Night Passage
.... From my minesweeping days out of Charleston, before my Kawishiwi days.

             My second ship was a minesweeper, USS Direct (MSO-430).  A wooden ship 172 feet long.  It was small and slow.  It’s top speed was about ten knots, eleven or twelve miles an hour.  You weren’t going anywhere very quickly in a minesweeper.

     In wartime, a minesweeper is a dangerous ship to serve on.  You are supposed to find and explode enemy mines before they sink our own ships, including minesweepers.  It was a risky business, one that required a lot of training.  Most of our training was held off the South Carolina coast.  The ship was home ported in Charleston.

    The Navy base at Charleston is about an hour up the Cooper River from the ocean. .  It was a bit boring going to and from the base to the open ocean  because I was never

the Officer of the Deck during these transits.  That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t paying attention while we were heading towards the sea or returning, it just means that I had no duties in the way of conning, or what you might call “driving” the ship.

 
            Minesweeping involves hoisting heavy equipment over the side of the ship and towing it  out to the sides and behind the ship.  This can be hazardous when you are doing it from a moving platform like a small ship that heaves with the swell of each passing wave.

            Our work was not made any easier by those staff officers back in their squadron office on the base.  Time after time they would put out our operations orders.  They directed us to stream our equipment at such and such a depth.  They evidently did not know how to read a chart because invariably our equipment would come back aboard with all the paint gone. 

      The steel sides of the equipment would be brightly shining where it had dragged bottom on all that sand.  Our gear wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the bottom.

         One of these operations almost proved to be serious.  The one time we were to use real explosive cutters caused a lot of excitement when one of the cutters was brought back to the stern of the ship.  We could see that the squadron staff had erred again.  The cutter had dragged bottom and the trigger to the explosive had

been ripped in half.  The cutter hadn’t fired.  It could fire at any time.  My bosun (boatswain’s mate) and I had the stern of the ship evacuated while I assisted him in getting the cutter removed.  The bosun was hanging over the stern of the ship trying to take the cutter off the streaming wire and at the same time trying not to hit the cutter or have it hit the ship and set the explosive off.  He was very calm and succeeded.  We both had a few choice words for the staff people back at the base.


         Day in and day out, we would go to sea and return each afternoon.  Several times we would stay out for a few days during exercises.  Then we would stream our gear over the side and sweep around the clock.  This story has to do with one of those exercises.

            One exercise was different.  We were off Charleston for several days.  It was decided that the ships would swap an officer and a petty officer to observe the exercises done by a different ship.  One of the bosuns and I got into a motor whaleboat and went over to another minesweeper. 

            There was only a mild sea running, but getting in and out of a boat at sea can be tricky.  As the boat rose on a swell I jumped for the rope ladder and scrambled up the side of the ship.  A few minutes later the bosun made the same jump only he timed it wrong.  He landed on the ladder but the boat was still rising.  The bosun’s right foot got caught between the ship and the boat.


           

             The bosun hung on to the rope ladder but he was in obvious pain.  We got him aboard the ship and the corpsman (medic) looked at his foot.  It was decided that the foot might have a fracture so the captain headed in to Charleston . The bosun could be taken to the base hospital to have the foot x-rayed.

              The trip up the Cooper River to the base was uneventful that afternoon.  The bosun was taken off to have his foot taken treated.  What happened next was anything but uneventful.

             The ship had orders from the staff to return to the exercise area at sea.  This was going to be different.  By the time we cast off our mooring lines it was almost dark.  The Cooper River is narrow up by the base, but as it approaches Charleston from upriver it widens and gets shallower.  There are many sandbars in the river that have grown vegetation and have become small islands.  <> 

             Just upriver of
Charleston, in the area of the degaussing range, the marked channel takes a sharp turn to the left, towards the north side of the river.  The channel then crosses towards the other side of the river for about two thirds of the way.  It then makes a sharp right and then the channel lines up with the center span of the Cooper River bridge.

             The Cooper River bridge is very high and long.  It was built in 1929.  There are actually two bridges as of this writing.  Back then there was only one bridge.  Both of them are being replaced by a newer, more modern bridge. The view from the top is quite spectacular, as if you have time to see the sights while you are driving along up there.  The channel went under the left side of  the center span of the bridge at that time.  I have been down that channel countless times.  Even after all these years, I can close my eyes and picture what it looks like after you make that sharp right turn. <> 

           
When a ship goes in and out of port during the day, the OOD (Officer of the Deck), the person “driving” the ship, can basically eyeball his way, keeping in between the channel bouys.  The captain of the ship is always on the bridge entering and leaving port.  He closely follows the progress of the OOD and the ship.


             Daylight or dark, the navigator, an officer, has lookouts manning the compasses mounted on pedestals on the bridge wings giving him bearings to known landmarks.  That way he can plot the ship’s course on a chart.  The lookouts and the navigator’ talker wear sound powered phones.  The navigator plots the ship’s position, and says, “I have a good fix at this time.”   He then gives a recommendation as to course and speed.  He also tells the OOD the distance to the next turn.


           During the day, the lookouts are taking bearings on known landmarks like radio and TV towers, water towers.  Some buildings stand out from others and make good landmarks.  At night the situation is different.  Then you are dealing with lights.  At night in a busy harbor, or any harbor there are plenty of lights.  In fact there are too many lights.  On top of this the compasses have dim lights that light up the compass card for the men taking the bearings.  It is something that really takes practice at night.


