The Hamilton County’s new mission as a minesweeper tender started six months before I reported aboard. All prescribed minesweeper and helicopter supplies that could be loaded aboard were stored and accounted for. We spent a few days in San Diego testing the integrity of a wooden hulled minesweeper by trying to blow it out of the water. We couldn’t. We stocked up on stores and provisions needed for a long tour. As soon as a full complement of officers and men was aboard, we steamed out of Long Beach for the Western Pacific. This was the ship’s first tour as a minesweeper tender to the combat zones of the far east. We left Long Beach in the late summer of 1956 with a short stop planned for Honolulu, a convenient liberty port in route to Sasebo, Japan.
LSTs are not noted for their dashing good looks, and they wallow from port to port at a top speed of 10 knots with a tail wind and following seas. The first leg of our journey from Long Beach to Honolulu was 2,226 nautical miles, a distance covered by today’s jets in four hours. By contrast, our journey boggled the imagination. Averaging nine knots per hour, a straight line to Honolulu was predicted to take 247 hours, a hair over ten days travel time. After a few days steaming, the line from the old song I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China, took on an entirely new meaning. As there were only sailors on the ship, we had all been got, as we were on the ship by ourselves. It was peaceful, pleasant, ponderous, and painful making this first overseas journey.
After the tenth full day of steaming in a straight line, we were elated to arrive in Honolulu for two days of rest and recreation. We tied-up alongside a pier in Pearl Harbor, and anticipated making the most of a short, but relaxing visit on Oahu’s Waikiki Beach. The liberty parties were well prepared, and few died in the rush to get off the gangway as they left the ship. Liberty on Oahu was all it was expected to be, a great break from steaming in a straight line hour after hour. Little did we know at the time that thoroughly scurrilous forces were at work aboard the ship. We were soon to find out.
About noon of the second day in Pearl Harbor, the most startling news was reported. The chief engineer, who was responsible for the ship’s propulsion, reported that some iron filings had been found in one of the main engine’s oil filters. For this reason, he said, it was essential that a thorough examination of the engine be performed. The source of the filings had to be established beyond any doubt. He further explained to Captain Weatherby and others that the engine could not be run at all until it was given a clean bill of health.
Exactly how long it might take to examine the engine thoroughly was not known. The engine involved was huge, sitting eight feet in height and fifteen feet long in the ships starboard-side engine room. While its size was not a major problem, examining the engine thoroughly might require complete disassembly until the origin of the metal filings could be found. Once the source was found, the solution would depend upon the findings. This was the theory on which we were operating.
The crew was divided into two duty sections, and each duty section was given liberty on alternate days until the ship was again seaworthy. So here we were, stranded on a tropical island, a few miles from Honolulu and Waikiki Beach for some indeterminate period of time. The crew was alternately shocked and delighted by this startling turn of events. Grudgingly, they took turns visiting Waikiki Beach, enjoying the white sand and the view of Diamond Head as it looked in 1956.
Our trying situation was the subject of considerable speculation aboard ship. We had been steaming at a steady speed in a straight line for ten continuous days, and throughout that period, the engines performed perfectly. The oil filters remained clean and pure. On arrival the engines were shut down and liberty was started. Only on the second day, the day before we were to resume our journey, did the iron filings appear. Voila! The timing of the iron filings was magnificent. None of us had any reason for suspicion, so we simply relaxed, enjoyed the liberty, and the fresh breezes of Oahu.
Each day that followed, the chief engineer reported that their examination was proceeding on schedule. Each day he reported that they had not found anything to explain the iron filings. This pattern of reports, and liberty, reports, and liberty continued for ten days. Throughout this time we were struggling from day to day, not knowing what to expect. It was a grueling experience.
Finally the engineer announced that the engine had been completely disassembled, each part examined under a microscope, and the source of the suspicious iron filings could not be found. The only thing left to do was to reassemble the engine, and hope they had not overlooked anything. One more day in port, he said, and we should be able to resume our trip to Sasebo. That was the way it happened.
We all knew the engineer as an officer and gentleman. He was a person of impeccable integrity. He inspired the same qualities among all the men in his division. At the same time, the ships stewards, who reported to me, often knew things about certain officers and men from monitoring their personal living spaces. One of the stewards reported that he had seen a small cup of iron shavings in the Chief Engineers stateroom. He was not exactly sure when he had first noticed these shavings, whether it was before or after we arrived in Hawaii. He also reported that he had experienced some wonderful liberty on the island. As he grinned from ear to ear, I decided to let his story die a natural death.
Being nicely refreshed, we resumed our slow float to Sasebo. A distance of 3,045 nautical miles, it was destined to consume 14 more days steaming in a straight line. For some reason, not a single complaint was heard about the second part of our journey. The trip originally expected to take 27 days actually took 36, just over 10% of an entire year. Because of the wasted travel time, the Hamilton County’s homeport was changed to Sasebo, Japan shortly after we arrived in the Orient, eliminating for all time the possibility of another Honolulu hang-up.
We were all thoroughly refreshed from our ten days of surprise liberty in Oahu. Anyone aboard the ship might have harbored a small cup of iron filings, ignorant of their potential value. The chief engineer knew exactly what to do with them, proving the amazing power of a few iron shavings when placed in the hands of an expert. We never knew if the iron shavings really came from the engines oil filter. As it turned out, nobody even cared.