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Old 821

November 10th, 2013 - 11:38 pm

She was once called the Harnett County, the only US Navy ship to bear the name of that place. An LST built in late 1944, the USS Harnett County participated in the invasion of Okinawa and later transferred to what was once called the Republic of Vietnam as the My Tho. After the fall of Saigon the “My Tho was one of the flotilla of thirty-five Republic of Vietnam Navy ships that sailed for Subic Bay after the fall of Saigon in April 1975.”  The ship’s new country, South Vietnam, was no more. But a new owner would take her. She was transferred to the Philippines on 5 April 1976, as the  BRP Sierra Madre.

Then in 1999 the BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately run aground on the Ayungin reef by the Philippine government as an makeshift outpost to bolster its claim against China in the dispute over the Spratley Islands. It has sat there since, a flag in rust manned by a rotating contingent of 8 Philippine Marines.

In October the New York Times sent a news team to visit this naval curiosity. They found what they described as a “post-apocalyptic military garrison… struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.”

In order to get past the Chinese blockade round the vessel, the NYT team posed as fishermen on an motorized outrigger, and guided by a local mayor from Palawan Island, made the run past the Chinese warships to deliver the “cases of Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts” that have become part of the native cuisine of the Filipino race. Thus fortified, the marines showed the news team around the their ghostly command. The multimedia tour is worth the click on the link.

The Pride of the Navy

The Pride of the Navy

The State Department attempted to de-engage the parties by negotiating an agreement between the Philippines and China. Unfortunately their efforts were less than successful.

In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.

“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”

In response to the blockade the marine detachment subsisted by spearfishing on the reef. Although they provided for themselves in the manner of Robinson Crusoe, getting fresh vegetables remained a problem. The Chiangrai Times summarized the standoff:

The Philippine marines are occupying a former US tank-landing vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, which was deliberately scuttled by the Philippine Navy on the shoal in 1999 an attempt to construct a small naval outpost on the cheap. The shoal, alternately known as Ayungin, Second Thomas, or Ren’ai in China, is located 105 nautical miles from the nearest island of the Philippines, Palawan. …

The rusted hull of the Sierra Madre has been occupied by Philippine marines for over a decade now. On average, 10 soldiers, armed with machine guns are stationed on the make-shift base, rotated out occasionally. The station exists for the sole purpose of staking the claim by the Philippines to the oil-rich and strategically-vital surrounding waters.

Over the course of ten years, the Sierra Madre has been gradually wasting away and if it is not shored up will sink into the South China Sea. The Philippine Armed Forces, at President Aquino’s instructions have begun carrying fresh construction supplies to the location, building a fresh platform over the decrepit framework.

And so the matter stood, until supertyphoon Haiyan took a hand. The gusting winds and monstrous seas cleared the entire area of the Chinese blockade as it did anyone with an iota of sense. By rights the old ship should have gone to straight to Davy Jones’ Locker, but when the Philippine Navy made a comms check with the 8 marines on the Sierra Madre, it was still there, presumably low on donuts but apparently none the worse for wear.

MANILA – Super typhoon Yolanda has sent home Chinese maritime and Navy vessels at the Ayungin Reef in Palawan, while the half a dozen Philippine Marines on board a rusting and grounded World War II-era ship are safe, a source told

This effectively ends the standoff between the two countries some 100 nautical miles from the island of Palawan. …

“They’re safe,” said a senior officer of the Philippine Marines guarding the reef on board the shipwreck BRP Sierra Madre (Landing Ship Tank 57). The Philippine Marine official requested that he not be named because he is not authorized to give any statement regarding operational activities in the West Philippine Sea.

The Chinese will soon be back. But for now, old 821 is still there.

As the Harnett County, “LST-821 earned one battle star for World War II service. Additionally, Harnett County earned nine battle stars, two awards of the Presidential Unit Citation, and three awards of the Navy Unit Commendation for the Vietnam War.” Who could have guessed when she was laid down in September, 1944, that having survived the Pacific War and Vietnam, she would would still be in service, the pivot of a geopolitical struggle in the South China sea nearly 70 years later.

