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Sunday Maritime Book Review: Thunder in the Night

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In early 1972 the heavy cruiser Newport News deployed to Southeast Asia. Newport News was one of the last of the big gun cruisers, commissioned in 1949 and carrying 9 8-inch guns with an automatic reload system that allowed the cruiser to fire ninety shells per minute. The cruiser was playing a role similar to that played by the battleship New Jersey in 1968, but the amount of ordnance delivered by Newport News (nicknamed “Thunder”) was greater than that of the battleship. Newport News was dispatched to Vietnam to assist in Linebacker I, an operation designed to stop a North Vietnamese conventional invasion of the South. Often at night but sometimes during the day, Newport News would close with the shoreline and either give fire support to South Vietnamese forces or attack targets within North Vietnam. The cruiser was never seriously threatened by North Vietnamese attack, but would regularly take fire from shore artillery batteries, along with the occasional encounter with a torpedo boat. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese weren’t the only problem. Towards the end of its tour, the B-turret on Newport News exploded, killing about twenty sailors.

Thunder in the Night, by Raymond Kopp is the story of Thunder’s deployment. Kopp served on Newport News during its tour of duty, and was present when the B-turret exploded. We have a lot of narratives of maritime life, but most are focused on the experience of officers. Kopp gives us a story from the point of view of a sailor. Most intriguing is his description of how information moved around the ship. A ship at sea is unlike an infantry company or army brigade; especially in 1972, there weren’t a lot of ways for the individual sailor to communicate outside of the ship. Consequently, the treatment of information that would otherwise be sensitive or confidential seemed to be much more lax than would be expected on land. Kopp describes the rumor mill that engulfed shipboard life, with different information coming in from different sources and being put together in what amounted to a giant game of telephone. On a couple of occasions the Newport News put into Subic Bay for replenishment, repair, and rest. Kopp does a good job of capturing the culture of Subic Bay, particularly of how its economy became oriented around the US presence. Kopp isn’t a social scientist, but he does paint a nice picture of the impact of the base on Philippine life.

Kopp doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the construction of Newport News, but I was forced to wonder whether any thought was given to designing automatic weapons for battleships. The 8″ guns on Newport News and her sisters fired at a little more than twice the rate of normal guns, which would translate to five rounds per minute for a 16″ weapon. I’ve never seen any thought or any design for post-Montana US battleships, but the idea of a ship that could fire 60 16″ shells per minute is pretty impressive. The Japanese went the other direction; Yamato carried 18.1″ guns, and both the Super and Super-Duper Yamato designs were supposed to carry 20″ weapons. I’d put my money on the 60 16″ shells/minute over the 10 20″ shells/minutes. Newport News and her two sisters were useful enough as bombardment ships to keep around for a long time; Newport News was scrapped in 1993, Des Moines in 2006, and Salem has been converted into a museum ship.

This book is primarily going to be of interest to those who really dig naval artillery, and to those with particular interests in either the naval aspect of the Vietnam War or the 1972 campaigns. The account has substantial weaknesses. Kopp takes some defensible liberties in terms of reconstructing conversations that happened thirty-five years ago; no one expects that he would remember specifically what was said at a particular time, and it’s reasonable in this context to try to recapture the gist, rather than the specifics, or a given conversation. Nevertheless, many of his dialogues have a pat quality that leaves them nearly unreadable. Kopp also has a strangely dissonant treatment the reaction of the country to the war; at one point he insists that patriotic young men joined the military at a rate unseen since World War II, while at other times he recognizes the very serious tensions that the war evoked in the United States. Kopp concludes with a fairly long and reasonably interesting discussion of his life after Vietnam. His unfortunate coda relates his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experience to the Iraq War. It’s fair enough to argue that national unity is a good thing to have during a war, but it’s not so fair to suggest the essential suspension of politics. Kopp asserts that the only time for the American populace to make its preferences known is during an election, yet the long history of American democracy is replete with examples of political action that have nothing to do with elections. Electoral politics is one way to change a policy, but it is not now and has never been the only way. While I appreciate the difficulties that Kopp and other Vietnam veterans have faced, nothing that they have experienced is worth sacrificing any part of America’s democratic tradition. In any case, the digression is unfortunate but brief.

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