I was Quartermaster of the Watch but my GQ station was on the bridge, so I was there the whole time and watched it all go down. The bosun got the order and made the bungled announcement over the 1MC, "This is a drill, this is a...ah..this is NOT a drill, NOT a drill, General Quarters, General Quarters, all hands man your battle stations." He got the call right though, the shrill sweet note of his pipe resounding throughout the ship, calling us to war. The alarm sounded, a simultaneous whooping and gonging. This time it was for real. I made an entry in the log, noting the time to the nearest minute. This one was important, I didn't want to get it wrong.
USS Dean's bridge erupted into activity as the GQ crew reported for duty and the watchstanders they relieved scurried off to their other stations throughout the ship. I had my assignments: close the chartroom porthole cover, secure the watertight door, open this valve, close that breaker. I broke out spare binoculars for the officers and put on my helmet, flak jacket, headphones and life vest. I fastened all the buttons of my chambray shirt and tucked my dungarees into my socks. Protection from flash hazard, as I had been trained; and I had time to take a quick Loran fix and plot it on the chart while the stragglers scrambled in.
The bridge was crowded, not just the watch, but the CO and Exec were there, along with the Commodore and his staff, about two dozen in all, crowded into a space the size of the interior of a schoolbus. There was a bustle of activity as telephone cords were strung and people put on their battle gear. LT Long had the Deck and he handed me a radio message on a clipboard, our target's position, course and speed. "Give me an intercept course and an ETA at 27 knots, quartermaster". The lee helmsman had his instructons and was ringing up the engine room, the man at the wheel put the rudder amidships and waited for orders.
"Aye, Aye, Sir", I replied, and broke out the maneuvering board, drawing the triangles which would graphically give the solution that would bring us alongside a tiny moving dot, out of sight over the horizon, still almost an hour away. After a few moments with dividers and parallel ruler, I copied the numbers, scribbling them onto a scrap of paper and handed them to the OOD. Mr Long called out the new course and the quartermaster at the wheel spun it smartly, catching it abruptly by braking with his hand, then gradually centering the rudder as the ship came on to the new heading. Dean, now slicing through the water at over thirty miles an hour, leaned steeply into the calm sea and made a sweeping turn, leaving a semicircle of white wake on the inky blue ocean. On the bridge, the watch leaned into the turn in unison, like parallel shafts of wheat in a stiff breeze.
I had a moment now to catch my breath and made my way to the chart table. The bridge was settling down, the officers scanning the horizon with their glasses, a seaman rigging a patch cord. From the fo'csle I could hear the the safety bell and the whine of the hydraulics as Mount 51 warmed up, the bosun's mate beside me calling out as stations throughout the ship reported in ready for action. Some gunner's mates on the bridge wing were setting up a .50 caliber. I could hear the sound of ammo belts being dragged on the steel deck, and the snapping of halyards and pennants as the SM's hoisted a signal. Outside, a flat sea and the hot sun glared down from a partly cloudy sky. We were steaming in the general direction of Hon Gio, supposedly, Vietnamese or Chinese for "Remote Rock": a tiny speck on the chart where Charlie maintained a radar station. I knew what was happening, we had caught the supply boat trying to sneak in, in broad daylight.
Mr Long glanced at his wristwatch, I knew in a moment he was going to ask me for an update on the ETA, but I could see the Commodore's staff were bogarting both the bridge radar repeaters and I knew better than to ask them to move out of the way so I could do my job. The speaker's on the 1MC crackled as the radio was patched in. An excited, garbled voice on the other end kept repeating our call sign, it was the pilot who had spotted our quarry. I kept the logbook near me in case I needed to make an entry and started to recheck my maneuvering board work, just in case.
The commodore was on the horn, he had whipped the handset from the grip of a startled seaman and was shouting into it. "Whaddaya mean you don't have us in sight? Don't worry about us, we know what we're doing. I am the on-scene commander and I WILL make the board and search decision." The pilot had been reporting that the boat was jettisoning cargo, and was requesting permission to open fire. I could see the skipper in his chair, steaming, the officers on the bridge at parade rest, embarassed.
I was wrong. My course was off. I was sure I had given Mr Long the wrong course, 60 degrees off and a quick glance at the helmsman's compass and my board confirmed it. I quickly redid my my figures. No question about it; I had screwed up big time. We were headed full tilt boogie in the wrong direction. I rechecked my figures one more time and walked up to Mr Long. In the background, the Commodore was still reaming out the hapless airman over the radio phone. The .50s on the bridge wings each fired a few bursts into the water to warm up. Over the racket, I could hear the empty brass casings clatter on the deck
"Mr Long, I recommend a new course of 030, revised ETA 1335."
Long was distracted by the Commodore's tantrum, but I suddenly had his undivided attention. He looked at me for just a moment, although it seemed to me that that glance would never end, our eyes locked together, his face expressionless. He knew exactly what had happened, and he knew I knew he knew.
"Very well." he said, breaking eye contact to call over his shoulder, "Helm, new course, come right to 030."
"Right to 030, Aye, Sir."
Long walked up to his spot by the Captain's chair and looked dead ahead through his binoculars. At that moment, I knew I would have followed him anywhere, straight to hell if required.
The Commodore was still yelling at the pilot. Our brief jog had added a little extra time to our rendezvous but no one but Long and I seemed to notice, and he never mentioned it. The lookouts eventually got a visual on our contact and the pilot reported that as soon as we had popped over the horizon the boat hove to, dead in the water. Once in visual range, the aviator interrupted the Commodore in mid-sentence, reported he was low on fuel and requested permission to return to his carrier. He did not bother to wait for a reply.
It just took minutes to come alongside the bandit, a wooden fishing boat about fifty feet long. Her crew was lounging around on deck, one waved at us, another was taking pictures of us with a 35mm camera. She was DIW, drifting broadside to the gentle seas and flying PRC colors and as we slowly circled about a hundred yards from her, the Commodore's staff manned the port rail. Here we were at last, face to face with the enemy, bristling with weapons and the latest electronic gear, one of the most advanced and deadly men-of-war on the planet. The Commodore went below to call the Task Force Commander on Coral Sea for permission to board and search. On the main deck, a squad of sailors with M1s had mustered, while the bosuns got the whaleboat ready to send the search party over.
We circled that boat for two hours, sweating in combat gear while we got passed from one level of the chain-of-command to the next. Coral Sea to Da Nang to Subic Bay to Sasebo, to Pearl to Washington. We never got permission to board. We knew the red flag was a fraud, but no one was willing to stick their neck out and find out for sure. The pirate crew set up a hibachi on the top of their deck house and started cooking while our signalmen tried flashing light and semaphore, but there was no response.
Eventually, we gave up, came about and laid a course back to our normal patrol area. After securing from GQ, the bridge gradually cleared out (I was still on watch) and the regular duty watchstanders came back to their stations. Mr Long was relieved and struck below and as we slid over the horizon I started a plot on the radar repeater to see what our contact was up to. Sure enough, as soon as we lost visual contact, she resumed her original course and speed to Hon Gio. I mentioned it to the OOD, who shrugged and walked away.