On 8 January, Todd and I sat thusly trying, with the help of the other three whitehats of the crew, to keep the dullness of the situation from becoming boring. The ceiling of heavy clouds hung less than 200 feet from the water. Haze and patches of sea fog obscured view of the screening force. Other ships visible within the perimeter were frequently hidden from view by scattered showers of sleet and cold rain.
"Start the helicopter!" sounded from the bullhorn, sent the other three crewman tumbling out to their tasks on deck, as Todd strapped himself in and checked that his equipment was in proper order. There being no activity forward at the catapults, and no mention of emergency on the bullhorn, it was assumed we would be doing a bit of courier service to other of the ships; a welcome break. Radio report to Pri-Fly brought in response:
"You can launch whenever you're ready, angel. Proceed to Manchester she's the one in that rain squall just now off our port beam. She's ready to take you aboard and you'll get further orders after you're there."
About ten minutes were required to get aboard Manchester, despite her nearness at hand, because we had to wait for her to come out of the squall. The Manchester's Deck Division Officer signaled us aboard, and the ship began to come about as soon as we were solidly on deck. The deck officer, a lieutenant commander, was alongside as I shut down to say that I was to report to the bridge at once. Himself and a half dozen of his men were there to help my crewman secure the machine on deck.
Before I arrived at the bridge, the ship had completed its turn, reversing course, and from its sounds was accelerating probably to flank speed. Once on the bridge, the ship's captain described the circumstance toward which we were now going to the extent that he was himself informed of it at that time:
A small ship (later identified as a Thailand corvette, HTMS Praesae, operating with blockading and screening forces of our Task Force 95) had gone aground close onto the North Korean shore. A helicopter sent to the scene earlier had crashed onto the ship, setting it afire. An unknown number of men were forced overboard by the fire. A lifeboat put over for them had itself foundered and beached. An uncertain number of men estimated at 20 were now stranded on the North Korean shore. Water temperature at the scene (in which the stranded men had all been immersed) was 38 degrees Fahrenheit; air temperature where they were now stranded was below freezing. The location was a short way north of the 38th parallel. There was concern that hostile troops might be in the area. More detailed information was expected before we would be close enough to launch the helicopter to the scene. While the navigation officer would be sorting out whatever he had of charts and possibly aerial photos of the area, I went aft to tell Todd what was presently known.
Chester was quite busy instructing his new "crew" on the deck handling of the helicopter. The deck officer had provided six men, including himself, to serve as such and then told Todd, "You're the boss in this because you're the only one knows what's to be done." It was much too good of a training session for myself to interfere. After a brief report to all of them of what was known of our mission to that point, I returned to the bridge to see what more had been learned.
Five US Navy ships were at the scene, 3 destroyers, an LST and a sea-going tug which had been sent to attempt to pull the corvette off the sandy reef on which it had grounded. The helicopter had crashed while trying to lower an officer from the tug onto the stricken ship, to supervise attachment of towlines. The fire on board had been burning gasoline from the crashed helicopter. It had burned itself out quickly but before doing so had flowed full length of the vessel compelling several deck hands to dive overboard.
The low cloud ceiling and haze would continue overwater all the way to the shore. Because of the very limited visibility, Manchester's skipper would not launch the helicopter until at least one other of the vessels at the scene was in view. The cruiser would have to stop about 8 miles short of the coast because of shallowing waters. He had ordered the three destroyers to take positions in line toward the point where he must stop. That would provide visual reference points for myself while flying between the cruiser and the shore, and at least one of the vessels would always have the helicopter in view. That was the sort of on-the-spot planning which gives a man confidence in the commander of an unprecedented operation.
Cloud ceiling was reported as remaining low overland, but horizontal visibility from the shoreline inland was virtually unlimited. Observers on the stricken vessel had now reported hostile troops visible about a mile inland. Grid chart of the area was provided in case it became necessary to direct fire on them from the destroyers. We were launched as soon as the first of the destroyers became visible through the haze. With the actual horizon not visible, the small circle surrounding us of haze on the sea served as reference to maintain level flight.
Shortly after passing the first destroyer, splashes appeared in the water directly ahead of us. From their size it was judged to be from small cannon fire, such as 20 mm. Puzzling was from where it could be coming. Soviet Mig's were equipped with small cannon, but our ships' radars would have detected any aircraft above the clouds. Also the stuff seemed to be falling at random, having no pattern as generally expected from any automatic weapon's fire. The only possibility seemed to be that the enemy troops had perhaps rigged a small, anti-aircraft cannon so it would fire at the ships, and were either trying to hit the destroyers or were over shooting the stricken corvette.
We veered off as necessary to circle around the area where the random rounds were falling, suddenly to discover as I said then to Chester, "It's a fluke!" It was in fact a great number of flukes. The water spouts were being put up by a tremendous pack of killer whales.
"That knocks the heck out of my big war story," Chester said as we resumed direct course over the magnificent creatures.
"Well just hang on, and keep an eye out," I replied. "We just might run into some real stuff up ahead. If not, we can still make up one heck-uv-a story over this."
But we didn't encounter any such "real stuff." Shortly after passing the second destroyer, horizontal visibility opened rapidly, bringing the third destroyer, the stricken vessel and the shoreline quickly into view. Stretching far inland from the shoreline was an expanse of snow-covered flatland two or more miles in width. It may have contributed to the corvette's grounding in the offshore shallows. For the ship had been relying on radar as she plied northward close by the coastline in darkness and snowstorm. So near was the level of the flatland to that of the sea, the actual shoreline probably had not registered on the screen.
But now that expanse of flatland was a welcome sight, indeed. Wherever the enemy troops might be which had been seen by the men on the ship, they were beyond good small arms range from the point where the stranded men were huddled. And they could not come across that snow-covered flat without exposure to gunners on the nearest destroyer.
That destroyer had called as we came into their view, pinpointed for me location of the stranded men and asked if I could spot for them a round they were about to fire from one of their five-inch rifles. I could, and did; the grid coordinates they gave logically being the location of the troops that had been reported. Their round struck on target, a low, tree-studded ridgeline a mile or slightly more northwest of the stranded sailors. Some motion was visible in the area after that round exploded. An air burst was called for at the same location, after which no more motion was evident.
The stranded men were huddled against the low, sandy bank which separated the sea from the flatland. They were sheltered there from the mild wind coming across the snow-covered flat from northwest. But their haven was very narrow. The wash of incoming waves from the very slight sea came within five or so yards of them. Even moderate waves would have washed all the way up to the bank against which they were packed.
First intent was to set the helicopter down on the flat land immediately above and behind them. But what had at first appeared as merely some clump on the ground about ten yards from them, was a floating mine which had washed ashore. Its detonator horns were warning enough to move on a way. We set down about 50 yards further north and Todd ran back to the group. He was back as quickly followed by two men carrying a third, unconscious one. As he helped the two put the unconscious one in the cabin, Chester said:
"Let me stay here, Duey, so you can take another one." (The fuel load was at the time still heavy enough that two passengers was the most the machine could carry.)
The only weapon we had with us was my own 38 revolver. "Not this time," I said. "You're not properly equipped. We'll get that for you, then you can stay. The two Thai sailors had hurried back to join the others as soon as their unconscious shipmate had been put aboard.
A call to Manchester as we headed out, ordered a supply of blankets and foul weather clothing to be on deck when we arrived, and a can each of hot coffee and soup. (It had been noted that containers of both soup and coffee were kept available for all hands aboard the Manchester.) To that was added: "...And have the gunnery sergeant break out a Thompson (sub-machine gun) and pouch of ammo and be on hand to make sure my crewman knows how to use it.
