Sitting On All That Gas

                When I was twelve or thirteen years old I spent two weeks at the Croatan Boy Scout Camp on the Neuse River in North Carolina.  We spent part of each day canoeing on the river.  One day there was a cabin cruiser sitting motionless across the river.  The river was pretty wide there, but it wasn’t so far away that we couldn’t tell that the cabin cruiser was about 23 to 25 feet long.  We were paddling east, downstream.  Suddenly there was a bright flash of light from the direction of that boat.  Several seconds later the loud boom reached our ears.  The cabin cruiser had blown up, along with everyone aboard.

                We heard later that the owner had started the gasoline engines without first venting the engine compartment.  Gasoline fumes built up there had ignited when the ignition was turned on. That was a lesson I have never forgotten.

                A few years and many miles later I reported aboard the USS Kawishiwi (AO-146).  She was in the shipyard at Pearl Harbor at the time.  She was mostly empty of her cargo and rode high out of the water next to the pier.  It was to be two years later when she was in dry dock that I fully visually appreciated how much of her cargo area was below the waterline.  Her load out cargo of fuel was about ten million gallons.  All I could think of on that day was “all that gas.”

                Yeah, yeah, I know.  Technically, it wasn’t all gas.  At that time, for the most part, the bulk or Kawishiwi’s cargo was NSFO, or black fuel oil.  NSFO was not as volatile as gasoline.  Her next largest cargo was JP-5, or jet fuel.  It has the volatility of diesel fuel.  Last, and not least of all was JP-4, or Aviation Gasoline (AVGAS).  Oh, yes, this stuff was treated like nitroglycerine.  What a comforting thought 

                In the next year or so, the NSFO was replaced by Navy Distillate fuel, which was like diesel fuel.  With propeller planes gone and the helicopters coming out with jet engines, even AVGAS was replaced with JP-5.  Any way you put it, to me it was “gas.”  All it would take would be one match, lighter, cigarette, spark, or what have you to ruin your day, week, month, year.. 

                While the ship was in port we had fire drills every evening after dinner with the duty crew.  I mean we got out the axes, fire extinguishers. fire hoses, the works.  The only thing we did not do was charge the fire hoses.  We were ready for the fire that we prayed would never come. 

                In fact, there was only one fire during the time I was aboard.  We were in the shipyard at Pearl Harbor.  Someone said “look” and pointed upward.  A shipyard worker was welding on the mast, high above the ship’s bridge.  Sparks had dropped down into the flag box on the rear of the bridge.  Sure enough there was a small fire going there.

                On most ships this would have been the occasion to announce “fire” on the ship’s announcing system and send someone to the bridge with a fire extinguisher.  This, however, was a oiler.  We didn’t have but a partial fuel load, but I didn’t hesitate.  I told the quarterdeck watch to sound general quarters (what we do for a fire), and call the fire department.

                I know, it seems like overkill, especially since the fire was put out fairly quickly by someone with a fire extinguisher.  All I could think of was sitting on all that gas.  I had read those stories, both Navy and civilian, where someone underestimated a situation and disaster resulted.

Smoking on a fleet oiler did not seem to be a issue.  At least it didn’t seem to be an issue at first.  You couldn’t smoke on the decks between the superstructure, but there were plenty of places to smoke away from the fuel areas.  The captain did have a fit when he found a marijuana butt outside the radio room.  Rightly so.  After all, the radio room was only a few feet away from the door to the captain’s cabin.  That, however, was not a safety issue.

                Of a more serious concern, I was on the jungle deck one day when a discovery was made.  That is where the tops of the cargo fuel tanks are.  It is call the jungle deck because there is a maze or jungle of small pipes down there.  They were pretty much out of sight from the outside, but impossible to keep chipped and painted.

                Anyway, it seems someone had been sneaking down to the paint locker, all the way aft on the starboard side.  Lord in Heaven, to be smoking on the jungle deck on those tank tops was scary enough.  Someone had been smoking marijuana joints in the paint locker.  The paint locker was full of 5 gallon cans of flammable paint.  There were paint fumes present.  What kept us from blowing a hole in the ocean was a mystery to me.

                Before we even deployed to the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) and joined the Navy effort in the Vietnam war, someone had a “bright idea.”  The effort to supply our ships off the coast of Vietnam was stretched to the limit.  The fleet oilers, like Kawishiwi filled up with fuel at Subic Bay in the Philippines and spent two weeks acting like a floating gas station off the coast of Vietnam.  The ships close in to the coast would come out and gas up when they were low on fuel.  The idea was to have these oilers carry more than just bulk fuel 

                We got the word in Pearl Harbor that we would practice loading ASROC canisters from shore and then transfer them by highline to other ships.  ASROCs are antisubmarine rockets that are loaded on box-like launchers aboard destroyers.  They have a hefty explosive charge in the warhead.  The canisters were to protect the delicate rockets for transport.  The canisters were pretty big and heavy.  Anyway, it was going to be a dummy rocket in that canister.  It was to be just a feasibility trial.

