Several months ago native islander, Leroy O’Neal, sent me a copy of an old article by Don Dwiggins about his Uncle Kelly O”Neal (1911-1987) and the 1951 revolution in Siam (Thailand). Sometimes called The Manhattan Revolt, it was led by a group from the Siamese Navy under the command of Lieutenant Commander Manas Jurupa.

Kelly O’Neal, like many Ocracokers of his generation, had taken work in Philadelphia, and eventually obtained command of the hopper dredge Manhattan, a vessel on which many an Ocracoker served. Following is the exciting story of how Captain Kelly survived the bloody, and ultimately failed, revolution.

———————————————————————————-

The hot, sweltering Thailand sun, beating down on the strange drama unfolding aboard the hopper dredge Manhattan, gave everything an appearance of unreality. At first, Captain Kelly O’Neal, veteran of the U.S. army Corps of Engineers, thought the whole thing was a crazy practical joke.

It was midday of June 29, 1951. Beside O’Neal stood the dapper Prime Minister of Siam. Field Marshal P. Pibulsonggram, trim in his white uniform. With full Oriental pomp and ceremony the Manhattan was being turned over to the Thai government.

Map of Siam

Then, a second later, the ceremony became a nightmare. O’Neal looked down at the steel muzzle of a Tommy gun rammed hard into his belly. From the ranks of the honor guard, other Siamese closed in, their fingers nervously tightening around automatic weapons.

Two soldiers gripped the Prime Minister by the arms and spun him around. His face white, he said to O’Neal, “I’m sorry this had to happen — I’m deeply sorry!”

In this freakish manner did one of the most fantastic revolutions of recent years explode under the nose of the skipper of an American vessel. Before it ended, O’Neal was to see blood run in the streets and be forced to flee for his life and somehow live to escape death in the panic ridden jungle capitol.

Never before told, the story, which reached such unbelievable proportions that a full-scale war was narrowly averted in the little Communist-surrounded nation, began 13,822 miles away in peaceful Philadelphia. After 47 years service dredging American seaports and waterways, the Manhattan had gone into storage. Then, early in 1951, the Thai government requested that she be sent to Bangkok to open the Chaupaya River for shipping. This was arranged through a deal with the Economic Cooperation Administration in Washington.

(Missing photo of the Dredge Manhattan)

O’Neal and 16 crewmen began the long delivery voyage on April 4. Refueling at Panama, Honolulu, and Balikapapan, Borneo, the Manhattan leisurely nosed up the Chaupaya River on June 23rd. O’Neal brought her in on high tide to the Kong Toi docks, then tied up at the entrance to the King’s Royal Palace, an incredible majestic anchorage on the river.

During the crossing, O’Neal’s crew had painted the barge, shined the brass and turned her into as handsome a craft as one nation ever gave to another. It was to American interest to remain friendly with the Thai government. No other nation in the world is so completely surrounded by Communist pressure. But there was a problem. Since 1932, when a bloodless coup by a group of young officers forced the constitutional government upon the reigning king, there have been 11 major revolutions, five different constitutions and 20 changes of administration.

Revolutions in Siam normally are bloodless affairs, short struggles between Thai army and navy brass. In fact, until O’Neal arrived, the major revolutions were looked upon as a sort of annual “Army-Navy Game.”

Six days after her arrival at Bangkok the Manhattan lay at the pier in full regalia for the ceremony under which she would become property of the Siamese government. Buddhist priests, in full dress, began the day by blessing the dredge. Her 288-foot hull was encircled with string, to protect ship and crew from evil spirits. Gaily colored ribbons and thousands of flowers turned the Manhattan into something resembling a float from the Pasadena Rose Parade. Thousands of Siamese jammed the pier, while government officials swarmed aboard, walking up the gangplank on a red plush carpet.

The American flag was lowered as a band played the Star Spangled Banner. Then the band struck up the Siamese national anthem, as Thailand’s flag was hoisted on the stern. Unknown to O’Neal, that ceremony was the signal that touched off the most fantastic revolution in modern history.

Prime Minister Pibulsonggram, accompanied by his personal bodyguard, the Chief of Police of Bangkok, swept aboard to be met by O’Neal and officials of the ECA. Behind him came a troupe of lovely Siamese ladies bearing a glittering golden tray some five feet square. In the center of the tray was a beautiful wreath of tropical flowers which Pibulsonggram placed on the Manhattan’s bow for the Buddhist priests to bless.

