Don’t Call Me Mr. Wayne
Thomas Calabrese ….In early August 1964, two U.S. destroyers stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam radioed that they had been fired upon by North Vietnamese forces. In response to these reported incidents, President Lyndon B. Johnson requested permission from the U.S. Congress to increase the U.S. military presence in Indochina. On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in Southeast Asia. This resolution became the legal basis for the Johnson and Nixon Administrations prosecution of the Vietnam War.
The USS Saint Paul was a Baltimore class cruiser and it was also Ensign Charles Wyatt’s first assignment since receiving his commission. It was September, 1964 and he had been aboard for five months and one of his assigned duties was to assist the Public Affairs Officer, which meant that he shuffled papers and sent out press releases to various news media outlets.
Ensign Wyatt’s only indication that he was doing his job right was when he was being ignored; otherwise he was getting chewed out over some minor mistake. Using this criterion for his job performance, Ensign Wyatt had reason to be extremely nervous when he received word from Master Chief Albert that the skipper wanted to see him. In fact with every step he took, he went over his recent activities and tried to figure out what he could have done wrong, but nothing came to mind.
When he reached the quarters of Captain Edward Higgins, Ensign Wyatt hesitated to knock on the door, but realized he had no choice, so he took a deep breath and hit the metal bulkhead with the heel of his hand three times.
“Enter,” boomed a strong and clear voice from the other side.
Ensign Wyatt entered and walked across the room to stand before Captain Wiggins, who was sitting behind his desk. The young naval officer hoped that the skipper could not see that his knees were shaking.
“You’ve been with us about five months now,” Captain Wiggins stated.
“Yes sir, five months.”
“How do you like it so far?” Captain Wiggins inquired.
Was this a trick question? Ensign Wyatt thought to himself, how was he supposed to answer, truthfully…or wisely? Ensign Wyatt chose to answer on the side of caution, “I like it just fine, sir.”
“Good to hear, we don’t want our officers being unhappy, especially our new ones.”
“Yes sir,” Ensign Wyatt wasn’t sure where this conversation was headed, but he wasn’t about to ask so he just stood there and tried not to look stupid.
“Enough about the pleasantries, let’s get down to why I wanted to see you,” Captain Wiggins leaned back in his chair, “I just got word from Fleet that they want to use the Saint Paul in some scenes for an upcoming movie. Ever read a book called, In Harm’s Way?”
“Yes sir I have. It is the story of a naval officer at the beginning of World War II. It was written by James Bassett. I can tell you more about the plot if you want, sir?”
“That’s not necessary, I’ve already read it. You are qualified for this new assignment,” Captain Wiggins stated matter of factly, “and make sure you keep your positive attitude.”
The USS Saint Paul was scheduled to leave Pier 32, San Diego for Pearl Harbor at 0700 hours and the Navy took scheduled departure times very seriously…the term ‘close enough’ wasn’t even in their vocabulary . Ensign Wyatt looked at his watch and saw that it was 0640 and couldn’t imagine the ship leaving without its guest or that it would depart late either. The black sedan pulled up to the gangplank and the back door opened and he stepped out and filled Ensign Wyatt’s line of sight. It was John Wayne! Wedge Donovan of ‘The Fighting Seabees’, Dan Kirby of ‘The Flying Leathernecks’, Rusty Ryan of ‘They Were Expendable’ and John Stryker of ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’, all rolled into one larger than life character.
Ensign Wyatt rushed down the gangplank and approached the iconic movie star, “Mr. Wayne, I am Ensign Charles Wyatt and I’ve been assigned by the Commanding Officer of the USS Saint Paul to be your liaison officer.”
John Wayne went to the rear of the sedan where the driver took out an oversized suitcase from the trunk and set it on the ground, “Thanks Pilgrim, appreciate the ride,” then handed the driver two twenty dollar bills.
“Thank you, Duke,” The driver smiled in appreciation.
“I can get that for you, Mr. Wayne,” Ensign Wyatt reached for the suitcase.
“Not necessary, I can carry it myself, what you’d say your name was? Charlie,” John Wayne asked.
“Yes Mr. Wayne, Ensign Charles Wyatt.”
“Well Charlie, did you hear what the driver called me? He called me Duke, that’s what my friends call me. Are we going to be friends, Charlie?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Wayne…I mean Duke.”
“Are we shoving off at 0700 hours?” Duke asked.
“We are,” Charlie responded.
“Then let’s get on board, I don’t want to hold up the Navy.”
On the pier, a hundred yards away Captain Wiggins met a diplomatic courier who handed him a briefcase. The Commanding Officer was only a minute behind John Wayne and Ensign Wyatt coming up the gangplank and the USS Saint Paul departed on time.
