Noilly Prattle: Looking Back: 3 – bell bottom blues

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Looking Back: 3 – bell bottom blues

      Just as I was born into a neither here nor there generation, I was also in the military between wars. The Korean War had ended in more or less a stalemate and a “peace treaty” had been signed in July 1953. It was the first of America's subsequent involvement in victory less wars, and tensions continued on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in the long Cold War. The United Nations commander in the Far East, General Mark W. Clark said at the time that he had "the unenviable distinction of being the first US Army commander to sign an armistice without victory." 

USS Pawcatuck AO-108 in refueling positi 
     I was a “dungaree Navy” sailor. All four of my ships were auxiliaries, ships that supplied the “right stuff” Navy (fighting ships like cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers). My four ships were in order of assignment: November 1959, USS Pawcatuck (AO-108); March 1960, USS Hoist (ARS-40); June 1961, USS Salinan (ATF-161); December 1961, USS Kaskaskia (AO-27). We were considered sort of B class sailors, the downstairs kitchen help to the upstairs nobility serving on warships. 
graphic of a 45º roll
      My first ship was a fleet oiler, the USS Pawcatuck AO [auxiliary oiler] 108, to which I was assigned in November, 1959 after a four-week training course in Newport, Rhode Island. People often asked me at the time if I ever got seasick. So, to put that one to rest, yes, I did get seasick on my first cruise, but that was the one and only time. I never got seasick again even in heavy seas with 30- and 40+-foot waves battering my second and much smaller ship (USS Hoist), pitching and rolling as much as 45º on the inclinometer (even hovering there just a bit too long with my nose practically in the water thinking she ain't gonna go back up). But she did!

      The experience of that storm was, oddly enough, strangely beautiful and exhilarating, with the wind shrieking in the rigging and the foaming crests of white-capped waves blowing spray high overhead; the bow of the ship plunging into the oncoming wave and the fantail hovering and dancing on the crest with her screws out of the water; the charcoal and white color of the sky and the deepest blue green water I've ever seen—except in the ship's wake where the color seemed a blend of jade and turquoise of an intense hue dappled with white foam that almost hurt your eyes with its brilliance.

      I was a Quartermaster, trained in Newport in celestial and electronic navigation and updating navigation charts. I also became an expert special quarters helmsman, steering the ship in tight situations such as coming in and out of ports, fueling at sea operations where there were three ships steaming side by side quite close to each other; us in the middle, usually an aircraft carrier on one side and a string of destroyers and cruisers coming and going on the other, being refueled and re-provisioned.

refueling at sea at close quarters
      I remember one incident during fueling operations. I was at the helm of the Pawcatuck, there was a carrier on the port (left) side and the smaller destroyers were coming up on the starboard side one after the other. I must have been daydreaming because the Pawcatuck started to close the distance between us and the carrier. In other words I was drifting to port on a collision course. Suddenly, I awoke with a start, when, from the port side bridge wing, the captain yelled at me: “Boucher! What the hell are you doing in there?” Looked out the wheelhouse window: “Oh, shit!” On instinct, without another word, I spun the wheel hard to starboard to stop the drift. It isn't easy to turn a sluggish tanker with its deep draft, and it's just as difficult to stop it once it starts to turn. In such a critical situation, with ships close on either side, the timing of the opposite rudder was critical. The captain had enough sense to leave me alone until I got the Paw stabilized and on a true course once again. I guess he must have been just as relieved as I was, because he merely took me off the wheel without the ass-chewing that I was, deservedly, expecting. I could have killed a lot of people. 
To be continued...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sounds like the words 'space cadet' are applicable here?