Getting a submarine to leave St. Thomas

By Craig Johnson

It had only been two weeks since the Diamond TWR-1 had been ejected from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands by the United States Coast Guard port captain.

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Quartermaster Chief Daniels (QMC), the skipper of the Diamond, had received orders from 10th Naval District Operations sending them back to St. Thomas.  They were to pick up three MK 37 exercise torpedoes from the submarine tender USS Gilmore AS-16 tied up to a pier in San Juan, Porto Rico for delivery to the submarine USS Cutlass SS 478 tied up at the old submarine piers.

The submarine piers were what were left over from the navy station that was there during WWII.  As you enter the harbor, the piers are to the left away from the main part of town.  There were two long wooden piers all the way to the left and next to them was a little point of land that had a bar on it called Pier 2.

When the Diamond arrived, the Cutlass was tied to the pier farthest to the left on the side of the pier closest to town.  This left room for the Diamond to tie up to the pier next to the bow of the Cutlass, which was facing the shore.  This would enable us to swim the torpedoes from our stern to the side of the Cutlass and then they could use their torpedo boom to lift it aboard.

By the time all of the torpedoes had been moved to the Cutlass, it was approximately 16:00 hours (4:00 p.m.). QMC Daniel’s called our crew together and informed the four seamen in deck that since it had been only two weeks since their run-in with the coast guard that this first night he wanted us to take the duty so there would not be any problems with the port captain. To be honest, the seamen had been working continuously for almost 48 hours and did not feel like going ashore anyway.

We talked amongst ourselves and set up a watch rotation.  I and two of the other seaman hit our bunks until it was our turn to stand watch. Around 23:15 (11:15 p.m.), I was woken up to assume the mid watch, 11:45 to 03:45. Over the next two hours almost everyone had come aboard and gone to bed except two firemen.

The night was very clear. Two of the other seaman had awakened and we were sitting on the deck behind to pilot house. We could see the whole harbor since it was lit up with street lights as well as the lights from the buildings. Suddenly, we noticed a small crowd chasing two people down the hill towards the harbor. We kept watching as the two running in the front of the crowd turned on the harbor road heading in our direction. This made us take a closer look.

We grabbed a set of binoculars so we could get a better look at the runners and the crowd.  Imagine our surprise when through the binoculars, Tim, one of the other sailors, saw our two firemen being chased by a crowd of locals with machetes. I told Mike to go and get the chief up as well as the rest of the crew to tell them we were about to be attacked.

This was no time for long descriptions, and I felt that what I just reported, the way it was reported, would get all of them moving faster than anything else we told them. The whole crew was all on deck in minutes, while the two firemen and the crowd were rapidly getting closer to the submarine piers. I was surprised that those two firemen could run that fast for so long. I guess a crowd with machetes is somewhat of an incentive!

At that point Chief Daniels told engineering to light off the engines and for us to single up all lines.  We did this, as they got to the head of the pier just next to the one we were on. It seemed like no time before the two firemen jumped down to our deck and collapsed on deck.  We had taken in all mooring lines except for the one at the bow and the one at the stern.

About that time the crowd arrived at the side of the Diamond and tried to come aboard.  We were able to fend them off with boat hooks, long poles with hooks on the end.  The problem was that slowly but surely, the machetes were shortening our boat hooks. Some time during our interaction with the crowd, the chief got the Diamond underway and moved away from the pier.

The duty officer on the Cutlass had gone to repel boarders when the submarine topside watch had reported that a crowd was approaching with machetes. Chief Daniels asked for permission to tie up alongside the Cutlass and was given permission. This resulted in the locals trying to get aboard the Cutlass in order to get to the Diamond.

So there we were. We had the crew of the Cutlass in hand-to-hand combat with the locals and none of us had been given time to find out what was going on.

Finally the crowd of locals backed down the pier and were milling around while slowly growing larger as more locals started trickling in to join it. This gave the chief time to turn to the two firemen and ask why the locals were trying so hard to get them. This conversation was happening on the fantail of the Diamond and the duty officer on the Cutlass was listening.

Apparently, the two firemen were buying drinks for two of the local girls all evening and then walked them home. When the girls got close to the shacks that they lived in, they started to run away. The girls ran into two of the shacks and locked the doors. When the firemen knocked on the doors, the girls were on the inside laughing at them with whoever was inside. This made the two drunken sailors extremely mad.

They looked around and noticed a diesel bulldozer parked just off the side of the road. One of them jumped on the bulldozer and started it. He then proceeded to pull it up to one shack and scraped the front side of it completely off. He then continued to the second shack and ran it into one side causing it to collapse. The noise had awakened those in other shacks in the area and a crowd had started towards them. That is when the chase began.

Listening to all of this, the officer on the Cutlass ordered the submarine to prepare to get underway. The crowd at the head of the pier had grown to about 40 to 50 islanders.  All of a sudden, the crowd started coming down the pier again.

Chief Daniels decided to get underway too, so we took in all mooring lines and moved farther out into the bay heading towards the harbor mouth. Right behind us very quickly came the Cutlass resulting in the Diamond getting a submarine to leave St. Thomas.

One other thing, the Diamond and the four seamen did not have any problems with the coast guard that night.

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