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Monday, March 28, 2005

US Navy vs. Cruise Missiles? - the Battle off Dong Hoi

When did the US Navy first engage and defeat an enemy cruise missile? There is some debate...

In late March 1972, the North Vietnamese undertook an invasion of South Vietnam, rolling armor and troops across the DMZ. As part of a response to the invasion, US Navy ships were assigned to provide gunfire support along the coast of Vietnam. As part of that operation, on April 19, 1972, a group of US Navy ships were lining up for a gunfire mission off the coast of North Vietnam near Dong Hoi. As is recounted by Elden G. Miller here one of the ships was the USS Sterett (DLG-31):
On April 19, Sterett was at her normal station in the northern part of the Gulf of Tonkin and received orders to head south and provide anti-air support for a gun-line mission near Dong Hoi, just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) near Dong Hoi. Prior to April 19, air strikes had reportedly softened up the area and intelligence sources suggested that no viable enemy aircraft remained in the area. 

Sterett rendezvoused with the light cruiser Oklahoma City (CLG-5),  the destroyer Higbee (DD-806) and destroyer Lloyd Thomas (DD-764). Sterett launched her LAMPS helicopter, to operate as an airborne spotter for the gunfire mission.

At 1600 Oklahoma City, Higbee and Lloyd Thomas began their gun run against targets in the vicinity of Dong Hoi. The first pass was from north to south, parallel to the coast with a return leg back towards the north. Upon commencing their run, all three ships started to receive heavy counter fire from shore batteries. No hits were experienced on Oklahoma City, Higbee or Lloyd Thomas but many shells appeared to bracket the ships. Oklahoma City reported shrapnel damage to her superstructure from some of the near hits.

Also shortly after the task group arrived off shore, several air targets were detected amongst the mountains. A single MiG 17 came out of the mountains and headed for the USS Higbee  and dropped a single 250 pound bomb. It was a near miss with no damage.

Sterett had two missiles on the rails and a single Terrier missile was launched towards the MiG and missed. Sterett then fired the remaining missile and downed the MiG.

Higbee had experienced a hot round in her "Mount 52" after gun mount and the mount had been evacuated just prior to the MiG's second pass which resulted in a single 250-pound bomb hitting at the base of the vacated 5-inch gun mount. The bomb penetrated the weather deck and caused the ready ammunition stored below to explode and destroy the gun mount. Higbee experienced only four injuries and no loss of life.

After the first MiG started it’s first bomb run, a second MiG exited the mountains and executed a 180-degree turn and headed back into the mountains. Sterett fired two missiles at this MiG and assumed a "kill" when the missile and plane disapeared from radar simultaneously.

Higbee, Oklahoma City and Lloyd Thomas exited the area to the northeast, accompanied by the Sterett. Sterett was roughly paralleling Higbee’s course and making oblique course changes as they headed away from the battle area to keep Sterett's forward missile main battery unmasked.Sterett was tracking a couple of  small high-speed surface tracks during this exit. As they were observing one of the tracks vertical video separation was noted. At the same time Sterett detected an electronic signature identified as a Russian SS-N-2 Styx missile. Sterett immediately fired a salvo of two Terrier missiles at the suspected Styx missile. Following the detonation of Sterett's Terrier, the missile target disappeared from radar and the ECM signature signal ceased signifying a kill.

Sterett’s gun crews had so far been mere spectators during the action that day. Two surface targets were paralleling Sterett's course and speed. The Sterett’s aft mounted 5" 54 mount made short work of the surface targets and they to disappeared from radar...

Some you might not be familiar with the Styx missile, but it has recently been known in the Chinese version as the "Silkworm":
China acquired the Russian SS-N-2 Styx missile technology in 1959, and production began in 1974. The Russian SS-N-2 was used in 1967 against Israel by Egypt, in 1971 by India against Pakistan, and by Iran during its 1980-88 war with Iraq. Chinese copies of the Styx design (CSS-C-2 Silkworm and CSS-C-3 Seersucker) coastal defence missiles and the ship launched CSS-N-1 and CSS-N-2 were used by both sides in the Iraq-Iran War

Technological improvements to the C-801/SARDINE and the C-802/ SACCADE are providing a gradual upgrade to China's current force of antiquated first generation CSS-N-1 SCRUBBRUSH ASCMs. It was reported in 1996 that Iran had begun indigenous production of a medium-range antiship missile, the FL-10, based on the Chinese FL-2 or FL7 and developed with Chinese technical assistance.

