Destroyer Duty – On Patrol

The two non-designated seaman strikers, Fred and Ted, seemed more mature and self assured after their experiences with the ship’s landing party to help out the Marines in Korea but they had not basically changed.

When Fred said: “We had the radio equipment they needed, so, as soon as we landed, we were taken right up to the front line to work with target spotters. I swear to god, I thought we were dead, for sure. I’m telling you, bullets were hitting everywhere. And explosions were going off all around us. When the ship started firing, and the Chinese retreated, I was never so happy in my life to be alive.”

Ted interjected: “You call this living?”

Fred replied: “It’s a heck of a lot better than what them Marines have. I’ll take living on this ship in relative comfort to living in a muddy hole in the ground with bullets whizzing over my head as I sleep.”

“If a torpedo hits this ship, you’ll wish you had a muddy hole to crawl into,” Ted countered.

I understood the significance of Ted’s words more completely just a few days later when we moved in closer to the Chinese mainland to get a better fix on a military instillation. We were using electronic countermeasure equipment aboard our ship to locate and analyze their communications and radar capabilities.

Our shipboard surface-search radar spotted Chinese navy torpedo boats coming at us. I went up to the signal bridge to watch events unfolding, thinking we would turn away and go further out to sea. For some reason, the Captain decided not to run. We turned slowly in the water and prepared to fire our big guns at the torpedo boats. When we hoisted the international signal flags, indicating our intentions, the four torpedo boats coming into view immediately turned and headed back the other way.

“The captain’s playing chicken with them,” I heard the first class signalman remark to no one in particular as he hoisted the flags up to the yardarm.

The communications officer, while still looking through his binoculars in the direction of the retreating torpedo boats, responded: “No, they were too far away to have accurately fired torpedoes at us.”

“We’ll know soon enough,” the signalman shot back.

Pulling the binoculars away from his eyes, the communications officer said: “If torpedoes were in the water, we would be hearing the sonar officer’s voice crackling through the squawk box on the bridge, reporting that information to the Captain.”

“It’s too close for comfort,” I heard the signalman saying as I headed back down to the radio shack wondering: What made the Captain so sure they couldn’t hit us with their torpedoes? And why was he challenging them on it? What kind of statement was he trying to make?

Later that night, while the communications officer worked in the adjacent cryptographic room encoding our nightly report, the Captain came by the radio shack. He sat down at the desk to read the file of recent teletype messages received over the fleet broadcast circuit. I sat in the telegraph-key operator’s position right across from him waiting to send the long encrypted nightly report on a ship to shore circuit using Morse code and I thought about asking the Captain some questions concerning the torpedo boat encounter. That opportunity passed when the communications officer entered the radio shack with the encrypted report in his hand ready for me to send.

I became self-conscious with the two officers watching as I listened through headphones to a receiver in front of me, looking for a frequency clear of other traffic and also clear of static interference among the several frequencies assigned for ship to shore in that area. I lost awareness of the two officers when I finally made radio contact with a shore based US Navy communications center and began sending the message.

Morse code was music to me, all about rhythm. I enjoyed sending it with clarity, not going too fast, not running my characters together, just as the radioman chief on the aircraft carrier had taught me. If it required all night to send a long encrypted message and get a receipt from a receiving operator at a US Navy communications center, I would patiently deal with that. Although I experienced more satisfaction when receiving operators could copy the message without interruption the first time through; plus, I could usually detect the receiving operator’s mutual satisfaction by the way they acknowledged receipt of the message.

When I finished sending the ship to shore message, the two officers were still in the radio shack and the overhead lights had been turned off. A small light above the typewriter illuminated the message form in front of me. A desk lamp illuminated the Captain’s face. A few feet away, separated by near darkness, a light from the teletype machine illuminated the communications officer’s face. Interspersed throughout the darkened compartment, red and orange indicator lights dimly illuminated the operating equipment.

Neither officer spoke but they both seemed pleased with the improved condition of the radio shack. Once again I thought about questioning the Captain. Before I could open my mouth to speak, a loud signal, coming from a bulkhead speaker, interrupted my train of thought.

“It’s an SOS,” I said reflexively; then, using headphones, I copied the Morse code distress signal directly from the receiver that I had previously tuned to the international maritime distress frequency, five hundred kilocycles. Both officers looked over my shoulder while I typed.

As details became clear, the Captain said: “No, we’re not going to respond to that. Turn it off. We didn’t receive it.” But minutes after he departed the radio shack for the bridge, an emergency precedence message came over the teletype machine from the Admiral’s staff directing our attention to the distressed ship.

I immediately ran it up to the bridge where found the Captain alone on the forward weather deck sitting in darkness on his elevated chair. Glancing at the message dimly illuminated by my red-filtered flashlight, he responded: “Damn it.” Then, taking a deep breath, he said: “Give it to the navigator to plot a course.” I saluted and quickly backed away, saying: “Aye, aye, sir.”

One of our patrol tasks was to report all merchant shipping encountered, just as other destroyers reported from their patrol zones up and down the coast. We sometimes challanged ships at sea with our big guns if they didn’t respond properly to our demands for information about their port of origin, their cargo, and their destination. Occasionally, we went so far as to board them for a firsthand look.

The distress signal came from a large merchant ship that had run aground on the rocky entrance to a cove located on an isolated island just outside our patrol zone. The cove was not a proper harbor and the ship should not have attempted to approach it.

Our destroyer arrived in the area a little before dawn. I had just awakened from two hours of sleep in the transmitter room adjacent to the radio shack and, in a dreamlike state, I climbed the ladder to the signal bridge. At first light, a big ship appeared through the fog, listing to port, slamming against a rocky ledge. A group of smaller ships and boats, attracted by the distress signal, surrounded the cove entrance. Several boats had managed to approach the merchant ship and were in the process of attempting to remove passengers and cargo.

Chinese navy torpedo boats appeared on the horizon shortly after we arrived but the Captain ignored them. We lowered the motor whaleboat into the water with the same train of rafts trailing behind it used to tow the wounded Marines from Korea. The Captain gave orders to remove passengers and crew from the distressed merchant ship after first inspecting its cargo and making a determination of its overall condition.

When it became clear that the cargo was nothing more than an assortment of western consumer products intended for black market distribution, the Captain gave orders to evacuate. The motor whaleboat with its train of rafts then distributed the remaining passengers and crew among the non-military ships waiting nearby. None were taken aboard the destroyer. With that phase of the rescue operation completed, we unceremoniously departed the area.

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