Thursday, January 14, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 17- USS Milwaukee

My transfer from Neosho was a low key affair. The Milwaukee was moored 2 piers down from Neosho at Norfolk Naval Station. So on a rainy and cold April day I shouldered my seabags and walked to the Milwaukee. This would be my home for the next 2 and a half years.

If I thought the Neosho was big at 28,000 tons displacement, then the Milwaukee was huge. She carried 7 million gallons of fuel compared with the Neoshos 5 million gallons. Her draft was 36 feet fully loaded. With a beam of 98 feet and a length over 800 feet long she was a behemoth!

She was also a lot newer than Neosho which was built in 1952. On Neosho it was not uncommon to wake up with something scurrying across your chest or crawling up your arm. The Milwaukee by comparison was launched in 1969 in Newport, Rhode Island and was clean as a whistle.

The Captain was a “maverick”. That is someone who joined as enlisted and went on to become an officer. It was quite a feat and the crew loved him. This was Captain Hawkins. He knew every ones name and every ones job assignments. He had an open door policy and encouraged the crew in circumventing the Chain of Command in order to get things done.

She was a hard working ship, never pausing too long before heading back to sea and more assignments. She also dispensed food and ammunition along with all the same fuels that we handled on Neosho. It was clear that we would never go hungry. And that we would always be busy!

We had a sponsor in the Milwaukee Beer Company. They provided us with a supply of beer for recreational use when the ship threw parties ashore. Our engines were painted with the Milwaukee Beer emblem as were the sides of our 2 helicopters. We carried 2 CH-46 Seahawks and housed them in a hangar on our aft helo deck. This was also an area where the crew hung out at sea, playing basketball and Frisbee. It was rumored that you could track us simply by following the trail of Frisbees and basketballs that had gone overboard at various times. Hey, it’s hard to make a free throw while the ship is rolling.

I was assigned again to a deck Division. I stood watches and did maintenance. I was beginning to realize that I should have taken a school.

When you first come aboard any ship you are assigned things like a lifeboat, a duty station, a cleaning task, etc. My first UnRep (Underway replenishment) station was on the flight deck as a "Cargo Hooker." This involves attaching a 6 foot lightweight plastic pole to a cargo net that is filled with supplies. These supplies can range from ammunition to food or clothing. You stand in the center of the helo deck and when the chopper is about 5 feet over your head (an awe inspiring experience to be sure!) you "hook' the pole to the bottom of the helo and away she goes.

I was preparing to go on deck when an old Chief petty Officer handed me a steel shackle and said, "Here kid, better take one of these so you don't get blown overboard." He was joking so I put the shackle down and stepped out onto the helo deck. Here comes the first chopper. It gets about 10 feet over me and the downward force of wind from the rotors has me reeling like a drunk! I get the cargo hooked and run back into the hangar. Finding 2 15 pound shackles I attached them to my inflatable life vest, one on each side near my waist. I would never go out there again without my 30 extra pounds! That old Chief may have been kidding me but the shackles were a great help.

One day while standing watch on the bridge I noticed the Quartermaster laying out the ships course to Spain. He was using a pair of dividers and walking them across the chart laying out our PIM. (Plan of Intended Movement) I was struck then and there as if by lightning. This is what I wanted to do. Navigate.

I approached the Quartermaster who smiled and said- “Oh yeah, well take this copy of Bowditch and when you’re done you can ask for the courses to take the test.” Sounds really simple. But let’s explore the offer.

Bowditch was written by Nathaniel Bowditch in the 1700’s and is comprised of everything known about Navigation since the Egyptians and even includes Navigation in Space. It is also a very math oriented subject. Now I had graduated High School with only a General Diploma due to not having had the required 4th year of math. So I had to set about learning trigonometry and logarithms if I wanted to do this.

I went to the training officer who did all he could to discourage me. I put a request in through the Executive Officer, LtCdr. Martin, who flatly refused me based on my having been busted for grass and also having done 3 days bread and water for an Unauthorized Absence while aboard Neosho. So I took things in my own hands and set about to become a Quartermaster.

