CHINA

By Dave Moyer

 

 

The Owasco Chronicles

We had spent the past two weeks and 6 days anchored in the middle of Hong Kong Harbor operating as SOPA ADMIN. Hong Kong was used as an R&R center for ships coming off the line. They would anchor out in the harbor and literally shut down most all communications with the outside world. Our job was to keep our communication lines open to intercept traffic for them, hence the ADMIN, short for administration. SOPA meant Senior Officer Present Afloat. We weren’t, of course, but the title was there.

After spending time on the line, this was great duty. We all loved Hong Kong, and she seemed to love us; then again, she seemed to love all sailors. It was Mother Nature that was kicking us out.

One helluva typhoon was on its way, originally supposed to veer off to the east, but a course change to the west toward Hong Kong set the R&R fleet on the run. They left so quickly they didn’t have time to recover all their crew, so we stayed behind one extra day to gather them up and transport them back to Vietnam to pick up their ships.

When we got underway the next morning, we certainly couldn’t tell that a storm was on its way. It was a beautiful day, light breeze blowing and visibility unlimited. Sailing into or out of Hong Kong is one of the most memorable experiences I have. The harbor is protected by a mountain range that graciously opens into the sea. The large junks with their red sails are forever flitting about fishing, hauling, or whatever else it is that junks do.

Clearing the harbor we turned southwest. The Special Sea Detail was secured and a light watch set—the QM of the watch covers the signal bridge just as we do in normal peacetime sailing. The ocean was surprisingly calm, considering the weather that was on the way. In short, we expected to cruise back to Subic and the line to be a pleasant, uneventful trip. There we go, expecting again!

The 0000-0400 was mine for the trip back. A good watch, and the OOD was a good Conning Officer with a sense of humor. The first one to two hours went lolling by. Everything was quiet, the fixes were good, the conversation as stimulating as only a bridge full of sailors could make it. I was standing directly underneath the voice tube from the flying bridge, sort of staring forward in the darkness, when I heard it open. "Bridge, Lookout, flashing light off the starboard bow. Looks like signals."

The OOD and I looked at each other for a split second, then simultaneously said, "Bullshit!" it wasn’t that we thought this seaman was seeing things, but there were no radar contacts between us and the shoreline, and we were a good 20 miles off the coast. You see, the shoreline belonged to the People’s Republic of China and we weren’t exactly on speaking terms. CIC had nothing either, but you couldn’t simply ignore a lookout report—at the very least, a quick glance was in order. After all, we have to humor these deck apes occasionally. Probably a shooting star, a planet rising over the Chinese mountains. . . .

"Godamnit, sir, there’s nothing there but a mountain top!" I knew he knew that—the OOD wasn’t an idiot. Sure enough, as plain as day, Dit Dah, Dit Dah, Dit Dah. The universal signal for "what ship? is three A’s, and these were three A’s.

"Get up there and see what he wants." He didn’t have to tell me, I was already halfway up the ladder to the 24-inch arc lamp. We usually used the 12-inch signal light, but this range had to be at least 20-25 miles. That SOB was on a mountain peak in Red Frigging China!

The arc lamp hissed and I pressed the ignition button and warned the lookout to look the other way to avoid being be blinded. I gave a long dash—in other words, go ahead, the ball is in your court. He acknowledged my dash with a "BT," the "break" signal given before and after a message. I acknowledged with another dash. "What ship? was his plain English reply.

"He wants to know what ship, sir," I called down to the OOD.

"Tell him we are a ship heading southwest." Sometimes these officers are brilliant. Some gook on a mountain top, probably watching us for the past 2 hours, and this OOD doesn’t think he knows what direction we’re heading.

"Under no circumstances tell him who we are, Moyer."

"Yes, sir." I think he read my mind.

I sent the message word for word and, man, could that guy read flashing light. I tried to intimidate him, a game signalmen sometimes played. You never sent faster than you could read. I could read pretty fast, but I spiced it up a bit and that bastard never gave me an "IMI," the International Code for "repeat." He then gave me an "AS," which means "Wait."

I told the OOD where we stood and asked if he was getting the "Old Man" out of the sack. He said he just sent the messenger to get him. I recommended he contact CIC and Radio Central to stand by in case they were needed. He like that idea and went into the bridge to make the calls to each. I left the signal bridge and went below to make a log entry. I figured it would be nice to have the situation entered in the ship’s log. While there I also double-checked our position. No apparent problem, we were well outside Chinese territorial waters. Just then the Skipper hit the bridge, his Commander’s hat squarely on his head, his shirt in the process of being buttoned and his trousers over his arm. Guess this did qualify as a full-fledged emergency. The OOD completed briefing him just as the AAA signal began again.

"Moyer, get up there!

"Aye, Aye, Captain." (I was very nautical back then). I gave the signalman a dash. He gave me another BT and started: "My superiors have asked me to advise you that you are in violation of the People’s Republic of China international waters and you must prepare to face the consequences."

I passed the message to the Skipper as visions of the USS Pueblo captured by the North Koreans not too long before danced through my mind. I actually felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. With the fire power we had, we couldn’t fight off a couple of well-drilled canoes, much less an attack force with air support.

The skipper immediately notified fleet. He then gave me a message to send: "We are not in violation of your international waters and will continue in a southerly direction." He acknowledged the message and gave me a Wait signal.

The Captain must have sensed my tenseness and the teeth marks on the steel railing surrounding the signal bridge. He told me that U.S. air support was on standby and could be here in 15 minutes, if necessary. He also added that he had reports of other military ships being challenged like this on occasion. I said that was all fine, but it still gets the old adrenaline pumping. He smiled his agreement.

Another message from the mountain. "My superiors have again asked me to advise you that you are in violation of the People’s Republic of China international waters and you must prepare to face the consequence."

I relayed the message to the Skipper. "Secure it Moyer, and come on down—don’t answer him again."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

I stood leaning on the starboard bridge wing next to the Captain, watching the light now on our starboard quarter flashing a desperate AAA. His signals remained unanswered. No radar contacts, surface-to-air, were picked up. We were safe.

Before the light disappeared over the horizon, I sort of chuckled out loud. The Captain heard me and gave me a sort of "you’re sick" look. "Excuse me, Captain, I was just thinking."

"What’s that, Moyer?"

"Well, sir, how about I go up there and send that guy a ‘fu-k you’. Can’t you just visualize this slant-eyed gook frantically paging through his English dictionary to find the exact translation to give to his superiors?"

The Skipper sort of cocked his head and started to smile. He paused for a moment. "Good thought, Moyer, but we’d better not. Never can tell what could happen with something like that."

"Just a thought, Sir."

The skipper turned to leave the bridge on his way to radio central, then turned one last time, "Good thought, Moyer." I think I heard him chuckle as he shut the bridge door.

 

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