USS Edson brings naval history alive in Bay City

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USS EdsonOur ‘On The Map’ tour of Bay City wraps up with a stop right near the foot of the of the Independence Bridge.

There, moored along the shore of the Saginaw River, sits the USS Edson. It’s a Forrest-Sherman class destroyer that served, with distinction, during the war in Vietnam.

The USS Edson is one of the engineering marvels to come out of the 1950s. Built in Maine, she was commissioned in late 1958, and remained in service for over 30 years.

As you walk up the gangplank, the very first thing you notice is the massive gun turret straight ahead.

“This is gun 53, this is the most popular gun aboard the ship during its time,” said Rick Blasch, a volunteer at the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum, and our tour guide aboard the Edson.

“It was the most accurate, the most active,” he explained.  “And as you see, we have repainted the name of Mary Anne, which was one of the gunner’s wives. Being the most popular gun, that was his way of showing how much they appreciated how accurate the equipment was.”

There were three such guns aboard the ship – five inch, 54 caliber. They shot 70 pound projectiles, and were accurate up to 14 miles. These guns were key to the Edson’s mission in Vietnam.

“The ships were initially used for offshore artillery support for onshore troops in Vietnam,” said Blasch.

Efforts had been underway to bring a Navy vessel to Bay City since the late-1990s. And the Edson was not actually the first ship Bay City pursued, said Mike Kegley, president of the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum.

“We were going for another ship, the USS Charles F. Adams,” he said. “It’s a guided missile destroyer.”

Engine turbine aboard the USS Edson

But the Adams had fallen into disrepair, and it was cost-prohibitive to bring it to Bay City. So the museum turned its attention to the Edson.

“It came out that the Edson was going to be available, so there was three of us from Bay City went to check and look at the Edson, to see if that was really the ship we wanted,” said Kegley. “And of course, once we went through the ship, we made up our mind. That was it. It was a museum ship, and by gosh, it would be a good museum ship here.”

And that’s exactly what it’s turned in to. Kegley said people travel from around the United States, and the world, to set foot aboard the Edson. Or, as it’s known in Vietnam, “The Grey Ghost of the Vietnam Coast.”

Just how it got that nickname is one of Rick Blasch’s favorite stories.

View from the bridge aboard the USS Edson

“This ship is the only ship in the United States Navy that was ordered to escort a truck convoy on land,” said Blasch. “Now as a result, they had to move in close to shore. The North Vietnamese had obtained a piece of 55mm Russian artillery that was mounted on a half track. Well, they seen the Edson, how close it was, so they started firing. They did hit the Edson, on the number one mast, just behind the pilot house, turned that into Swiss cheese. There was shrapnel went all over the place. Damage, some damage to the bridge.”

Several sailors were injured in the incident, including one who was awarded the Purple Heart. And then there was the damage to the Edson itself.

“When the mast was destroyed, they lost their radar, the big bed spring radar that you’ll see up there. Also, the aircraft radar was all gone, because they severed all the cables, blew the mast apart,” said Blasch. “The ship took off, because they’d lost most of their ability to see. After the smoke cleared, the North Vietnamese noticed the ship was gone, so right away their propaganda machine cranked up, and they said they’d sunk the Edson with all hands. The ship headed for, right away, headed for San Diego, and it was in San Diego got a whole new mast, radar etc. Month later returned off the coast of Vietnam. Nobody was more surprised than the North Vietnamese. For the rest of the war, this was known as the Grey Ghost of the Vietnam Coast by them.”

Today, this legendary ship is open to the public along the shore of the Saginaw River. And it’s helping put Bay City on the map.

WCMU Public Radio News