The [Sad] Carolers

It was 1961, my first –and only – Christmas away from my family and, surprise, surprise, I was doing just fine. In fact, in some ways it was turning into the best Christmas ever, completely free of stress.

USS Los Angeles (CA-135)
USS Los Angeles (CA-135)

I was in the Navy and my ship, U.S.S. Los Angeles [CA-135], was anchored in Victoria Bay, Hong Kong. I was 8,331 miles from my home in Charlotte, N.C.

Weeks earlier I had mailed Christmas presents to my girlfriend, now my wife, Donna Joy Hyland, including a Percy Faith album titled “Music of Christmas,” music she said she played over and over — still does.

Christmas in Hong Kong was going OK. For one thing, there’s not nearly as much work to be done in port and the crew was getting lots of liberty. I was going ashore almost every day. For another, my shipmates and I were all in the same boat, literally and figuratively – everyone was a long way from home, so why whine about it.

I was still OK on Christmas Eve until word was passed that Christmas carolers were approaching our ship.

Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.
Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.

I climbed a ladder to the main deck and saw a gaily lighted tug boat coming toward the L.A. There were a couple of dozen men and women on deck wearing sweaters and scarfs to ward off the chill. Hong Kong was a Crown colony then and these English men and women had come to serenade our ship, to cheer up the American sailors so far from home on Christmas Eve. The tug stopped 20 or 30 yards off our port side, cut its engine, and the carolers began to sing, acapella.

Those old, familiar songs drifting across the water did not cheer me up, quite the opposite. They made me profoundly homesick.

NOTE: Coming one week from today: Lucky’s Best Story.  You can read it, or watch and listen to a video.

Coming Friday: You Think You Can Whip Me?


NOTE ONE: So, what happened? Why was Friday’s story posted a day late?  [The only time that’s happened in almost a year, let me add.] The short answer is I just dropped the ball. I was at Snowbird, in the mountains of North Carolina, with friends and family, pitching shoes, playing Hearts, and sitting around the fire retelling old jokes — not the start to finish, of course, just the punch lines.

And I forgot.

NOTE TWO:  I went on a six-day hike in the Grand Canyon last month [Oct. 17-22].  It was interesting and I’m going to write about it soon.

And now, today’s story:

In 1961 my ship, USS Los Angeles, ran from Nancy, a super typhoon with wind speeds of 215 mph, the strongest ever measured in a tropical cyclone.

The path of Typhoon Nancy.
The path of Typhoon Nancy.

But we didn’t run quite fast enough, apparently, or far enough.  Or Nancy was just too big to completely escape.

During the height of the storm the Los Angeles, a heavy cruiser, was battened down from one end to the other. No one was allowed on deck.

Standing watch on the bridge I saw waves crash across the main deck, land on top of the number two turret, and splatter the windows of the bridge.

It was a heck of a storm.

USS Los Angeles, CA-135
USS Los Angeles, CA-135

We sat on benches in the enlisted men’s mess deck and ate off tables with rims. In rough weather you held your tray with one hand and ate with the other. If you got up to get more milk — there was a milk dispenser in each compartment — you had to time your move just right, so you could get back to your tray before the ship rolled again.

Destruction in Japan.
Destruction in Japan from Typhoon Nancy.

A guy across from me, at the end of the table, had bad timing. And when his tray began sliding, both of the sailors directly across from me pick up their trays and let the sliding tray go right on by, to the other end of the table, where it jumped the rim and made a mess on the deck.  The two guys set their trays back on the table, acted as if nothing had happened, and kept on eating. Never said a word.

But the thing I remember best is the water fountain on our mess deck. During the typhoon the LA rolled so hard that when you turned on the fountain water fell on the deck.

Here's a photo that were blown ashore.
Two ships that were blown ashore.

Postscript: The Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense newspaper, reported in September 1961 that at least 1,056 ships and fishing vessels were sunk or blown ashore by Typhoon Nancy and many more were damaged.

Coming Friday: Squelched