Todd went to the stern rail with the sergeant as soon as we landed. He was back by the time the survivor was out and gear loaded aboard. The sergeant stuck his head in the doorway to say "He can handle it like a pro." On the way back I described for Todd the kind of sounds he would hear if fired at with small arms from great distance. He would keep himself and the men below the sand bank until I returned, and select which of them should be taken out first.
When I reported outbound again with two casualties, the ship responded that they would be sending a photographer with me on return trip to the beach. My response was probably as emphatic as it should have been:
"I recommend against that! There's a lot more men to bring out and not much time. I can't fly in this stuff after dark!"
After brief pause, a different voice came on, wanting to know how many there were to bring out (I didn't really know for sure because I hadn't taken time to count them.), how long I thought it would take (which was impossible to figure without knowing just how many there were). At that point I closed off the conversation by saying: "I can take your man in with me, if that's what you want. I can't guarantee there'll be time enough to bring him back out. Angel out!"
On deck a few minutes later, the ship's photographer waited as corpsmen removed the two casualties. Other than a heavy jacket, he was inadequately dressed for such an excursion, had no weapon, and if there was no sign that he didn't want to go, there was also none that he was eager to do so. I beckoned the deck officer who had signaled me in, intending to tell him I would not take the photographer until they at least put him into clothing suited to the weather conditions on the beach. From his performance in working with Todd, I was quite certain that Lt Cdr would back me on this, as well. But as he approached, another officer, fully dressed in foul weather gear, hurried onto the scene, spoke briefly to the photographer, took the man's camera and film pouch, climbed into the helicopter and announced: "I'm Lt Ducoing, propulsion officer of the ship. I'm going with you to take some pictures."
To myself, then, I thought: 'All right, you glory-seeking bastard; it won't bother me one bit if I have to leave you on the beach.' I beckoned the deck officer back away and signaled ready for launch.
Todd was beside the helicopter almost as soon as it touched down. With him was a very large Thai sailor carrying a much smaller, unconscious man as if it were a child in his arms. They had to pause for a moment waiting for the self-appointed photographer to get out of the way. Two smaller men were following. One of them carried a leather bound, canvas satchel. The large man was barefoot and clothed only in water-soaked, "longjohn" underwear. He placed the unconscious man into the helicopter and turned starting to leave. He stopped at my sharp call, but shook his head, "no," to my motion for him to get in, also. Todd saw my motion, stopped the man from turning away again, and ushered him into the cabin. The man with the satchel put it in the helicopter, indicating that it belonged to the unconscious man.
Todd asked then, "Are you getting low enough on fuel to take three small ones? Most of 'em are pretty small."
"Next trip," I told him. "You hear anything from over on the ridge any shots, or plops?"
"Not a thing," he replied. "Not a sound."
"I don't think there's anything out there."
"Neither do I. It's quiet as can be."
"Okay. But keep your head down, anyway. Except... (I nodded toward the lieutenant adjusting his camera a few yards away).. . better comb your hair, Chester. Glory boy over there came along to take some pictures."
Chester, of all people, would understand why I had insisted that the big man go on that trip, despite the fact he wanted to stay, seemed unbothered by the cold and was exceptionally strong. He was unbothered by the cold because he was so numbed by it he did not feel it. He probably was feeling warm, even as his body was losing temperature even more rapidly. The adrenaline flow would accentuate the man's natural great strength as he concentrated use of it to help his shipmates. But when he stopped for just a while, when the stimulus of actually helping someone else was ended or gone, the effects of the chill on his body and especially his nervous system would render him unable to adequately help himself.
Such had been the pattern of Chester's own performance, when he'd tried to save that man from cold water just a month before.
It was fortunate for another reason that the big man had been taken aboard. The vibration of the helicopter as we lifted off aroused the unconscious fellow enough that he tried, unknowing of what was happening, to get out of it. The big man held him. A smaller of his shipmates might not have been able to do so.
There were more people and a flurry of activity on the beach when next I arrived. A small landing craft (LCM) had managed, after several tries, to cross the treacherous shallows and make it to the beach. A half-dozen able men had come in with it, to bring an injured man who was on a stretcher. Two of them were attending the man on the stretcher. Two had joined Todd with the men still awaiting evacuation. The other two, one with a rifle, the other with a submachine gun, dashed past the helicopter as it touched down and plopped down on the snow facing inland. That was obviously under instructions of the self-appointed, official photographer, who stood in front of the helicopter to take a picture. (It came out quite good, as photographs go, their dark clothing showing well in contrast with the snow.)
Next came one of the men who'd been tending the stretcher case. A Navy lieutenant with a submachine gun, he knelt in the snow beside the helicopter to have his picture taken. (That one came out quite well, too. The serious, perhaps anxious expression might have pleased any drama producer as the way he should look while protecting me and the helicopter from those enemy troops that were reported to be in the area.) Had I at that time still believed there even might be hostiles within firing range of us, I would have told that lieutenant in no uncertain terms to take himself far elsewhere and try to draw their fire away from me instead of at me.
That lieutenant did quickly move aside when Todd arrived half-carrying one of the water-chilled Thai sailors, followed by the other two new arrivals, each helping another of the casualties. After tucking blankets over and around the three new passengers, Todd asked:
"What the hell am I supposed to do about all these clowns, Duey."
"They're all thinking about the medals they're gonna get for this," I said. "So make sure one of 'em doesn't stick his head into the tail rotor. If we lose that we're all stuck here. If any of 'em try to interfere with your selection of who we take out first, tell 'em to see me because I put you in charge."
"Well, those two that were just here, they're saying maybe they ought to send the guy they brought in the stretcher out next. He's a Navy lieutenant got his leg broke when the helicopter crashed and...."
"He's dry, isn't he? Not exposed ?"
"Yeah. I expect he is. Must be ."
"He can wait." *
[ * There had really been no good reason for bringing that one to the beach. It would have been simpler and less hazardous for him, overall, to have hoisted him directly from the ship. The reason they hazarded to bring him to the beach with the LCM was because the helicopter pilot who crashed on the vessel had told them it was impossible to hoist him off with the helicopter, or at least that it was very unsafe. ]
There was need to refuel the helicopter after the next shuttle trip. By taking on only a partial fuel supply it remained possible to haul out three of the fairly lightweight Thai sailors at a time. The hot liquids and dry apparel had revived the remaining of them sufficiently to make it to the helicopter unassisted. Fuel weight was low enough when the last of them had been removed that Todd, the broken-legged lieutenant, and the self-appointed official photographer could all be taken on the final flight out.
Departure was delayed, however, until the LCM with its volunteer beach party had backed out clear of the shallows. It's coxswain did an excellent job; "inching" it back during brief times when incoming waves lifted the stern and the propeller was clear; stopping the propeller in time to avoid damage to it when it would drop onto the sandy bottom. (In subsequent attempt to take it in to and back out from the beach, the LCM would broach and end up abandoned along with HTMS Praesae.)
We made it back to Manchester with about 15 minutes of fading daylight to spare. We had managed in a matter of three and one-half hours to lift 18 shipwrecked Thai sailors from a situation which, without the helicopter, they probably could not have survived. It was a good feeling for the both of us, made the better by the reception of new-found shipmates aboard the Manchester. The deck officer insisted, quite correctly, that he and his men could quite well handle securing of our machine for the night; that both Todd and myself should go below for a break.
Todd was able to stay away from the machine just long enough to get out of his "frog" suit. When I returned topside shortly after dark, he was removing damp blankets, sand and other debris from the cabin. Beneath the passenger seat he discovered the canvas satchel which had been put aboard with the unconscious fellow. He extended it towards me and asked:
"What's this, Duey?"
"Belongs to one of the guys we brought out."
"What should I do with it?"
"Guess we should send it up to sick bay.
The deck officer sent one of his men to take the satchel there. The man returned to report that the medics were too busy treating the men to bother locating its owner at the moment, so he had put it with clothing and other belongings of the Thai sailors piled in the passageway. Which seemed close enough to proper returning that we would give no further thought to it until the following morning.