An analysis of the Battle off Dong Hai, by Stuart Slade, concerning the Styx incident is here. Mr. Slade first sets out a USS Sterett account:
Sterett's fire control radar operators had locked onto several of the surface tracks in CBT mode (Continuous Boat Track).  As they were observing one of the tracks, they detected vertical video separation.  The radar automatically maintained its lock onto the video that separated from the surface target.  At the same time Sterett's ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) crew in CIC (Combat Information Center)  received an electronic signature of an ASCM (Anti Ship Cruise Missile) and the fire control radar associated with a missile launch.  It was immediately identified as a Russian SS-N-2 Styx missile

This was the first time a Navy ship had been attacked with a guided missile in a combat situation.  The positive lock by the SPG-55 fire control radar allowed Sterett to fire a salvo of two Terrier missiles immediately following the Styx launch. If Sterett would have had to acquire the Styx normally with her air search radars, plot the course via several paints (radar sweeps) and then hand it over to the missile fire control radars, she could never have fired missiles in time to intercept the Styx missile.  Bridge lookouts reported seeing Sterett's Terriers enter a cloudbank and explode.  The Styx was never visually spotted.  Following the detonation of our Terrier, the missile target disappeared from radar and the ECM signature signal ceased...
Then Mr. Slade goes on to discount the idea that the Sterett was ever fired upon by a missile:
I don't believe there ever was a missile launch at Sterett, although the CIC crew had every reason to believe that there had been one and they acted entirely correctly.  I think we had a combination of a very confused radar environment made worse by the use of an unsuitable radar for surface search and a misinterpretation of the available data.  I don't rule out the possibility of an inbound P-15 completely, but the more I look at the situation, the less likely it seems.  I think the USN had good reason to disallow the claimed shoot-down.  This does not change the fact that the CIC crew did a fantastic job in a very confused environment.  They had an air action to fight, a crippled ship to protect and also a potentially lethal surface threat developing.  Even if they didn't kill a missile, they still deserve a salute for jobs well and skillfully done.


  1. Anonymous12:37 PM

    I heard this battle over the secure comms while standing a JOOD watch aboard USS George K. Mackenzie (DD-836) ... steaming with another Surface Action Group about 15 miles away at the time. I remember this like it was yesterday. The crew of the USS Sterett did a fabulous job ... Navy training paid off big time. When they splashed the MiG, it was pandemonium on the bridge of DD-836 ... because we were yelling and cheering our heads off!! BZ to the CIC team aboard DLG-31! LTJG Mike Goss (at the time)

  2. John Welsch2:40 AM

    I was onboard USS Samuel Gompers and one of the R-1 Division Shipfitters assigned to repair Higbee in DaNang. Quite a mess, lots of cutting and refurb work above and below deck. Mounted side platforms for Marines with wire guided missiles on a couple cans without guided missile defense systems while in port. Those old Korean era 6 gunners were pretty well unarmed when it came to dealing with Migs and missiles.

    Also did some work on NewPort News after she took a hit, and stood fire watch for the regunning of a tin can. I remember Sterret's crew coming onboard for gedunk and supplies telling of the fight off the coast. Heady stuff for a tender dutied shipfitter!

    The best day was April 14, 1972 when they cut us loose for a few hours of beer party on the pier. My birthday, drank as many PBRs as I could until they moved us out because of an impending rocket/mortar attack that shorted my birthday party. That was the best tasting beer I think I've ever had!