O’Neal then led the party back toward amidships to conclude the transfer ceremony. He never got there. With no warning, a helmeted honor guardsman stepped from the ranks and jammed the end of an ugly machine gun in his guts. “Step back, please, Captain!” he snapped in good English. “I must arrest the Prime Minister!”

Pibulsonggram paled as other guards grabbed him and shoved him unceremoniously toward the gangplank. In amazement, O’Neal watched them march the little man off the Manhattan and aboard an LST.

Suddenly the harbor was alive with armed revolutionists. In amazement O’Neal saw the little men with big guns leaping from small boats, from the docks, from the piers, from the honor guards, like swarming bees. Shots echoed across the water and screams of the wounded told the Manhattan’s crew this was no Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It was a full-scale revolt.

Running to the ship’s rail O’Neal watched the LST cut around the bow of the Manhattan and head swiftly upriver. Guards on the small boat raised their automatic rifles.

“Hit the deck!” O’Neal shouted to his crew. “They’re opening up on us!”

The fact that the Manhattan’s crew were American citizens seemed to make no difference to the Prime Minister’s captors. With deadly aim they splattered lead over the gaily-decked dredge. Bullets whined overhead and ricocheted dangerously close to the Americans.

In a panic the men dropped to the deck and crawled out windows and doors to safety. An ominous quiet fell over the dredge. O’Neal switched on the radio. Throughout the day and far into the night the Americans listened to a strange war of words as Thailand’s five pro-government stations and the pro-revolutionist Royal Navy station hurled a barrage of words to the people of Siam.

Major Karoon Kengradomying now screamed denunciations against the revolutionists, charging them with breaching Article 60 of the Constitution and gaining disfavor of the United Nations by capturing the Prime Minister.

And pro-revolutionist Navy broadcasts from the embattled base at suburban Thonburi featured a recording of the voice of Field Marshal Pibulsonggram in which the kidnapped Premier appealed to the armed forces to remain calm.

The Army Signals station denounced the recording as a total fraud. The Navy station retaliated with lively martial music, the Navy march, “Anchors Aweigh,” the Marine Corps’ “To the Shores of Tripoli” and “Let’s Make a Bonfire of Our Troubles and Watch Them Blaze Away.”

On the other side, the Territorial Defense Publicity Department and Post Office stations fired back more stirring music. Threats of punishment for the rebels came regularly from the Air Force station.

O’Neal’s crew sat listening, perplexed at the way the Siamese pull off a revolution. It was difficult to guess what would happen next. The Pibulsonggram government quickly reorganized under Nai Vorakarn Bancha, Minister of Foreign Affairs, with support of the Army, Police Department and the Royal Air Force.

RAF bombers swept into action, diving over the revolutionists’ stronghold at Thonburi. Among the coup leaders, said the radio, was Air Marshal Luang Thavarit, retired Commander-in-chief of the RAF and a Member of Parliament. Boss of the coup forces seemed to be Lt.. Gen. Luang Kaoh Sengkram, former Deputy Commander of the Army.

Anxiously, O’Neal and his men followed news reports translated for them by the Siamese crew members who remained aboard when the revolution broke out. Throughout Bangkok, the noise of gunfire rattled incessantly. Thai naval units were grouped at three points — Thonburi, The Royal Landing, where the Manhattan lay helpless, and at the radio station on Wireless Road.

Thirty Marines temporarily forced their way into the Wat Liab Power station but were repulsed. Army detachments set up roadblocks on Ploenchit Road to contain the radio station unit. All ships of the Siamese fleet were ordered into action. The Army called for all officers and men to mobilize.

Chain-smoking their supply of American cigarets, the dredge crew lay in their hot bunks, stripped to the waist, listening to the amazing radio war, punctuated through the night by the sound of gunfire. By morning the situation was becoming dangerous. At 8:00 A.M. a pall of smoke boiled up from the Tathien Landing gasoline dump on the Bangkok side of the river, opposite Wat Arun.

The Navy radio went off the air shortly afterward, and by 11:00 A.M. Navy warcraft were hurling shells into Bangkapi, causing many casualties among both Thai and foreign residents. Anti-aircraft shells exploded on New Road on the outskirts of Bangkok, killing three defenseless civilians. Withering crossfire slashed through treetops in the British Embassy compound and then shells began pounding straight into the American Embassy on Sathorn road.

O’Neal turned to the others. “I think we’d better get the hell off this ship!”

