According to the U.S. Navy’s official history, no major U.S. Navy warship was ever sunk in the Vietnam War.
Casper’s Jim Dixon knows differently, for he was a sailor onboard the DD-843, USS Warrington in July 1972.
Dixon chuckles as he describes himself as a “Vietnam draft dodger.” A 1971 high school graduate from northern Minnesota, he developed a carefully detailed plan to avoid becoming an infantryman in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam, while still serving his nation. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an anti-submarine torpedoman’s mate.
“Vietnam didn’t have any submarines,” he explained.
Attending his initial training, he learned that “at torpedoman’s school, if you were in the top 10 percent of the class, you could name your own assignment.” He studied, worked extremely hard and graduated, ranked very high in his class. He selected assignment on board the USS Warrington, a World War II-era destroyer based out of Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, and assigned to the Mediterranean Ocean, as far away as you could possibly get from Vietnam.
Change of direction
Fifty miles out of Newport and heading to the “Med,” the USS Warrington suddenly made a hard starboard turn, picked up a battle group off Virginia “without stopping” and headed for the Pacific. Their captain announced over the intercom, “You can guess what this means.” Dixon was going to visit Vietnam after all.
En route, they had a mere three days liberty in Hawaii. They did spend Independence Day in the Philippine Islands, although Dixon worked off-loading weapons inappropriate for Vietnam the entire day. Otherwise, they made flank speed for Vietnam, resupplying underway (known as “UNREPS”) without slowing.
Being a 1945-era ship, living conditions onboard were “pretty raw” — tight living quarters, no air conditioning, hot and stifling below decks. In the South China Sea, “there was no getting away from the heat,” Dixon said.
Operations in Vietnam
Arriving off Vietnam in late July, the Warrington briefly participated in providing naval gunfire support to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam fighting the Second Battle of Quang Tri in South Vietnam, and was then assigned to Operation Linebacker, attempting to close the Haiphong Harbor. Her mission was the destruction of North Vietnamese small craft and the observation of communist Chinese merchant shipping. On the morning of July 17, 1972, she engaged in a furious engagement with North Vietnamese shore batteries, including heavy guns and missiles. Dixon’s General Quarters (Battle Station) assignment was in a 5” gun turret, where he stood underneath the gun and manually transferred the heavy projectiles and canisters of propellants from the magazines to the gun mount.
Entirely focused on his physically demanding job and entombed in the armored bowels of the ship, Dixon didn’t realize the intensity of the engagement until after the Warrington had withdrawn to re-arm. Ordered to clean up the damage topside, he had to use a snow shovel to remove the great quantity of shrapnel lying on the armored plate.
The Warrington recovered from General Quarters and went to “Port-Starboard” — meaning that half the crew was on duty at any given time. Dixon was finally relieved — he had been awake for over 24 hours — and permitted to head to his bunk for a well-deserved rest. He had just lied down, when suddenly “the bunk fell on me.” Actually, the Warrington had just run over at least one massive U.S. naval mine that had been previously jettisoned by a U.S. aircraft but not properly marked. The explosion was so severe that it tossed the destroyer into the air.
Dixon had actually been ejected violently from his bunk by the impact of the explosion, although he had never heard it. With all electrical power knocked off line, his quarters were plunged into darkness. Given the stifling conditions below decks, Dixon had been sleeping in his skivvies and T-shirt. He managed to find somebody else’s dungaree trousers “for a very short person” and his own pair of shower shoes.
When he got outside, Dixon saw the ship listing heavily to port and aft, where the explosion had occurred. The destroyer barely remained afloat. Every pipe onboard the ship had been shattered, but the ship’s engines remained running long enough to propel the Warrington safely out of range of the North Vietnamese.
Numerous sailors risked their lives below decks to close enough hatches and doors so that gasoline pumps could be rigged to de-water their ship. Master Chief Machinists Mate John F. Rutledge, Jr. was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” for Valor for his efforts that were recognized as single-handedly keeping the ship’s engines running long enough to escape further damage from the North Vietnamese shore batteries. Dixon’s first and most critical job was to render the numerous large and dangerous warheads and torpedoes onboard safely. He can’t remember how, but he moved the 500-pound torpedoes by himself. Then he joined a working party throwing 200, 5-inch, white, phosphorous shells over the side, in case they had been cracked in the explosion. Eventually, damage control got ahead of the flooding.
Other naval vessels rushed at flank speed and came alongside to render assistance. A tug fastened a tow line to pull the crippled destroyer to Subic Bay in the Philippine Islands, the closest major naval repair facility. The voyage required seven long days. Below decks, everything was devastation. Dixon’s quarters were flooded by a foul mixture of salt water, fuel oil, gasoline, waste water. Every single possession Dixon owned in the world was utterly destroyed — his high school ring, his clothes, all of his cameras and photos. Eventually he was given another pair of tennis shoes to replace his shower sandals, but they were too small and he had to cut out the toes before he could wear them.
A single fresh water tank remained intact, so drinking water had to be rationed to two Dixie cups per man per day. The only stores accessible contained chicken salad and sandwich bread, so every meal consisted of chicken salad sandwiches. Dixon specifically recalled that the drastically limited water was the absolute worst part of the whole experience, and for years afterward, he couldn’t walk past a water cooler or faucet without drinking his fill.
Signalmen had to communicate using semaphore flags between the two ships, and communications onboard were limited to verbal and written messages. Dixon became so exhausted after nearly five days without sleep that he finally tied himself to the torpedo tubes, pulled a torpedo tube cover over him and collapsed. When he awoke, he discovered that his destroyer and tug were passing through the tail end of a typhoon. He was snuggled up against flying fish that had been blown out of the sea and onto the destroyer! The tow chain was severed twice, and once they even rammed the tow ship in the rough seas!
Surprisingly, nobody onboard the ship had been killed or seriously wounded in the incident. Five purple hearts were awarded. The captain of the ship remained on the bridge, catnapping in his chair, until the ship safely reached dry-dock in Subic Bay.
Wiping a tear out of his eye, Dixon related, “The Warrington had done her job — she had saved her crew.”
The aftermath for the Warrington
Dixon essentially received half a sea bag full of replacement clothes, and the crew was assigned quarters on a floating berth. When the ship was placed into dry dock, engineers and senior naval officers were stunned at the extent of the damage. The Warrington’s keel had been cracked, the rudders twisted and the steel of its hull rippled by the devastating explosion. The old warship could not be salvaged. On Aug. 25, 1972, it was announced that the Warrington would be decommissioned and the crew broken up. It was a sad day for the sailors who had endured so much together.
The U.S. Navy never lost a single major warship during the Vietnam War … except the DD-843, USS Warrington.
Life after Vietnam
After serving in Vietnam, Dixon spent another 21 years in the military.
“I met this Pennsylvania gal, and after 19 hours of talking to her, I asked her to marry me and she said yes,” Dixon said. When he asked her what he should do next, she told him to stay in the military because she had never had the chance to travel anywhere during her life. During his time in the service, Dixon and his wife, Allyne, had 23 permanent changes of address. The couple have four children and seven grandchildren.
Dixon retired from the military On New Year’s Eve 1991 and moved to Casper in 1992. He worked for Defense Technology for 14 years, and he retired in Sept. 2015. Dixon enjoys “quiet ponies, happy grandkids, a little fishing and hunting.”
With several upcoming reunions happening for the Dixons this year, the couple plan to continue their travels around the country, connecting and catching up with old friends.