Up The Bangkok River

Maurice-Medland-1957.jpg

by
Maurice Medland EM2, E Division
USS Salisbury Sound (AV-13)

 

In early February, 1956, the USS Salisbury Sound was anchored in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, preparing for a seadrome exercise with P5Ms from VP-46. Well into our 1955-56 Far Eastern Cruise, the ship had just returned from a swing around the circuit from Manila, to Kaohsiung, Hong Kong, Keelung and back when the calm that had settled over her routine was suddenly interrupted. On 5 February a message was received directing the ship to report to CJTF 19. We were informed that the SEATO Nations were sending forces to participate in Operation FIRM LINK, their first military demonstration, and that we were to be one of the U.S. units assigned. At Manila, 650 Philippine troops were to be embarked whereupon the Sally would proceed to Bangkok, Thailand, scene of the demonstration. CTF 72 (COMFAIRWING ONE), Rear Admiral George Anderson, elected to transfer his staff to the Naval Air Facility, Naha, for further temporary shift to the USS Floyds Bay (AVP-40). This was speedily accomplished and the Sally departed the following morning, 6 February, for Manila.

On 7 February we were sidetracked, however, when the ship proceeded at flank speed some 60 miles southeast of her intended track to assist in a search for a man lost overboard from another ship. The Sally joined the destroyers USS McDermut (DD-677) and USS Tingey (DD-539) for this task, but results were negative. We remained together throughout that night, parting company off Northern Luzon the following morning.

The loading of the troops at Manila on 10 February was accomplished according to plan. Some 50 officers and 600 enlisted men of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division, Armed Forces of the Philippines, were embarked with equipment and baggage in one and one half hours. This may not be up to amphibious force standards, but we are counting it as a seaplane tender record. Lieutenant General Vargas, Chief of Staff, AFP, and Major General Smith, Chief of the Joint US Military Assistance Advisory Group (JUSMAAG) paid a brief visit to wish the troops well. They were particularly interested to see that we intended to berth 300 men under a huge awning covering the seaplane deck, as long as the weather held.

Anxious to get things shaken down, we departed the same afternoon for a rendezvous in the South China Sea with CJTF 19, under the command of Rear Admiral Lester K. Rice, USN, in the USS Princeton (CVS-37) together with her plane guards. Immediately upon joining up, Sally closed the carrier to accomplish transfer of 3,000 field rations by high line for use by the Philippine troops while ashore in the exercise area. Later in the day, JTF 19 became a combined task force when the British light cruiser HMS Newfoundland (59) plus two British and two Australian destroyers joined the formation. This force then continued in company toward Bangkok, Thailand conducting tactical exercises en route. Since the Sally seldom had the opportunity to steam in company with any other units, her integration into an international force was doubly interesting, and we tried our best to fit in.

On the 14th, in the placid waters of the Gulf of Siam, Navy and Marine bands totaling 67 men with their equipment and baggage were transferred by boat from the USS Princeton to the Sally. Things were then a little crowded and our volunteer band had their collective noses slightly out of joint with so much professional competition, but there was no room left in sick bay for them.

When the sun rose over Thailand on the 15th of February the Salisbury Sound was waiting for favorable tide and current conditions to follow HMS Newfoundland some 25 miles up the Bangkok River to the municipal wharf immediately below the city. Sailing directions and charts revealed that this passage involved negotiating mud banks, sand bars, and a restricted channel up the serpentine river. It was soon apparent that some difficulty would be posed by the language barrier between ship control personnel and the pilot. This prompted the Commanding Officer of the Sally, CAPT Foley, to send the following message to HMS Newfoundland:

MSG FOR CAPT PORTLOCK:

WHERE YOU LEAD I WILL FOLLOW, AS THRU THE MUD BOTH SHIPS WALLOW.

IF YOU GET STUCK APPLY SOME POWER, I WILL PUSH OR SEND SOME FLOWERS.

BOW TO STERN END TO END, TOGETHER WE GO ROUND THE BEND.

WITH CRYSTAL BALL AND HOLY PSALTER, ONWARD TO BANGKOK NEVER FALTER.

DON'T HUG THE BANK JUST STAY MID-STREAM, REMEMBER EVER GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.

CAPT FOLEY

Not to be outdone, Captain Portlock was quick to respond:

TO CAPT FOLEY:

IN SEATO WE GO WHERE SENT SIR, WHATEVER THE OUTCOME MAY BE.

