By Paul Wood
URBANA — As gunnery officer on a Navy destroyer during the Vietnam War, Joe Rank managed several dozen gunners’ mates and fire-control technicians who operated the 5-inch guns that blasted the enemy.
At the entrance to the port of Danang, the Viet Cong lobbed mortar fire from “Monkey Mountain” at night, and it was Rank’s crew who fired back with 70-pound shells filled with high explosives.
They also provided gunfire support to Marines and soldiers operating in Vietnam’s coastal areas.
Rank knows his gunnery crews shot bull’s-eyes, because from the deck sailors could often see secondary explosions from ammo and fuel dumps.
“We worked 18-hour days, seven days a week,” he remembers. “It was almost impossible to get six hours of sleep at a time.”
Despite enemy fire, what the young ensign found even more dangerous was sailing with a crew of 250 or so mostly 18- and 19-year-olds across the Pacific.
“This was before GPS,” he notes. As an ensign, Rank had to know how to use a sextant to navigate by the stars when the ship was in open sea.
Also nerve-wracking: side to side replenishment with other huge ships at 12 or 15 knots to take on fuel, ammunition and frozen food for the crew.
His primary assignment in the Navy was anti-submarine officer, pinging for the vessels with sonar.
The North Vietnamese weren’t known for their sub prowess, and in the Gulf of Tonkin, the water was too shallow for submarines to operate.
As a student at the University of Illinois, where he played in the Marching Illini, Rank signed up for Naval ROTC at the height of the Vietnam War.
Rank had been in the first class to enroll in the university when reserve officer training was no longer compulsory.
But he came from a family with some military traditions.
“Great-grandparents served on opposing sides in the Civil War. My mother served as a WAVE in World War II, and my father was in the Army in the war,” Rank says.
He says NROTC wasn’t as time-consuming as today, but he also played in the Marching Illini and was an officer in his fraternity — a multi-tasker before the expression was created.
Rank served on two ships during the Vietnam War — the destroyer USS Lyman K. Swenson and the cruiser USS England.
When his first shipboard tours were up, Rank wrangled a naval ROTC instructor post here and was able to complete a master’s degree in advertising while teaching naval science.
Later, as weapons officer aboard the destroyer USS Hull, he tested a prototype 8-inch gun, each shell carrying 270 pounds of high explosives, able to hit targets 17 miles away, before GPS and laser technology massively improved accuracy.
The commander went on to serve on active duty for 20 years, retiring in 1989. Rank segued into a second career as a vice president of the Illinois Alumni Association. After active service, he was in the Reserves, serving all over the world.
Following retirement from the Alumni Association, he taught a course on Illini history at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and collects rare sheet music featuring school and fight songs from the Urbana campus’ musical repertoire.
He and wife Pam have four children and five grandchildren.
Rank is proud of his service, both during wartime and in his roles as ROTC instructor and administrator of the Navy’s public outreach programs.
He still fits into his Navy blue uniform, which only recently has encountered a persistent threat.
“I didn’t use to have a white dog that sheds,” he says.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.