On the night of 27 August 1972, four U.S. ships—the USS Newport News (CA-148), Providence (CLG-6), Robison (DDG-12), and Rowan (DD-782)—went into North Vietnamese waters, closing to within five miles of the minefield that U.S. aircraft had recently sown in the approaches to Haiphong. The ships were part of Operation Lion’s Den, a raid on designated enemy targets as part of the American response to North Vietnam’s so-called “Easter Invasion” of South Vietnam.
Embarked in the Newport News was none other than the Commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral James L. Holloway III, who had chosen to join this aggressive mission because “an evening of fireworks up north would be a chance to observe the North Vietnamese capabilities.” Reassuring the ship’s captain that he was not there to take tactical command of the operation and that he would “stay out of his hair,” Holloway took up his observer’s position on the bridge as the operation got under way.
Splitting into two groups of a cruiser and destroyer each, the warships raced northward at 26 knots. When the Newport News and Rowan were just shy of the five-fathom curve, they turned eastward and commenced firing. Secondary explosions ashore indicated that the 5-inch and 8-inch guns as well as several Shrike missiles had found their targets. Geysers leaping from the surface indicated that enemy gunners ashore were returning fire, and the rattle of shrapnel against the ship’s hull and superstructure indicated that some of the shots were coming close.
At 2333, the mission was complete, and the command to cease fire silenced the batteries. As the Newport News prepared to turn south, the combat information center reported a surface target—designated Skunk Alfa—at 10,000 yards, bearing 088, emerging from a cluster of small islands and closing at high speed from the east. Lookouts identified the contact as a Soviet-made P-6 fast attack craft. Coming hard right, the Newport News opened up with her port-side batteries, and within minutes flames appeared on Skunk Alfa, forcing it to break off the attack and head northward to escape.
Barely were they beyond that harrowing moment, when new dangers arose as two more enemy P-6s appeared on the surface-search radar, zigzagging among the islands due east of the cruiser. This time she put her rudder over left to unmask the starboard batteries and commenced firing. The oncoming boats maneuvered among the ship-sized islands, making it difficult to obtain a solid radar lock. The Newport News was running out of sea room as she closed on the islands, and the situation was made worse when several star shells fired from the Rowan blinded rather than aided the American gunners who were trying to target the enemy boats visually.
At this point, Holloway, knowing that American aircraft were in the air conducting strikes of their own (something the cruiser’s captain did not know), stepped out of his role as mere observer and grabbed the UHF handset. Going out on the guard frequency in the clear, using his rather unusual personal call sign, he said: “Attention any 7th Fleet aircraft in the vicinity of Haiphong, this is Jehovah on board Newport News with a shore bombardment force in Haiphong Harbor. . . . Any aircraft in the area, give me a call on Guard.”
With such a call from on high, it did not take long for the “cavalry” to show up in the form of two A-7 Corsairs. Within minutes Skunks Bravo and Charlie were destroyed by a combination of Rockeye missiles and well-placed flares that aided the cruiser’s gunners.
No longer in harm’s way, the Newport News turned south and headed for friendlier waters as “Jehovah” left the bridge.