Blue Bullet

Return of the Blue Rubber Bullet


As Gunnery Officer in the Tonkin Gulf on the '72 Westpac cruise, I was responsible for maintaining the ship's magazines and had what I thought was a pretty good inventory of all the ammunition we had on board.  But as we  were shooting a lot of rounds and replenishing underway every other day or so,  the inventory was getting a little shaky.  We would fire different mixes of rounds in any given mission, and then empty the carrier system after the mission and re-stow the ammo, with various handling crews, often with little sleep and not enough care as to the rightful order of things in the magazine.

We were selected to be a test ship for a new type of 5" experimental round which supposedly had a range of over 40,000 yards (I recall our max range was around 25,000 yards with conventional rounds). A mike boat came alongside in Subic and brought us the new rounds and special propellant canisters.  The rounds were much smaller than a normal 5" round and had collars at both ends to adapt them to our barrels.  But the most interesting thing about them was they were bright blue!  We struck them down into the magazines, went into Olongapo City for an evening of refined entertainment (that's another story) and got underway for the Gunline the next day to try those things out.

We ended up firing six or eight missions with the "blue rubber bullets", so named by the Gerry Westcott, the CIC Officer, who used to tease me unmercifully and wanted to know if I thought I could hit Hanoi with the things, or anything at all for that matter.  We had no idea where in Vietnam the rounds were going, as our Marine Corps spotters in slicks never actually observed the fall of any of the blue shot.  We were also constantly loading and unloading the rounds because we would fire conventional missions in between the experimental missions with the blue bullets.

Eventually, my inventory of blue rubber bullets became somewhat muddled. When another ship which was also participating in the experiment had one of them jam in a hot breech, the NavOrd people said "OK, don't shoot any more, offload them all and we'll take 'em back for more study."

A mike boat driven by a crusty old Boatswain's Mate First Class who looked like he'd gone completely local, came out of Quang Tri with a crew of sandcrabs as ammo handlers to pick them up on short notice. I was down in the magazines in about 110 degrees with all the gunners mates, sweating profusely and trying to find all them damn things to reconcile the daily inventory which the skipper, fuming and glaring aft at me from the port bridge wing, was holding in his hand.  During that period, we had been taking random shore fire from the VC who had commandeered some American 155s and were running them up and down the coast behind trucks, shooting at us occasionally to keep us from enjoying our cheese burgers and ice cream sundaes at lunch time. For this reason, Captain Brisbois was in a fever to get rid of the blue bullets and get underway. I was holding him up big time.  "Would you like to get this goddamn job done right now, Mr. Petty?!!" or words to that effect, and I said OK, that's it, the inventory is wrong and you guys have all the blue bullets.  Let's get out of here!  No scorn like the scorn of a captain for a gunnery officer who doesn't know how many blue bullets he has.

Well, Dick Nixon negotiated a truce on January 20, 1973, so we headed for Sasebo, Japan where  we were ordered to change out our spent barrels just in case the cease fire didn't hold up.  We had a problem seating the barrel of Mount 52. We just jacked it into the best position we could get with two come-alongs and covered the socket with plastic so we could head east. The skipper, along with everyone else, was in a hellfire hurry to go home and didn't want to wait another day for us to get the barrel in properly. 

On the way back across the Pacific, on a clear, calm moonlit night northwest of French Frigate Shoals, Joe Frett, GMG3, called me on the bridge about 0300 where I was the JO of the midwatch, and said, "Could you come back to the after magazine, sir, there's something I need to show you."  I stopped by on my rounds and there was Joe, his non-reg hair sticking out the back and sides of his ball cap, with a blue rubber bullet in his arms, saying, "What do I do with this thing, boss?"  I said, "Joe, come with me, I need to discuss this matter with you on the fantail.  Bring that strange object you have in your arms—I don't believe I've ever seen a blue rubber bullet before in my life."

Joe and I finally reconciled the inventory by sending the last of the blue rubber bullets to the bottom in 2500 fathoms, somewhere east of 168 degrees West. I know it's been almost thirty years, but please, no one tell NIS about this, as I could still not proffer a proper excuse for failing to know just how many blue rubber bullets we had left on board.


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