“Hong Kong & The Formosa Straits”

Memory from: Machinist Mate 1st class Joseph Mergen

Setting the Scene

Hong Kong has long been a strategic port in the Far East. A potential Cold War flashpoint between Communist China and Great Britain (it was at that time a British colony), its location just south of the Formosa Straits (yet another flashpoint) insured that it was often visited by American vessels protecting Taiwan (Formosa) against invasion from mainland China. The KIDD often made port here during the Korean War and the Cold War and in this recollection, Machinist Mate 1st class Joseph Mergen recounts his own experiences in Hong Kong in 1951.

The Recollection

When I spoke to you last, you had asked me to write about some of my experiences while serving on the KIDD. I’ll try to tell you a few little tales of my tour of duty aboard her. As for combat stories, I wish to forget. One of my first days on the KIDD, I was told to go up and get a bucket of water; a joke the other sailors played on the new guys. The fact that it was one of my first days on the ship, dark and stormy, and the only guy on the deck, I was just a little scared. As I came up out of the aft engineroom and started walking, something hit me in the leg. I thought I was gone for sure. Here it was a flying fish that had hit me in the leg. It scared the crap out of me. As we were in the Straits of Formosa [Taiwan], we ran into mountainous rolling waves about 100 feet high. We could not see the 85-foot masts of the ships next to us. An old chief on board the KIDD at the time didn’t believe in sea sickness and had never had it himself. He would say, “It’s all in your head.” But this time, the poor guy was the only one sick. I can still see him throwing up and white as a sheet. When we docked in Hong Kong, there were always “Bum Boats” (extremely poor people in tiny boats that would pull alongside of us begging for food). My first time docking in Hong Kong, I was eating an apple and threw the core over the side of the ship.

Two guys from Bum Boats dove off their boats into the water to get the apple core. That’s how desperately hungry they were. Once, the KIDD made an arrangement with some of the people on the Bum Boats. We supplied the paint and they painted the ship in exchange for all of the garbage on the KIDD. I remember going into Hong Kong on R&R. We were told not to buy liquor from the Bum Boats alongside of us. Three guys did anyway and got the “screaming gimmies.” It took six guys to hold one of them down. If it wasn’t for doctors from a British ship, they would have died. When you went ashore there, the kids asked “Shoeshine, swabie?” We said, “No” and got hit with black shoeshine polish across the backside. So after that, whenever the kids would ask, we said, “Sure thing.” Black shoe polish didn’t look very good on our white uniforms. When we left Hong Kong one time, the captain [Commander Robert E. Jeffery] gave us all a red cap with a skull and crossbones on it. We all wore our caps, and we flew the skull and crossbones flag high and proud. But when we refueled alongside a carrier, the admiral of that carrier had a different view. He gave us five minutes to get the flag down and get rid of every cap. In a few minutes, there was a skull and crossbones to be seen.

One morning when I woke up, we were all alone. No other ships from our task force could be seen, which was very unusual. We were headed into the Yellow Sea. At dusk, we headed toward China. We were close to the coast of China; very close. I was told within a half mile. At exactly midnight, a plane flew overhead, I think to use us as a marking point. Had the pilot known that every gun was on him as he came by, he might not have been too happy. Right after the plane flew over us, we got the hell out of there as fast as we could as we were in Chinese territorial waters. When I finished my tour on the KIDD, I served on Luzon [the Philippines]. When I first got there, some of my buddies counted twenty-seven burns just on my back. The engineroom where I worked on the KIDD often reached temperatures of 125 degrees. With the extreme temperatures, very narrow and cramped walkways, boiling hot pipes, and the rocking of the ship, it was easy to get burned.