In the Armed Forces you can request any courses you want from The Naval Education Training Command in Washington. They send you the study materials and the tests. When the tests are done you mail them in and they grade you. If you pass they send the Notification to your ship and the Captain. This puts him in an awkward position. If he has an opening in that field he must use you or explain to the Commodore why he is going to the extra expense of having someone else assigned and transferred to his ship to do the job when there is already a qualified person aboard. So it was full steam ahead.

This was also around the time that I became known as “Willie”. Everyone in the service gets a nickname. Mine was merely a shortening of my last name. But it was bestowed on me due to my demeanor while on the helm. Casual is the best description. I usually had one hand on the wires overhead and assumed a somewhat slumped posture while steering- as if this was all pretty routine. Like Tugboat Willie.
I passed my course with Excellents and Superiors. I think my lowest score was a High Average. So against their better judgement Cdr Martin and Captain Hawkins were forced to let me become a “striker” for QM3. It was a rank that I would hold and lose several times before my enlistment was over. But my overall responsibilities continued to grow, even when I was demoted.

I loved “star time” which is the time around dawn and again at dusk when you take sightings with a sextant and use the resulting lines of position to correct or at least monitor the error in your electronic gear. This was before Navigation satellites and GPS systems. We had Loran and Omega systems- they were good but were frequently affected by the weather. At times like that we would steam based on a dead reckoning position which theoretically is alright but does not account for the set and drift factors caused by the wind on the surface and the currents below. So it was an art as well as a science.

I became quite good at the sextant as well as the electronics. One time we had steamed 4 days in the Med without a star fix or sunline. We were pretty sure of where we were but needed to prove it. Dennis Laglands and I cranked out the radar to something like 80 miles and picked up a Cape. Consulting the chart we drew a line of postion from that Cape to our assumed Dead Reckoning position and were with in 5 miles! Not bad considering that we had been taking educated guesses at the set and drift of the last several days.

Late in November of 1978 we got word that we would have 2 weeks in the port of Valencia, Spain. This is a city on the East coast of Spain, very cosmoplitan and with several Universities located there. There was a music district with nightclubs and coffee bars. There was hashish available everywhere and we lost no time in making friends with the local college crowd.

We were, as I've said, scheduled for 2 weeks of uninterrupted bliss in this great town for the Christmas and New years holidays. But in the Navy things can change quickly. One night we were out drinking and carousing about when the Shore Patrol came around and ordered everyone back to the ship. It was the 23rd of December and some Admiral wanted us to head out to sea immediatley to re-fuel some ships the next day- Christmas Eve! Having no say in this matter we headed back in drunken groups and in spite of our intoxication we got the Old Milwaukee to sea and made the rendezvous the next afternoon.

We worked until about 11 PM that night, grumbling, as all good sailors do. At about 11:30 PM we heard an announcement on the 1 MC that really shocked us. I don't believe it has ever been repeated on any other ships. "All hands lay to the Mess decks for Holiday Spirits." Captain Hawkins had instructed the Medical Officer to bring all the ships medicinal brandy to the Mess Deck and give everyone a shot. We eagerly complied and when we were done I don't believe that there was any brandy left aboard! What made this so remarkable is the fact that consuming alcohol aboard a Naval vessel is illegal. This could have had bad repurcussions for the Captain. But this was his way of acknowledging our hard work and saying Merry Christmas. I don't think any of us have ever forgotten it.

It was not the first time that the Captain had "bent" the rules. Earlier in the year, about 200 miles off the coast of New Jersey, in the Gulf Stream, we were granted a "swim call." This is so rare that it is easy to find sailors who have been in for 30 years or more who never had the opportunity to swim in the middle of the ocean. We had two 24 foot motor whale boats circling in a designated area around us. They each carried 2 Gunners Mates with M-14's. They were supposed to shoot any sharks that might come around. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that the guns were to shoot anyone that was being attacked by a shark, rather than shooting the shark, which would be almost impossible to do.

I have never been a strong swimmer but I gladly jumped in and it was the most heavenly feeling to have the "motion of the ocean" buffeting you gently in the current. It was also a little scary, knowing that danger did lurk beneath the surface.

Soon we heard the shouts of "Shark!" but it turned out to be a false alarm. It was dolphins that had come to play. Now I don't know about you but at 135 pounds I was not an appropriate playmate for a dolphin. So when one nudged me, gently I might add, he cracked one of my ribs. I was forced to dog paddle back to the side of the ship and painfully made my way up the cargo net that was strung over the side for us to climb aboard. But I have never held it against the dolphin- after all I was playing in his yard!

