Life is tough for a ship with an experimental propulsion system. It is even tougher on the crew that has to put up with its idiosyncrasies. The normal non-nuclear propelled warship used 600 psi boilers. Our tiny destroyer escort used a 1200 psi system in an attempt to give us more speed to better fight modern nuclear submarines. Also, whereas normal 600 psi boilers used standard fuel we used JP-5, the same stuff used to power jet aircraft and helicopters. The fuel’s volatility proved itself when the all-too-often fuel leaks turned the boiler room into a modern-day Dante’s Inferno.
Thus, it was nothing new when One-Bravo boiler was disassembled and parts were spread around the boiler room and out on the dock. Again, Subic Bay was home while the never-ending repairs were underway.
Those of us not involved with repairs reveled in the extra in-port days. When liberty call came we rushed into the town of Olongapo, immediately adjacent to the base. Olongapo had everything a young American male could desire, wine, women, song, food, anything that money could buy was available and at prices laughably low.
However, the revelry ceased when the newest weather report arrived. The typhoon in the South China Sea had taken an unexpected turn. Bearing down upon us was the deadliest storm the tropics could offer. Called a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean, it is the same storm that is called a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
Reports told of sustained 150 mph winds with higher gusts and heaving seas. Worrisome was the storm surge, the wall of water pushed ahead of the storm that flooded the land before it. It is the storm surge that causes the most deaths in these storms. The orders came quickly, all ships present were to sortie, depart the harbor and head for the open sea to ride out the storm. Actually, the relative safety of being at sea. Severe typhoons have sunk ships by tossing them to and fro so severely that water cascaded down the stacks and put out boiler fires. When that happens the ship comes to a stop, which is invariably fatal in a typhoon. If a ship can not maintain headway, moving under its own power, the seas will roll a ship over and send it to the bottom. And, in the heaving seas a typhoon creates, coupled with the horrendous winds that fill the air with water, a sailor in the water or even in a life raft is likely doomed unless very lucky.
It was an empty forlorn feeling as we watched the ships depart. One-Bravo boiler was still disassembled. The officers debated going to sea with our one remaining operational boiler but it was decided that was too dangerous. If it broke down or caught fire there was no back-up. For that reason the decision was made to ride out the storm in port. Though it sounds safe, in actuality a ship is in much more danger in port than at sea when a typhoon hits. The reasons are many but, the fact was, we were in a precarious position. As the other warships departed they signaled via blinker light and semaphore flags, “Good luck.”
We spent the rest of that day securing the ship. Anything that could possibly break loose from its mounting was tied down with rope. Hatches and scuttles were tightened down and the ship made as watertight as possible. Extra lines (ropes) were added to make us as securely fastened to the pier as possible. The entire crew was in a rush to finish as the wind steadily increased and the harbor’s water churned. The scudding clouds filled the sky and the light rain that warned of the torrents to come began to fall.
Finished with preparations, we mustered by divisions and our officers conveyed the command’s decision; only a skeleton crew would be left aboard to man the lines holding the ship to the pier and the rest of the crew were to depart, seeking safety as we saw fit and to return after the typhoon had passed. Ten volunteers were asked to stay aboard and tend the lines. Hands shot skyward, a relief to those not wanting to stay aboard what could become a watery grave, even in port. With the volunteers selected, the rest of the crew were ordered ashore. “Get the hell outta’ here,” the officers barked, as most followed us off the ship onto land. A couple officers remained behind with the enlisted volunteers. I do not recall seeing the captain departing. He likely remained aboard due to Navy custom and, possibly, regulations.
230 sailors walked away from that ship. Some singly, some in pairs, some in larger groups. I teamed up with Rick, a torpedo-man from my division. Looking around the base, we noted that it was flat, barely above sea level. Hmmmm…. that wasn’t good. A storm surge can reach 20-feet in height. Eeeeeek!!!! The highest building on base was two-stories. Even if the water didn’t reach the 2nd floor the building could still collapse. Accckkkkk!!! We made our decision, get off the base and head inland for higher ground. So, off we went, walking fast as the wind and rain beat upon our backs and the clouds grew darker.