Since the other helicopter had crashed during such attempt, Manchester's captain wanted to know if it was possible to put men on the Praesae by that means. It was. Was it possible with the helicopter to string a light line from the tug to the Praesae (which would be used to draw heavier line across followed by cables)? It was. Such an operation was to begin then, the next morning, in attempt to tug the stricken ship off the sandbar. A pleasant prospect, indeed, for Chester and myself. Having already saved the Thai sailors, what a delight it would be to return to Phil Sea and "brag" that we had "saved" their ship, too.
But Mother Nature or perhaps it was King Neptune or some Japanese Sea God had a contrary idea. During the night the wind shifted to northeasterly. By morning the sea was rampaging under 30 or more knots of wind. It would continue so, with even higher winds and seas for the next three days, rendering salvage attempts and most any other operations impossible, except riding out the storm.
There was welcome report from the sick bay the first morning that all the men we had brought from the beach were recovering well. There was an additional report about the leather-bound, canvas satchel which had at once to be shared with Chester. After it was left on the pile of gear outside of sick bay, it became covered by more of wet garments tossed out upon it. Discovered as the garments were being taken for laundry, the satchel was opened. The only thing that it contained was money! The unconscious man to whom it belonged was Praesae's disbursing officer. When the fire on board had forced him to abandon his quarters, and the ship, he had brought the ship's funds with him.
Manchester's disbursing officer counted $40,000 therein of US and "Military Payment" currency. Several bundles of Thailand currency and Japanese Yen, he did not try to count. After jokingly criticizing each other for being so careless with money, Chester and I agreed that having been born poor we were also both destined to die that way.
If perhaps after a while a bit boring, riding out the three days of storm aboard Manchester was not uncomfortable. Generally headed into the great swells, she rode them without violent pitching and very little of roll. Circumstance of the men still aboard Praesae was vastly different. With the ship's engines dead, there was no electricity for lights or circulation of heat from her boilers. She was completely at the mercy of a merciless sea, lying helplessly broadside to the oncoming swells and breakers. With each great swell she was jolted closer to the beach, and her keel anchored deeper in the bottom. When the storm subsided she lay broached so hard against the shore that when the wash 0f the now mild waves receded one could jump from her port rail onto hardpacked sand without wetting any but the very soles of his shoes.
All chance now gone of saving the ship, the question on January 12 was how to evacuate its crew. Broaching of the LCM in its second attempt to cross the shallows discouraged the idea of trying to do it with landing craft. Which left but one means readily available. We began the shuttle flights about noon. There being 113 men to haul, usually but two at a time, and requiring about 15 minutes for each round trip, that operation would take somewhat more than a little while.
The weather, wind and sea condition could not have been better. There being no need for him to be on the beach, Chester handled off-loading of the passengers on board. So smooth were the flying conditions that after the first few, I suddenly realized I was bringing the machine in to settle gently on deck without actually stopping first at hover. Perhaps I smiled a bit with that discovery. Chester came alongside and said:
"Think you're gettin' pretty good at this, don't you Duey?" "Well I don't know about that, Chester. But I do feel as though I'm beginning to get the hang of it."
The feeling was actually somewhat of elation. In the development of skill with most any instrument or machine there is a point which marks the difference between mere competence and mastery. Until one passes that point, no matter the level of developed skill, there is ever the need for some measure of conscious thought or concentration in manipulation of that instrument or machine. When one passes that point if in fact one does the machine becomes as an extension of the self.
My mishandling of the machine just a month previously letting it rise in altitude while trying to retrieve Chester from the water wasn't because I was not competent with it, but because I was merely so. Now the ease and consistency of all maneuvering was as though the machine was part of myself and myself a part of it. Putting its wheels onto Manchester's deck seemed as natural as putting ones feet on the floor when arising from bed. Claiming full "mastery" of such a complicated and tricky machine as the HO3S might be a bit too much . But at least it was now a full partnership.
After five and a half hours of steady flying till darkness, still less than half of Praesae's crew had been shuttled out to Manchester. But it appeared now that Neptune had the ship firmly in his grip, Mother Nature was siding with the sailors. From the looks of that evening's sky (backed by meteorological forecast) she would provide pleasant weather again on the morrow.
And so she did. We began operations at daybreak. Chester, understandably a bit disappointed that he wasn't sharing at all in the flying, found some pleasure in commenting or questioning during our brief encounters on deck. When I returned with the first shuttle that morning he asked:
"Well, Duey you see any signs of all those enemy troops they were so worried about'?"
"Nary a sign," I replied. "Reckon we must have wiped 'em all out with that airburst when we first went in."
There was actually a sense of regret about that, now. Certain it had appeared that there were some people there. We had both seen only movement, after the first round had struck on the ground. With field glasses or telescope, observers on the ship had probably distinguished figures. But it now appeared that, rather than hostile troops, they would have been native residents just curious about the activity on the nearby shore.
Further indicative of that was the appearance less than an hour later of a large body of UN troops moving down along the beach from the North. A warning burst of 20 mm cannon fire well ahead of them stopped southward movement of the troops. Their commander and an aide, bearing a white sheet and a banner, proceeded then to identify themselves. (Recollection is that it was the Colombian contingent of UN forces. I did not myself see their banner closely enough to identify it.) They were on the way to some position farther south to which they'd been ordered under the overall plan of withdrawal. For reasons unknown, they delayed movement past the beached Praesae until evacuation of its crew had been completed.
Chester's reaction when told of that development was typical. "How the heck," he asked, "can we make up a good war story when the only thing that gets in our way is killer whales?"
"We can do it, Chester," I assured him. "That's one thing in which I've great confidence in you making up stories."
As it happened, we didn't have to. We would later learn somewhat to our embarrassment, that somebody else had already made one up for us.
A short while later that morning the pilot of the crashed helicopter, Lt (jg) Thornton, came alongside the helicopter as soon as it was landed and introduced himself. He had remained aboard Praesae until flown out with the others on the previous afternoon. He had also been one of the group that first day who had come to the beach in the LCM. Why he had not introduced himself at either previous opportunity was of passing and not particularly caring interest. But the things he said after introducing himself were interesting, indeed.
"I'm all rested up now, chief," he first said. "So I can take over and give you a rest."
"Oh, that won't be necessary, lieutenant," I responded. "It's easy going here now. No strain at all."
"Well," he then said with perhaps some hesitance, "I am now the senior Naval Aviator aboard, you know."
His intended implication by that was quite clear. So also were the several reasons why I should not and need not acquiesce to it. The impulse to sarcastically mention that he was the only Naval Aviator aboard because myself was an Aviation Pilot was restrained to say only:
"Well in that capacity, lieutenant, I'm sure you are quite aware that after such a traumatic accident as you so recently had, you should not fly again until you've been checked by a flight surgeon. I don't know if we have one of those aboard."
"What was that all about, Duey?" Chester asked, after watching the somewhat disconsolate lieutenant walk wordlessly away.
"Well, I sorta got the impression from what he said that he would have liked to take over flying your helicopter. But I guess maybe he changed his mind...."
"I figured that was what he had in mind," Chester said, "from the way he was talking to me before you landed."
". ..Now of course," I continued teasingly, with more I'd intended to say, "if you maybe would prefer that he...."
"No damn' way! Get going! You've gotta get the rest of 'em off before dark today so maybe we can go home!"
We managed that task handily enough, having completed it by mid-afternoon. The last two brought out had been one of the Praesae's officers and a US Navy Lt who had seen to the flooding of the ship's lower areas with fuel so she would burn out thoroughly when fired. Chester came alongside as we landed to say there was a call from the bridge saying not to shut down yet, and the skipper wanted to talk with me on the phone. Almost apologetically, the Manchester's captain explained that he wanted me to carry the captain of the Praesae back to the beach so he could make a farewell inspection of his ship. He felt it was a very proper thing to do. So did I. Plus which it would be a great break for Chester, who'd been deck-bound for much too long.
