Life on a Naval Vessel During the Vietnam War in the 1960s

Stern view, Firing Terrier missile from stern launcher. (US Navy Photo/NAVSource)

USS England Stern view, Firing Terrier missile from stern launcher. (US Navy Photo/NAVSOURCE)


By Captain George Stewart, USN (Ret.)

This episode starts when I was a student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I was due to graduate in September, 1967. Our Detailer from BUPERS was due to visit with us to discuss orders. When I went in to see him, I was pleasantly surprised when he asked me if I would take another Chief Engineer’s tour. He said that he needed to find a replacement for an officer aboard a guided missile frigate (DLG) who had just resigned. The DLG’s were relatively new and were considered to be the top of the line of the destroyer force at the time. The ship was USS England (DLG 22) homeported in Long Beach. I had been stationed in Long Beach in the late 1950s, which was where I had first met my wife. We still had several close friends from our single days there. We proceeded to find a home in Huntington Beach.

It was time to go to work. There would be plenty of adventures over the next couple of years. I called the ship on the phone to find out where it was located.  It was at the Long Beach naval station on Terminal Island, only a few piers away from the minesweepers that I had left 7 years earlier. I found the ship and identified myself. I was immediately taken up to the wardroom where I met the CO and XO. I discovered that the ship would soon be entering overhaul at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and was scheduled for a six month deployment starting the next June.

From there, it was off to San Diego for three weeks of school prior to actually reporting to the ship. I drove down and checked into the 32nd Street BOQ, the same place I had stayed as a fresh caught Ensign eleven years earlier. I had not been to San Diego since 1960. Some significant changes had taken place since I left. Some of the more obvious ones:

  • There was a freeway between Los Angeles and San Diego by way of Orange County.  Previously, you had to drive up Highway 101 to go too or from Long Beach.
  • There was a bridge over to Coronado and you no longer had to reach it by ferry.
  • The ships all had berths at the Naval Station. You no longer had to stay out at buoys. The water taxis had gone out of business.
  • The city had major league football and basketball teams and would soon get a National League baseball franchise.

I actually preferred it the old way. The three weeks of school went by without incident and it was time to report to the ship. I packed up my bags and reported on board.

 (DLG-22) Off Bath, Maine on 18 May 1971. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 106507)

(DLG-22) Off Bath, Maine on 18 May 1971. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 106507)

First, a bit about the ship itself. It was a Leahy-Class ship. At the time, it was classified as a guided missile frigate (DLG). It was one of nine ships of the Leahy (DLG 16) Class that entered service between service between 1962 and 1964. The ships were built in 6 different shipyards. In 1975, at the direction of the CNO, the ships of the class would be re-designated as guided missile cruisers (CG). These were the largest destroyer type ships in existence at the time, being 533 feet long and having a full load displacement of 7,800 tons. Their primary purpose was to provide anti-air and anti-submarine protection for fast carrier task forces. The ship was fairly new, having been commissioned in December 1963. It had been built right nearby at the Todd Shipyards in San Pedro. The living accommodations and command and control spaces were all air conditioned. The ships principle weapon was the Terrier surface to air guided missile. It was an intermediate range missile with a range of about 35 to 40 miles. There were two missile launchers, one forward and one aft. The ships were referred to as “double enders”. The missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads. There was also an ASROC launcher in the forward part of the ship plus a number of anti-submarine weapons.

The ships were the first and only frigate class designed without a main gun battery for shore bombardments or ship to ship engagements. All it had was a pair of 3”50 twin gun mounts, located one on each side of the ship amidships. This limited its capability to perform some functions in close in waters, such as the Tonkin Gulf. Also, at the time the ship was not fitted with the latest state-of-the-art combat direction system (NTDS).

Nevertheless, the ship presented a very impressive appearance and was considered to be a very prestigious assignment. All of the major jobs on the ship were filled by officers one grade higher than those aboard a destroyer. The CO was a full captain, the XO a commander, and the department heads were lieutenant commanders.

A list of the major ship characteristics follows:

  • Length – 533 ft
  • Beam – 53 ft
  • Draft – 24 ft 6 in
  • Full load displacement – 7,800 tons
  • Propulsion – Twin screw – steam turbine – 4 boilers 85,000 shp
  • Speed – 32 knots
  • Range – 8,000 nautical miles at 20 knots
  • Complement – 396 (31 officers & 365 enlisted) including squadron staff

Because of lessons learned during the Vietnam War, the navy went to a somewhat modified design in the follow on Belknap (DLG 26) class ships. These were referred to as “single enders” because they only had a single Terrier launcher located in the forward part of the ship. This launcher was also capable of firing ASROC, eliminating the need for a separate launcher. A 5”/54 gun mount was located in the after part of the ship. Otherwise their characteristics were very similar to those of the Leahy-class ships. The nine ships of this class entered service between 1964 and 1967.

