Antique memories – 1968

Contributed by: Mark Chavez – RD2

Antique memories are not so reliable. Any who want to correct this may do so.

The Johnston was in Nam during the Tet offensive, and I watched the city if Hue disappear from the surface radar scope.

It was 1968, and we had gone through an interesting passage to get there. From Charleston, our home port, we visited Mayport, Florida. The Johnston then continued to the Panama canal. U.S. military ships had priority, but we had to wait for a day. Surprisingly narrow, concrete structure set in the jungle. Some lakes part way through. Fairly boring passage. The Pacific had more to offer. Up the coast and over to Hawaii. We had one guy, a surfer type, go AWOL for the whole time we stayed. Wartes was his name. Very laid back. Just wanted to experience the place with no distractions. Everybody else behaved themselves. Next stop was Okinawa, the legendary home of Karate. A sand dune from where I stood.

Out from Wake was when, I believe, we hit some huge tropical storm that blew us way off course. Safety rigging was torn away, and overhead plating peeled back like the proverbial sardine can. It was then that our steering problem developed, as well as a ballast difficulty. It was months before any of this was sorted. I remember an incident about the ballast where we nearly lost Don Phillips. A day or two after the storm, Moltz and I were cleaning the aft shower space, a radarman responsibility ( I don`t know why). The side door was open for ventilation and dogged back. We had just finished the usual scrub with a toothbrush (I am not joking) when Shorty Phillips walked by the open hatch. He stopped to chat, as sailors sometimes do. Just then we made a course correction to Port. The ballast was not corrected properly, and this buried the Starboard side deep into the oncoming swell. Philips suddenly dropped what he was carrying and grabbed the coaming about chest high. Moltz and I watched a wall of green water sweep by the open hatch, completely blocking the door. We stood there stunned, and all we could see of Shorty was both his hands locked to the open hatchway as that rush of water tried to carry him away. Not a drop came through the door, it was moving so fast. He hung there in that cold green current for what seemed almost a minute before the ship righted itself and that water fell away. He was shocked, but alright. And he never again went outside the skin of the ship when it was underway. I don`t blame him.

We finally tie up alongside another tin can in Subic. This ship had just come off the gun line and looked a mess. Rust everywhere, rigging in tatters and salt encrusted. She looked shocking. The Johnston always shone with polished brass and whitened rigging. Tremendous contrast. Here I witnessed something really dumb. A piece of cargo had been chasing us from port to port, always arriving just a bit too late. It was some sort of key for the forward gun mount. Solid steel in a box a foot long. It slotted into a ratchet affair fixed to the deck, and locked the gun mount in place when firing. It finally caught up to us, and one of our guys was handing it to a gunners mate colleague in the motor launch, when it slipped from his hands and fell straight to the bottom. Finding it in that century old harbor ooze and muck wasn`t possible, and there it lays today. I don`t know how he explained that one to captain Curren.

Eventually we entered the war zone. We saw Subic Bay, Hong Kong, Yokuska, Japan, Kau Shung, Taiwan, and a certain six thousand yard chunk of beach over and over again as we held station on the gun line. We were given I corp, just south of the DMZ. We had to be careful as the enemy had a big gun on a flatbed railcar that they could run into position and get us, if we were not alert. We earned the combat action ribbon there. But it wasn`t that big artillery gun, just some crazy guy pinged us a few times with his rifle, a slight risk to the lookouts. The captain was keen to add to his chest display, (first tour and no medals as yet) so he put the ship in for a ribbon for being under fire. You see, for the captain to get his medal, we all had to get it. I always wondered where the admirals got all those ribbons and awards. Not quite cereal box issue, but close.

The war was hard work. When we weren`t firing H & I we replenished our stores, got more ammo (USS Vulcan) or loaded across something vital. When we left Nam our guns were all worn out, and had to be replaced. On that Harassment and Interdiction fire, all I can say is that it kept us awake and nervous, if not the enemy. Every time the gun mount approached perpendicular to the side, and blasted away, bits and pieces fell from the overhead onto your chest. The first time that happened, I recall Joe Cizio leaping from his bunk in alarm, thinking he`d been shot. Toughest guy on the ship and very macho. Couldn`t happen to a better chump. That colored his shorts a bit. Remember that Joe ???

That`s where we were when we had the emergency call to get down to Hue. The city was under attack. When we got there we found that Hue was just out of range of our six inch guns. The Manley, a cruiser, was more useful having eight inch guns. Talk about power. We stood off a few miles away and watched as she pounded the beach. Her guns were deafening, and the pressure wave slapped you in the face with each shot. As for the city, she slowly crumbled away. From a very sharp square paint, Hue became a very broken outline, then almost nothing. Obliterated in a few days.

