They Sailed Among Us
By: David McAllister
The AOE slipped her moors at NavMag, Bangor, WA and slid out into the cold gray waters of the Hood Canal. It was one of those typical days in the Pacific Northwest, haze gray and befitting for getting underway for yet another deployment to Westpac and the war that raged in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf. Overloaded, the ship was completely topped off with POL products, cargo refrigerated stores and ordinance to the extent that the bomb fins had to be deck loaded. As the ship glided through the placid waters, we were in fact destined for our first hostile encounter of the deployment. An encounter that would take place an ocean away from the South China Sea; an encounter not with foreigners but with our own countrymen, an encounter that would forever break the peacefulness and solitude of the Olympic Peninsula.
It was 1970 and I was returning to the United States after serving the last six years at sea in Westpac. Having been in the fight on many levels, I was also a returning veteran of the war in Vietnam. Luckily, I flew MAC from Tachikawa, Japan to Travis AFB so I missed the confrontations that were taking place at the commercial airports between returning vets and the war protestors. However, I did encounter the weirdly foreign (to me) Hari Krishna’s at the airport in San Diego, CA when I arrived there reporting for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration School. Although a culture shock, it was a minor one compared to what I found when I reported aboard my first, and what proved to be my last, stateside sea duty assignment – an AOE homeported in Bremerton WA.
This AOE had been built by Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and remained homeported out of Bremerton WA after commissioning. It was, at the time, the only ship homeported in the Pacific Northwest. Naturally, the shipyard workers and the citizens of Bremerton loved it and the boost it provided to an already declining logging economy. Meanwhile, Seattle, just a ferry ride across Puget Sound, was a hotbed for liberal antiwar protesting activity and the ship was constantly a target of their scorn.
I was used to serving aboard ships with crews of differing individuals united by a common cause and purpose – Mission. Within 24 hours of reporting aboard this ship, I realized this wasn’t what I was used to and as they say, I “Was not in Kansas anymore”. This crew was diametrically opposed forming two distinct groups: Them and Us. Them: Consisted mainly of young men with less than four years in the Navy. Their hatred for the Navy was eclipsed only by a particularly energetic and vocal disdain of the Vietnam War. Some of them actively participated in anti-war demonstrations while ashore in Seattle. We: Us older hands with more than one enlistment; most of which had been tested under fire and found to be tried, true and trustworthy souls. We were un-affectionately known as Lifers. Contention and dissension existed on a daily basis and we were at odds continuously. To me this seemed totally alien and unacceptable to my military mind and way of thinking which went something like: If I, as a second class, instruct you, as an FN, to do something and your response runs along any lines that included “Fuckin Lifer”, we are going to have a problem resulting in a counseling session and subsequent attitude adjustment behind the emergency switchboard.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long to whip the reefer gang into shape; however, others not under my guiding hand and within my sphere of influence remained unruly – especially one FN assigned to POL. His extremely outspoken belligerent behavior regarding the war won him constant attention and he was on all of us lifer’s radar screens and shit lists.
The ship was preparing for deployment and this element of dissension added yet another twist of an already hectic and compressed pre-deployment schedule. As the time drew near to our sail date several of the most boisterous, including POL FN, failed to return to the ship and were presumably swallowed up into the local Seattle hippie community. They provided critical information to the anti-war types ashore regarding the ships movements which resulted in demonstrations at pier 91 in Seattle while loading refrigerated cargo, Manchester, WA while topping off POL products and at Bangor during our ordinance load out.
While in Seattle the CO dispatched the Chief Master at Arms and a squad of ships soft hat shore patrol to pick up and press back into service as many of the deserters they could find. Since they all stuck out like sore dicks among the long-haired hippies, the majority of the missing were apprehended, brought back to the ship and placed in a restricted status under the watchful eye of the Master at Arms force. Although many were returned to the ship and as our sail date drew near still others returned voluntarily a few remained in hiding ashore including POL FN. It was learned through these returnees that the hippie communes were planning a final demonstration at and blockade of the Hood Canal Bridge in order to prevent our passage and subsequent deployment.