Quickly the crew lowered a lifeboat into the river, listening to the sound of gunfire coming closer and closer. Joined by one Siamese, the dredgemen began rowing upriver, hell bent for anywhere but Bangkok. For nine grueling hours they pulled through the sweltering afternoon and night until the Siamese tapped O’Neal on the back and pointed to shore.

In friendly territory, the crew relaxed while O’Neal set out on a three-mile hike to find a telephone and call the American Embassy. By the time he got the call through, however, the embassy was empty, except for a non-English speaking guard. O’Neal at last gave up and headed back toward the landing.

Suddenly the staccato crack of a Thompson gun split the night air. Bullets whined close behind O’Neal and his guide thudding into a high brick wall surrounding the large home of a government official where he had found the telephone. The faster he ran, the faster the gunfire came. At the last second O’Neal dove through a gate to safety.

Back with his crew, he wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve and let out a long breath. “A hell of a reception for the Manhattan,” he grinned.

Shortly after daybreak, a procession of autos rolled up to where the crew had hidden. Politely they were escorted back into town and put up at the Princess Hotel. There the Americans stayed for a full week, living on duck eggs, potatoes and tropical fruit while the bloody revolution raged outside in the streets.

Finally O’Neal and his chief engineer, Tom Johnston, were allowed to return to the dredge and go aboard. What they saw shocked them. The Manhattan was a shambles. Gunfire had knocked out the searchlights. Her launches were riddled with holes. Small arms fire had punctured her stern gas tanks.

Inside the stateroom O’Neal found an injured Thai crewman lying on his bunk wrapped in bloody bandages. Through the end of the bunk was a nasty bullet hole, right where he had been sitting before deciding to abandon ship. Worse, the American crew found all his personal belongings missing; money, clothing, cigarets, binoculars, cameras, everything was gone.

He shrugged. He was still alive, after living through an amazing revolution from the very start. He sat down and laughed.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had started, the revolt ended. The score: numerous casualties, one shot-up dredge and a thoroughly disgusted crew. But Siamese hospitality quickly made up for that. Prime Minister Pibulsonggram, released by his captors, turned up as natty as ever, promising full reimbursement for all lost property.

It took the crew another three weeks to put the Manhattan back in shape so she could go to work dredging out the channel for Bangkok’s harbor. And then came a glorious farewell party at the Princess Hotel — courtesy of Pibulsonggram’s grateful and apologetic government.

The Manhattan’s crew flew home, arriving back in Philadelphia on November 5th. The revolution in Bangkok seemed like a strange dream, far away and long ago. But O’Neal still carries a souvenir that reminds him that it was for real and in deadly earnest. The spent bullet he dug form the head of his bunk.

(0)

Getting to Ocracoke in the 1940s and early 1950s was an exciting adventure.  This was before the road to Hatteras was built, and before the state of North Carolina established their free state-run ferry system.  At that time Ocracoke’s main link to the mainland was the privately owned and operated mail boat, Aleta, which made one daily round-trip between the island and Atlantic, North Carolina.  The Aleta left Ocracoke at 6:30 every morning and arrived back at its home port about 4:30 in the evening.

Below is an article written in 1951.  It provides a rare glimpse into a typical trip across Pamlico Sound on the Aleta.  Enjoy.

The Aleta Carries Anything

by Woodrow Price, The News & Observer, August 12, 1951

Ocracoke — The gods could have found no better an introduction to this island, where Time sits beneath a live oak fanning himself lazily and frowning darkly upon any speed exceeding 20 miles an hour, than the mail boat Aleta.

For the Aleta, rolling easily over the wavelets of Core and Pamlico sounds at a jaunty eight to 10 miles an hour, provides the perfect transition from the automobiles, the trains and the airplanes of the rushing, workaday world, to the peace and the quiet of Ocracoke.

Daily Round Trip

Like the island from which she sets out determinedly each morning and to which she returns gaily each afternoon, the Aleta offers a blithe stumbling block to the mile-a-minute living of the 20th Century.  Speed has no place in the scheme of things on the island, nor in the placid existence of the Aleta.

Fast living is left behind when you park your car in Atlantic and prepare to climb aboard the little Aleta, a stubby 42-footer whose 40-horse diesel carries her over the 30-mile route in three and a half hours.

Once the Aleta made it in three hours and five minutes, but speak of this in whispers only.  A brisk tail wind over which the Aleta had no control pushed the little craft rudely along and therefore must bear the blame for that record crossing.

