Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Kraken and Other Leviathans

My problem is that I think too much. There's a saying that many sailors quote when they retire from the Navy; “I'm going to tow a rowboat to a spot farthest from water, salty and fresh, and that's where I'm going to live.” I didn't quite make it there. I live 600 feet above sea level about five miles, as the crow flies, from the Pacific coast. It sounds safe. But, even here, the Pacific Ocean can reach out and grab me, although the event would be so rare as to be a catastrophe for the entire California coastal region. I still look to the west occasionally to see if that huge tsunami coming to get me is breaching the South San Francisco hills. I always visualize having time to contemplate my death before I drown. Maybe I'll be lucky enough to be creamed, instantly, by a house that the tsunami picked up on its way. I'll stand and give it the finger, like the mouse to the eagle, defiantly... I hope.
So, this story about students who went sailing off the coast of Brazil brings back good and bad memories of adventures on the high seas. A “microburst” pushed their sail boat to its edge and beyond and left them floating in life rafts until fate picked them up three days later. They had plenty of time to contemplate their deaths. I spent twenty years in the Navy, twelve of which were on ships of various sizes, and hindsight is scarier every time a reminder triggers my mind. It is through that hindsight that I realize how many times fate pulled me from the edge and beyond in the nick of time. Youth is immortal.
My first ship was the U. S. S. Princeton, LPH-5, an Amphibious Assault Ship (Helicopter), that was a World War II era Aircraft Carrier, home ported in Long Beach, CA. I reported in September 1965 as a Seaman Storekeeper and I was assigned to the ship's Supply Office and became the financial record keeper. At 888 feet long and displacing 36,500 tons, who can think that this ship can shudder and shake and roll under the weight of heavy seas? It did. The Kraken is a powerful monster, or maybe it was just an angry Poseidon. My “GQ” station was an aft port-side hanger bay area as a phone-talker and fire fighter, semi-exposed to the elements, because the adjacent elevator that lifted helicopters to the flight deck, had no door. It's hindsight that makes me fear that stormy day at GQ when we rolled to the left to the point I thought we were “going over” and in a deep, deep trough that I looked out that bay door to see water higher than the ship's flight deck. All of us ten or so sailors were grappling for a hand-hold, as if our puny strength can stand in the face of 50 tons of rushing water. The water rushed over the elevator, closer and closer, and in the nick of time the ship shuddered and began to right itself. We looked at each other, wide-eyed, pale and shaken and thanked God. That day was forgotten on those Sundays we sun-bathed on the flight deck, or the stop in Hawaii, or the days Marines went ashore in Vietnam to fight the Vietcong. But, it is not entirely forgotten.
The most dangerous ship I sailed on was my next ship, the U. S. S. St. Francis River, LFR-525, an Inshore Fire Support Ship home ported in Yokosuka, Japan. It was the original “rust bucket,” a World War II era ship. I reported in November 1968, three days before it was scheduled to depart for Vietnam to support Army and Marine Corp inshore operations. Three months in Nam, three weeks home, was our normal schedule, although it usually turned out to be five to six months in Nam and three weeks home. We operated “close in,” one-eighth or less of a mile from shore, close enough to “take rounds” from shore. My GQ station was as phone talker inside, but later, in Nam, my “Battle Station” was on the twin 40mm canons on the bow, usually facing the shore, with ten rocket launchers spewing rockets behind me. The most frequent order I heard in my earphones was, “shoot that goddamned sniper! Twenty degrees, elevation thirty. Fire it damn it!” I jerked the gun into position in a split second and fired it – ten rounds a burst, rattling your bones and teeth, blowing the hell out of trees and bush and anything else there. Listen for a “ping,” return fire. Fire again if you hear it, or better if you can see him move.
Or, at the mouth of the Siagon River, a river flowing with the tides all the way to Siagon, a Sanpan is getting too close and Fire Control says, “Cong in the Sanpan. Blow it.” So, I blow it out of the water. We come along side, the boat filling with water, and see women and children, all dead, but no “Cong.” Oops. Well, what if there had been Cong in it? I'd be dead.
Swim call was a normal thing on the St. Francis River, usually on the way to Subic Bay, Philippines, the armpit of the world in those days. About half the crew joined in the swim, but I didn't. The tradition is that one strips to skivvies and jumps the ten or so feet into the water while three or four others watch, with M-1 rifles, for sharks. I couldn't get over the idea that sharks don't have to show their fins to expose their position and those with rifles could be just as dangerous as the sharks. I watched for sharks, too, but I didn't have a rifle. I didn't want one.
The fantail on ships is a favorite gathering spot at the end of a workday after supper or at anytime on Sunday to talk and smoke a cigarette. It's also the place where the garbage chute is located and when the garbage is dumped, I've seen times when thirty or forty Hammerhead Sharks would trail along, eating anything and everything that was dumped, even tin cans. Some of those sharks were so big that I'm convinced they were half the length of the ship. Swim call? No way. I never got over a day at Newport's Number One Beach, Newport, RI, when I, looking to catch a wave for body-surfing, got out a little too far, felt the cold depth of the water and something swam by, long and sleek, touching my leg. I swam to shore so fast I could have beat Michael Phelps. I've done nothing more than wade in the ocean since. There are Leviathans in that water.