I had met the CO and XO from previous tours. The CO had been commanding officer of a ship in Newport and the XO had been XO of one of the ships in our squadron, Desron 12, in Newport. The three captains that I ended up serving under had entered the navy as junior officers right near the end of World War II. The officer that I was to relieve as chief engineer had decided to resign and get out of the navy.

It was a good ship to be aboard. Despite some flaws, the ship was among the newest in the fleet, and the XO was excellent to work for. His general methodology was to act as a big scoutmaster and to keep everybody happy. I actually wound up car-pooling with him over the next couple of years. It was about a half hour to and from work. I still remember first hearing about the RFK assassination on the radio during one of these trips. The basic ship’s organization was essentially the same as that on my previous ships.

The ship proved to be a bit of a challenge. We entered the shipyard just as I was taking over as Chief Engineer and I had not really had a chance to see it steam as yet. It was obvious, however, that the ship was beginning to show some wear and tear and the machinery spaces gave the appearance of a ship much more than four years old. The machinery plant was state of the art for 1963. The ship was propelled by a twin-screw steam turbine propulsion plant rated at 85,000 HP. Steam was provided by four D Type boilers that provided superheated steam at a pressure of 1200 psi and a temperature of 950 °F. This was approximately double the pressure that the World War II-era ships operated on. The navy started building 1200 psi ships in the early 1950s. Ironically, I was to commission the last one, USS Moinester (FF 1094) in 1974 as commanding officer. Since then, all naval surface combatants have been powered by gas turbines.

The ship did not have a lot of automation, other than automatic boiler controls which were pneumatically operated. Actually, it had about the same amount as the commercial T-2 tankers that I had previously sailed on. But it was a good deal more complex than the World War II destroyers and the plant required a definite care and feeding. The basic machinery arrangement was the same as that aboard the World War II destroyers with alternating firerooms and engine rooms. However, a number of major steam cycle components which previously been located in the engine rooms were now located in the fire rooms. This included the deareating feed tanks, feed booster pumps, and main feed pumps plus the aforementioned automatic boiler control systems. In addition, there was much more emphasis on boiler water testing and chemical treatment.

The electrical plant consisted of four 1000 kW, 450 VAC, 60 Hz turbo generators, two in each engine room. There were also two 300 kW emergency generators. The forward unit was driven by a Solar gas turbine while the after set was driven by a Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine.

This was the first significant application of a gas turbine aboard a combatant ship and it was to provide me with many adventures over the next couple of years. Bear in mind that there was no Gas Turbine Technician rating at the time and none of my sailors had any significant training on the unit. The automatic start sequence did not work but the crew had managed to come up with a manual sequence. When I asked for a demonstration, I was told that during one of the times that the unit had been started it had produced a significant jet of smoke and flames from the side of the ship out onto the pier. I decided that I could not mess it up any more than it was already, so I made it my own personal project to figure out what was wrong with it on my duty nights, assisted by an EN or EM. I finally obtained the services of a NAVSEA technician who was able to get us straightened out. After that, the turbine became somewhat of a show piece for visitors. But we were eventually able to depend on it as an emergency generating plant.

Aboard my first ship, a Fletcher-class destroyer, most of the senior petty officers had been through World War II and had as much as 12 to 14 years of experience in operating ships of that type. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that most of these people were now retired and the follow on generation had much less experience on ships of this type. The hands on experience that I gained studying at Massachusetts Maritime academy and sailing on Texaco commercial tankers (plus my previous naval tours) was to prove invaluable over the next couple of years.

Getting out of the shipyard proved to be a nightmare. It was one casualty after another. It soon became obvious that I was going to have to be the chief troubleshooter. Crew training appeared to be nonexistent. My Chief Boiler Technician (BT)’s previous ship had been a 250 psi converted Liberty Ship and he was completely lost.  On the day before shipyard sea trials, we still had not been able to successfully raise steam in the forward fireroom in #1A boiler and I was down there until about 1 AM before we were finally successful. But somehow we did manage to get through sea trials.

