“Old Ironsides” in Vietnam
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
History, we are told, should be studied in order that the mistakes of the past be not repeated. Constitution was the central player in an incident which clearly was not studied and its lesson not taken to heart.
On the morning of 10 May 1845, the big frigate arrived in the port of Turon, Cochin China. (Today, it is called Danang, Vietnam.) She was approaching the halfway point in a ’round the world journey that had begun nearly a year earlier. Other ports of call had included Rio de Janeiro, Zanzibar, Quallah Battoo, Singapore, and Brunei. Rounding to her anchor west of a knob that would become known to later Americans as “Monkey Mountain,” the first order of business was to make arrangements for the burial of a musician named Cooke, who had died even as the ship beat into harbor. One of the Chinese servants in the crew acted as interpreter as a plot was secured within the limits of a native burial ground at the foot of the mountain. For a sum equivalent to two dollars, perpetual care of the plot was promised. The funeral soon was held, and then the ship shifted her anchorage deeper in the bay and closer to the town. Preparations were begun to water ship.
Three days later, Captain John Percival, recovering from a long battle with gout, sent Second Lieutenant William Chaplin ashore to call upon town officials (“Mandarins,” the Americans termed them). With him went a small party of junior officers, sailors, and Marines to give him “status” — and protection if necessary. Guided by one of the Chinese crewmen, the group proceed along town streets and through the bazaar. Finally, a double line of soldiers clad in red knee-length tunics bearing a circular green emblem on the front and conical metalsheathed wooden helmets, and carrying tall spears with brightly colored pennants, marked the way to the courtyard of the principal official’s house.
Attendants seated Chaplin on one side of a table set up in the open, his party standing behind him. Shortly thereafter, the “Mandarin” appeared, accompanied by his umbrella bearer and others, and took his seat on the opposite side. The meeting was short: an exchange of introductions and civilities, and the acceptance by the “Mandarin” of an invitation to pay a call on board the American warship.
The next day, Wednesday, 14 May, the “Chinese” called on Percival and were received with appropriate ceremony, despite the fact that the crew was in the process of repainting the ship in its conventional black hull with white stripe pattern after having previously been painted white with a red stripe while in tropical waters. All went well, though, and the “Chinese” left after receiving a tour of the ship.
During this tour, however, a minor member of the visiting party slipped back to Percival’s cabin and delivered a letter, saying his life would be forfeit if his master found out. Upon opening it, after the departure of his guests, Percival found it to have been written by a French missionary, one Bishop Domenique Lefevre, who stated that he was “surprised at not having heard from his former letter,” and appealed again for help as his village had been “delivered over to pillage” and that he “with twelve Cochin Chinese, were then arrested and under sentence of immediate death.”
John Percival had a history of impetuous action going back to his earliest days at sea; so much so that he had been nicknamed “Mad Jack.” In the present situation, he lived up to his reputation. Never mind that careful inquiry would have revealed that the Frenchman had a long record of confrontation with Cochin Emperor Thieu Tri, or that he had been threatened with death and expelled from the country before. As Fifth Lieutenant John B. Dale wrote in his journal, reflecting his Captain’s view, “Here was an opportunity of a rescue from this semi-barbarous nation. It was enough for us to know that a fellow Christian was in danger of his life. The strongest and most instant measures must be taken. Humanity was to be our warrant than the law of nations.”
The Captain quickly called for a landing party of fifty sailors and thirty Marines, all armed, loaded them into ship’s boats, and charged ashore and up to the “Mandarin’s” house. The Oriental faced him across the same table as Lieutenant Chaplin. Percival demanded a letter he had written be sent to the Frenchman, and that three local dignitaries be turned over to him as hostages, otherwise he would fight. The “Mandarin,” seemingly unmoved, provided the hostages, and the Americans returned to the frigate without incident.
The twenty-four hours passed and nothing happened. Percival moved Constitution closer to the town and one of the three forts in the vicinity, and fired ten ranging shots. He also sent boarding parties to take possession of three war junks a mile-and-a-half away. They were brought close to “Old Ironsides” and reanchored, Sailing Master Isaac Strain being detailed to make sure they stayed there.
