Sitting On All That Gas
was twelve or thirteen years old I spent two weeks at the Croatan Boy
Camp on the
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.
years and many miles later I reported aboard the USS Kawishiwi (AO-146). She was in the shipyard at
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.
fact, there was only one fire during the time I was aboard. We were in the shipyard at
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.
we even deployed to the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) and joined the Navy
the Vietnam war, someone had a “bright idea.” The
effort to supply our ships off the coast of
the word in
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.
operated all the way from the west coast of
the word came that we were going to operate way up north in the Gulf of
things were a bit different……. at first. When
in port in
course it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there was
basically wrong here. We were operating
only about 20 miles or so off the
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.
hear that some ships got a handful of Marines with shoulder fired
protect them from MIGs. At any rate we
didn’t get that protection
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
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.
and my Junior Officer of the Watch, and others would often speculate on
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
with my doubts I should not have been surprised that the next time we
north to the
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…….
day, back in
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.
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
Tom Sparkman February 9, 2004