Saturday, April 24, 2010

Following the Russians - USS Lockwood FF-1064 And The William Tell Overture

This story, China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates -, reminds me of following the Russians while on the USS Lockwood, between 1975 and 1978. China says it's building up its Navy for defensive purposes, of course, to protect its sea lanes in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Every country says they do these things for defensive purposes. But, it's not. There are no modern weapons for defensive purposes, they are all for offense. That's where the deterrent is. If we're not already, we'll be following the Chinese too. It was the same during the Cold War while I was aboard the USS Lockwood.

I've said before that "nothing happened" on that ship, but that was only in the context of writing about dangerous ships I've been on. Something always happened. The Lockwood was a relatively modern ship in 1975, sporting the Battle "E," for Battle Excellence, on its bridge and with an array of impressive weapons, from an automated five-inch gun to guided cruise missiles and torpedoes and the dreaded Phalanx gun. The ship was built for dual purposes, both anti-submarine and surface warfare, and it had a helicopter that could handle "over-the-horizon" targeting. The Battle "E" said we were good at our job, too. But, it's odd that with all the missiles that gave us the ability to shoot from a good distance, that it was the relatively small 20mm Phalanx that we cared most about. You can get an official and more technical description of the Phalanx on Wikipedia, here.

But, you'll probably understand my description better. The Phalanx was a fully automated Gatling gun that could fire so many 20mm rounds, 3,000 per minute, in close combat that not much could get through or close to us without being blown to bits. It could literally "saw" off the top of an approaching ship's conning tower in seconds. It could also shoot down any incoming missile. The only way to defeat it was for an enemy ship to fire ten or more missiles at us, and even then the Phalanx could destroy most of those. So, it was a big deal to us. It allowed us to follow the Russians with a degree of confidence that we were safe or at least could handle anything they threw at us. And, that's what we did; we followed the Russians after the end of the Vietnam War in April, 1975. We followed both surface ships and submarines.

We searched for and found submarines with two sonar systems, one attached to our hull and the other we lowered into the water to depths of six or seven hundred feet, our variable depth sonar (VDS). The VDS allowed us to find those submarines that tried to run silent beneath the Thermocline, an inversion layer in the ocean, or any deep body of water, that distorts sound. The Thermocline is a relatively thin layer of water between the top warmer, rougher water and the colder, calmer water below. To our hull sonar, a submarine running below that layer could be miles away but sound like it was only a mile away or vice versa, a mile away but sound ten miles away. Sometimes we couldn't hear them at all through the layer by using only our hull sonar. But, the VDS could listen below that layer and pinpoint a submarine relatively quickly. We would wait for a submarine leaving Vladivostok, Russia, on the western coast of the Sea of Japan and track it for hundreds of miles.

But, the Thermocline was a problem, too, because we were on top of it - in the rough water while that submarine was moving along nicely, in relative comfort. Once in a cold, winter storm in the Sea of Japan, while listening for subs, our VDS cable jumped out of its pulley. Here is a picture of a VDS similar to the Lockwood's. You may be able to see the problem. The VDS is housed in a cage inside the ship, so if the cable becomes loose in rough seas, it has a tendency to flop around inside that cage and entangle itself around several pieces of equipment. It's like throwing out a three or four ton fishing line and then trying to thread the line on to the reel. Then, too, the ship cannot move forward when the cable is loose and there's nothing worse in rough water than having to stay in one spot. Staying in one spot makes the waves just that much bigger.

So it was on that day, when the waves were at least 20 feet high and were crashing through our open VDS door and the water was near freezing, that we had to stop the ship to see if we could get the VDS cable back on its track so we could continue sub searching. Some of the crew were getting seasick, a condition that is both nausea and dizziness and one has no sense of up or down, left or right. The ship was bobbing and rocking like a cork. I went aft to see if I could help, but I immediately saw that I couldn't. The Commanding Officer, Executive Officer and Senior Chief Sonar Tech Bob Bolin were in the cage trying to push the cable onto the pulley as the ship rolled and bobbed. There was only room enough for three people in the cage at best times. It was very crowded in the cage with the loose cable and waves crashing through the back door. As the aft went down, the cable loosened somewhat and, gauging the opportunity, they pushed the cable toward the pulley. As the aft went up, the cable tightened and they stood back to avoid being trapped beneath it. They tried that for nearly an hour. Cutting the cable wasn't an option. That would mean an inquiry, losing the Battle E, and probably meant our Commanding Officer would lose his job. The VDS was a multi-million dollar piece of equipment and losing it would not sit well with Pacific Fleet. Finally, the movement of the ship, the cable and the waves came together perfectly and the cable flipped into place on the pulley on its own. Pure luck. We didn't lose the VDS, but there was enough damage in the VDS cage that it couldn't be used until it was repaired on our next Yokosuka in-port period.

In 1975 the ship had a "Theme Song" contest to choose the song we would play at appropriate times, such as underway replenishments when coming alongside an oiler or supply ship or entering our home port, Yokosuka, Japan. The crew was to vote on the nominated songs. One of the songs suggested was the "William Tell Overture," the theme song for the Lone Ranger of the 1950s and '60s. As a Department Chief Petty Officer, and since I had good communications with most of the crew, I knew the crew would not choose that song. "Midnight Special," by Creedence Clearwater and "Already Gone" and "Take it Easy" by the Eagles were my favorites, with a preference for "Already Gone." Black crew members nominated the "Soul Train Theme Song," by the Soul Train Gang, but it wasn't lively enough, I thought. We needed, I thought, a heavy metal or heavy rock sound - something loud. I can hear it now, "I'm already gone. I'm feeling strong. I'll will sing this victory song... The letter that you wrote me..." Wow, what a good theme song! Imagine that song playing when crashing through the waves, bow breaching, the sun shining and the sea a dark blue with white caps frothing, and the ship close by envious of our theme song! That's bravado! Alas, according to the Commanding Officer, "William Tell Overture" won the contest. Almost immediately we heard, "The voting was rigged!" from sailors all over the ship. Or, "What a dorky song. That's embarrassing." It was, never the less, from that day forward, our theme song. But, there came a day that we were happy with our theme song, because it was recognized the world over while the others we might have chosen were not.

