Destroyer Duty – At War

The ship’s Captain and the communications officer were both standing by the teletype machine when I entered the destroyer’s radio shack. “Do you know how to make this thing work any better,” the Captain said when he saw me: “We’ve got an important encrypted message coming in but it’s garbling badly.” I quickly tuned another receiver to a different designated frequency and then patched it into the signal comparator at the front end of the demodulation unit feeding information to the teletype machine. The message stopped garbling immediately, earning me a pat on the back from the Captain.

The communications officer now had the beginning and the end of the long encrypted message so that he could start the decryption process in the cryptographic room, a tiny compartment next to the radio shack. When the fleet broadcast center retransmitted the message a short time later, a complete version became available. The Captain took the decrypted version from the cryptographic room into his stateroom without allowing anyone in the radio shack to read it.

I didn’t have time to worry about the contents of the message because I found myself busy sending Morse code on a ship-to-ship circuit. Other ships in the Western Pacific Ocean copying fleet broadcast on the teletype circuit were having problems receiving a complete version of that message and some other messages, including weather forecasts, due to storm related atmospheric conditions. Even my previous ship, the aircraft carrier, using a task group call sign belonging to the Admiral’s staff, wanted me to retransmit fleet broadcast teletype messages for them over the ship-to-ship circuit using Morse code.

When the communications officer learned I was relaying fleet broadcast traffic to the Admiral’s staff aboard the carrier, he told the Captain and they both stayed around the radio shack until I had completed the task. At one point the Captain even had hot coffee and fresh donuts brought up from the kitchen. Then, before he left, he handed me the decrypted message, and said: “Type this up on a message form and file it away without signatures.”

With the Captain gone, I read through the message. It seemed like many other messages I had typed while working in the aircraft carrier’s radio shack. The Communications officer noticed me reading the message before typing it, and he said: “You know better than to be talking about this stuff to other members of the crew, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, inserting a message form into the typewriter. Yet, as I typed, I wondered about the significance of the message’s contents, an operations summery filled with military jargon. To follow along, I visualized a map of the Western Pacific Ocean, with the carrier in the open sea, where it could launch air strikes in support of US ground troops in Korea. Our destroyer, among its other duties, was in a position to assist pilots who might find it necessary to ditch in the East China Sea. To do this, we maintained a continuous listening watch on an aircraft distress frequency. But it wasn’t until later that evening when I heard the news broadcast over the Armed Forces Network that I finally understood the message’s significance. The Communist Chinese Red Army had entered the war in Korea and driven US ground troops back to the south. In the process, they had a large force of Marines surrounded on three sides with the Yellow Sea as their only escape route.

When I went into the wardroom with the message board, I realized the Captain was holding a meeting, and I started to leave. But he motioned for me to wait in the shadows behind his chair and then he continued speaking to the officers assemble around the large wardroom table, saying: “We would normally wait for the Admiral’s permission to do this. But there isn’t time for that. Marines are dying. We’re going in to render assistance. Talk to your men. Get a landing party ready to go ashore.”

The Captain turned to me as the officers dispersed, and said: “I don’t want you going with the landing party. Since you’re the only radioman that can copy Morse code, I need you to stay aboard the ship.”

I returned to the radio shack to find the two seaman strikers already dressed in leggings and guard belt, each with a 45 strapped to his side. “We volunteered,” one striker said, pointing to the portable radio gear sitting on the deck mat. “Yeah,” the other said: “Lt. Jones volunteered us.”

We approached the Korean coastline well before dawn with lights out and battle stations ready. As the landing party assembled amidships on the port side main deck, I watched from above in the darkness of the O1-level weather deck just aft of the forward superstructure, a few steps from the radio shack within. They lowered the large motor whaleboat into the water and attached a train of rafts to be towed behind it. The landing party climbed over the side and within minutes they had disappeared into the darkness.

As I started back to the radio shack, I heard a voice behind me, saying: “What are you doing out here?” It was the first class Boatswain’s Mate on master-at-arms duty and he followed me into the radio shack, saying: “Your not supposed to open that hatch to the weather deck without permission from the bridge during condition one. What were you doing out there, hiding from the landing party so you didn’t have to go ashore?”

I said: “No, I wasn’t hiding. I was checking on the other radiomen. The Captain told me to stay aboard.” He responded: “Yeah, right, you’re so important, the Captain can’t live without you. But I still should report you for cracking that hatch. Give me a good reason not to.” Jokingly, I said: “Are you asking me for a bribe?” He said: “You got nothing I want. I’m stressing the importance of getting permission in the future before opening that hatch to the outside weather deck during condition one. Consider yourself informed.” As he backed from the radio shack, he barked: “There better not be a next time.” Then he disappeared up the inboard passageway towards the ladder to the bridge.