Update: People have asked how to donate money to the typhoon victims.  Here’s a link to Caritas Manila, which is basically the relief agency of the Catholic Church.  There’s also the local Red Cross, which takes Paypal in addition to credit cards.

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Top Rated Comments   
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Sunday directed the U.S. Pacific Command to support American humanitarian relief efforts in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

The military's primary role of Muslim outreach and Wymyn's studies has been placed temporarily at a lower priority.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Just had a report on FNC from Tacloban. The word in the street is “The Americans have returned.” Two C-130’s loaded with relief supplies have landed and U.S. Marines are on the ground.

Not to worry, people of the third world. I am sure that the PRC, the Saudis, the Iranians, the Russians, in fact, all those stepping into the big shoes left behind by the vanishing Hegemon will be just as kind, just as generous, just as competent, just as uninterested in their personal gain, as were the Americans.

And should you flee your benighted lands to their abundant shores you will be just as welcome, just as free, and have just as much opportunity as you would have in the USA.

And don’t call us; we’ll call you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong is the perfect face for China. A bully, a sneak, arrogant, and inexperienced in real conflict, he is willing to starve his victims but less eager to risk a real fight. Now that the smirk has been wiped of his face he is more likely to start shooting.

Have efforts been made to supply the garrison by air? Shades of Berlin, would the Chinese shoot? The Philippines need submarines. Half a dozen modern Air Independent Propulsion boats would keep the PLAN out. The same goes for Vietnam. A reestablished American logistics station at Clark or Cubi Point as well as at Cam Ranh would pay enormous dividends. They would not need to be full bases. A presence would demonstrate support and have an emotional as well as practical impact. As Napoleon said, "The moral is to the physical as three to one."

Those Filipino marines deserve a salute. Someone should make a movie about this.

How would the United States have acted to a Chinese effort to smother our impoverished ally with a "cabbage strategy" in the years BC, that is Before Clinton? We probably would have sent a flotilla full of supplies over, along with a team to refurbish the old LST until it gleamed. Then for good measure we would have built a new platform with air conditioning. For a final measure we could have hosted a conference on the spot to settle claims and establish mutual defense with Australia, The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

It is poetic that China is being checked by the poorest of her potential victims.

The Typhoon must have devastated Hainan Island off the Gulf of Tonkin. The last communist conquest before Tibet was in the dangerous semicircle as the storm marched North.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (60)
All Comments   (60)
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According to Google Maps Ormoc City has some useful infrastructure. It has a long RORO dock. It has a bus and a jeepney terminal. So make sure the harbor is clear and start sending in supplies by ship. Use the buses and jeeps to distribute the aid.

In Tacloban, I saw some pictures of a blue ship which evidently had been tied to the dock, but which had been blown loose and was now ashore. They need to secure its space alongside and get a path to bring in supplies. They also need to clean up the grounds of Daniel Z Romualdez airport so as to prevent foreign object debris (FOD) from getting into the intakes of the engines of the relief planes. And they need to clear landing zones (LZs) for the helicopters. The people can work on these jobs while the Navy is in transit.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I wonder of the Philippines has a SEABEE Battalion. All's it would require is 1 to clear LZ's and a install a floating dock or two.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
God helps those who help themselves. The Filipinos need to do what they can to make it as easy as possible for the Navy to help them. Anybody can pick up debris and move it out of the way. The trick is to concentrate on the most important jobs first. They also need to identify other locations to re-build the infrastructure. We have two, Tacloban and Ormoc. There must be other places in need.

Maybe someone ought to go to the archives and figure out the path MacArthur took and build a plan to re-take those places. The locals are sure to have availed themselves of the work already done by his SeaBees.


