The Sierra Madre is a 70 yr. old military ship. It is banked at the shallow “Second Thomas Shoal” a region in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines. The ship is the post for eight Filipino marines who guard the Shoal 24/7. The oil rich Shoal is disputed territory claimed by the Philippines, China and several other Asian countries. Cat-and-Mouse tensions have recently escalated between the Philippines and China regarding the Second Thomas Shoal. China has been patrolling the area with destroyers, coast guard and fishing vessels. It has also blocked supplies en route to the marines on the ship.
The Philippines has a reason to fear – this is a replay of a similar situation. In 2012, China took control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The United States attempted to assist the heated situation by providing mediation between the Philippines and China. In the end, the Philippines agreed to back away and leave the territory so the dispute could be further negotiated. Yet, this action only allowed China to monopolize this Shoal. The Scarborough Shoal dilemma is currently being disputed in international court.
While there are striking similarities to both of these situations, there is one major difference: The Sierra Madre. The Sierra Madre has an interesting history. It was first named the USS LST-821, later named the USS Harnett County. She was built for the U.S. Navy in 1944, and served in WWII and in the Vietnam War. The ship has earned ten (combined) WWII battle stars, two Presidential Unit Citations, and three Navy Unit Commendations for Vietnam War service. Through a series of events, the U.S. transferred the ship to the Philippines. The Philippine government renamed the ship: LT 57 Sierra Madre, and banked her at the Second Thomas Shoal, where she is now stationed.
But the story of the Story of the Sierra Madre does not end here. The ship has “issues.” It is dilapidated, old and rusty; but, this is also part of her beauty. In fact, the Sierra Madre’s history and age could bring her into the arena of protected status as a historical site. Under the U.S. Antiquities Act of 1906, destroying such a site is criminal and punishable. The Philippines and China undoubtedly have similar laws. Just imagine what could occur if China damaged the site... Headlines: China Ruins Protected Historical Site, Way to Go CHINA.
China may have plans to tow away the ship, and this action would be in direct conflict of international law, which forbids acquisition of territory by conquest. The ship is territory of the Philippines, an attack by China against the Sierra Madre would not only be an attack against a Philippine naval vessel, but would also constitute the purposeful destruction of a possible historical and cultural site.
China is currently opposing the idea of a U.S. and Philippine agreed upon freeze on actions that provoke tension in the area. While there may be a temporary refrain, China could wait for an opportune time to dominate the Shoal. This may happen after a monsoon storm, which may cause the Sierra Madre to cave in. But, she has not given up the ghost yet. The Sierra Madre may very well be one of the most fascinating military ships in history, and she is still in service.