In January of 1979 we had a Change of Command and Captain Hawkins was replaced by Captain Page. He immediately closed the door on Captain Hawkins “Open Door Policy.” There was some grumbling but not much we could do about it.

Captain Page was an “airdale” meaning he was a jet pilot. He flew A-6’s and had also been a flight instructor. The day he came aboard we got underway and I was on the bridge at the helm. Captain Page entered the bridge and everyone snapped to attention when “Captain is on the Bridge” was called by the Boatswains Mate. When Captain Page glanced over my shoulder for a look at the compass I turned to him and said, “You’ve got a real ‘can do’ ship here sir. With a real ‘can do’ crew.” I think the candid way in which I spoke with him was a bit of a surprise. He looked at me and said he was glad to hear it.

For the next 2 years and more we would steam across the Atlantic and back 4 times, head down to South America, transit the Panama Canal and visit the Mid East several times. We never missed a single commitment. During that time we were awarded several Unit Citations for Excellence in Engineering and also Sea Service Deployment Ribbons for time spent at sea. We were a hard working crew and consequently we played equally hard.

Our port visits were the stuff they make movies about. We bribed ships agents to load hashish in with the fresh vegetables and smuggled whiskey aboard in great quantities. There were also small group of sailors who would comb the pharmacies in search of Valiums.

A typical liberty would see the crew rushing out to the brothels and bars. I usually hit the grocery stores in search of tea and snack foods. This also gave me a chance to mix with the locals. I carried foreign language dictionaries with me and could have some discourse by pointing out words and the translation in the books. Through this I was usually able to find some smoke without resorting to the really sordid places where you might get more than what you were looking for. But sometimes it was necessary to resort to the bars and the hookers in order to find something. These times were always fraught with peril.

One time we were in Barcelona and had been making a deal down a dark side street. We sensed something wrong and when we turned to go we were faced with about 8 guys slowly coming towards us. There were 3 of us. Realizing that we had been set up we took the dealer down very quickly, keeping the drugs and taking a refund of our money plus whatever else he had on him. Then Ron said he would take the 2 on the left- and Dennis would take care of the right side. I would take the package and head straight for the guy in the middle. Kind of like football.

We ended up breaking through the line and were chased all the way back to the Navy Yard. Liberty expired at 2 AM and it was past that time now and the gates were locked! There was some scaffolding in place on the side of the wall and we scampered up to the top - our friends in hot pursuit. The wall was 30 feet high and there was no scaffolding on the other side. It would have to be a straight drop.

Ron jumped first and then Dennis went. He hung off the wall before dropping, this cut the length of fall by 6 feet. Good idea. So I did the same. I landed on the steel rail of the train tracks and shattered my leg. Our pursuers did not enter the yard. They remained at the top of the wall cursing us in Spanish. If they had eneterd and got caught they would have been shot. It was kind of like “Sanctuary.”

I was fined $100 for having broken my leg and my liberty was restricted for about a month. The rule was that when you got back on board you had to be able to stand on your own, face the after end of the ship and salute the flag. You could not lean on anyone or anything. You had to be upright. I tried but the leg would have none of it and I went down.

Following this cruise we proceeded to the Panama Canal and through it to support the situation in Nicaragua. Like I said, if there was something to be done the brass knew to call the Milwaukee. About this time we were known as the "Mighty" Milwaukee.

In January of 1980 we were berthed in Norfolk at Pier 2. We were "cold iron", which means we were connected to shore power. Typically it takes about 12 hours to prepare a ship like Milwaukee to get underway. We were about to set a speed record.

On the night of January 3rd I was out with Ron and Dennis and Kurt Baker. It was the usual driving around in Ron's AMC looking for girls and smoking pot. We were also doing qualudes and drinking. So we were in "high" spirits as we returned to the ship about 11 PM or so. As we headed down the pier to the gangway we heard the Collision Alarm go off and we thought, "Oh man, someones in trouble for doing that!" As we boarded the ship was rammed by a Malaysian Tanker named Sanko prestige. She had lost power to her steering and left the channel heading straight for us. As a matter of fact she would impact the area just below my berth and as she rode further in tore my bunk clean off! All that was left of my rack was the JP-5 pipe that carried fuel to the helo deck which was located right above our sleeping area. You can see my towel still hanging from the pipe in the picture.