But if speed and some other appurtenances of present day civilization are parked with the car in Atlantic they will scarcely be missed.  By the time the hurrying businessman has geared his tempo to that of the Aleta, he has fallen into the proper stride of living on the Outer Banks.  And it is an abundant life, rich in the friendliness of the coastland.

To tell the truth, the Aleta is bigger than she looks, or than the records show.  She must be, for mountains of baggage, mail and freight disappear into her hold every day to emerge later when she pulls into port here.  When the Bessie Virginia, a freight boat which normally plies between here and Washington, N.C., once a week, is out of commission, the mountains are even taller than usual, for then the Aleta becomes the principal supply line for most of the stores here.  Bread and ice cream are a regular part of the cargo, anyway.

Mailboat Aleta leaving port loaded with passengers & mail:

(Photo courtesy Earl O’Neal, Jr.)

On weekends, when the passenger list is long, the baggage piles up, too. Besides the normal complement of baggage, every  vacationist on board brings a good supply of fishing tackle, for Ocracoke has a well-earned reputation as a fine sports fishing center.

There are rumors that way back before its present owners took over the Aleta, she once carried 90 passengers.  But the maximum now is 60, and when the load limit is approached, the Aleta literally overflows with people.  Early arrivals find comfortable cushions in the cabin or on the upper deck underneath the green canvas awning made into a cover resembling an abbreviated hood for a prairie schooner.  Latecomers find seats on fish boxes thoughtfully placed on the top deck, or they sit up forward on the roof over the engine and freight compartment.

A favorite spot on the calmer days is the curved wooden seat on the stern.  But this is only a few inches above the water when the Aleta is carrying a full load, and in choppy weather passengers studiously avoid the stern seat.  Sometimes, they have found, a thoughtless wave climbs too high and slaps down wetly on a pants leg.

The Aleta was designed for a mail boat run.  She was built in Atlantic 28 years ago by Ambrose Fulcher for Howard Nelson, who named the craft for his sister, now Mrs. Brooks Ball of Cherry Point.  Nelson ran the Aleta between Atlantic and Morehead City until the highway was extended into Atlantic and mail and freight began moving by truck and bus.

For the past 13 years, the Aleta has been on the Atlantic-Ocracoke run, first under the command of Wilbur Nelson for six years.  Seven year ago, the Aleta changed hands, however, and Elmo Fulcher and George O’Neal, both of Ocracoke, have owned and operated the mail boat since.  They alternate in making the mail run, Fulcher, taking over one week, and O’Neal the next.  On off weeks, Fulcher goes shrimping and O’Neal works around his home or goes flounder gigging.  Roy Parsons is the Aleta’s first and only mate.

Misses Few Trips

Crew and passengers share a common love for the Outer Banks way of life, so the crossing from Atlantic to Ocracoke always is a pleasant journey, even though the sound may become a trifle roiled or ;an occasional rain squall may be encountered.  It seldom is too rough to hold the Aleta back.  Bad weather causes her to miss two, maybe three, trips in a year’s ;time, but her schedule is the most certain thing in the island’s existence.  She leaves at 6:15 a.m., arrives in Atlantic between 9 and 9:30; departs from there at 1 p.m., and sometime around 4:30 can be seen coming through the “ditch” into Silver Lake and her resting spot at the end of the pier in front of the post office.

On the way, her passengers sleep, read, gossip or just sit and enjoy the scenery.  maybe some over-eager fisherman will go to the stern and let out a handline in hope of catching a bluefish.  Some folks break out a lunch and eat it.  And there is singing, if a leader can be found.

For years, the Aleta and her predecessors — the Bessie M, the Ocracoke and the “M” City — dropped off mail at Cedar Island for Lola and Roe, two small villages on the Carteret shore — but last year, when the highway was extended from Atlantic, trucks took over that duty.  Now the Aleta’s only stop on her 30-mile journey is just off Portsmouth, a few miles south of here.  Since there is no channel into Portsmouth deep enough for the Aleta, a skiff comes out to meet her, exchange sacks of mail and take off passengers.

From Portsmouth it is only a few minutes’ run into Ocracoke, and the Aleta breezes along as though she scents the nearness of home.  When she arrives, virtually the entire village — plus summer visitors — is on hand to welcome her.  For the Aleta is the island’s most solid link with the outside world, and therefore something deserving of special treatment.

Mailboat Aleta docking, greeted by local residents:

(Click on photo to view larger image.  Photo courtesy Earl O’Neal, Jr.)

(0)