MINE!

Ken Smith

This interesting tale is about a troop ship and a near miss with a mine that broke loose from it's mooring. Of more interest is the discussion of the living conditions on board and is probably reflective of the conditions that were lived in by thousands of embarked troups going and coming to the various war zones.

In 1951, after serving on the Coast Guard Cutter Humboldt for nine months and three North Atlantic weather patrols, I was transferred to the 14th C.G. District in Hawaii for loran duty. When my ten days leave was over, I boarded a Pullman train for the trip to San Francisco.

After three weeks at Alameda, my number finally came up and the group I was in was driven to the docks and loaded aboard the General Billy Mitchell. I think it was an APA troop ship of some kind; the passengers were from all the military services, many of whom were married and brought their families.

The ship had hardly passed under the Golden Gate Bridge when it seemed that half the passengers were seasick. In the heads, the long urinal troughs were quickly filled to the brim with vomit, and believe me, all of it didn't make it to the urinals. I couldn't figure this out because the ship was as steady as a rock; I lined up the ship's rail on the horizon and watched for a few minutes. It hardly moved!

I understand seasickness. I've been there myself many times, but this was ridiculous! The stench from that "mess" probably had a domino effect on the poor landlubbers. The Army, and probably most of the Navy men, I'm sure had never been to sea before.

The berthing compartment was a place I didn't want to be. Before leaving California, I had got myself badly sunburned on a foggy San Francisco beach and was peeling large sheets of skin, the berths were stacked four high and the "dude" above me weighed 280 lbs., leaving almost no room to even turn over. And then there was the overpowering stench. So I slept out on a weather deck, in the lee, with a bunch of other equally disgusted Coasties.

Except for this, however, the trip was going smoothly. On the second evening out of port, we were getting ready for the movie on the after cargo hatch. It was a beautiful evening with the sun setting in brilliant colors to the west ahead of us. Suddenly, the ship heeled to port. Many of the "lubbers" asked why we were turning, and we "old salts" told them we were stopping at the "mail buoy" to exchange mail.

Someone shouted, "MINE!" and by God, there was one sliding by the starboard side within spitting distance. Of course, the word spread like wildfire as we turned around to come abreast of it again. A contingent of Marines were seen double-timing towards the bridge, M-1s in hand.

I had never seen a real mine and this one looked threatening, riding low in the water, barnacle- and weed-encrusted with dangerous detonating spikes stretching out to touch us. A couple of rounds from the Marine sharpshooters ricocheted off with no effect. By now the sun had set and visibility was getting poorer by the minute. Then, from up forward someone began unloading with a 20mm. Just about this time the thought occurred to me that if that sucker went off, a lot of people were going to get hurt.

Apparently, the mine had broken loose from its mooring chain and surfaced, to float aimlessly on the sea, a deadly menace to shipping. Fortunately for us, the ship's lookout spotted it just in time.

I could imagine the headlines. . . .

TROOP SHIP SUNK BY STRAY WW II MINE

HUNDREDS LOST IN SEA DISASTER!

The starboard rails were so crowded that the ship was actually listing. I discretely slinked to the rear of the observing crowd. Even from my cowardly vantage point, I could occasionally see a 20mm tracer ricochet toward the sky, but there was no expectant big B-O-O-M. Soon it was dark, and I prayed the bridge had the mine on radar and could keep out of its way.

A message to Commander, Mine Forces, Pacific (COMINFORPAC) provided the mine's location, and we resumed our course toward Hawaii.

My hat is off to that lookout, whoever he was. I've often wondered if the mine was capable of exploding, but this was information I wanted to learn from a mile or two away.

After a year at the loran station at Ulithi, I flew home. Nothing scary happened on the flight. (Thank you, very much.)

 

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