Category Archives: Sea Stories

A Seaman’s Doubt

i found this in drafts of posts today when digging up those i had misplaced or forgotten (old men, especially this old man, have a tendency to forget and misplace things). A good story, this book Brenda Fake recommended to me.

i have just finished reading Frankie Maru by Lionel F. Price. My good friend, Brenda Fake sent it to me after the author had given it to her. It is not a book for everyone. It was for me.

The book relates the story of how the USS Frank Knox (DD-742) , with the nickname of “Frankie Maru,” went aground on Pratas Reef, an atoll in the South China Sea in 1965 while transiting from Vietnam to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

i related.

The Knox was a FRAM II Gearing class destroyer. i was the First Lieutenant and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Officer on the USS Hawkins (DD-873) and Chief Engineer on the USS Hollister (DD-788), and ASW Officer again on the USS Stephen B. Luce (DLG-7).  The former two also were Gearing class destroyers but FRAM I’s, which meant they were very similar to the Knox, but had one less 5-inch 38 gun mount and the bridge was enclosed, part of the pilot house, while the FRAM II’s, like  the Knox had open bridges with the pilot house enclosed. 

The Luce was newer and bigger and much more modern. While sports editor of The Watertown Daily Times, i served my two weeks of annual active duty service aboard the USS Waldron (DD-699) of the earlier Sumner class of destroyers, and spent eight weeks during my third class midshipman cruise aboard the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD-764), a FRAM II like the Knox.

i spent a bunch of time as OOD (Officer of the Deck) on all but the Thomas. i don’t recall ever being close to going aground but twice and that happened on the the USS Okinawa (LPH-3) when i was the OOD.

The first time occurred when we had given an aviator (whose name will not be included here) the conn as we stood out of  San Diego Bay in order for him to become qualified for command of a deep draft Navy ship. The channel was fairly wide but if a large ship was standing in while your ship was standing out, it became tight, a piloting/channel challenge; not an open sea situation, but it was close. Too close. He became confused and turned the ship perpendicular to the channel, headed straight at Harbor Island.  Close enough that the diners in the pier side restaurant window seatings were swallowing their salads and entrees aghast at the bow of a helicopter carrier hanging over them.

The second near grounding occurred when i was the Sea Detail OOD while standing in to San Diego Bay at night with only one main feed pump and tug going DIW (Dead in the Water) ahead of us in the channel with no warning. This tale has a story of its own, but for now, suffice it to say, to avoid the DIW tug, i executed an emergency maneuver that propelled the ship directly to the shallows of North Island. A welcomed recommendation from the navigator reminded me to shift rudder and avoid running aground. That, by the way, is the way a ship’s bridge team should work together. We escaped a collision and a grounding.

Although these close encounters were not as complicated as the Knox’s, these two close calls and a number of near collisions with other ships, i respect the problems facing the Knox  watch standers on that calamitous night in 1965. Of those, one close call on the Hawkins in 1969, and one on the Luce in 1972 stood out for me as i read the pages of Frankie Maru.

On the Hawk, an oiler turned too early on a maneuver in the rough seas and foul weather of the Northeast Atlantic. It was the evening watch. i had asked the captain, Commander Max Lasell to remain on the bridge for that particular maneuver before he went down to the wardroom to watch the evening movie. He did stay, thank God. The oiler passed in front of our bow and we estimated we were as close as 75 feet to her starboard side, possibly 50 feet (We didn’t have time to measure). i had given the CO the conn and i ran all the other aspects of managing the ship.

Afterwards, the two of us discussed what had occurred. i concluded i might have made the same “All Ahead Emergency,” but perhaps not in time. That most likely could have been the difference between a near miss and a collision at sea. 

On the Luce in the Med in 1972 on the mid-watch (midnight until 0400), a radar contact appeared at somewhere under 20 miles. Combat (CIC), i as the OOD, and the JOOD arrived at the same course and speed for the contact, and tracked the contact on our radar repeaters. The bearing did not change (no drift) and the distance between us continued to close. That meant the CPA (Closest Point of Approach) was zero, a collision course. The calculated course and speed validated that under the International Rules of the Road, she was the “burdened vessel” and the Luce was the “privileged vessel.” For landlubbers, this means the privileged vessel should maintain her course and speed and the “burdened vessel” should maneuver to avoid the collision, nearly always turning to starboard to pass astern of the “privileged vessel,” aka us.

