Steel Storm II: Deny Warriors to Protect a President?

Ca De River bridge, beach and battlefield, 29 July 1965.

(Composite photo courtesy of Karl Lippard)

UPDATE 2019

William B. Scott

 

A critical battle early in the Vietnam War was brought to light in 2018, when STEEL STORM: A PIVOTAL BATTLE KEPT SECRET FOR 53 YEARS appeared in 16 online and print publications. New information obtained since then confirms a long-held suspicion: The ferocious, five-hour bombardment that obliterated an enemy battalion attempting to take the Ca De River bridge was intentionally covered up.

 

As Karl Lippard’s incredible story rapidly circulated through retired Marine and Navy communities in mid-2018, the magic of Internet networking reconnected hundreds of Vietnam veterans. Many who had been aboard two destroyers—USS Craig and USS Stoddard—vividly recalled their rapid response to a Marine Raider’s “Mayday” call and collectively firing more than 400 five-inch rounds to destroy a large enemy force north of Da Nang.

When Lippard was invited to address a reunion of USS Stoddard sailors in San Pedro, California, critical tidbits of information, ranging from personal tales to vital strategic data, began to surface. As an example, Karl later received a call from a veteran, who said, “I was the radarman on the other end of your comm link that night. We thought you’d been killed!” In fact, most of Stoddard’s sailors were unaware that an entire Viet Cong battalion had been decimated by their ship’s and the USS Craig’s sustained shelling.

A subsequent e-mail message from a former Stoddard sailor capsulized the sentiments of those attending that September 2018 reunion:

“During my 11 months in Vietnam, many involved in [Naval Gunfire Support], every mission was important. However, a few, including the Ca De River Bridge and the Esso Storage Tank missions, stand out as being more intense and critical. Karl, we were aware there was a ‘group of Marines’ in a dire situation, when ordered to the area. I think I speak for the entire crew of the [USS] Stoddard, when I say, it wasn’t until your presentation and e-mails that we realized just how dire the situation actually was. I’m unable to find the words to describe exactly how awestruck we are to have been able to participate in such a critical mission. …[We] are extremely proud to have been a part in this intense battle, very gratified to have learned that not a single Marine was lost, and we thank you and your entire platoon for your bravery and service.”

Information Karl acquired at the reunion—augmented by bits and pieces either e-mailed to him or located by this writer—started answering decades-old questions. Documents that Karl thought never existed were unearthed in The Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University. These included Marine situation reports, ship gunfire records and regimental documents. Even handwritten notes jotted down by a ship’s historian, backed by photos taken from the USS Craig, before it departed Da Nang harbor on 29 July, helped validate two conclusions: 1) An intense, five-hour battle definitely occurred north of the Ca De River bridge on the night of 28-29 July 1965; and 2) the strategically critical battle was covered up—intentionally.

The latter point is backed by official records, as well as sometimes-clumsy attempts to obscure or rewrite history. For example, dates were altered and misinformation inserted in routine operational reports. Key sentences in Navy and Marine Corps battle records were redacted for no logical reason. In fact, a six-line report of action on 29 July 1965 was 100 percent redacted. Totally blacked-out.

Somebody at 3rd Marine Division and Pacific Fleet headquarters apparently decided to purge all evidence that a critical battle had occurred near the Ca De River bridge that night. Staffers hid what they could and redacted what could not be altered or buried.

A diligent historian perusing sparse Navy and USMC records from that period would be baffled by conflicting reports of combat actions, mixed-up dates and “frag orders” that make little sense. Still, undeniable facts and gems of reliable information are there, if one knows where to look for specifics. In Lippard’s terse terms, “It takes someone who was there and knows what really happened.”

Certain irrefutable records were either overlooked or proved too difficult to alter. For example, ships’ naval gunfire support documents identify precise coordinates crews fired upon the night of 28-29 July 1965. These long strings of numbers match those that Karl Lippard called out and later recorded, expecting to be debriefed by his superiors.

 

Gearing-class destroyer firing five-inch guns from forward mount.

(Photo: Courtesy of Bill Latta)

Division records also clearly note that the USS Craig was ordered to Da Nang Bay at max speed the night of 28 July to support Marines under attack. Its officers were told to contact a Marine spotter on a rarely used, specific radio frequency. Terminology used in these records banish any doubts that Division officers (specifically Maj. Gen. Walt) were acutely aware of what was unfolding at the bridge, and that failure to defeat the 7th VC battalion there would have devastating impacts.

