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Tales from the USS Frank Knox: La Jollan embarks on story-collecting project

A plaque honoring the USS Frank Knox is at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
A plaque honoring the USS Frank Knox is at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
(Courtesy)

Among the thousands of plaques on display at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla, there is one honoring the USS Frank Knox. But La Jollan Steve Cross feels there is more to the story of the Knox than can be told on an 8-by-16-inch plaque. Specifically, the stories of the survivors of a harrowing 38 days in which the ship was grounded on a reef in the South China Sea.

Cross has been compiling the stories of survivors and will distribute them on the Knox reunion group website, in its newsletters and eventually in a book.

The Knox, a destroyer, was launched Sept. 17, 1944, during World War II and attacked enemy submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific, sinking one. The ship — named after the secretary of the Navy who had died in office in April 1944 — survived three torpedo attacks, as well as Typhoon Cobra in 1945. It received seven battle stars in the Korean War.

In July 1965, the Knox was grounded on the Pratas Reef some 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong. For 38 days, 95 crew members stayed on board to help repair the ship and dislodge it.

“It was typhoon season and volunteers were needed to stay on board and work with salvage experts to save the ship,” Cross said. “Of the 250-plus volunteers, 95 were picked to man the ship during the salvage. The U.S. Navy still refers to the successful salvage in 1965 as ‘the most dramatic, and successful, ship salvage in the Pacific.’

“I’ve reached out to survivors for their recollections and stories while they worked in a remote location, lived aboard a damaged ship at risk of destruction with each passing typhoon, to see their ship float free 38 days later and survive a three-day tow, backward, to the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, for initial evaluation and temporary repair. The final destination was Yokosuka, Japan, and the ship repair facility located there and famous for quality work. This repair would be their biggest and most complex challenge.”

The Knox served in the Navy for six more years, followed by two decades as part of the Greek navy. Its home port was San Diego.

Steve Cross, Denny Conley, Jim Lasswell, Jerry Harken and Larry Eddingfield attend the Knox plaque installation ceremony.
Steve Cross, Denny Conley, Jim Lasswell, Jerry Harken and Larry Eddingfield attend the USS Frank Knox plaque installation ceremony on Mount Soledad in 2019.
(Courtesy)

Cross spent the past nine years speaking to more than 250 former crew members, their spouses and others familiar with the Knox.

“I got introduced to people that were there,” he said. “As I began to collect these stories, I started to hear about people who lived on the reef under these really bad conditions. They would work and wait eagerly for the chance to jump in the water to cool off, and men had to be posted on shark watch and shoot the sharks if need be. The Navy surrounded the ship with support to get it off the reef, but the interior of the ship was in bad shape. Everything had to be cycled between typhoons. Then the storm would pass and they would go back to work trying to salvage the ship and patch it up. But somehow, they were successful.”

Those service members, Cross felt, “were shortchanged” in that their stories were not being told.
In the fall 2020 newsletter, Cross wrote how boatswain’s mate Richard Swaney “handled the Frank Knox motor whaleboat during rough weather off Vietnam. He approached a mine sweeper (small naval warships designed to counter the threat of sea mines) to pick up classified orders. … The mine sweeper was rolling. Close alongside, the mine sweeper rolled and was suddenly above the whaleboat, diving down and ‘grazed the motor whaleboat, cracking the hull.’ ... Swaney’s quick reactions maneuvered the whaleboat to a safe distance. Swaney became the coxswain for Frank Knox during the 38 days on the reef and beyond.”

Cross told the La Jolla Light that “the most important thing is to preserve these legacies. Most of this history just goes away. If you ask a spouse or a child, they will say, ‘Yeah, my dad was in the Navy,’ but that’s it. These stories were in depth. Some are funny are tragic. I interviewed one man who was the torpedo man in 1965 and now he repairs roller coasters. Once you read the story, you’ll be inspired by the perseverance and ingenuity.”

Tom Soltis, webmaster for the USS Frank Knox reunion association, said the project to compile the stories is “phenomenal” and that the group is “lucky to have” Cross.

“He’s been tracking these people down to get their stories,” said Soltis, who served on the Knox after the reef grounding. “We have a certain pride in what we did. The camaraderie was good. It’s interesting to know as a group about that ship and the stories of what we all went through. I consider it a really interesting part of my life. ... A lot of us have families and this will provide them a place to look and learn about what their parent or granddad did.”

To learn more, go to ussfrankknox.com and look under “About” and “Newsletters.” Stories will continue to be posted there in coming months.


Virtual Veterans Day observance

The Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial, usually a place where public in-person Veterans Day celebrations are held, will host a virtual tribute that will be streamed live at 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, at soledadmemorial.org.

The hour-long tribute will include remarks from World War II veterans, video messages from elected officials, business leaders and celebrities, musical performances by Marine Band San Diego and young singer Chelsea Snow, and a flyover by World War II aircraft.

Event participants will adhere to social distancing requirements, and no public spectators will be permitted. ◆