USS Mars Was There Part One
By Glenn Hendricks
We returned to Sasebo in, I think, February, after an IO cruise. We were scheduled for an extended maintenance period in our homeport. We pulled things apart that needed work, sent stuff off to the local Japanese shipyard for things we couldn’t fix ourselves. At the time Sasebo didn’t have a whole lot of repair capability if a tender wasn’t in port so we worked on everything ourselves. It was a hell of a learning experience and for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel like a Janitor’s Mate. Breaking down equipment, repairing it, putting it back and making it work was a lot more interesting than scrubbing deck plates and shining brass while on throttles.
We didn’t worry much. Lots of time to fix stuff and an extended port cycle as the Vietnam drawdown continued. There were some news reports in Stars and Stripes about sporadic violations of the ceasefire near the DMZ and Armed Forces Radio ran occasional stories for the air-conditioned space people. In the hole, we didn’t get the radio.
In order for our helo pilots to get enough flight time to stay current, the CO authorized liberty flights to Pusan, just across the straights. It was an hour flight to the small US Army base in Pusan and often they gave enough passes out to require two flights. You put in a chit and if the Chief wasn’t pissed at you and you didn’t have duty over the weekend you would fly out on Friday around 1200 and return on Sunday around 1500. I&I in Pusan, cheaper than Sasebo and nearly as gnarly as Subic. At least around Texas Street. But that’s another story.
Sunday when the helo landed the crew chief hopped out of the bird and ran over to the hungover crowd of sailors. “OK, listen up. Snipes and deck apes on the first bird. Move it, people. We’re getting underway tomorrow. The second bird will be here in 15 minutes.”
He was greeted by a whole lot of “WTF dude?”. He went on to say, “Shit hit the fan and we’re going to Subic in the morning, the need snipes and deck apes to get shit bolted up”.
The flight back was weird. Everyone was wearing the Mickey Mouse ears and the Sea Knight was way too noisy to hold a conversation. One ratty copy of Stars and Stripes made its way around the compartment, it didn’t say much except that those sporadic violations were turning into something way more serious. Most of us thought that we were going to be going back into Vietnam in a big way. I was glad I wasn’t a Marine.
I had married buddies who lived on the economy an didn’t know what was going on. I asked the MPA for permission to go and let them know. He told me to get going and get my ass back ASAP. I found my MR buddy and we got in touch with a couple of others. We all went to the EM club with their wives for a farewell dinner (and a couple or 5 beers) and I made it back to Mars in the late evening.
We did manage to get underway on that Monday morning. My evaps weren’t put together yet but we had all the parts and were making feedwater by noon and had both online before we knocked off that afternoon. The following four days to Subic was spent putting everything together, Deck and Stream Team were greasing the cables and making sure we were ready. Stores apparently were busting their asses figuring out what all we were going to be taking on. The holds were pretty much emptied out to prepare for the extended port visit.
Once we arrived at Subic we tied up at the Marine Terminal per our usual. They didn’t have shore power at the terminal, so we were on Auxiliary steaming watches while the locals and the SKs loaded us up with frozen and fresh food and dry supplies. The pace was frenetic, one guy said he hadn’t seen anything like it since 71. I don’t remember exactly but it seems like it only took us 72 hours for a full loadout. The loadout ran during daylight hours and shut down before sunset.
Subic was busier than I’d seen in the past. The Oriskany was in and had all her fixed-wing aircraft removed. Cubi Point NAS was wingtip to wingtip with fast movers. We heard that the Enterprise had already been in and had left a day before we arrived. The Blue Ridge was there along with her escorts. We pulled out unescorted (as we always did) and sailed west to the Tonkin Gulf packed to the gunwales with food, supplies, movies, and mail. And a whole lot of confused sailors.
See, while we were all busting ass, we had no clue one about where we were going or what we were going to be doing once we got there. Rumors were rampant, the weirder the better. The fact that we took on additional ammo for the 3 inch 50s didn’t do much to settle us down either. The Engineering Yeoman set up “Rumor Control Central” in the Log Room on a grease board. He wrote down the latest rumors and kept us up to date on the scuttlebutt going around the ship.
The news from Saigon was bad and getting worse. Even to our eyes, it was clear that a rout was taking place in Vietnam. Fighting was happening all across the country and there were reports of NVA tanks taking part.
So we sailed west.