Hamilton County (LST-802)

With Christmas 1955 not far away, the Gardiners Bay returned to its homeport in Alameda. My relief arrived to assume the duties as disbursing officer. He double checked the pay records, counted the money in the safe, and signed the papers lifting my primary job on the ship. I had received orders to report to the Hamilton County (LST-802) to relieve the supply officer of that ship. The ships homeport was Long Beach, and was scheduled to remain stateside for several months. I knew nothing about the ship, but had seen an LST from a distance during exercises in Little Creek three years earlier. As we would not be returning to the bay area, we packed our stuff, loaded the car, and headed east.

After a short Christmas visit in Kansas, we took the southern route back to Long Beach. The Hamilton County was in port. It was a beautiful – hulk. All the suave and debonair that accompanied the Gardiners Bay was left behind when they designed the LST. Before I could say Jack Robinson, I had moved from club level suites to steerage.

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The above 1950 Navy Archive picture of the 802 was taken in Inchon, Korea. It shows the bow doors open, and its ramp on the beach for loading or unloading cargo or personnel. While the ship is over 300 feet long, the forward two-thirds is a single tank-deck, a long narrow warehouse in which may be placed anything that fits. With this huge cargo space, it was perfectly adapted for moving objects large and small and as many men, women, and children with their personal belongings as could be crammed in for a short trip. To commemorate the valuable contribution of the LST, a bronze sculpture was erected in Washington DC entitled Large Slow Target. The Hamilton County was an outstanding, but traditional ship of this class for eleven years until 1 July 1955, six months before I reported for duty. The ship’s distinguished service record included one WWII battle star, and seven Korean battle stars, with service from Guadalcanal, Saipan, and Okinawa to Inchon and Pusan.

As ships go, the LST was designed for making one trip across the ocean, – slowly. They had a tendency to wallow through the waves like a surfboard. With their flat bottom, if the bow raised much above the waves, its fall to the water produced a pounding jolt initially, then a slow longitudinal gyration, which can be clearly observed from either end of the ship. This vibration may last for three or four seconds before it subsides, a beautiful imitation of Elvis the Pelvis, the heartthrob at the time. LSTs were virtually unsinkable because of the honeycomb structure over which they were built. At their top speed of 10 knots, they created a dashing and awesome spectacle, striking terror in the hearts of her enemies and her crew alike.

The 802 had performed many evacuations of civilians, military personnel and equipment through the years. As such, the tank deck became the final resting place for whatever the evacuees did not want, or could not find as they left the ship. The most recent evacuation was the previous year from the Tachen Islands to Formosa. The story was that the rubbish was several feet deep on the tank deck, and was carried off the ship by the truckload. The untold story included a ton or two of wharf rats which came aboard with the refugees, and refused to leave.

The details of the rat story tied together the evacuation of refugees to the structure of the LST, which included thousands of nooks and crannies in which rodents, mostly rats, could hide forever. Most rats, I learned, were nocturnal, preferring to come out only after dark. The nooks and crannies in the ship were dark most of the time, making it an ideal habitat for nocturnal animals. Because of the infestation, it was said that port authorities required the 802 to place its rat guards on the lines securing the ship to the dock in reverse, thus keeping the rats from going ashore. The ship was a virtual buffet of leavings and hiding places, and unlike every good sailor, there was no good reason for any rat to go ashore.

Like the unsinkable Molly Brown, the Navy discovered that the old Ts were amazingly versatile, and could be converted to dozens of specialized uses with minor modifications. With this in mind, it fell the lot of the 802 to become the newest of three minesweeper tenders. In this role, it was to be outfitted to supply many of those things needed by minesweepers for clearing waterways of explosive devices. On 1 July 1955 a magnificent transformation was begun, converting the ship into a modern and sleek man-o-war, – hulk. Her new assignment earned it the additional name, Hamilton County, to be appended to the front of its old number, USS LST-802. In the following picture, the Hamilton County is ready for exercises off Catalina Island. Just above the yellow mines is a railing that surrounds the 01 level deck just forward of the bridge. This is the deck where Captain Quegg, on a similar ship, made many of his announcements to the crew. It was also where he maintained his pet tree, until Ensign Pulver threw it overboard.

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On reporting aboard the captain was ashore, and was not expected to return till the next day. First I found the supply officer who I was to relieve. He was called up as a reservist, and was looking forward to his return to civilian life. He took me through the ship and introduced me to the men in the Supply Division. We made a quick tour of the supply areas for which the department was responsible. That area covered about 80% of the ship below the main deck, plus the officers quarters and wardroom facilities. Then he filled me in on the recent story of the supply department from his perspective. It was not pretty, and bore no relationship to supply management as taught in school. I was fortunate to miss the shipyard modifications and re-supply process for its new mission.

The small group of officers had all arrived within the past few months. They were young, alert, and well educated, as all had earned at least a bachelors degree from some college or university. They were all ensigns, or newly promoted JGs, like me. The executive officer, a former merchant marine for a dozen years, was on his second Navy tour as a lieutenant JG. By contrast, the captain was reported to have completed all eight years in elementary school quite successfully. His credentials as a seaman were never in question, but he was reported to make derogatory references to those with an education, which included all of us. The communications officer, a graduate of Harvard, received an abundance of such comments, owing to his New England accent, coming from the Ivy League, and for driving a three-wheel Morgan. The stage was nicely set for a rerun of the Caine Mutiny.

With the serious problems in the Supply Department, I didn’t know if I was about to take on the role of Mr. Roberts or Ensign Pulver, but I knew I was on the right ship. Having met the officers, the only thing left to do was meet Captain Quegg. I wondered if he would juggle three little steel balls in the palm of his right hand. The next day in Long Beach would tell the story.

On arriving at the ship the next day, I went first to the captain’s quarters. The captain was Lieutenant Vernon W. Weatherby, a mustang who had arisen from the ranks of submariners. I reported myself for duty.

“Great little supply ship you have here, Captain,” I added.

He smiled broadly, showing his missing front teeth. Then he was speechless for several seconds. The delay suggested that he had never really thought of the ship that way before. It could be that he had a rush of a dozen derogatory comments, and he just didn’t know which one to choke out first.

“Is this a supply ship?” he asked.

In that moment, I knew it was going to be a very long, action-packed tour of duty. As all sailors do, I knew I would come to love this great little ship. As I left his quarters, I could hear the sound of those three little steel balls.

“Clack, clack, clack, clack”

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