Saturday, September 11, 2010

Please Don't Remind Me of the Taiwan Straits

I listen to National Public Radio (NPR) on a regular basis because is it one of the best news sources I know of, but sometimes I don't want to hear it. Take this story about rogue waves, nightmare waves that scare you to your soul and make you wonder, for a few very long seconds, whether you're under or on top of the ocean. Stories like this bring back images and memories too vivid and harsh. By the time the story started, however, it was too late to ward off those memories.

I've written about some of my experiences on the ships I've served on. The first is this story and another is this story. Both of those stories included events on the USS St. Francis River (LFR 525); LFR stands for Landing Fire Rocket because its primary purpose was to go in close to shore and shoot rockets at the enemy in support of combat troops on land. I believe I wrote that it was the most dangerous ship I served on. And, it was. The entire crew on that ship walked the thin line between good and bad luck, and it was inevitable that on one occasion we stared into the abyss of bad luck.

You can see various pictures of the ship here, and here is one where rockets are firing. The St. Francis River was 206 feet long and 35 feet wide, had a compliment of six officers and 137 crew. It was originally built for a crew of around sixty. Its Mess Hall could only feed sixty at a time. It had ten rocket launchers, a five-inch gun and twin forty millimeter canons and there was not another square foot on the main deck for another weapon. So, you'll have to imagine a relatively small ship crammed to the brim with crew members and tons of ammunition. There was not one more spare square inch for any other cargo. It was a floating powder keg. And, it was older than dirt. It was originally built for World War II. It was the original proverbial rust bucket.

It was also inevitable that the crew would learn more than it wanted to know about the ship and that happened during our preparation for our last trip to Vietnam, in Yokosuka, Japan between late August and mid October, 1969. During that period we were repairing the ship and bringing on supplies for Vietnam. Yokosuka Ship Repair Facility (SRF) workers swarmed over the ship, welding, grinding, cutting and mending various things that helped keep us afloat. But, as the end of the prep time came to an end, one little bit of information began to circulate through the crew. We knew that the ship would be decommissioned in 1970 after we returned from this last trip to Vietnam. The plan at the time was that we would sail the ship to Bremerton, WA for decommissioning and that little bit of information had all of us worried. Nobody knew the ship better than the crew and I recall that most of us felt we wouldn't make it. Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific on our way to Bremerton, we thought, the ship would sink.

The SRF, hearing our concerns, x-rayed the hull in the last few weeks in Yokosuka and discovered a crack in the hull in mid-ships that extended across the main deck and down the sides of the ship, from the waterline on one side to the waterline on the other side. The crack was approximately 45 feet long. At last we had finally discovered the source of the water leaks when it rained into the Chief Quarters that was just below the main deck, center ship. If you looked real close, nearly needing a magnifying glass, you could see, or imagine, a very slight light shining through the main deck into the quarters. Nearly a microscopic crack. While we made a few jokes about that, our worry increased. We didn't want to know about the crack. "Well," we thought, "surely 'they' will cancel our trip to Vietnam. We can't sail with a crack in the hull." We were wrong. Much to our amazement, we set sail in October 1969 for Vietnam.

As I recall that last trip was the worst one yet. We had a lot of battle time, closer to shore than usual, and the battles seem to be more fierce. We emptied the ship of rockets more frequently than before and resupplied our rockets at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, more often. I recall that most of us felt that the skipper was trying to prove a point, that he was trying to impress his bosses for a better choice of his next duty station. A "can do" spirit is always impressive, whether doing it killed us or not. I also recall that we didn't sleep well. "The crack" was the subject of daily conversation. We ask about it daily. "Dear God," we prayed, "please, no storms," even though the Pacific usually showed no mercy in the winter months.

We already knew how fierce Pacific storms could be. On a ship that struggled to go nine knots forward (about 12 miles per hour) in good weather, we had already seen such rough seas that pounded the flat bottom of the ship with such force that it rattled our bones and with all the power in our engines to move forward we still went backwards at one or two knots, bobbing like a flimsy cork at the end of a fishing line. Sicker than dogs, we checked each hatch to make sure it was tightly closed and all of us prayed we wouldn't end up one thousand feet below the surface trapped in a closed compartment, not to drown, but to die of lack of oxygen after our last breath. It literally scared the shit out of us, more so than any gun-line battle did.

