him and quickly ferried him to the corpsmen. But “he coughed up some blood and died in my arms.” Stunned and numb, Perkins stayed in sick bay for the next two hours, helping out where he could. He was asked to go assist in preparing bodies for transport from the flag cabin, where the mood was somber. There, he and the other volunteers tied up and wrapped the bodies in double sheets. Even now, he can close his eyes and remember every detail. “We were young that night, but we aged fast.”
Hospital Corpsman Second Class Greg McCaulley had just fallen asleep when he heard the call to GQ. Surprisingly, he had not heard the explosion. “I quickly grabbed my pants and headed for sick bay . . . fighting my way through frantic shipmates.” There, he quickly went to work caring for the patients who were arriving en masse, coughing and choking from the poisonous fumes. He worked alongside the medical officer and other corpsmen to save and stabilize dozens of men. “We started intravenous fluids, gave injections, numerous medications, dressed burns, and administered oxygen.” More than 21 patients were transferred later that morning to the USS New Orleans (LPH-11), which had a larger medical facility and more medical personnel on board. McCaulley lost several friends that night and worked 48 hours with only a four-hour break. He examined and treated more than 250 patients.
A complete inquiry, conducted by retired Vice Admirals K. S. Masterson and L. M. Mustin a month later, identified the cause of the explosion to be a defective auxiliary detonating fuse, which had prematurely fired. The fuse’s manufacturer, the Bermite Powder Company, and the commands responsible for quality control and testing—the Defense Contract Administration Services and Naval Ordnance Systems Command—were named as responsible parties. The investigation report noted that the Navy’s diffused organizational structure at the time vested authority and accountability for ordnance in multiple commanders, and the authors recommended that the Naval Ordnance Systems Command be given subsequent control over all ordnance matters, including design, procurement, testing, and life-cycle technical control. The authors also criticized the standard practice of inspection sampling and recommended 100-percent inspections at several successive phases of manufacture and assembly.
‘She Was a Beautiful, Graceful Lady’
A total of 20 men died that night or later from smoke inhalation. All of the men in the upper and lower shell decks died instantly. Thirty-six others suffered serious injuries from the toxic gases—including chlorine, phosgene, and cordite—that spread throughout the ship as a result.
Boatswain Mate Third Class Craig Baird was one of the few inside the turret who did survive. He and four or five other men were on the bottom (fifth) level of the turret, the powder-handling room, when the explosion occurred. It knocked him down from his seat on the ladder that led up to the fourth deck where the projectiles were stored, but it did not knock him out. The space immediately filled up with smoke, and he could barely see his hand in front of his face. Facing severe smoke inhalation if he didn’t exit promptly, “I quickly rounded up all the guys and went out the side escape hatch.”
They emerged into a passageway that was quickly filling with smoke. Baird could almost feel it permeating the ship. As the ranking petty officer, he quickly directed them topside toward fresh air. Then he separated from the group and proceeded to the bridge to give the quartermaster an accounting of survivors. In the chaos and confusion, one of the group, Seaman Joseph Grisafi, mistakenly thought Baird was still in the powder-handling magazine and returned to find him. The additional exposure to the fumes took its toll; Grisafi died from smoke inhalation two days later.
If the flames had spread down the hoists just a few feet farther into the powder-handling room, the results could have been catastrophic. The loading scuttles at the bottom of the hoists had no protection and might have blown apart, as they did in the levels above. This could have resulted in a magazine explosion. In that case, the survival of the entire ship could have come into question.
When power was restored close to 0300, Radioman First Class Richard Carmichael was able to send the first message of the explosion to the 7th Fleet and to the world. The ship departed for repairs at Subic Bay at 0743, and damage-control operations were secured at 1200. ABC News reported on the explosion from Subic Bay on 3 October, but the incident received little subsequent news coverage. The ship stayed in the Philippines until 20 October, when she returned to the gun line. The Newport News departed for home on 28 November, having fired 28,295 8-inch rounds since arriving on the gun line in May.
The tragic memories of that night remain—more indelibly for some crew members than others. However, most of them still hold a strong degree of affection for the ship. As Electronics Technician Third Class John Nolls described it, “She was a beautiful, graceful lady with guns bristling.” Ships of the line such as the Newport News were different, he believes: “We don’t carry our weapons on our shoulder. We eat, live, and commiserate in the confines of our weapon. We knew the ship would take care of us, and she did.”
Victims of the Newport News Turret Explosion, 1 October 1972
Seaman Apprentice Herman Carol Acker
Seaman Jack Stephen Bergman Jr.
Boatswain’s Mate Third Class William Clark Jr.
Gunner’s Mate Third Class Charles Wayne Clinard
Seaman Apprentice Ronald Paul Daley
Seaman Recruit Raymond Rance Davis
Seaman Terry Wayne Deal
Seaman Joseph Grisafi
Seaman Apprentice William Harrison III
Gunner’s Mate Second Class Tommy Hawker
Seaman Apprentice Robert Kikkert
Seaman Edward McEleney Jr.
Seaman Apprentice Robert Moore
Seaman Apprentice Stanley Pilot Jr.
Seaman Ralph Robinson
Gunner’s Mate First Class Wesley Rose
Seaman Apprentice Richy Rucker
Seaman Apprentice Jeffrey Scheller
Seaman David Lee Scott
Seaman Apprentice Richard Tessman