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Atrocious weather led to the grounding and eventual destruction of a Thai warship during the Korean War

On 7 January 1951 the Thai corvette HTMS Prasae was caught in a blinding snowstorm just over 100 kilometres behind the front lines of her United Nations (UN) allies on the east coast of the Korean peninsula. In freezing conditions the Prasae was hurled onto the shoreline near the village of Yang-yang and became stranded, leading to a frantic attempt at salvaging her before the practically defenceless vessel could fall into North Korean hands.

At this point UN forces were in retreat after an estimated 400,000 Chinese ‘volunteers’ had joined the North Koreans in launching a counter-attack. In an effort to delay the advance, UN commanders had ordered naval vessels to operate as far inshore as possible to provide inland bombardment, despite the dreadful weather conditions. These orders had contributed to the grounding of the Prasae, one of four Thai warships sent to aid the UN war effort.

The Prasae had been commissioned in April 1943 as the British warship HMS Betony, serving until March 1945 when she was loaned to the Indian Navy and recommissioned as HMIS Sind. She returned to the British in May 1946 but in 1947 was sold to the Thai navy and renamed Prasae.

By the time supporting US naval units- including USS Endicott, Bolster, Comstock and Manchester began arriving- the Prasae had been subjected to severe damage from the pounding surf. Heavy swells had washed away on-deck equipment. The first US helicopter at the scene, flown by a man named John Thornton, was unable to raise any other vessel by radio contact. He put down near the stranded ship and his radio officer made contact with the US liaison officer aboard the Prasae who instructed the helicopter to go out to the Bolster and bring in a salvage officer named Lieutenant Dudley. A landing craft from the Bolster had earlier attempted to reach Prasae but had been shattered by the seas and the crew drowned.

Thornton told the liaison officer North Korean troops were about one and a half kilometres away, entrenched behind a series of low-lying ridges. The biggest concern was how to keep the North Koreans away and salvage the Prasae in such treacherous weather conditions.

Trying to put Dudley aboard the stranded Thai warship in 30-knot winds proved impossible. Two attempts were made and the second ended in disaster. A sudden wave struck the ship, which bucked and the helicopter, operating with the barest minimum of space, was sucked into the superstructure and crashed. The disintegration of the helicopter caused explosions of onboard ammunition and led to fires aboard the corvette. Amazingly Dudley escaped with only broken ribs while Thornton and his crewman also survived.

Crewmen attempted to put out the fires with hoses, but the water pressure was limited. Other sailors valiantly took anti-submarine depth charges aft to prevent them blowing up. Trapped sailors jumped overboard into the swirling and icy sea and struggled ashore, shivering in the sub-zero temperatures.

By the afternoon the fires had dimmed and more rescue ships arrived. The Comstock, a Landing Ship Dock with heavy landing craft, sent a volunteer group of three crewmen, two doctors and a salvage officer who were fortunate to avoid being capsized as they reached the Prasae. They took off the injured who were transferred to the beach to be taken off by helicopter.

Two Thais who had jumped into the water were injured and in shock. They were to die later. Of the other 34 Thais and Americans on the beach, 18 needed to be airlifted away as quickly as possible.

Then the North Koreans began to move forward. Thai and US spotters on the Prasae relayed co-ordinates to the warships offshore who shelled the attackers. Despite heavy losses the North Korean kept advancing, knowing the fleet would have to cease fire soon or risk hitting their own men. A smart gunnery officer aboard a destroyer used his rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns at the lead North Korean elements, literally blowing them to pieces and forcing them to retreat. During the night the warships offshore kept firing bursts every 15 to 20 minutes.

On the second day the Bolster tried to move closer but the weather became even worse. A blizzard made visibility zero. Prasae had been hurled further up on the sand and the landing craft was also severely damaged and rendered unusable.

On the third day the boilers died and with it the heat. Fresh water ran out and supplies of everything were running low. The cold sapped the morale of the Thais.

The weather finally broke on the fourth day and for 14 hours an attempt was made to drag the Prasae off the beach. The men were exhausted. That night the temperature dipped even further.

By 12 January, the fifth day, many Thai sailors were suffering pneumonia and there was no choice but to abandon ship. Detonating charges were placed, the crew stepped onto the snow and sand and flown out to the Manchester. After the charges went off Prasae was then raked with gunfire from the warships offshore.

In October 1951 the United States transferred two frigates, the USS Glendale and USS Gallup to the Thai navy, the latter being renamed as HTMS Prasae, in honour of the vessel lost in the Korean conflict. The Glendale was renamed HTMS Tachin.

The Gallup had been launched in September 1943 and served in the Pacific around New Caledonia, New Guinea and the Philippines before being de-commissioned in August 1945. The Gallup was transferred under a lend lease agreement to the Soviet Union but returned to US control in 1949, laying at the Yokosuka naval yard in Japan until brought back into service in October 1950 to serve in the Korean War.

This second HTMS Prasae was decommissioned in June 2000 and in December 2003 placed on public display as a memorial at the mouth of the Prasae River in Rayong province.

  • Duncan Stearn