Hong Kong memories
by BeijingIrish (2019-02-11 12:54:29)
Edited on 2019-02-11 14:16:18

As I went about answering the questions posed in the HK post below, I recalled my first visit to the place in August, 1971:

Typhoon Rose (August, 1971)

The summer of 1971 was an especially busy typhoon season in the central Pacific, and Harriet was not the only major weather event we experienced. In Hong Kong, they still shudder at the mention of Typhoon Rose, at the time, the most violent tropical cyclone to strike Hong Kong in a decade.

Rose developed from an area of disturbed weather west of Guam on August 9 at which time I began to chart the storm. Having completed our line period, we had just begun the transit from Yankee Station to Hong Kong, our first liberty port. The storm grew in strength as it moved WNW, but it weakened slightly when it passed over the island of Luzon and into the South China Sea on August 14. However, once it entered the open ocean, the storm intensified. We loitered off the coast of Hainan Island poised to make a high-speed run to the south in the event the storm turned southward. Instead, the storm veered sharply northward. On August 16, Rose, now classified as a Category 4 hurricane (super typhoon), attained its maximum sustained wind speed of 165 mph before it made landfall at Lantau Island early in the morning on the following day.

We arrived in Hong Kong a few days after Rose pounded the place to find utter devastation. Entire apartment blocks had fallen down the steep cliffs in mudslides triggered by the storm. Several ferries had overturned, and hundreds of people had drowned. As we entered port through the Lei Yue Mun channel, we dodged police boats scurrying around the harbor gaffing drowned ferry passengers. This left a profound impression with our crew who talked about the “floaters” for days.

USS Regulus

The USS Regulus (AF-57), a refrigerated stores ship, had gone aground in the harbor during the storm. It was the Navy’s practice to pre-qualify naval aviators who aspired to command carriers by assigning them to command large auxiliary ships. The skipper of the Regulus, Captain Frederick Nelson, was embarked upon such a program. Captain Nelson was an aviator; he was not an experienced mariner. Unfortunately for him, his crew, and the ship, he ran into—to coin a phrase—a perfect storm.

His problems began when his wife, Willa, surprised him by flying into Hong Kong just as the ship arrived in port. For Nelson, the surprise was unwelcome because he had arranged for a woman with whom he was having an affair to meet him in Hong Kong. Before he and his wife left the ship for the Peninsula Hotel where his wife had booked a room, Nelson took pains to ensure that any inquiries about his whereabouts were referred to the XO. Written instructions to this effect were left on the quarterdeck to be passed from watch to watch (in the note, the woman was described as “a friend of long standing”). In the event she called or visited the ship, Nelson instructed the XO to tell the woman that the captain was unavailable. Under no circumstances was Nelson’s whereabouts to be revealed. In fact, the woman did call the ship, and the call was relayed to the XO who delivered the message as instructed. The woman tersely replied that he could tell the captain that she would not attempt to contact him again. Ever.

While the happy couple shacked up in the Peninsula, the rest of the fleet, alerted by storm warnings from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC), rounded up their crews and put out to sea. By the time Nelson realized he should sortie, it was too late. He barely made it back to the ship before the typhoon hit, and then he chose to anchor the ship in the worst possible location. The force of the storm, much more powerful than expected, the shallow water in the anchorage, the mud bottom, and a broken anchor chain all conspired to leave Regulus aground on the rocky shoreline of Kau Yi Chau Island. When the ship grounded, Captain Nelson retreated to his sea cabin in a state of shock. It was a miracle that no one died, but there were injuries, some serious, and the ship was a total loss. Witch hunt time.

Rear Admiral W. Haley Rogers* was named to head the board of inquiry that would investigate the events which led to the grounding of the ship. In turn, Rogers appointed me as the meteorology expert on the board of inquiry. It would be my duty to interview the ship’s officers and enlisted crew (quartermasters) in order to determine what efforts they had made to evade the storm (none), the extent to which they heeded warnings from the JTWC (they had not), and the storm tracking procedures they had followed (zilch).

*RADM Rogers was Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group Seventh Fleet. He and his staff were embarked on Horne for the duration of our Westpac deployment.

I was not happy. We’d been at sea for 45 straight days, and this was my first ever visit to Hong Kong. While my shipmates enjoyed the pleasures of the Wan Chai District, I would be cooped up for a week in USS Westchester County (LST-1167) where the officers assigned to the board of inquiry were berthed for the duration of the investigation. At night, I gazed at the lights of Hong Kong from the deck of that old rust-bucket anchored in the middle of the West Lamma Channel.