The morning before we sailed, all hands were mustered on the flight deck where the Old Man made it quite clear that: ‘His orders were to sail for the Western Pacific and the South China Sea in support of Naval units engaged in the war against North Vietnam and that no scraggly bunch of long haired hippies was going to stand in his way of the execution of those orders.
So as the ship stood out into the Hood canal’s narrow waters tensions ran high. When the Hood Canal Bridge came into view you could see both sides of the floating portion of the bridge crowded with sign-waving protesters, state police, and media types. The distance opened by the raised portion of the bridge for our passage was spanned by row boats, canoes and kayaks all linked together by ropes and lines. All manned by protesters dressed like Indians, as in Boston Tea Party style. Coast Guard small boats were trying, to no avail, to disperse the small craft from harm’s way. Having little success their frustrations ran high as this AOE fully loaded drawing 42 feet of water bore down upon them and they finally sought for their own safety.
The Old Man got up out of his chair on the bridge wing and walked into the enclosed bridge closing and dogging down the watertight door behind him. He informed the watch team that he had the Deck and the Conn and ordered material condition Zebra set throughout the ship and secured all topside spaces. With the maneuvering combination set, he ordered the lee helm to all ahead flank and steady as she goes were his orders to the helmsman. Fitted with two of the main engines destined for the never constructed battleship Kentucky, the ship was capable of 32 knots fully loaded and responded to the twenty-five-knot bell much faster than one would expect.
I have no idea what was going through the minds of those delusional idiots down in those row boats, canoes and kayaks attempting in vain to impede our forward progress but the bow wave alone capsized the first ones encountered and the remainder being lashed to one another fell helplessly along the port and starboard sides. As they were being dragged along at speeds that their small craft were not designed for, many pearled out of control and nosedived into oblivion while others managing to free themselves from the others but could not escape the powerful drag of the ship and slip streamed along shouting obscenities while trying to escape to safety. The Coast Guard’s mission now turned into one of rescue and recovery while the so-called safely ensconced protesters on the bridge got a taste of what sea legs are for as the ships wake sent the floating portion of the bridge into motions no one was expecting.
Meanwhile, I was not going to miss any of this shit. I ran aft. Finding the sounding and security watch I relieved him of the watch; with his duty belt and sounding tape I was making best speed for the fantail. Although the weather decks and topside spaces were secured you could sneak out on the fantail located under the flight deck relatively unnoticed; besides as sounding and security, I had business there. From there I had a good vantage point to observe the above-mentioned encounter. I was leaning over the side yelling my own obscenities, flipping off the enemy as they slipped on by while throwing dogging wrenches, fire station spanners and whatever else I could find at them.
Luckily I saw the grappling hook and ducked before it caught a lucky grip on the bulwark behind which I took refuge. Peering over the side I spotted two idiots in a canoe that by the looks on their Indian painted faces had no idea what they were going to do with this ship they had just caught by sheer shit house luck. The speed of the ship quickly pulled the rope taught jerking the No. 1 idiot holding on to it out of the canoe and into the drink. The canoe with idiot No. 2 was lost hopelessly in the wash of the ships gigantic wheels. Meanwhile, idiot No. 1 surfaced and with a death grip was still fast to the rope. As his head came above water through all the spitting, choking, sputtering and war paint I thought I recognized the face of POL FN.
With idiot No.1 in obvious extremis and for lack of anything better to do, I took out my buck knife and reached over the side and cut the rope setting him free to be consumed by the roiling backwash of the ships rooster tail. For a split second, I almost felt bad but then when his pointed little head bobbed to the surface in the calmer waters of the wake all thoughts of that left my mind. As I stepped back into the ship the real sounding and security watch greeted me. While handing him back his gear, he said ‘Well! Don’t you look like the cat that just swallowed a bird?’ To which I replied ‘Nope, just finished flushing a turd’.
To this day I don’t know for sure if that was POL FN or not. I know he never returned to the ship and was ultimately declared a deserter during time of war. If it was him, he escaped disaster that day and for all I know is alive and well in Canada somewhere; he along with his brothers in dissension all never to be forgiven by me.
War protestors, yes they sailed among us but were not ever considered shipmates.