"Leapfrogging ahead with General Douglas MacArthur's forces, the Seabees reached Hollandia and turned it into a major forward base that was later instrumental in the liberation of the Philippines. In fact, the Seabees of the Third Naval Construction Brigade were still with General MacArthur when the South and Southwest Pacific roads to victory converged on the Philippine Island of Leyte in October 1944. Naval Construction Battalions operated the pontoon barges and causeway units that brought the Allied Forces ashore and fulfilled General MacArthur's famous promise to one day return.

These Seabees were soon joined by those of the Second and Seventh Naval Construction Brigades, units that had been organized and staged in the Hawaiian Islands. This vast Naval Construction Force of 37,000 men spread out into the adjoining major islands and began building the facilities that were needed to make the Philippines a great forward base in the Pacific, indeed one of the last steps on the way to the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The Seabees of this force built U.S. Navy and Army airfields, supply depots, staging areas for men and materials, training areas and camp-sites. Seventh Fleet headquarters was moved to the Philippines and Seabees built the facilities that this enormous fleet required: fleet anchorages, submarine bases, ships repair facilities, fast torpedo boat bases. By the summer of 1945, U.S. military forces were prepared and poised for that last step on the South Pacific road to victory."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Once the Navy gets close, they can use an E-2C to organize air traffic control for the airport. If the airport is open and cleaned up, they can start an air shuttle from unaffected parts of the Philippines to Tacloban. The airport was jumping during the Battle off Samar. We need to do that again.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Today's Song of the Day

Diana Ross and the Supremes

Flight of the Valkyries tomorrow???
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wonder if the Philippines might have any interest in 'borrowing' a mothballed Iowa class to take the LST's place? Got yer cabbage leaves, right here.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Reuters has more detail on the Navy ships on the way.

CVN 73 USS George Washington
Cruisers USS Antietam & Cowpens
Destroyers USS Mustin & Lassen
T-KAE-10 USNS Charles Drew
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It is important to note that it is the character of the individuals, not the quality (or lack thereof) of the leaders which will make the difference. Once again, I would point to the Fukushima nuclear accident. The Chairman of our NRC, Greg Jaczko, was going about spreading panic and calling for ever larger evacuation zones. He ended up before the House Government Oversight Committee exposing himself as an incompetent political hack, who later resigned in disgrace.

The management of TEPCO was dithering and ineffective. So too were the Prime Minister and other government officials. It was the Fukushima 50 and select outsiders, the Tokyo Fire Department, the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the U. S. Navy's Supervisor of Salvage, who made the difference by timely support for them that turned a catastrophe with exploding secondary containment buildings into a manageable long term slog to ensure the public safety. And not one civilian died from radiation. The Fukushima 50 had character, the "leaders" did not.

Character matters.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
From chapter XVII "The History of the Peloponnesian War" by Thukydides.

"Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
(additional emphasis added)

The Athenians were wrong. Strength is not a bad thing. Success attracts both enmity and support. Greatness can be good and lead to growth. But growth founded on what is seen as an illegitimate claim is a house built on sand. It is supported merely by momentum, which is to say by inertia. When checked it implodes.

In the long run we are all dead but a nation should aspire to live longer. It should base its' claims on something less base than a transient superior force. China's claims are based on what?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
China's claims are based on what?

Tiananmen Square (1989), destiny, and the divine right of Kings, I suppose.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1. As strong as China is, they is not as strong as they appear. Economically they are in deep doo doo, which will become more apparent as the world recession continues.
2. Face is everything, China tends to take ill considered risks in service of saving face.
3. Every act of resistance that China's neighbors enact is a drain on China's resources. It may be the case that a swarm of Liliputians will have the same effect on China as the arms race with the US had on the Soviet empire.
4. China cannot ignore the area as a huge part of her energy supplies and trade move through that corridor. By committing to a strategy of military dominance rather than cooperation China is committed to spend resources there playing a perpetual game of whack-a-mole.
5. I would hesitate to underestimate the Philippines, once their blood is up they are a race of doughty warriors.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Agree with every point you made. Spot on!