Duke Wayne would be staying in the executive officer’s quarters while aboard the Saint Paul. While filming would not start until the Saint Paul reached Pearl Harbor, John Wayne wanted to get a feel for the ship before the rest of cast and crew arrived so he decided to come aboard seven days early for the cruise to the Hawaiian Islands.
“Is there anything I can get for you, ummm, Duke?” Ensign Wyatt asked
“How about some aspirins, I’ve got a headache.”
“Right away, I’ll run down to the infirmary and get them for you,” Ensign Wyatt was almost out the door.
“I see that you’re having a little trouble calling me Duke, “John Wayne said, “Let me explain how I got that nickname and maybe that will put your mind at ease about crossing over some of your perceived lines of respectful behavior. When I was kid growing up in Glendale, California I had this huge Airedale Terrier and I hardly went anywhere without him. His name was Duke so one of the local firemen in the neighborhood started calling him Big Duke and I was Little Duke. To this day when people call me Duke, it reminds me of a simpler time in my life and a damn good dog, so from this point on, you’re Charlie and I’m Duke…agreed?”
Ensign Wyatt smiled, “Agreed.”
Charlie showed Duke around the ship and after he had seen everything of importance, they spent most of their time playing chess or bridge. Since Ensign Wyatt’s main assignment was taking care of John Wayne, all his other duties were assigned to other officers and it felt like he was on vacation.
They were three days from Pearl Harbor and Captain Wiggins was now authorized to see what was in the briefcase that he was given in San Diego. Inside it were several lists of covert operatives working in Southeast Asia and future plans for military operations in the region. The information had the highest designation; Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented information, or TS/SCI. The main reason that it wasn’t being sent by normal channels was that a security breech was detected somewhere in the chain of communication procedures.
When the radio officer received a distress call from another vessel, he notified Captain Wiggins who responded, “Change course to intercept, full speed ahead.”
“Aye Aye sir,” Executive Officer Jankowski answered, “Changing course to 270 degrees, full speed ahead.”
John Wayne and Charlie Wyatt were below deck playing chess when the Duke felt the USS Saint Paul turning starboard, “You feel that?”
“That’s a pretty abrupt course change,” Charlie responded.
A sailor walked by and Duke called out to him, “What’s going on, sailor?”
“We got a distress call and we’re responding to it, sir” The sailor answered without hesitation.
When the USS Saint Paul got within three hundred yards of the freighter, Captain Wiggins ordered, “Slow speed to one quarter and turn to 160 degrees.”
When both ships were alongside each other, a Chinese Man called out, “We have a seriously ill man, permission to bring him aboard.”
Captain Wiggins made a counteroffer, “We’ll send some men over. Prepare to receive line.”
The seas were calm and it was easy to set up a Hi Line transfer line between the two vessels. Five sailors and a hospital corpsman went over to examine the sick crewman and moments later, there was a large explosion on the deck of the freighter and smoke engulfed both ships, obscuring visibility in an elaborate ruse to detract the crew on the Saint Paul. While both ships cruised beside each other, sailors rushed into action to help and while their attention was diverted by the chaos of the emergency, several smaller boats filled with heavily armed men circled around to the other side of USS Saint Paul and boarded it.
Duke and Charlie were down below and heard the explosion then went topside to investigate. From their vantage point, they could see individuals climbing aboard. “What the hell is going on?” Charlie asked.
“I reckon that I don’t know, but it sure looks like trouble,” Duke responded.
“What kind of trouble?” Charlie naively asked.
“When I make a movie and the writers put a scene like this in it, you know what they usually have my character do next?” Duke smiled.
“They have me do something smart,” Duke answered, “like getting a weapon first and asking questions later.”
Charlie led Duke went below deck where they encountered Captain Wiggins who was holding the briefcase with the top secret information in one hand and a forty five caliber pistol in the other.
“There are men boarding the ship, sir” Charlie blurted out.
“I know, sorry about this, Mr. Wayne, but we have an unexpected problem,” Captain Wiggins said.
“I figured that much, Captain.” Duke answered, “How can I help?”
The three men heard gunfire on deck and knew that time was in short supply. Captain Wiggins handed the briefcase to Charlie, “Ensign Wyatt, you need to protect this with your life. It is of vital national importance and cannot fall into the hands of our enemies. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir, I do,” Charlie responded.
“You protect Mr. Wayne too.”
“I can protect myself, Captain,” Duke drawled, “if I can get myself a gun.”
Captain Wiggins reached into his pocket pulled out a key ring and singled out one large key, “This is the key to the armory Mr. Wayne, take whatever you want and good luck to both of you.”
“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m Duke.”
“What are you going to do, sir?” Charlie asked.
“I’m going to try and get a distress call out, then organize a defense against the attack.” Captain Wiggins saw an intruder coming down the stairs and he put two bullets through the man’s head, “Go! I’ll cover you; remember they must not get that briefcase!”
