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Mostly Peacetime-Three Years Under the Mast

USS Collett from October 1962 to June 1965

by Richard Gregory

Introduction.

I served on the USS Collett (DD730) from Oct 1962 to June 1965, joining her in Yokosuka, Japan straight from Stanford NROTC and Engineering Officers school. Before leaving her, I served as Chief Engineer and Navigator. Collett was then part of the Destroyer Squadron homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, the somewhat infamous Asiatic Squadron, whose crews were sometimes suspected of being more Asiatic than was perhaps healthy. Japan was a strange, fascinating and enticing place, which most of us thoroughly enjoyed in our off hours.

It was relatively quiet peace time period, but not without cold war events. The day after I reported aboard, the Cuban Missile Crises broke and Collett was rushed north to the straits between Hokaido and Honshu to monitor possible egress of the Soviet Pacific fleet. (See John Slater's story). I mainly recall the cold and rough waters and black nights, and considerable seasickness (I was almost given a medical discharge before I learned the tricks of controlling it).

Collett had a colorful group of officers and men, including a number of old Asiatic hands among the CPOís and First Class POís. But most of us were very young-the average age was probably 20. Several of the old hands had been in some of the events of WWII, notably the hurricane off Leyte and the occupation of Japan. Many still remembered the infamous collision off Newport Beach, California, which had killed several sailors. I believe CPO Correia had been instrumental in saving the ship by closing a watertight door in the bow. Captains included CDRís Bischoff and Zimmerman, XOs were Palmer, Ricardo and Gilman. Among the officers were Bill Rice, Bill Brockett (an Academy graduate, whose father had been on the pre WWI Yellow River patrol), Hal Harden, John Slater, Mike Spahn, Hank Swan, Art Horsch and Rambling Rex Rambo.

One of Collettís main Cold war duties was the Taiwan patrol--maintaining a presence between the two Chinas, a result of the Eisenhower Administrationís policy on Qumoy and Matzu, made famous by the Nixon and Kennedy debates. This consisted of 4 or 5 days on patrol in the Taiwan Straits running drills, relived by the monotonous port of Kaoshung, Taiwan (beloved of some for its cheap beer and friendly bar girls).

Engineering School.

As an electronics engineering (EE) graduate, with a summer cruise on the Navyís missile test ship, I was of course assigned to be a ship's engineer dealing largely with steam and mechanical systems. Actually, I enjoyed the change. On 2 Jul 1962, I entered Active Duty as brand spanking new Ensign USNR, reporting to Engineering Officers School, San Diego. I spent 2 months learning both the theory and practicalities of the Gearing class destroyers engineering plant. We had a destroyer assigned as school ship and beside class room instruction from Chiefs and Engineers, we spent hours in port tracing out all the main systems to the point where we could identify any of the hundreds of valves and their purpose. We then went to sea and learned to operate the systems and to deal with casualties. It was interesting and fun (except for my queasiness at sea).

On 2 Oct 1962, I finally reported aboard USS Collett (DD 730), as Main Propulsion Assistant in Yokosuka, Japan with some of the same trepidation and uncertainty described by Andy Andersen elsewhere in this site.

Wardroom.

One of the peculiar naval traditions of hierarchy and class borrowed from the British, the Wardroom was both place and group. Part menís club and part Executive Dining Room, it had its long-standing traditions and rules: Caps off when entering; Dining on china and silver, except in rough weather; Captain at the head of the table; No talk of politics, religion or women.

Officers "joined" the Officers Mess and paid for their food monthly to the Mess Secretary. Albeit, we were also paid a monthly food allowance and woe be the Mess Secretary that overspent this. The food was bought from the Navy at what must have been wholesale prices and was often quite good. As one of the last vestiges of American Colonialism, the mess stewards were usually Filipinos, often well educated, and recruited in Manila with the promise of American citizenship upon completion of service.