  3. Anonymous1:40 PM

    GQ station was on the port side bridge repeater as the PRI TAC radio operator, USS Higbee. I remember the action like watching a movie in slow motioin. The first MIG banked to port and dropped a 250lb bomb along the port side. The GM stationed on the signal bridge was our only anti-aircraft protection with the He lead the MIG during the banking. The next thing was the OOD ordering "Brace for impact". That was when the 250lb hit Mount 52. Word was passed that we were loosing headway due to water in the fuel oil, a result of the portside bomb drop. I was communicating with the Oklahoma City and passing the situation reports provided by the Captain. It was then when the Sterett got the MIG that hit us. The Loyd Thomas came along side and passed pumps and additional personel. As fires were restored and we were able to get underway CIC adivised of surface contacts coming from the shore area. Again the Sterett fired and that was the second missle launch observed along with fire from her after mount. Higbee went into DaNang and tied up to the Samuel Gompers for repairs. From there we sailed back to Subic Bay for dry docking and repairs. Returning to the Gun Line was monumentus, we left Subic without Mount 52 because it had not arrived from the states yet. We conducted several gun fire missions and then returned to Subic to become a four gun Fram-II Gehring again. We received many BZ's from CNO and local commands. RM2 E.S.Kerr III

    1. John MacNamara9:27 PM

      Hello: My name is John MacNamara, and I was a FTM2 Missile technician on board the USS Sterett. I work on the SPG-55B radars and it was one of our radars that was tracking the Migs that day in Dong Hoi Gulf.

      It must be noted, that the kill by the Terrier was strictly a ballistic shot, as the Mig was to close for the missile to lock onto, so the Mig was struck in the underbelly as it flew up and over the Higbee. Needless to say, it was a tense but exciting time in the radar room.

      The other Mig flew back to Laos, after we shot down the 1st Mig. We fired two standard missiles at the target as it was retreating. I was watching the radar screen when the Mig disappeared over the mountain ranges. We heard soon after that an F4 phantom was tracking the Mig from overland an alerted us that we had destroyed the Mig. Needless, to say both mig downs occured under non text book circumstances.

      Referencing the Styx missile. The scenario described above is an account that occurred when we were up off Hanoi. We were tracking one of the many boats that were in the water at the time, and I recall looking at the radar ranger, and seeing a target coming inbound at a rapid speed. Very little time elapsed before two Standard missiles were fired at the target. As described above, the target disappeared and the ranger ceased tracking the target. I cant remember the date that this occurred but it happened when some event was going on in Hanoi and we were up there with many other ships from the 7th fleet.

      Any additional comments are welcome.

      Thanks for your time.

    2. Anonymous6:55 PM

      RMC T.A.Schussler USN Ret.
      I was a 2nd Class Radiomand onboard USS Sterett DLG-31 on April 19, 1972. I'm not sure why there is so much confusion over the events of that day. Our cruise book has an actual series of photographs that documents the hit on Higbee and the first MIG intercept. The second MIG could not be verified because it was over the horizon at time of intercept. The Styx intercept has always been in question but it is interesting to note that the entire crew received a document from the Terriers manufacturer commemorating the first hositle intercept with their weapons systems, There were two more probably MIG intercepts that same day by Sterett terriers and Steretts 5" Gun is believed to have sunk two MTBs (one of which was believed to have fired the Styx), Gerry Hemphil was the onboard tech support from our fire control radar company and he seemed to be thouroughly convinced the events occured as I have described,

    3. Anonymous4:57 AM

      I was the Gun Director Officer aboard USS Lloyd Thomas at GQ on 19 APR 1972. I observed the MIG pop up and then dive at Higbee and drop the 250 bomb near Mount52. The other MIG then came to my attention, but by then it was circling back toward the mainland. The MIG that had just bombed Higbee was nearly out of sight (due to the poor weather) when the missle took it out with a large explosion and a splash. I cannot account with a high degree of certainty about two other MIGs, but, Sterett fired two missiles in the direction of the mainland,at retreating A/C. After that action, Lloyd Thomas turned her attention to assisting Higbee. As for the rest of the action, I can only add that we had numerous encounters with patrol craft and counter battery. In fact, Lloyd Thomas had been hit on the hull below Mount51 at Quang Tri on the 6th April.

  4. Anonymous6:46 PM

    I was the DRT, (dead reckoning tracer), operator in the Sterett's CIC that day. It was quite a day and afterward, on every April 19th, I'd become somewhat quiet and reflective because I knew how close some of us came to dying and knew that some people did not return to their families that night. Enemy or not, they most likely had families. The first April 19th that I did not think about the battle was the day of the Oklahoma City bombings, which also happened on an April 19th and which kept everybody's attention that day. I'm glad I put my ghosts where they belong. When the awards were handed out, they gave me a nice Seventh Fleet Citation, that now hangs in my library at home.