Duke and Charlie ran down the passageway as a hail of gunfire ricocheted off the metal bulkheads all around them. They went down a stairwell to a lower deck and when they reached the ship’s armory, Duke unlocked the door and both men entered.
“I’m not that familiar with guns,” Charlie admitted.
“That’s alright, I am,” Duke took the briefcase from Charlie and hid it behind a large crate, “If we’re still alive when this is over, we’ll come back for it.”
Duke found two forty five caliber pistols and six empty magazines, “Look around for some ammo and load these while I find us some heavier firepower.”
Captain Wiggins managed to get out an SOS before he was captured by a group of armed men, and taken to the bow of the ship where other sailors were being held under guard.
The Chinese commander who spoke perfect English walked over to Captain Wiggins, “I think you know what we are here for, but I also know from reviewing your military records that you will not willingly give it up. In my country we have various ways to convince stubborn people; first we have excruciatingly painful torture techniques that have been perfected over centuries and second, various herbs and spices mixed into a special elixir will have you singing like the proverbial American mockingbird.”
A second Chinese man walked over, “Your orders, sir.”
“Lock the crew on the mess deck then search all the compartments and make sure that we have all the Americans,” The Chinese commander gestured to two of his men, “Bring the captain. One more thing, kill anybody who resists.”
Two men grabbed Captain Wiggins while the other armed men took the crew below deck.
Duke handed an M-14 rife to Ensign Wyatt and took one for himself. Charlie was visibly nervous and admitted, “I’m not really trained for this.”
Duke laughed, “You think that I am? I’ve had my opportunities to talk with the technical advisors on my war movies and they all agree on a couple important things.”
“What’s that?” Charlie responded.
“That it is impossible to train for actual combat. You can learn to shoot and you can learn to fight and you can even practice looking good while doing it, which is what movies are all about. Even Audie Murphy, America’s greatest real life war hero once told me, “In war you learn as you go along and hope that you are still alive when it is over,” Duke explained.
“That’s make sense.”
“If I didn’t think you could handle yourself, do you think I’d be trying to convince you, hell, it’s my butt on the line too. One more thing to remember, all battles are fought by scared men who’d rather be somewhere else. Saddle up, Pilgrim, there’s some things that a man just can’t run away from.”
Charlie looked at Duke and saw a man who was even more inspiring in real life then he was on the big screen, “Yes sir, when you put that way, I guess there are worse things in life than dying.”
Duke and Charlie quietly made their way through the passageways until they saw several armed guards standing outside the hatch to the mess deck. “Are you ready?” Duke asked.
“Ready,” Charlie responded.
Duke and Charlie took aim and shot the four guards then opened the hatch and the crew rushed to meet them. “The armory is open, get yourselves some weapons and take your ship back.” Duke ordered.
“Where’s the Captain?” Charlie asked.
Master Chief Albert answered, “They took him.”
Charlie headed down the passageway and Duke called to him, “Where are you going?”
“To get the captain…are you coming?” Charlie smiled.
When Duke and Charlie reached the Captain’s quarters, they could hear screams coming from inside. The Chinese commander was taking great pleasure inserting long needles into Captain Wiggins’s body so that each one touched a sensitive nerve.
Duke and Charlie burst through the hatch, blasting away and shot the four Chinese attackers before they could react.
“Thanks,” Captain Wiggins grimaced and pulled a needle out of his chest and tossed it across the floor.
It took twenty minutes of fighting, but the crew of USS Saint Paul eventually took back their ship. Two hours later, three Navy seaplanes landed near the American ship and a group of CIA operatives and Naval Intelligence officers came aboard. Every sailor was ordered to never speak of the incident and John Wayne also swore his silence, no one doubted that he was a man of his word. The freighter, the Chinese attackers, dead and alive all disappeared and were never seen again. Captain Wiggins relinquished control of the briefcase and he set course for Pearl Harbor.
The film crew, Director Otto Preminger and actors; Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Brandon deWilde and Tom Tryon were all waiting at the pier when the USS Saint Paul docked. Kirk Douglas approached John Wayne as he came down the gangplank, “How was the trip, Duke?”
“Quiet,” Duke replied.
The filming of ‘In Harm’s Way’ started the next day and it finished on schedule. Ensign Charles Wyatt and John Wayne remained close friends until Duke’s death on June 11, 1979. Charlie spoke at the funeral, “The day that I met Duke was the day of dead reckoning for me. Every time since then when I wanted to change course for safer waters, give up or was too fearful to continue, I remembered what he told me in only the way that he could say it. He had a unique way of speaking directly to your heart, conscience and soul, and these words will always be forever etched into my memory, “Battles are fought by scared me who would rather be somewhere else.”
Ensign Charles Wyatt rose to the rank of Fleet Admiral before retiring from the United States Navy. It was fifty three years after the attack before the government finally de-classified the incident, and now the story can finally be told about Charlie Wyatt and Duke of The USS Saint Paul.