But the Wardroom was also the group of officers, about 13 or 14 men between the ages of 22 and 35 who collectively influenced the tone of the ship. About 4 or 5 would rotate in or out every year, so the group changed over time. The other key groups were the Chief Petty Officers and of course, the enlisted men that together made up ships company. We were lucky to have had a particularly congenial set of officers and competent CPOís in the period I served, not to mention a number of outstanding EMs. Several of the officers enjoyed signing together and we often did this ashore. Friends serving on other ships were not as fortunate in their shipmates.

The Ship.

At first, Collett appeared as a cold and somewhat forbidding hulk of steel, aluminum and grey paint. Overtime, it became home. Once, when looking back at her from the dock at Yokosuka, I remember surprising myself by having a feeling of affection for the old girl. I think this was in part because we put so much of our youthful time and energy into her.

Collett had been built in 1944, I believe in Bath, Maine. She was nearly 20 years old when I went aboard. Like a lovingly maintained car of the same vintage, she required some care. Despite her age, and wartime services, Collett was, on the whole, remarkably reliable. In no small part, this was due to the good care given her by generations of crew, and I for one want to thank my predecessors.

As Engineering Officer, I got to know a good bit of her, but there were always little surprises. Like the time, Chief Parker discovered she was rusting through the hull plates below waterline behind one of the after engine room pumps. Her hull wasnít all that thick to begin with and we both envisioned a bit more seawater than we wanted. We fixed that fast as I remember.

She had her secret and little known spaces, like the forward fire pump room, the main shaft alleys, and various small stowage rooms deep below beloved of the Supply Officer. Each of her Departments had their own special places and special problems. Engineeringís was the portable fire pump, which never ever worked. And how many of the Ships Company, other than the Boiler Tenders and Engineering Officers have seen the firebricks inside her boilers (a very claustrophobic place to get into)?

My home territory was the four main engineering spaces, the two engine rooms and boiler rooms staffed by fellow snipes-- mainly Boiler Tenders (BTs) and Machinist Mates (MM), who keep the ship powered and running. Snipes were a particular breed. Proud of their mastery of the lower spaces and somewhat protective of their territory, they had few visitors. I donít ever recall seeing a non-engineering officer or enlisted man below. For those that came, there was the inevitable welcoming cup of hot, black, thick coffee always at the ready. As part of the ritual, we each had our own labeled coffee cups.

I think the engineers consumed almost as much coffee as oil. Coffee was the unofficial currency of the Navy, and a pound or two could do wonders at expediting various activities. Rumor has it, and I am sure that it is only rumor, that the new mooring lines that suddenly appeared one morning on the dock beside the ship were the result of some coffee diverting said lines from some unhappy cruiser.

Oil was her other necessity. She could never get enough of it and her puny tanks would only provide about 3 days steaming at speed, longer when cruising. This is why they later built the long hull version of the ship. Thus, we were always replenishing, either at sea or in port. The Oil King had the challenge of topping her off without redoing the crewís mess deck in black, something that tended to upset the Supply Department, although it got rid of the cockroaches.

Japan

Japan was our homeport for 2 Ĺ of the three years I served aboard. The first sight of Mt Fuji from Sagami Bay signaled our return to port. Steaming up always-crowded Tokyo Bay into the smaller Yokosuka harbor, with its pronounced rounded hills, was a familiar and nostalgic experience. Japan itself was a marvelous and mysterious place, a juxtaposition of exquisite and often hidden beauty with some of the uglier cities on the globe. The ancient imperial city of Kyoto, the ancient shrines of Ise, the majesty of Mt. Fuji, the Black Ship Festival in Shimoda, the pearl fishermen of Ise-Shima, the incredible bustle and movement of Tokyo, and the peace and tranquility of the countryside made indelible impressions.

Japan was also a fascinating cultural challenge, from the exotic and different foods (Who had seen, or eaten sushi before then?) to their often-impenetrable customs. You learned to never ask directions, as they would always try and help you even if they hadnít the faintest idea of where you wanted to go (Go to a police booth instead). Shoes off before entering was quickly learned, but sleeping on futons on a cold tatami mats was an acquired taste.

