It is rare that a naval vessel once sunk to the bottom of the sea is given a new lease on life. But the motor ship (MS) Amastra, a British-registered Shell Oil tanker under the command of Captain J. Campkin, had such a second life.
Early on the pitch-black morning of Wednesday, April 12, 1967, while I was walking my guard mount in the motor pool of the 459th Signal Battalion at Camp John F. McDermott at Nha Trang, a terrific explosion pierced the quiet. The sergeant of the guard checked my post and asked if I had seen anything. All I could tell him was that I had not, and that the explosion seemed to have come from the harbor, just a few hundred yards to the east of our encampment. As I had been up most of the night, when my guard relief came on duty, I retired to my tent to get some much-needed shuteye.
The next morning, I was detailed to carry some messages down to higher headquarters and was driving in a jeep along the beach road paralleling the harbor when I noticed a large vessel sunk by the stern, resting in about 60 feet of water. It was MS Amastra.
Amastra, a 12,273-gross-ton tanker, had been unloading 15,000 tons of aviation fuel when the explosion occurred. Viet Cong frogmen had planted plastic explosives on the hull, which tore a hole 6 feet by 4 feet wide, about 10 feet below the ship’s waterline. The cargo had been loaded aboard Amastra in Singapore, and the ship had been in Nha Trang’s harbor unloading the fuel into an underwater pipeline since April 11. Most of the JP4 fuel had already been unloaded by the time of the explosion, and that helped prevent a much more horrific catastrophe. Luckily there was no loss of life or serious injury to the crew members.
The 2nd engineer aboard Amastra was Colin Avery. In his memoir of that event, he wrote: “At approximately 0015 the whole world seemed to turn upside down. A massive explosion awakened me and simultaneously the ship felt as though it was leaping out of the water and a huge searing blue flash from outside lit up my bedroom. She settled back into the water, rocking and groaning and with the noise of the shockwave echoing all around.”
As Avery stood up and got his bearings, he grabbed a towel to cover himself with and made for the door. He ran into the chief steward’s wife, Mrs. Harry Travis. She had a canary named Guinness, which she’d purchased somewhere along the way, and as she came out of her cabin amidships, she shouted, “Colin, Colin, save the canary, save the canary!” He tried to reassure her, but told her he was rather busy at the moment.
Chief Steward Harry Travis recalled: “We had been to see a movie that night and we went to bed about 10:30, expecting to sail for Camh Ranh Bay the next morning, but we were awakened about 12:15 a.m. I wasn’t sure whether it was the explosion that woke me or the fact that I banged my head against part of the bed. I got up and the ship was rocking.”
As Avery reached the funnel deck, he saw an American fast patrol boat approaching from the port side. “I remember vividly, even now,” he wrote, “seeing a crew member on its bow manning a machine gun, another on the cabin roof and the boat commander, chubby in his kapok flak jacket and with his steel helmet pulled businesslike over his forehead. To my horror he had a flare gun in his hand, which he suddenly aimed across our main deck and pulled the trigger. You daft bastard I mouthed, as the flare sped towards our discharge manifold. I started running to the ladders down onto the stern. Fortunately the flare cleared the ship completely.” It would have been like throwing a match into a gas can.
Most of the 43 crew members left Amastra at about 0400 hours and were taken ashore to Camp McDermott and the nearby 5th Special Forces compound.
On April 13, the salvage ship USS Current (ARS-22) arrived on the scene to begin salvage and refloating efforts. Fuel trucks lined the beach area for several days, helping to offload the remaining fuel so the ship could be lightened for re-floating. Within days another company ship, the Dutch-flagged Kara, arrived to assist in offloading 640,000 gallons of fuel. USS Greenlet (ASR-10), which had been at Tokyo Bay for the surrender of Japan, was also assigned to assist in the effort.
Once Current’s crew had constructed and attached a temporary patch over the gaping hole in Amastra’s hull, pumps were started and the compartments were pumped out, allowing the ship to rise to the surface. A member of Current’s crew, Lieutenant Vince Weis, recalled his work on Amastra: “I did a dive with a Harbor Clearance Unit 1 staff member in the interior of the ship using shallow water gear. We had to go into the engine room that was filled with gas fumes to close a whole set of valves in order for the oil cargo in the Amastra to be pumped out of her tanks to help re-float the ship. This dive was the only one I did in the navy without getting wet and it was one of the most dangerous dives I ever made.”
After being raised to the surface, the ship was made seaworthy, and on April 29 it was ready for departure, under tow by two tugs. Amastra’s destination was Singapore, where it entered the dockyard in May.
Amastra, which was built by Smith’s Dockyard Company, Middlesborough, England, in 1958, went on to serve many more years, making repeated voyages back to Vietnam. It was sold for scrap in 1985 and towed to Chittagong, Bangladesh, on the Bay of Bengal, where it was cut up. For many years, the ship’s bell adorned the desk of Mark Moody-Stuart, former chairman of Shell Transport and Trading.
On December 22, 1968, after my return from Vietnam, another Shell tanker, MS Helisoma, was mined and sunk in almost the same spot in Nha Trang harbor, with no casualties. VC swimmers from the nearby beach hamlet of Truong Tay were suspected of being responsible for both sinkings.
Although the British government was not overly supportive of the United States’ efforts in Vietnam, and had no armed forces in country, there were few actual restrictions placed upon British commercial vessels transporting goods and supplies to the American forces. Thus, the maritime industry of the United Kingdom played an important role in materially assisting the United States and, as in Amastra’s case, sometimes paid a heavy price.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.