Subject: I’ve spent some time in the Med Sea!
On the 19th of September 1969 we were at refueling stations, about 300 miles south of Crete, in the Med Sea. My duty station was that of the phone and distance line handler. It had been dark for about 30 minutes when we received the word to secure from our station, as we were about to "break away".
I had been complaining about the deck line that had been laid out to dry next to our operating station on the 0-2 level. All throughout the refueling I had been having to kick the line out of my way to avoid tripping over it. I had just taken my lifejacket off and as I took a step back, I stumbled on the deck line. Trying to regain my footing, I actually stepped up higher on the coils and when I realized I had lost my balance I reached down behind me for the life line chain. Because I had stepped up higher than I would have normally been, the chain was actually below my knees. The result was that I tumbled overboard from the torpedo deck.
I remember yelling to the bridge lookout "man overboard" as I fell between the oiler and the Sumner. I hit the water off the Port side upside down and on my back, having done a complete flip. When I surfaced, I immediately began looking for the CS types that always sit outside and watch the evolutions, but no one was on the main deck that night.
When I got alongside the position of the after lookout I yelled "man overboard" again, and hoped that he was paying attention and could hear with his headphones on. I had stood that watch many times (I was there later when SN Ruhling fell off the fantail while we were on a full-power run to Rotterdam) and I always wore my phones with one ear uncovered.
I was turned upside down by the churning of the screws, and when I recovered from that I removed my wedding ring and put it in my pocket, was well as the brass belt buckle I was wearing. It was a full moon and I remember not wanting anything shinning underwater. We had seen several sharks during the day when the garbage had been emptied by the messcooks.
When I turned around, the lifeguard ship, the USS Damato had its search light on, but they were looking down the Port side, and I was coming down the Starboard. After the Damato, there was nothing but open sea. I knew that a Cruiser had been refueling at the same time as Sumner and I knew they had a helo onboard. I began to wonder if they would bother to launch it for an enlisted man. Funny how your mind works in situations like that.
Apparently the Captain had been on the Port wing of the bridge and he had heard my original "man overboard" declaration. He immediately initiated an emergency breakaway and notified the Damato that he had a man in the water.
As the Damato approached I was amazed how striking it looked from the water looking up. I thought they might run right over me, but I didn’t want to start swimming and causing a commotion in the water, thus attracting any fishy friends. I also noticed that they had moved their searchlights to the Starboard side, which I took as a good sign.
As they approached, I yelled "I’m over here and someone yelled back "we see you", to which I replied "gooooood".
I was tossed a life ring, and pulled up the starboard side, just below the bridge area. They took me to sickbay and offered me a hot cup of coffee. Not being a coffee drinker, I declined, but I did accept a shot of Coronet Brandy.
After a while, a crew member took my wet clothes and I sat in sickbay with a blanket wrapped around me. In about 30 minutes they brought my uniform back, washed , dried and pressed. I said to the Laundryman, "the next time I fall overboard, I’ll remember to bring all of my laundry...it takes me days to get it back on my ship".
Someone brought me a sandwich and I was given a bunk in the CPO quarters for the night. The Captain came by to tell me that I would remain on the Damato until we arrived in port, but the next morning while I was relaxing in the drone hanger, the word to "man the highline station" came across the 1MC. Apparently the Captain felt I was so important he wanted me back ASAP. A runner came to the highline rigging area with a clipboard and asked me for the correct pronunciation of my last name, for what reason I wasn’t told. It soon became obvious because when the bosun’s chair left the Starboard side of the Damato there came "ding ding, ding ding...Carnot Departing".
My division was running the tension line from the main deck and they made sure I had a bumpy ride with a slight dip or two to get my feet wet. When I was out of the chair, the Captain sent for me. He told me when he heard it was me he wasn’t worried about it. I told him in a laughing manner, "thanks a lot Captain". He said "Gunner, if I had to have a man over the side, I would prefer it be someone who was comfortable in the water and wouldn’t panic". He knew I had been a lifeguard in civilian life and while we had been in Malta, successfully completed the Pt/swimming tests for BUD’s training.
For the past several years of my teaching career I have been teaching 7th grade Geography. When we cover the Mediterranean part of Europe, I can tell my students that "I’ve spent some time in the Med Sea" and really mean it.
The USS DAMATO's report on Gary's evening