Not So Merry Christmas

by Daniel Horodysky, Berkeley Daily Planet, December 26, 1999

It was not a merry Christmas for the crew of the SS Badger State 30 years ago, carrying 8,900 bombs and rockets for the U.S. Air Force from Bangor Naval Ammunition Depot (Washington) to DaNang, South Vietnam.

It was their eighth consecutive day fighting for their lives in their storm-lashed ship. The bombs, some of them 2,000 pounders, had not been loaded properly and were rolling back and forth with each motion of the ship, constantly slamming against each other and the inside of the hull. The crew could see that many bombs were out of their cases.

The crew worked frantically, jamming anything and everything between the bombs in an attempt to stop the rolling: mattresses, lifejackets, chairs, mooring ropes, hatchboards, and even frozen meat. They tried for calmer seas. Nothing helped. The constant battering punched small holes in the hull and in a tween-deck hatch, which covered the opening between different levels in the cargo hold. Bombs fell through from one level to the next.

On December 26th, about 1,200 miles from Midway Island, bombs exploded in a hold, blowing a 12 by 8-foot hole in the hull just above the waterline. Fire swept through the hold, and the Captain gave orders to his crew of thirty-nine to abandon ship. Waves were 30 feet high, rain was heavy, and winds were over 40 knots. As men climbed into a lifeboat, a 2,000-pound bomb rolled out the hole in the side of the ship and capsized the lifeboat.

A Greek freighter came to their rescue, tossing heaving lines to the men struggling in the water, but the combined attack of giant waves and albatrosses washed away 26 of the crew. Ten days of fires and explosions racked the SS Badger State before she sank.

The SS Badger State was chartered by the Military Sea Transportation Service, an arm of the U.S. Navy, which supplemented its own fleet with commercial ships during the Vietnam War. They carried 95% of the supplies used by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, including airplanes, personnel carriers, patrol boats, medicines, and ice cream. MSTS crewmembers had identification with Navy rank in event of enemy capture.

American mariners first came in harm's way in Vietnam in February 1951, when terrorists tossed 17 hand grenades at the MSTS-operated aircraft carrier Windham Bay in Saigon. The first of 138 documented enemy actions against MSTS/MSC chartered and owned ships took place in May 1964, when the "baby flattop" USNS Card was sunk near Saigon by a mine placed by Viet Cong skin divers.

In December 1965 the SS Empress Baltimore received orders to shift to another dock in the harbor at Qui Nhon. Two crewmen went ashore to locate the Captain, and were captured by the Viet Cong. The remains of one were identified 10 years later; the other is still listed as POW/MIA.

Seven mariners lost their lives aboard the San Francisco-based SS Baton Rouge Victory in August 1966 when a limpet mine, placed on the freighter's hull by a swimmer, was detonated electronically from the riverbank. The ship was in the Long Tao River, about 22 miles from Saigon, carrying military trucks and other heavy equipment.

According to an unofficial count, listed on this website's Vietnam page, forty-six American mariners made the ultimate sacrifice in that "War Without a Front." It is time they are recognized as veterans and their names added to the Vietnam Wall.

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