CHAPTER 15

1952 - 1955

USS PATAPSCO

In the spring of 1942 I was bicycling through the Pearl Harbor Naval Base enroute the ferry when I saw a sleek looking ship, with a big “I” painted on the bow tying up to a pier. I admired its sharp appearance and wondered what it was used for since I had not seen one like it before. As I got closer I saw it was the USS PATAPSCO (AOG 1), the first of fifteen ships of its class to be built during World War II.

I never dreamed that ten years later I would be taking command of her.

During the Korean War PATAPSCO had an unorthodox mission. We carried a half dozen remotely controlled airplanes (drones) with a 12-foot wing spread. They were launched by a compressed air driven catapult. We had a Naval Aviator on board who flew the plane by a hand held "stick". He let me try to fly it a few times. It was more difficult than the real thing since you had to picture yourself being in the cockpit and flying it from there. My tendency was to let the plane get in a dive and then when I pulled it out of the dive it was upside down.

Since the Korean War was primarily a land war, anti aircraft gun crews tended to get rusty in firing their weapons. Our job was to meet every United Nations ship traveling in and out of Korea and put our target in the air for them to fire at with their Anti Aircraft guns. If they scored a direct hit, there was nothing to recover. If the target plane was not hit, the pilot would send a signal to stop the engine and pop it's parachute for a water landing

In recovering those target planes day after day I acquired more experience in ship handling than most captains get during their careers. The trick was to get the ship along side the plane without running over it or getting the parachute's steel shroud lines caught in the propeller. It was a real challenge particularly in rough seas.

But I finally figured out the best way to do it. Due to its above water configuration a ship backing will always back into the wind and if the wind is very strong it cannot be steered with the rudder. So after the plane hit the water I would maneuver into the wind and cruise past the downed plane. . As soon as the ship passed it I would back down full until the ship stopped. The wind would start the ship into a circular swing and with minor corrections with the engines the ship would drift alongside the plane and we would recover it.

This technique proved to be a valuable asset to me later. At least once every year each ship's crew is inspected and checked for proficiency in each of the duties it is required to perform. This inspection is generally done by the captain and observation party from a sister ship.

One of the exercises is to determine how long it takes to recover a man overboard. To do the exercise a member of the observation party throws a life jacket over the side and yells, "man overboard".

Before it joins the fleet every new ship is tested to see what maneuvers are needed for it to make a complete circle. The maneuver is known as a "Williamson " turn. The office of the deck orders full speed ahead and gives the command "right standard rudder" to take the ship around a complete circle.

It generally takes about four minutes to make the circle. In Arctic waters that is about the survival time of a man in the sea. When I was being inspected I tried to anticipate when the life jacket was going to be thrown over the side and steer into the wind at slow speed. With my maneuver we made the rescue in less than a minute for the best record in the fleet.

When I was observing another ship I exercised my option to dictate his course and speed. I would put him on a cross wind course at an accelerated speed and then have the life jacket thrown overboard. Most of the time the rescue was timed at two to four minutes.

In addition we carried a "noisemaker" nicknamed "the pig". When we towed it behind the ship it created a signal ships having sonar equipment would use to "tune up" and calibrate their sonar gear.

The station from which we operated was the "bomb" line. about half way between Japan and Korea. It was the farthest we estimated a North Korean plane could fly from its base before exhausting its fuel supply.

We would spend two weeks at a time servicing United Nations ships before going into Sasebo for refueling.

After three and a half months of this duty we were replaced and got orders to return to our home base at Pearl Harbor. I persuaded my operational commander to let us go to Tokyo first. I used the leverage that our Diesel engines had not had extensive maintenance for several months and needed "down time." Since many sailors join the navy "to travel and see the world" I felt it was mandatory for morale purposes. We went north and anchored in Yokohama Bay.

After arrival we discovered that evangelist David Morken was holding nightly evangelistic services near Yokohoma in a huge tent they had borrowed from Presbyterian missionaries. The local Navigators staff, Roy Robertson, Bob Boardman, and Warren Myers were assisting.

We finished our visit and were headed back to Pearl Harbor. About the time we reached open water we got a priority message saying a major typhoon was approaching and we should return to the typhoon anchorage and delay departure for 24 hours. We did so and I had the evangelistic team out to the ship for lunch. It was raining heavily as the typhoon approached.

The tent soon got water logged. The team figured that if they left it up the wind would rip it to pieces. If they tried to drop it, it was so heavy that when some of the support poles were removed the weight of the waterlogged canvas would cause it to crash without unknown damage. It was a $4000.00 dollar tent they had borrowed and they had no funds to replace it. (All my life I had the experience that when you borrow something, something tragic generally happens to it while in our possession.)

The men did the right thing; they called an extended prayer meeting.