Dennis, Ron and I raced to the bridge. We began to energize all electronic gear and synch in all Navigation Systems. We phoned the Engine Room and the watch down there began to get steam up to the boilers. We weren't sure what orders we would receive, but in the event of fire we needed to be ready to pull out to an anchorage. Carrying 7 million gallons of fuel is no laughing matter. An explosion will take out just about everything for a quarter of a mile in all directions.

Captain Page was called from his home in Virginia Beach and made the half hour trip in about 15 minutes. He was more than pleased with our performance that night. We never did have the fire and so didn't have to pull out- but the point is that we were ready.

The result of this collision was a "yard period" across the river in Hampton Roads. We were scheduled for some major work which was completed in about 3 weeks. At that time we were asked to refuel a task Group across the Atlantic in the Azores. This would turn out to be one of the biggest adventures of my time at sea.

We made the Azores and did some work in the Caribbean on the way back to the US. This was now February of 1980. It was a Wednesday and I believe it was the 6th. I had the Dog watch that afternoon, that is the watch that runs through evening chow and you get relieved for about 30 minutes or so by the oncoming 8-12 so that you can get to eat.

Upon returning from chow I noticed that the barometer had dropped another .02 of an inch for the second hour in a row. Something was brewing along the lines of a low pressure system that would bear watching in the coming hours. I informed the officer of the deck, I believe it was Ensign Tyler that evening- he was a portly, pipe smoking fellow who affected an intellectual air that was mostly a fa├žade. He reacted with a derisive “Hmphh.” This was not all that unusual a response to receive from some of the younger officers. They seemed to look down upon the enlisted as an inferior class of people, lacking the money, or brains, or sometimes both- to get into college and become officers. They never understood that there were people who wanted to enlist, in the ranks, and serve there.

So nothing was done except that I informed the deck officer that heavy weather was approaching and a life line on deck would be a good idea. A 500 foot mooring line was secured to the after and forward bulkheads by means of shackles affixed to padeyes which were welded to the respective bulkheads. For some reason no precautions were taken to secure the ship for heavy seas.

I was relieved by QM3 Baker at 1945 for the 20-2400 watch. Star time was not an issue that evening due to the weather. We were running on Omega and Loran with a dead reckoning tracer as a back up. I entered into the Pass Down the Line log that the barometer had fallen for 2 hours in a row and to be aware of any changes in the sea etc. I left the bridge, and as was the custom of the day, smoked a joint before preparing to shower and retire.

By the time I got back to the after house and the Navigation Division berthing space the ship was being tossed and buffeted by huge swells and violent gusts of wind. The helmsman was a deckhand and the ship was not being handled properly. We were taking a lot of punishment that could have been avoided by having a more experienced man at the helm.

By now, objects all over the ship were being loosed by the storm and there was no way to stop the seeming avalanche of food supplies, crates, forklifts etc that had not been tied down. The 7 million gallons of fuel that we carried started to have its’ own inertial effect upon the handling of the vessel, making it even more unstable. The “Mighty Milwaukee” was taking rolls in excess of her design and the ship would shudder as she laboriously struggled to right herself after each successive roll. Standing was now impossible and most of the men were braced in their “racks” with feet and hands braced against the nearest stanchion or bulkhead, feet dug into the rims of the thin sleeping surfaces that served also as covers to the coffin like clothes compartment that lay beneath each. The coffin like similarities of these lockers were not lost on the men at a time like this.

Lockers were toppling and tables and chairs were being literally pitched as the violence of the storm increased. Most of the crew was now motion sick and those that weren’t were unable to do anything but hang on for the wildest ride any of us had ever been on.

Shortly after 2300 (11 PM) the phone rang and someone told me that the bridge was on the phone. I was told that the Captain was ordering me to the bridge. I went, on the double, expecting that I was about to be chewed out for the storm having taken us by surprise. I started across the deck and made it about 50 feet before turning back and using the cargo deck- which although it had the advantage of being enclosed , had the hazard of forklifts,tools and cargo being tossed and thrown about with considerable violence. Added to this was the possibility of falling into one of the open elevator pits. These were large, seven story deep shafts that were sometimes left open. Tonight , unfortunately, was one of these times. The effect of the ship moving about under me not only prevented me from walking a straight line at this point, but it was now carrying me close to these pits and several times I came near to falling in one. They were located on both the port and starboard sides, increasing this likelihood as I struggled forward.

