Having served in the U.S. Coast Guard regular active duty from July 1968 to July 1972, it was no surprise when the second cutter I was stationed on, a 378-foot weather cutter, the USCGC Morgenthau - then based at the former Governor's Island in New York City - was ordered to set sail for Vietnam in 1970.
As with most servicemen going overseas for the first time on a war mission, I, too, was apprehensive. It was, for me, going into the unknown and uncharted territory. I did't know what to expect or encounter, of course, and wondered what our chances of a safe return would be. Despite those worrying thoughts, it bothered me more being away from home base (and home) for so long.
As we sailed and time went on, those worries and thoughts dwindled down to only passing thoughts. There was too much to take care of on the ship itself and the tasks I was assigned to to let those dominate my thinking.
I was a sonar technician third class at the time, and my duties included radar watches in CIC, while out at sea in international waters, on assigned days and times, and sonar watch while in enemy territory. At the different ports we stopped at along the way, my watches included "watching" the quarterdeck. Unique experiences that I would never forget, along the way, included stopping for several days at Guantanamo Bay, sailing through the Panama Canal, staying for several days in Pearl Harbor, then the Guam experience, and Subic Bay, Phillipines.
In Subic Bay, one sailor from our ship would be chosen to stay for three-month clerical duties in the Coast Guard Quonset Hut on the naval base. Everyone put in for it and those qualified for further consideration had to be interviewed by the XO. For some reason which I don't remember for sure, I was picked. And so, while my ship eventually set sail for Nam, I stayed on the base and worked my clerical duties. When the ship returned in three months, my duties would end and I would be back on board again. Even so, little did I know that this unique experience would pale compared to what was to come in just four months. I'll fast forward now past the great times I had in the Phillipines to the second month back on board the ship, five months after I was first assigned to that quiet Quonset Hut.
After my first Vietnam trip, which included patrolling, under the Navy's jurisdiction, the waters off the east coast of Nam, and having had already one experience assisting on a medical treatment mission to a small Vietnamese village on an island off of South Vietnam, we set sail for Hong Kong for five days of R & R. Of course we were looking forward to it. I believe most of us, if not all, had never been there before, let alone to 'Nam itself. An R & R well deserved filled our thoughts, and few were afraid to say so.
When we arrived, we set anchor for the middle of the bay. Several U.S. Navy ships were already there, including one designated as a "Station Ship" that was temporarily based there and stayed while the other ships would set sail at assigned times to resume patrolling and supporting the ground troops from the waters off the South Vietnam coast.
Two shipmate friends of mine lucked out with me, being granted liberty that first day, and we wasted no time in getting into our civies and climbing into the lifeboat that would transport us to shore. Once on shore, we took in as much of the sights as possible, including downtown Hong Kong, watching all the junks go by, riding on a tram up a steep mountain, and visiting a Christian mission somewhere on the outskirts of the city. We had little money among us, so each of us had to be very careful on limiting our spending. One of us mentioned something about that to someone at the mission and the man, bless his heart, gave us $10 to help us. It was all he had and the three of us didn't want to take it, but the man kept refusing to take no for an answer. So we reluctantly thanked him and tried to take his name and address so we could pay him back. But he waved that's OK, don't worry about it, left the mission, and we never saw him again. We always wondered who he was and whatever became of him.
After we left the mission, we headed back downtown and decided we had enough to stay overnight at the very inexpensive British sailors and soldiers club. (At the time, you might recall, Hong Kong was under the jurisdiction of Great Britain). It was cheap, but clean, had no real luxuries, but it was a place to sleep and bathe. After checking in, we headed back out and hit one of the bars in town. We briefly noticed, but didn't give much thought to, the heavy clouds that overtook the previously clear skies. We had a couple of drinks, listened to some music, and went to one more bar where we sipped one more drink. The TV in the bar was on, but we weren't paying much attention to that.