After another three days of no news, on the 19th Percival moved still closer to Turon, and this time set springs to his anchor cable so he could keep the ship’s starboard battery aimed at the shore. The locals refused to do anything until the hostages were released. Percival stormed ashore once more, but could gain nothing by talking. He let his hostages go.
Tuesday, the 20th, dawned squally and nasty. Under cover of the wind-driven rain, the three war junks slipped their cables and ran with the wind to escape up-river through Turon. An opening broadside of nine guns from the big American frigate caused one crew to drop anchor and jump ship, some probably drowning. The other two made it across the bar and seemed in a fair way to make good their escape.
Percival, however, had launched armed boats after them, and they were pulling lustily after their quarry. The launch and four cutters went surging by six or eight armed Cochin craft, under the guns of one of the forts, and no action was taken against them. A second junk was retaken and left in the care of a small guard.
More red-coated troops were seen on either river bank as the Americans continued in pursuit of the last junk. Not a finger was lifted to stop them, although they passed between boatloads of armed soldiers and well with in range of one of the forts. About a mile upstream, the junk was found run aground and abandoned, its sails destroyed. Checking it over quickly, the Americans were preparing to refloat it when there appeared an “Indian file” of about 150 armed troops who took up positions about twenty yards distant. The boat crews, in full heat, unhesitatingly leapt into the three-foot water around their craft and, cutlasses in hand, charged pell-mell at the natives with “a real Anglo-Saxon shout.” The troops “took to their heels in a most precipitate manner” and were not seen again. On the way back to the boats, the Marines amused themselves by gathering coconuts, observed impassively by a pipe-smoking old man sitting on his porch nearby. All three junks were returned to their anchorage near Constitution.
The 21st continued wild and stormy, and there was no communication with the town. There was a nasty surprise to greet the Americans that morning: three ships wearing “the yellow flag of Cochin” had slipped in quietly during the night and taken up positions below the hill fort on the side of Monkey Mountain.
Quieter weather on the 22nd permitted Percival to attempt a visit to the three ships. He was rebuffed. One of the recaptured junks was found to be leaking badly, so it was returned to the local officials. They could not be made to understand why the other two weren’t returned, as well.
Finally, on the 24th, two letters were received from officials ashore. One denied any knowledge of the French bishop and requested the return of the two remaining junks. The other, in contradiction, said the bishop would be handed over when the junks were returned. Furthermore, there would be no more provisions provided. (Curiously enough, through the days of the confrontation, provisioning and watering of the ship had gone on as if relations were normal and friendly!) Percival agreed to the demands. Provisioning was resumed, but Lefevre never appeared.
The next morning, Percival made a final effort to free the bishop by sending ashore a letter indicating he shortly would leave for Canton, where he would report the matter to the French there. They, undoubtedly, would seek retribution. The answer he received showed clearly that his bluff was called and that no further communication with anyone would be permitted.
Percival finally seems to have reached the point where he stopped and considered his actions. Looking around, he could see beneath the taciturn veneer that the local authorities were preparing to do more than talk. There were the three ships that had arrived. And the junks he had returned had been refitted. Three other ships lying idle likewise were fitting out. Looking ashore, he could see that the forts were being refurbished and extended, their approaches being rendered more difficult and their fields of fire cleared. He had done nothing but exacerbated relations between Washington and Hue, the Cochin capitol.
After sunset on 26 May 1845, after sixteen hectic and fruitless days, Constitution departed, leaving things much as they had been. “Mad Jack,” in frustration, fired six shots from his starboard Paixhans guns at an unoffending little island off the harbor entrance. All but one missed. Lieutenant Dale very cogently summed up this first Navy-Marine Corps experience in Vietnam by writing in his journal that evening: “…it seems, I must say, to have shown a sad want of ‘sound discretion,’ in commencing an affair of this kind, without carrying it through to a successful conclusion.”
(Note: The illustrations of the Cochin soldier and the war junk were generously provided by Captain John Charles Roach, Navy Combat Artist, who drew them based on sketches by Lieutenant Dale.)
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Stevens, Benjamin. “A Cruise on the Constitution.” United Service Magazine, Vol. 5 (1905).
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM