The Philippines is fighting an unequal battle with China over conflicting claims to the Spratly Islands. Although closer to the Philippines than China, the Chinese have a much more aggressive style and far more military assets. But the Filipinos do the best with what they’ve got. For example, the Philippines stations military personnel (mainly marines, with some sailors) on nine islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands. That’s fewer than a hundred personnel, who basically watch and report activity around their isolated patch of ground. China has been a lot more active lately and the Filipinos get regular reports from these improvised outposts.
One of those detachments doesn’t even have any dry land to stand on, just the rusting metal of a World War II era landing ship (the BRP Sierra Madre) that the Filipino navy deliberately ran up on Second Thomas Reef in 1999, to provide a place for an observation team.
Built in 1944, as LST (Landing Ship Tank) 821 it served in the U.S. Navy for only two years before being decommissioned. In 1966 LST 821 returned to service in Vietnam and after that was given to the Philippines where it served until 1999.
Nearly a thousand of these hundred meter (300 foot long) ships were built from 1942 to 1945. They could carry as many as 20 tanks and put them right on to a beach. The beaching process was not without its shortcomings. While the ship had a full load displacement of 4,000 tons, it could only be at 2,400 tons when running up on the beach. Even at that, there was usually damage done to the LST. The average landing operation would render ten percent of the LSTs involved unfit for further service. Moreover, the wear and tear on those that survived the run up onto the beach was such that, during the war, only about 85 percent of the LSTs still operational were actually fit enough for another landing. In effect, after about ten landings, an LST was a wreck and no longer useable for anything but moving cargo from one dock to another. This was typical of all ships that ran up on beaches to disgorge their cargo.
The LST was basically a modified transport and, as such, was rather slow (14 kilometers an hour normally, with a max speed of 20-22 kilometers an hour). Normally they carried a crew of some 100 and were usually armed with eight 40mm anti-aircraft guns. LSTs were often converted to other uses, especially when they only had a few more beach landings left in their tortured hulls. Some were ended up serving as repair ships, PT-boat tenders, floating barracks and supply dumps, casualty evacuation ships, and even improvised aircraft carriers for light reconnaissance planes (eight of which could be operated off a portable airstrip set up on deck). It was often said that "LST" referred to "Large Slow Target" because of their slow speed and weak anti-aircraft armament.
The grounded Filipino LST on the Spratly reef is rusting away and the current detachment of five marines and two sailors live under tarps rigged on the deck. It’s dangerous (and hot) inside the ship. The “crew” of the LST spends most of their time on watch or fishing. Water, food, batteries, and other supplies are delivered periodically by boat from the Philippines, a trip that takes 36-40 hours each way.
The other eight detachments are supplied the same way, and live similar lives, except on land, usually with some trees and other greenery to keep them company.