One of the Hamilton County’s trips out of Sasebo was to Subic Bay in the Philippines. In the fall of 1956, we arrived in Subic, anchored out for tendering ashore, and spent a few days of R and R touring the island of Luzon. Subic Bay included a naval repair facility adjoining Olongapo, our point of entry. From there we made a quick trip to Clarke Air Base where we understood the base exchange was outstanding. In route to and from Clarke, a flavor of the tropical culture was clearly evident. The landscape was dotted with rusted tanks and other remains of the war, which was only a decade old.
One of my first views was of a farmer’s home built upon stilts that held it ten feet above the valley floor. Under the shelter of the house he had parked his ford tractor. Except for this one tractor, the entire agricultural economy seemed to depend upon the water buffalo. There were thousands of water buffaloes. They were in the fields, in the ponds, and throughout the hills and valleys. The buffaloes were not only beasts of burden, they were also the primary source of transportation for the local farmers.
The farmer above is riding to or from market while towing his family on a rustic wagon, pulled by his water buffalo, of course. Rice paddies fill the valley in the background. His wagon features solid round wheels. Special note should be made of the fresh mud on his wheels, which is eight inches deep at one point. The iron ring around the outside of each wheel protects the solid inside, which otherwise might break apart. The round mold ridge that surrounds the axle suggests the wheels might be poured concrete. Concrete would be quite heavy, but would withstand the moisture of the tropical climate, and deep mud in every field in the area. The concrete highway surface holds the family high and dry for this stretch of their trip.
When water buffalo are not working in the fields, they were usually found resting in water. The story is that water buffalo have no sweat glands in their hide, and as a result, are unable to cool themselves as efficiently as other beasts of burden. For this reason, they may only work for short periods of time, before they must cool down from the accumulated heat. The buffalo below are nicely immersed in cooling water. They may have served their time and are in the cool-down phase, or they may be waiting their turn to work the rice paddies. Both are tethered to the wooden trestle of the bridge.
After a few days at anchor in Subic Bay, we learned that a typhoon was approaching from the east of Luzon, and would be hazardous to our health if we remained in the protected harbor. There would be nothing more embarrassing than for our T to be blown up onto the bank in a high wind, and remain there as a permanent monument. With the Ts high freeboard, a strong wind abeam would blow it like a feather in a whirlwind. We deemed it advisable to get out of town as soon as possible. As our essential business had been completed, there was nothing to keep us in port.
Heading back for Sasebo, we were partially sheltered for two days by the island of Luzon, which moderated the typhoons winds. The seas were substantial, and the wind was steady from dead ahead at 50 to 60 knots or better. Steaming north along the coast of Luzon, we were within sight of land continuously, except when the rain was so heavy that it obscured our view. Believing that there was no reason to change course, we continued our heading straight north. With our blazing cruising speed of 10 knots, we believed it impossible to run into the more dangerous portion of the storm. So, we continued steady on course. It was often possible to take a fix on certain landmarks, as a benchmark for gauging our progress to the north. The first day we made considerable headway, averaging five knots per hour, or about 125 miles for 24 hours of steaming. As we approached the open seas north of Luzon, the sea became exceedingly heavy from dead ahead. The waves averaged 25-35 feet from trough to swell. At full power throughout the second day, we averaged one to two knots of headway each hour, and traveled fewer than thirty knots the second day. We were steaming at full power, yet we were going nowhere. While we were making almost no headway, it was far safer to head into the seas than to turn around with following seas. Had we turned around, with the high winds and following sea, we could have made Australia in record time.
An LST is constructed over a honeycomb of small compartments, each of which is watertight. Many can carry fuel oil, a few can hold aviation gas, and when empty, they can be filled with water for ballast, or left empty. Because of this structure, Ts are virtually unsinkable unless the ship was to break apart. This thought passed through our minds as we continued straight into the typhoon’s headwinds.
Our experience from these first two days was not very comforting. The ship was taking a continual pounding. As the bow would break over the crest of a wave and move over the trough, it would hang over open space until the water reached the ship’s center of gravity. Then the bow would drop precipitously, hitting the water with its flat bottom with such force that the entire ship would vibrate like a giant string, which had just been plucked. The noise was startling, and the splash created by the bow was awesome. Standing near the superstructure looking forward, the vibration could be observed at about three waves per second, and lasted for several seconds. After two days of continuous pounding, we started to notice stress fractures in the steel of the main deck, immediately above the tank deck. The first sign of this damage was water that leaked through the cracks, dripping or running onto the tank deck twenty feet below. There was little that could be done at the time, so we continued our ponderous northward course.
The third day was the worst, as we finally reached the open ocean north of Luzon. By that time, we were quite accustomed to the pounding and the vibration that followed. There was little work being performed aboard ship during this period, except on the bridge. If any of the sailors were seasick, it was not readily apparent. Most of the crew spent little time in the mess hall, often a sign that they are not feeling well. The tables in the mess hall and the wardroom were fully equipped with side-rails to prevent the meal-trays from sliding off the tables. Stores that were stacked in the storerooms all came tumbling over. Tables, chairs, and any furniture, which was not fastened permanently to the steel decks, migrated to the nearest fixed obstruction. Captain Weatherby and his crew of sailors proved their expertise, steering us straight into the headwinds for three straight days. Finally the typhoon passed beyond our little T, and we wallowed like a giant cork on into Sasebo. The Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld, would readily classify this particular ocean voyage as a world-class nail-biter.
By far the worst ride of the trip was experienced by the crew, whose living quarters were along both sides of the ship from the superstructure to the bow, one level below the main deck. Those living in the compartments farthest forward described it like riding a bucking bronco in slow motion. The differences were in amplitude of the motions. The bow would first move up 20 to 30 feet over several seconds, then drop suddenly until it reached the trough 20 to 30 feet below. On striking the water, there was a loud noise which carried throughout the ship, and a jolt as it stopped on the flat bottom. This jolt then initiated the vibration through several cycles. This routine was repeated every 20 to 30 seconds, depending on the distance between swells.
The physical experience in the rack produced increased weight or gravity as the bow is elevated, and you are pressed deeply into the mattress. Then there is a transition from increased weight to reduced weight, as the bow begins its descent to the trough. On reaching the bottom, there is a pounding jolt, and a loud noise which accompanies the jolt. The vibration follows the jolt for a second or two. Then the cycle is repeated, over and over. You can only imagine what it is like trying to sleep through such gyrations. A few could not sleep at all, and moved to the stern of the ship, where the ride was slightly more comfortable. This describes only the physical motions, and in no way can account for the acute misery of those few who experienced sea-sickness as an added bonus.
On arrival in Sasebo, we staggered off the ship, relieved to be home at last, and plant our feet on something that was not pounding and vibrating. A preliminary inspection of the ship showed 27 fractures in the steel plates of the main deck. One of the cracks was sufficiently wide to see daylight from the tank deck below. An equal number of cracks were found around the hull, suggesting that a complete inspection and repair was required. We were moved immediately into dry dock where the keel was blocked-up and the water pumped out. The Hamilton County was high and dry for the better part of ten days, while we patched and repaired the damage created by the typhoon.
The ship was nicely repaired following those three days of pounding, and seemed none the worse for the wear. By contrast, our brains were left with a permanent etching of this harrowing, three-day ordeal.