‘Jap Zeroes were diving on our fantail, I ordered: ‘Blast the SOBs out of the sky!’

Eugene Maresca of Buttonwood Village mobile home park in Punta Gorda served a three-year hitch in the regular Navy and spent the next 17 years as a Naval Reservist. He was a full commander when he retired in 1983. Photo provided

After 20 years of service in the U.S. Navy, Eugene Maresca retired in 1983 as a full commander. He served three years in the regular Navy and the rest in the Naval Reserve.

When he first signed up he was still a student at Butler University.

“My mechanical aptitude score was so low they wouldn’t even let me try out to be a gunner’s mate,” the 67-year-old resident of Buttonwood Village mobile home park in Punta Gorda, Fla. said. “The only thing they’d let me test for was electrician’s mate.

“So I decided to take the test for Officer’s Candidate School. When they called time I still had 23 questions left to answer. I drew a line down through the B-column and 19 of the last 23 questions were Bs. I got one of the highest test scores ever recorded,” he said with a smile.

“Then they put me in a room with the eye chart for half an hour waiting to see the doctor. It didn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to memorize five lines of eye chart in 30 minutes.

“I went to OCS with John Kerry (who became a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts), for whatever that’s worth. The Tonkin Gulf Incident happened just before I was in OCS. That’s when things really started heating up in Vietnam,” he explained.

“I had an instructor in ship handling school in 1967 who had been the Combat Information Officer on the Maddox or the Turner Joy. It was the ship that was attacked that people later claimed wasn’t attacked.

“There was no doubt in his mind he thought they had been attacked by enemy gun boats. He had the dead reckoning papers that showed every contact every minute and showed exactly what happened to them.

“Years later I saw a ‘Letter to the Editor’ in the Navy Institute Proceedings from another man who had been in the same area as my instructor about the same time. What he wrote the editor was they saw a flight of birds coming off the island, not an enemy PT-boat.

“But on their monitor the flock of birds looked exactly like an enemy boat attacking and they fired their guns. When they did the flock of birds disbursed and on the monitor it looked like the boat had been sunk. It disappeared. I believe my instructor really thought they were being attacked,” Maresca said.

“When I went into OCS in August 1966 I put on my Green Sheet I wanted to go to the Riverine Forces in South Vietnam. Anything but engineering and destroyers and hopefully on the East Coast of the U.S. so I could be near my grandparents who raised me,” Maresca said. “They put me in a destroyer on the West Coast in the engineering department.

The USS Everett F. Larson, DD-830, was a World War II Fletcher Class destroyer converted to a more powerful ship with twice the main gun fire power when Maresca served aboard her in Vietnam in the 1960s. Photo provided

“I became part of the crew of the USS Everett F. Larson, DD-830. She was originally launched in April 1945 as a Fletcher Class destroyer. She was converted to a more powerful ship with an extended hull and twice as many five-inch main guns.

“I was the damage control assistant on the destroyer. The ship had just come back from Vietnam when I got there. There were a lot of training exercises for the new recruits.

“In the course of my training I was the conning officer when we hit another destroyer, the USS Orleck, DD-886, while trying to dock her,” he recalled. “We cracked the other ship’s frame. The Orleck had been slated to sail for Vietnam the next day, but didn’t make it.

“Our ship headed for Vietnam in August of 1967. We provided naval gun fire support. People would call us for supporting fire and then we would rain 5-inch shells on a target ashore,” Maresca explained.

“Some times we were Plane Guard. That’s where we went along behind an aircraft carrier and picked up anyone who wound up in the drink. One day a pilot never made it within sight of the carrier. We went looking for him, but never found anything.

“It was about this time they found out the USS Pueblo had been captured by the North Koreans. They sent our ship up to the Sea of Japan off the coast of North Korea. We were going to be sent in to get the Pueblo and tow it out of Wonsan Harbor with guns ablazing.

“There was no way we were going to do that. You could have shot holes through our ship with a .22 because it was so old and beat up,” Maresca said. “At the last minute they decided not to go into the harbor because there were a couple of enemy submarines waiting for us just outside the harbor.

“We had 32 days up there off the coast of North Korean in the Sea of Japan in heavy, heavy seas. That was about the end of the action in Vietnam for the crew of the USS Lawson that sailed back to the U.S,” he said.

“On our last mission in Vietnam we got a shell stuck in the right barrel of the forward gun mount. The procedure is you stop everything and run out there with a fire hose and cool the barrel down so it doesn’t blow up,” Maresca explained. “They didn’t do that, they did nothing and waited until they started firing the next day to clear the jammed up barrel.

“The next day when we got ready to fire the gun with the jammed shell stuck in it someone brushed up against the firing switch. The gun hadn’t been turned toward the target. It was pointed straight ahead when it went off.

“There was a South Vietnamese light house dead ahead of us when the gun went off. Evidently the shell must have missed the lighthouse. The captain was so distraught he got on the intercom and demanded the weapons officer come up on the bridge. By this time the skipper was literally frothing at the mouth.

“‘I’m not going out there on the bridge. A bunch of wild horses couldn’t drag me out there,’ the weapon’s officer declared.

“I probably missed my chance for the history books after we got back from Vietnam. It was the summer of 1967 and the Lawson was moored in Long Beach Harbor. I was a junior grade lieutenant and one night I was the command duty officer.

“The messenger of the watch came in saluted. Then he informed me, ‘The Officer of the Deck sends his respects and reported: A Jap Zero (fighter plane) was diving on our fantail.’

“I certainly wasn’t expecting such a message. But I told him: ‘Bring guns to bear and blow that SOB out of the sky. I’ll be right back there.’

“I went back to the fantail and there really were Japanese Zeroes diving on our ship. They were filming the movie ‘Tora, Tora, Tora.’ But I never got the message before the ‘attack’ began.

“Fortunately for me, an old Chief Quartermaster was the officer of the deck that night. He didn’t take orders from a lieutenant j.g. As a consequence he didn’t order our guns to fire on the ‘enemy.’ He saved my naval career.”

Maresca went on to serve 17 years in the Naval Reserve and retired in 1983 as a commander.

He and his wife, Dola, moved to Buttonwood Village about five years ago. He has two grown daughters: Alicia and Terri.

Maresca’s File

Name: Eugene Merrill Maresca
D.O.B: 14 Sept. 1944
Hometown: Vincennes, Ind.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: Oct 1963
Discharged: Oct 1983
Rank: Commander
Unit: USS Everett F. Lawson (DD-830), USS Samuel Gompers (AD-37)
Commendations: Naval Reserve Meritorious Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal w/1 Star, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Korea), Armed Forces Reserve Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam – Gunfire Support/Plane Guard, Pueblo Incident

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, May 14, 2012 and is republished with permission.

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