Running The Mine Field

Navy ships are graded periodically on their readiness.  This comes in the form of an ORI, or Operational Readiness Inspection.  It is a short term (a few days) exercise which demonstrates to observers the ship’s readiness to carry out its mission.  This inspection consists of the conduct of battle problems and other operational exercises.  Instead of standard drills which the crew would get in Refresher Training, or REFTRA, this one has observers popping surprises on you.  This comes in the form of simulated fires, flooding, enemy attack, to see if you can handle it.  Fail your ORI and you may find yourself (the ship) back in REFTRA with a new skipper.  This story is about one such Operational Readiness Inspection.

I used to think that a naval officer’s primary job was to drive ships.  We call it “conning” a ship.  Formally, it is called shiphandling.  From the time I was 14 years old, that was my dream.  When I became a naval officer, I thought shiphandling was what it was all about.

In reality, naval officers are department heads or division officers.  The main departments in a ship are engineering, deck, operations, gunnery.  Those departments are further broken down into divisions.  In my Navy days engineering department consisted of the A&E Division, auxiliary and electrical, as well as the B&R Division, boiler and repair division.  Deck department consisted of First and Second Divisions, and Weapons Division.  First and Second Divisions were the deck seamen.  Weapons Division included gunnery and fire control personnel (aiming and tracking guns).  Operations Department consisted of Communications and Navigation Divisions.  On a fleet oiler of 650 feet, a department head had about 3 officers and 75 men under him.  A division officer had about 20 to 30 or so men in a division. 

The officer’s were responsible for the duties of their various departments and divisions.  This included the maintenance of all the equipment their divisions were responsible for.  It also included the training of all the men under them.

In addition to these duties, there are collateral duties.  Welfare and Recreation, Publications Control, Officer’s Mess, postage inventory, and medicines inventory are some of the few additional duties of officers.  Yes, we were knee deep in paperwork.

Unless there is a war or other emergency, like the current war on terrorism, ships spend a lot of time in port.  Not all officers get a lot of time conning ships.  This means that shiphandling time is severely limited for many naval officers.

My first ship was a barracks ship up the Mekong River during the Vietnam war.  In the year I was aboard, I never got to conn the ship.  When that ship was underway, we were always at general quarters (battle stations).

All ships have different shiphandling characteristics.  My second ship was a minesweeper.  It was one of the smallest of the Navy’s ships.  I did get a lot of shiphandling at sea, but none while going in and out of port.

My third ship was a large fleet oiler.  It was large and bulky.  Not very agile and not so easy to conn in tight places, like going in and out of harbor.  It had a lot of mass.  It did not speed up quickly and it didn’t stop quickly.  From all ahead full (full speed), to a stop took about two miles.  I got plenty of shiphandling time on this ship.

Handling a ship at sea with miles and miles of open ocean is fairly easy.  There is no danger of running aground or hitting other ships….. most of the time.

I turned out to be a pretty good shiphandler.  It was one of the few good things my captain said about me.  I never got that much of a chance on my first two ships.  I don’t know how it came about, but I wound up taking the ship in and out of Pearl Harbor quite often.

Taking a ship out to sea and back in is a challenge in any harbor.  My oiler had a deep draft, but Pearl Harbor had a deep enough channel.  The problem was making that sharp turn between Ford Island and Hospital Point.  If I made a mistake, the ship would run aground or hit another ship.  Running an oiler aground risked the spilling of up to 10 million gallons of fuel in the harbor.  Either way it would be a career killer.

As the Officer of the Deck, or OOD, I would take the ship into Pearl Harbor.  You can believe that the captain was right there on the bridge with me, watching every move.  Each ship has its own turning characteristics.  When approaching Hospital Point, with Ford Island dead ahead, I would stand on the starboard wing of the bridge (right side).  I would be about 50 feet or so above the water. 

We would be doing about 5 knots.  Pretty slow, but faster than you can walk.  I wouldn’t be doing any casual talking.  I would stand there with a pair of binoculars around my neck studying the approaching turn.  At just the right time I would order “Right 20 Degrees Rudder.”  Then I would say “Steady up on ………” whatever the next course was.  I figure there was about a 10 to fifteen second window of opportunity to make that turn.  It took a lot of concentration.

We got a new captain aboard.  The first time we went to sea with him, it was almost a disaster.  I was taking the ship out of Pearl Harbor.  We went the long way around Ford Island.  We were approaching the turn at Hospital Point from the opposite side.  It would be a turn to the right.  I ignored everything except making that turn.  The new captain was anxious about that turn.  He never said a word to me as we approached.  All of a sudden he paniced.  He ordered “Right Full Rudder.”  It was too soon to make that turn.  I was caught completely off guard.  I stepped to the rail and looked down.  When your ship draws 40 feet of water on a ship that big, you should never be able to see sand on the bottom.  I was looking down and I could see the bottom. 

Fortunately, the captain quickly realized he had made a mistake and just barely avoided running the ship aground.  It could have been his last day on that ship if he had beached it on the first day.  He had thought that I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was pretty shook up myself.

