98. The Deafening Roar of Wind and Sea

I awoke to the sensation of my body rolling back and forth in my bed.  Not surprising for being out on the high seas.  Lullabye baby on the … 

Right in sync the ‘alert’ triggered by CS Phil was heard all over the decks; whether I wanted it or not, it was wake-up time!  

The unsteady movements were really getting, dare I say it, storm-tossed.  “Stay alert and steady yourself,” a calm yet stern voice commanded.  “Hold on to the railings and such as you make your way around the ship, it’s gonna be like this for a while.  Duties continue as usual.” 

Phil’s voice was elevated now as it seemed to me, the outside was audible inside. He made his steady, experienced way through the corridors. The rest of us who were not so experienced, bounced along with little glances of slight confusion (or was it uncertainty and fright?) to one another.  

With Taiwan to the west and the Mariana Trench far to the east of our position, our ship was navigated through the northernmost tip of the South China Sea.  It shouldn’t be too much longer before our boat will taste the East China Sea.  

First things first: shower, shave, well you know the rest and holding on constantly to something, railings or otherwise.  I nervously thought to myself, ‘Oh what fun I’m going to have now!’  

As I made my way up to morning duties, something else of interest was taking place.  Our speed was cutting out and it was soon revealed why exactly, that was.

The ship’s boiler busted … well, one of the boilers and that was more than enough!  Not at all in good timing (is it ever!?) and considering the agitated waters we were in, our significantly slower pace brought our vessel to a laboured crawl.  

Hopefully we’ll make it to Japan.  As I understood it, without our own full power, the ship is even more at the mercy of the turbulent seas.  

And then it happened: another boiler had busted.  It was said that we were not taking in water at this point, thankfully. ‘Wait! Does this mean we could?’  This uneasy thought was to myself.

As we were cargo-less, our vessel was tossed about like a toyship in a wild child’s bathtub!  Only in my craziest of boyhood dreams would I have ever imagined being in such a hairy, scary situation as this! I can tell you now, it ranked right up there with the Vietnamese waters experience!

I mean, what would’ve been worse? Getting blown to bits or being pulled under the ocean by a sinking ship, drowning in a raging sea??

Throughout the rest of this rough and tumble day and more than halfway through the night, we (and some other ships I barely was able to see) were subject to the mercy of Mother Nature’s whim.   

In the darkness of the early morning hours, Skip’s voice came in over the P.A. system, sharing the status report from below decks: “Between the port beam and the port bow, there is now a crack!” 

This then began to steadily weaken and the ocean was making its way into the ship at an alarming rate!  In milliseconds of panic & fear -no doubt- running through most of the crew, our Captain reassured us just as quickly of the makeshift sealing of this crack and that the hold had been sealed.

The guys have done their best to make watertight the damage.  Unfortunately we had zero propulsion; no steam power, no go!  Well, it’s a decrease in speed like from 13 knots reduced to 1 or 2 knots.  

The Trans Western is moving but at an unnoticeable pace.  I imagined myself on a paper boat just like the ones I used to make as a kid, in the middle of this tumultuous sea with no alternate course of action.

I’m not entirely certain how this next moment came about, well, other than credit to the thrilling sensations pulsing through me.  I do consider myself a curious sort of fellow and so along with the then current rate of adrenaline pumping through me, I followed the rush! 

I wanted to see for myself how our ship was reacting to all this excitement. The next thing I knew I was covering myself with my heavy hooded jacket, without thought on much else for preparations.  And so it was, with deck shoes already on (whaat? No boots or lifejacket!?), I found myself out in the storm, on the highest point of the uppermost deck! 

What felt like gale force winds, they were whipping all around me, the ship and the chilly ocean; I really couldn’t tell if it was raining or just an on-going downpour (and sideways hammering) of sea spray. 