At the end of this journey on the cargo deck I was faced with 4 interior ladders, steeply angled as compared with a normal stairway, but still an improvement over the exterior ladders which were precisely that, ladders welded to the bulkheads. Unknown to me at this time was that many of these ladders had been torn away by the tons of water crashing against the superstructure.

The bridge was a scene of disaster. There were 22 people in there- way too many. Captain Page was braced in a corner, legs apart and arms against the forward portholes, concerned but very much in command. “Well Willie- what do you think we should do?” Captain Page had been a Pilot– flew A-6’s and also was a flight instructor. With a good sense of humor and a relaxed demeanor among the men, he was a well liked captain and a good leader. He had a hard act to follow, coming on the heels of Captain Hawkins, who had come up from enlisted ranks via the NESEP program, which although not that rare, was quite an accomplishment and the men had idolized him as “one of us.” But Captain Page had more than filled his shoes and it was a ”tight” crew.

My first suggestion was to rid the bridge of as many of the puking , moaning men as possible, placing them in the passageways leading to the bridge itself. Everyone had plastic trash bags to puke in and the stench was beginning to become overpowering.

Standing was impossible at this level, we were hanging on to the overhead and the wire banks and piping that line it. Captain Page ordered me to take the helm.

The compass card was swinging wildly, port to starboard and back again over a field of approximately 180 degrees. We were at the mercy of the sea unless we could stabilize ourselves and begin to make some sort of headway. The Captain then ordered me to steer as necessary to make headway and hold course- I was hanging onto the overhead and steering with my feet- literally counteracting the swells by kicking the helm hard left and hard right.

I then received via the Captain , several course changes prompted by the other officers present on the bridge looking for the course that would give us the “best ride”. Captain Page asked my recommendation and I chose West as that would bring us toward our destination of Norfolk but not put us in shallow waters that could hazard the vessel. I was of the opinion that with 65 foot swells breaking over the bridge and winds of 98 knots (107 mph) with gusts greater than that, there was no course that was going to give a good ride. The Captain ordered me to make it so, which I immediately did.

We spent the next 9 hours or so riding through this maelstrom and upon breaking out of it in the morning and later approaching Virginia Beach, we were greeted by the most dazzling sight- over 12” of snow blanketing the Beach and everything beyond! After the violence of the past 10 hours the contrast was extraordinary and we began to open hatchways and portholes to air the ship out. The crew began to come back to life- restowing all the gear that had been thrown about but not washed overboard. The Officers took toll of the structural damage to the ship- ladders gone, boats torn loose, rigging fouled and ruined.

We moored at D and S Piers on the James River and there my memory fades a bit- we were very tired and I imagine that we cleaned ship and had an early knock off that day.

A week later on the 12th of February we were already back out to sea. We were doing an underway replenishment when Captain Page approached me at the helm with an envelope saying “It’s a little bit late- read it later.”

The remainder of the spring and early summer found us everywhere doing everything. We even played cat and mouse with the Russians off Greece for a week or so.Around this time they were testing the limits of our foreign policy to see how far they could go in provoking us at sea. They were also beginning to become a "blue water" Navy, going out of the Baltic and further into the Med and Pacific. We were not permitted to respond to any of their actions and this was a very hard thing to swallow.

In late July we reported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs and conversions. It was a real thrill to sail up the Narrows and under the Verazzano Bridge. I had watched that bridge being built and when it opened in November of 1964 my brother and I were the first bicycles over it. When the Milwaukee got to the Brooklyn Bridge we had to cut the mast to pass under. Someone had misjudged our draft.

We entered the Navy Yard and moved into barracks across from the Yard. I stayed with my parents for a few days before finally moving in with Mark and Lois. Their house would continue to be a haven for me over the next several years.

By September I was mustering out and it was especially nice to be getting out in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. Now it was time to put my experience of the last 4 years into action. I was going to get my Seamans Papers and join the Union. I was going to be a Merchant Marine.

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