USS Newport News   CA148
A Gallant Lady "You walked with me      
  And I with you
I saw you fall    
             And never rise again...
 ...from now on, forever more
West Pac 1972
Haiphong Harbor
A Memoir & A Prayer
USS NN Memorial
Pcture Album
The Book

The Virtual Wall
They Were Asked to Go

You Are My Brother
You Are My Brother

            A Memoir and A Prayer

On October 1, 1972 , at the beginning of the midwatch, I was relieved from my watch on the #2 Emergency Diesel Generator by EN2 Bob Boston.  That evening had been one of routine gun fire support off the coast of Vietnam.  Routine because we had settled into a relative sense of security and had not suffered a major incident with a large number of casualties since the beginning of our tour.  But any casualty is a major loss for those who remain behind to mourn their loved ones, and we had two before this date, James Joseph Sansone and Steven Michael Brumfield.  And so we felt somewhat lucky and blessed. 

I stayed a while to talk to Boston as I sensed he wanted some company.  At about 1:00 AM, he asked me to go after some drinks with the usual phrase, "I buy, you fly."  I accepted for the sake of a free drink and a bit of good conversation.

The canteen amidships on the 01 Level was closed by now,  but the coke machines just outside were kept always full.  As I got the drinks from the machine we were lending fire support, and one of the 8" guns seemed to fire on Vietnam.  But almost immediately the general quarters alarm began to sound. (It is strange, but I don't seem to remember the GQ alarm at any time other than this and our intrusion into Haiphong Harbor, even though we had many exercises where we trained at GQ.) 

I began to hurry back to the generator's engine room.  But when I saw other sailors going to their battle stations, I realized that I had to go to mine, somewhere in the vicinity of gun turret #2. 

As I ran forward, I saw many men running in my direction in a cloud of orange, reddish haze that I couldn't identify.  I saw some of the men stumble and fall as they tried to clear the door openings.  I saw some of them run head-on into electrical boxes mounted on the bulkheads.  I couldn't tell what was going on, and I remember thinking that the reddish cloud, glistening in the lights, looked beautiful.  Eventually I was engulfed in the smoke and I learned what those men were going through.  At the first full breath of that smoke, my lungs shut down, my throat and nose burned and I felt as if a hand full of sand had been thrown directly into my eyes.  I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't think.  I heard someone yell, "stay low!" and I obeyed.  I was relieved to find some fresh air to get into my lungs.  And as I retreated, almost at a crawl, I heard a hatch open and someone said "up here!".  From a crouched position, I was able to get some idea of what was going on around me, and it was then that I heard someone mention that there had been an explosion somewhere up forward.  Some of the smoke rushed out the hatch and I was able to guide some men up the hatch, but that lasted for a minute or two before I was overcome by the smoke once again and I had to go up and out the hatch myself. 

What happens next is a graphic description of what I saw and what I heard and what I felt and what I smelled. It is an experience I will never forget. It represents the harsh reality of what it means to go to war. 

Topside, I gathered myself together and I learned that an explosion had happened inside Gun Turret #2.  It was obvious that I was not going to make it to my battle station just below Turret #2.  So I went forward, and I saw men on the catwalks and just outside the gun turret.  The men were forming a work detail headed by a Chief Petty Officer whose name I don't recall.  As I got closer, I saw men with OBAs (Oxygen Breathing Apparatus) and asbestos gloves.  A decision was made to open the door and go in.  Water poured out as the turret's door was opened.  The area was very hot and humid, and a strange odor as of something burning emanated from witin the gun turret.  I had never in my life smelled that before.  The men with the OBAs went in to assess the damage and after several minutes they emerged and they let the Chief know that no one was alive inside. A verbal analysis of the situation inside was given and a plan was made to remove the bodies of those who died inside Gun Turret #2.  I remember someone saying there were eight. 

We formed a manline, those of us who were there.  I didn't hear anyone complain.  In fact, I only heard the Chief and maybe two other men speak.  It was almost surreal, the smoke, the lights, the night, the time, and the ships that had come to assist, steaming at a distance.  I had seen war movies that resembled this scene.  At times I can only remember that night in black and white, yet other times it seems like an old monochrome picture.  My senses were distorted.

But the time came to bring out the dead.  Army blankets were brought to the front.  Some of the men went in and began to carry the bodies to the door where others outside helped to place them on the blankets.  Each of the bodies was then handed down the line to the main deck.  As one of the men attempted to take hold of a dead sailor's arm, the skin pealed back.  I had lost all emotion at that time, and as a saw the dead sailor's pinkish, whitish flesh, I also saw his disfigured face, but I recognized him.  He was a black sailor that I had seen often in the mess hall.  And I thought to myself, black and white men are all the same color under the skin.  As another body was being carried out, one of the carriers dropped him on one side and a gasp went out from us, and the Chief said, "don't worry, you can't hurt him anymore".  Strange, but that had a reassuring effect on me, as I had never before had to deal with death so closely.  I suppose that at that time, I could have pulled myself out of the line and gone to sit somewhere in the fantail where there was more fresh and clean air to breathe. 

One by one, the bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue to be identified and pronounced dead.  I came to realize that what I smelled that night was burned flesh.  The taste stayed in my mouth for many months and several years after.  And even now, in my mind, I can still see and hear and feel and smell and taste that night, October 1, 1972. 

To the men who gave their lives at the call from their country:  I am proud to have served with them aboard the United States Ship Newport News, CA148.   And to their families:  May God bless you and keep you, may God restore your heart and give you peace, may God be with you always.   It is my prayer. 
Thunder in the Night
A book by Ray Kopp

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Most recent revision May 9, 2005