The One-Eighty

I wasn’t going to write this one.  It doesn’t have that out-of-the-ordinary flair to it that I like.  Rather routine in fact.  But, then again, since Terry Sutherland mentioned today about having served aboard the Waccamaw, I decided to go ahead.
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Refueling Navy combat ships on a regular basis off the coast of North Vietnam in 1972 made our crew as experienced as they come.  I was on an oiler, nothing glamorous, not even good looking.  Just 650 feet of “floating gas station.”
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Let me back up a bit.  We weren’t always so experienced.  Back in Pearl Harbor, just a few months previously we rarely go to sea.  When you don’t go to sea very often, things often go wrong when you do go.
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We left Pearl Harbor one day to refuel an aircraft carrier and its escorts.  It was anything but routine. 

For one thing a wire that connected us to the carrier that our fuel hoses were slung from broke.  A case of poor maintenance.  The wire that bent around an eye (at the very end) had been covered by canvas.  Nobody realized it was rusted until the wire parted.  Thankfully, no one was injured.

It grew dark as we spent four hours alongside the carrier.  We had four different fueling stations connected to that carrier.  Three of them had two fuel hoses at each station.

We had red overhead flood lights to illuminate the deck area where the crew manned the wire winches and the seven inch fuel hoses.  One of the inexperienced winch operators let the winch creep and the wire get slack.  It took a lot of concentration as the ships tried to keep station about 100 feet apart.

There was a bow in the wire and it dipped into the ocean between the ships.  We were steaming at 15 knots.  The water caught that wire and stripped it off the winch before the winch operator could do anything. 

We called the carrier on the phone line we rigged between ships.  We explained the problem and asked that they maintain station with us after the fueling was completed.  We needed a few minutes to figure out what to do with that long wire trailing back between the ships.  We had to figure out a way to get our fuel hoses back.

Eventually the fueling was completed.  Three of the four hose rigs had been retrieved and the connecting wire dropped and brought aboard.  I was on the bridge talking to the captain on how to get our hose rig back. 

All of a sudden there was a chilling announcement from the signalman next to us, “She is breaking away.”  We still had one set of hoses connected to the carrier with no retrieving wire to pull then back aboard our ship.  She had forgotten and, in the dark, had started to pull away.  The hose crew, down low on starboard fuel station of the carrier, executed an emergency breakaway.  They just dropped our rig into the sea before it could break and recoil, killing someone.

Our crew scrambled to get the rig back aboard.  We didn’t lose the hoses, but that long wire swung into our port propeller, about 15 feet across, and was cut.  Not before it put a large “ding” in the screw.  From that night on, standing on the stern while underway, you could feel that screw vibrate from that ding in the screw.

Since I was in charge of the deck crew at the time there was hell to pay.  Everything that happened that day helped kill a career in the Navy for me.  Oh well.

Anyway, many months, and many thousands of miles later, we were off the coast of North Vietnam.  One day, the order came to rendezvous with the USS Waccamaw (AO-109).  My oiler was no beauty, but the Waccamaw was even less so.  In her original version she had the form of a standard T-2 tanker, a nice looking ship.  By 1972 she had been jumboized (stretched),  and her lines were less than pretty.

We were just about empty of fuel.  We never really pumped all 10 million gallons out, but we were high out of the water up forward and we figured to be heading back to the Philippines after being “on the line” for two weeks.  It would take two days of topping off in port before returning to the waters off North Vietnam.  During those two days the ship’s crew, and officers could get a few hours ashore.

This time was different.  Waccamaw was fully loaded and low in the water.  We were ordered to take on all her fuel that we could.  We would then stay on the line another two weeks and Waccamaw would return to the Philippines.  We never did figure the logic in that, but we weren’t asked, either.

The operation is called a “consolidation.”  I believe it was the first one we did in the time I was aboard.

Refueling a destroyer at sea is fairly straightforward.  We would hold a steady course into the seas and a speed of 15 knots.  The destroyer would come alongside to starboard, about a 100 some feet away, and we would pass over shot lines.  They were small lines which the other ship’s crew could haul over the heavier cables that they would shackle to their refueling stations.  Then our ship would take up the strain with deck steam winches and create a sort of “high wire” between ships.  We would then send our seven inch refueling hoses across to the other ship, slung from the cable by pulleys.  Destroyers would get two such hose rigs.  We could refuel one in about an hour or so.

Aircraft carriers, on the other hand, would come alongside to port.  Usually at the same time that a destroyer was alongside to starboard.  We would pass 4 hose rigs to a carrier.  Some of the hose rigs had two hoses piggy-backed one above the other slung from one cable.  As I remember, it would take about three or four hours to top off a carrier.  It could have been less.

