Captain Kelly Sweeneyâ€™s â€œA Marinerâ€™s Notebook,â€ June/July 2009 issue, brought to mind a long ago incident that still rankles. It involved the SS American Ranger, the Viet Cong, and the United States Navy.
In late January,1968, the SS American Ranger was anchored in the harbor of Danang, South Vietnam, her cargo of ammunition being unloaded to a barge made up to her port side. TheTet offensive was underway and explosions could be seen and heard in the hills overlooking the harbor while the sound of small arms fire was clear. Crew members of the navyâ€™s stevedoring battalion, Cargo Handling Battalion Two, were working the American Ranger and it was obvious that it was going to be a long night. A fire in the engine of an electric forklift, working an aft hold, had been extinguished and both shipâ€™s company and the navy stevedores were on edge. Fire in the hold of an ammunition ship was not something one could take lightly.
About midnight, the stevedoring battalionâ€™s leading petty officer urgently asked for my permission to fire at two Vietnamese men attempting to climb aboard the barge from a small fishing boat. I ran forward, saw the two men trying to scramble out of their boat, and hesitated to give the order to fire. The two men could have been fishermen caught in the middle of a major offensive or, as the leading petty officer pointed out, they could be members of the Viet Cong with more disastrous intentions. To my knowledge, there were no rules of engagement for such situations and I found myself unable to give the Master a convincing reason for my hesitation. Yet, blowing up an ammunition ship in the middle of the harbor would have caused massive destruction of US and allied facilities, as well as to the city of Danang itself.
The shipâ€™s Master sent a flash message to harbor security and, within a few minutes, an old army BARC lumbered up to the bow of the American Ranger and took the two Vietnamese men under fire. They went over the side as their small boat flooded and sank, drifting astern of the ship. The shipâ€™s Master asked me about possibility of mines being placed on his ship, or on the partially loaded barge alongside. We discussed the possibility of a limpet mines, and how vulnerable his ship might be. A decision was made to have the barge removed from alongside the ship, with the Master giving the order to up-anchor and get underway, to move to deeper water outside the harbor. He asked if I wanted to remove my men and I said no, deciding that we would best serve the ship by staying onboard, to provide armed security to the ship, and to provide a sense of confidence to the shipâ€™s crew.
Harbor security replied to the ship, once the Master informed them of his intention to get underway and steam offshore. â€œReturn to anchorage,â€ was their direction, followed by this statement â€œThe VC donâ€™t have limpet mines.â€ Reluctantly, the shipâ€™s Master complied with the orders and the ship reset anchor. And then the fireworks began. Harbor security began launching flares which burst directly over the ship. All the hatches were quickly closed and at least one burning flare was kicked over the side. If the VC couldnâ€™t get us, it seemed likely that harbor security just might.
The navy stevedores set up an armed perimeter along the shipâ€™s rails, with orders to shoot at any approaching swimmer or unidentified boat. Harbor security kept launching flares at us and small security boats routinely began tossing hand grenades in the water, alongside American Ranger and other ships at anchor. Inboard, the sound was of metal hammers slamming against the hull. The shipâ€™s officers and crew prowled the deck the remainder of the night, looking over the shoulders of the armed sailors, while steam was kept up in the engine room. It was a long night, made bearable by the courtesy and professionalism of the shipâ€™s Master, and by the never ending cups of hot coffee coming up from the galley. The occasional conversation inevitably included the question of whether or not the VC had limpet mines. I recall saying, â€œI hope not but, if they do, weâ€™d have known about it by now.â€™
Early the following morning, the shipâ€™s Master and I made our way to the support activity where our views of the nightâ€™s events were heatedly made known to the appropriate official. To say that we were received coolly would be a classic understatement. I later heard that we were made the butt of jokes within some elements of the command,. My relationship with the command was decidedly cool after that. I suspect the officers and crew of American Ranger made plans to never again crew on any flag coming anywhere within range of Danang.
I regret never learning the name of the shipâ€™s Master. He and his crew deserve recognition for their performance and professionalism. Of all the hundreds of ships the battalion worked that year (1967-1968), American Ranger stands out as absolute example of the unheralded US Merchant Marine, quietly performing but never receiving the recognition deserved.
Saverio De Ruggiero
CDR, SC USN (Ret)
Commanding Officer, US Navy Cargo
Handling Battalion Two, Danang, RVN
July 1967 through June 1968