We had just arrived at dawn, from a cruise off the coast of Cambodia, to the Swift Boat base at An Thoi, Phu Quoc Island. It was another hot rainy morning near the end of March 1967. The USS Oxford was getting set to drop anchor. It was always fun to watch the anchor detail.
The port anchor was the one to be dropped, to hold us in place some 100 yards of the Swift Boat floating dock. Our ship slowed, a whistle was blown, and the five man anchor detail were in place. One man stood over the anchor chain, leaning against a large sledge hammer. Another, seated on a metal seat welded to the capstan. His job was to turn a wheel to apply the brakes to the capstan to slow down, or stop the anchor chain. A supervisor, A first class petty officer, coordinated the whole operation. Two other men of lower rank held a fire hose, used for washing off the corrosive seawater. They had to stand by since they were part of the anchor detail. Some buddies, and I stood back as sidewalk supervisors, watching. We would get wet, rain showers were common for the month of March in this area of the world.
The Ox was drifting a bit as two men took soundings, dropping a heavy lead weight to the bottom, counting the knots in the line to see how many fathoms to the bottom. They relayed the information to the bridge over a walkie- talkie. A crack of thunder, and the rain came. The signal to drop came down from the bridge and the man with the sledge hammer gave an upswing and brought the big hammer down against the catch, freeing the rude. The anchor chain or cable is called a rude because it wakes up everyone on the ship when it plays out with a great rattle and din.
The anchor is not dropped lightly. There are many factors which must be considered before hitting the catch, and releasing the rude. Depth, and conditions on the seabed are the major factors. Loose sand or mud is not a good seabed, nor is coral. Up to date charts are a must. The tide, and local currents are factored in, also. Getting it wrong can have disasterous consequences.
Crack! The chain began to reel out over the capstan, and seconds passed as the whole of the 300 foot long Oxford shook and trembled with the din of the anchor reeling out, going faster and faster as if it could not reach the bottom fast enough. I could see an immediate look of concern on the Boatswains face, and he yelled at the brakeman to begin turning the wheel which opened the steam brakes to stop the capstan. Only the capstan was not stopping the chain and the chain began to reel out faster. Even worse, thick black smoke came off the brake drums, and they would have caught fire if the fire hose wasn't trained onto the drum to cool them off. Now the Boatswain had a look of panic and ordered the brakes to be applied full. The brake drums began to scream as the brake pads burned right off. Still the chain reeled out, and began to lift off the capstan, into the air like a serpent. I didn't have to be told to scatter, neither did anyone else. The Boatswain screamed at the top of his lungs: "Take cover!" We ran aft, for our lives, slipping on the wet deck. When I looked back from around the corner of the main deck house, the heavy chair was arching some 50 feet in the air in a great loop.
When the chain reached the bitter end, which was heavily welded to the chain locker bulkhead, it was like the ship got hit with an Exercet Missile. A heavy explosion rocked the ship, and the ship rocked to port, and then to starboard. Huge pieces of chain and steel were embedded in the deck, on the bulkheads under the bridge, and in the large drum-like cannisters used to house sensitive electronics gear for the antenna attached to the top of it. A 50 ton fluked standard naval anchor lay at the bottom, along with some 40 fathoms of heavy chain. The Captain came out on the fantail and looked down at a sorry looking, and wet anchor detail and shook his head in disgust. But, he did not chew them out, he was just happy to see no one was injured. He would take the blame for the loss of one of our two anchors. The Captain was re-assigned a few weeks later, though I'm quite sure it was because his tour was up. He was a great Captain, and well respected on board, by the whole crew and was given a very warm send-off once he was relieved.
UDT, (Underwater Demolition Team) US Navy SEALs, tried to recover the anchor and chain. They just did not have the equipment to raise the end of the chain. As far as I know, the anchor and chain lay in Davy Jones's Locker, off the coast of An Thoi. For the next 11 months, the USS Oxford went around with only one anchor. I got off the Ox in 1968, and assigned to another duty station, before a new anchor was installed. And for hanging around watching the anchor detail when I should have been doing something else, I was handed a small sledge hammer and a chisel and was assigned extra duty digging the chunks of steel out of the deck and bulkheads. My pals worked next to me, cursing themselves for coming along to watch.