ASH WED THE FIRST DAY IN LENT SIR, AND I'D RATHER BE FAR OUT AT SEA.

IF SHOALS IN THE RIVER ENSNARE US, THE COURT WILL POUR ASH ON OUR HEADS.

TOO NEGLIGENT THEY WILL DECLARE US, IN FACT WE'D BE FAR BETTER DEAD.

SO LET US PRESS ON WITH A SMILE SIR, AND HOPE FOR THE BEST ALL THE WAY.

IT IS ONLY SOME TWENTY FIVE MILES SIR, AND WITH LUCK WE SHOULD GET THERE TODAY.

ASH WEDNESDAY THE FIRST DAY OF FASTING, THE PENITENTS WALK IN A ROW.

WITH LEAD IN LINE FREQUENTLY CASTING, IN LINE AHEAD ONWARDS WE GO.

AND WHEN WE ARE PAST THE PAGODAS, SECURED SAFE AND SOUND TO THE PIER,

COME ON BOARD FOR SOME WHISKIES AND SODAS, OR ELSE SOME VERY COLD BEER.

WITH HANDS FRIENDLY LINKED WE SHALL TOAST SIR, ALL SEAMEN WHO HANDLE THE WHEEL,

AND NAVIGATE THIS LOUSY COAST SIR, WITH ONLY FOUR FEET 'NEATH THEIR KEEL.

CAPT PORTLOCK

I've always thought that those poems, composed on the fly by two ship captains under great stress while navigating up the Bangkok River "with only four feet 'neath their keel," say something about the intellect and character required of men who achieve command at sea.

I was leaning over the rail on the main deck that day, and I had the distinct feeling that I could reach out and grab a handful of leaves from low lying trees on the river bank. After three and one half hours of river cruise, marked by much twisting and turning through the low Thailand countryside, the ship moored to the municipal pier at Klong Toi. Port authorities informed us that we were the second largest ship ever to have made the passage (successfully!).

The troops immediately off-loaded and proceeded by truck to Daum Maung airport, where the three-day military demonstration by SEATO forces was to take place. During our stay at Bangkok however, the Sally was not idle. In addition to functioning as station ship, she furnished 80 marching men for a parade held on 17 February and of course she also supplied 600 officers and men who made the most of three days liberty among the impressive temples and fabulous sights of Bangkok. Our troops re-embarked on the afternoon of 17 February and plans were completed for an early departure the following morning.

At dawn on the 18th the USS Salisbury Sound, following five destroyers and HMS Newfoundland, departed Klong Toi and headed downstream against the flooding current, eventually anchoring in the vicinity of the USS Princeton off the entrance to the Bangkok River. During the exercises a Marine helicopter had made a forced landing in that immediate area and it was now the task of the Sally to try to locate and salvage the "chopper." Boats and a diver were put over and the area thoroughly searched and dragged, but no trace was found in the heavy silt. We weighed anchor and proceeded toward Manila.

About noon the next day however, we were directed to rendezvous with the McDermut to receive an emergency appendectomy patient for surgery. The appendectomy was successfully performed by the Sally's doctor, LT J.W. Ellis, Jr., ably assisted by the troop surgeon. The patient walked off the ship in Manila four days later.

The night before our arrival in Manila, a companion exercise, dubbed Operation "HAND CLASP" was performed jointly by members of the ship's company and the embarked troops. It was a variety show on the hangar deck made up of talent of the two nations, a fitting conclusion to a very pleasant association. We had been impressed from the first with the discipline and spirit of the Filipino troops and, during our days together aboard ship, these impressions had been confirmed and strengthened by our close association.

The Sally arrived in Manila the morning of 23 February where the troops disembarked amidst an ovation from officials, families, and friends. The Sally immediately resumed her role as flagship of CTF 72 and picked up her schedule where it had been interrupted, remaining in Manila for another week.

Officially, Operation FIRM LINK was over for the Salisbury Sound, but our many new-found friends had planned a very pleasant sequel to the operation. The ship's company was invited to an enjoyable round of athletic contests, parties, dances, and other social events arranged by the Philippine troops who had been embarked for FIRM LINK, and we in turn held open house on board ship for them.

For a young sailor from Iowa who had never been away from home before entering the Navy, our trip up the Bangkok River was a grand adventure, and a sea story I've never forgotten.

 

(Adapted from the USS Salisbury Sound (AV-13) 1955-1956 Far Eastern Cruise Book.)

 
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