Knox on the Rocks

Vietnam 1965 – 1966

USS Reeves 

We had been taking R&R at our home port in Yokosuka , Japan for a couple of weeks.  As we cleared the Japanese straits on our way south back to Yankee Station, we began seeing message traffic about the USS Knox DDR 742, which had hit Pratas reef on its way to Hong Kong .  As we came through the Luzon strait, between Taiwan and the Philippine Islands, we received orders from Seventh Fleet to proceed to the aid of USS Knox.  Within a few hours, we anchored about four miles West  of the Knox, which to all appearances was underway, but making no headway.  Sonar reported numerous solid coral peaks in the vicinity, and recommended that we go no closer.  We put over a boat with the Supply Officer and a majority of our picnic supplies and a  load of non-perishable food items along with a supply of canned items that could be eaten cold.  Since she had no power, every meal was an open air repast.  Even though part of her problem had been that she couldn’t take a star sight because of cloud cover (we found out later), there was no overcast to relieve the heat of the sun.

We took on part of her crew, and one of the carriers showed up in a couple of days to take on the remainder of those who would be transferred.  That enabled us to get the story of what had happened to cause this radar picket ship to go aground on a charted reef, and almost go over it into the lagoon around the island.

On the day before the Knox went aground, there had been message traffic concerning a tidal wave that was said to be moving across the Pacific from somewhere North of the Philippines and East of Okinawa.  We in fact had read that traffic, and thought perhaps we had seen the wave as we passed over its reported position as we came South from Japan .  At sea, a major tidal wave is hardly discernible from the surrounding sea, since it has plenty of room below it to allow the energy to keep circulating.  Only when it comes to a sloping shoreline does it rise up to the extreme heights that have been reported.

As we got the story from one of the crew, a series of mishaps and bad management emerged as the culprits in the mishap.  While in port at Olangapo the executive officer, who was also the navigator, was transferred back to the States, and his successor came aboard and assumed his new duties the day before the ship got underway for Hong Kong .  They got underway with rain and heavy overcast, which persisted for several days.  This meant that they had no star shots or sun lines to give them navigational information.  Loran was notoriously bad all over the South China Sea , useless for determining their position, and GPS was unheard of in those days. Thus, they were reduced to using the Dead Reckoning Tracer for their basic navigation tool.  This method cannot allow for the effects of wind and current, not can it detect the difference between actual ship’s speed and ordered speed, because it takes its speed input from the screw shaft.  For all intents and purposes, then, the Knox was proceeding on its merry way to an R&R port for about four days with no way of determining how far off course she was.  On the midwatch, with the Knox underway from the Philippine harbor of Olangapo to Hong Kong , she had deviated North of her desired track about 120 miles.  This of course was unknown to any of the officers or men on board, since they were dependent on the DRT for  their position information, however faulty that might be.  The port lookout reported to the Officer of the Deck (OOD) that he smelled fish.  The significance of that report is that one never smells fish while at sea unless he on a fishing boat.  The smell of fish is a sure sign that you are near land.  The OOD apparently did not understand the significance of this, for there was no response.  Very shortly thereafter, the lookout reported that he could see a line of foam ahead.  The OOD saw the line of foam, said, “Oh, that must be the tidal wave.  We’ll meet it head on.” , and came left to meet the line of foam squarely.  That line of foam was the surf on the coral reef surrounding a lagoon.  The tide was in, with about five to six feet of water covering the reef– just enough to allow the ship to ride up onto the reef without ripping out the keel.  The stop was not so sudden that anyone was injured seriously.  When daylight came, the sailors were greeted by the sight of the natives walking out to the ship in three or four feet of water. 

As the story went, on the second or third day following to grounding, the captain was standing on the bridge of the Knox.  The officer who had been the OOD came onto the bridge behind him and spoke to him.  The captain, with his contemplation of his shattered career interrupted, swung with a roundhouse blow and knocked the culprit several feet away – the stories say he flew through the air – and stalked off the bridge.  Charges were never brought, as far as we ever knew.  In the officers’ club at Olangapo, the most popular drink was called the Knox on the Rocks.  Investigation found that there were no charts for the area out in the chart room, nor had the charts for that area been updated for more than a year.  As noted above, no star sightings had been taken, and with no cognizance that land might be anywhere in the vicinity, any radar sightings would have just been discounted.  As we approached, our sonar was telling us that there were coral heads all around, so that we stopped at least 1500 yards short of the grounding site.

A major rescue effort followed, with the objective to get the Knox off the reef and get her repaired.  Several weeks later, we had heard that some of the proposed methods of getting her off included filling her with Ping-Pong balls, among others.  Finally we saw the message traffic saying that the consultants had settled on filling her spaces that were open to the sea with plastic foam to float her off.  That in fact is how she was removed from the rocks, and was towed in to Kao Hsiung , Taiwan where the Ship Repair Facility plated over the damaged skin so she could be taken to Yokosuka , where she was rebuilt.  The Japanese sent crews below decks with ice picks and chisels to gouge out the foam, then found that her wiring and much of the piping needed to be replaced.  After about three years, I read in a journal that she had been rebuilt to the extent that she was in better shape than any of her contemporaries, and served throughout the remainder of  the action in the Vietnam War.

The story as told in Navy Archives.