The workmen of the Yokosuka shipyard were generally excellent. Some of them had worked on the Yamato, the worldís biggest battleship, during WWII.

We had a Japanese welder doing some work on board, squatting on his heels, as was their custom. One of the men needed something welded together and asked him for help. Without changing his stance or moving the pieces, the welder turned to the side and made an absolutely perfect bead with one stroke. On another occasion, the USS Blue was having one of her main generators repaired. It took several days, and when it was completed, it still wouldnít work. Because of the loss of face at not completing the job, the workman responsible disappeared for several days.

Following are some of the other incidents and things I remember.

Cuban Missile Crises (See John Slaterís piece for another perspective).

As a result of the Cuban Missile Crises, Collett immediately sortied after my arrival (on Oct 3?) to provide a single ship blocking/monitoring force in the Tsugaru Straits (between the Japanese Islands of Honshu and Hokkaido) against the sortie of the Russian submarine fleet from Vladivostok. Orders were top secret and I didn't have access to them so I don't know exactly what was intended in case of war. The trip up was particularly stormy and I was quite seasick most of the time (they thought they might have to give me a medical discharge). My initial berth in forward officerís country was particularly rough riding. When I moved back to after officerís country and learned to keep crackers in my pocket, I had much less trouble.

Once in the Straits, we moved to calmer waters in the large bay and I got my stomach under control. I vividly recall the strangeness of the shore lights on the two islands at night. The return trip was also rough and we passed through a large Japanese fishing fleet in the middle of the night, with wooden fishing boats, fishing lights and nets seemingly everywhere. I donít how many nets we shredded, but I am sure the Navy ended up re-equipping a fair number of the Japanese fishing fleet.

Back in Yokosuka, as the junior officer aboard, I drew duty both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I managed to work in trips to the base of Fuji and to Nikko.

Taiwan patrol-1962 to 1965.

Collett spent many tours on the Taiwan Patrol, providing a US presence in the Taiwan Straits as a buffer between the two Chinas. Typically, we were out four or five days and then in port in Kaoshiung for a couple of days.

Kaoshiung was then a dirty, undistinguished, backwater port with a very narrow entrance to the harbor. The ever practical Chinese had set aside a foreign zone for the US sailors, with bars, bar girls, and restaurants. The Chinese troops were kept in a separate area. I once visited the latter with my Chinese Major Shore Patrol counterpart on a particularly bad night, when almost everything went wrong: sailor riot, knife fight, wounded man, illegal after hours return to ship, etc. The Chinese area was quite amazing with live snake shops serving fresh gall bladders for virility, whore houses the size and density of Pullman sleepers, and all packed with ChiNat troops on leave moving about in an orderly bustling mass.

The Taiwan patrol itself was mostly boredom and uneventful. Although, another ship carrying an officer friend of mine once came across the remains of a furious battle between a ChiNat Destroyer and 3 ChiCom gun boats, where all of the officers on both sides had been killed. For our part, we once inadvertently violated China's claimed 12 mile limit in fog.

International Incidents? (April/May 1965)

In the pre satellite days, Navigation off China was difficult. The complex mountainous Chinese landscape made radar fixes tricky and there were no navigational aids. Strong currents and constant maneuvering limited the usefulness of Dead Reckoning. Cloudy skies limited navigational fixes. As a result, Collett once got a bit too close to two islands claimed by China in low visibility.

