A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam), Installment 15

East Across the Pond

i really wanted to include the names of the people who contributed to my growth as a Navy officer in this post. However, there were a couple of people who aren’t depicted in a good light. i did not publicly name them in such a fashion and, at least for now, have left most folks unnamed.

One of the most impressive sights i’ve seen in my life time occurred on the mid-watch the evening after the Hawkins had gotten underway from Málaga (the mid-watch was from 0000-0400). That, naturally, was the watch my section was assigned on my first night at sea on my first ship. The Bridge and Combat Information Center (CIC) were in four section watches. We passed through the Straits of Gibraltar around 0100. It was dark, but not dark enough to hide the massive Rock to the North, the Rock of Gibraltar (This image was copied from the “Spartan and Green Egg” website.)

i was blown away. My watch standing position was Junior Officer of the Deck, Underway, JOOD (UI). That is about a lowly of a watch position a Navy officer could have on the bridge of a Navy destroyer. i will never forget the rush i felt as we crossed the straits into the Atlantic Ocean and joined the other destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 24 for the transit across the “Pond” as we called it, and headed for our homeport in Newport, Rhode Island on a great circle route.

It may not sound like a good deal but standing the mid-watch was a good way to start your tour on a Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) destroyer (These “FRAM cans” were modernized Fletcher, Gearing, and Sumners class destroyers that went through extensive upgrades in mission and armament including replacing large, if not all, steel sections of the ship’s superstructure above the main deck with aluminum that produced significant problems later).

Reason number one for a new ensign to enjoy the mid-watch was mid-rats or midnight rations. The oncoming mid-watch was awakened around 2310-2315 (11:10-11:15 p.m. for land lubbers), they would rise quickly and head for their respective messes. For my case, that was the wardroom. The stewards would prepare a super snack for the oncoming watch and the off-going watch after they had been relieved and struck below.

That watch had a few normal requirements like “shifting control” to after steering. This was done on almost every mid-watch to ensure the system was working and the watch standers in the small, cramped space above the rudders on the stern, could take control of the steering system.

After-steering as with many facets of a Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) destroyers and their predecessors was devised before the FRAM upgrades to provide sustainability during an at sea conflict. Back up systems abounded in almost every aspect. If the electrical system was knocked out, most systems like the gun mounts could be fired manually. If a pump was hit in the engineering spaces, there was a manual or auxiliary steam backup. If a shaft, its fireroom or engine room were damaged and inoperable, the ship could still have propulsion from the other shaft. And if steering control at the bridge’s helm was rendered inoperable, the bridge could still steer the ship by shifting control to after steering.

In the case of after steering, the shift was made during the mid-watch but often other watches would shift control to after steering and let the watch standers there take orders from the conning officer and steer the ship.

Other than that, rarely did the tactical commander order any formation changes. During this transit, the squadron commander was the tactical commander. When steaming with a carrier, the admiral in charge of the “battle group” would order formation changes (except for the staff i was on much later in my career). So it was a relative quiet four hours. The first two hours of the morning watch (0400-0800) and the last two hours of the evening watch (2000-2400) were also pretty quiet. It was a great time to learn about being a Naval Officer and, certainly more enjoyable, hear real “no bullshit” sea stories.

The voyage to Newport was relatively serene with good seas all the way. i was introduced to the big, black rubber hood sitting over the radar repeater sitting next to the helm. During the day with light filling the pilot house, the hood allowed the watch standers to look at the dark green cathode ray tube with the white bar sweeping around, highlighting blips that most often were contacts. In the darkness of night, the hood was not necessary.

That repeater was a central character in one of the sea stories i was told on these watches.

The commanding officer was impressive and seemed to be a nice guy most of the time. He was a Naval Academy graduate and was selected for Captain before he was relieved the following August. He also was what officers and sailors called a “screamer.” For the uninitiated in the Navy world, a “screamer” was an officer who couldn’t control his temper and often would go ballistic, chewing out anyone who did not perform as he felt they should, or just go off on someone for no real reason.

The Damage Control Assistant who partook of one more drink (or more) in Málaga while i waited on the airport’s tarmac was a frequent target of the CO’s outbursts. i was told that on one night watch in rough seas, the DCA was the Officer of the Deck (OOD). The captain kicked him off the bridge in a screaming rage five times, only to call him back to the his watch. It was after the sixth time, the DCA/OOD was looking at that repeater to see if he could discern any weather anomalies and check for contacts that CIC might have missed.

Hung around the bridge were a number of battle lanterns. They were one of those backups for emergencies mentioned earlier. If power was lost, the battle lanterns were configured to detect the power loss and come on to provide emergency lighting. One of these battle lanterns was secured on the overhead directly over that repeater. As the DCA was staring intently as the scope, the captain begin another rant, cussing out the DCA for many supposed errors in hus ways. As the rants continued to ratchet up, the rough seas were building and the battle lantern was loosened by the bouncing from the waves. As the captain peered forward in an attempt to determine what the weather offered, his rant reached a crescendo. That is when the battle lantern broke loose and fell straight down, hitting the OOD/DCA on the top of the head, knocking him out.

As other watch standers went to the downfallen OOD to attend to his injury, the captain continued screaming at his officer without turning around. Finally, he turned and realized he had been yelling at a comatose Naval officer.

That was the sixth time the OOD left the bridge during one watch.

To be continued.

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