But what justified taking extreme measures to literally “disappear” a major engagement, the first significant U.S. battle of the Vietnam War, a battle that should be proudly recorded in Navy and Marine Corps histories? That question motivated retired officers and enlisted personnel to search for answers in 2018. Many queried Pentagon contacts and petitioned archive offices.

This writer and other former military officers sent the original Steel Storm story and a letter to President Donald Trump, requesting his assistance in securing well-deserved decorations for then-Corporal Lippard and the USS Craig and USS Stoddard crews. A typical response—on White House stationery—assured that “your correspondence [has been] forwarded to the appropriate federal agency for further action.”

Three months later, a letter from J. E. Nierle, president of the Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals, asserted that “we are currently gathering information,” and conducting “a review of Mr. Lippard’s service record.”

Another seven months passed, before rejection letters were sent to petitioners. Speaking for the Navy board president, Mr. B. Hennen expressed regret that “no action can be taken on your request,” because bureaucrats could find “no evidence to suggest Mr. Lippard has ever been nominated for a personal decoration” related to combat actions at the Ca De River bridge. Because decades have passed, a nomination now must be “submitted by an officer with standing via a Member of Congress.” An enclosed pamphlet detailed stringent requirements, such as:

  • A nominating officer must have been in Karl Lippard’s “chain of command, or had firsthand knowledge of the heroic act, or meritorious service…”
  • And “was senior to [Lippard] in either grade or position at the time of the act.”

Originators of a recommendation package “bear the burden of conducting all necessary research to gather supporting evidence,” such as obtaining eyewitness statements and endorsements by Lippard’s commanding officer and “all other surviving members of the original chain of command.”

After 54 years, only one such officer is known to be alive, and absolutely no American “eyewitnesses” ever existed, because Karl Lippard was the sole U.S. combatant engaged in the fight ashore. Technically, crews of both ships were eyewitnesses, but it was pitch dark and raining. None of the crewmembers laid eyes on the Marine spotter directing their fire. In short, precise requirements dictated by Washington’s desk jockeys are impossible to satisfy.

Meanwhile, Karl Lippard was diligently trying to obtain a relatively low-level—yet treasured—Combat Action Ribbon (CAR) for the USS Craig and USS Stoddard. He assembled and delivered several packages of supporting data and records, but these were returned intact. One wonders whether they were ever opened, let alone reviewed.

Lippard also received several letters from B. Hennen, Executive Secretary of the Navy Board of Decorations and Medals, assuring that its staff had “reviewed all pertinent official records available… Unfortunately, the evidence does not substantiate an award of the CAR to either ship.”

Incredibly, Hennen claimed that official “records related to the actions of USS JOHN R. CRAIG or USS STODDARD on July 28-29 1965, indicate those ships were part of pre-planned naval gunfire support missions, and that neither vessel was under enemy fire. …We must presume the Navy had access to the official operations reports of the incident, and based on those, determined the ships did not meet the CAR criteria.”

Absolutely false. The USS Craig was dispatched to the Ca De River bridge area by Maj. Gen. Walt in response to Karl Lippard’s “Mayday” plea. The ship pulled anchor and sailed immediately, leaving the ship’s captain ashore. The Stoddard appeared several hours later, jumped into the violent battle and helped the Craig obliterate the 7th VC, which was desperately trying to capture the bridge. The claim that this was a “pre-planned naval gunfire support mission” or minor exercise—what Lippard calls “sky busting”—is laughable.

 

Photo taken from the USS Craig after exiting Da Nang Bay in the early morning of 29 July 1965 shows smoke over the battlefield pounded by 443 five-inch rounds. An Esso oil storage complex barely visible in the center was blown up by Viet Cong sappers on 5 August, a week after the Ca De River Bridge battle.

(Photo courtesy of Navy EM3 Hank Lehtola)

Further, both ships’ crews recall small arms rounds hitting their ships, fired by enemy soldiers shooting at Lippard and South Vietnamese Ranger Sgt. Thi. When a Viet Cong mortar round exploded in the water between Lippard (on the shore) and where the destroyers were anchored, firing all their five-inch guns broadside, the Stoddard moved to a position farther from the beach. There’s no question that both vessels were under enemy fire. Were records altered to eliminate that factoid?

