The First DESOTO Patrol
James W. Montgomery
Surface ship DESOTO patrols had become operationally routine and generally unremarkable in the early Vietnam era, when their activities burst into the headlines and onto the international stage with the Tonkin Gulf incidents and the Congressional "Tonkin Gulf Resolution". Unknown at the time, their genesis lay in a single destroyer independent operation conducted in the spring of 1962. The special operation was a then highly-classified intelligence gathering and probing excursion by USS DeHAVEN into waters that had not been visited by Pacific Fleet men-of-war since the late 1940s.
This was a time of considerable unease and frequent turmoil in the Asian-Pacific area. The Taiwan-Mainland China standoff remained a veritable tinderbox. Seventh Fleet units patrolled the Taiwan Straights. Multi country sovereignty disputes over potentially oil-rich island areas were not uncommon. Maritime rights and freedom of the seas were active items of diplomacy. Tensions were growing between the two remaining superpowers--- as we and the Soviets were coming to be known. The Peoples Republic of China was becoming increasingly bold in their territorial waters claims. The Soviet Navy was extending its reach into the open ocean area for the first time, and our forthcoming involvement in Vietnam was just beginning to emerge. Within this geopolitical environment the Seventh Fleet was operating in a fast-moving, wide ranging, and high tempo mode. The DeHAVEN, as a permanently deployed Yokosuka based destroyer, was very much a part of it.
This particular DeHAVEN mission was prompted by the Chinese Communistís unexpected re-definition of their territorial sovereignty to encompass all waters shoreward from lines drawn tangentially to, and between, twelve mile circles drawn around offshore islands. Such a declaration represented a quantum leap in expansion of their territorial waters claims, thus increasing the likelihood and frequency of formal diplomatic "serious warnings" issued by Peiping when any Seventh Fleet units were perceived to transgress their claimed sovereign areas. This was now a situation to which Commander Seventh Fleet felt compelled to respond.
His plan was to send a ship into the Yellow Sea to an area just off the Chinese Naval Base of Tsingtao, and to have it remain there for seven days before returning. It would be patrolling on an established patrol line that would periodically penetrate the disputed waters. The ship would have on board a COMNAVFOR Japan signals intelligence collection (SIGINT) group for naval and national intelligence collection requirements. The shipís presence was intended to openly demonstrate a U.S. capability and determination to send Seventh Fleet ships into international waters wherever and whenever desired in support of our national security interests.
DeHAVEN would be designated Task Group 72.9 and the DeHAVEN commanding officer, designated as CTG 72.9, would be OTC (Officer in Tactical Command). While radio communications would include an impressive array of high level commands and activities, the ship would be operating directly under the control of ComSeventh Fleet, with no intervening levels of command.
Final pre-departure planning resulted in ComSeventh Fleetís operational direction to consist essentially of the following orders: We were not to provoke a confrontation with any Chinese units with whom we might come in contact, but it was strongly emphasized that we were not to be intimidated. We were not to engage in communications with any Chinese units ashore or afloat. To any challenge or query received, our sole response was to be our international radio call sign, NHVF, essentially proclaiming that we were the United States Ship DEHAVEN steaming in international waters. With the special communications group embarked, we would be constantly monitoring the internal Chinese communications that our presence was expected to generate. An assumption was made that any Chinese hostile action would have to be approved by Peiping, and our intercept capability would probably permit us to be aware in advance. Normal Seventh Fleet rules of engagement were to apply. While no hostile action was anticipated, ComSeventh Fleet intended to position one of his carriers somewhat northward of its normal operating area for support should we require any assistance.
DeHAVEN departed Yokosuka on 10 April, checked out of the ships movement control system, chopped to ComSeventh Fleet, topped off with fuel in Sasebo, and proceeded into the Yellow Sea. Transit to the patrol line was uneventful. It afforded ample opportunity for detailed briefing of the crew, repeated exercising of the ship at general quarters, and gaming with involved officers both a range of possible Chicom actions, and our planned responses. The DEHAVEN wore single or multiple gunnery "E"s on all gun mounts, director, and ASW battery, as well as competitive "E"s in Operations, Engineering, and Communications. She had recently been touted in a Far Eastern Stars and Stripes news article as "Top Gun of the Seventh Fleet". The morale of the crew, enthusiasm, and confidence in DeHAVENís ability to prevail under any circumstances could not have been higher.
Arriving at the patrol line at midnight and commencing the patrol, with full running lights aglow, we were not long in witnessing Chicom reaction to our presence; the appearance of a KRONSHADT-class patrol craft , subsequently joined by two GORDY class Chinese destroyers. Initially our terse "NHVF" replies to their early flashing light challenges prompted no response. Being constantly shadowed between five and ten miles, the DeHAVEN went about her business of periodically penetrating their claimed territorial waters. Soon the flashing light "AA" challenges were replaced by messages indicating increasing concern and frustration with our continued presence:
"You have violated territorial waters of the Peoples Republic of China"
"Serious warning." "Serious warning, leave at once."
Over the ensuing days the Chinese Foreign Ministry formally issued its 197th and 198th Serious Warnings, and, as the days wore on, the situation became a bit more uneasy. The flashing light messages continued, we continued our laconic "NHVF" replies, but the Chicom ships, whether shadowing singly or in a group, were now approaching more closely, and at night steaming in a darkened ship condition. We had as yet no indication of any hostile intent, despite the increasing sternness of the warnings. If for nothing more than drill, running fire control solutions were kept on our area companions.
The sweaty palms times and moment of truth came in the nighttime hours of our fifth day on the line. Radar contact detected two rapidly moving contacts emerging from Tsingtao harbor on a course directly toward us. As the contacts, having been evaluated as the two GORDY destroyers, continued to close the distance in darkened ship condition, we went to general quarters to provide maximum readiness and greater maneuvering capability. We were not particularly surprised to receive the flashing light message: "This is your last and final warning." "You must leave at once."
Our response remained the same: "NHVF".
This was the first time I felt there was a real possibility that, because we had no intercept indication of hostile action, some local area commander may have decided to take matters into his own hands. We had previously decided how we would split our battery to best combat two targets simultaneously, and the X.O. and I had previously privately agreed and decided that we would not open fire until we actually sustained a hit.
We continued on the patrol line with firing solutions complete and locked on. Ammunition hoists were loaded, and we were prepared to open fire at any time. We attempted to inform ComSeventh Fleet of the existing situation and our intentions, but we were experiencing extremely effective jamming, both voice and radio telegraphy, and our capability to communicate was effectively lost. Additionally, an unknown broadcaster with a Chinese accent usurped the Task Group call sign, and attempted to call a station with which we had previously been communicating.
These were indeed anxious moments. The DeHAVEN waited, at full ready, some forthcoming decision by the GORDYs. Our decision had already been made. At a range of something less than 10,000 yards, the GORDYs abruptly broke off, reduced speed, changed course to parallel ours, and subsequently turned back toward Tsingtao. Soon afterwards we regained our communication capability and fully briefed ComSeventh Fleet. We remained on the patrol line for the remaining scheduled two days, without incident, and then took departure for Yokosuka.
Years later, in discussion with officers involved in the earliest Seventh Fleet/OPNAV planning, it was learned that their need for an operational code name for the then forthcoming DeHAVEN mission was solved by adoption of the acronym DESOTO --- DEHAVEN Special Operations off TsingtaO.