Navy - Accounts of the Korean War

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[This article is reprinted verbatim from Volume 8, No. 2, "Sea Blade II", newsletter of the USS Toledo (CA-133) Association. It was provided to The Korean War Educator by Ken Crosby of Norfolk, VA.]

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PART ONE – Letter from the HMS Constance Fortyniners Association


Mr. E.W. Balderson
43 Old Place
NG 34 7HR

Dear Ken [Crosby],

"I am the President of the HMS Constance association based in the UK. We have around sixty or so members, all who served in the Royal Navy in the Destroyer HMS Constance between 1947 and 1951. The time served in this ship at that time was for a period of two and a half years, so we got to know each other very well. I joined her as a boy seaman in 1949 at Hong Kong, when I was just 17 years old.

As you know, in 1950 the Korean War started. We sailed from Hong Kong on a war footing to blockade the west coast of Korea and to provide escorts for British and American aircraft carriers. I started my search for former shipmates over five years ago, and now we meet on a regular basis twice each year.

For those who cannot attend our reunions through illness or whatever, I send out two newsletters each year, one of which I have enclosed together with a copy drawing of myself as a young sailor drawn in Kure in 1951. This newsletter names the USS TOLEDO, which I understand you served in, and I hope you find of interest. You will find parts of this newsletter rather patriotic, so perhaps you will take this into account when reading it.

We remember the cruiser ‘Toledo’ very well during our stay in Korean waters, and some of our lads (now over 65 years of age) have small photographs of her in their albums. We recall the incident described in the newsletter very well--when we fired star shell at her during the early hours on one winter’s morning. I recall standing behind a 4.5-inch gun with a 4.5-inch shell in my arms, waiting to load it. I think it must have weighed as much as I did.

I am not sure if you were on board her at the time and remember this incident, or indeed, if you have formed a USS TOLEDO Association. If this does exist, we as an association will be delighted to swap stories of our time in the Navy, especially of this incident.

I understand that Stewart Skar has contacted you in the recent past and has telephoned me on several occasions from the U.S. I don’t know how he found your name and address, but I am indebted to him for taking the time and trouble to trace at least one ex-crew member of the USS TOLEDO. I am certain also that our members will be pleased to hear of this success and hope we can form some sort of relationship, especially if an association of the TOLEDO does exist.

Yours aye,
Ernie Balderson, President

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PART TWO – "David & Goliath" – Reprinted from the May 1995 Sea Blade II

"Do you recall the klaxons sounding for action stations at about 1 a.m. one morning during the early part of the Korean War when a very large radar contact was made. A coded signal had been made for this ship to identify herself and she replied wrongly with the same signal."

"Now this proves that ‘Constance’ was not afraid to take on any opposition whatever its size when we lit her up like a Christmas tree with star-shell for all the world (including North Korea) to see."

"This was the American heavy 8" cruiser ‘TOLEDO’ whose secondary armament was at least double our main armament. A few niceties I believe were exchanged (or otherwise) before steaming away on patrol. I am sure I will be corrected on this event very soon, maybe Bob Briggs (Lt Briggs gunnery officer at the time) will give us a more detailed account."

PART THREE – "Lighten Our Darkness" by Charles Hill

"During the Korean War, the American Navy controlled the east coast, and the British the west coast. To break the monotony, there would be occasional visits of ships to either side; the destroyer’s role on the west coast was to escort the Aircraft carrier operating to give close support to the combat troops ashore and to carry out bombardments as required.

Destroyers also carried out independent patrols up as far as the Yalu River on the Chinese border. I served on HMS COSSACK from September 1950 to March 1951, HMS CONSTANCE from March to August 1951, and then the flagship HMS BELFAST until January 1953. It was while Yeoman of signals on HMS CONSTANCE, I had my most embarrassing moment of my service career, and felt partly responsible for a big "cock up."

HMS CONSTANCE was patrolling off the west coast of North Korea and the ship was blacked out, steaming without navigation lights. The RADAR picked up the presence of a large ship, also darkened. The presence of another ship was a complete mystery to CONSTANCE, who should have been informed of any other ships in the area. HMS CONSTANCE closed up at action stations and went to investigate the contact, taking up the most advantageous position for a night encounter. With all guns and torpedoes trained on the other ship, the Captain ordered the "challenge" to be made. The recognition signals were kept in a box on the side of the compass platform and could be illuminated by pressing a button that gave a very dim light under it. I supervised the making of the single letter challenge on the daylight-signaling projector, which gave a very bright light at night time.

There was no response from the darkened ship, despite the challenge being made several more times. The CONSTANCE now had a problem, as the next sequence of events should have been to open fire. The odds were that the ship was friendly or neutral, as neither the Koreans nor the Chinese had any large warships. Although the Chinese were supporting the North Koreans, we were not at war with them. But if we fired on one of their ships, it might have sparked off a war with dire consequences, and threatened our base at Hong Kong.

The Captain decided to compromise and fire starshell. The starshell revealed a large warship which looked like an overgrown American destroyer. Onboard CONSTANCE, everyone held their breath, expecting a broadside. When we did not get a reply to our initial challenge, I checked to make sure we had made the correct signal. I noticed that the recognition signals in the box should have changed at midnight, and now appeared to be out of date. The navigating officer, who was also the Signals Officer, was quire sure that we had made the right signal, but took the form out of the box to go and update it.

The Navigating Officer returned to the bridge and explained that, although the recognition signals were changed every four hours for the benefit of the major war vessels, three letter signals, the minor war vessel’s letters used were valid over a longer period. We had made the right signal. I was relieved that the signal had been made correctly, but was preoccupied watching the other ship and trying to identify her.

The wireless office called up to say that they had a signal from base that the ship was the USS TOLEDO. They had also been given a channel to communicate directly with the American ship. This was cold comfort when the ship challenged us with the same letter we had already made to her. Although we now knew the other ship was friendly, it did not appear that she knew we were. The letter being made to us was compromised, and just the ruse the enemy might try. To answer would have compromised the reply. The correct procedure was to make the reserve letter challenge, but the recognition signals had not been returned to the box, and in the darkness I could not find them.

I must say I was in a complete flap. The Captain was shouting, "Do something, Yoeman." I shouted to the signalman to make our international call sign, which was the standard procedure for two ships to exchange identities. By the time we had exchanged identities, the recognition signal had been found, and we made the second challenge and got the right answer.

The whole incident was a matter of seconds, but when waiting for a broadside, it seemed like an eternity. I don’t know what enquiries followed, but I guess there was quite a bit of embarrassment and I hope a lot of lessons were learned."

- Charles Hill


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