Cdr Vudihchai, beyond just small in physical size, was almost tiny. He was understandably silent on the way to the beach, leaving us unknowing if he could speak or understand our language. But when he left the helicopter he said plainly enough: "I shall not take a very long time."
Chester remained out of the machine after assisting the commander to disembark. He stood by the starboard door as we chatted. So long as the rotors were turning, even idling, it was necessary to steady the control stick; and we would not risk cutting the engine in this circumstance. I told Chester to come around to the other side and steady the controls so I could get out of the cabin.
"Why do you want to get out?" he asked.
"Because there's something I have to do."
"None of your business. It's private."
"Well I don't see how you can do anything anyhow, wearing that 'frog' suit. And I'm not going to help...."
"That's not the kind of thing I have to do," I said. "Now dammit, Chester, how many times do I have to tell you It's a crewman's duty just to do as his pilot tells him; and not argue or ask a bunch of damn fool questions."
He reached in from the other side and steadied the controls while I got out. After kicking away snow until dirt was exposed for me to stand on, I as quickly got back in.
"Now why in the heck did you do that?" he asked.
"Because I had to."
"Why? Why in heck do you say you had to do that?"
"You know why. You know damn' well why."
"No I don't, Duey. I can't figure any reason at all why you'd do a silly thing like that," he lied.
His, sheepish grin proved he was lying. Had I not done that "silly thing," he would have told the rest of the crew that I hadn't even set foot on enemy soil, but he had. Shortly our conversation drifted to a somewhat related subject. We'd done most of the work in this operation and had not a thing to show for it. Nothing at all did we have as souvenir, or to prove we had even been here.
Todd went to scout alongside the ship, returning shortly with a rifle which had been left atop the wreckage of the broached small landing craft. Only one item. We needed two. He said he didn't need one, I should have it. Cdr Vudihchai appeared then in silhouette on his ship's deck moving forward to the bridge. At the quarterdeck, also in silhouette, hung the ship's bell.
In less than a minute, it seemed, Chester was there and back beaming over the prize. In addition to "HTMS PRAESAE," it was covered with engraving; elephants, tigers and fleur-de-lis.
"Where shall I put it, Duey? Baggage or up front?"
"How much does it weigh?"
"I'd guess about 40 pounds."
"Well, he's a real small guy. We might as well have it in the cabin."
When Vudihchai returned, Todd was beside the passenger door to assist him in. So short was the Thai commander that it was a stretch to get his foot on the step beneath the door. When he had done so and lifted his head to enter he paused and exclaimed:
"Oh! My bell! You remembered my bell! Thank you thank you thank you!
It was one of the very rare occasions when Chester Todd and myself were both struck speechless. We only looked at each other right then. We would frequently discuss it some later. One of the things eventually agreed on in such discussions was the possibility that we had set a new tradition for the Siamese Navy: "T'hell with the ship! Save the bell!"
After we lifted off, rather than simply heading back to the Manchester, it seemed more appropriate to circle the Praesae for her captain's benefit. As we did so, Vudihchai said something in his own language as he saluted the vessel. Then immediately, as though translating his own words for our benefit, he said in English: "Goodbye, my darling." Yet one more small gesture then seemed in order. Twice before, our helicopter had shown itself capable in a sense of accepting honors. It should be able therefore to bestow them as well. So we paused in the circling of Praesae, swung bow on with her and dipped the rotor in salute.
Back aboard Manchester a few minutes later, her deck officer detailed one of his sailors to carry the bell to Vudihchai's guest quarters. Though we would otherwise kid each other about it a great deal, Chester and I both knew full well that was where it really belonged. Manchester was underway at once, and nearly over the horizon before one of the destroyers fired the abandoned ship. Along the way to deliver her Thai "guests" to some port in Japan, the cruiser would be sending her borrowed "angel" and its crew back to USS Philippine Sea.
Early next morning we were told of the time when we'd be launched for return to Phil Sea. While we were preflighting the helicopter for our departure, the US Navy lieutenant who'd been last off the beach appeared, carrying two ceremonial swords in sheaths. He extended the swords toward me, explaining that the Thai officer with him was executive officer of Praesae, spoke no English, and "has asked me to give these to you and your crewman because of what you have done for all officers and men of the Praesae."
A most pleasant surprise which would be all the more so, I told the lieutenant, if he could somehow convey to the Thai officer that we would like for him to hand the swords to us himself. That was done, to the Thai officer's obvious pleasure as well as ours. Yet he was clearly surprised when Todd and myself saluted him afterward. Rather hastily, even a bit clumsily, he returned a salute; making up for any deficiencies in that regard with a beaming smile.
Todd wondered, as we examined our awards, why that US Navy officer hadn't himself thought to arrange that manner of presentation. I wondered that, too, but suspected it might be because he looked upon those swords only as souvenirs. For that was the same lieutenant who'd knelt in the snow to have his picture taken guarding me and the helicopter from imaginary enemy troops.
So we'd lost the "ding-dang" bell, Chester and I mused, as we waited the last few minutes until launch. But now we each had something better suited and more meaningful; with carved elephant head on its handle, instead of mere engraving. Plus which we shared the tremendous feeling of having done quite well in a very short while quite a few of the things helicopter crews were designed to do. In the process we'd also acquired "shipmate" rating with the Manchester sailors who had helped us to get it done.
Yet it happened we were still not quite done with Manchester even after we'd launched and her captain, himself bid us goodbye. Phil Sea was visible, hull down on the horizon, directly ahead of Manchester. That line of flight took us over a floating mine which was also dead ahead of the ship, precisely in line with the course she was traveling. The ship's sensors began to "ping" on it at about the same time. Our call-back and briefly hovering over it only pin-pointed its location a bit sooner than the sensors would have done. It also provided second exchange of farewells with a very pleasant and very competent ship's commander.
During the brief while before we would be close enough to report in to Phil Sea, Chester and I discussed what kinds of special stories we should make up to tell the rest of the crew. We would soon learn that somebody else had already made up a much more dramatic one than we could possibly imagine.
A familiar voice responded to the call to Phil Sea. Lt Sundberg spent a great deal of time in Pri-Fly during operations. It was no surprise he would be waiting there for our return. His next words after greeting were: "Prepare yourselves for the grand reception. Is there anything special you would like from the brass band?"
Although the situation on Phil Sea's flight deck was not yet discernible, the character of the "grand reception" we'd been told to prepare for was not at all hard to imagine. Very carefully the response was phrased giving emphasis to key words: "Most appropriate, I believe would be over CHIEF Hill and FIRE away."
"Roger, angel," was the chuckling response. "You're cleared to land when you arrive where the reception committee is waiting."
The flight deck was completely barren, except for the four man "reception committee" standing just aft of the deck-edge elevator. Chief Hill was alongside at once to hand up a sheaf of dispatch copies. "Here you are, hero," he said. "Read all about yourself."
A glance at the papers while the rotor was slowing revealed they were copies of press release dispatches. They could wait, stuffed in a pocket while shutdown was completed. That completed, Hill insisted that Todd and I should "hurry below before we all get trampled by autograph seekers."
So we did, both satisfied that this had been a truly grand reception. The best, in fact, that anyone could provide.