Following the captain’s standing orders, i awoke Commander Richard Butts, and told him of the contact and the status, adding i would keep him informed. Before the distance between the Luce and the cargo ship was ten miles, the lookouts had spotted her, and the JOOD and i had also found the contact with our binoculars, even though she was hull down (only the mast or superstructure showed above the horizon while the bulk of  the ship was still below the horizon). The visual contact , and the calculated course and speed from tracking on the radar still showed a collision course.

The contact had not yet maneuvered. i called the captain, informed him again there was no change, and apologetically asked him to leave the sea cabin and come to the bridge. He was by my side within two minutes or less. The JOOD and i had been continuously on the port bridge wing to take sightings on the contact using the wing’s gyro compass repeater. The captain was at our side. No change.

At five miles,  i took over the port wing gyro compass, personally taking sightings and reporting to the captain standing beside me that there was no change in bearing. Then inside of four miles, i found the bearing had slightly moved to the right. i told the CO. i rechecked and told him the drift was about 1/2 degree. i recommended we take evasive action. It was way too close for me. Commander Butts asked me if i was sure there was bearing drift. i confirmed. He then replied negatively to my request to change course and speed (i had planned to turn hard to starboard and go to “All Emergency Flank” as i had learned in several shiphandling courses. The bearing kept increasing slightly as we continued too close.

The merchant ship passed in front of our bow. The closest we came was probably about fifty feet. It was close enough for us to look up into the merchant’s lighted pilot house to see it was empty, unmanned. The ship was running on autopilot.

It was a cool autumn night on the Mediterranean, but i was sweating. The captain looked at me, winked and said, “If you have bearing drift, you won’t collide.”

Dick Butts was one of the best CO’s i had on my ten ships and made two stars. To this day, i am pretty sure we stayed on that course because he wanted to teach me a lesson.

He did.


Why Navy

This column, published in The Lebanon Democrat in January fifteen years ago, will be included in my next project, a serialized story here about my Navy days: A Tale of the Sea and Me.

SAN DIEGO – As the new year ramps up, I am back in the Southwest corner considering why I made the Navy my career.

My father also has wondered why a boy from Middle Tennessee would choose the sea for his livelihood. Others have wondered the same thing.

The sea called me during my midshipman cruise on the U.S.S. Lloyd Thomas (DD 694) in 1963. We steamed from Newport, RI, to Sydney, Nova Scotia; to Bermuda; and back to Newport as part of the U.S.S. Intrepid (CVA 11) battle group.

My last four weeks were in engineering with two watches and normal work requiring 16-hour workdays. Having no more sense than I do now, I went from my last watch to the crew’s movie in the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) hangar – “DASH” was a weapon which did not last long. Sailors called it “CRASH” instead of “DASH.” But its hanger on the 02 level just aft of amidships was perfect for showing movies.

This night, I watched “The Quiet Man” for the first time. As I left the theater and traversed the torpedo deck, I walked to the port side and gazed at the full moon.

The ship was making 15 knots. The moon’s reflection cut a wide, rippling, reflective path straight to me. The boilers roared through the forward stack. The bow wave was white, curling from the side and swishing its whisper as the ship cut through the water. “Darken ship” allowed no lights except those for navigation. At least a billion stars blanketed the black sky.

The sea grabbed me. She came down that path from the full moon, wafted across the bow wave, and reached deep inside. I felt her grab my heart and take it away.

I have loved her in her fury of the winter Atlantic, when she tossed a 500-foot ship around like a cork, ripping off protruding metal like dandelion bristles, and tossing sailors around the ship like matchsticks. Her intense fury blanketed the sea surface with froth.

I have loved her in the doldrums of the South China Sea where not a breath of wind existed, and the sea surface was glass for a week. I saw my first “green flash” then.

In the summer of 1973, steaming in the operating areas off of Newport, Rhode Island, my father saw why I went to sea. My ship, the U.S.S. Luce (DLG 7), was undergoing a major inspection. My Commanding Officer learned of my father visiting and invited him to ride during our underway day.

As a lieutenant, I was the sea detail officer of the deck. My father was by my side as I had the “conn” while the ship stood out of Narragansett Bay. As soon as we reached the operating area, we went to 25 knots for rudder tests, rapidly shifting the rudder to max angles both ways. The commanding officer and I went into a frantic dance, running in opposite directions across the bridge to hang over each wing checking for small craft in the dramatic turns.

After the rudder tests, I took my father into the bowels of the ship to our anti-submarine warfare spaces. My father stood behind me as I directed prosecution of a submarine contact. In the darkened spaces with sonar pings resounding, he watched as we tracked the sub on our fire control screen and simulated firing a torpedo.

