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By Zalin Grant
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The skipper raised his binoculars and saw the USS Oriskany on the horizon. The aircraft carrier looked massive in his glasses, although he knew it to be one of the smallest of the fleet. The skipper was a big man, barechested and hairy. He wore faded blue shorts. A white cloth covered his head from the sun. He watched as the Oriskany approached another vessel from astern, an ammo supply ship. From where he stood near the deckhouse, the skipper could see that many of his thirty-five-man crew were working on their tans or swimming off the port side. He finished his cigarette and went below to get a radar fix on the Oriskany. On the way, he told the first mate to make ready to depart.

Moscow had sent the skipper to spy on the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was his second tour on "Yankee Station," as the Americans called that locus of the gulf where they waged their imperialist air war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The Gidrofon, a one hundred and fifty-foot trawler, could do but thirteen knots, less than half the speed of the three aircraft carriers and thirty support ships that made up Task Force Seventy-Seven. Yet the skipper had no trouble keeping close watch on the Americans. The Gidrofon pretended to be making hydrographic surveys--a cover story that neither the Russians nor the Americans took seriously. The trawler was equipped with the most advanced electronics the Soviet Union could provide.

Still, it wasn't just the technology that made the skipper's job easy. The Gulf of Tonkin was only about one hundred and fifty miles wide and three hundred miles long. The U.S. operational area was limited on the west to three miles offshore North Vietnam; on the east, to three miles from China's Hainan Island; and the north-south boundaries stretched a hundred miles or so. Yankee Station was, in effect, if one considered the number of ships involved, no more than a small lake. To launch and recover aircraft, the carriers needed a thirty-five knot wind blowing over their flight decks. They were constantly steaming up and down, making frequent course changes in search of the right breeze. The skipper could sit at 18° north--108° east and watch the Americans go by. In an average month, the Oriskany might log twelve thousand miles, while the skipper, lying dead much of the time, ran up seven hundred. The Gidrofon could remain on station for weeks, or even months, without being resupplied.

The skipper knew more about the Oriskany than did many of the thirty-five hundred Americans who manned the carrier. The ship had seventy aircraft. Its wing was made up of two twelve-plane squadrons of F-8 fighters, two fourteen-plane squadrons of A-4 bombers, ten aging "Spads," three A-3 refueling tankers, several photo recon birds, and a couple of E-2 radar planes. By now, the Russians could recognize the radio voices of the Oriskany's pilots.

In the early days of the war, the skipper had been wary. He suspected the imperialists' strategy of being an elaborate trick. Why else would Washington draw a circle around Hanoi and Haiphong and not allow America planes to bomb within those prohibited zones--the very places where most of the DRV's critical industrial targets were located? If the capitalists had nothing up their sleeves, why, then, did they look on benignly as the North Vietnamese installed surface-to-air missiles and make no attempt to hit the sites until months after they were first photographed? With that kind of reaction on the capitalist side, and with generous help from the socialist camp, the Vietnamese comrades were able to construct the most deadly antiaircraft defense system ever devised.

And if Washington's policy truly was to stop Hanoi from sending war material to South Vietnam, why did the Americans wait more than a year after the bombing campaign began before they tried to wipe out the DRV's gasoline supplies? Fortunately, by then the Vietnamese freedom fighters had hidden in caves, or buried, much of their gasoline, making it impossible to find from the air.

The skipper discovered that manifestations of this odd strategy extended to him. The Seventh Fleet commander assigned a salvage tug to shadow him full-time, and U.S. destroyers were called in to give chase when he evaded the tug. In spite of this, an American supply ship recently circled the Gidrofon, with the ship's band playing and a singer giving the Russians a selection of decadent rock 'n' roll. Then a U.S. helicopter swooped low and offered the crew some strawberry ice cream.

Strange, these Americans--crazy, even!

Moscow had laid down guidelines for the Gidrofon's conduct on Yankee Station. The skipper was encouraged by his superiors in the Kremlin to harass U.S. warships, so long as he did it while following the international rules that governed sea travel. An excellent shiphandler, he tried always to approach American ships from their starboard side at a perpendicular, thus giving him the right of way and making them yield. Sometimes, when he couldn't manipulate the rules to his advantage, he simply ignored them. It broke the boredom.

The Oriskany was a particular favorite for harassment. The ship itself was not very interesting--a leftover from World War Two. But there was something different about the pilots and men of the Oriskany, a certain spirit, a willingness to take risks, which made them a deserving adversary. If someone had told the skipper that the Oriskany would see more action and suffer more losses than any aircraft carrier of the Vietnam War, he would not have been surprised.

The skipper returned topside and took a look once more through his binoculars. Then he set the Gidrofon on a collision course with the Oriskany.

Next Book: Facing the Phoenix