A shower, fresh clothes, exchange of pleasant greetings with the few others who happened to be lounging in CPO quarters, and I could sit quietly sipping coffee and, as Chief Hill had said in greeting, read all about myself. [ * It is characteristic of most experienced sailors that they sense when a shipmate wants or needs company and when he wishes to be left alone. ]
After arranging the dispatches in sequence of the times they had been sent, the reading began. The first one, from Manchester to Phil Sea immediately following the first day's operations read sensibly for but the first few lines:
REQUEST FOLLOWING BE CENSORED AND FORWARDED TO COMNAVFE PUBLIC RELATIONS X PHOTOGRAPHS VIA FIRST AVAILABLE TRANSPORTATION X WITH TASK FORCE 77 OFF KOREA X PARA X JANUARY 8, 1951, WITHIN SIGHT OF OUR OWN SHIPS BOMBARDING THE ENEMY, A HELICOPTER, OPERATING FROM THE U S CRUISER MANCHESTER EFFECTED A SPECTACULAR RESCUE OF 16 SAILORS FROM THE GROUNDED THAILAND CORVETTE PRAESAE AND TWO AMERICANS FROM THE GRASP OF THE ENEMY WHICH WAS IN PROCESS OF STORMING THE BEACH....
The reading was stopped for a while at that paint by some thoughts which remain unprintable. There was instant realization that the story would have been made up by the lieutenant who appointed himself to go along with me to take some pictures. The text continued:
THEIR SHIP HAVING GONE AGROUND DURING A STORM IN WHICH THERE WAS HEAVY FOG AND SLEET X PARA X THE MEN HAD MADE THEIR WAY ASHORE BY MEANS OF THEIR ONE SMALL BOAT, AND BY SWIMMING X WHILE THE CRUISER MANEUVERED OFF THE COAST, THE HELICOPTER, PILOTED BY CHIEF AVIATION STRUCTURAL MECHANIC (AVIATION PILOT) D W THORIN OF CHAMBERS, NEB, MADE SEVEN TRIPS TO BRING THE MEN TO THE MANCHESTER....
Followed, then, the usual listing of names and addresses of several persons in some measure involved aboard one or another of the vessels as well as at the scene. It did include mention of Chester B Todd "participating in the rescue." Then the main story concluded the original dispatch from Manchester:
THE FOLLOWING IS AN EYE-WITNESS ACCOUNT OF LIEUTENANT WILLIAM F DUCOING ... (home address, etc.).. .THE MANCHESTERS MAIN PROPULSION
OFFICER, WHO WENT TO THE BEACH IN THE HELICOPTER WITH BLANKETS, HEAVY CLOTHING, HOT SOUP AND COFFEE FOR THE SURVIVORS X PARA X "THE FIRST THING I SAW WAS THE DESTROYERS WHICH WERE ENGAGED IN BOMBARDING THE ENEMY IN CLOSE SUPPORT OF OUR SALVAGE PARTY WHO WERE RESCUING THE UNINJURED SURVIVORS X THE SURVIVORS WERE AT THE WATERS EDGE IN SHALLOW FOXHOLES THEY HAD DUG TO PROTECT THEMSELVES, THEY HAD ONE FIRE WHICH THEY FED WITH DRIFTWOOD PROCURED AT GREAT DANGER FROM THE BEACH X THERE WAS A HEAVY SURF AND IT IS A MIRACLE TO ME THAT THE MEN FROM THE PRAESAE EVER MANAGED TO SURVIVE X WITHIN A FEW MINUTES AFTER I LANDED, I COULD SEE THE ENEMY APPROACHING WITHIN 2000 YARDS X THEY HELD THEIR GROUND FOR ABOUT A HALF HOUR, BUT THEN FINALLY RETREATED IN THE FACE OF AMAZINGLY ACCURATE GUNFIRE FROM OUR DESTROYERS X PARA X I THINK THE THING WHICH MOST ENCOURAGED THE THAILAND SAILORS, NEXT TO THE CHANCE OF GETTING OFF, WAS THE HOT SOUP AND CIGARETTES SENT BY THE MANCHESTER UNTIL THE HELICOPTER COULD RETURN X PARA X WITH ENEMY GUNS FIRING ONLY A SHORT DISTANCE AWAY, IT WAS WITH NO FEELING OF REGRET THAT I FOLLOWED THE LAST OF THE CASUALTIES INTO THE HELICOPTER FOR THE RETURN TRIP TO THE MANCHESTER X"
The feelings of disgust generated by the earlier passage about the enemy "storming the beach," were as nothing compared to the combination of disgust and anger upon reading the direct quotation of Lt Ducoing. The fact that he gave himself credit for taking blankets, hot soup, etc., to the stranded men wasn't even noticed at the time. Overwhelming was the fact that the entirety of the quotation attributed to Ducoing was deliberate falsehood.
There was no firing by our ships except the two rounds as Chester and I first approached. There was no salvage party rescuing uninjured survivors; no foxholes dug in the sand; no driftwood fire; no heavy surf the sea was then almost calm. He had said he could "see the enemy approaching," holding their ground "for about a half hour," then retreating "in the face of amazingly accurate fire from the destroyers."
It had been evident when Ducoing grabbed the photographer's camera and entered the helicopter that he was a publicity and medal seeker, and no doubt "smokestacker." * [ * A Navy term denoting a person who professes and pretends to be something much more than he actually is. ] Exaggeration by such a fellow was always expected. But such total and blatant falsehoods as those were at once unbelievable. How could he expect to get away with such a story as that? In addition to Todd and myself, there were several other eye-witnesses who could expose the falsity of it.
But then, the wondering began, would any of those others particularly want to expose it? Might some of them even back it up, instead; or at least just endorse it by silence? It did, after all, make them look every bit as courageous as Ducoing apparently wanted to make himself appear. Had they not braved that "heavy surf" Ducoing mentioned, as well as the "approaching" enemy to rescue those also non-existent "uninjured survivors?"
I thought of the lieutenant who had rushed to kneel beside the helicopter to have his picture taken protecting me and my machine from that "enemy," then almost as quickly moving out of the way so Todd could put the next three distressed sailors aboard. My other two "protectors" had gotten back up from the snow and walked back to the beach as soon as picture taking was ended. Then there was Thornton, whose crash with his helicopter had actually been cause of the crisis. He'd been along in that "salvage party," too. (It was almost a wonder that he hadn't tried then, as he did later, to pull rank on me and take over the helicopter. Perhaps that was because the weather then was bad.)
There was also the fact that all of those other eyewitnesses on the beach were in some measure involved with the original reports (which had come from Praesae) that there were enemy troops in the area, and the original call for the destroyer to fire on that location where the two rounds were actually fired. If in fact they were aware or if later they became aware of the atrocious falsehoods which Ducoing had put in that dispatch, none at all of them would likely arise to dispute them. More likely they would by "modest" silence appear to confirm them. *
[ * At least one of those others did actively promote the main theme of Ducoing's false report, and even enlarged upon it. In an autobiographical work published after retiring from the Navy with captain's rank, Thornton depicted hundreds of enemy troops coming across the flatland, firing furiously at the helpless men on the beach and aboard Praesae. In Thornton's account, however, the enemy troops did not retreat. They were completely wiped out by the devastating fire from the several Navy warships involved. The difference was that Thornton felt free to have the cruiser Manchester add the firepower of her 8inch main batteries to the bombardment, through the overcast from 6-8 miles out. Ducoing had not been at liberty to do that, because he wrote his story aboard the Manchester. ]
Realization suddenly came that Ducoing had already gotten by with his monstrous fabrication. That dispatch had been sent five days ago. With all the "hurry-hurry" emphasis in press releases and public relations, it was probably somewhere already in print. Unless, perchance, it had at least been modified after reaching Phil Sea before it was sent on as requested. A quick glance at the next two dispatches eliminated that hope. There were a few refinements of wording, but the story remained the same. One was a press release directly from aboard Phil Sea, the other sent for delivery to Associated Press Radio in Tokyo.
Anger mounted as I began to realize the several grievous consequences for Todd and myself. To a certain extent, we were going to have to live with somebody else's self-serving, monstrous lie. We could and certainly would tell the rest of our crew the truth about it. But we couldn't take the time to explain it to everyone who came by with compliment or pat on the back in passing. The false story was now spread throughout the ship officially! We couldn't now tell the true one, if we wished, without first "untelling" the false one!
