Monday, March 10, 2008

Ships that stand on end

After wrestling Corregidor from the entrenched Japanese army, the Second Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, boarded a division of nimble Navy LCIs on March 8, 1945. The battalion, along with the rest of the regiment, made a combat jump onto the island fortress on February 16, 1945 to liberate the island in Manila Bay.

After nightfall, "the seas became wild. The LCIs seemed to stand on one end and then the other," recounted William T. Calhoun, platoon leader of 1st Platoon, F Company.

The seas were so bad on their overnight voyage north to Mindoro that sleep was not an option. Like sailors have done for centuries, the soldiers found they had to strap themselves into their bunks as a matter of survival. They "tried various means of tying ourselves onto the bunks with out web equipment."

When dawn broke, the soldiers of F Company surveyed their surroundings. Many latched onto any object that would keep them from being thrown overboard. Others bowed their "heads over the side desperately trying to throw up when there was nothing left to throw up."

But this isn't the most interesting passage in Lt. Calhoun's account of the voyage. The Navy cook seemed to be the sickest member of the crew. Here's what the battle-hardened paratrooper had to say:
The galley was particularly noisy. The galley was manned by one cook who prepared meals for the crew. The passengers had to bring their own field rations aboard. In this instance the ship's cook seemed to be the sickest of all, hanging on the chains at the fantail.
Calhoun's story is reminiscent of my own experience in the South China Sea 27 years later as a cook on the USS Cocopa. Calhoun continues:
I don't think he really cared if he hung on or not- a fall into the deep might bring on the peace of Davy Jones's Locker and end all this misery. A look into the galley disclosed the source of the noise. A large frying pan with associated utensils was bouncing from wall to wall. Raw eggs had hit the walls and run down to the floor. Evidently the cook held on long enough to get several eggs into the pan ready to cook when he was overcome, dropped everything and headed for the fantail. The old salts were not happy with this land-lubber who had yet to gain his sea legs. They were hungry.
I feel for that cook. My typhoon came in July 1972 as the Cocopa shipped out of Subic Bay for Da Nang, Vietnam.

The lunch menu included hamburgers, French fries and beans -- food that doesn't stay down very long once the ship slams into the first wave.

Through the fog and rain, Grande Island appeared off the port beam as she left Subic Bay. The Cocopa slammed into the the first of a series of breakers. Upon entering the open sea, this tired, old tug sounded as if she would break up any time.

Like the LCI cook, my hands were busy. In a split second, I had a decision to make: grab the copper full of boiling water or the hot oven door. Instead, I ducked for safety.

The Cocopa slammed into the next wave. Hamburgers became lethal projectiles. Pots and pans danced about the deck as spice cans dropped like grenades. My French knife, laying on the cutting board, hurdled towards me as if it were under its own power.

For the next three days, the cooks of the Cocopa produced three meals each day. Surprisingly, many crewmen lined up as soon as the meal was called. I couldn't call in sick even though I was about as sick as the unnamed LCI cook.

But I -- and those 200 sailors and paratroopers on the LCI -- somehow survived. My hat goes off to them.

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