However, none of those five points you made will prevent a major Asian war from breaking out. In fact, one could argue that the economic and demographic pressures on China could push her to aggressive military moves.

To cite one history, Japan was ill-advised to attack Pearl Harbor and the USA. The USA's ability to produce both men and material dwarfed anything Japan could have produced by multiple factors. Japan made assumptions based on what the Emperor and military leaders expected of the USA. They had their reaons (e.g. oil, logistics, saving face, etc.), but they miscalculated - badly. Yet, Japan made a vigorous fight of it, but their effort was probably doomed from the start. No matter how the war went, Japan wasn't going to be able to pressure the USA mainland enough to prevent the USA from putting over 30 aircraft carriers to sea (plus 100 smaller ones), and 100,000 birds in the air.

Similarly, China could miscalculate the "cost-benefits" of an aggressive, territory grabbing military campaign, but they may do it just the same. In fact, given their frenzied investment in the PLA build up, it would be unwise to expect the Chinese to be anything other than aggressive and "adventurous". Their build-up isn't to retain Mongolia, reacquire Taiwan, or defend themselves from the Vietnamese or Koreans. They have real, long term, expansive strategic objectives that are "win/lose" in nature.

In particular, I appreciate comment #5. I'm not selling anyone short, particularly not the Filipino's. However, would the Philippines be willing to undergo a second Bataan, Corregidor, and Battle of Manila for the sake of a few small,uninhabited islands?

Juxtaposed, selling short and Japan: I would posit the question of what China will do if Japan threatens to re-militarize in a serious way, not only nukes but carriers and other offensive weapons. Given the Chinese experience of living under the kind hand of the Japanese during WWII, I would think it would freak the Chinese out. They could go for a first strike against Japan before Japan's increased offensive/defensive systems were on-line.

Asia is a tinderbox, not as hot as the Middle East, but give Commander Barrak a bit more time, and he'll have Asia red hot, too.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Totally agree that China is in an aggressive and expansive phase of her history, and will use military force to those ends. And, yes, wherever China decides to plunge the spear they will have overwhelming force when they attack. However, that does not mean that all resistance will cease at that point, quite the contrary. May I remind you of the China-Vietnam dust up of 1978? As well, experience has shown that China will be no more tender to her empire's subjects than Japan was.

Then I ran across this, which is germane:

China's position is not as strong as it seems.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes, well, the article says we can deny China area by arming region with lots of anti-ship missiles with 100-200km range. Perhaps. My fear has always been that China would choose to produce thousands or tens of thousands of just such missiles, a medium-tech product they can handle, which by sheer volume could overwhelm any US fleet defense - if they can only launch them.

Still, even that costs money, and you know what, sheer thrift (to simplify politely) probably keeps China from any such effort. Why, you could build an entire city for the kind of money that many missiles would cost, but then to just have all that spent money sitting there, unused, well, er, um, yeah.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"If they want to sustain national sovereignty, they'll have to pay the price. If not, they'll have to cut the best deal as a vassal state with the least oppressive protector. They chafed at US dominance, which was real but also pretty benign and contributory. Would they be happier to become a colony of China or Japan?

Honestly, I don't see many other options for these countries if China decides not to be a nice, benign international citizen."

OldSaltUSN has, IMO just pointed out what the collapse of Pax Americana means for the rest of the world. The Pax Americana, at base represented the rule of law. Obama's intentional destruction of the Pax Americana will result in a world in which less strong nations face the necessity of choosing to either 'pay the price' necessary to sustain national sovereignty or cutting "the best deal as a vassal state with the least oppressive protector".

The alternative to 'the rule of law' is 'might makes right'. There are no other options.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Greta just said the USS George Washington CVN 73 is preparing to go to the Philippines with relief supplies, just as she did at Fukushima. Due in 48 to 72 hours.

The message to those in Tacloban

Our Song of the Day from Sam & Dave

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Chinese will soon be back.
When they return, they'll make plans to build structures that can withstand hurricanes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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