Consolidating with the Waccamaw would be a bit different.  We were almost empty, our bow riding high out of the water.  Waccamaw was fully loaded and low in the water.  The other ship came alongside to starboard and matched speed.  After that, both ships had to constantly change speed in small increments.  As we got heavier, and lower in the water, we had to tell the engine room, by way of the engine order telegraph on the bridge, to add a few rpm to the propeller shafts.  At the same time, the Waccamaw had to reduce speed a few turns at a time as she got lighter and her bow rose out of the water.

If carriers took three to four hours to refuel, I am trying to remember how long it took to consolidate with Waccamaw.  I am going to guess four to six hours, closer to six.  We’re talking about a lot of fuel.  We carried about 10 million gallons.  I know we didn’t take on that much on this particular day, but it gives you an idea of the magnitude of the job.

If the ship is doing 15 knots, that means that if the “console” only took four hours, that meant we needed 60 miles of clear sea room.  Six hours would require 90 miles.  The area off North Vietnam was not a good place to do what we were going to do.  There was the problem of shallow water near the coast, so you couldn’t count the distance from land itself.  It was going to be a problem, even if we started in a good place, which we didn’t’.

Waccamaw came along side to starboard and we put over 4 hose rigs.  I had just finished a 4 hour watch on the bridge before we went to UNREP (Underway Replenishment) stations.  I was already tired.

Everything went smoothly for the first few hours.  Then I noticed two things.  I could see land on the radar, about 20 some miles away.  We’re talking about China.  We still had a long ways to go to finish our consolidation with the Waccamaw. 

I notified the captain that we were running out of sea room.  He consulted with the skipper of the Waccamaw on the phone line we had passed across to her.  It was decided that the two ships, big fat lumbering oilers, would make a one hundred and eighty degree turn to port, effectively reversing course………. while hooked up to each other.   Oh, Oh, I didn’t like the sound of that.

Time was running out.  We had to act fast.  It was decided that we would change course to port by only 3 degrees at a time.  At the same time, we would tell Waccamaw, over the phone line, what we were doing.  We started the turn.  I ordered a 3 degree change in course.  It didn’t take long.  As soon as Waccamaw told us, by the phone line, that she was steady on the new course, I would give another course change. 

Slowly but surely, we were making a one eighty change in course.  It took 60 course changes in the next hour.  At the same time, we were frequently making speed changes, a turn or two at a time to keep up with the load change.  What came to mind was Murphy’s Law.  “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”  I put that out of my thoughts.  We were too busy for that.

When I was in Officer’s Candidate School (OCS), the powers that be decided to make mustangs, former enlisted men going through officer’s school, company commanders.   It was felt that their past Navy experience would make them better leaders.  It also had unexpected consequences. 

It seems our new company commander had something other than a commanding voice.  When we were in formation, we would be marching along, with rifles on our shoulders.  This company commander would be out in front with a sword in his hand.  As the company passed the reviewing stand he would order, “left shoulder arms” or some such.  His voice was so low that only those in the front rank could hear him.  They would execute the command as ordered.  The ranks behind them, not hearing the command, could only repeat what they saw happening ahead of them. 

We looked like a catapillar using each pair of legs in sequence.  It was a comedy routine.  It was also embarrassing to the whole company.  Rather than admit a mistake, they kept the same company commander the whole time I was at OCS.  Me….. I was a mild, meek-mannered former 3rd Class Radioman.

So there I was, four years out of OCS, standing on the starboard wing of the bridge. I was standing over the compass repeater, holding my breath while the ship made each 3 degree course change.  When both ships were steady on that course, I would give another order to the helmsman in the pilothouse.  Believe you me,  there was no mistaking my command.  It was loud and clear…. and concise.   The last thing we needed at that time was a mixup in our course change. 

Even today, when I see something happening that should not be going on, I can stop somebody dead in their tracks from across a large room with a loud command.

So there I was, four years out of OCS, standing on the starboard wing of the bridge. I was standing over the compass repeater, holding my breath while the ship made each 3 degree course change.  When both ships were steady on that course, I would give another order to the helmsman in the pilothouse.  Believe you me,  there was no mistaking my command.  It was loud and clear…. and concise.   The last thing we needed at that time was a mixup in our course change.  Even today, when I see something happening that should not be going on, I can stop somebody dead in their tracks from across a large room with a loud command.

The turn was made with out incident.  All the time, the refueling teams on deck, and winch operators, keeping tension on the rigs, did their jobs well.  It was the finest show of teamwork.  Before we started, I would not have believed that we could have made a one-eighty course change while “glued” to another ship. 

When we were “topped off”, the rigs brought back aboard, and the Waccamaw cast off, I was relieved as OOD.  As I went below to my stateroom, after almost 10 hours on the bridge.  I thought that a cold beer right about then would really hit the spot.  But then, since we took on Waccamaw’s load, that beer was a good two weeks off.  Oh well.

   Tom Sparkman     November 3, 2002