The normal hustle and bustle of base activity was absent. A few Marines were seen, patrolling in their jeeps, the rain bouncing off their ponchos and boonie hats. A two-mile walk brought us to the main gate, the one leading to Olongapo, the Philippine small city adjacent to the base. Most of the crew had made this choice also; head inland for higher ground. The town and its people were emulating the base, nary a soul to be seen. Decrepit vehicles bounced down the muddy road, heading for higher ground. Bars and restaurants were closed, their garish neon signs as dark as the sky. Even the normal chatter of the monkeys in the nearby jungle was gone, perhaps they also sensed the danger and were seeking shelter.
Leaving the base, a couple miles passed beneath our feet. On the far edge of the town businesses were few and the houses of the poor predominated, mostly mere huts that offered scanty shelter to damaging winds and falling trees. At least the ground was rising. Looking back we could see the base… leaving us high enough to hopefully avoid the worst storm surge imaginable, though the threat of objects flying through the air, propelled by vicious winds, was still a danger. It was time to seek shelter. Plodding along, peering through the increasing rain, I vowed to get eyeglasses with built-in wipers. Luckily, Rick was unencumbered and spotted the large building ahead. Drawing closer we saw a concrete building two-stories high, an anomaly set amongst the huts and jungle. Grabbing the door we hoped it was unlocked and if it was, that we would be allowed to take shelter. Looking back along the route we had taken no one else could be seen. Apparently the other sailors had either taken different routes or had stopped already, having found what they considered suitable shelter.
When the door opened with a tug our relief was tempered by the sight of a barren door-lined hallway. To our right were concrete stairs. Fearing we had happened upon some sort of apartment house, a rare commodity in Olongapo, we climbed the stairs, ready to sit on them for a couple days if necessary. At the top, a solid door confronted us. Inhospitable in appearance, it, too, was unlocked. Pulling hard, the heavy metal door inched open, revealing the interior. Subdued lights kept the corners of the huge room dark but we could see enough. The entire top floor was some sort of bar/club with a stage at one end, a bar with stools along one wall and a plethora of chairs and tables. To our mutual glee we saw a dozen or so local denizens at a large table playing cards. Striding in we shouted our hellos and happily received those returned. Yes!!! The natives were friendly. Hooray!!!!
Two days passed quickly as the storm thundered outside those thick concrete walls. The food was bountiful and the drinks were drunk. Card games passed the time and lithesome female hostesses latched onto Rick and I, an action met with delight by our hosts who possessed a different morality standard than the one found in the “Real World,” the USA. The rooms below, we learned, and learned very well, housed the nubile lasses. No sleeping on a hard floor for us.
On the third morning we peeked out the front door, hoping to find cascading torrents of rain and trees flying through the air. Damn. It was sunny, no wind, and the monkeys were chattering in the trees. Damn.
Thanking our hosts we awaited a bill that did not appear. Digging in, Rick and I left a pile of pesos (that’s what the Filipinos called the colorful stuff) that more than covered our fare. We had already left “tips” with our sweeties still abed below. The happy fare-thee-wells from our hosts followed us down the stairs into the lovely day.
Some minor damaged was visible as we walked but nothing too bad. As we neared the base we saw other sailors heading back, some still staggering from bountiful bouts with potent brews. As the pier hove into sight we were relieved to see our ship placidly floating with no apparent damage. Reporting aboard we learned that the storm had veered again, hitting to the north with its full fury but still sideswiping us with enough power to have made our evacuation meaningful.
Sharing our stories of the time ashore we learned that some had spent lonely nights on floors subsisting on candy bars and soda pop. A few had regular sweethearts ashore they had huddled with. Of the stories heard, Rick and I felt we had done as good as some and better than most. All hands agreed, though, that the unexpected vacation was a welcome break form the daily routine.
“Turn to, commence ship’s work,” the loudspeaker blared, and the humid tropical air brought forth the sweat of those laboring on One-Bravo boiler and on those performing the countless tasks needed to keep a steel man-o’-war afloat and functional.