Many North Carolinians are familiar with and proud of the state-named battleship that has overlooked downtown Wilmington for nearly six decades.
But the USS North Carolina isn’t the only World War II-era warship with ties to the Tar Heel state. As it turns out, a lesser-known vessel with ties to the state has been at the center of an international geopolitical conflict unfolding in the South China Sea in recent years.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort shared the story of the USS Harnett County in a recent Facebook post.
The vessel launched Oct. 27, 1944, as LST-821, according to Navy records. The LST designation was applied to Naval tank-landing ships that carried tanks to beaches during WWII. The landing ship participated in the occupation of Okinawa in 1945, and returned to the United States where she was decommissioned in 1946 and renamed Harnett County in 1955, according to the Navy.
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The USS Harnett County was recommissioned in 1966 to join the Pacific Fleet in the Vietnam War, the Naval records show. The Harnett County was later redesignated a Patrol Craft Tender before being given to South Vietnam in 1970, according to the Navy.
From South Vietnam, the vessel was transferred to the Philippines in 1976, according to the maritime museum, and that’s where she’s made news in recent years – under the name Sierra Madre, according to a 2013 report by The New York Times.
The Philippine government intentionally ran the vessel aground in 1999 to lay claim to the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef in the South China Sea, according to the Times and a 2015 Reuters report. The shoal is located in the Spratly Islands, an area mired in regional disputes over territory and potential resources, as explained in a 2016 BBC report. A small unit of Filipino marines manning the Sierra Madre was tasked with preventing the Chinese from overtaking the reef, according to the Times.
Philippine officials said “since the start of 2014, the Philippine navy’s regular attempts to re-supply soldiers on the BRP Sierra Madre with food and water have become a cat-and-mouse routine, with large Chinese coastguard vessels on patrol in the area trying to block the path of the smaller Philippine boats,” according to the Reuters report.
The Times report said since its grounding, the rust-covered ship has “maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison.”
The Philippine Navy in 2015 worked to repair the damaged vessel, according to Reuters. It remained in use as a marine detachment as of May, the Associated Press reported.