We had been drilling for several days in the Straits in cloudy weather and our Dead Reckoning position was almost useless. We knew we were somewhere between China and Taiwan, but not exactly where (I was then Navigator). I came on the bridge in early afternoon to check the situation and took a look at the radar repeater. Visibility was about 2 miles and there were two small objects about 5 miles off with apparent speed of about 4 to 6 knots. I asked the Officer of the Deck what the situation was. He said, except for the two small fishing boats on the radar, not much was going on. At this point, three things happened very fast:

  • I remembered the strong Taiwan Strait currents (4 to 6 knots in places) made fixed objects appear to be moving,
  • Two small islets, VERY, VERY Chinese Communist islets, loomed out of the fog about 2 miles off the bow,
  • Two very aggressive ChiCom fighter jets roared over about 100 feet above the mast.

We turned out to sea.

Rumor had it that China filled the 247th (?) serious protest with the UN as a result, but I donít know if the Captain ever heard anything more about it.

On another occasion we carried a NSA Elint van along the China coast to identify fire control radars and other signals. We would take the ship to some predetermined point, turn towards the coast and increase speed. As we closed in, fire control raiders would lock on to us and presumably the NSA guys were busy identifying them and their locations for future reference.

Near Capsizing.

This happened in the middle of the night in 1962 or 1963 when Collett, while steaming alone, got across a rough sea in a turn and rolled 42-45o and then hung up as a second wave hit before slowly shuddering back upright. Being responsible for stability made me painfully aware of how close she was to capsizing. This is how I remember it.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to the impenetrable blackness of my darkened stateroom. For a moment, disoriented, I realized I was squeezed between the mattress of the bunk and the bulkhead (wall). The ship was heeled over about 45 degrees and, for a moment, I couldnít tell which was bulkhead and which was mattress. Collett seemed to hang there for a very long time. I simultaneously realized that:

  • This was not the normal position for 2200 ton short hull 692 class Destroyer;
  • The complex stability calculations I had mastered to become Chief Engineer indicated that the ship began to lose its ability to right itself at about this point (Destroyers are notoriously top heavy and unstable): and
  • The sloshing sound I could hear from the fuel tank beneath my stateroom made her even less stable (try carrying a flat pan of water to get a feel for the so-called Free Surface effect).

I was also painfully aware that in the Second World War, three destroyers had been sunk in heavy seas in the hurricane that hit the fleet off Leyte Gulf with substantial loss of life. (A reserve officer captain of a DE saved most of the survivors.)

The ship shuddered again as it took another wave from the storm. The impossibility of crawling out of a capsized metal tomb had never seemed so clear. My stateroom was down a long corridor from the nearest watertight door, which in any case was sealed. Then very, very slowly, Collett began to right herself, and my momentary panic subsided as well. I managed to go back to sleep until called for the 4 am watch. The OD (officer of the deck) that night, Bill Rice, told me that they had been executing a turn. Just as they got across the seas (perpendicular to their direction), in the most vulnerable position, the ship had been hit by a series of giant waves that had pushed us over and keep us there. At the height of the roll, the inclinometer on the bridge had been over 45 degrees.

Station Ship Hong Kong. The best duty ever?

In Feb 1963 and again in Feb 1964, Collett spent 2 - 3 weeks as station ship, Hong Kong. This meant manning the shore patrol, coordinating with the Brits and administering the arrival and departure of US ships. Otherwise, one enjoyed the Chinese and White Russian food, had a suit made, visited the various sites and enjoyed the many pleasures of the crown colony, e.g. drinking and singing at the Waltzing Matilda. Used brass shell casings were the currency for getting the ship repainted by Chinese boat people. We had a wardroom exchange with the Brits, which was memorable for the alcoholic drinks they served on board (Pims cup No 2 anyone?). They like our beef. One of the British ships had a senior CPO with the most amazing full beardóright out of the pirate days. (Actually, pirates were, and are, still active in the South China Sea, but thatís another story.)

Coral Sea Festival, Sydney Australia. The second best duty ever?

On 24 July 1964, we crossed the line at 151o 16.2í E on route from Yokosuka to Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney, Australia to represent the USA at the annual Coral Sea Festival, a celebration of the battle that saved Australia from a Japanese invasion during WWII. King Neptune and his retinue paid a memorable visit and all of us pollywogs became hardened shellbacks (I still have the card to prove it!).