Nor could we expect anyone else to set it straight. No doubt the Phil Sea's PIO (public information officer) would have been as pleased to send the real story out (if he'd known it) as he was to (unknowingly) forward the false one which came from the Manchester. At the end of the press release containing that false story was included: "WILL FOLLOWUP ON THORINS RETURN TO PHIL SEA." But (as the PIO would learn via Sundberg) Thorin having returned could provide no "followup" of what was in that press release. Thorin could only provide an expose'.
For a while the growing anger included the Manchester's PIO, even considered inclusion of her commanding officer. Why had neither of them asked me for a report on the happenings before sending out that dispatch?
The commanding officer, if he even saw the dispatch before it was sent, would have had no reason to question its authenticity. No matter if he was aware from wardroom behavior that his main propulsion officer was something of a smokestacker, he couldn't be expected to imagine anyone would tell such a big lie as that. Also, he was very busy at the time with the problems of the overall circumstance, and his responsibilities as senior officer present at the scene. His expression of appreciation as he bid us farewell, wiped out the beginning wonderment if he might be to any extent at fault.
As for the Manchester's public information officer . While it was known that many in that assignment were receptive to exaggeration in press releases, and sometimes prone to it, he also could not be expected to realize Ducoing's statement was totally false. So why hadn't he checked with me? Quite possibly he thought of getting a comment from me. But Ducoing if he knew of it would have advised him not to "bother" me that I needed rest after the exertions and stresses which would have been upon me in the circumstance he had described. Even Ducoing, himself, might have felt he was doing Todd and me a favor. For it is frequently characteristic of fakers and exaggerators such as he, to presume that most everyone is at least somewhat inclined to do the same. Or otherwise they quickly recognize whoever would disapprove, and as was done in this case avoid inclusion of such others in the telling of the story.
Such were the various feelings that roiled in reaction to the dispatch copies Hill had given me. How long the solitudinous study of them continued was not realized even at the time. Hill and the crew had taken the helicopter below at once to inspect and service it thoroughly. He did not come to CPO quarters until that was finished. Several persons vaguely remembered as having passed by and exchanged greetings, had apparently realized I was deep in thought about something, and were considerate enough not to intrude.
If the mixed feelings of anger, disgust and frustration did not much diminish during that while, the first two at least became more accurately directed. There was yet another dispatch copy, the last in sequence, which was not closely examined along with the first three. Curiously, it was on a pink flimsy paper, rather than white as the others were. The more important difference, however, was the character of it. It was copy of a story by a newspaperman aboard Phil Sea, sent to his publisher in Chicago, Illinois. Based on the initial dispatch from Manchester, it was in substance of course also false. But the imaginative way in which it was written was so preposterous it was funny. And a bit of humor was much needed by me right then.
Slightly amusing was the contrast in the amount of credit bestowed upon myself in the newspaperman's story, compared to Ducoing's report contained in Manchester's press release. Ducoing did mention that "the helicopter" which "made seven trips to bring the men" out was piloted by someone named Thorin, with someone named Todd "participating in the rescue" as crewman. By implication, of course, we were perhaps credited with some measure of courage or heroism for having faced at least intermittently the same great dangers from the "approaching" enemy which he had himself constantly faced while taking pictures. *
[ * Among the pictures taken by Ducoing which have been seen there is none whatsoever of Todd; though he, alone, was tending the distressed sailors when Ducoing arrived, with the hot soup etc., brought before the self-appointed photographer-reporter got there. Pictures of myself are (quite sufficiently) included as a figure in the helicopter. Even so, the caption under one of those scenes, published in a semi-official naval aviation magazine, states in part: "Duane W Thorin, AMC, helps load Thailand sailors aboard helicopter .... piloted by Lt William F. Ducoing" (sic)]
The newspaperman, on the other hand, gave all credit and "glory" to me. He didn't even mention Todd. That aspect was not humorous (nor of any particular significance). The humor derived from the fellow's effort to dramatize several things of which he knew virtually nothing; including the actual nature of the operation, the flying of a helicopter, and myself. It was humorous enough, and so relaxing of previous mood, that I read through it twice and after that reviewed some of its almost hilarious passages.
Chief Hill found me still sitting alone when he arrived and asked, indicating the dispatch copies: "What do you think of them?"
"Well, these ... (I touched the white flimsies) ... are apparently about an entirely different operation than Chester and I were in."
"A bit exaggerated ?" he asked with an unsurprised smile.
"No ," I replied quite soberly, "not one bit of exaggeration. Nothing but a pack of damn' lies!"
"Really?" It was obviously great surprise to him.
"Really." A little explanation seemed in order. "There were no enemy troops there. Not a one. Not one bit of all the shooting and stuff that's in these damn' releases. Just a gloryseeking, medal-happy damn' lieutenant who rode along in and took some pictures and cooks up a big damn' war story to go along with 'em. And I had no idea anything like this had been sent out until just now, when I read these damn' things you gave me."
"Oh, for god's sake ." There had been some hesitation, before Hill spoke. "You mean they sent that report off the Manchester without you guys even knowing about it? Without even asking you about what happened ?"
"Right. If they'd asked us what happened, nothing like this would ever have been sent."
"And now it's already been sent out to newspapers and radio and . Todd still doesn't know about it, does he?" He was thinking now of the effect it would have on Chester. So was I, but I already knew how to handle that. At the moment I preferred not to get into deeper discussion of it with Hill. We'd have plenty of time for that.
"But there is a little bit of truth in this one ." I picked up the pink flimsy as I said it. It was almost certainly what had prompted his remark on the flight deck telling me to read all about myself.
"I figured you'd get a charge out of that one," he said; then waited expectantly for me to say what the "little bit of truth" was.
"Right here... (I pointed to the words).. right here at the very beginning of the story where it says 'SLENDER GOOD LOOKING HELICOPTER PILOT'! Now that's true, you gotta admit. That proves it's me he's writin' about! The rest of the story well, any similarity between that and reality is strictly accidental!"
