The Hawkins was going back to sea.
The sea and the Navy kept me busy. It was not only my top priority, it kept me from dwelling on my personal problems. We were headed to sea. All of the grungy old shipyard workers had left. The miles of pneumatic tubing, the pneumatic tools were back in the yard’s tool shed with the manager there wearing a spiffy new olive green foul weather jacket.
And the Hawk was underway for refresher training (REFTRA).
The transit south would have been uneventful except, of course, passing off of Cape Hatteras our first night at sea: the weather turned bad, the seas turned nasty, and sailors turned white and blew seasick blues and barfed a lot, the normal Hatteras impact on north-south transits along the eastern seaboard.
We arrived in Guantanamo Bay in early February (if i remember correctly). The Navy facility is now home to the US detention camp that will be closed soon. Today’s folks would be aghast at what we did in 1968 and how we did it. We were greeted by the senior members of the “Refresher Training Team” for a litany of what we would be doing for the next two months. We began that regimen the next morning. Early next morning.
I arose around 0330. Before 0400, I started inspecting all of the spaces for which the ASW officer was responsible to ensure Material Condition YOKE was set properly. When the training team came aboard later, they would check and the ship would get dinged if the team found any discrepancies. We found out they were very good at finding discrepancies.
i finished my tour of spaces usually with just enough time to grab a bite of breakfast in the wardroom before heading to the bridge as the sea detail JOOD. i would get to the pilot house as the quartermasters were completing covering all of the ports and windows with old navigation charts. Before we were ready to get underway, the “mobile training REFTRA instructors would arrive and inspect YOKE. Their bridge team would be on the bridge as we got underway and conducted limited (as in no) visibility. The navigator, quartermasters, and CIC would take radar ranges from objects to advise the conning officer, OOD, and Captain on how to proceed out of the bay. Once clear of the bay, the chart paper would come off and our training day would begin in earnest.
Usually, we would set General Quarters (GQ) immediately. It seemed engineering drills nearly always were the first of our exercises. The mobile training team (MTT) would put the engineers through all sorts of causalities. That meant the rest of the ship would spend a lot of time without power. We all were learning.
Every facet of our capabilities were tested. i was the GQ Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) and Sea detail. i was the check sight observer (to be explained later) in the forward 5-inch 50 caliber gun mount, Mount 51, for gunnery exercises, and was in under water battery plot for the ASW exercises. In other words, except for about 15 minutes for the noon mess, i was busy.
The ship would return to Guantanamo around 1700. i would eat at the evening mess quickly, return to my stateroom to assess the reports from the day, read the radio messages, and then prepare for the next day’s training. i would hit the rack around taps, then rise the next day around 0330 to repeat the process the next day.
Ahh, but did get a break…except it wasn’t. About every fourth or fifth day, we would pull gunfire support duty, this included weekends. This was 1968. To say the relations between the United States and Cuba were strained would be a slight understatement. There were fears Castro forces would attempt to take the Guantanamo Naval Base away from the US by force. So, the Hawkins, would go to anchor to be the duty gunfire support ship. There the sky one director would be manned by a junior officer and one gun mount would be manned to conduct fire if the Cubans tried to attack the base. They didn’t but it sure did add to more work.
It was long days and seemingly would not end, but it would end in about two months.
* * *
Then, something occurred that impacts me even today.
In those days, Filipinos were not allowed in any other ratings than that of stewards. Stewards served as valets, butlers, cooks, and waiters for officers in the wardroom. One of the best of the stewards was a young man, i’m guessing about 20 years old. He was very good at his work and just a good guy.
This ship was conducting engineering drills in the afternoon. Material condition Zebra was set meaning the maximum physical security. All ports and hatches were dogged shut. Permission had to be granted to open any hatches. The young steward was in the forward damage control team, which mustered in the wardroom. Part of the engineering drills was exercising the damage control teams. The steward was sent aft with a message for one of the other damage control team. Shortly after he went aft, the drill was concluded.
No one noticed the steward was missing. He had not arrived at the other damage control party. He was missed when he didn’t show up for preparing the evening mess in the wardroom. His missing was reported to the bridge. A muster of all hands was called for immediately. The steward did not show up.
The ship immediately began combing its track backward. He apparently went overboard. We finally came to the conclusion, he must have decided to open a hatch to the weather decks to deliver the message. What occurred next will forever be unknown. We didn’t know of any problems he had that would have make him to decide to jump overboard. We guessed a wave washed down the main deck when the ship made a sharp turn and that might have swept him overboard. As i wrote earlier, i will never know.
We continued to search the seas down our track until the next morning. Navy helicopters first arrived to help in the search. Then, the Coast Guard came on station to relieve us. i’m not sure how long the search continued, probably several days. But the young man was never found.
The incident still haunts me.