We didn't see or hear the planes flying overhead. And of course, not paying any attention to the TV, we didn't hear any news announcments that just so happened to be broadcasting at that time. We were so wrapped up in being in Hong Kong and the fascinating sights, stores, and all that, we gave no thought to the potential trouble - weather trouble that is - and the possibility anytime of a recall. A recall at that time in Hong Kong, included announcements by the British military and Hong Kong emergency services via planes with yellow banners flying overhead, news broadcasts by TV and radio, and police annnouncments on the street, for all military personnel, both U.S. and British, to return to their stations or bases immediately and as quickly as possible.
Now there was only one reason such announcments and emergency recalls would be made and it was a pretty substantial one: typhoon. One was expected and Hong Kong was not where we would want to be when it hit. Unfortunately, we didn't find out about it until we decided, by some lucky chance, to check in with the U.S. Navy shore patrol down by the bay water to see if anything was up.
You might ask, now how could three intelligent individuals miss all that was being announced by every means possible, and we just happen to ask, by chance, mind you, if all was OK? How could we have missed it? This shore patrol guy must of thought " how dumb could these Coasties be? He told us, after we ID'd ourselves, that our ship had left due to the expected typhoon. We had technically had more than enough time to return to it, had we bothered to either hear or see the announcments when they occurred, or checked in when we actually should have. We had been one hour late checking in.
So where did that leave us? Stranded, that's where. Now we had to worry about possible courts martial for what the UCMJ calls, "Missing Movement," a more ominous-sounding version of AWOL. Needless to say, we weren't happy at all.
The SP told us our ship would be contated via radio or teletype that we were there and he would get back to us regarding our orders. We were advised to stick around the station there until they came in. In the meantime, he gave us sea rations to eat, from a can, since we had no money left to buy food.
When the orders came in, we were told to report to the Navy station ship. Transport would be immediately provided, and on arrival, our presence would be made known to the powers that be, although we would not be assigned any duties. We could come and go as we pleased, although by this time, 10 days - if you believe, had elapsed since we first arrived in Hong Kong - and our stay was not so pleasant anymore. Our clothes were droopy, having been washed by hand in the showers and dried overnight at the British sailor's hotel, and we had spent out last $2 on a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. The three of us had to share both (nowadays we would never do that). We felt grubby and dirty and less than happy campers.
Our stay on that station ship was even less pleasant. We had to get up when the crew did, no friendliness or courtesy was extended to any of us, and we felt nothing but tension and hostility in the air around us from the crew. We, of course, ate and slept there, but that was it. We had to get off the ship during the day to get away from that thick, hostile atmosphere. We had preferred to be around the Chinese rather than our Navy colleagues on that ship. Pretty sad situation.
But it wasn't long before we were told by the ship's XO that we would be be transferred the next day to a Navy destroyer escort (DE) coming in for a couple of days. Evidently, that typhoon veered off the expected track and only some rain and moderate winds enveloped the city. So the DE was able to make it in, although our ship, as we found out, was back in Nam. Turns out, the DE was set for a five-day stay there in Hong Kong, not two. Although the attitude toward us as stranded Coasties was a bit better than at the other ship, still it wasn't ideal for good comradeship. We were provided with Navy jeans, were not assigned any duties, and again had what was called "free liberty" when we could come and go as we pleased. We were now really getting sick of Hong Kong, especially at the end of those five long days. But at least we could bathe now. We wondered when we would see our ship again. As time passed, those thoughts became evermore pervasive.
Three days into our stay on the DE, we were told that the ship would be setting sail in two days for the naval base at Subic Bay Phillipines. There we were to transfer off the ship, report to the Coast Guard Quonset hut, where we would be assigned to bunking on an old WWII Army ship that wasn't really being used for anything - it was just there. Surprisingly, it was relatively clean considering how long it might have been there. Each day we had liberty but had to report once daily to the hut to check for new orders that might have come in.
It was our second day there that the Coast Guard Warrant Officer assigned to the hut told us we were to report to a Navy oiler that was coming in the next day. When we asked how long it would be there, he didn't know, but advised us to check with the OPS officer about that when we boarded.