John Slater provided this detailed chronology of this summer 1964 trip. As Chief Engineer, I was always below deck when we entered these harbors.

21 July Guam (I donít remember Guam at all)

28 July Cairns, Australia for refueling. I remember Cairns as a small outpost. I donít believe I went ashore

31 July to 3 August. Brisbane, Australia. 4 hours up river from a bay. Remember as a provincial capital, with one large English colonial hotel with a beach community on the outskirts. Real Drover/Outback flavor. We held an open ship and were overrun with a friendly, if undisciplined, bunch of locals. We embarrassingly caught an Anchor on departure and dropped it into the river. Took several hours to recover.

6 August to 9 August. Sidney, Australia. The focus of the trip. This lovely, if somewhat provincial city, reminded me of the US 30 years before. Great Oysters. Spectacular location. The people were unusually friendly and welcomed us as their saviors from the Japanese during WWII (when most of us were kids!). The indecisive battle of Coral Sea had turned back the Japanese invasion force headed for Port Moresby- considered the gateway to Australia, at a time when the British had pulled the Aussies regular troops to the Med to help them against the Germans. Thus, the Americans were the only forces between them and the Japanese. One of the few places in the world where American sailors were more than welcome.

17 August. Pago Pago, Samoa US Territory. We entered the very small harbor to refuel. The local large foot Samoans danced for us. Very big people. I went with the CO in a car for a short tour of the island. Hot and muggy. Very rustic, very poor.

23/24 August. Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

31 August . Long Beach, California. Moved into Long Beach Naval Shipyard for Overhaul. I was responsible for the Overhaul, about $1 million of work. The Captain spent his time wooing the shipyard commander to get paneling and a hi fi installed in the Wardroom. I worked with the counterpart Shipyard officers to define and schedule the work. Our detailed requests, sent in months before, had been lost, so we had to start from scratch. I vividly recall being called to the forecastle to look at the anchor winch to decide whether a $70,000 overhaul was warranted. I didnít have a clue so asked the 1st class PO what he thought. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said why not. While the ship was in dry dock, all of the other officers and most of the crew were moved ashore. I had the dubious pleasure of staying aboard and supervising the work

Catching a Nukie Boat.

In Early 1965 we went through pre deployment readiness training off Hawaii involving exercises with a Carrier group and a nuclear sub as one of the enemy. A year before, we had been rushed into Yokosuka shipyard at the end of June to use up some fiscal year money and have a Variable Depth Sonar (VDS) installed on the stern. (There are some pictures of the ship in dock on this site). The damn thing never seemed to work properly and no one seemed to have much faith in it.

However during the exercise, we deployed it and soon got a good contact. I was OOD when we first made contact, but the Captain took over and we went to Condition 2. In any case, the Nukie boat soon took off like a scared rabbit, planning to leave us far behind as it always had before. But we held on. The VDS actually worked! And we held on for the next 8 to 10 hours.

I remember going into CIC and watching the DRT tracer scoot across the plotting board as it traced the sub. It was so much faster than the system was built for, it kept going off the edge and having to be reset. We only lost contact with the sub when the Commodore moved his flagship in to try his new super bow mounted sonar and forced us to turn away. He couldnít keep contact. Our success, which apparently hadnít happened before, caused somewhat of a sensation in the nuclear sub fleet and our sonarmen reported they didnít have to buy a drink for the rest of the time in Pearl.

The Tonkin Gulf Incident.

My recollection, which is disputed by some, is that Collett was in the outer gulf with the carrier group on the night of the Tonkin Gulf incident, which incident involved our sister ships from the Asiatic Squadron. However, John Slater argues that we were enroute to Australia on the nights of Aug 2 and 4, so this canít be correct? In any case, the incident involved two American Destroyers entering the Gulf in the dark, and allegedly being attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats. Vietnam claimed the Gulf as internal waters (less than 24 miles across the entrance?) and we claimed them as international waters (more than 6 miles across the entrance?) with right of passage.

