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Memories aboard the USS Okanogan

(Editor’s note: John E. McGee Jr. was a guest of honor at the second annual Okanogan Fly-In. Mr. McGee’s connection to Okanogan began on Sept. 21, 1967, two days and 56 years before he had ever set foot in the Okanogan Valley. On Sept. 23, the McGee’s received a tour of the Okanogan from Fire Chief Jeremy Patrick in a fire truck, along with self-guided tours of Frank Matsura murals and the Okanogan County Historical Museum. Okanogan Mayor Wayne Turner presented McGee Jr. with a ceremonial key to the city.)

By John E. McGee Jr.

Special to Okanogan Living

“Request permission to come aboard. ENS. John McGee Reporting for duty.”

So began my relationship with the USS Okanogan (APA-220) on September 21, 1967. The USS Okanogan was a Haskell Class Attack Transport. It was configured to carry a full landing battalion (1,500) of infantry troops and their associated equipment for landing via LCVP’s (Higgins boats) and LCM’s over a hostile beach. Troops were loaded into the LCVP’s via cargo nets hung over the side of the ship at ten debark stations on the ship. Each LCVP held 36 troops and a crew of three or four. My assignment during amphibious operations was wave officer in the third of four waves of boats, four boats in each wave.

My roots are from a similar small town, Shelburne, Vt., where I was raised in a family of eight brothers and sisters. When I was one of 13 graduates from my high school in 1963, the town population was approximately 1,300. Four years later, I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc., in 1967, receiving my reserve commission as an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. This was at the height of the Vietnam War, and I received orders for my first assignment, the USS Okanogan, homeported in Long Beach, Calif.

When I joined the ship, it was preparing for a period in the shipyard for drydocking and upgrading and preserving systems. When I joined, I was assigned as 3rd Division Officer, leading a division of some 20 Boatswain mates, in charge of the aft end of the ship, decks, hatches, and lifting gear.

I had one seaman, who had just completed 60 days of restriction to the ship because he had a habit of leaving the ship and not coming back, which we call “unauthorized absence,” more commonly known as AWOL. It was my first naive experience with a pathological liar; he swore to me that he was a “reformed” man, so I went to the executive officer to get the man’s liberty card. The executive officer told me that if I gave it to him, I’d never see him again. I assured the executive officer that would not be the case. He left the ship that afternoon, and I never saw him again. Each morning at quarters I had to report “3rd Division all present and accounted for, except Seaman ….(I can no longer recall his name),” at which point the executive officer would look at me with a little smirk and a chuckle. Lesson learned.

The Okanogan sailed from Long Beach to Richmond, Calif., for the three-month-long yard period, drydocking at Willamette Iron and Steel in Richmond, Calif., (probably very close to where she was built in 1944; then finally at Pacific Ship Repair at Pier 36 on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. During this yard period, I was sent to San Diego for electronics school to become an electronics material officer, or EMO. Upon returning to the ship and assuming my new duties, we began refresher training prior to deployment to the Western Pacific. Most of our refresher training took place in Coronado, Calif., at the Amphibious Naval Base.

When we deployed in May of 1968 to the Western Pacific, we were sent first to Auckland, New Zealand, to participate in the Coral Sea Festival. Our participation was somewhat curtailed because the Kiwis were in negotiations with the Japanese on an expansion project of the Auckland Harbor bridge and did not wish to offend the Japanese with a big celebration of the defeat of the Japanese Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. When we arrived in Auckland, the ship was open for tours. This was during a time when there were worldwide protests over the Vietnam War. Some protesters did get on board and tried to take down the American Flag. However, the duty section, who had been at sea for over 20 days, were about to help the protesters off the ship by throwing them over the side, when the Auckland police intervened and prevented any violence, although the protesters were arrested. In the Auckland newspaper the next morning we were rechristened the “USS O’Kanogan,” the only time that we were Irish.

From New Zealand, we proceeded to Singapore via the Indian Ocean and Java Sea. We were in Singapore on June 7, 1968, and noticed flags at half mast, to discover that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles.

From Singapore, we proceeded north to Yokosuka, Japan, and joined the seventh fleet. There was a new entity evolving at that time, the amphibious ready group. We were not part of this new development because it required a service speed of 20 knots, which we were not capable. We were relegated to miscellaneous assignments for the remainder of our deployment. We were back and forth from Vietnam to Subic Bay for a couple of months before we were given an assignment to transport a new Thai division from Bangkok to Saigon. We loaded one full landing battalion (1,500 men) in Bangkok on each trip and transported them to Saigon, completing the task in three voyages. The division was known as the Queen’s Cobra Division. The USS Pickaway (APA-222) transported the old division back to Bangkok in one trip, having suffered over two-thirds casualties. Thailand, along with South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and the Republic of China (Taiwan) were among the allies supporting South Vietnam.