After lunch, we set general quarters and ran through engineering drills. Finally, we transited back to Newport.

With mooring complete, the captain gave my father a ship’s plaque. My wife and mother were waiting on the pier when we debarked from the ship’s quarterdeck. As we walked the brow to the pier, my father said to me, “Son, I understand why you would want to make this a career.”

I did. Somewhere in the latter stages of that career, I met a woman, a native of San Diego, and we got married. After a brief taste of being a Navy officer’s wife, she and I returned to San Diego for my “twilight” tour, the last four years on shore duty.

So now when I walk up our hill to raise and lower the flag, I look out to sea and check to see how many ships are pierside at the Naval Station.

And that, my friends, is why I made the Navy career and live in the Southwest corner, far from my home in Tennessee.


the old mariner stepped cautiously,
a cane steadying his step,
toward the dilapidated wood pier
small dinghy at the head of the pier,
he wouldn’t board the dinghy today,
not today,
for the sea had chosen to be
belligerent and gray
with the wind whipping up
the spume of white caps:
too rough for old men
to row a shabby dinghy
out for a mile and then back,
which was his custom.

the old mariner sighed,
settling for listening to the sea
speak to him
as she had done
for what seemed like centuries
after­ she, the enchantress,
called him on a calm night,
using the full moon’s path
to him while he stood
at the rail port amidships,
the moon calling him like Circe’s sirens,
she, the enchantress, touched him,
gripping him deep inside
he fell in love.

little did the old mariner realize
until now
she would possess him
until the end of time
others he held close
would recognize
she possessed him,
assume he didn’t care,
leave him alone,
as alone as he was,
on this blustery sea day
looking out
at his angry, jealous enchantress.

the old mariner turned from her,
walking away,
carefully placing his cane for the next step
to his shanty on the nearby beach
where he would place the logs
in the hearth,
light the fire
to sit by
the next day
when he would row out
on the dinghy
speak to his enchantress

Black Oil

Long before Navy ships became sophisticated power chains of today, most Navy ships were fueled by black oil. Black oil was just a step above crude oil. Environmentalists would probably have heart attacks just looking at it.

It was the fuel for ship’s boilers after coal and before “Navy distillate,” a cleaner burning oil. i have a number of sea stories about black oil and Navy distillate. This story is about black oil before that other stuff became the Navy’s fuel of choice. It was a thick, viscous, and clinging substance: think of B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Fox, B’rer Bear, and the “Tar Baby.”

In the summer of 1963, the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) was on exercises in the Atlantic OP areas (operational areas). i was a third class midshipman. We were en route from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Bermuda and were refueling from an old Navy oiler. It was the time of black oil.

During the refueling operation, i was assigned to the “DASH” deck aft. i don’t think the sailors topside who weren’t on the refueling teams were wearing service dress whites as in the Goodrich photo, but they could have been. We were in our dungarees (far and away the most impressive, most effective, and most appreciated working uniforms for sailors ever) and in kapok life jackets. We didn’t wear hard hats but we did have on battle helmets.

Ray Bean, a member of the Facebook group, “US Navy Gearing Class Destroyers” posted some rather amazing photos of the USS Goodrich (DD 831) refueling that same year. Ray’s photo here shows the after refueling station on the DASH deck, just forward of the after gun mount:

The refueling hoses were secured to the post in the middle of this photo and the end was placed in a fitting which was a fuel line to the ship’s tanks. The hose was tied off with what we called a “pigtail” to keep the hose in the fitting.

On this particular evolution, the deck seaman in charge of securing the “Pigtail’ did not do a good job. When the refueling began, the force of the black oil through the refueling lines broke the pigtail. Black oil hit that sailor dead on, carrying him back into the lifelines in the upper left hand corner of the DASH deck as shown in the photo. He collapsed in the corner completely covered with the oily goo.

The disaster was reported to the captain on the bridge. He sent his executive officer back to the station to take handle the catastrophe. By the time the XO got to the station, the pigtail had been secured and fuel was being pumped into the tanks. But this old exec was proud of his self-importance. Seeing the fuel was pumping, he raged about cleaning up the mess. He pointed to the gunky mess in the corner and demanded to the officer in charge to get rags, clean the mess up, and to throw that oily mess overboard.

The officer in charge then said, “But sir, that’s Seaman Jones.”

The XO, startled, mumbled something about cleaning everything up and meekly went back to the bridge.

After we cleaned up the seaman, we all laughed.