That was the only close call I ever had as a shiphandler.  For the rest of the time I spent on that ship I would say that I probably took it in and out of port more than any other officer.  Taking the ship in and out of port was fairly routine. 

Having said that, I need to clarify something.  Saying that I was a pretty good shiphandler did not mean that I was in the same class of shiphandler as the skipper of the Chipola.  I had heard the rumors that he had been a merchant skipper at one time.  I was to get a demonstration of that.  The USS Chipola was a fleet oiler of an older, smaller class than the one I was on.

I was on deck one day when the ship was tied up to “H”, or Hotel pier as we called it, in Pearl Harbor.  That is the fueling pier.  Most of the ships in harbor are tanked up by small harbor tenders that go around, ship to ship, and fuel them.  The big oilers tied up at Hotel pier.  The Chipola was going to tie up at Hotel pier.

What surprised me was that the Chipola had gone the long way around Ford Island to get to Hotel pier.  When you come into Pearl Harbor, you take a right at Hospital Point.  Once you make that turn, you sail past what was “battleship row” and the Arizona Memorial straight to Hotel pier.  The pier points in that direction.  You don’t even need to make a turn to get to the mooring.

You would think that a straight shot to the pier meant going in alone and tieing up.   Unfortunately, a ship as large as ours is not very handy to maneuver at slow speeds.  A slight miscalculation, or a nice breeze and you can envision a 37,000 ton ship at one knot hitting a concrete fuel pier.  Not a pretty picture.  On the other hand, it might wind up so far from the pier that you are trying to pull the ship to the pier with the mooring lines, sideways.

That is why we always picked up a pilot when we came in past Hospital Point.  As we approached the pier, the pilot would take over from the OOD and direct his two tugs to nudge us into the pier.  We would then be moored with our bow towards the island and the stern pointed towards the harbor entrance.

On this occasion the Chipola, having gone the long way around Ford Island, was approaching Hotel pier at a perpendicular angle.  I could not figure what she was doing.  She had an enormous red lei (flower necklace) draped around her bow.  She was coming home from a long deployment off the coast of Vietnam.  Hotel pier was full of family members waiting for their sailors to come home.

Right away I noticed that something was missing.  Where were the tugs?  They were nowhere to be found.  The Chipola came on, the bow pointed at the middle of the pier.  This was going to be interesting.  I did not know how much of an understatement that was.

As the ship closed to about a hundred and fifty yards, slowing down steadily, I heard a sound.  It was then that I noticed the Chipola’s anchor being lowered to the waterline.  What in the world…….. was all I could think at the time.

Then the Chipola started to swing to the right.  I guessed it wasn’t going to be a collision with the pier.  The ship then lowered the anchor so it just touched the bottom of the harbor.  All of a sudden, the ship started to pivot on that grounded anchor, and the stern swung around slowly.  Before I knew what happened, the Chipola was swinging right up parallel to the pier with the bow pointed towards the harbor entrance.  The mooring lines were over and she was tied up.

I have to be honest with you, that wasn’t shiphandling, that was magic.  I was really impressed.  The shiphandling I had been doing was kids stuff in comparison.  Even so, it was pretty good compared to most naval officers that I knew.

Back to my experiences.  Sailing in and out of harbor had its special problems.  The lookouts on the wings of the bridge would take bearings to known landmarks on the chart.  They would then tell the navigator, using sound powered phones.  They would wear headsets that had a microphone that hung around their neck and were right in front of their faces, just below their chins.  The navigator could also take a range (or distance) to landmarks on the radar.  The navigator would then plot the ship’s position on the chart.  He would then say, “I have a good fix at this time.”  He would also say, “The ship is 20 yards to the right of the center of the channel,” and “It is 300 yards to the next turn, the course will be 030.” 

The lookouts on the wings of the bridge would take bearings to known landmarks on the chart.  They would then tell the navigator, using sound powered phones.  They would wear headsets that had a microphone that hung around their neck and were right in front of their faces, just below their chins.  The navigator could also take a range (or distance) to landmarks on the radar.  The navigator would then plot the ship’s position on the chart.  He would then say, “I have a good fix at this time.”  He would also say, “The ship is 20 yards to the right of the center of the channel.” The next thing he would say was, “It is 300 yards to the next turn, the course will be 030.” 

One of the difficulties with this is that you know there is a delay in the time it takes between getting the information and the time it is given to the OOD.  The person takes two or three bearings, and relays it to the navigator.  The navigator takes the information and a radar range from Combat Information Center.  He then plots the information and relays it to the OOD.

The OOD is then told where he, and the ship are.  At least the OOD knew where the ship was when the bearings were taken.  Only the ship wasn’t there any more.  Another thing, as OOD you often have a better idea of where the ship is than the navigator.  If you are in a channel marked by navigational aids like bouys or marked pilings, you can see that you are exactly in the center of the channel when the navigator says you are to the left or right of the center of the channel.

