Cold And Getting Colder
by Stu Russell
On our first day out, the XO got on the 1-MC and told us to turn our cameras in; they would be returned to us when we got back into port. Very odd indeed. When on my rounds of the ship I ran into Steve Robin who was making his way aft with a canvas bag. When I asked about the bag, he told me it was the burn bag, full of secret and top secret documents that had been shredded. As flunky of the day it was his responsibility to take the burn bag to the incinerator and destroy the material. Wanting for anything better to do I decided to follow Steve and watch him perform his chores. The incinerator was located on the starboard side of the boat deck behind the stack. He placed the shredded documents inside and set them on fire, then like a mad pizza maker, Steve kept stirring the contents until they were nothing but ashes. He took a bucket that was hung on the side of the incinerator and lowered it over the side, filling it with water. After getting it back on board, he placed it by the mouth of the fire box, then shoveled out the ashes into the bucket and stirred them into a fine paste which he dumped over the side. Steve told me that he had to return to the SOD hut to have the burn bag log dated and signed. Throughout this whole ritual I managed to keep a smile off my face. Imagine fish that could put those ashes back together, read them and send their contents to an enemy agent. It was beginning to look like the clothes had no emperor.
The first night out I had some difficulty with the movie projector, it was the first time I had tried to show a movie in any kind of sea. The projector kept falling over. Bob Hill got some quarter inch line and we suspended the thing from the overhead. It worked ok, but the projected image swayed back and forth off the bulk head, no one got sick, but it made for a strange evening.
About our third day out, PP (Garcia) told me the XO was upset because we didn't have any weighted trash bags on board. He explained that these bags were used for dumping trash over the side because the weights would drag the trash down. Without these special bags our trash would wash ashore and "they" would know we were in the area. My initial reaction to this was that everyone was a bit nuts. First of all the ship was painted navy gray, and had big white letters on the bow. Since we could see the shore, it was safe to assume that they, whoever the hell they were, could see us too; so screw the trash bags. I could tell that PP had been quizzed on the bags and had passed the buck on to me.
Later that afternoon I was coming out of the supply room when I was met by the XO who wanted to know how many weighted trash bags I had on board. Rather than say none and cop to knowing something about this, I asked him what a weighted trash bag was. He repeated what PP had already told me and I was beginning to think that there was no reality. He began to chew me out for messing up. I wanted to tell him that I didn't order any weighted trash bags because I didn't know about any such bags, but I knew to keep my mouth shut.
The temperature had dropped as we left Yokosuka and headed for Sasebo and it continued to dropped as we headed north. By January 16, we had reached our most northern point. Wearing the warmest clothes I could get my hands on, I ventured out on deck where the sea was calm and the air fresh. Off the starboard side toward the west land was clearly visible, it looked like it was between 15 and 20 miles away. The world looked black and white with shades of gray, there was no color to it. The sky was overcast, the sea had a lead-like sheen to it and the mountains in the distance were black, with a coating of white on their northern flanks. As I stood there Don Peppard came up behind me and asked if I had any idea of where we were. I said that I didn't have the foggiest idea. When we'd left Japan and headed north, my knowledge of geography must have been on hold -- it simply never dawned on me that the only countries west of us had to be China, Korea or Russia. Where were we? Don pointed toward the shore and told me that was the entrance to the port of Vladivostok. The ship was off Russia. That made sense -- if we were supposed to be spying, this was the place to be. When the cold had finally worked its way through my boots, I headed back inside for some coffee. I was now very confused, why had they taken our cameras? It seemed rather obvious that we were an American ship in the wrong backyard, the Russians would know we were here. It seemed then that this cloak and dagger stuff was meant to keep the folks back home from knowing what we were doing. Were we ashamed of what we were doing or by keeping the public in the dark, would it be easier to bury a mistake?
When I got below I ran into Maggard and told him what I had just learned. He shook his head and told me that this was not good, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time of year. What kind of an idiot would send this piece little ship to the top of the world in the middle of the winter? Good point, and I reminded him that Bucher had said it wasn't fattening or illegal. He didn't buy into that either, he said the situation sucked and could only get worse. Like others of the crew, including myself, Maggard said that we were headed into something really bad. He couldn't define it, but the feeling was there; we were in deep do-do with no way out. Our destiny had been set and ours was to endure.
The next day was bitter cold. Few if any of us had ever experienced cold such as this, and we were ill prepared for it. The amount of foul weather gear on board was in short supply and greatly needed. Although the seas were calm, the humidity was rising, and as a result, ice was forming on every surface of the ship. Had anyone seen the ship in this condition it would have appeared to be a ghost ship floating on a gray sea. Bucher was extremely concerned about all the additional weight that was collecting on board, and ordered that we de-ice the ship.The deck force drafted anyone not on watch into their ranks. We put on everything we owned or could steal for the trip topside. I put on a T-shirt, my watch sweater, a work shirt, my blue jacket, and a nylon foul weather jacket complete with liner, and joined the others on deck. The ship was a sight to behold, with frost and ice coating everything. The chains had grown from one to about four inches in diameter. Those vertical surfaces that we could reach were soon assaulted with sledge hammers. High pressure water hoses were trained on all other surfaces and the hull where it could be reached. The air was so cold that any exertion quickly brought fatigue. We found it difficult to swing the hammers more than a few times without resting in between. The frigid air burned each time we inhaled. When the ice was gone, we hurried our frozen butts down below to thaw out. Doc had the presence of mind to remind Bucher that it was time to break out the medicinal brandy for the de-icers. This time we were ready, instead of each one of us drinking a bottle, we formed into teams of three or four, with each team giving their brandy to one man. We knew that there would be more de-icing, and by pooling the booze, one of us could get ripped, instead of each of us getting a slight buzz. There was always a way to beat the system, if one worked at it.
On January 22 our routine continued as usual. The seas were fairly calm and this, our twelfth day out of port, was one of boredom. After lunch I asked Lewis if there was anything he needed before I disappeared for awhile. He was low on a couple of items for lunch and gave me a list of things to bring up from the supply room. As I went forward I detected a note of excitement from the hatch to the well deck. A fishing vessel was coming close to the starboard side. We spilled out on the deck...this could be the beginning of the harassment we had been told about. After almost two weeks at sea, a little excitement could go a long way. As I stepped out on deck the boat was passing close by, no further than 30 yards. We were close enough to see the crew looking back at us, and they looked upset. On the bridge we could make out what looked like several military personnel who were looking back at us with binoculars. Maybe they were political commissars who kept an eye on the crew members to make certain they didn't defect. But this group didn't look like they wanted to defect, they looked like they wanted to eat our livers. The first ship was joined by another which past us on the port side. They were beginning to circle us, getting closer each time.In response to the surly looks we were receiving from the fishing boats, more than a few of us decided to flip them off. Law exploded out from the hatch and ordered us to get back inside. He wanted the names of the people giving the finger, they were to be put on report. Everyone had a sudden memory lapse which made us unable to respond to Charlie with any degree of certainty. He roundly cursed us as we were hustled back inside the ship. Our first harassment, we were no longer virgins. When I wrote my letter to Sharon that night there was finally something to put in it besides the weather. Of course I had no idea if my letters were to be censored, but if I couldn't mail them, there would be some other way to get them off the ship and into the mail. The seriousness of the situation was yet to dawn on me.
When I hit the rack that night, Langenberg, who was across from me, asked what I thought about the day's activities. I told him that it was exciting to see the commies up close. He said that if I liked today, I'd get a kick out of tomorrow when the patrol boats would come out to visit us. I thought all right, something more to look forward to besides chipping ice.
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the PUEBLO Incident