On Our Way
by Stu Russell
Sailors have a tendency to go a bit nuts when they pull into a new port, and Yokosuka
was no exception for the crew of the USS PUEBLO. We had just survived a major storm
that scared the hell out of us and the thought of going back to the North Pacific on the
PUEBLO in the middle of winter was causing us all a great amount of anxiety. Because
of this we went on liberty with great gusto. We were so damn glad to be alive that we
partied hard and got carried away in those little bars that surround the naval base.
During the days I was forced to bury myself in my work. Reed had really screwed up the
supply system. If it hadn't been for the storm and the reduced use of the galley, we would
have run out of our major staples before we got to Japan. The Old Man was pretty hot
about it and moved Ralph back to cooking and me back to being "Jack of the Dust." I was happy to be done with cooking, but the mess I had to clean up took a lot of my time. On top of all this Bucher noticed I wasn't hitting the beach and made me the night movie projectionist. It wasn't all bad, at least my evenings were planned. I got my scores for graduate school, I needed 850 to get into USC graduate school and received a score of 1050. Acceptance to graduate school would win me the much coveted "early out" and be out of the navy a few months early was a real motivator. I figured I had about seven more months in Asia, tops.
When we first got to Japan, it was pretty quiet on the beach, there were hardly any ships in the harbor, but as it got closer to Christmas the number of ships increased greatly. The USS KITTY HAWK came in and I tracked down David Vespers. He had been my boss in Long Beach and it was good to see a friendly face. He gave me a tour of his ship and I was jealous of him being on a real ship instead of an "oceanographic research ship." The USS BLUE (DD-744) arrived with three guys from my reserve center on board, came into port for Christmas. It was getting to seem like old home week. I bumped into two guys, David Cowarden and Walt Henry, that I knew from high school. But it was still lonely being this far from home during the holidays.
To make matters worse the USS BANNER (AGER-1) came in on December 19 and tied up next to us. The guys that could grow them all had beards and they looked like a bunch of pirates. They all seemed a bit spacy. We were finally able to talk to someone about what it was going to be like to be on station. They took a perverted pride in the fact that they would go out 30 to 45 days and come in for periods as short as three days. This wasn't winning any converts to the AGER way of life, but what was extremely disconcerting, none of them would say much about what they did. They bragged some about being hassled by the Russians and made it sound like they had gone out on a shopping spree and just missed being mugged.
Our little world in supply land had its own problems. The Japanese yard workers were initially very shy, but with each passing day they grew bolder in taking liberties on board the ship. Bucher had us give them our leftovers after each meal, which was a good deal for us since we didn't have to carry the trash over the BANNER and the Coast Guard cutter to which we were tied up. John Mitchell had injured his back making a garbage run and no one wanted to follow suit. At first, the yard workers would wait until the serving line was shut down before they came for their food, but that soon changed. They had become more aggressive, one night, Ralph had to chase one of them out of the galley with a knife. That was the final straw for Ralph, the next night we had chili for dinner and he spiced it up for them. It was hot to begin with, but Reed dumped in a large box of Ben-Hur's finest peppers and folded it in with an economy sized bottle of Tabasco sauce. It was smoking. Before he could serve Lava a la Ralph to the yard workers, Steve Ellis came running in. He had gotten off watch late and was very hungry. We tried to warn him, but to no avail. Being an LA boy he was born and raised with hot food. I told him that I too was from LA and this stuff was industrial strength hot. He ate it anyhow. That's not exactly true. He took one bite and stuck his head under the spigot of the water fountain in the galley. Ralph was now ready. The yard workers, not unlike their brothers in Bremerton, swarmed over the line. They were not back the next day. But we think they might have gotten revenge.
On December 21, we got underway to check out some of the repairs made to the ship by the gentlemen with the sore butts. I was on the bridge in my usual position as look out. It was not raining and the sky above was clear, but the surface was covered by patches of fog that looked like cotton candy. I was scanning those parts of the horizon that I could see with my binoculars when my vision was obscured by the largest ship I had ever seen. It was one of the new Japanese super tankers. It was less than a mile away. I called out, "Ship, bearing 350, range 1000 yards."
Bucher and Murphy swung around and saw the monster coming out of the fog. Bucher exploded, "God damn it, XO, how the hell did that get there? Why wasn't it picked up on radar, the God damn thing must be a quarter of a mile long, its as big as a damn mountain? Get below and attended to the radar." Murphy was saved from a further beratement because of the steering going out. A tug was radioed for and we were towed back into port. Elapsed time thirty minutes. Fortunately, there was no time for us to play Mr. Alpert's best. The USS PUEBLO slipped away from the dock and pulled out of Yokosuka early in the morning on Janruary 5, 1968. We were headed south for Sasebo. We would return to our home port in about a month. As we rounded the tip of Kyushu and headed northeast, the ship moved away from the warmer Pacific waters and the temperature dropped as we neared our next port. Our stated purpose for visiting Sasebo was to pick up additional supplies.
Ensign Harris and I went looking for the supply depot. There was a dusting of snow on the ground. Winter had come to Japan. We were looking for anything we could get our hands on. Tim Harris attempted to show me that he was bilingual. He belonged to the school of "if you yell loud enough, you will be understood." The Japanese we tried to speak with were of the "if they yell at you, screw'em" school. The return for our efforts were slight, but it wasn't because we didn't hump like hell the few days we were there. I was unable to pull liberty there so anything I know about Sasebo was gleaned from the my shipmates whose memories were blocked by copious amounts of liquor. They knew it would be a long time before our next port and tried to store it up like camels drinking water.
We prepared to pull out early in the morning on January 11, 1968, I was one of the last people to come back on board. As I approached the gangway, a black sedan pulled up and a rather corpulent oriental, climbed out on the passenger side of the car. He called to me to wait, I stood there waiting for him to come to me. He asked what the name of our ship was and where were we going, what type of ship were we and when would we be back? It struck me as a little strange and I asked him why he was asking me these questions. He gave me his card and told me that he and the guys in the car had a band and that they played at ship's parties when they came back in port. He asked me a few more questions that I didn't answer. I didn't feel comfortable with this clown and his buddies in the car. They didn't look like card carrying musicians. They looked more like gangsters.
Up until now the on going attitude about not knowing what our mission was, was kind of a joke with us. Now for the first time, I realized that perhaps it wasn't so funny. I took the guy's card, hunted down Bucher and related to him what had happened. He didn't seem to be too concerned, he took the card from me and that was the end of it.
Just before leaving Sasebo, Bucher called an all-hands meeting once the crew was all on board. He told us that we were about to depart on our first mission. Where we were going and what we were going to do was none of our business and we were not to worry about it because what ever we were doing wasn't fattening or illegal. The CT's had a knowing look on their faces, the rest of us no longer really cared, let's do it and get it over with.
Herb Alpert played for the last time, they had fixed the equipment. I had been relieved of my assignment on the sea and anchor detail. There were enough qualified people on the deck force to take the chore. I was happy about it now that it had gotten cold and was going to get colder. I rather enjoyed hearing the muted sounds of "The Lonely Bull" as I sipped a cup of hot coffee on the mess deck.
Copyright © 2019 USS PUEBLO Veteran's Association. All rights reserved.
PUEBLO tied up at destroyer piers
(the ship beyond PUEBLO is a destroyer)
photo Courtesy Ralph Clarke, QM3, USS BANNER AGER-1
USS BLUE DD-744
Photo © by: DK2 Dean C. Andrus
USS BANNER (AGER-1)
Tied up at Yokosuka 1969
photo Courtesy Ralph Clarke, QM3, USS BANNER AGER-1
surface radar Image