    One thing I distinctly remember is that none of us in CIC, at least the surface side, were in the least bit excited or fearful. We all went about doing our jobs in an unemotional matter. (Of course, there was cheering after the intercepts.) Kudos goes to Captain Hilton for him having us drill so often. We all automatically knew what to do. Only afterward did we wipe our brows and remark, "that was a close one".

    One little bit of unfinished business that I need to take care of before it is too late is a cassette recording in CIC surface side recorded during the battle. I really need to digitize it before the tape self-destructs from age and find somewhere the digital copy can reside in cyberspace where it will be preserved. I may have 20-30 years left in this life and this historical recording should be preserved for future generations.

  5. Anonymous11:32 PM

    I was an FTG 3 on board the Sterett on April 19 , 1972 . My battle station was director 5 . The shooting down of the two migs happened early on in the battle . The presence of migs as I recall was unexpected either because it was believed that all migs in the area had previously been destroyed, or that we were not informed that the enemy air field was going to be attacked by air from inland . The imminent attack forced the migs to fly out to sea . Either way , they appeared quickly and disappeared
    as they met with Steretts Terrier missiles. Not long after the separation from one of the two surface
    crafts was identified . I wish a recording of weapons
    control communications existed . If there were any
    doubt of a high speed incoming target which
    originated from one of the two surface crafts , a 45
    second recording from the time of seperation would remove all doubt . Either a Ramadan or an FTM was
    was announcing the fast closing range of the incoming target . Missle Fire Control was attempting to fire and for a few seconds there was some sort of difficulty . The missle was not firing and whoever was tracking and reporting the rapidly closing range, with some emotion I might add, was getting louder . In what seemed like a long time, but was actually a matter of seconds, the Terrier fired and the incoming target disappeared . It was later that night that the two surface crafts once again appeared on the radar . After a short time it became obvious that they were trailing the Sterett . At some point one of those crafts energized it's radar . Within minutes the decision was made to send ten rounds of white phosphorus from our five inch gun to these surface crafts . They vanished .

    1. Anonymous1:22 PM

      This is pretty much how I remember it as well. I was an ET and my combat station was the Electronic Equipment Room directly under CIC. At the time the first Terrier was fired, general quarters hadn't even sounded yet. The blast of the missile leaving the rail caught everybody by surprise. I was on the bridge wing talking to a friend at the time, and the Chief Corpsman was there. That's when he took the series of photos on his 35mm camera of the missile killing the Mig.

      I still have my cruise book and the parchment General Dynamics gave to each crew member commemorating the shoot down. I also remember that when we finally got back to Subic, we couldn't buy a beer anywhere because the guys from the Higbee wouldn't let us! I was proud to serve with those guys. They all upheld the finest traditions of the U.S. Navy.

      One last thought: If Gerry Hemphill said it happened, it did, whether the official Navy record says so or not.

    2. Anonymous8:33 PM

      I served aboard the USS Higbee from 1970 to 1974. Words cannot express our gratitude to the crew of the Sterrett. We had little defense against a Mig. They covered us while we fought the fire for over two hours. The OK City took off. ET1 Michael A Clawson.

  6. Also a DLG 31 crew member RD2 type working in CIC..someone at VA Regional office told me that I could find info about the battle of Dong Hoi....I am surprised !!!!!!!!!!!!......i remember it as though it happened yesterday .

  7. Dan O'Riley a SM3 aboard Sterett on 4-19-72! On Signalbridge during thet day! My memory has faded abit of that day but I remember NGFS that day was always a great spectator sport for those crew members not directly involved! Missles being fired and Aft 5 incher rounds being fired. My thoughts were mainly that I had swapped onto Sterett for Westpac cruise as opposed to staying on USS Ogden after returning from Westpac and 10 months to do in Navy! Best move I ever made and was with a Great Ship and Great Crew on a day I celebrate like I do my own birthday every year! BZ Captain and Crew of USS Sterett DLG-31 I call us "The MIG Killer Crew of'72"!

  8. I'd love to see that intercept picture!!!