The Navy destroyer escort USS Badger was patrolling the waters off South Vietnam in late summer 1972 when it received a midnight call from a Marine spotter in the skies above the bridge at Dong Ha.
He said three North Vietnamese battalions were marching down the road coming to South Vietnam. He asked the ship to fire 200 rounds from its 5-inch/54-caliber gun.
“Bear in mind that the bullets from this gun weigh 64 pounds apiece,” retired Navy Cmdr. Lloyd Shaffer said. “So my magazine crew – normally we’re talking about eight guys – has to load 200 in succession of those 64-pound bullets. Right away I called for them to start waking up sailors to get them to help load bullets.”
Three eight-man magazine crews rotated in loading the rounds in rapid succession. The ship fired 40 rounds per minute to reach 200 in five minutes. They also loaded the powder cases which were about 30 inches tall and weighed 28 pounds apiece. The fuses were set to explode 30 feet in the air above the enemy troops.
The gun barrel got so hot it glowed pink. The gun mount kicked the empty shell cases out onto the ship’s forward deck, making a waist-deep pile. The exhausted sailors were allowed to sleep until breakfast. “And everybody heaved a sigh of relief,” Shaffer said.
That morning the Marine spotter reported he saw at least 60 bodies hanging from the trees.
The Dong Ha bombardment is among Shaffer’s most vivid memories from his four months at war in 1972. The Brookville, Pennsylvania, native, now residing in Huntsville, graduated from Navy ROTC at Penn State in 1963. He received his ensign commission and his bachelor’s in forestry.
In April 1972 Shaffer was aboard the newly constructed USS Badger (DE-1071), out of Long Beach, California, on its way to the South China Sea. But the trip expedited when the North Vietnamese troops crossed the Demilitarized Zone and headed into South Vietnam with their tanks.
“Everybody got orders to go to the gunlines. We’ve got to stop the North Vietnamese,” Shaffer said.
By the end of that April, the USS Badger was part of the line of 23 ships positioned a thousand yards apart off the coast of South Vietnam. Each ship had a Marine spotter imbedded with either U.S. Army or South Vietnamese units. The spotters were either on the ground or watching from the sky in Air Force OV-10 Broncos.
The ships bombarded the shore during the day and night. They fired until they ran out of ammunition. The spotters would give the target coordinates to their respective ships. Shaffer was the guy on the USS Badger who was trained to control shore bombardment. He talked to the Marine spotter for his ship, relayed the target coordinates down to the computer room on his sound-powered phone and awaited word that they were ready to shoot. “From when he called me up to when we were ready to shoot was like 15 seconds,” Shaffer said. When the bridge said the gun was ready to fire, Shaffer gave the order to shoot.
“We had 600 rounds and sometimes we would shoot them all up in one day. Sometimes it would take two or three days,” he said. The 5-inch/54 gun could fire 40 rounds per minute. The gun’s range was 26,000 yards or 13 nautical miles. The ship’s computer calculated the time of the flight of the bullet so the sailors could give the spotters five seconds notice before impact. “We would yell in the radio ‘Splash,’” Shaffer said. “And that would give him time to get his head down before the bullet got there and exploded, throwing shrapnel everywhere.”
The call sign for one of the USS Badger’s spotters was “Sierra 26 Charlie.” An ammunition ship would go up and down the line of 23 ships to replenish their rounds. When all the ammunition was depleted, the ships would head to the ammunition storage at Subic Bay in the Philippines. On two occasions, the USS Badger joined the aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The ship would patrol the area, known as Piraz station, between an aircraft carrier and the North Vietnam shore. The USS Badger would serve as a spotter on the ocean to ensure that no enemy aircraft tried to infiltrate the aircraft returning from their missions and would also retrieve any pilots who had to ditch their plane into the sea.
“In four months, we fired 7100 rounds – that was my ship,” Shaffer said. “And the 5-inch/54 gun barrels would only last about 3500 rounds. So we had burned out, used up, two barrels. And we’d just got a new one, the third one, by the end of the four months.
“On our status, I would say it was just exhausting. Since I was the only guy who knew how to shoot shore bombardment, there were times when I went two weeks without taking off my headset or changing clothes. I’d sit in the chair (in the control room) and people would bring me food and coffee and I would doze between missions. This was round-the-clock for me and some of my people.”
The then 30-year-old lieutenant commander was there from April until November 1972. He was the third senior officer on board with a crew of about 130 sailors.
Shaffer grew up in Brookville which is about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. He was the lone son and the fourth of five children of a grocery store owner and a homemaker. He served 23 years in the Navy and left in 1986 as a commander. After that he worked for Peterson Builders Inc. as head of their contracts, mostly with the government, at a small shipyard on the Great Lakes at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. He left them in 1991 and helped his brother-in-law in the home repair business. The retiree came to Huntsville in 2019 from Bradenton, Florida.
He and his wife of 57 years, Linda, have a son, Ward, who teaches in a community college in upstate New York; a daughter, Karen Howard, a director with the General Accountability Office in Huntsville; and a granddaughter, Rachel Pearce, who resides in Mississippi.
At 79, he is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Shaffer was a wood turner until recently selling his shop.
He shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“The negative connotation is pretty much gone. And I think people realize just what service during the Vietnam War meant,” Shaffer said. “I saw a lot of people doing some very spectacular things. And I was very proud to be part of that.
“I saw a lot of people doing spectacular things and I saw some Medal of Honors get awarded. And I truly am proud of the patriots.”
Editor’s note: This is the 337th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.