But, we made it through Vietnam, without a storm if my memory is correct. We were on our way home at last, via a five day stop in our favorite port, Hong Kong, the last time the St. Francis River would visit there. And Hong Kong was as glorious as our last few months in Vietnam were grim. It seemed a rebirth of spirit. We would make it. We left Hong Kong and started north, on a path that would take us through the Taiwan Straits and home. On that day when we sailed into the open ocean, the sky was dark and stormy looking and the seas were rough, but I don't think we knew the path of the storm. It could be behind us or ahead of us.

You can see the Taiwan Straits in this image. It is a relatively shallow body of water compared to the open ocean. It is because it is shallow that the wave action in it is more pronounced, more like the waves along the shore than in the ocean. The swells are larger and the waves rise and break in a froth of foam. The ship rocks with more force and the ship bottom pounds the waves after it crests. We were at least heading into the seas and not parallel to them. The rocking motion to and fro is much preferred to rocking side to side. And also, a broadside wave is more likely to turn the ship over than one hitting us head-on. By the time we entered the straits, we knew that we were also heading into a storm. It was coming our way for a head-on collision. With Taiwan on our right and China on our left, we could only go forward. We had no other choice.

By the morning of our second day in the straits we were fully engulfed in the storm. The seas were enormous, pounding us with every crest. We had already tied everything down that could possibly hurt us if it flailed about through the passageways. Everyone was sea sick and barely able to stand. Vomiting in the toilet brought mixed results. The high pressure through the drains from outside of the ship could just as easily reverse the drain flow back into our face as flush it. Yet, with all of that, we all constantly checked water-tight hatches and frequently poked our heads in the Chief Quarters to ask about the crack. No one slept that night as the storm kept pounding us.

The next day was better. The storm was passing and a few of us made it outside to the main deck for a breath of fresher air. The seas were still rougher than normal, but they had calmed considerably even though we sailed into deep troughs with mountainous swells on every side. While scary, swells were not as bad as waves. Swells can be ridden up one side and down the other. Waves usually cannot. A ship usually goes through a wave. The storm, however, had one last punch to deliver. It was while I was taking a breather on the main deck that the "General Quarters" bells rang out loudly and the Officer of the Deck shouted "ALL HANDS BELOW DECK," in a panicked voice we didn't usually hear. I looked up and saw in the not far distance a huge mountainous wave coming at us. Those of us on the main deck made a beeline for the nearest hatch and we managed to close them tight as the wave struct us, knocking us in all directions. The ship, hitting a solid wall, shuddered and groaned steel-bending screams, louder than I had ever heard, and I can recall the image of wide eyes and frightened faces as we looked at one another and I heard "Oh, God" from everyone around. Slow seconds passed, we waited. Finally, the words "All Clear" sounded such a relief that I sat in the passageway and tried to breathe again as I looked around at the tears and relief in everyone else's eyes. Life never felt so good.

We were told later that the wave wasn't "all that big," perhaps 40 feet high, which could easily engulf the St. Francis River. We were also told that it was cresting when it hit us and that seemed to be better than us trying to climb it, which our engines could not do. Never the less, the main deck was fully under water for a few seconds as it rolled over us and the thought of that scares me to this day. The crack had widened. We didn't need a magnifying glass to see it now and we were taking on water nearer the waterline. We used portable pumps to bail out the water for the rest of the trip home, 24-7. Our scheduled trip to Bremerton was cancelled. Somebody in authority had finally figured out that we wouldn't make it, that we would sink before we got there. Thank God for that. The St. Francis River was decommissioned in Yokosuka, Japan, soon after we arrived and I transferred to the USS Beacon in San Diego, CA.

If you've heard me say that I'll never take an ocean cruise, nor that will you find me on any other ship at sea, now you know one reason why. There are larger waves out there. The Pacific is not a wading pool.

It's good to be alive. I hope to stay that way.



Senecio said...

I was on the USS St Francis River from Feb 1969 to Jan 1970. I was the corpsman aboard and worked part time in the ship's office. It seems bizarre that my memory of the ship is very limited. Maybe I just wanted to forget I was really on board. I remember the XO and chicken man, but not much more

Dave Clark said...

I remember Senecio and he probably will remember me if he remembers the sailor who injured his back (a real bad strain) on a swift boat ride trying to catch the ship. I was also the one who accidentally broke Chicken Man's nose one day during horseplay on the mess decks. I really regretted doing that.