           The ship doesn’t show any white lights topside at night.  There aren’t even any white lights on the bridge where the OOD and captain are.  This is so that the crew on watch doesn’t spoil their night vision.  The only lights showing are the running lights and they are shielded so they 

don’t interfere with the crew’s night vision.  The bridge on a minesweeper is open.  It is covered with a canvas to provide shade in the daytime and shelter from rain.  It is quite dark on the bridge where the captain, the officer of the deck, the navigator, and the lookouts are.

              Today, when I go fishing with my friend Alfred, he always has me take his 25 foot boat back into the small Florida fishing port of Steinhatchee on the Gulf of Mexico. There are few lights to distract you.  On the other hand, it is a shallow coastline and you don’t want to try finding your way into harbor at night.  One wrong turn and you need a new propeller, or worse.  The last time we were out fishing we stayed too late.  When we came back in it was dark.  To make things even worse, it was low tide.  Even with few distracting lights I was nervous.  A couple of times I misread the navigation lights mounted on the channel bouys and lined up on the wrong bouy.  Fortunately, I corrected myself before I wrecked Alfred’s boat.  We did make into port without tearing the bottom out of the boat on the sharp limestone bedrock of the river entrance.
               Charleston is different, very different.  There are too many lights and the ship’s crews don’t have any experience going in and out of the harbor at night.

           In the year I was aboard that minesweeper out of Charleston, we never, and I mean never, made a night passage either in or out of port, with the exception of this one time.  There are too many turns in the channel for my liking.

           On my first ship, up the Mekong River of Vietnam, I never got a chance to drive or “conn” the ship.  We were always at general quarters (battle stations), and the Operations Officer always had the conn.  On the minesweeper, I conned the ship at sea, but going in and out of port, the Operations Officer always conned the ship.  It wasn’t until I was assigned to my third ship, a large, ocean going oiler (tanker) that I found that I was a pretty good ship handler.  In fact, that is about the only good thing the captain ever said about me on my annual fitness evaluation.  I used to take that 655 foot ship in and out of port on a regular basis.  The captain said I had a good “seaman’s eye.”  It came into good use on the night in question.

           On this night things went smoothly until we made that sharp left turn at the degaussing range.  I was on the main deck topside enjoying the lights of Charleston in the distance.  Then I heard a shout.  I turned and looked aft.  There, just emerging from under the ship’s port quarter, under the stern, was a lighted channel bouy.  The bouys mark the sides of the channel.  Wow, we weren’t even close to the center of the channel.  On top of that, we could have fouled the port propeller on that bouy’s anchor chain.  I walked quickly up the starboard side towards the ladder going up to the bridge.  When I got to the ladder I put my hands on the hand rails and happened to look to the right.  What I saw stopped me in my tracks.

          What I saw to my right, in the dark, was the faint outline of the Cooper River bridge.  It was about two miles off.  High over the river a red light marking the top of the center span.  Even at night, I knew that I was looking right down the channel at the center span of the bridge.  The ship was sailing right past that sharp right turn in the channel.  I literally ran up those two sets of ladders.  What I heard as I approached the bridge level was not encouraging.

          What I heard was the navigator saying, “I do not have a good fix at this time.”  No lie, I thought.  I already knew that.  The Officer of the Deck and the captain did not say a word.  Here was my problem.  I was a guest on this ship.  I had only been aboard for about four hours.  I didn’t even know the captain or the other officers.  Should I step up and say something or keep my mouth shut.  Not only that, what if I was wrong.  I would be making a fool of myself.  In my heart, I knew that I was right.  Why couldn’t anyone else on that bridge see what I saw?

          I was about to say something when the captain told the Officer of the Deck to come to a new heading, the one that leads towards the bridge.  The ship made the turn.  I was standing back, out of the way, in the dark.  When the ship straightened up on its new heading I was even more concerned than I was before.

           The navigator was bent over the chart table, lit by a dim red light.  He was trying to figure out where we were.  He kept repeating what no captain ever wants to hear at night, “I don’t have a good fix at this time.”  He had no idea where the ship was.  I sure did.  I didn’t even need to look at the chart. We were lined up with the first span north of the center span of the bridge.  Not being able to stand it any longer I stepped up just behind where the captain and Officer of the Deck were standing on the darkened bridge and said in a low voice, “There is dry land under that span of the bridge.”

          I don’t even think the captain realized who said it.  All of a sudden, he looked around all sides of the ship and ordered a course change to the right.  I stepped back and tried to stay unnoticed.  The ship sailed towards where I figured the channel was and the captain made a left turn back towards the bridge.  He had pretty much figured out what had happened.  The navigator, from under the hood of the chart table finally said, “I have a good fix at this time.”  The rest of the passage down the river past Fort Sumter and out to sea was uneventful. 

           We met up with my ship off the coast.  The seas were smooth and I was transferred back to my ship.  The captain said he had heard by radio that the bosun’s foot wasn’t broken and that he would be all right.  He then asked if anything else had happened.  I said, “Oh, nothing,” then quickly turned and left before my face betrayed me.

 

Tom Sparkman
September 13, 2002