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By Steve Weintz,War Is Boring
During the Cold War, many lesser-known confrontations occurred at sea away from the headlines and major crises. This was certainly true for the crew of the U.S. Navy’s Belknap-class guided-missile cruiser USS Biddle.
The warship sailed into the thick of the Vietnam War and came face-to-face with the Soviet Navy. During the 1970s, Biddle shot down North Vietnamese MiGs and even sneaked up on a Soviet refueling ship.
Provocative, fierce and gutsy, the ship’s crew kept alive the fighting spirit of their ship’s namesake — a hard-charging captain from the American Revolutionary War.
Biddle launched on July 2, 1965 at Bath Iron Works, Maine. She was the fourth ship to bear the name of Capt. Nicholas Biddle of the Continental Navy.
The colonial-era captain and Philadalelphian went to sea at age 13 in 1763. By the time he joined the independence movement at age 25, Biddle had already served in the Royal Navy, survived a shipwreck and joined young Horatio Nelson on an Arctic expedition.
Biddle later became dedicated to the Patriot cause. In 1775, the Continental Congress issued him a captain’s commission, and he proved himself up to it. The next year, his brig Andrea Doria seized two British transports off Newfoundland. In the winter of 1777, while in command of the 32-gun frigate Randolph, Biddle seized four ships full of war supplies off South Carolina.
He put down a rebellion of deserting sailors by aiming a loaded pistol at the ringleader. In 1778, he ran the British blockade. And later that year, Randolph engaged HMS Yarmouth — a warship with twice her firepower — east of Charleston.
The ships exchanged several broadsides before Randolph’s powder magazines exploded. Seriously wounded, Biddle went down with his ship.
The night of the MiGs
One hundred ninety-four years later, the cruiser USS Biddle — call-sign “Hard Charger” — kept station in the Gulf of Tonkin east of Vietnam. From a buoy 200 miles north of Yankee Station, the cruiser guided air strikes, watched for hostiles headed out to sea and conducted search-and-rescue operations.
On the night of July 19, 1972, Biddle’s duty watch officers monitored an American combat air patrol escorting two damaged A-6 Intruders on their way back from a mission. Suddenly, five incoming MiGs popped up on the ship’s radar.
The crew wasn’t immediately alarmed. North Vietnamese fighters had taken runs at American warships before, and they almost always turned back before heading out to sea.
This time was different.
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With the MiGs just minutes away and inbound at 500 knots, Biddle’screw scrambled to their battle stations. Fire-control systems locked onto the approaching aircraft while the ship readied her Terrier missiles.
Biddle increased speed to 25 knots and began evasive maneuvers. The warship fired her missiles, which lit up the deck with a blazing glow as they streaked toward their targets. The radar confirmed one MiG destroyed. Two others turned tail and ran.
But the two remaining MiGs — aligned one behind the other — kept coming*.* The warship pounded away at the incoming jets with her three- and five-inch guns while the missile systems locked on and fired. One MiG crashed, and the other bolted for home.
The ship was safe, but it wasn’t clear if her guns or missiles shot down the enemy plane. If the guns did it, then Biddle scored the last manually-operated gun kill by a ship on an aircraft in the U.S. Navy’s history.
Prank the Soviets
But war is more than terror and shock — it’s also stupid, boring and funny. Biddle’s crew found room in the strange goings-on of the Cold War to play a practical joke.
During a Mediterranean cruise vaguely dated to the 1970s, Biddle received orders for a “special assignment” — to shadow a Soviet naval task force — in the Black Sea.
The Biddle quietly steamed into the Black Sea where she stalked and found the Soviet ships strung out in a long line, according to an account from the USS Biddle Association.
A support ship refueled the Soviet vessels from a long stern-mounted hose. Biddle’s skipper guessed that the Soviet crews were too preoccupied with navigation and refueling to notice one more vessel in their midst.
He ordered his ship to steer into the refueling line. When his ship’s turn came, the American captain had a Russian-speaking crewman talk to the refueling ship. “How much do you need?” came the query. “Just a token amount,” replied the sailor.
“What ship are you?” the Soviet crewman asked on final approach. The American sailor replied in perfect Russian, “United States battle cruiser Biddle.”
“The radio went silent — then all Hell broke loose,” wrote Richard Outland, a hull technician on board Biddle. “Gongs, whistles, lights all seemed to go off at once on board the Russkie ships, as they scattered in every direction away from us.”
The captains of the American cruiser and the Soviet oiler exchanged pleasantries — and the ships separated in the night — with the Americans feeling a rush.
Biddle served until the end of the Cold War and took part in operations off Libya and in the Persian Gulf. But her time — and reason for being — ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Navy decommissioned Biddle in 1993 and scrapped her in 2001. But the ship’s crew kept something in common with Biddle the captain. He had “the primary qualification of a good naval officer — an indomitable will,” Willis John Abbot wrote in The Naval History of the United States.