We were at radio silence while waiting for word from the landing party, meaning no transmissions. A voice circuit listening for the landing party was being monitored on the destroyer’s bridge and a voice circuit listening for aircraft in distress was being monitored in the combat information center. Both circuits were using equipment patched into them from the radio shack but they required little or no attention from me after the initial tuning. Even the teletype machine printed only an occasional weather report to interrupt the otherwise continuous test pattern. With zero message traffic, I put my head in my arms on the desk and fell asleep.

The bell on the teletype machine signaling high precedence traffic started ringing just before dawn. One after another, every message rang the bell. I didn’t need to alert the communications officer or the ship’s Captain. They heard the bell ringing and they came running to the radio shack. The tiny cryptographic room became the center of activity when an encrypted message arrived from the Admiral’s staff addressed to our destroyer. We were ordered to leave our patrol position in the East China Sea and proceed at best possible speed to the Korean coastline in the Yellow Sea for the purpose of rendering assistance to the surrounded Marines. A larger naval force to evacuate all the Marines would take days to assemble in the proper locations. Meanwhile, other destroyers were on their way to join us in supplying ship to shore gunfire support for the embattled Marines. Radio frequencies were assigned in the message to coordinate target locations between the Marines and the destroyers.

The Captain smiled grimly as he read the message, and said: “We’re already there.”

The motor whaleboat returned to the ship shortly after sunrise, towing the train of rafts behind it filled with wounded Marines needing immediate attention. Plus, a group of Marine officers came aboard to help coordinate gunfire support from the ship’s combat information center. I had transmitters and receivers already tuned to the frequencies given in the message so they were able to communicate immediately with spotters in combat locations ashore.

While delivering an updated weather message in the wardroom, I heard the Captain speaking to a group of officers, saying: “This is a tough decision to make. But we can’t take on any more wounded while maneuvering into position to give gunfire support. There isn’t much we can do for them, anyway. Our medical facilities here are very limited. They need to be airlifted to a carrier or a hospital ship.”

From my position in the radio shack, the effectiveness of our all-out gunfire support was difficult for me to determine. Even the radar operators working in the combat information center couldn’t say for sure when I asked them about it. A news broadcast over the Armed Forces Network said aircraft from several carriers were attacking Red Army supply lines, keeping the battle at a stalemate until an evacuation could be completed. But no mention was made of a destroyer giving ship to shore gunfire support. When I asked Lt. Jones, the communications officer, for his opinion, he said: “Our big guns have definitely made a difference, yes. Several other destroyers are now moving into positions along the coast, but the Captain’s decision to move in early probably saved many lives.”

We have departed the Korean coast and returned to the relative quiet of our patrol duties in the East China Sea. Yet the blast of the big guns firing broadside salvos still echoes in my ears and I can still feel the ship violently recoiling. The pained faces of the wounded Marines are embedded into my consciousness and I can hear their agonizing cries echoing throughout the ship. Even in my sleep I dream about round after round of tracer ammunition lighting up the nighttime sky.

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2 Comments on “Destroyer Duty – At War”

  1. Jane Says:

    Hey, John. Nice of you to stop by my site, and it was fun to take a look at the fiction you’re working on. What’s the storyline for your “Destroyer Duty” above? I always enjoy a good historical fiction nov.

    I usually rely on writer friends for evaluations, since I’m never sure WHO I’m getting advice from online (I’m sure you know the feeling 🙂 ). Are your excerpts all from completed novels? Looks like you’ve got lots of material to choose from when it comes time to contact agents—or have you already started the process? It’s a crazy publishing world out there, but I’ve been enjoying the journey so far.

    • Jane, thanks for responding. Reading your blog posts reminded me of the need to continue making progress in the direction of getting writing printed out in manuscript format and submitted for publication. I like to write, and, as you can see from my blog site, my writing is going in many directions, perhaps too many. And I’m always racing to record the next new idea before it evaporates.

      “Atonement” is from the first chapter of the novel I’m closest to completing. It’s about a young man from Ireland who arrives in the USA at New York City on a mission to reluctantly perform services for the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, as a gunman. It’s a complicated situation for the young man, a debt of honor to the IRA, going back several generations in his family.

      The story begins with him musing about Ireland in the dark shadows outside a pub where he is waiting gundown two disloyal party members. Shortly afterwards, on a train ride to Pittsburgh. Pa., he falls in love with Katy Doyle, who has just arrived from Ireland herself to stay with relatives in Pittsburgh. “Cuchulainn” is also from that same unfinished novel.

      “Destroyer Duty” also turns into a love story, of sorts, between a sailor, the Radioman, and a young island woman he meets where the destroyer goes for fuel and other supplies. I think I might post more of that next. I appriciate critical comments on any of my writing. I’m still actively learning how to write, with the reader in mind.

      I can understand and respect why you “usually rely on writer friends for evaluations.” There are a lot of strange bloggers on the Internet. I’m pretty thick skinned and I don’t shock easy. Plus, I can’t afford an editor or an agent. I’ve read some good fiction writing lately on WordPress blogs and some really good criticism of other writer’s work that I can apply to my own writting. So it’s been a worthwhile process so far in that regard. I’m hoping my writing might attract some of that valuable criticism.

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