A year or so later the Lockwood was tasked to trail a task force of Russian ships in the South China Sea. It took us several days to catch them. I'm sure they could see us on radar long before they saw our ship, but I think we saw them first, both on radar and by sight. As we approached them from under the horizon, we saw a plum of black smoke on the horizon in front of us. The word spread that a Russian ship was approaching at full speed, so many of us went topside to watch. But, all we saw was the black smoke on the horizon. It turned out that the propulsion system on their ships was pretty antiquated, a combination of diesel and steam which, when moving at their highest speed, belched black smoke out of the stack like an old locomotive. The Lockwood's propulsion system was a modern 1200 pound per square inch steam turbine system that gave out some smoke a minute or so on going to full speed, but as fuel and speed settled, the smoke dissipated. We saw them coming a long way off. The Russian ship, a guided missile cruiser I believe, wasn't going to ram us, of course, so we held our course and speed. We passed each other, and waved to each other, with a little less than a hundred feet between us. Then, we settled in watching their operations.

The black smoke was the source of humor on the Lockwood and most of the crew, especially the chiefs, began thinking that we had nothing to fear from the Russian Navy. We would prevail in any battle. That point was brought home again when we watched their underway refueling. In fact, we thought the method they used was funny. Perhaps they saw us laughing on the main deck. Maybe that pissed them off.

Our method of refueling involved pulling along side the oiler (loud speakers playing our song), about thirty or forty yards between ships, and we usually kept good speed, about twenty miles an hour. (Speakers off) The oiler shot a "shot-line" over to us that was attached to a larger rope, and we pulled that across and hooked the rope to a padeye. Then came the five or six-inch hose across on pulleys that we connected to the fuel receiving valve. The hose was hoisted high on the oiler on a boom, and once the fuel began flowing, the hose became a siphon and the vacuum helped speed the oil flow. We turned on the valve and received the oil. The whole thing took us about 30 minutes and we were gone, speakers on, on our way. There was a big advantage to doing it this way. First, it was important to maintain speed and both ships could go faster, if necessary, to avoid any hostile ships in the area. Also, we didn't look like we were refueling on radar. With two ships that close, we just looked like a larger ship. Second, we could disconnect everything within seconds and both ships could escape in different directions, if necessary.

But, the Russians had a different method. The Russian oiler slowed to a crawl and let out about one hundred feet of the refueling hose to trail behind, floating on the water. The ship getting the fuel pulled up to the end of the hose and sailors on the bow of the ship tried to hook the hose. It took about twenty minutes just to hook the hose. Then the sailors hoisted the heavy hose to the main deck, approximately twenty-five feet and pulled it to the valve and then began taking on fuel. Since the hose was lower than both ships, the fuel pump on the oiler had to work harder to push the oil and, therefore, took longer to fuel the ship. The whole refueling exercise took approximately two to three hours per ship. Meanwhile, we watched, waved, took pictures and laughed occasionally. Their method was so archaic that someone suggested that they were deceiving us, hiding their true method of refueling. But, the more we watched, the more we were convinced that we were watching the real thing.

 After nearly a full day of watching them refuel and, whether the Russian cruiser captain was angry at our laughing, or wanted to show off or to play, we saw the cruiser come up to full speed, black smoke rolling. It made a hard right turn to our rear and then a hard left turn to come up behind us, straight at our fantail. We increased speed, but stayed below full speed as the cruiser approached. In the last minute, within thirty yards of our fantail, it swerved to the left to come up along our port side. We, then, increased to full speed, about thirty-two mph, but the Russian was a mile or two faster and came along side, near enough for sailors on both ships to see each others' faces clearly and to see the concern that we were getting too close for comfort.

How close was he? Probably not much closer than the first time he passed us. My memory is faulty about that. It's like a fish story. The more it's told, the bigger the fish gets. I don't believe either captain wanted to create an international incident, so that line wasn't crossed, unless you consider that the Lockwood being in the area in the first place might be crossing that line. Both ships held a steady course. Then, to the surprise of sailors on both ships, the William Tell Overture began playing over our loud speakers. They knew the song as well as or better than we did, since it was written in Europe for the 1839 "William Tell Opera." Several sailors on the cruiser gave a thumbs up, a sign of appreciation.  Everyone on both ships had a good laugh. Gradually, both ships pulled away from the other and we went back to watching each other. We didn't arm the Phalanx for that encounter.

We appreciated the song more, after that. I wonder if Chinese sailors will know the song. Of course, unlike the Russian ships, the Chinese ships will be as new or newer than ours. Let's hope a song makes a difference.

Hi-yo Silver, away...


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi There Chief Clark, You may have your dates a bit out of order concerning the Phalanx. I know it showed up sometime, but, back in Oct '78 there was still a BPDMS missile launcher on the fantail. Best Regards, FTM2 Hughes, on board Lockwood from 10/76 - 10/78