There was a great deal of State Department involvement, which meant, among other things, that we officers had to pay the wardroom mess bill for the Thai officers embarked for each voyage, in spite of the State Department promising that we would be reimbursed. I still go to the mailbox each day waiting for my check from the State Department, only to be disappointed.

Upon completion of the task of transporting Thai troops we were made a “hotel” ship, anchored at Vung Tau. We housed the U.S. Navy crews of the brown water mobile riverine forces awaiting delivery of their boats from the U.S. We would ferry the crews to the merchant ship loaded with these boats when the pilot boarded for the trip up the Mekong to Saigon. We were in Vung Tau for most of September and October of 1968. As our tour ended, we headed back up to Yokosuka for a final stop before heading for Pearl Harbor and home to Long Beach.

When we left Pearl Harbor, there were four of us in Amphibious Squdron 7, The USS Merrick, USS Carter Hall and the USS Cabildo. All of us were of the same vintage, relics of past wars all built before most of the crew were born. The Carter Hall broke down a day out of Pearl Harbor and had to limp back, The Cabildo was having intermittent boiler troubles and had fallen behind, Merrick had boiler problems as well, but could keep up with the 14-16 knot cruising speed. When we passed the point of no return, meaning we were closer to Long Beach than Pearl Harbor, we were notified that the Cabildo’s boilers had failed and she was dead in the water. The commanding officer of the Merrick, who was the senior commanding officer of the group, directed the Okanogan to turn around and go back to assist the Cabildo.

After nearly eight months of deployment and on our way home, this was not good news for the crew, but we had a mission and we did as directed. I was on the bridge with Capt. Gallatin when we received orders that we were to go back. Capt. Gallatin mulled over the orders, told me to proceed at full speed (about 17 knots) to retrieve the Cabildo. We arrived at the Cabildo’s position, passed a tow line, which was actually a steel cable, and began to tow the Cabildo. We were directed to tow until a fleet tug arrived from San Diego to take over the tow. Before we detached from Merrick to assist Cabildo, the CO of the Merrick inquired whether we wanted to transfer any crew that had leave or airline reservations that might be affected by our delay. Capt. Gallatin mulled over the message and said to me “tell them thanks but no thanks.” I was surprised at his response, but he assured me he had worked out the details and that we would arrive on Long Beach as scheduled. I was worried because my wedding date was set for December 28 and friends and family from Wisconsin and Vermont were flying in for the wedding.

The tow lasted nearly three days until the fleet tug arrived and took over the tow. When we were free of the tow, I was again on watch, Capt. Gallatin, turned to me and said “John, take us home, full speed.” Aye, Aye, sir!

Three hours out of Long Beach, we caught up with Merrick, Capt. Gallatin sent the same cheeky message to the CO of the Merrick, which went unanswered. We pulled alongside Pier B, on December 14, at the Military Ocean Terminal with families and my soon bride to be on the pier. I became a married officer on December 28, as planned. Arrangements were all made by snail mail; there was no internet and no e-mail in 1968.

During the transit home, I received orders that I was being transferred from the Okanogan to the USS O’Brien (DD-725). Yvonne and I were getting married at the Long Beach Naval Station Chapel on December 28. We needed blood tests for our marriage license in California, so Yvonne came aboard. As you may recall at this time there were no women in the crews of naval ships and a very nervous corpsman in the Okanogan sick bay did the tests, probably never having drawn blood from a woman before.

I signed off the ship at 1900 (7 p.m.) on Dec. 18, 1968, ending my relationship with the USS Okanogan (APA-220).

My active duty in the Navy ended on Dec. 9, 1969, as a reduction in force. We are a Navy family. Our daughter Melanie graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 and spent seven years on two ships and a tour at the Pentagon before she resigned her commission. Our son John spent 11 years in the maritime patrol group as a Naval Flight Officer, most at Whidbey lsland Naval Air Station, with a three-year exchange assignment with the Royal Australian Air Force in Adelaide, Australia.

When we noticed how close Okanogan was to Anacortes, he began inquiries with former Mayor Jon Culp, explaining who I was and what my connection to Okanogan is, which has brought us full circle to today. Thank you for hosting Yvonne, John and me.

At age 22, I boarded a ship with a strange name, but now, some 55-plus years later, Okanogan has a new meaning to me. Your community has welcomed me and my family like a long lost ship. I am truly humbled.

“Request permission to leave the ship.”



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