Excerpts From: “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”
A story about Navy destroyers being deployed from the U.S. Second Fleet, bound for Vietnam in 1972.
My ship’s passage, USS Rich (DD 820) from Norfolk, Virginia to Vietnam was making progress as we arrived at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During the early morning hours of November 3, the ship began its approach from east of the island of Molokai. The intent was for the ship to pass north of Molokai and south of Oahu on the route to the entrance of Pearl Harbor. My watch was the 0800 to 1200 that morning and as Diamond Head on Oahu came into view, everyone on the bridge got a bit excited. The sea and anchor detail was set at noon, and as the ship continued along the south coast of Oahu, the city of Honolulu and the hotels along Waikiki Beach could be clearly seen.
The ship docked in the inner harbor at Pearl Harbor at 1300 that afternoon. Shortly after docking, we learned from the newspapers that President Richard Nixon had been reelected to a second term. What Nixon’s reelection signified to some of us was that maybe, just maybe, we might be making a wasted trip.
The ship’s stay in Pearl Harbor was for less than two days. We docked on Friday afternoon and there was liberty for the crew starting late Friday afternoon and all day on Saturday. Liberty expired for everyone at 0800 on Sunday. The ship was scheduled to depart Sunday morning at 1130. Many snipes didn’t get liberty on Friday, since the ship needed to take on fuel oil, lube oil, fresh water, repair, and spare parts. The other crew members assigned to the Friday or Saturday duty sections spent most of their duty day loading stores, food, and other ship supplies on board.
Sunday, at 1130 in the morning, the ship took in her mooring lines as we got underway, leaving Pearl Harbor. The passage plan distance from Pearl Harbor to the Midway Islands was 1,150 nautical miles. About 70 hours later, on the morning of November 8, the ship began its approach to the Midway Islands. The ship steered a northerly course, heading directly between Sand and Eastern Islands until we could make out the channel, then we steered onto the navigational range markers, which were visually used to steer the ship in the center or axis of the channel.
The two main islands in the Midway Atolls are Eastern Island at the southeast end of the atoll, which is triangular in shape, about 1.2 miles long, and 6 to 12 feet in elevation. The largest island, Sand Island, is on the south side of the atoll, about 2 miles long in a southwest direction, composed mainly of white coral and sand.
Just west of Eastern Island, close to the shipping channel, is Spit Island which really looks like a large sand bar, about 15 acres in size. As we made the approach, my sea and anchor detail assignment was as the starboard bearing taker. On Spit Island, there were several rusting ship and boat hulks we assumed had been there since World War II. The waters around the islands were a brilliant turquoise color. In the shipping channel waters I was able to spot green sea turtles in the water along with large patrolling sharks. There were big monk seals nesting on the shore of Eastern Island. We were bound for the Naval Air Station docks on Sand Island. The ship arrived and docked for refueling at the dock on Sand Island at 0930. It was going to be a short stay in Midway, just long enough to refuel the ship, which would take about four hours.
If you’re a nature fanatic, Sand and Eastern Islands should be on your bucket list of places to see. The islands are teeming with hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. The seabird the area is principally known for is the Laysan albatross, more commonly called the “gooney bird” because of their awkward, somewhat un-acrobatic landings, and their strange mating rituals. However, once the gooney bird is airborne with a wingspan up to six feet, their grace in flight is impressive.
Once the ship was docked and fueling was in progress, the crew was free to leave the ship and explore the area. The area immediately outside of the dock area was more like a park setting, with shelters, picnic tables, and benches. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of gooney birds sitting everywhere on the ground; it was definitely a place to watch your step, as the birds also pooped everywhere. At that time, the Navy still operated the air station on Sand Island and it was the normal refueling location for Navy and Military Sea Lift ships bound to or coming from Vietnam.
Since the crew was off the ship, ice cold beer was broken out and anyone who wanted could have their limit of two beers. The beer tasted great since it was free of the formaldehyde preservative found in most beers meant for prolonged storage before drinking.
The ship departed from the dock on Sand Island at 1330 bound for Apra Harbor, Guam. The passage plan distance was 2,635 nautical miles from Midway to Guam. The passage would take a little less than seven days of steaming through the mid-Pacific Ocean waters…To read more of “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.