For the entertainment and relaxation of the both of us then, I read the story aloud; with appropriate inflections and gestures to emphasize its preposterously humorous nature:
"RELAY TO CHICAGO SUN TIMES CHICAGO ILLINOIS PRESS WIRE COLLECT JACK GRIFFIN ABOARD PHILIPPINE SEA OFF KOREA 1101545 DELAYED
SLENDER GOOD LOOKING HELICOPTER PILOT FIGHTING FREEZING RAIN AND IGNORING ENEMY FIRE FEW HUNDRED YARDS AHEAD OF HIM PULLED OFF DARING RESCUE OF 18 MEN DEEP BEHIND ENEMY LINES PARA CHIEF D W THORIN ENLISTED PILOT FROM CHAMBERS NEBRASKA PLUCKED MEN FROM BEACH OF NORTHEAST KOREA AFTER THAILAND CORVETTE PRAESAE RAN AGROUND PARA HE FLEW SEVEN HOPS UNDER EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS WEATHER CONDITIONS IN HIS SLOW UNARMED HELICOPTER WITH RED TROOPS CLOSING IN FROM RIDGE ONLY 2000 YARDS AWAY FROM BEACH PARA
WHEN WORD FIRST REACHED THIS CARRIER THAT PRAESAE HAD PUN AGROUND DURING STORM THORIN WAS CALLED TO BRIDGE PARA HE WAS TOLD CREW HAD MADE ITS WAY ASHORE SOME BY SWIMMING IN ICY WATERS AND OTHERS IN CORVETTES ONE SMALL BOAT. HE WAS ALSO TOLD WEATHER WAS STINKING EVEN FOR BIRDS PARA HE DIDNT HAVE TO BE TOLD LATTER. HE HAD ONLY TO LOOK OUT PORTHOLE TO SEE FREEZING RAIN SLANTING DOWN FROM LOW DULL GRAY SKY PARA
'FREEZING CONDITIONS ARE VERY BAD' OFFICER TOLD HIM 'YOU WILL HAVE TO STAY JUST FEW FEET OFF WATER FOR FORTY MILES. THINK YOU CAN MAKE IT' PARA
THORIN SHRUGGED 'I THINK SO' PARA 'THINK YOU CAN FIND YOUR WAY BACK' OFFICER ASKED. HELICOPTER CARRIES NO NAVIGATION INSTRUMENTS PARA THORIN SHRUGGED 'I MIGHT HAVE TO WANDER AROUND LITTLE BUT I GUESS I CAN MAKE IT' PARA FEW MINUTES LATER WINDMILL OF HIS HELICOPTER PULLED HIM OFF DECK OF CARRIER AND HE HEADED FOR CRUISER MANCHESTER WHICH WAS STANDING OFFSHORE PARA THERE HE LEARNED ANOTHER HELICOPTER ALREADY HAD TRIED TO GET IN BUT HAD CRASHED ON BEACH PARA
ENEMY TROOPS HAD BEEN SIGHTED CLOSING IN ON SMALL GROUP OF MEN STRANDED ON BEACH AND SMALL ARMS FIRE HAD BEEN REPORTED PARA UNISTATES DESTROYERS HAD RUSHED IN AND WERE PEPPERING BEACH FEW mHUNDRED YARDS AHEAD OF STRANDED MEN WITH THEIR FIVE INCH GUNS PARA THORIN TOOK ALL THIS IN WITH HIS USUAL SHRUG AND CALMLY STARTED LOADING HIS HELICOPTER WITH HOT SOUP AND CIGARETTES. HE WORKED QUICKLY. THERE WAS NO TIME TO LOSE PARA
GROPING HIS WAY THROUGH DRIVING RAIN SOMETIMES ALMOST SKIPPING OVER HEAVY SEA HE FINALLY GOT INTO BEACH PARA THERE HE FOUND MEN- 16 THAILAND SAILORS AND TWO AMERICANS FROM CRASHED HELICOPTER- HUDDLED IN SHALLOW FOXHOLES THEY HAD SCOOPED OUT OF SAND PARA FAINT FIRE FLICKERED FROM FEW PIECES OF WET DRIFTWOOD. SHIVERING MEN GRABBED EAGERLY FOR CIGARETTES AND HOT SOUP PARA THROUGH WET HAZE THORIN COULD MAKE OUT FORMS OF ENEMY TROOPS ON RIDGE PARA CRACKLE OF THEIR SMALL ARMS FIRE WAS DROWNED OUT BY HEAVY KRUMP OF FIVE INCH SHELLS SCREAMING IN FROM DESTROYERS PARA THORIN PUT THOSE SUFFERING MOST FROM EXPOSURE INTO HELICOPTER FIRST AND BATTLED HIS WAY BACK THROUGH ICY RAIN TO MANCHESTER PARA
AS QUICKLY AS THOSE MEN WERE UNLOADED HE WAS BACK IN AIR AND HEADED AGAIN FOR BEACH PARA TIME AFTER TIME HE MADE HAZARDOUS RUN. HIS HANDS WERE NUMB FROM COLD. HIS EYES WERE RED FROM TRYING TO SEE THROUGH THICK GRAY HAZE PARA RED ROOPS KEPT TRYING TO MOVE IN. EACH TIME DESTROYERS DROVE THEM BACK WITH AMAZINGLY ACCURATE FIRE PARA FINALLY THE EXHAUSTED HELICOPTER PILOT GOT LAST OF MEN SAFELY OFF BEACH AND ONTO MANCHESTER PARA HE SANK WEARILY IN CHAIR AND LIT CIGARETTE. SOMEONE GAVE HIM MUG OF HOT COFFEE PARA
OFFICER TOLD HIM
HE HAD DONE WONDERFUL JOB. THORIN SHRUGGED PARA HE FINISHED HIS CIGARETTE AND COFFEE AND WENT TO BED. HE WAS TIRED ENDIT JACK GRIFFIN CHICAGO SUN TIMES
Several other chiefs, attracted by the light banter between Hill and myself, had listened in and mostly realized what our chuckling was about. To a question or two, the response that they shouldn't believe what they might read about it in the papers conveyed to them basic understanding of what had happened. Through them, the word would spread quite sensibly.
Lt Sundberg told me the following morning that the Phil Sea's PIO wanted to see me to get the "full story" about the Praesae incident. Since the "full" story would contradict the one that had already been sent, there was no point in giving details of it to our ship's PIO. He was not to be blamed for sending on the false one received from Manchester. But having done so, he could not now send a true account without embarrassment for the ship, Admiral Ewen, and the Navy.
Sundberg would inform the PIO of that. My time would be better spent in duties with our crew; which now included showing Todd the dispatches which had been sent out. He would be every bit as disgusted and angered by them, as I had been. But it might now be possible to help him get over it more quickly.
Chester had realized from conversations with the others that some outlandish stories were being circulated. He knew about the dispatches and was anxious to see them. I handed him the white flimsies, with the original Manchester dispatch on top, and watched the changing expressions on his face as he read it. Puzzlement, disbelief, disgust, anger all seemed to be there, sometimes separately, sometimes as though blended together. Or perhaps it was only imagined because of the certain feeling that the reading of it was affecting him the same as it had first affected myself.
He re-read the last part and then asked, referring to Ducoing: "Is this that guy that came over with the camera?"
There was a pause, then: "Has this this stuff already been sent out?"
"Five days ago. That's what the other two are the same story made official. One of them is a press release directly from the ship. The other is to Associated Press."
This time a longer pause, studying, after which he said: "Then this stuff is probably already in the papers back home."
"What can we do about it, Duey? This makes a guy sick."
"We can't do anything about it now, Chester," I told him, "except ride it out. Oh, we can let it be known here what happened. But what's been sent out there's nothing we can do about that, now...."
We discussed the matter quite seriously for a little while then. Todd needed the chance to vent some of the feelings which were now boiling within him, as they had previously in myself. Neither of us would have cared if there had been no publicity at all. That would in fact have been much preferred to what had now happened. For the mere fact that our names were in it would make ourselves appear as collaborators in the hoax. We were to some extent compelled to go along with Ducoing's self-serving big lies. [ There would be some reports published wherein Chester and I bore the full burden, in effect; where only the two of us were mentioned by name, but still using Ducoing's false depiction as the scene of our actions. ]
More the pity the true story of the incident, properly presented, could have been far more usefully informative than the false one that was sent out. Todd, especially, could have told of the valor and selflessness of Thai sailors who sought to comfort and encourage their less able shipmates. Now the true account could only be told within the limited spheres of our personal associations. Which was quite sufficient for us. But in order now to do so, we had also to explain away someone else's lies.
Most important, of course, was to get our feelings on that matter vented and ourselves back into more normal moods. When the first part of that prescription seemed fairly well fulfilled, I removed the pink flimsy dispatch to begin on the second.
"Well, Chester," I said, "fortunately there was one dispatch sent out that actually had a little bit of truth in it."
He reached for the paper, but I pulled it away, saying, "You can have it to read but first I gotta show you were that little bit of truth is so you don't miss it. I definitely wouldn't want you to miss that...." As was done with Hill the previous day, I pointed out the words and continued, ". . .See right here at the beginning where it says, 'SLENDER GOOD LOOKING HELICOPTER PILOT'? That's me, Chester, you know darn well...."
"Give me that thing!" He snatched the paper from my hand and began to read. This time the changing expression on his face was a pleasure to watch. After the first few lines an amused smile followed shortly by a pause to look at me and say:
"How about showin' me one of those shrugs, Duey?"