It soon became obvious to me that, in order to survive, I was going to have to concentrate on the engineering plant and remain as a non-watch stander. So I avoided any deck duties whatsoever over the next two years. The trouble with that is that a naval line officer did not make any points that way. None of my commanding or executive officers had any engineering experience and it was all up to me. One problem with that was that engineering in the navy has historically been an “out of sight-out of mind” occupation and people could not directly observe what I was doing or what contribution I was actually making. It was not uncommon in those days for naval officers to come out of chief engineer tours with glowing fitness reports while leaving heaps of rubble behind them. Because I concentrated on engineering, I was constantly being reminded that “I was not a well rounded naval officer” and I was viewed as somewhat of a freak.

We somehow managed to muddle our way through refresher training in San Diego and returned to Long Beach. It was in the middle of the Vietnam War and there was a lot going on around us, but we had a job to do. We had a six month deployment to the Far East (Westpac) coming up in June of 1968. June 17 came up all too soon and the next thing you knew we were heading off with Palos Verdes disappearing over the horizon. It was to be a very long six months. It would be England’s fourth deployment to the western Pacific in four years.

USS England (DLG 22) departing Pearl Harbor heading for a WestPac deployment in June 1968. U.S.Navy photo by PH3 R. Hartkopp.

USS England (DLG 22) departing Pearl Harbor heading for a WestPac deployment in June 1968. U.S.Navy photo by PH3 R. Hartkopp.


After an unmemorable stop in Pearl Harbor, it was on to Midway. Things were not going too well. We had gotten some new sailors aboard just before we left and my BTs were not getting along with each other. Half way between Midway and Pearl Harbor I was settling into my bunk when I heard the engines slowing down and the lights went out. We were adrift. I ran down to main control and waited for the emergency power to come on. Nothing happened. The compressed air flasks that we need to start the emergency gas turbine and diesel generators had lost their charge. We were in a pickle. The operations officer came storming down to main control and started screaming at me that he had no power to supply his communications equipment. I promptly kicked him out of the space.

Finally somebody figured out how to get some compressed air from the Gunners Mates and we managed to get the emergency generators started. In about 1/2 hour we had ship’s power restored and were back underway again.

Obviously, changes had to be made. After giving it some thought, I made two decisions that were to turn everything around and change what had started out to be a bad tour into a rousing success.

  1. I remembered something similar happening to me on the Fletcher-class destroyer Halsey Powell 10 years earlier and I took the same remedy. I transferred half of the sailors assigned to the forward fire room to the after fire room and vice versa. That broke up most of the squabbling that had been going on.
  2. I decided that I needed a reliable main propulsion assistant (MPA). Our previous MPAs did not have adequate training. One of my Ensigns had worked as an apprentice machinist in his fathers shop during the summers, appeared to have a good mechanical aptitude, and was eager to learn. I got him taken off the watch bill, put him in coveralls, and developed a comprehensive training program for him where he had to trace out piping systems, lean how equipment was operated, and then do it himself. Bit by bit, he began to learn what was going on.Within a couple of months, he could operate most of the equipment himself. This was unheard of for an Ensign. His final exam consisted of a conducting a plant light off prior to officially qualifying him as an engineering officer of the watch (EOOW).  Some of the Chief Petty Officers resented it. But they had their chance. The younger sailors proved to be quite supportive.
  3. It became obvious to me that changes had to be made with regards to the operation of our ship service and control air system. Ship service air compressors and other components were located in a variety of spaces and nobody appeared to have charge of the overall system. I traced out the system, assigned responsibilities and established a doctrine as to how the system would be operated. Later, in the 1970s problems of this type became far less prevalent after the establishment of the 1200 psi improvement program. It included a program called EOSS (Engineering Operational Sequencing System) that included manuals containing system diagrams and prescribed operating procedures applicable to each specific ship class. That pretty well corrected problems of this type.

These actions changed everything. We were able to work as a team and things began to improve mightily. We really did not have any further serious engineering problems during the rest of the time that I was aboard.

The rest of the deployment went fairly smoothly. In fact, it was fairly dull. Our first stop was in Subic Bay for turnover to the Seventh Fleet in July. The remainder of the month was taken up with picket station duties. In August, we spent a good bit of the time in the Gulf of Tonkin on Search & Rescue (SAR) station. Our major function was to carry a helicopter that would be used to pick up downed pilots ashore. Our flight deck was originally designed to handle drone anti-submarine helicopters (DASH), a program that the navy had discontinued but fortunately the deck was large enough to handle conventional helicopters. Fortunately there were no downed pilots to pick up during our deployment.

The atmosphere was a bit surreal. Each evening I would go up on deck and look over at the shore where you could see gunfire going on. The bullets flying back and forth looked like fast moving fireflies in the distance. From there I would go down to watch the evening movie in the wardroom. Our favorites were some awful “Spaghetti Westerns” staring Stewart Granger as a character called “Old Surehand”. The movies were bad enough to provide comic relief. After the movies, I would take a complete tour of the engineering spaces followed by a visit to Main Control to write up my night orders.

Occasionally a MIG would start out from the beach and head in our direction causing us to go to battle stations. We always prepared to launch a Terrier Missile, but it never proved necessary as the aircraft always turned back. It was just as well because my battle station was adjacent to piping carrying steam at 1200 pounds per square inch and 950 Degrees F. Not a good place to be when being shot at.

The only direct contact we had with the war was one quiet Sunday afternoon when a South Vietnamese PT boat came alongside right after a battle with several crew members shot up. All of a sudden the ship’s doctor had a mess on his hands. The mess deck had to be hastily turned into a hospital. Some of the Vietnamese crewmembers died and had to be airlifted ashore in body bags. It was the closest we got to real shooting.

Our only ports of call during the cruise turned out to be Sasebo, Hong Kong, and Subic Bay. In fact, we wound up in drydock in Subic Bay in September for three weeks when we turned out to have severe corrosion in our starboard stern tube that was located inside a tank causing fuel to be contaminated with seawater. Our sailors were delighted. Despite the fact that Olongapo was a dump, they preferred it to Japan or Hong Kong, all for the wrong reasons.

SAR operations in the Tonkin Gulf, Mar/Apr 1967 aboard the USS England (DLG 22). An SH-3 is parked on the fantail flight deck while a UH-2 picks up a traveler via sling. (NAVSOURCE)

SAR operations in the Tonkin Gulf, Mar/Apr 1967 aboard the USS England (DLG 22). An SH-3 is parked on the fantail flight deck while a UH-2 picks up a traveler via sling. (NAVSOURCE)


After leaving Subic, it was back to Yankee Station in October. For a brief period, we provided plane guard services for USS America (CV 66). In November, we had stops in Sasebo and Hong Kong for rest and recreation. During the latter part of the month, we served as flagship for Commander Cruiser Destroyer Force, Pacific and then as training coordinator for destroyer exercises in the Tonkin Gulf. In all cases, we were limited in what we could be assigned to because of our lack of significant gun fire capability.  Finally it was time to go home. While enroute, we celebrated the ship’s fifth birthday. We finally arrived home in Long Beach on 17 December 1968.Our families were waiting to greet us on the pier.

Professionally, the cruise had been a big success. I wound up with a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”, the same award that was to plague CNO Mike Boorda 25 years later. It was specifically stated on the accompanying certificate that I was entitled to wear the “V.”

There were no overseas deployments scheduled during 1969. In July, we went on the annual Pacific Midshipman Training Cruise (PACMIDTRACRU 69). We were part of a group that included USS New Jersey (BB 62). Our scheduled ports of call were San Francisco, Monterey, and Pearl Harbor. The only other memory I have of that cruise was watching the Moonwalk in the officers club at Pearl.

I had a memorable personal experience that spring when my brother in law accompanied by his wife and family came out from Ireland to visit us. We had a very nice weekend in Palm Springs. But on the last day before we left for home, both of their kids came down with a rash. They had both come down with the measles. On the way home, I remarked to my wife that I had not ever had a case of measles as a child. Sure enough, within a couple of days I was deathly ill and confined to my bed. My vision was affected and I began shredding skin in some alarming places. The squadron doctor made a house call. But he had no idea how to treat a case of adult measles and his visit was spent sitting next to the bed reading medical textbooks on the subject. Nothing seemed to work. In desperation, my wife called a longtime friend who was an ex nurse for ideas. Her advice was to give me an enema. Darned if it didn’t work. My fever broke and the spots started clearing up. But I was still very weak and in need of some time to convalesce.

The adventure was still not over. On the Friday before the ship was scheduled to go to sea, my wife got a call from our CO. It turned out that he was fearful to take the ship out without me on board. He asked if I could come down and complete my recovery in my bunk on the ship. I reluctantly agreed. It is nice to be considered indispensable. But this was ridiculous. My wife drove me down to the ship and I went aboard. I immediately went below and crawled into my bunk. The announcement came over the 1MC to set the special sea detail prior to getting underway. About that time I heard a knock on the door. It proved to be the CO checking up on my welfare. We were scheduled to conduct engineering drills. The CO asked me if I felt well enough to participate. I still felt pretty weak, but I agreed to go on down to Main Control. I found a seat on a bucket. I was still wearing dark glasses and I could barely read the gages. I was sweating profusely and still felt quite weak. In the middle of things, we experienced a problem in the After Fireroom. Instinctively I jumped up, went up the ladder and descended the ladder into the fireroom. It was hotter than blazes down there. We got the problem fixed and I went back to Main Control. Then I noticed that something really strange had happened. I no longer needed my dark glasses, my vision was normal, and I felt at full strength. Don’t ask me to explain it.

USS England (CG 22) undergoing dismantlement at International Shipbreaking Limited on 15 JAN 2004. (NAVSOURCE)

USS England (CG 22) undergoing dismantlement at International Shipbreaking Limited on 15 JAN 2004. (NAVSOURCE)

As previously mentioned, the ship had been completed without the state of the art combat direction system due to funding limitations. But all of the ships of the class were scheduled for a six month AAW Modernization program at Bath Iron Works in Maine. The ship was due to sail for the East Coast around 1 February 1970. The fall of 1969 was spent in preparation for the trip to Bath including an underway period with Bath Iron Works personnel on board in order to demonstrate the ship.

Finally, I received a set of orders to be the commissioning XO of the USS Blakely (DE 1072), a Knox-class frigate (then called a destroyer-escort) under construction at Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans. The ship would be home ported in Charleston, South Carolina. But I would first have to organize the pre-commissioning crew in Newport, Rhode Island. So it would be back to New England for the first time since 1965. I was present at the decommissioning ceremony for the England at Bath in April 1970 while I was visiting my parents in Portland, Maine. It would be the last time that I would set foot on the ship.

The Leahy and her sisters of the Belknap-class were taken out of service in the early 1990s as part of the cut back at the end of the Cold War. England was decommissioned and stricken from naval service on January 21, 1994. It was scrapped in Brownsville Texas in 2004. The last naval ship that was powered by 1200 psi boilers was the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 63) which was decommissioned in 2009. I would still have plenty more exposure to 1200 psi engineering plants coming up as a member of the Atlantic Fleet propulsion examining board and the Board of Inspection and Survey, along with six years of experience in billets relating to the Knox-class frigates. As previously stated, I was the commissioning CO of the last 1200 psi ship to ever enter service, the USS Moinester (FF 1097) in 1974.

As an additional side note a number of celebrities were assigned to ships of this type during this time frame. These included:

  • Ensign John Kerry –  USS Gridley (DLG 31) – Our sister ship in Long Beach
  • Robert Woodward – Well known reporter – Communications officer on USS Fox (DLG 33)
  • John Poindexter – His first seagoing assignment was as chief engineer of the USS Halsey (DLG 23). Later he served as commanding officer of the England between 1974 and 1976.
  • Stansfield Turner – Later CIA director – Commanding Officer USS Horne (DLG 30) 1967-1968

George W. Stewart is a retired US Navy Captain. He is a 1956 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. During his 30 year naval career, he held two ship commands and served a total of 8 years on naval material inspection boards, during which he conducted trials and inspections aboard over 200 naval vessels. Since his retirement from active naval service in 1986 he has been employed in the ship design industry where he has specialized in the development of concept designs of propulsion and powering systems, some of which have entered active service. He currently holds the title of Chief Marine Engineer at Marine Design Dynamics.

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One Response to Life on a Naval Vessel During the Vietnam War in the 1960s

  1. Sean P. Walsh LCDR USN (Ret.) says:

    As a retired Engineering Duty officer including service as the Boilers Officer on an Adams class DDG (USS TATTNALL), I really enjoy these stories by CAPT Stewart. Our paths crossed in industry about 8 years ago and I realized that I had met him before when he was serving on the LANTFLT PEB. TATTNALL served as a test ship for the twin screw 1200 psi EOSS and then CDR Stewart was an observer. A few months later he was back, nearly promoted to CAPT and was the senior examiner for our OPPE (Operational Propulsion Plant Exam). I was still an Ensign and the only officer standing EOOW. EOSS was a tremendous help to operating the plant safely and in a standardized way.

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