CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS BonHomme Richard
Date: September 7, 2018
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Ryan Radice
Richard Gallagher was born in Fishkill, Westchester County, New York, in April 1948, and graduated from John Jay High School. He recalled that his interest in the US Navy resulted from a presentation by a recruiter while he was still in high school. The draft was in effect at that time, and the Navy provided an attractive alternative to the Army for many young men like himself. Gallagher chose to enlist in the Navy after graduation in June of 1967. He noted that he had additional motivations for enlisting, including a desire to travel to and visit different parts of the world, as well as to “get out from under the thumb” of his parents.
At the time of Gallagher’s enlistment, many young men were joining the Navy. In fact, there were so many enlisting to avoid being drafted, that training classes were backed up when he arrived in Great Lakes, Illinois for “boot camp”. During boot camp, Gallagher had to choose a Navy career path. Since he had become a very proficient typist while taking courses in high school, he selected and was accepted for the Communications Yeoman specialty. Following boot camp, Gallagher attended Communications Yeoman School in Norfolk, Virginia, where he graduated first in his class of forty-two students.
Gallagher’s initial duty assignment was in the Philippines, where he worked at Subic Bay Naval Base, a vital port designated as the primary repair and supply replenishment center for the Seventh Fleet during the Vietnam War. The base often became crowded, as numerous ships docked there for repair or resupply. The nearby town of Olongapo, which Gallagher described as a “wild place,” proved especially popular with sailors on shore leave, but he tended to stay away from it.
Some severely damaged ships arrived at Subic Bay. Among them was the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, which limped in for repairs following a deadly fire that broke out aboard the vessel in 1967. The Forrestal was so badly damaged that Gallagher’s team had to take over all communications duties for the ship. He played a vital role in helping surviving sailors make contact with their loved ones to assure them they were safe.
The work at Subic Bay was demanding, and Gallagher recalled that he needed at least four hours of sleep a night to get his job done effectively, though it was a struggle to get even that much. The grueling cycle of work, sleep and repeat was certainly tough, but there were some advantages to working at Subic. One that he recalled fondly was that he and his fellow communications workers had their own barracks, where they were pretty much left to themselves.
After eighteen months at Subic Bay, Gallagher received orders to join the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Bonhomme Richard (CVA-31), which he had actually toured while stationed at Subic. After one month’s leave back home in New York, he reported for duty on the Bonhomme Richard in San Diego in February 1969. The carrier then headed back into action off the coast of Vietnam on its last combat tour before decommissioning.
Gallagher’s job aboard ship was to type and issue strike plans for aircraft combat missions. At the time the United States was focusing its bombing campaign on the Ho Chi Minh trail, specifically targeting areas in Cambodia and Laos. Despite the intensity of the bombing, the ship was able to make several “port calls” including Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong and Japan, as well as his old post at Subic Bay. While in Subic Bay, the ship suffered a power outage that disabled its communications, and Gallagher ended up working at his old post with his old friends for a few hours until the power was restored. Though most of his ship’s operations took place in the South China Sea, there were occasional forays to another politically-hot area. In 1969, North Korea shot down an American spy plane, and the Bonhomme Richard was ordered to the Sea of Japan to act as a deterrent to any further hostility. The mission completed, she returned to Vietnam.
Although his fellow crewmen did not talk about the war much, Gallagher had to proofread messages; thus, he acquired a more comprehensive sense of the situation. He concluded that American forces did not always have a clear idea of what they were targeting; and, often, the same targets had to be bombed again and again, because the enemy proved very resilient. In describing the targets, Gallagher recalled that the messages used the word “suspected” a great deal.
The danger of fire on the ship was ever-present, and Gallagher recalled how small fires often broke out spontaneously, but were quickly extinguished. When Miss America visited the Bonhomme Richard for a USO show during his combat tour, a fire broke out on the flight deck. Luckily, the show was in one of the hangar bays. Gallagher and his buddies were watching from above on the flight deck and quickly alerted the fire crew, averting a possible disaster.
Richard Gallagher left the navy after his four-year enlistment. He used his GI Bill benefits to go to college, where he majored in history. Gallagher used the research skills he learned there to become a successful insurance investigator. At the time of his interview, he remembered his naval service fondly. Gallagher helped organize reunions with the men he had served with at Subic Bay, since the camaraderie they experienced was still very important for them. He was also able to visit and tour the newest iteration of the Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) at her commissioning in Pensacola, Florida in 1998.