USS Hawkins (DD 873) was certified and declared ready for full operations (April 1969). The only remaining limitation was no ammunition on board. Consequently, we headed south for something around 200 nautical miles, steaming through Chesapeake Bay and up the York River to Yorktown.
Loading a destroyer with a full load of ammunition is both hard labor and delicate. Almost the entire ship’s company lined up for transferring the ammunition from railroad cars loaded with small arms ammunition, five-inch shells and powder casings, grenades, and, of course, our torpedoes and anti-submarine rockets (ASROC) including perhaps some with nuclear payloads, which i cannot confirm or deny. The ASROCs and torpedoes came aboard on dollies, the ASROCs still in their containers, familiarly called “caskets” because of their shape. The other ammo was passed hand to hand from the railroad cars to the magazines on board. It was hard, hot, brutal work, but it was the only way.
Compared to the other ammunition, our anti-submarine arsenal seemed pretty easy, except for a few minor details.
We had to load 24 ASROC’s. eight in the launcher cells, and the other 16 in the torpedo/ASROC magazine, which was on the port side aft of the launcher. All were supposed to be loaded strictly by the approved procedure by using the new check sheets.
Loading one missile in the magazine racks by check sheet was about an hour procedure. This would take about 18-20 hours considering the “caskets” would have to be moved around before the next missile could be loaded.
Loading one of the rockets in its launcher cell, using the checksheets would take well over two hours, a total of at least 16 hours.
The kicker was the lone Nuclear Safety Officer, aka moi, was supposed to be leading each rocket being loaded, regardless if it was a nuclear weapon or not, another subtlety, i guess, in trying to fool the enemy wherever he might be hiding. In other words, the rockets were supposed to be loaded one by one, sequentially, not simultaneously.
That meant the load would take roughly 32 hours at a minimum. The Hawkins was scheduled to get underway at 0800 the next morning. Since we didn’t get started with the load until about 1000 that meant we somehow had to squeeze 32 hours of loading into 22 hours with no time to sleep, a very unsafe condition for loading weapons.
The LTJG Nuclear Safety Officer with the dual hat of Nuclear Weapons officer joined the CO and XO in the wardroom for a conference. We made the decision to require my presence for loading any nuclear weapons. If we had any, which i can not confirm nor deny, they were very few. For the nukes, if any, we would use the check sheets. For the non-nukes, we would use prudence and safety but load them as quickly as we could. We hoped the load would be completed by nightfall.
We began loading the magazine. When it obviously going smoothly, my GMT1 and i moved over to load the launcher. i think his name was Harris, but my memory is not that sharp, and i’m not sure. He saved my bacon a number of times. i am embarrassed i cannot recall his name.
The loader would have made Rube Goldberg proud. It was a conglomeration of gears and arms and stops and lord knows what else. We began loading one cell with the launcher when we heard a crunch. i’m thinking this doesn’t sound good. My GMT1 checked and found the pin in the latch that lined up the rail when the launcher and the loader had been manipulated to matching angles had broken. We lowered the ASROC being loaded into it’s “casket” and considered our bad situation.
Now, i can tell you then and even now, there are not a lot of ASROC loader latches in Yorktown, Virginia. After consultation with my GMT1, he said he could make it work. So, we loaded the eight ASROCS into the launcher while he stood underneath the loader to keep the rail aligned with the launcher cell (the rocket rode on the rail into the launcher cell). We did this for all eight cells. The GMT1 was the latch. He stood underneath with his arms up stretch to maintain the alignment for loading all eight missiles. We couldn’t have done it without him. i’m pretty sure he was tired with aching arms and shoulders the next morning.
Ship’s company had completed loading the five-inch shells and powder casings and all of the small arms ammunition around 1500 that afternoon. Our ASROC and torpedo magazine was completed shortly afterwards. We wrapped up getting the ASROCs into the launcher around 1700.
i am glad i had my ASROC Gunners Mate. And i am doubly glad no one saw how we did it.