We R & R`d in Japan and everyone bought pearls for the girl back home, or their mum. Mikimoto pearls, next to the seamans club. Very popular. Sixth floor, I think, was the restaurant. Great service. Fair chow as well. We usually began as a group of six to eight guys, but split off as the urge to wander hit us,

In Subic Bay, the authorities wanted everyone to avoid the town, and set up some entertainment on Grande Island. They brought in girls to dance with, had live bands and the drinks were cheap. So cheap we ordered five at a time. I have dim memories of being fifteen or so drinks behind and trying manfully to keep up. Dempsey, the postal clerk was our champion. What a soak he was, and never looked too bad. Funny metabolism. Since the postal clerk had to do something while at sea, he worked in combat with us radar guys. He became quite good at it, as well. Thinking back on all this, it`s no wonder my recollections are a bit piecemeal. They led me astray. Or I lead them astray. Mums and girlfriends would not have approved.

Back to the gun line again. Worse this time as we knew what to expect. Call for fire every day from some crazy marine running through the jungle. He had a radio, comanche board, and guided our fire onto the target. Left 100, up fifty and fire for effect. I manned surface radar for approximate navigation. From my memory of that shallow coast, I would guide the ship onto target until acquired by fire control. Then they would shoot until target was destroyed. Could be a machine gun nest, troop concentration or recoilless rifle detachment. We had a reputation of being very accurate, but this meant we were popular. Actually not so good for us poor squids re arming every other day.

Subic bay was dangerous. Violence was everywhere. All the bars had armed guards. The bar girls had knives The taxi drivers might kidnap you and gang assault you sexually, the shoeshine boys put razors to your achilles tendons for a ransom, and our boys, the jungle marines and army, used Subic as a halfway house to learn manners before returning to the States. They didn`t like sailors. And another thing,… the city smelled funny. You could smell Subic bay miles at sea. There was a bridge over the river going into the harbor that had a crowd of divers on it. Throw a coin and they dove into that filthy river. I was shocked. First time third world poverty stared me in the face. Well, the second, if you count the paint crews in Hong Kong that painted your ship for the privilege of all your garbage for a week. No joke. No exaggeration. The far east opened your eyes.

While on the gun line, we had a priority message to detach and proceed North to Korea. Seems one of our spy boats had been captured . The U.S,S. Pueblo hit the news. All our tactical publications were compromised, and new ones were to be issued. Chaos for a day. The captain reminded the admiral that our steering was faulty. We could hold true at six knots when firing at shore targets, but active cut and thrust was beyond us.

So we were detached yet again, to go to Subic for repairs. Up onto one of those dry dock ships, and while the rudder was being fixed, they sand blasted below the water line to get the barnacles off. That was a mistake. Most of the hull was old. The midsection, was recent. had been added later by ( FRAM, fleet repair and maintenance). They just cut the ship in half and added this section. But the rest of the hull was paper thin.

The sand blasting stripped away large sections of that single hull. In the end, they welded huge patches onto the side. It worked, for I am here to tell you about it.

Back to the gun line, and we found the rudder was still not fixed. We were sent to Japan for another refit. Yokuska had never been bombed during WW11, because our navy wanted those dry docks. Multiple ship repair, professional treatment. It was there that the steering was finally fixed. I can report that Japan has tiny little earthquakes all the time. Our ship sat on concrete, shored up with big wooden beams. Very solid. Can`t move. So Gary Benjesdorf and I were assigned to paint the top of the mast black. A radarman responsibility, as our antennas were up there. So we clambered up to this teeny tiny platform just big enough for two cans of paint, safety roped our selves in place, and began to slop on that paint. For about a half hour, we made progress. Then the quake hit. Probably unnoticeable at ground level, the tall mast and whip antenna magnified that movement to a very rapid back and forth shake. I dropped my brush and hung on to save my life. Benjy also wrapped his arms instantly around the mast, and while the ship moved like a dog shaking a rat, he painted the side of his face with that brush. This was no joke. Scared doesn`t cover it. It lasted seconds, but it seemed forever. Time slowed down and I can remember his bulging eyes and terrified face. I must have looked pretty grim myself. When our knees got under control, we abandoned the job.

It is flowing back to me now. The guys in the radar gang; Plummer, Moltz, Phillips, Benjesdorf, Cizio, Watson, and some of the officers…Howard Seeley, Blankenship, Mack, Capper, Captain Curren…and the many faces with no names, like forgotten brothers, united by common experience. I hope more guys write in about their experiences.

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