Chapter Eight

The Ship

Vietnam was reaching a pinnacle and the Conflict escalated in the late sixties.  The naval vessel, the USS Mathers, was a fighting ship.  It was new and outfitted with some of the most modern equipment a ship of this size could handle. She was three hundred forty-seven feet long, with five-inch diameter, fifty-four caliber guns that claimed to be the most accurate guns in the Navy.  She was fitted with ASROC, anti-submarine rockets launches-torpedoes, fathometers which calibrated the depth sounders aboard by verifying the depth of the water, the most accurate radar and sonar compartments, towed arrays to detect submarines and computerized equipment capable of guiding the mighty Mathers through the waters whether it was clear or foggy and of course torpedoes.  The ship was fitted to carry the most advanced nuclear and conventional weapons a destroyer could carry.  There was no doubt, the Mathers was a fighting ship ready for its mission!

The Mathers had a complement of approximately three-hundred-fifty sailors including twenty-four Officers. Most of the Officers came straight out of Annapolis, Maryland from the Naval Academy, while others came from Officer’s Training in Newport, Rhode Island or from ROTC organizations after graduation from college.  Most of the Officers never experienced the kind of journey they were about to take.  But for now, the idea of having their own quarters and their own cooks showed their importance to the ship. It was the fact that they managed their own department on the ship that displayed what they trained to do.

The Mathers was easy to identify.  The profile of the ship with its smokestacks, ASROC launcher, and sleek low profile made her stand out like no other destroyer in the fleet.  Her original job was to escort the carrier, the USS Endless to her post in the Tonkin Gulf.  The Mathers was part of a shield set up as a screen to protect the Endless from being attacked by a torpedo.  The destroyers and the destroyer escorts screened the waters to protect the carrier from invasive enemies on their voyage to their next mission – the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam.

Life aboard the Mathers was pretty good for the crew.  They were headed to Hawaii, their first stop on their way to their assigned post.  This would be a few days of Rest and Relaxation (R&R) for most of the crew. Six days at sea was enough for the young sailors aboard and they were eager to get their first Liberty chit.  They looked forward to getting permission to go ashore for a few days and see beautiful Hawaii.  Many joined the Navy to see the world; and, this was their first port of call.  It was a man’s world!

Two days of sun and fun in Hawaii sounded awesome. Touring the island, seeing some shows and of course paying a visit to the base clubs.  Many sailors didn’t know what to do with all the liberty and freedom.  They were meeting women on their first “port of call” and enjoying all the fun they were having without supervision.  They were away from their ship for a few hours and enjoying life! Their biggest concern was if they had enough money to keep up the fast pace of spending and partying.  They were free from work, from the seasickness, and free from the confinement of the ship and its compartments.

Day 1 – it was time to go back to the ship and sleep off the effects of partying too hard for the first time.  They went ashore usually with a buddy, so they had a companion to party with and a partner to be sure that they would get back to the ship before it departed.  It was two AM. and it was time to get home – the ship was at the pier welcoming them back.

They staggered back to their new home and reported aboard to sleep off their first trip ashore.  It was a great experience!  As they fell into their bunks, the smell of alcohol seeped throughout their sleeping quarters.  What a great day it was!  This was the life they signed up for when they decided to leave the farm and join the Navy!  Yes, a girl in every port and memories that would last a lifetime!

The Shore Patrol searched for the missing sailors who failed to make the two AM curfew and did not return to the ship.  This action meant going to “Captain’s Mast” the next day receiving their reprimand for not abiding by the rules.  The punishment could range from a tap on the shoulder to spending a few days in the brig, the Navy’s version of a prison.  The Shore Patrol hastened it’s the search for the four missing sailors.  It was imperative they find them and get them back to the ship now!

Little did the crew know that an urgent message was received, and the ship’s plans changed immediately!

Get underway now!

The Captain gave the order to prepare the ship for departure.

The crew began to wonder what was going on since they just arrived in Hawaii the previous day.  Orders rang out ordering the officers to get ready to get to sea immediately.  The urgency of the order meant the situation was critical and for the first time USS Mathers was getting ready to alter its plans to meet the assignment at hand.

No one knew why except for the few line officers who were briefed by the Captain.

They were charged with new orders – “get this ship out of here now – we have a mission to deal with NOW”.

“Get everyone aboard the ship fast”.

“Captain, what’s going on?  Why are we leaving Hawaii when we just pulled into port yesterday?”

“Lieutenant, when I say it’s time to go, it’s time to go”.

The Captain meant business and the Lieutenant knew something important was going down.  He ordered the Shore Patrol to collect the straggling sailors who were still out partying.

Most of the crew was approximately eighteen years old and never been away from home.

“Find those sailors fast so we can get the hell out of here!  I don’t want the Captain down on my back the rest of this cruise.”

The last four sailors were accompanied by the Shore Patrol back to the ship wondering what was going on now!  All they wanted to do was get into their bunks and sleep off the effects of a great day of freedom.

The ship’s lines were brought back onboard!

Away all ties to land – it’s time to steam to our next destination in a hurry!

What the heck is going on?  It’s still dark out and the ship is moving out ready to make its way at top speed.

Although her top speed was classified, those aboard knew she could push a good thirty knots to get where she was going.

But where are we going now?

Our next stop was supposed to be the Philippines. Is that where we are going?

“Sailor, don’t ask questions, just follow orders” was the common response when someone asked a question.

The recant was always, “Just do your job and follow orders”.

They were underway and steaming to an unknown destination. All that was evident as they were headed West and North somewhere.  What was going on?  Where the hell were, we going?  They knew the answer was not to ask, just to do your job!  They were in the Navy now and their day of fun and sun was over.  It was time for business – buckle down and prepare their station.

What was North and West of Hawaii?  Where the hell are we are going and why?

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