Chapter Twelve

Nam Away

Bob noticed the ship wasn’t going in circles.  She was steaming Southwest with the controls set at fast speed ahead.  If you were on the bridge, you realized they were going twenty-five to thirty knots.  The Mathers could go faster, but for now, this was fast enough as they needed to conserve fuel.

The sailors and officers knew they were headed to perform the job they were destined to do – they were going to be on the gun line off the coast of Vietnam.  They looked to their fifty-four caliber guns to keep the Marines and Army safe from enemy attack.

The Viet Cong knew the power and accuracy of the Mather’s guns.  The VC had her locked on their radar when it was on the gun line. They wanted her taken down.

As the Mathers plowed through the waves, a message was intercepted. The ship’s radioman, whose name was Tony, received a request for assistance from Nha Trang Air Force Base.

“Assistance needed fast”, said the voice on the other end.  “They have us pinned down and we are up against the river.  Anyone hear me?”

His Division Officer, Mr. Starry, advised Tony to, “Tell Nha Trang Air Force Base we will be there within the hour”,

They weren’t that far from Nha Trang which was in Southern Viet Nam. It was a miracle that they were so close to the Air Force Base in this time of need.

Tony responded with a positive, “Nha Trang Air Force Base, we copy you loud and clear. This is the USS Mathers and we are on our way.  Our ETA is 0200.” That meant that they were only fifteen minutes from Nha Trang Air Force Base.

There was a pause, and someone responded to the ship, “Waiting to see you and those famous guns.  They have us surrounded. There must be two-hundred and fifty VC moving in on us.  We can’t hold out much longer.”

The Mathers set their course for Nha Trang Harbor.  Chief Brad had the Con of the ship. The Chief loved the feel of the power in his hands as he maneuvered the three-hundred-forty-seven-foot Mathers into the right spot to support the Air Force Base.

The Chief told the engineer to, “Set the throttle on full speed ahead, we have a date to keep”.

The engineer followed the orders and the Mathers plotted the course at thirty-two knots.  It didn’t take long before they were at the mouth of the harbor.  Boats lined both sides of the waterway creating a potential hazard in navigation. Chief Brad was determined to get to the Air Force Base to bail out the Marines and Army personnel trapped by the VC.

They came up into the harbor sending waves that rocked the boats anchored.  As they approached the Air Force Base, the harbor narrowed.  Brad had to turn the ship around to position the guns correctly.  Some of the ship’s lights cast light on the water as they positioned themselves to fire the guns.

As he slowly turned the ship, he noticed the brown sludge coming up from the bottom.  This sludge had an odor and was tinted orange. An odor arose from the mystery chemical but there were more important things to be done and the chemical was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Although it was dark, because of the lighting on the ship, he could tell he was bow to land and stern to land.

Brad commented to Mr. Starry, “I hope this sucker can turn around without running aground”.

“You can make it, Chief.  Cut the thrusters hard to the port and hopefully we will be okay.  I’d hate to be a target for the VC.”

With the deftness of a surgeon, Brad began to swing the ship around, and the guns were now facing their target – the Vietcong.

“Nha Trang, come in.”

“Here sir.  Fire at will.  We’re depending on you saving our necks. We have been forced to push back to the river.  We have nowhere to go. You are our last hope.”

“What’s your position?” asked Brad.

“Sir, we are at 12.15 North and 109.11 East and entrenched.  We are receiving fire from all directions. The VC have us backed up to the water. We are in fox holes and trying to hold our own, but they are gaining on us and we have nowhere to go. We have no place else to retreat to, so please hurry.”

With that authorization, phosphorous flares lit up the night. “Holy shit, the hill is crawling with Charlie.  Let’s get the big guns out and push them back.”

“Nha Trang, be prepared.  We are about to commence firing”.

With those words, the Mathers put her guns on automatic. The two mounted guns began firing sixty rounds per minute.  Each shell weighed seventy pounds and continuously fired at the enemy.

The sound resonated against the walls of the harbor.  Smoke filled the air. They continued their barrage for twenty-five minutes forcing the VC back up the hill and into a ravine.

The Mathers was well known to the VC and not one shot was fired from the encroaching enemy.  They turned around and ran back to the safety of the jungle.

“Look at Charlie run”, came a voice from the base.  “Man alive, you saved our butts. We owe you a drink Sailor.”

“No problem.  Glad we could help you out.”

The Mathers pushed the VC back into the jungle away from the Base and allowed the Marines and Army to return to their stations unencumbered by the VC.

Once the ship was on their way again, it was reported that the barrels of the guns were melted from the heavy bombardment.  It was time to get to port to repair the damage done to the guns and protect the Mathers key defense weapon.

The course was set for Subic Bay, Philippines.  The guns could be fixed and back to normal in a day.  When they arrived at the base, they were escorted into a bay for rework.  Since the guns were angled, it was impossible to repair the barrels. As the tide went out, The Philippine repairmen at the dock tautly winched the lines to the Mathers on the starboard side.  They used double the number of lines to tilt the ship enough to repair the gun barrels. They used low tidal water to their advantage. It was at the lowest tide that the ship was tilted until the barrels were horizontal and ready for repair. It was the optimum time to repair and paint the barrels.

They had approximately two hours to finish the job until the rising tides would tilt the ship back off the bottom to an upright position.

With the barrels repaired the lines were slowly released and the Mathers swung upright again.  The repair job was complete.

She was on her way to the gun line. They fixed their position in Yankee Station and started to patrol along the coast of Vietnam. One leg of the rectangle brought them one-half mile offshore.  The shore bombardment was non-stop.  Spotters called in positions and the guns began their bombardment of the coast. The VC was pushed back away from the troops. It still wasn’t enough.

The foliage was so dense that the soldiers couldn’t track their enemy who may have been right beside them.  In order to defoliate the jungle, a new weapon emerged.  It was called Agent Orange. The defoliant was delivered via airplanes such as the C-123s.

There was one big problem – the C-123s filled their tanks with Agent Orange, flew to their designated coordinates and pushed the lever to expel and deliver their goods. If the defoliant wasn’t completely expelled, the pilot may not shut down the release of the poison unless he made a special effort to do so.  Instead, the defoliant continued to disperse until the tanks were empty.

The Mathers’ designated station in Vietnam was one-half mile offshore where they continuously outlined a rectangle. The C-123s started their run to disperse Agent Orange from the Gulf of Tonkin just as they approached the shoreline. Their first run is a loop run ending up back at the shoreline. The pilot would then turn around to attempt a second run. The defoliate could be switched off after their first run. But it would take the pilot more time to shut off the valve then turn it back on when they approached the shoreline again. Many would skip turning off the defoliant to save time and effort. They would make their second loop run with the defoliate open.  Depending on wind direction, the defoliant spraying from the planes over water would inadvertently spray the ships below.

Bob was on the deck when a C-123 flew over.  Suddenly, he noticed that the plane was emitting an orange trail.

‘Oh my God, they’re spraying us!  What the hell are they doing?”  He ran to get Bubba, so he could show him what was happening.  The deck of the Mathers was covered with an orange liquid sprayed by the C-123s.

“Bubba, you got to see this.  Come with me fast!”

A voice came over the loudspeaker, “Deckhands, wash down the ship, NOW and don’t ask questions”.

By the time Bubba met with Bob, the deck was washed down, and no evidence of the orange liquid existed.

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