Unusual Sightings – Vietnam

In November 1967 the war was in full swing and I was on another trip with general and military cargo to the theater, this time as Second Mate aboard the SS “STEEL FLYER” to Nha Trang, S. Viet Nam.
When I was called for the morning 4-8 watch I made my regular swing by the galley where the baker was already up and grabbed a cup of coffee to take with me to the bridge. Going up the inside ladders I was aware of how smoothly the ship was riding and looked forward to a quiet, uneventful watch as we approached the coast.
As usual, I stopped off briefly in the chart room to check our position before going through the black-out curtain to the wheelhouse where I relieved the Third Mate. We were about 200 miles offshore at the time, the sea was very calm with only a very long, low swell. Visibility was excellent, and, after verifying the course and scanning the horizon for traffic I took my coffee out to the bridge wing to let some of the cobwebs disappear.
What had been scorching daytime weather had now become balmy in the early morning darkness. There was already a scent of land in the air, and all of us were ready to get ashore after the long crossing from MOTBA (Military Overseas Transport Bay Area, Oakland, CA), even though we knew there wasn’t much ashore in Nha Trang. It was a pleasant time with only the apparent wind due to the ship’s motion, a flat sea, bright stars and the swish of the bow wave passing the bridge the only sound. On the bridge we couldn’t even hear the hiss of the steam engine – very much unlike the noisy diesels of today – only the irregular ticking of the gyro- compass.
I went back into the wheelhouse to chitchat with the helmsman for a bit, re-checked our position using recently-installed Loran stations along the Vietnamese coast, pre-computed star positions for sextant readings during the approaching twilight and settled in for the watch.
At about 0430 the wheelhouse phone rang and it was my lookout on the bow. He reported a green light on the port beam that appeared to be moving along with us. I grabbed some binoculars and went out onto the port bridge wing to take a look.
Sailing in waters off Viet Nam during this period it was not unusual for darkened Navy vessels to approach unannounced and then challenge us using Morse Code on their signal lamp. Unlike merchant vessels like ours which used white light, the Navy often used blue or green. When signal lights are turned on, but the louvers not opened, the light behind the louvers is always visible on a dark night.
When I focused on the light it appeared round and its distance was impossible to judge. It was surely moving along on a parallel course at our speed, so I did the obvious and looked for a bow wave. Although it was a moonless night, there was enough starlight to see our own wave, and I expected to see one on our visitor. None was seen, but I didn’t think much about it at the time.
Anticipating a challenge of “WSWB” (what ship where bound?), I turned on the signal lamp on our bridge wing and waited. I don’t recall how long I stood there, but it must have been several minutes. During this time the light remained constant on our port beam. It was pale green, not especially bright, but clearly visible to the naked eye. Inspecting it through binoculars it looked much the same; round with somewhat fuzzy edges consistent with a vessel’s light at distance.
My thoughts at the time were impatience and irritation. Navy vessels have numerous people on the bridge while at sea, including two full-time signalmen. Merchant ships have an unlicensed helmsman and the mate on watch. I had better things to do than stand around on the bridge wing waiting for a signal from yet another Navy ship. Well, other than keeping a close eye on the course and horizon for other traffic, there wasn’t much to do until star time, but I was irritated all the same.
On a dark, empty night, any light is cause for one’s attention, so my bow lookout and I were both watching this one almost continuously as it rode along beside us. Since I hadn’t seen a bow wave, I had concluded that it was much farther away than we originally thought – maybe even a carrier hull-down on the horizon. This seemed unlikely, however, since all carrier groups have escort vessels which would surely be the ones to challenge any vessel approaching their formation.
As we idly watched the light, it suddenly began to grow in size and brightness, and it was obvious that it was coming directly toward us at a very high rate of speed. It appeared to me to be at the same level as the bridge wing, about 50′ above the water, and its speed of advance was so extreme that I initially thought it to be much closer than I had estimated. But, it kept coming toward us for several seconds, getting bigger and brighter the entire time.
The sea beneath the object was bathed in green light as it approached and it passed over the ship at what seemed to be very close proximity and extremely high rate of speed. When I turned my head to follow its path I was surprised to realize that I had involuntarily and unknowingly backed about 30′ from the bridge wing into the wheelhouse, so I couldn’t see it as it disappeared over the horizon to starboard. In my confusion, the most interesting thing to me at the time was that I had stepped backwards over a 12″ sill without tripping as I entered the wheelhouse.
Regaining some of my senses it dawned on me that whatever it was there had been absolutely no noise or air displacement at its passing. The helmsman and I didn’t say a word, but after a few seconds the phone was ringing again in the wheelhouse. It was my bow lookout, “Can I come up on the bridge, mate?”. I said OK.
I called the Old Man and reported the event. When informed that it was gone and no longer in sight, he simply ordered me to note the location and time on the chart and in the log book. Later we sent an advice to Notice to Mariners, a weekly publication distributed to vessels for chart corrections, unusual sightings and other information of interest to navigators. It was published, but I’ve never heard another word or similar report.
At the time, the three of us who saw this light were convinced that it had to be something to do with the military. But 40 years have passed since then, and, to my knowledge, there is nothing that came out of that period that could travel at extreme speed without sound or displacement. It cannot be disputed that it was tracking us, although I never did have any real idea of how far off it was when it moved along beside us.
Unfortunately, with fair and clear weather, we did not have our radar on at the time of this incident. I may have turned it on after we spotted the light, but radar in those days took several minutes to warm up and wouldn’t have been ready before it was gone.
A UFO? Well, it was certainly unidentified and flying, so I guess it was.
By Professional Mariner Staff