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Westchester County LST 1167: November 1, 1968
By Jim Wohlegemuth
I want to remember the Westchester County LST 1167, my ship. On November 1, 1968, the Wesco as it was known, was anchored on the muddy My Tho River, upstream from Vung Tau, South Vietnam. At 0322 two massive explosions ripped through the starboard side killing 25 and wounding another 22, the Navy's greatest single-incident combat loss of life during the Vietnam War. Viet Cong swimmers had placed two mines on the starboard side. It could have been much worse. The tank deck of this old LST was filled with all varieties of ammunition and ordnance, vessels tied up and in the vicinity of the Wesco, we loaded with fuel. It was only the immediate actions and courage of the crew that avoided a catastrophic disaster. The Westchester County was patched up and limped back to its home port (Yokosuka, Japan) where repairs were made, compartments rebuilt and it was sent back to duty.
The Westchester County was my ship; but not then. I would not arrive until early August of 1969. When I received my orders, I had no idea about the Westchester or about November 1 or what I was getting into. It did not take long to get filled in. There were pictures of the crushed operations and first-class compartments. There were the scattered accounts from people who had heard about what had happened. The odd thing though, I rarely heard a survivor (one of the crew that was there) talk about it. I was a radarman and was bunked in one of the rebuilt operations compartment. Was I a replacement? I was scared to ask. I do know that to my recollection there were only four survivors of the 32 sailors bunked in these rebuilt operations compartments. The rest of us were new, less than nine months after the explosion.
The interesting thing was that you could recognize the survivors. They were older, not by years necessarily, but they were older. They smiled, laughed, enjoyed liberty, but they were different. A little more constrained, quiet. A little less willing to make fun, pick on fellow sailors, or drink up like sailors have been known to do. They spent a little more time alone. They were helpful and understanding of us new ones but very often they could show a lack of patience and even a little disdain for us. Time passed, and the survivors were transferred and discharged.
I left in 1971 after two years and some months on the Wesco. While we had spent a lot of time off the coast of Vietnam, especially off the Mekong, supporting swift boats, pbrs, Vietnamese Navy vessels, and helicopter gunships, we never went back up the rivers. Oh, we still stopped at Chu Lai, Vung Tau, Cam Ranh Bay, and Da Nang, but no more up those rivers. I was not disappointed with that.
In 1974 the Westchester was turned over to the Turkish Navy. I wonder if they knew the story? So, as we the crew of the Westchester County approach November 1 fifty years on, that memory lingers, and I imagine it stings for many. There were a lot of tragedies associated with Vietnam on all sides, and they still continue. So many families on all sides lost so many young ones, but for just one day, fifty years on from November 1, 1968, I will remember the night 25 were lost on the Westchester County.
The Westchester County LST-1167 was my ship, but the survivors, they were her soul.
If you get a chance, please google Westchester County LST 1167 you can now find pictures and eyewitness accounts. There is also an association.
Jim Wohlgemuth is a member of VVAW who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.He served on the Westchester County from 1969 to 1971. He then served on the Pt Defiance LSD 31 until discharge in 1972. He came home, went to college got married had kids and now grand kids.