The Final 5 Days
Contributed by: Ed Zaikowski
Tuesday, 7 April 1981–A Gearing class destroyer is seen coming up the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Downriver of the Navy Yard this is quite a common sight. However, a mile upstream of the yard it’s a rare event. The ship was being towed and was berthed two piers from where I was.
Being an amateur naval historian and enthusiast of anything “destroyer”, I was more than curious. Also, I had just spent a working weekend aboard the USS J.P. KENNEDY and was more destroyer minded than usual.
Tincans just don’t tie up in this area of Philly. Her hull numbers were painted out so I didn’t know who she was. My first thought was that she was headed for scrap. That afternoon I went to the pier watchman and asked questions. He said the ship was manned by four men from Taiwan and was awaiting an ocean tow in three of four days. I did not attempt to board the ship at this time.
Wednesday, 8 April 1981–I approached the ship with a floodlight, camera and companion. As we walked by, she appeared in good shape. Three Oriental men were sitting on the pier near the fantail. I introduced myself and said that I heard the ship was headed to Taiwan for scrap. A very concerned look came over at least one face along with a denial. It was then that I learned that the ship was the ex-USS JOHNSTON (DD-821). One man in particular was friendly and spoke decent English. He eventually told us the ship would be commissioned in the Taiwan Navy, but since the U.S. no longer recognized Taiwan, it could not receive direct military aid. After friendly discussion, my friend and I were permitted to go through the ship with the man. We entered the ship through the door at the “break” which leads to the wardroom on the port side. We went aft through the inboard passage. There seemed to be many extras stashed everywhere, such as submersible pumps lashed to the ladder leading to the steam tables, an extra welder by the forward fire room hatch, etc. We toured the forward engine room and discovered it was in excellent condition. The bilges were dry and gleamed with fresh primer paint. The storeroom was full. My mind envisioned all the parts necessary to rebuild the KENNEDY’s air compressors. After getting to the after tan room, we decided to look at the machine shop and after diesel. The berthing compartment leading to these spaces was literally filled with hundreds of extra mattresses, bunk frames and canvas. The Machine shop was fully operational, including a drill bit in the drill press. Looking down into the shaft alley, the fresh primer was again in evidence. Our last trip was to the bridge. The only thing missing there was the ships wheel. We walked back across the 01 level. On deck, the ASROC launcher was missing and its foundation plated over. We were told it was being repaired and would be shipped over. A shore power cable was lying on deck still connected inside, with bare leads outside. Just as we stepped off the ship, a car pulled up with two men inside. Both seemed concerned at our presence. One said he was the ship’s “captain”, the other an agent for Taiwan. He was not Oriental, but spoke with a European accent. While on board I took photos in various locations. Our host would not allow himself to be in any.
Thursday, 9 April 1981–The ocean tug “FRIESLAND” has arrived sometime during the night and tied up alongside the JOHNSTON. There is much activity aboard. A crane is on the pier and pulls up the ship’s anchor chain in preparation for towing. Some small items are hoisted on and lashed down.
Friday, 10 April 1981–Upon arrival this morning I am quite surprised to see a fuel barge alongside with a hose hooked up to the forward fueling trunk. Not being able to contain my curiosity any longer, I visited the ship again. I looked for the man who took us through the ship on Wednesday, but did not find him.
I started a conversation with the somewhat nervous agent for Taiwan who was friendly and informative. He has lived in this country for 20 years and is a ship broker. He obtained the JOHNSTON and was preparing it for Taiwan, thus the ship did not go directly from US Navy to Taiwan hands. This explained why the ship came to a remote municipal pier. He was very worried because a valve on one of the fuel tanks was leaking due to a split weld. They had hopes of fueling and also loading distilled water and getting underway on the afternoon tide. Problems with fueling are compounded by no lights on board ship. I offered to attempt to start one of the emergency diesels for lights, but am told there are switchboard problems.
The tug captain invited the broker and crew to lunch on the tug. I talked to him and he said he hoped to make Taiwan in 73 days. I Jokingly said if we had 100 good men, we could steam the ship to Taiwan. It brought a nervous laugh. Before leaving, I found the man who gave us the tour and gave him a large photo of the JOHNSTON from 1976. He said he was very happy to have it, as he expected to be an officer on her after commissioning.
Saturday, 11 April 1981–I stopped by and saw the oil barge still there, but no water barge in sight. Things were quiet and activity was restricted to fueling.
Sunday, 12 April 1981–I learned from a reliable source that they departed sometime in the early morning. Now I have time to reflect on the events of the past four days. My suspicions (and a wild imagination) after seeing the ship’s interior plus the fuel oil and water delivery were that the ship would be met somewhere in international waters, a crew put aboard and she would steam for points unknown. In reality I suppose Taiwan took advantage of a situation and loaded up on spare parts for her aging fleet of Gearing class DD’s. The fuel and water being sensible ballast for her tow. I am quite content in knowing I was one of the last Americans to walk the JOHNSTON’s decks before she truly became a “slowboat to China”.