I chose to secure myself at what was the highest point, just before climbing the ladder of the smokestack.  I hung on for dear life to an iron railing which surrounded the stack and that was my lifeline.  I noticed how everything was sealed up (that’s good) also, I quickly realized I was the only one outside … and with sopping wet legs and feet!  

The sea swelled non-stop, thrashing itself onto our ship with what had to be 40’-50’ waves, no lie!!  As I did my best to stand there in observance of my surroundings, I was mostly fascinated by the bow of the ship.  

It would dip waaaay down into the ocean.  And when it finally surfaced, it continued straight upwards lowering the stern down, down into the sea … what an adventure this turned out to be!

It was as though I was tied to the railing.  There was no time to think, no time to process the extreme situation we were in and so to report, all I thought was, ‘My God, I am witness to this explosive power!’  I must’ve been hypnotised.  

And each time the ship’s propeller was lifted out of the water, it felt to me as the entire ship would violently shake, often accompanied by an awful noise … I’ll never forget that mesmerizing, terrified feeling.  

I do not even know for how long I was out there thrilling myself by feeding my blown-up curiosity which was clearly accompanied by complete disregard to my physical safety.  

In retrospect I know I was perplexed by the magnificence of the force of the sea and the wind; such a beautiful yet deadly combination.  

Then somewhere separate from the deafening roar of wind and sea came the voice of my Skipper shouting at me over the bullhorn, “Hey Fiji! Get your ass down here, right now!!”  

I felt myself snap back into my mind and even managed to think a brief thought which was, ‘I’d better get down and back inside before Skip himself throws me into the ocean!’

Hurrying best as I could for I certainly weighed more now being waterlogged and all, back in through the steel door and into the passageway.  I remembered to spin the wheel around, re-securing the door.  

I turned to see the Captain simply staring me down from the doorway of his Bridge.  Under most any other circumstance, this guy always had a smile for me; not so much this time.  

“Your punishment Fiji …” he said with an exasperated breath.  “… know what your punishment is!?”  The frown on his face as he asked this question already spoke volumes.  I just shook my head ever so slightly.  “Go get my breakfast ready right now!”   

I hightailed it out of his presence straightaway to the Officer’s Saloon.  My heart was pounding but I was smiling.  Do I take the liberty of changing out of my drenched clothes first?  I say only a fool would not. 

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Our issue with the boiler played role in the loss of propulsion / without its own power, we had little protection against the battering waves and aggressive winds.

96. Office Furniture From France?

While I was busy vacationing at the Air Force Hospital, our remaining cargo of napalm had been unloaded.  There was of course no reason for us to be in the war zone any longer and within 24 hours of my return, we were on our way back to Subic Bay.  

I was already feeling better and looking forward to once again enjoying the beautiful people of the Philippines and possibly, just maybe someone would say, “We’re on our way back home.”  

The next morning after wrapping up breakfast, I was making my rounds about the ship when I discovered we’d just received orders to leave Subic Bay… first thing tomorrow.  Europe.  Whaat?

My ship had a bulletin board on the wall space just outside the Bridge.  The real important information would always be found here and that included our next destination.  There it was, freshly posted up on the board:   🇫🇷 France.

Guess it wasn’t in the cards for me or any of us this time … and it doesn’t look like I’ll be seeing my family anytime in the near future.   

Our now empty and -ready for whatever was next- cargo ship was in for a very long voyage.  Our ship’s mission was to retrieve remaining military equipment left behind after France withdrew themselves -formally that is- out of NATO’s integrated military structure, sending the headquarters over to Belgium.

As I understood it, France was the host country since 1952 and their President, Charles de Gaulle, gave foreign forces the ol’ dismissal letter; all were given one year to depart France.  

Based on whatever news tidbits I’d picked up here and there, de Gaulle wanted his country to be completely independent of any foreign military influences; such a sensitive issue to be sure.  

As we had a lot of American [Air Force] stuff over there, to include tons of office furniture (?) our cargo ships were empty, ready to repossess those jeeps and what-nots!  

As I stood on deck after lunch, I was looking out over the sea in gratitude, acknowledging that I was still alive and yes, in good health.  Well then, tomorrow shall bring on a new adventure and I’m ready!

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85. Open Sea Routine

First full day out on the ocean and with the Golden Gate’s disappearance into the now, east, so too had to go my thoughts of what’s to come.  Well, at least on hold in the back of my mind.

It was time to go full steam ahead in the expected routine of my job which has only slightly varied from when we were at docks.  The transition was smooth enough as far as I was concerned, demonstrating to the CS I knew my assignments very well.

After breakfast our Chief Steward calls a meeting of kitchen staff, chef included.  “Things change a little now that we’re out to sea, you’ll find the law is different than when we were at dock.  Trash of any kind and especially cigarette butts will never be disposed of overboard, is that clear?  There is a proper place for everything and I do mean everything!”

He went on, “It’s now time to get dressed up real warm ’cause we’re gonna stock the deep freeze and the main refrigerators.”  Coats, beanies and gloves were provided and we quickly bundled up.

The supplies that were loaded prior now had to be put away in orderly fashion; items must be readily available.  Bottled water, juices, milk, meats, veggies, etc., no hassles and wasted time trying to locate anything.

“Consider one of the engine room guys coming into the kitchen for a drink or snack, they shouldn’t have to waste time searching for anything in the refrigerators, so organization is always priority,” the CS spoke as he pointed out where to place the various items.

The boxes were opened, the large freezer and fridge shelves were stocked and the empties were broke down flat, bundled and placed in the holding spot.  At the next port they’d be removed.  The dry pantry was handled the same way minus the coats, gloves and beanies of course!

3rd day – our Chief Steward calls everybody to gather.  We would now receive instructions for handling a case of emergency.  An alarm was sounded. “Line up on deck and wait for the 1st or 2nd Officer’s instructions.”  

In each of our cabins there was a life jacket for every individual.  “Do not stop to put it on.  Grab it and get topside asap!  You can put it on as you go or once you are up on deck.   We will do this drill every third day.”  

I realized quick enough we’d be eating real good on this ship.  You say you feel like having a pork chop, the kitchen obliged by sending out a hot plate with about a half a dozen of ‘em!  There was no chance of anyone dining alone because someone would catch a whiff and be beside you in no time flat, sharing in the delights.

Away from the kitchen CS had the linen closet key so I always had to ask for that; seems like we had greater concerns than to worry about linens disappearing – oh well.  At least three times a week I’d change out the sheets and towels I used, all of us being responsible for our own.

Making certain the Skipper’s quarters were always clean and amply stocked with the necessities for his comfort was another factor of my duties; remember he was my personal assignment.

Daily routine breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  Once in a while the Skipper would make casual conversation with me.  I was the only Hindu person on board his ship and he asked me if I was actually from India.  I shared with him the short version of being born and raised in the Fiji Islands.  He was kind enough and for his liking, our Captain soon nicknamed me ‘Fiji’.

Coming out from one of the cabins, Nancy Sinatra’s hit single, “These Boots Are Made For Walking” sounded throughout the corridor -other tunes too but that one several times a day.  

Two of the deckhands, a middle-aged man and his son from the southeastern U.S. were the occupants of that cabin and this seemed be their favorite song.  It didn’t take long for that tune to stick like flypaper in my brain and to this day, it surfaces at the funniest of times.

My break after the lunch service was always a breeze, kickin’ it on the aft deck.  Often I’d get to see various fish leaping from the water and capturing my attention.  Otherwise I gave in to a sea of thoughts.  And in the evenings I anticipated with great pleasure, the sunset.

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These Boots Are Made For Walkingreleased in November of 1965 and was written by Lee Hazelwood.  By the end of January, 1966 it had topped the charts taking over the  #1 spot in both the U.S. and the U.K.  Cinema utilized the song in Full Metal Jacket, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and most recently in Ocean’s 8, just to name a few.