Charlestown Naval Shipyard, Boston, Massachusetts, 1968-69 — it was absurd in so many ways…
I already have written of two goofs I made when Hawkins entered the overhaul. That six-month overhaul showed me a ship’s time in port had both the good and bad sides of the coin. Mine was complicated.
The ops boss, supply officer, the gunnery officer, and I decided to commute from our apartments in Newport daily, a trip of 70 miles one way. We would leave around 4:00 a.m. and get back to our apartments and our wives around 7:30 or 8:p.m. We would eat dinner and go to bed around 8:00 p.m, repeating the process each weekday for six months.
The gunnery officer and I were in three section duty, meaning every third day, we would spend 24 hours on board the ship. I had just taken this beautiful young Atlanta debutante away from her family and horse and put her down in an apartment so she could spend about three hours a day with me and be alone the rest of the time in a strange place. It is no wonder the short marriage did not end well. I still feel badly about that.
The yards. Ah, the shipyards. Honestly, it blew me away this first time. It was unlike anything I imagined could be in the Navy. It was bustling, inefficient, dirty, sooty, steel and concrete. It was long before the Navy became concerned about the debris and dirt from sandblasting. It was our ship in shambles, hoses of all kinds running everywhere. Sailors and sand crabs (the Navy’s derogatory term for non-navy government employees). It was prior to hearing protection but with pneumatic deck grinders grinding at a decibel level unheard of in football stadiums.
Men in dungarees and dixie cups, later ball caps, climbing all over their ship — ship’s force work we called it not recognizing the unintended play on words. Grizzled, unshaven old men in coveralls and work boots, recovering from the previous night’s toot at the tavern, red-eyed, crawling around with the sailors performing the shipyard work. Coffee, coffee, dark, old, burnt coffee, no cream, no milk, before creamer, no sugar, what the hell’s a latté? everywhere. Except at scuttlebutts, which are inoperable, no water, except what the ship is floating on, dark, filthy water, with yard waste, foul stuff from the scuppers, and black oil bubbles on the surface.
I was still the first lieutenant. My senior enlisted subordinate was BM2 Carrier. Chief Jones had retired. Shortly after we entered the yards, the new boatswain’s mate chief came aboard. I don’t remember his name. He was short, pale, puffy, with white hair, and immediately identified as a “ROADS” scholar. That stood for “Retired on Active Duty Sailor.” You could identify them with the permanent crook in the forefinger of their coffee cup holding hand because they sat in chiefs quarters with a cup in that hand, not doing too much more than that. I really don’t remembering him doing anything the entire time he was on board.
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The new ASW officer sits in his stateroom, second stateroom, port side, after officer’s quarters, on the main deck below the ASROC deck amidships. The compartment is too narrow for a desk chair, requiring him to sit on the bunk to work at the desk. He shares the narrow space with the COMMO (communications officer for landlubbers), while he fills out evaluations for his sonar technicians, ASROC gunners mates, and torpedo men. This is while the yard workers above are grinding down the deck topside to metal, loosening the tabs that hold the overhead insulation. The little metal buttons drop intermittently on the paper or his head as he works away with the noise barring sane thought.
This is the stateroom where the COMMO had the duty one night. He was a strait laced, god fearing Naval Academy LTJG. Several other of the officers snuck a lady of the night onto the yards and the ship. They gave her instructions, and closed her inside the stateroom. She crawled up into the upper rack. The COMMO awoke. Screaming, he jumped out of the rack and was trying to figure out what happened. The schemers were in the AOQ passageway outside the stateroom, entered and told the COMMO their joke. He was not pleased. The schemers, still laughing, escorted the lady back to her lair in Boston.
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The ensign has the duty and goes up to the 04 level to check on the shipyard work being done to “Sky One” gunfire control director. About a half-dozen yard workers are sitting on the deck next to the director. He asks why aren’t they on the director working on the system. They can’t, they say. There is no scaffolding, they say.
“Well, you can get up there without scaffolding,” he points out.
“Oh, no,” they say, “Can’t do that. Against union rules,” they say, “Must have scaffolding.”