One of the challenges of shiphandling during an Operational Readiness Inspection is that the inspectors tell you that the country is supposed to be in a state of war with an imaginary country.  They also tell you that there is a minefield at the entrance to Pearl Harbor.  This would be done to prevent enemy ships and/or submarines from entering the harbor.  The ship is expected to navigate the imaginary minefield.  It is a two leg zigzag course through the minefield.  The minefield was even marked on the chart for us.

There is a slight problem.  The minefield started just past the last pair of navigational bouys, outside the harbor.  At those outer bouys there was nothing to visually show where the minefield was.  There was no reference points in the water at all to assist the Officer of the Deck.   To make matters worse, the ship has never, and I mean never, successfully passed through the minefield during an ORI.  This meant that if it were in time of war, the ship would be sunk by our own mines. 

The Operational Readiness Inspection arrived.  For these exercises I was not the OOD.  In fact my regular General Quarters station (Battle Station) at that time was in the after gun director.  This sounds like an easy job.  Sit in a small turret that has a radar antenna attached, with a fire control technician right under my feet.  All I had to do was search in the part of the ocean, or sky that Combat Information Center (with the search radars) told me to.  When I saw the target, I would swing all, or some, of the guns around remotely towards the target.  Then the fire control man sitting under me kept the guns on target with the radar we had on our turret.  We’re talking having control of eight, 3 inch guns.  A lot of firepower for a ship of our type.  Of course, one hit from any type of enemy plane or ship and we would go up like a roman candle, a million times over.  We were sitting on 10 million gallons of fuel.

Unfortunately, our gun director was right behind the huge smoke stack, at the rear of the ship.  As long as we were sailing against the wind, or crosswise to the wind, that was all right.  The stack gas, or smoke, was blown away from us.  When we were sailing with the wind, the smoke from the funnel would stay with, and hang over, the stern of the ship.  In that gun director it was the equivalent of parking 20 busses in your garage, closing the door, and let them keep the engines running.  We couldn’t breathe with that stack gas hanging over the rear of the ship.

 The captain decided to go out to sea two days before the ORI and do some exercises for practice before we got graded.  We left late in the day, right before dark.  We would be doing practice drills most of the night.  Since he would be briefing the general quarters bridge crew on the way out, I was designated as the OOD for leaving port.

 The captain stayed on the bridge as we headed out of Pearl Harbor.  We cleared the entrance to the harbor and entered that straight stretch of marked channel towards the outer bouys.  The captain turned his back on me and got his team together off to one side.  Some of the inspection team members stood back and observed.  They weren’t grading this time. I had the front of the bridge to myself.  The navigator stayed put at the chart table because we weren’t past the outer bouys yet.

 Normally, when the ship reached the outer bouys we kept going out a ways before changing course.  About four hundred yards from the outer pair of bouys I asked the navigator for the course to the first leg of the minefield.  It wasn’t going to count against us, so why not try and run it.  Since the captain was busy with other things, he wouldn’t be pacing the bridge.  It was a good thing, because what I did next defied all previous practices.

 The first leg of the course through the minefield this time was a sharp right turn, once past the outer bouys.  An oiler does not make sharp turns……. or at least it is not supposed to be able to.  I was going to gamble.  Well short of the bouys I ordered a “Right Full Rudder.”  I also gave the helmsman a course to steady up on.  It was going to be close.  When the ship reached the outer bouys, we barely cleared the right bouy with the bow of the ship.  The stern barely cleared the bouy on the left.  That put those bouys about 655 feet apart.  Hitting one of those bouys would have been a disaster to my service record.

 When the navigator gave me his next fix we were in the channel, on the first of two legs  through the minefield.  I think he was a bit surprised.  It was about a mile to the next turn.  The next fix showed us about in the center of the channel.  No channel bouys here to help me.  I had to picture it in my mind. 

 When I got the fix from the navigator he told me that it was about 400 yards to the next turn, a sharp turn to the left.  By the time he gave me that information, the ship, doing about 7 knots, was already about 200 yards past that point.  I looked at a place in the ocean about 200 yards in front of us.  I concentrated on that spot.  When we got within 100 yards or so, I ordered, “Left Full Rudder.”  I also gave another course to steady up on.

 By this time, the navigator was interested.  We actually had a chance to successfully clear the minefield.  When the quartermaster called in the next set of bearings to the landmarks, we were in the second leg of the channel.  Fifteen minutes later we were clear of that imaginary minefield.  We had cleared it successfully.  The record was there on that chart.  It didn’t count because we weren’t being graded, but I didn’t even care.  I felt pretty good.  It was something that no one else had ever been able to do. 

Two days later we left port again.  This time, everything we did was graded.  How did we do in the minefield?  Don’t ask.  It wasn’t even close.  Where was I?  I was at my regular General Quarters station, all the way aft.  I was sitting up high, in my gun director with a big grin on my face.  There are some things in life you savor for as long as you live, and that day I spent running the minefield is one of them.

Tom Sparkman
October 20, 2002
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