Finally, this writer’s research yielded what may be the overriding reasons for intentionally covering up the ferocious Ca De River bridge fight that destroyed an entire enemy battalion: Protecting the president and keeping China out of the war.  In his bestselling book, “Dereliction of Duty” (pp. 321-322), H.R. McMaster reports that, on July 28, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson “left the Pentagon for the news conference…  Just after 12:30 [p.m.], when the television audience would be the smallest, [LBJ] walked into the East Room of the White House” to give reporters an update on troop buildups in Vietnam. During that briefing, “…Johnson again denied that forces deployed to Vietnam were already engaged in combat operations.”

Karl Lippard’s heroic defense of the Ca De River bridge, backed by two destroyers, occurred on that same date, 28 July 1965. Given that Vietnam is on the other side of the International Date Line, the engagement may have already occurred. Whether Johnson knew about the massive shootout is unclear. Nevertheless, his aides and every military officer between Corporal Lippard and the White House weren’t about to suggest the president had either lied or made a mistake. To avoid White House embarrassment, the battle would simply have to disappear—be erased from history, as if it had never happened.

Senior Navy and Marine Corps officers evidently chose to not report that a solitary Marine Raider had called in more than 400 rounds of Navy five-inch rounds to annihilate a 600-man unit of Viet Cong and Chinese regulars, thereby proving the commander-in-chief had misled the American people. Although historians now agree that LBJ and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, routinely “misled” U.S. citizens, today’s Deep State bureaucrats may still be protecting a favored president’s legacy to preclude yet another blemish.

That said, senior players in the chain-of-command may have had legitimate concerns that they believed warranted burying this historic battle. The president and Sec Def McNamara lived in constant fear that Communist China would jump into the Vietnam War, threatening a Korean War redux or igniting World War III. If the news media exposed the fact that Chinese soldiers were fighting alongside Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, and roughly 300 uniformed regulars had died at the hands of U.S. Marine and Navy forces, might China feel compelled to respond?

Obviously, China’s generals knew the People’s Liberation Army had lost hundreds of its crack troops. But unless America or China openly acknowledged that fact, both sides could pretend it never happened. So, maybe keeping the media and American people in the dark was the best political solution.

This theory is underscored by another strange “operation” that took place shortly after the Ca De River bridge shootout. A Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team was dispatched to the precise area bombarded by the Craig and Stoddard in response to Karl Lippard’s directives. Ostensibly, the team’s mission was to “disable unexploded ordnance.” But it spent an unusual amount of time scouring that hellish killing ground. Did the team of EOD specialists remove every scrap of paper, insignia, clothing and personal items that could prove hundreds of Chinese soldiers had died there? Records of the team’s activities have yet to surface—if they exist at all.

Fifty-four years have passed, since Karl Lippard survived that horrific battle north of the Ca De River bridge. Despite his best efforts, two ships that answered his call will probably never receive a Combat Action Ribbon for their unquestioned support of a Marine in dire straits. And, unless President Donald Trump sees fit to honor him, Karl Lippard will never receive well-earned awards for his heroism under enemy fire.

As he’s stated time and again, Karl is less concerned about personal decorations than about ensuring the bravery and professionalism exhibited by Craig and Stoddard crews are recognized. How those men performed in the Ca De River bridge battle is a testament to the long tradition of sailors supporting Marines under attack, delivering accurate, withering fire from offshore.

Perhaps records of that ferocious fight on 28-29 July 1965 were altered, redacted and “disappeared” to protect a president and assuage worries about China’s potential response. But President Johnson and China’s hard-nosed leaders of the 1960s are long gone.

After more than half a century, it’s time to correct distorted records and honor the warriors who saved America and its Marine Corps from a devastating defeat in mid-1965. Had the 7th VC battalion batted aside Lippard and a small cadre of Marines guarding the Ca De River bridge, the course of the Vietnam War would have unfolded much differently. Exactly how will be left for true historians to speculate,

Lippard may not care about personal commendations, but the President of the United States, Secretary of the Navy, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Chief of Naval Operations damn sure should. If future generations of Marines and sailors aren’t taught their hallowed history, salted by stories of uncommon valor and performance of duty under fire, how will they learn the meaning of “Honor” and understand how it’s earned?

America and its leaders must acknowledge and honor the actions of its warriors. It’s the solemn duty of a grateful nation. If America fails to recognize and tangibly express its appreciation for the sacrifices of its warriors, the men and women who fought and lived or died for their country, will future generations answer their nation’s call to give their lives in the name of liberty?

 

“The willingness with which our
young people are likely to serve in
any war, no matter how justified,
shall be directly proportional to how
they perceive the veterans of earlier
wars were treated and appreciated 
by their nation.”

George Washington

 

Sergeant Karl Lippard as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot

San Diego, CA