A close encounter in Wonsan, North Korea | Around the Waterfront

— Editor’s note: Journal columnist Fred Hoeppner of San Juan Island is a retired Navy captain and war veteran. We publish this reminiscence as one tribute to Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

In the early 1950s, it was routine to send destroyers into the port of Wonsan, North Korea, to disrupt any shipping or army activity, so in due course I received orders to proceed there to destroy any targets of opportunity.

The harbor of Wonsan is roughly the size of Elliott Bay in Seattle, with some rather vertical-sided low hills in which the North Koreans had dug caves to conceal defensive artillery. The guns were mounted on a tracked carriage that could roll out, fire, and then return within the cave.

This would be my first experience in this type of operation, so I queried several other skippers who had been there as to what I might expect and any guidance they could give me. Most said, “Piece of cake. Just steam around (some even anchored) and if you see anything move – shoot it.” Others had been taken under fire and suffered damage. Well, off we go.

Entering the harbor, like rounding West Point near the Ballard Locks, we steamed at 5 knots in a circular course. Soon enough, we spotted a gun emerge from a cave. The instant they saw us train our guns on them, they withdrew their gun into the cave. This sequence was repeated several times by other emplaced guns, a sort of cat and mouse game.

As my executive officer and I were chatting on the bridge, he called my attention to a string of splashes in the water whose path would lead directly between our two stacks. His name was DiCori, and of very Italian descent. He turned to me and in a very low voice said, “Captain, I’m a lover not a fighter. Let’s get the hell out of here.” Being of like mind I ordered, “All ahead flank; left full rudder.”

Like a runner coming off the starting blocks, the ship leaped up and forward, black smoke belching from her stacks, propelled by 30,000 horses on each of the two propellers. The splashes crossed our wake as we then took another turn around the harbor looking for that gun.

All in a day’s work.

— Fred Hoeppner writes Around the Waterfront for The Journal of the San Juan Islands and SanJuanJournal.com.