As the typhoon approached the wind speed increased. (We did not have weather satellites in those days). The Weather Service gave us hourly position on the approaching typhoon. I plotted these on our ocean chart. As I joined the points in the form of a graph an astonishing phenomenon was occurring. The typhoon began curving back to the sea. Soon it had reversed 180 degrees and spent its fury on the open sea.

I showed Morken the plot and gave him a copy. He and his team accepted it as an act of God since a typhoon approaching the Japanese coast had never been known to reverse its course. (Morken wrote me a few years ago. He was writing a book and included the event in it He couldn't locate the plot I gave him.)

The sea was rough from the typhoon. I believe it took us 13 days to reach Pearl Harbor. On the last day we discovered a still unexplained phenomenon. I went to the bridge at daylight to verify our position. The Navigator LT. Olson, worked out his morning star sights and give me a position report. I asked him when we would sight Diamond Head. He replied, "About noon."

I stepped out on the wing of the bridge and looked toward the east as the approaching sun began to illuminate the skies and ocean. I also saw something else.

"Mr. Olson", step out here (on the wing of the bridge). I want to show you something." Looming over the horizon was Diamond Head. We took radar bearings on Diamond Head and located our true position. An embarrassed Navigator advanced our position on the chart about 60 miles.

There are persistent reports of ships and planes crossing the Pacific, which have had similar experiences.

After reaching Pearl Harbor Mr. Olson stayed aboard until he had recalculated every star sight since we had left Japan. He did not find any error. It is as though the fingers of sky and earth plates increased their overlap and gave us a 60 mile boost.

During the next two years we had missions which took us to many ports including, San Francisco, San Pedro, a number of trips to Midway and then to Kwajelin, Bikini, Guam, and in the Philippines we had business in Sangley Point, Manila, Subic Bay, Corrigador, and Porto Princessa, Palawan, the southernmost of the Philippines. We also had missions taking us to Hong Kong and Saigon. And then there was Alaska, Adak, Shemya, and Attu We made a trip to Hilo, Hawaii also go drop off a University of California Professor who got the Navy to let him use us for a week to plot the un-surveyed bottom of the Pacific north of Hawaii.

When not on a seagoing mission we were loaned to the Fleet Training Command. This was primarily working with ships, which had just undergone extensive overhaul and had new crews, which needed to be retrained. Most of these were seamanship exercises involving towing and being towed, fueling at sea both day and night, passing light freight and passengers from ship to ship and some steaming in formation. We also exercised with submarines.

I will select a few highlights from some of these missions. Apparently our operations officer felt the ship was home sick for the Far East as we were ordered to the Philippines for six months. As the only US Navy ship permanently stationed there. One of our missions was taking a load of fuel to the French in Saigon. The organized opposition to the government was the Viet Minh. We had a Vietnamese pilot take us up the Saigon River. It is a winding river with many sharp turns. When we went around a curve I anticipated some group not friendly might ambush us to the government. I had our gun crews man our quad 20 millimeter guns to be ready to shoot if threatened. This made the pilot very unhappy and nervous for some reason.

The operations officer tried to be overly helpful and had given me gave me a course covering the shortest distance from Manila to Saigon. As I studied it I felt it was too close to the coast of China. At that time there was mutual hostility between our two nations. After protest I was allowed to choose my own course, as it should have been in the first place.

Saigon was still the "Paris of the Orient" at that time. But it's best hotel where some of us stayed one night had no air conditioning or screens on the windows. We had to sleep under mosquito nets or donate our blood to the monster mosquitoes that dared us to come out from under the net.

One voyage to Hong Kong was a morale trip. This was when the Chinese "junks" had sails instead of engines. It took an hour to traverse the harbor having to stop and back down to keep from hitting these myriad's of sailing vessels, which had the right of way.

I made a bad boo boo to start off our time in Hong Kong. Shortly after anchoring a delegation of British Naval officers wearing dress uniforms and carrying ceremonial swords came on board as the official welcoming party. They found me dressed in khaki shorts and short sleeved shirt.

We were the only US Navy ship in port. Dozens of boatloads of merchants with their wares climbed aboard and set up shop. Among them were two shoemakers. One put up his sign, NO SQUEAK FONG: On the other side of the ship a competitor set up his sign, THE REAL NO SQUEAK FONG.

It is the custom for the merchants to bribe the captain by giving him anything he wants free to get exclusive rights to do business. I had some clothes made but paid for them. When our decks were saturated with merchants we had to keep the others off the ship by turning high-pressure fire hoses on them.

We had taken an army officer from Manila along who wanted to buy car in Hong Kong and haul it back on the ship. We had to transport it on an exposed deck. We had a stormy trip returning and had unfortunately placed the car on the side of the ship from which the waves were coming. He almost cried every time he saw the car engulfed in seawater.

Our anchorage in the Philippines was in Manila Bay near Sangley Point where Admiral Dewey sunk the Spanish fleet in 1898. Fortunately we never got our anchor caught in any of the wreckage.

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James W. Downing
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