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 InterAksyon.com.

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.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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