.... 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
The Navy base at
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 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 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
Just upriver of Charleston,
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.
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
In the year I was aboard that minesweeper out of
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
What I saw to my right, in the dark, was the faint outline of the
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
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.
September 13, 2002