"Not until you give me a cigarette!"
"A cigarette?" (Neither of us smoked.)
"Read on MacDuff!"
The amused smile was occasionally reinforced with a chuckle. The reading finished, he seemed to be laughing silently and then said, "You loading the helicopter with soup and cigarettes ."
"CALMLY loading the helicopter with soup and cigarettes," I corrected, ". ..and shrugging all the while."
We laughed a bit more over some of the silly things in the story. Then Chester said, "Do you think they'll actually print that?"
"Probably," I replied. It was a sobering thought; in addition to having our names associated with the big lies in the official release, to also have one's name used in such a silly story as that. Was there no one in the press, or in this "public relations" business, who could ever just let facts speak for themselves? More than just sobering, the thought was pushing back toward disgusting. It wouldn't do to let that happen.
"Guess maybe you didn't notice, Chester," I said, ".. . and I thought it would be the first thing you would notice but you didn't even get mentioned in that article. Didn't you even notice that?"
"Hey! That's right! How come I didn't get mentioned? I was there helping and...."
"You didn't help load the cigarettes."
"Well I would've but you wouldn't let. .. . I shoulda been mentioned anyway. The guy on the Manchester mentioned me, this one should have, too."
"Tell you what, Chester when that gets published, I'll write a letter to the editor and tell 'em you were along. I'll also tell 'em that you're as slender as I am not nearly as good lookin, but just as slender...."
We were back on the right track, again, finding amusement in the situation, to keep the bothersome aspects from interfering with the jobs at hand. Our repartee went on, to the delight of the other crewman, while waiting on deck for the next flight assignment. By way of explanation, I said:
"The public relations people gotta have heroes, Chester. And it looks like you and I are it right now. But don't worry, it won't last long. Fame is fleeting, you know unless you're buddy-buddy with the public relations officer, or hire a press agent. I don't guess either one of us feels like being buddy-buddy with a public relations officer right now. And we can't afford a press agent 'cause you threw away all the money...."
"Whaddaya mean I threw away the money? You're the one said to send the satchel up to sick bay!"
"I didn't have any choice after you pulled it out and everybody saw it wonderin' what was in it."
"Well, I didn't know what it was, Duey. It was underneath the seat... ."
"You're the one put it there, Chester."
"No I didn't; it was one of those guys came along when the big fellow carried the unconscious one...."
"He only tossed it in on the floor. You pushed it back under the seat when you were... "
"I didn't know there was money in it. And you didn't either until after...."
"Well, okay, Chester I guess we hafta share the blame for losin' the money. But you're the one lost the bell."
"The bell! You tryin' to blame me for losin' the bell? How can you blame me for that, Duey, you...."
"Because you put it up front in the cabin, instead of back in the baggage compartment where he wouldn't have seen it."
"But that's where you told me to put it, Duey. You know darn well that's where you said to put it. I asked and you...."
"Well, of course I told you to put it up front. But it's still your fault. How many times do I have to tell you, Chester? It's the duty of a good helicopter crewman to argue with his pilot when he sees him making a big mistake like that."
"Oh, sure. And just a few minutes before that you'd told me it was a crewman's duty to just follow orders t'do as his pilot told him and not ask questions or argue."
"You mean when I told you to hold the controls so I could get out of the helicopter?"
"Well, I ordered you to do that, Chester. That was an order. I only asked you to get the bell."
"How'm I supposed to know if something's an order or if you're only asking?"
"You can always ask." "
"Nope. You said if it's an order I'm not supposed to ask just do it."
"Well, yeah that's right. Well, in that case you just hafta consider the situation. It was a different situation when I told you to hold the controls than when I asked you to get the bell."
"No it wasn't, Duey. It was only a few minutes later and we were still right in the same place."
"But the situation had changed by then."
"I don't know, but it must have, because situations are always changing. But what difference does that make? What was it we were trying to figure out here anyhow, Chester?"
"I don't know, Duey," Chester replied, "I can't remember. I know it must have been something important, but I can't remember now what it was."
"It was about a bell," one of the other crewmen prompted. "Something about a bell you found and lost or something, and which one of you lost it.. .
Now that they had entered into the banter, the other crewman began asking questions about that bell and the money we had been talking about Chester and I teamed up then to explain that we didn't have time right then to tell them about the money or the bell. We would tell them, eventually, but we were going to be busy for a while. At what were we going to be busy? At being "heroes," of course. We were going to have to be "heroes" for a while, at least until the "PR" people found replacements for us.
"We aren't rich, like some heroes," I explained, "because we lost all that money. And we may not be very smart because we lost that ding-dang bell. But we're real good looking. It says so right here on this pink paper about me, anyway. And as soon as that gets published, I'm gonna write a letter to the editor telling him that Todd was with me, that he's as slender as I am, and almost as good looking."
With the rest of the crew now fully joined in the banter, Chester and I were completely "back home." The Praesae incident had been a wonderfully fulfilling experience. The glory-seeking lieutenant and his atrocious lies which threatened to despoil it, though not forgotten, had been put in their proper place. We could now share with the others the real stories of Praesae including the antics of the glory-seekers quite as we had all previous adventures and would those which were yet to come.
And there were certainly more to come. No matter that flights for mail delivery and on "angel station" were routine in the sense of scheduling, they were never monotonous or boring. No matter that they were not the sorts of things which someone might want to exaggerate about for a press release, there were satisfactions to be derived in every flight we made. We found ourselves being welcomed back by some of the regular onlookers during maildrops to the destroyers. Whether or not they may have known where we had been during our brief absence, by signaled greetings they let us know they'd missed us and were glad to see us back with them again.
About 10 days after our return, we did our first-ever full "angel" service for one of the pilots aboard Phil Sea. A Corsair lost power during takeoff and "dunked" a very short way ahead of the carrier. We were hovering alongside as the pilot climbed out of the cockpit. He stood atop the fuselage behind the cockpit, steadily enough that we very probably could actually have picked him up from there. He even looked at us as though wondering if we intended to do so. The risk was too great that he might slip and fall while trying to put himself in the sling. He dove off towards us, was in the sling, and out of the water before the ship had passed us by. We let him out on the flight deck a few seconds later, without setting the machine down. Launching operations continued, uninterrupted.
As we scooted back to angel station to watch the remainder of the launch, Chester said, "I believe we really could have got that one off without him even getting wet, couldn't we?"
"Yeah, I think so," I replied. "I'd like to have done it, if it wasn't so risky that he might slip. But do you realize what would have happened to us if we did it, Chester?"
"The PIO would be meeting us on the flight deck after this launch, and we'd have to be heroes again."
"Then I'm glad we didn't do it," Chester said.
Two days later came a missive which reminded that our previous fame had not completely fled. A thick envelope arrived in the mail for me postmarked Cicero, Illinois. Who did I know in Cicero? I could think of no one at all. The envelope was so full stuffed with newspaper clippings, it took a while to find the small note which identified the sender. It was the pert little touristing schoolteacher met in Hawaii way back last July. Delighted she was to have actually met and talked with the helicopter pilot who had done "all the wonderful things" that were described in the clippings she was sending from Chicago Sun Times.
The first clipping unfolded was pictures. The lieutenant kneeling beside the helicopter with his submachine gun, plus two men lying on the snow in dark clothing, were proof that I was well protected. A Thai sailor sipping from a soup bowl cupped in both hands appeared to be truly appreciative. There were no closeups to prove the importance attributed to cigarettes.
Reading of the text was begun with some trepidation. But it brought a pleasant surprise. The story sent by their reporter from aboard Phil Sea wasn't there. The published article, though based on the falsehoods contained in the official release, was otherwise very well written. Had its author been provided with
truth to work from, the Praesae incident would probably have been a "whale" of a story.
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©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.