If ships could talk
In occasional flights of fancy, I’ve wondered: What if cars and trains and ships could talk like they do in those immensely popular television shows and movies for children? More specifically, what if these vehicles could talk about their lives?
Think of the stories jeepneys could tell, descendants of American war Jeeps left behind after World War II. Most of the jeepneys running on our roads today are no longer the original Jeeps and are instead fabricated locally somewhat like Frankenstein: the body built from local materials but the engine cannibalized from other vehicles. For decades, they attracted tourists with their gaudy colors, decorations and, what do you call them—paintings, murals, graffiti?
The jeepney “art” do allow the jeepneys to speak, telling you about the owner’s family members (sometimes complete with photo-paintings of the children, and their names — on taxicabs you
only get the names), or the ubiquitous “Katas ng Saudi,” meaning the vehicle was purchased with the sweat (blood and tears?) of an overseas Filipino worker in Saudi Arabia.
Alas, today’s jeepneys are now dull, just gray aluminum, looking like weary senior citizens who’ve given up the spirit. It’s really a form of 70-year-old technology trying to survive in the 21st century, and will be a political flashpoint this year as government tries to phase out the older vehicles.
Then there are the trucks, many of them from Japan, still retaining their company markings, as well as other inscriptions like “Danger” and “Caution,” usually in kanji (Chinese characters adopted by the Japanese). If they could talk they would have many stories from the thousands of voyages they’ve made, delivering goods across Japan.
The buses used to come from Japan but seem to be mostly Chinese now. No stories to tell here; many of them, I think, were purchased new, or slightly used.
I think if there are interesting stories to tell, it would come from seafaring vessels. We have our many interisland vessels that are decades old, many veterans of marine adventures … and tragedies.
Naval vessels are another matter and I discovered their potential for storytelling quite accidentally. I was looking up information about Poro Point in La Union and found out that when the Americans had their military base there, it was named the Wallace Air Station, which was renamed Naval Station Ernesto Ogbinar when the station was turned over to the Philippines. Reflecting our blind spots with names and places, there was information in the Wikipedia entry about Wallace, who it turns out was an American soldier killed during the Philippine-American War, but nothing on Ogbinar except that he had been a “naval chief.”
I googled and the only information I got was that he had indeed been flag officer in command. While roaming the internet though, I found an old post of an interview with naval captain Domingo Tucay about how Philippine naval officers had laid claim to the Spratly Islands in a top-secret military assignment during the Marcos era, making their way around the BRP Quezon, which had a colorful past life first built by the British Navy and named the HMS Exploit and then became the USS Vigilance with the Americans. It was deployed in the Asia-Pacific theater, including minesweeping in Leyte. Like people, ships get awards, too and the USS Vigilance got three battle stars. She (yes, ships are female) was passed on to the Philippines in 1967 and renamed the BRP Quezon.
Reading about the BRP Quezon reminded me of an article in the New York Times in 2013 about a lonely ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, patrolling the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The Sierra Madre was “born” in 1944, built by the US Navy and first named the LST 821, which saw action in the bloody 81-day Battle of Okinawa, involving more than a hundred naval vessels from the United States and Japan, with a few from the British Navy. The Japanese also deployed kamikaze pilots on suicide missions, a desperate attempt to defend Okinawa. So fierce was the battle it is referred to by the Japanese as tetsu no ame or rain of steel. By some accounts, almost half of Okinawa’s population was killed during this battle.
After the war, the LST 821 went into semi-retirement, renamed the USS Harnet County. In 1970, only 26 years old, it was again decommissioned but later transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy, which renamed it the RVNS My Tho, presumably used in the war against North Vietnam. It was a large ship—a Wikipedia entry shows a helicopter on its deck during the Vietnam War.
As Saigon fell in April 1975, several of the South Vietnamese Navy vessels were hastily moved to Subic Bay in the Philippines. Among the vessels was the My Tho, which in 1976 became a Philippine Navy ship, the BRP Sierra Madre. We find similar life histories with several US Navy vessels deployed during World War II and the Vietnam War before ending up in the Philippines. In other words, we ended up with thirdhand naval vessels.
There is a gap in the information about the Sierra Madre’s life in the Philippines, suggesting a relatively uneventful period until 1999, when it was intentionally run aground on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, a way of staking Philippine territorial claims in the area.
The New York Times article called attention to the ship’s pitiful state, gaping holes on the sides, water in the ship’s hold. Typically Filipino, there was even a fighting cock on the ship.
The naval personnel were active, playing a cat and mouse game monitoring Chinese naval vessels and reporting their movements. There are news articles mentioning a close encounter in 2014 between the Chinese Coast Guard and a fishing vessel delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre. The Chinese tried to block the fishing vessel but sailors got through, flashing a V sign. The Taiwanese media, who were eager to create intrigue because of Taiwan’s claims to some of the islands, said that the Filipino fisherfolk were mocking the Chinese by flashing a victory sign. The Filipinos denied that claim, saying they were flashing a peace sign. Whatever, the Sierra Madre did get its supplies.
In 2015, the Philippine Navy announced it had started maintenance repair on the Sierra Madre and that is the last we hear about this senior citizen that will turn 74 this year, a lolo ship now.
If ships could speak, they would tell stories of war and peace, of the lives of the sailors, and maybe share thoughts on how nations care, or don’t care enough, about its past, present and future.
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