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.


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