“I can get some boatswain’s mates to rig scaffolding,” he offers.
“Oh, no,” they say, “Can’t do that. Against union rules. The riggers have to rig the scaffolding.”
The ensign walked away shaking his head in disbelief. Things didn’t happen like that in his Navy.
It took another four days for the riggers to show up.
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Then the Hawkins goes to dry dock. But the dry dock at the Charlestown Naval Shipyard has another ship in it. So, the Hawk goes to the commercial yard. That dry dock was built for the HMS Queen Mary.
Entering and leaving a dry dock is one of the most exacting science and art combinations in the Navy. You are putting a very large object on wooden blocks to hold, in FRAM destroyers cases, about 3,000 tons. The blocks are situated to sit on exact points of the ship’s keel. Getting the ship there is an art.
This was my first experience of a dry docking. I erred in an earlier sea story about the CO chewing me out. It did not occur when we entered the yards, but we we were docking in Queen Mary‘s dry dock. The distance between the forecastle and the dock walls were way to far to try and throw a mooring line. We should have begun with a shot line. I remain in awe of my ensign ignorance, and it was, I’m sure BM2 Carrier’s first time in charge of the forecastle and first time in dry dock. I should have known better, or at least done a little research.
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After we were docked and the rest of the water had drained from the dock, yard personnel, and key ship’s personnel went down into the cavernous dock. My first thought, which still remains intact over a half-century, is the mighty destroyer USS Hawkins (DD 873) looked like a toothpick in a bathtub.
I was simply awed by the vastness of it all. The ship looked so small in that dock. But as we walked toward and under it, The propellers, aka screws, were tremendous. The hull was dented and sealife clung to the sides. We walked under the sonar dome, which projected another 6-8 feet underneath the keel — It was the reason STCS Rogers and I were included in this party.
I felt very small.
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Because of the distances, the only exit from the ship was a gangway that stretched from the ship’s 01 level amidships to the dock’s side. It was probably about 30 feet, but it seemed to be about 100 yards. It was akin, but not quite, to those swinging bridges across chasms. For safety, cargo nets were strung below the gangway for the entire length to ensure if someone fell off they would be saved to falling to the dry dock deck.
Sometime in early December, I had the mid-watch as the OOD. The Petty Officer of the Watch, the Messenger. We stood there for four hours. It was cold. Over the course of my life, I have been extremely cold about four times.
The first time was fishing for sauger below Pickwick Dam in Tennessee in February 1968 with my father and uncle. There was ice on the water and it snowed. The third time was standing on the bridge wing of the USNS Geiger (T-AP 197) entering Pusan in January 1970. At the fourth coldest moment, I was attired in a golf shirt and shorts when I played golf at Harding Park outside San Francisco in July 1976. But the first time in that dry dock in Boston, where I wore my service dress blues and my heavy bridge coat with its lining as i did entering Pusan.
But it felt cold and lonely on that quarterdeck in that cavernous Boston dry dock in the middle of the night.
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One of the more significant jobs during the overhaul, perhaps the most expensive, was the upgrade of the SQS 24 sonar to the “G” revision and changing the 105 ASW fire control system to the new SQS 114 ASW system. The ship alteration cost over $4 Million in 1968 dollars. This ensign from Tennessee making about $400 a month just didn’t seem to be the guy you would want in charge of this. But I was. However, I had a spectacular group of folks working for me. Senior Chief Rogers was the most knowledgeable person in Anti-Submarine Warfare expertise I met during my career. He brought that knowledge to bear. First Class Sonar Technician Alan Ernst was the leading petty officer. He is the guy that made it happen. I reconnected with Alan in later years. He had become a successful financial guy, but passed away too soon from brain cancer.
The entire sonar gang was dedicated, good guys. I didn’t do much more than tell them to do it right, keep the spaces clean, and don’t get in trouble. They knew I checked to see if they were following those guidelines, and they always exceeded my expectations.
We left the yards with a super and current anti-submarine capability. And knew I was blessed…at least as a Naval officer.