This story was told to me by one of the “Talos” radar men on the Oklahoma City, CG-5. Other facts I looked up.
|USS Sterett, CG-31, Cruising at Sea.|
On April 19th, 1972, during a major North Vietnam offensive, a task force of four US ships was sailing off the coast of Vietnam . They were the USS Higbee DD-806, USS Oklahoma City CG-5, USS Sterett CG-31, and the Lloyd Thomas DD-764. They were attacked by three North Vietnamese MiGs.
In an attempt to surprise the task force, the MiGs came in low, described as "getting their feet wet". Despite the official stories, they did not surprise the task force, which had spotted them long before engagement range and were ready to shoot. Two ships, the Oklahoma City , and the Sterett, had anti-aircraft missiles, while the Higbee and the Lloyd Thomas were armed with dual purpose 5” guns. All ships were at battle stations.
What was inexplicable were the orders to "break track" on the MiGs issued to the “Talos” radars, and, presumably, to the Sterett’s “Terrier” radars. “Track” or “Lock” means the radar is automatically following a target and updating the fire control computer several hundred times a second. For reasons unknown, the missile cruisers were ordered not to fire at the incoming aircraft, but the two gun destroyers were given weapons free orders.*
The radar men on the Oklahoma City obeyed orders and broke track, but they locked back on immediately. When this was discovered, they were ordered to break track again and stay that way. Once again, the radar men obeyed the letter of the order but not the spirit, and, using their manual skills with the knobs and wheels, followed the planes without the automatic tracking circuits. This was also caught, and they were then ordered to place their radars in a centerline position and not to move them until ordered.
So, with helpless horror, they got to watch as one of those aircraft, dropped a 250lb bomb on the Higbee, destroying its aft 5” gun mount. Luckily the gun mount was empty as it had a round jammed in the barrel. The twelve-man gun crew had been ordered out while it was being hosed down to keep it from exploding. Four men were wounded, some critically.
On the Sterett, someone had had enough, and fired two “Terriers”, which downed a MiG**. Later that day she targeted another unidentified inbound aircraft and downed it as well.***
The official story is unchanged, that the four ships were surprised but responded well. I have not found one “conspiracy” page on this event, so mine is the first.
*One possibility I had heard was an inherent distrust of missile systems among the admiralty, not unlike the distrust of radar systems in WWII.
**This claim is now in dispute. Apparently we now have the names of the attacking pilots, Le Xuan Di and Nguyen Van Bay, of the 923rd Fighter Regiment. Both pilots returned to base and are available for commentary on this incident. That something was shot down by the Sterett's terriers is not in dispute. As the downing was visually witnessed. One conjecture now is that there was an inbound Styx missile along with the MIGs.
***The Sterett was having an eventful cruise, as she also shot down two MiGs on March 30th - possibly a post WWII record.