I served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 4 years during the Vietnam War. I was stationed on the USCG Cutter Mellon for 2 of those years, homeported in Honolulu. I boarded Mellon as a newly graduated Radioman Seaman (E-3) and departed as a Radioman Second Class, soon to be Radioman First Class Petty Officer (E-6). We sailed throughout the Pacific, including for a 6-month WESTPAC deployment to Vietnam.
What nautical experiences visiting various coastal cities and harbors do I remember best? What might impress or pique the interest of a current-day cruiser most? It all depends. The following describes my maritime memories of certain ports while in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The important point here is that no matter in which port of call you arrive, there will be new, interesting, and fun things to see, do, and experience. New cultures to embrace, new foods to sample, and new people to meet. I will try to impart memories — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
1. Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
Pearl Harbor holds a special place in my maritime memories. Mellon must have entered and docked at Pearl for one reason or another a half-dozen times during my time on board. Mostly for training, loading supplies, or for repairs and outfitting prior to deployment.
I had some appreciation of what occurred on December 7, 1941, but not many details. I knew that the USS Arizona Memorial was important. So I was surprised and somewhat taken aback when we moored near it one time.
Pearl Harbor is not open to cruise ships, but visiting is allowed. Given its significance in our American history it is well worth a visit whenever in Oahu.
2. Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong
The sea approaches to Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong were the most dramatic that I saw. The Mellon made its way into the harbor slowly and deliberately, navigating passage around numerous small, oddly shaped conical islands as well as numerous small boats and crafts on an overcast morning. It was a complex course with multiple course changes, but we made it, and we eventually dropped anchor in the harbor for several days R&R after a deployment off the coast of Vietnam.
3. Singapore Harbor
I don’t remember the approaches to Singapore’s harbor, but I distinctly remember the taxi drive from the British naval base into the city. The land was lush, verdant, and reminded me of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Guess I was a little homesick.
I also remember convincing my buddies to come with me to the famous Raffles Hotel for a drink. A five-star place before five stars was a thing. I’m not sure how I knew about that hotel, but it might have been related to the fact that my father was in Singapore during WWII as an OSS operative. He must have recommended it. Oh so special!
If I hadn’t been on a ship I wouldn’t have had the experience. Sail where you can when you can.
4. The Port Of Bangkok, Thailand
The approach to Bangkok was a long, slow, 25-mile run up the Chao Phraya River. Mellon had a length of 378 feet, a beam of 43 feet, and a draft of 15 feet. And it seemed to me at the time that the fit was a bit snug. Would we fit? I wasn’t sure we’d make it to the eventual mid-river anchorage. But again, we did, and went ashore for more R&R.
One lasting memory is olfactory. The smell of the air in Bangkok was completely overwhelming. Not unpleasant, but different from that in any other place I had ever been. Probably just a mixture of heat, humidity, and humanity. I wonder sometimes if it remains.
5. Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan
Kaohsiung, located on the west side of Taiwan, was interesting. We were due to have yet another R&R period. (It’s beginning to sound like Coasties take a lot of vacation time.) All was well at the start. We arrived at an anchorage in the harbor, set the anchor watch, and were preparing to go ashore when a long-range weather forecast was received noting that a typhoon might be bearing down on the city in the not too distant future. Considering the risks, we weighed anchor, headed out to sea to ride out the storm, then never returned. Back to Vietnam.
Sigh… we dodged a storm that time. The next time we did not. For that story, read my previous article on sailing the Pacific Ocean.
6. Honolulu Harbor, Hawaii
This was Mellon’s home port. Tough duty!
It is, actually, a somewhat small and prosaic harbor. Not too many ships coming and going back then. I remember the Aloha Tower across from the USCG base on Sand Island. Cruise ships docked adjacent to the tower. We did, too, several times. I liked docking there because it was easier to get to Waikiki Beach than from the CG base. Always practicable. Always thinking about R&R.
But one incident has been seared into my mind. A fellow petty officer who shared Petty Officer of the Watch duties with me and others was bored one afternoon when docked near Aloha Tower. These duties included guarding the gangway entrance to the ship. To ease his boredom, he began practicing his quick draw technique with an unloaded .45 caliber weapon. Suddenly, he felt pressure in his back and was ordered to drop his weapon. Startled, he did, only to see Mellon’s captain standing behind him with a finger in his back. That young man never stood on watch again!
7. San Diego Harbor, California
If ever there was a Navy town, San Diego is it. We arrived following an Ocean Station November patrol between Hawaii and California. During these patrols, the duty Coast Guard ship would stay in a 10-mile square area of the Pacific and provide navigation assistance to overhead commercial airliners, conduct weather and oceanographic readings, and be available for rescue and assistance operations as needed. About one month at a time.
San Diego is a popular port for military folks. Sun, fun, and R&R. However, despite just coming off patrol for 30 days, we were scheduled to participate in exercises with the Navy. And we dutifully did. As a radioman, I was privy to more than many on the ship. We were supposed to sortie with the USS Enterprise for drills. Enterprise at the time was the premiere nuclear aircraft carrier.
She got underway first. Mellon followed. Or tried to do so. Despite our gas turbine jet engines, Enterprise left us in the mist. We could not keep up. Funny today. Embarrassing then.
8. Yokosuka Harbor, Japan
We were doing back-to-back Ocean Station Victor patrols during winter of 1970. Yokosuka was and still is a huge U.S. Navy base in Japan. Sorry, no cruise ships here.
I have few memories of this time, but one that I do have is personally embarrassing but emblematic of the kindness of the Japanese people. I had taken a train to Tokyo to see the sights. And I did. Solitary U.S. sailor in Japan. I don’t remember where I went or what I saw. But I do remember the following: I boarded a train back to Yokosuka, during “rush hour.” It was totally packed, like sardines in a tin. I’m 6 foot. Most of the Japanese were much shorter. Suddenly, I got sick and vomited over everyone nearby. I cringed. Mortified!
The Japanese passengers were calm angels. They quickly offered me a seat and handkerchiefs to clean myself, ignoring their own needs and discomforts. I survived that day, but the experience has left a lasting memory: kind people taking care of an ill foreign sailor.
9. An Thoi, Vietnam
Not exactly a harbor. Actually, a village on the southern end of Phu Quoc Island, off the southwestern coast of Vietnam. To this day, I’m not sure why I was allowed to go ashore. I think, as a radioman, I was asked to pick up mail from a nearby naval landing ship. I did and was then offered the “opportunity” to go ashore. Clueless, I accepted.
Upon landing, I walked into a compound and was met by several armed Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers and Special Forces operators, fully equipped. Locked and loaded. I had a Buck knife clipped to my belt. They had no chance against me.
Since they were on my team, however, I graciously backed away and fled back to Mellon. A fighting and very sensible Coastie…
10. Naval Station Subic Bay, Philippines
Subic Bay, in the Philippines, was the primary port supporting U.S. Naval Forces during the Vietnam conflict. Mellon visited several times for repairs, outfitting, resupplying, and R&R. Ships moored alongside ships, three to four abreast. Amazing sight.
Though I do remember garbage and unpleasant odors, this port had a scenic entrance with tree-covered hills rising abruptly from the sea, and if open to cruise ships today would be a fascinating place to visit, not the least for historic reasons.
I loved traveling the Pacific Ocean on Mellon back in the day. And still love shipping now, some 50 years later, as an “old salt” on cruise ships today. If I ever get the opportunity to revisit the ports noted above, I will. They were fascinating then, and probably more so today!