To Close for Comfort

Contributed by: Richard Street - SK2


It was March 1968, and the TET offensive was in full swing.  The Johnston was on the gun line off the coast of Hue, South Vietnam.  The VC had taken Hue and we were shelling day and night to keep them off our guys who were dug in around the city.  Both fore and aft mounts would fire pretty much around the clock until we ran out of ammo.  We would then head out to sea and hook up with a supply ship (I think it was the Ticonderoga) to replenish and re-arm.  The incident that I remember so well was transferring crates of white phosphorous (willy peters) from the supply boat to our helo deck. 

My replenishing station was aft phone to phone with the supply ship.  The seas were fairly rough and we had a little trouble hooking up, but we eventually starting pulling crates of powder cases and projectiles on board.  As one crate of willy peters was just about to clear the bulkhead supporting the 2nd deck, both ships rolled toward each other lowering the line and crate.  The crate brushed the edge of the bulkhead and flipped upside down.  Suddenly the deck was being hammered by projectiles falling out of the crate.  It's amazing what goes thru your mind when this kind of thing happens.  I had a flashback to high school days when our chemistry teacher took a small piece of white phosphorous out of a jar of water to let us observe what happens when it came in contact with air.  It created a pretty hot fire immediately.  That was maybe a quarter of an ounce, and these shells weigh 56 pounds apiece.

The chief boats called for an emergency breakaway and we turned away from the supply ship.  I've never seen guys moving so fast as they picked up the projectiles and tossed them over the side.  I don't think anybody breathed until the last one had been thrown over.  After things calmed down you could hear the nervous laughs, but that one I'll never forget.