As I remember it, our sonarmen talked with the sonarmen of the two ships before they were sworn to secrecy and the latter told them the information of the alleged small boat attacks was at best very sketchy. On the other hand, in a meeting between Robert MacNamara and Northern Vietnamese leaders well after the war, the latter reportedly confirmed their patrol boats were in the gulf that night.

Moreover, according to a former 7th fleet intelligence officer, whom I met recently, as well as some published documentation, the real reason for the presence of Destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf that night was to provide cover for a South Vietnamese commando raid along the coast. My brother heard similar rumors while on the staff of Seals Command group on Okinawa, since the Seals were running the commando Operation.

In any case, the Tonkin Gulf incident, was used as the excuse to expand the Vietnam War. The speed and violence of our response leads credence to the charge that higher ups were looking for an excuse to expand the war.

Carrier Groups Running Amok!

Prior to my departure in July of 1965, we were only involved in the growing Vietnam War as an escort to the carrier groups. On one particularly vivid night we were steaming as part of the Carrier group in the South China Sea. The Amphibious group with the ready Marine division helicopter carrier was in the vicinity. I was the OOD for the-mid watch, and it soon became apparent that the two groups had chosen night steaming courses that were on a collision course with each other. The Air Carrier group Admiral was of course senior, and the other group should have changed course, but didnít.

As they got closer, I called the Captain to the bridge. Sure enough, the two groups merged and before long ships were maneuvering every which way trying to avoid each other. After we all had cleared, fortunately without incident, we heard the call sign of the senior Admiral on the air carrier group come over Pri Tac (Primary Tactical circuit, the voice radio circuit used to communicate between ships). The conversation went something like this:

"Tiger (the call sign of the junior admiral), this is Swordfish" (the senior admirals call sign)

"Swordfish, Tiger is not on the bridge"

(Very angry tone of voice). "Tiger, this is Swordfish HIMSELF. Call Tiger to the bridge IMMEDIATELY"

"Aye, aye sir"

Several minutes pass

(A very meek voice) "Swordfish, this is Tiger himself"

(A very curt and decisive voice) "Tiger, be on my quarterdeck at 8am. Swordfish Out"

The whole fleet(s) listened in rapt attention. None of us wanted to be in Tigers shoes the following morning. I donít know what happened to him, but he was lucky if he got off with a tongue lashing, as he had carelessly risked two fleets in a time of war.

Departure.

A friend of mine on the flagship, Tom Gompretz, later killed in Vietnam as a civilian, had discovered an obscure regulation that allowed Reserve Officers to take leave of the Navy at a point of mutual convenience, with the right to use official transportation the equivalent distance to home of record up to a year after departure. I took advantage of this to take my departure in Yokosuka. It was a bit tricky as I had to get BuPers and Japanese Government permission and obtain a Passport. (While in the Navy, our presence in Japan was covered by a Status of Forces Agreement and we needed only our ID).

I initially intended only to see a bit more of Japan, but ended up spending a year traveling through Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand (for six months), Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India, Nepal, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon and eventually ending up in London. As required, I periodically informed the Naval Reserve of my various exotic locations by postcard, although how they would have reached me in time of need, I have no idea. In London, shipmate John Slater was on the staff of the Naval Attachť and helped me get transport home. Since the distance from London to LA was the same as Tokyo to LA, the Navy paid the way.

Many years later I was attending a cocktail party in Washington DC and struck up a conversation. As often happens, we discovered we had both been in the Navy and began to exchange tall tales, including this one. Whereupon the other fellow stopped with a funny expression on his face and said: "Oh, youíre THAT Lieutenant Gregory! You know, I was on the staff of the Chief of Naval Personnel during that period. After you, we changed the Regulations."

Such are my memories of a memorable three years.

 

R Gregory

July 26, 2002