Last year Jack Laufer planned to fly to Seattle for the decommissioning of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter John Midgett, the last of the service’s Hamilton class high endurance cutters. The Oahu veteran was a member of the vessel’s first crew in 1972 when it was commissioned in California.
The spread of COVID-19 led to the Coast Guard calling off the public ceremony. But Laufer got an unexpected second chance to see the ship when the former John Midgett — now a member of Vietnam’s fleet — pulled into Honolulu Harbor for a port call on its way to its new home.
“It was my first duty station,” he said. “So it’s like your first love.”
After officially decommissioning the vessel last year, the Coast Guard handed it over to a Vietnamese crew that arrived in Seattle in February. The Vietnamese crew trained with the Americans for months in the cold and foggy waters of Puget Sound before setting sail for Vietnam on June 1.
Lt. Rob Stebe, who served on the Midgett from 1995 to 1999 and currently serves at U.S. Coast Guard Base Honolulu on Sand Island, had a good view of the newly christened CSB 8021 from his office window as it pulled into the harbor on June 8.
“When I saw it, my first thought was ‘wow, there’s a lot of memories floating by,’” Stebe said. “It’s exciting to see it moving on to a new life, you know, a new family.”
The U.S. and Vietnamese militaries have pursued closer cooperation in recent years — a sign of changing times and shifting alliances.
During America’s war in Vietnam a small detachment of Coast Guard cutters, placed under Navy command, carried out interdiction and search missions of civilian vessels that were smuggling Soviet and Chinese-made weapons from North Vietnam to Communist fighters in the South. The Hamilton class cutters, at the time the Coast Guard’s largest, also provided artillery support.
“Many ships of that class were over there bombing Vietnam,” said Laufer. He said that if someone had told him in 1972 when he came aboard the Midgett that he would one day watch it sailing off to join Vietnam’s fleet he would have “thought they were crazy.”
It was the same year, 1972, that then-President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, leading to a thaw in relations that included the Chinese government ending support to North Vietnam. By 1973 most U.S. combat troops had withdrawn from Vietnam and in 1975 the last U.S. troops left Saigon with thousands of Vietnamese refugees in tow.
Laufer and his crewmates served on the Midgett as Americans came to terms with the war’s legacy. After his four year enlistment on the Midget, Laufer went into the reserves. He would go on to commission as an officer and serve on several other vessels until retiring in 2009. “I thoroughly loved it,” said Laufer. “The only reason I left was because I got too old.”
The Midgett served mostly in the Pacific where it did search and rescue missions, fishery enforcement and occasional drug interdiction. It also traveled to the Middle East and the Caribbean. During its last year in commission, the ship conducted a 200-day patrol of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska where its crew boarded several fishing vessels and saved 20 mariners during search and rescue operations.
Laufer and several other veterans booked plane tickets and hotel rooms in Seattle to attend the decommissioning ceremony in March 2020. He was excited to see old friends and help usher in the end of an era for a ship that was an important part of his life.
The cancellation of the public ceremony was a deep disappointment so he was pleasantly surprised to see a photo of the ship in Honolulu Harbor that Stebe posted to a Facebook group for former crew members. Laufer, who regularly kayaks at Sand Island, made a point of going to see the vessel.
“I had no clue that they were going to stop here on their way home to Vietnam,” he said. “It’s kind of nice that I was able to see her on the way.”
The Midgett joins Vietnam’s fleet as tensions in the South China Sea have risen. Beijing claims the region as its exclusive sovereign territory, leading to disputes with countries like Vietnam that also border the sea. More than one-third of all global trade travels through the critical waterway.
Confrontations over the South China Sea’s dwindling fish stocks has exacerbated the conflict and led fishermen to travel farther in search of more abundant catches. Hawaii fishermen also have reported hostile encounters with East Asian fishing fleets, including China’s. Last year, Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz warned that overfishing “has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.”
Fishery enforcement is likely to be a key part of the ship’s new mission as it sails west to Vietnam. Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Cdr. Karin Evelyn said that commanders from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp Smith met with Dang Le Son, the cutter’s new commander, after the crew docked at Sand Island.
When Laufer went to visit, the Vietnamese crew waved and greeted him as he took pictures of the ship with its new paint job as a Vietnamese-flagged vessel. He said he felt deeply nostalgic but could tell it was in good hands.
“I considered asking to go on board,” he said. “And then the more I thought about it, I decided ‘it’s okay. It’s their ship now.’”
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