Incident off Chau Khe, North Vietnam 18 October 1967

Normally as Morning Watchmen hand over to their reliefs their thoughts turn to breakfast and a shower. After all they have been closed up since before 0400. Today though was to be suddenly very different. HMAS Perth was about to receive her baptism of fire.

Perth had replaced HMAS Hobart in the Seventh Fleet at Subic Bay on September 14, 1967 and after a short period to facilitate additional preparations for duty off Vietnam she commenced duty south of the DMZ on September 26.

As we became more experienced in the ways of the US Navy we moved further north and three days later we had graduated to duty off the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone). Here we were employed bombarding North Vietnamese coastal batteries and providing Naval Gunfire Support against NVA (North Vietnamese Army) targets.

At times it was very frustrating because the north-east monsoon grounded the spotters and made things uncomfortable at sea. Perth was settling into a routine and was ready for bigger things. On October 17 we headed north well into the Gulf of Tonkin to join the heavy cruiser USS Newport News.

The mission was for Newport News to fire on the primary target whilst Perth provided suppression fire against coastal defence sites. The first task took place that night and daylight saw the ships carrying out a northerly sweep along the coast searching the bays and river mouths north of the Bay of Brandon for surface craft.

We were approximately 13.6 kilometres off the coast. It was just before 0800 and on the bridge of Perth my handover to the oncoming Officer of the Watch was nearly complete and I could allow myself the indulgent thought of breakfast.

Suddenly the peace was shattered with alarms ringing and reports coming in that we were under fire. Immediate evasive action of heading away from the coast was taken and personnel not on watch were ordered to their shelter stations.

When the first shells fell I noted some were either side of the bow and thought "That's a straddle isn't it - bloody good gunnery!" As I cleared the bridge Perth was engaging with counter-battery fire. Below decks we heard shrapnel hitting the hull and then a semi-armour-piercing shell hit and glanced off the after gun, penetrated the deck and exploded in the vault.

The consequent fire was rapidly extinguished helped by the fact that the shell had ruptured the firemain in the same compartment. We quickly learnt that there were six of our ship mates wounded.

As the range opened and after some spirited counter-battery fire the guns fell silent. We subsequently learnt that the two ships had been engaged by at least 12 batteries firing approximately 200 rounds. Most of the attention had been concentrated on the Perth. The medical teams determined that two of our casualties needed to be evacuated. I had a new task because as Mate of the Upper Deck (MUD) it was my duty to supervise the deck gang in the execution of such evolutions.

The team prepared the ship for both helo operations and hi-line transfer. In the event the former was used and our wounded ship-mates were transferred expeditiously to the carrier USS Oriskany for treatment. It was time for Perth to return to her patrol. We returned and secured all gear.

As I carried out my final checks I was approached by one of the Able Seaman who was a member of the deck gang. This one was well known to me, and to the rest of the ship as a matter of fact, because he was one of those rogues that surfaces in every group of military men.

Anyway he showed me his right fore-arm and I noted several pieces of metal sticking out of his arm. There was no blood because the wounds had been cauterised. My stomach turned - just as well I had missed breakfast!

We had had seven of our ship mates wounded that day, but this particular Able Seamen looked out for the others before presenting himself to the Sick Bay.

Written specially for the ANZAC Day website by Commander Derek Caton (RAN, retired), who happens to be a good friend of the webmaster.