When it came in, we hoped it would take off soon so we could get back to our ship. Our desire, by this time, to return to it was a lot greater now. It was just about three weeks by this time when we last saw it. We were told by the OPS officer that they would be docked for seven days. That pretty much deflated our hopes for a quick return. This "return" to the ship turned out to be a series of seemingly nightmaric scenarios that we couldn't possibly have imagined and for which at least a month would pass before we saw once again our red-striped great white "home". We just hoped that for all we had been through, so far, we wouldn't have to endure the "ravages" of crime and punishment. Again, we had free liberty to come and go. Although we had no money, at least we had the base to roam around on, and could eat at the mess hall where the food and drinks (non-alcoholic), were free. We could even go into the town of Olongapo, outside the base. However, we preferred not to do that because there were mostly bars and brothels that littered the main streets.
The next day, one of the senior petty officers on the ship, told us that the oiler would be rendevousing with the Morgenthau nine days after the oiler first docked. That meant in six days we would be leaving Subic and eight days from now we would see our beloved white ship. Thank God! At least we had a timeline now. All we had to do is get through this last week under the auspices of the Navy. All this, because we hadn't heard the announcements back in Hong Kong! But at least, the light at the end of the tunnel was now shining.
The plan, we were told, would be to rendevous with our ship somewhere just northeast of the Phillipine Sea. Once we arrived at the rendevous point, the tanker would sail alongside the Morgenthau at a specific distance at a specific speed. Fuel would then be transferred to the Morgenthau as part of a refueling operation, after which we would be highlined over.
Now if you've never been highlined between two ships that are traveling parallel to each other, you are missing a pretty awesome, yet scary experience that can never be forgotten. Lines have to be shot over from one ship to the other with a bolo gun. One of those lines had to have a seat attached for the personnel transfer and the end of each of the lines were rigged on each ship to accomodate the highline transfer. There was a lot involved in conducting this operation. Crews on both ships worked fervently to ensure maximum safety for not just us being transferred over the rough ocean waters, but for each of the crews as well. Everything had to be checked and double checked to make sure nothing was forgotten, and everything by the book and as it should be.
When everything was ready, signals and radio communications were starting up. One of my colleagues went first. As the two of us remaining saw him transferred over the 5-foot seas between the ships, we were awestruck at the perfectly set up and run operation. It went over without a hitch. We could see the captain of our ship and the XO on the bridge watching, and some of the crew clapping on our return. My buddy chose to go last, so I went next.
On arrival, I practically kissed the deck. Shipmates shook hands with me, telling me welcome back and glad we are OK. My other "missing" buddy was finally transferred over, and the three of us shook hands and clapped each other on the back on our safe return from an unwanted, month-long absence. Now we had to wonder what the repercussions would be. What would be our fate? Would we be scrubbing the decks with toothbrushes, or get busted down a rank? It was ultimately up to the captain to determine our fate.
After a quick settling down, we had to report to the Operations Officer's office. There, he smiled and welcomed us back. Hmm, I thought, is that a good sign, or just a pretense of what's to come?
"Gentlemen, you've been through a trying experience, although one that should never have happened. How did you miss what was announced? "
We explained it to him and as he listened, he wrote down what we said. After all, he had to fill out a report like everyone else. Turns out, there would be no repercussions and no punishment. We were strongly advised that this better not happen again, or it wouldn't go so easy. Then the XO came back and stood at the doorway but didn't say anything. We had gotten a reprieve. Seemed that the powers that be were more concerned for our welfare and safety than to consider us trying to pull a fast one by missing the ship. They knew it wasn't intentional. The XO even welcomed us back, followed by "let's not have a repeat experience." He was a pretty strict guy, and we knew he meant it. We also knew this would never happen again; and it never did. A true tale I enjoy telling others, including my loved ones, but one I'd never want to repeat, nor want anyone else to endure. Sometimes once is truly enough.