                Change of plans.  One of the other oilers was going to do the test.  Well, from what I remember the test was not wholly a success.  More to the point, someone screwed up.  They did all that horsing around with that heavy canister only to find out that it was not a dummy.  There was a real war load inside.  Just think of all that “gas” just underneath the deck of that highline station.  Oh, what a lovely opportunity for a fourth of July fireworks display.

                The gods have a sense of humor after all.  Once in WESTPAC another “bright” person had another idea.  Yes, we wound up carrying deck loads of six inch ammunition on pallets out to a cruiser.  It wasn’t stored in a magazine well below decks.  No, it was stored right out on the open deck.  Yes, then we were an ammo ship.

                We operated all the way from the west coast of Vietnam, all the way up towards the north, where we were off North Vietnam.  Most of the time we were south of “Indian country.”  Operating in the north was a whole new experience.

                When the word came that we were going to operate way up north in the Gulf of Tonkin things were a bit different……. at first.  When in port in Subic Bay, all our ammunition had to be in the magazines, far below decks.  When we headed towards the Gulf of Tonkin we brought up enough 3 inch ammunition for one of the six gun mounts.  The ammo was put in the ready lockers on the gun mount.

                Of course it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there was something basically wrong here.  We were operating only about 20 miles or so off the North Vietnam coast.  I had an uneasy feeling.

                Let me explain something here.  When commissioned in 1955 Kawishiwi had two 5 inch 38 gun mounts, one forward, and one aft.  These are pretty big guns, destroyer sized guns.  She also had six - twin 3 inch gun mounts.  That is a lot of firepower.  The only problem was, by the time the Vietnam War got going full scale, this defense armament was out of date.  The five inch guns were long gone, but we still had all those 3 inch guns.

                The age of jets and missiles made those guns pretty much obsolete, especially for a fleet oiler.  In August of 1972, a North  Vietnamese MIG jet fighter had flown out from the coast and dropped a bomb, not a missile, but a bomb on one of our destroyers. 

                When I heard that story I was truly impressed.  For one thing a destroyer is a pretty small target for someone dropping a bomb.  For another, the destroyer had been moving.  One plane, one bomb, one hit.  Hey, I was very impressed.

                I did hear that some ships got a handful of Marines with shoulder fired missiles to protect them from MIGs.  At any rate we didn’t get that protection 

                So here we were manning one of the six gun mounts, port side, in front of the bridge.  It was manned around the clock while we were spitting distance from North Vietnam……. in a shooting war.  Lets see now.  Let’s say that an enemy MIG, flying at about 500 miles per hour, would be seen by radar as far back as ten miles from the coast and had another twenty miles to zip out to visit us.  That is…. , let me calculate…..  Oh, yeah, that would take roughly half a minute to leisurely lay a bomb on our decks.

                I doubted that we would have had time to get the gun crew alerted and load a gun in that amount of time, much less fire it.  Any pilot who could lay a bomb on a small destroyer would have difficulty deciding which part of our huge ship to drop a bomb on.  We weren’t even operating close to other ships who could cover us in a time of trouble.  We lazily cruised in holding patterns out of sight of the coast while the cruisers and destroyers worked close in, out of sight of us.  Our inshore ships didn’t cover even a small portion of that coast.

                Yes, me and my Junior Officer of the Watch, and others would often speculate on our chances.  What if the North Vietnamese ever woke up and spotted the bullseye just offshore that we represented.  Of course, when we went back to Subic Bay, all that ammo was stored back in the magazine below decks.  

                What with my doubts I should not have been surprised that the next time we went back north to the Gulf of Tonkin, we no longer brought ammo up to the gun mount.  Needless to say we did not man the gun mount 

                I am not one to go down without a fight.  I did check out the gun rack on the after bulkhead of the bridge on the starboard side.  There were some M-1 rifles under lock and key.  If a MIG flew out to send us on our way, I would have preferred to shoot at them with a WWII rifle than idly stand there and be someone’s target practice.  Anyway, it never happened.  Whew…….

                One day, back in Subic, we got notice that all officers were to stand by for an intelligence briefing in the wardroom after lunch.  Two intelligence officers arrived, with charts, and gave us a very interesting lecture.

                Here’s how it went.  It seems that when we were doing our racetrack patterns around up there off the North Vietnamese coast, the bad guys were watching us.  The intelligence officers said we showed up on their radar scopes as a “high value target.”  You know, like a cruiser or aircraft carrier.  Not only that, but we had been in easy range of their larger artillery guns.  Nobody in the wardroom spoke a word.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Well, I was certainly glad I didn’t know that before hand.  It wouldn’t have done us a bit of good.

                After the briefing, I escorted the intelligence officers off the ship.  As we got to the gangway the two officers stopped and turned to me.  They said they were surprised at the lack of reaction from us.  They said that the officers of the ammunition ship they had briefed that morning had not taken the news quite as well as we had.  I couldn’t help but laugh out load.  After all, we were the ones sitting on all that gas.



Tom Sparkman  February 9, 2004