The interviews were a tough slog. The captain wasn’t talking to anyone, and the XO was ill. Sensing he was in big trouble, the navigator refused to leave his stateroom to be interviewed. My recommendation that the entire lot be hanged was rejected, but my recommendation made the dour Admiral Rogers laugh. The board did recommend that the captain be court-martialed for dereliction of duty (hazarding the ship by remaining in port instead of taking the ship out to sea to ride out the storm).

To this day, the Navy has not explained why the board’s recommendation was not acted upon (both the ship’s log and the official report prepared by the board of inquiry were inadvertently destroyed in 1996 by the Navy’s long-term records storage facility in Suitland, Maryland). One might speculate that the Navy pulled punches in order to spare itself embarrassment at a time when anti-military sentiment was rampant. The commander of the Twelfth Naval District, the convening officer for the court-martial, opted for a wrist-slap instead. At admiral’s mast**, Nelson was officially reprimanded, fined a token amount, and reassigned to other duties. He retired from the Navy in 1974, and he died in 2000. Willa preceded him in death in 1991. At least she saw Hong Kong.

**Mast is a hearing under which a commanding officer studies and disposes of cases, usually minor offenses, involving those in his command. If an admiral is overseeing the mast, then the procedure is referred to as an admiral's mast or a flag mast. Mast is not a trial; it is a non-judicial proceeding conducted under the authority of Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

It turns out that the board of inquiry was unnecessary, at least in the eyes of the crew. Nelson assumed command of the ship in March, 1971, a week prior to the ship’s next Westpac deployment. During the change-of-command ceremony at the Army Reefer Docks in Alameda, California, a sudden gust of wind toppled an American flag on the stand behind the dias. The stand and the flag hit the chaplain on the head precisely as Nelson assumed command. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and this was seen by the crew to be a bad omen. Even worse, as Regulus was steaming under the Golden Gate Bridge a week later, an off-duty “snipe” (engineer rating) relaxing on the fantail saw an albatross hovering behind the ship. For reasons he could not explain, the sailor threw a welding rod at the large bird, and it was injured. Just as mariners everywhere know that women on ships bring bad luck, they also know you never harm an albatross, the universal symbol of good luck. From that moment, the crew knew their ship was doomed.


Once my interviews of the Regulus’ officers were concluded and documented, I was free to rejoin my shipmates on Horne. I returned to the ship in time for a change-of-command ceremony when Captain Glaser was relieved by Captain Edwin Woods. I was very fond of Captain Glaser, and I was sad to see him go. I knew early-on that I would not enjoy the same relationship with Captain Woods that I had with Bill Glaser. When it came to seamanship and navigation, the old man trusted me implicitly. By contrast, Woods was a nervous Nellie and prone to look over the OOD’s and the navigator’s shoulders. In the Navy, you take what you get, but I would miss the old man.

The ceremony was one of the few times in my Navy career that I wore full-dress whites with sword. Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony in 1971, and the honored guests at the ceremony were members of a Royal Navy delegation from HMS Tamar, the British naval base in Hong Kong. The commodore brought his wife and daughter, Samantha, to the ceremony, their dresses and elaborate hats adding color to the affair. As Jane would tell you, I’ve always had a thing for English girls, and I enjoyed sitting next to Samantha at lunch in the wardroom following the ceremony (and that evening for dinner at Jimmy’s Kitchen, hubba hubba).


In October, 1971, I was released from active duty at the Naval Station on Treasure Island (TI). The ship was in Yokosuka as my RAD date approached, and I flew from Japan to Travis AFB several days before I was scheduled to be released. I landed at Travis in the early afternoon, took a cab to TI, and checked into the transient BOQ. I was jet-lagged, but I decided to get an early dinner at the O-Club before I turned in. I walked the short distance from the BOQ to the club and entered the bar. I thought I would have a beer before dinner. Sitting at one of the large tables arrayed around the bar were Captain Nelson, several members of the Regulus wardroom, and a couple JAG officers, presumably Nelson’s defense lawyers. They glared at me. Thus, I learned that TI would be the venue for the court martial proceedings, as it turned out, a court martial that never happened. I forgot about the beer and high-tailed it to the dining room.