Robert Allen Sterling

Boatswains Mate 3rd Class
United States Navy
14 December 1948 - 16 April 1972
Creston, IA
Panel 01W Line 001


Purple Heart, National Defense, Vietnam Service, Vietnam Campaign

The database page for Robert Allen Sterling

17 Jul 2001

You will always be remembered,
whenever your shipmates get together.

From a shipmate,
Jim Whitehead

USS WORDEN, 16 April 1972
What really happened?

On 16 April 1972 USS WORDEN was on the North SAR station, to the east of Haiphong, North Vietnam. The North SAR ship provided air traffic control, flight following, and emergency search and rescue support to American aircraft operating over North Vietnam. The North SAR also functioned as a radar picket ship, protecting the northwestern flank for the Task Force 77 ships operating in the Gulf of Tonkin.

At approximately 0400, WORDEN took two missile hits, killing BM2 Robert Sterling and wounding nine others.

While the fact of the missile strikes is incontrovertible, there's some question regarding whose missiles they were ... was it "friendly" or hostile fire?

Most reports are along these lines
"The first major air strike on Haiphong since 1968 took place on the 16th of April. During the strike, WORDEN was damaged by two anti-radiation missiles inadvertently fired by United States support aircraft. One crew member was killed, and nine others were seriously injured . . . "

but the following recollection comes from a WORDEN crewmember:
"The night we got hit we were controlling approximately 100 airplanes during the air strike. I got off watch at approx. 0345 hrs. The helo that was on our fantail lifted off shortly after that and the fantail was lit up. At approx. 0400 hrs I felt the first and second impact, it almost knocked me out of my bunk. I dressed and ran to my GQ station in after fire room. I heard the 3" gun going off and we got a report from Main Control that a gunboat had launched a torpedo at us. The torpedo lost power and went under us and one of the gunners mates blew up another gun boat with the 3". I was told this by the gunners mates who were manning the 3".

After we steamed out of the area, and at dawn, we assessed the damage. I took some pictures of the holes in the 02 and 01 decks. Also the hole in the window in front of the Exec's chair. Some of the shrapnel actually went through the main deck and went through two ASROC launcher tubes. We also lost our radar and radio. I talked to a Signalman at our reunion and he told me that the signal light was knocked out and he was using a 1000 watt light bulb to signal to our "support" ship.

    Examining shrapnel pieces at
     a recent WORDEN reunion.
Examining the shrapnel
We had to put Sterling in the walk-in cooler and take him to Subic, where we went for emergency repairs. Once in Subic, the officers tried to tell us that we were hit by one of our own rockets launched by one of our own airplanes. I never believed this because, when I was on the 02 deck taking pictures, one of the missile techs was up there looking at the shrapnel. I asked him if he recognized the pieces and he told me that it did not come from one of our own. He also told me that he did not recognize the marking on the larger pieces. My best friend brought some shrapnel which he collected that morning to the reunion. It was anti-personnel shrapnel.

The part that really confuses me is, if we were hit by our own missiles, why did the patrol boats come after us right after the hit? According to one of the radar men who was on watch, there were three slow moving surface targets between us and shore. After we got hit the "slow moving" targets sped up and came after us."

Oddly, while Petty Officer Sterling's death was attributed to hostile action and he therefore received the Purple Heart Medal, his nine shipmates who were wounded did not receive Purple Hearts.

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With all respect
Jim Schueckler, former CW2, US Army
Ken Davis, Commander, United States Navy (Ret)
Channing Prothro, former CAP Marine
Last updated 08/10/2009