By John Paul Rossie
All hands were at General Quarters; no point in giving away a prize like a U.S. Naval vessel to an eager enemy who might fancy moving light rocket and mortar emplacements into the hills overlooking the water way and chance a lucky shot. The vessel had steamed toward Da Nang all night, eager to reclaim one of its own; a young Lieutenant (Junior Grade).
He had served on the DD less than a year before as First Officer, in charge of the deck crew. Now he was coming back aboard, ceremoniously. A few old friends awaited him. He had left eagerly for his new duty station with the Naval Advisory Group, First Coastal Zone and had done an outstanding job in the short time he was there. He was back again for a brief ride aboard his old destroyer at his own request. But on this cruise, the decks would not echo with the sound of his boisterous belly laugh and good natured back-slapping.
The DD swung wide to bring the starboard side to the cleats as the deck crew threw the lines and drew the hawsers with speed and precision. The young Lieutenant had trained them well. The landing party now had access to the fantail. A work detail was standing by, all other critical hands at battle stations, eyes constantly scanning the surrounding hills. There were few people around to offer an official "Welcome Aboard." The boarding was quick. The ceremony would be later, after the ship had cleared the immediate danger of a harbor attack and proceeded to deeper water.
The black body bag went directly from the deck into the crew's food locker, the only cool spot on board, where it would be preserved from the inevitable ravages of time and temperature, however briefly. There the Lt. would rest until the next morning. The polished Mahogany casket was moved forward to the Boatswain's locker.
At 0800 the following morning, the entire crew, except for the essential watch, assembled on the fantail and on the second-level DASH deck that overlooked it. Everyone was in Dress Whites. The formality of the event demanded a somber attitude and religious demeanor as the crew fell silently into place. This was the last request of a Naval Academy graduate and former crew member.
The choir that practiced all evening and spent the night memorizing the words to the Navy Burial Hymn was assembled at the edge of the DASH deck, overlooking the ranks that stood silently at attention. In the anxiety of the moment, a split second before the agreed-upon cue from a pitch pipe, a nervous seaman started to sing an octave and a half too high and led the group on a disastrous attempt to make melody.
The casket was brought aft on a platform, a huge flag draped over it. The pall bearers walked it to the side and stabilized it on temporary stansions. The distraction of the off-key singing finally halted and a sigh of relief visibly rippled through the entire ranks. After a brief eulogy by the Executive Officer, the shrill whistle of the Boatswain's pipe announced the salute. The pall bearers tipped the platform and the casket slid over the side, out from under the flag and into the water below.
An honor guard dressed in crisp white with starched and almost shining webbed belts and spats, followed the commands that moved their rifles in synchronous motion. Seven young men in a row, aiming at some invisible target 45 degrees up from the horizon, fired three volleys that shattered the still air. The vintage rifles with their bolt-action reload helped to keep the rhythm and timing of the honor guards' shots together. The sharp reports of the guns snapped my consciousness into a heightened reality and an on-edge sense of awareness.
We all watch as the casket bobs in the gently churning waters of the idling engines. Away it floats, bobbing in the gentle swells of a calm sea. Away it floats, in and out of sight like a square buoy. Away it floats. And floats. Up and down, riding the swells, disappearing momentarily before reappearing, slowly moving further and further from the idling ship. It appears that an oversight left the casket air-tight. For whatever reason, it continues to float.
There is a brief scurrying on deck as the Captain calls the First Class Gunner's Mate to his side. The GMG1 disappears for a few minutes as we watch the floating casket. He reappears with an M-16 and three 10-round clips. He goes to the life lines, braces himself, takes careful aim, and fires a magazine at the floating casket. No hit. He changes out the clip and fires again. Ten more rounds. No hit.
The sound of the M-16 is in stark contrast to the silence that had been sealed by the ceremonious cracking of the honor guard's salute. The shots that ring out now have a macabre and ludicrous irony that mocks the solemn dignity of the moment.
The Captain takes the headphones from the fantail watch and talks briefly to the bridge. The engines reverse in an attempt to bring us in closer to the evasive casket. Another clip is emptied, to no avail. We watch as the shiny, reddish-brown box bobs up and down in defiance of our pompous ceremony. The Gunner's Mate sends a runner for more magazines.
The Captain looks stern as the gun is handed to the Chief Gunner's Mate, who has been standing in ranks and only now reluctantly comes forward at the beckoning of the Captain. The Chief empties the clip, hitting the casket, but not stopping the constant bobbing. The coffin refuses to go down.
In frustration, the Captain gives an order to the fantail watch, who relays it to the bridge. The engines rumble beneath our feet as the aft-first destroyer moves closer to the drifting, bobbing casket. The Captain takes the gun, waits until the casket is twenty yards or less off the port side, and empties the clip. Most are hits, as the wood splinters and a large section of the top of the casket is blown away, as is the far side.
We watch it continue to bob, continue to float, to ride the rolling heaves. The casket is only ten yards away now. The Captain hands the gun back to the Gunner's Mate and returns to ranks. The Gunner's Mate fires another burst into the splintered wood, and it slowly begins to fill with water and sink. Without a full lid, the body bag is now visible, letting the weighted casket move from beneath it, down into the clear, blue-green water. The heavy, well-sealed black material, intended to keep the odor in, works well to keep the water out. The black body bag with its incomplete wooden wrapping slowly slides beneath the surface, but remains visible to a depth of ten or fifteen feet, moving back into view every so often, riding the swells just beneath the surface. It slowly sinks toward the bottom, which lies much further below.
The Captain signals "Enough" with a raised hand. The Boatswain pipes "All Secure" and everyone leaves the fantail. I remain, staring at the barely visible remains of an old friend who has just been sadly abused by ignorance and lack of foresight. The splinters mark his grave as they swirl in the receding prop wash, and the echoes of the M-16 still ring in my ears. Sometimes the price of freedom is futility.