A lot happened on the St. Francis River. I hurt my back, once, returning to the ship from leave, when I had to ride a Patrol “PT” Boat in rough seas to catch my ship, and then spent a month in Subic Bay's hospital to recover. There was also that time when we were resupplying 5,000 rockets, five-inch gun ammunition and 40mm and 20mm canon ammunition in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, when nearly fifty percent of our crew refused to return to the ship from the base “club.” They were all drunk and it was getting dark and the ship, a floating powder keg, was not allowed in Cam Ranh after dark. We put the harbor at great risk. I, and three other petty officers, were ordered to run the one mile to the club to get our crew back to the ship. We left the harbor after dusk. We could hear explosions from Vietcong rockets in the dark night, a nightly routine for Cam Ranh Bay. Had they hit us, the explosion would have destroyed the harbor and reverberated for miles around. Fate plucked us from disaster in the nick of time.
The St. Francis River was scheduled for decommissioning in Bremerton, WA, and was to depart for Puget Sound a few months after the Cam Ranh Bay incident. But, our last trip from Vietnam to Yokosuka proved to be too much stress on the hull, with cracks and water leaks, and we worked hard, around the clock, to get home without sinking. The ship was in such bad shape that it was decided it would probably sink on a month-long voyage to Bremerton. It was a rust bucket. It was decommissioned in Yokosuka and we felt very lucky it made it that far. The next stop for LFR-525 was scrap metal.
My next ship was the most fun; U. S. S. Beacon , PG-99, or as we were known to P-3 Orion pilots, “Cowboy 99.” The Naval Source description is here . The Beacon's home port was San Diego, CA while I was aboard from late 1969 to June 1971. The Beacon was just a big toy. It had four diesel engines and a Pratt-Whitney Jet Engine for dual propulsion. My GQ and Special Detail post was at the con, steering the ship and operating the controls. What a kick. It had a 25-man crew that did everything, whether it was entering or leaving a harbor or trying to outrun an Aircraft Carrier to San Francisco at top, 41 knot (47 mph), speed. We won. I left the Beacon in June 1971 when it was ordered to the East Coast for anti-Russian operations. Its luck ran out on the East Coast many times, it seems, as indicated in its Wikipedia history. It was rammed by a merchant ship, as one example. Glad I left – in the nick of time.
My next two ships could not beat my experience on the Beacon, the U. S. S. Ajax (AR-6), a World War II era repair ship, and the U. S. S. Lockwood (FF-1064), a Fast Frigate made cheaply with only one, very slow propeller. Online Lockwood photos and details are here and as a Destroyer Escort, as originally intended, here . It really wasn't designed to be a Fast Frigate.
Three Ajax experiences enforce my belief that going to sea is a bad idea. The first was that, while the ship's mission is to repair ships, we couldn't repair ourselves. We lost power on our voyage from San Diego to the Western Pacific exactly in the middle, to within a few feet, equal-distance between California and Hawaii. And, there we sat, waddling in the ocean for a day and a half. We were so lucky that the seas were calm. The Ajax, the size of an ocean passenger liner, lolled and rolled in the calm seas like a cradle. Had there been a storm, we would have rolled over like a log. Good luck struck again! We finally repaired our evaporators, those engines that convert salt water to fresh water to cool our engines. We can't have salt water coursing through engine cooling systems.
The second and third incidents occurred in the same Typhoon off the coast of the Philippines. Had they asked me whether to stay in the Subic Bay harbor or go to sea when a Typhoon is approaching, I would have stayed. I've never understood the logic of any other choice in that regard; the choice being whether to sink in fifty feet of harbor water or one thousand feet of ocean. Who, in their right mind, would make any other choice? But, they didn't ask me. So, we set sail as the typhoon approached and tried, I say “tried,” to outrun it. A typhoon can go 20 knots per hour or more. The old Ajax did only ten.
That typhoon tossed and punched us like we were a one-ounce cork. We were right in the center of the strongest winds and highest waves. The Ajax leaned over at least five times to the point that I knew we were going over, but somehow came back. Only by the Grace of God did we make it. And, as the storm only slightly lessened, those words nobody wants to hear blurted from the ship's speaker system; “Man Overboard!” Someone was missing from muster! “Man overboard detail report to the con.” Oh shit. I'm on that detail. In this storm? Everyone knew our XO was crazy. But, this crazy?
Out we went into the night, in a harness tethered to a line. Searchlights scanned the huge, black-green and ugly ocean waves. I held on to the rail for dear life. If I was swept off my feet I knew I would dangle in the 100 mph winds at the end of the tether like a rag doll. What a joke to think that I could hold on if a monster wave came crashing over me. And, as the ship rolled, those waves washed around my feet, 35 feet above the normal waterline, sometimes with considerable force. I was lucky, again, to have kept my footing. We saw no one in the water and it was painfully obvious to us, who were outside looking, that we wouldn't – we couldn't. In only a few moments, seemingly an hour, we were called back inside. As I turned to go in, the wind whipped off my earphones and the microphone strapped to my neck, causing a red welt that lasted for several days. I made it inside. Several months later we were back in San Diego and I left the ship before it, too, went to Bremerton for decommissioning. And, Petty Officer Hann, the missing man? We found him waiting to be found in a storeroom where he had attempted to get a part, but had been trapped by heavy items falling in front of the storeroom door. He had a ship's phone. He could have called for help.
As for the Lockwood – nothing happened. We trailed Russians ships, watched their exercises and refueling ops. We nearly lost our variable depth sonar a few hundred miles from Vladivostok chasing Russian subs. But, I wasn't involved. I watched others try to get the cable back in the pulley wheel while the ocean sent waves in the back door.
So, those Canadian students had fate on their side. They were lucky. As for me, if you hear I'm going on a sea cruise to Mexico, or anyplace, then you should pay your respects soon. I'm likely in a coma near death and I'm delirious. Both “micro” and “macro” bursts happen on the high seas and you never know how it's going to turn out.

1 comment:

Dan said...

What a fascinating story. I was on the edge of my seat. Thanks for sharing.