Late Fall – 1965, we de-port…
Finally, the ship was ready and we left dry dock. That took a whole day and we anchored off shore but near the port of San Diego. Final work details were done as we got ship and ourselves ready for months at sea. At this point I knew that I would have at least 22 months aboard ship but where it was ultimately going to go was a mystery, all those strange ports in strange lands…I was excited. We all knew that we would be going to Hawaii first & Viet Nam eventually, but only the Navy and a couple shipboard officers knew the actual details of the cruise between those ports.
I’m unclear of the exact sequence but around this time we had a couple hundred Marines arrive and put all their landing craft in the well deck. This was dangerous work as we sailors had to work those damn boats into the well deck fighting the seas the whole time. At that time, I was still a member of the deck crew so I got to man a line for one of the landing craft as it worked it’s way up the flooded well deck. By the time you have worked the line for just 15-20 minutes, if there are even mild seas, you’re exhausted and need a break. It is dangerous so breaks were often. Finally, the fantail was closed and the water pumped out and the equipment all stowed, leaving us with tons of war material and hundreds of new guys aboard ship. Most of them stayed down in the well decks and drilled, slept and ate down there. They also knew that we sailors were the experts on this ship so they were ordered to stay the hell out of the way. We also loaded a bunch more supplies, like food for the Marines, but with their help it didn’t take very long…our supplies were minimal since we’d fill up on stocks a month or two before, and they carried all their own stuff aboard. I do remember having to help store the ammo for all the machine guns aboard. If you’ll refer to the pictures of the ship, you’ll see two giant cranes about mid-ship. The ammo was brought aboard by the cranes, then we sailors had to carry it down below decks to the ammo rooms (can’t remember the name). Not easy work and a little scary. The Marines dealt with their own ordinance. They also had their own cooks and would take over the mess decks after all the sailors had finished their meals.
The deck crew, like most specific work details aboard ship, all slept in the same room, known as our ‘quarters’, and I was bunked near one of the bosons mates. This guy was an old salt with over 20 years in the Navy, but he was strange in that he would get seasick as soon as the ship left the dock, even though it might be calm. I’d heard about that the first trip we took when we went to dry dock, and this time, I was bunked near by the guy, and after we were on our way, I came down to change into my dungarees to go to work (we always left or arrived at any port in our dress uniforms), and here was the guy in his rack, groaning and moaning. The ship had just left port, there were no seas, and we had hardly rocked at all. But he appeared to be and said he was seasick. He had so much time in rank that the ships officers would leave him alone during his sick time and he’d get out of duty for the 3 days it took him to get use to the sea again. I could see that he was really ill the evening of the first day at sea, but I think he was mostly faking it after that, just hanging out in his rack reading, eating snacks he had hidden around.
It took me 3 days, along with most everyone else, to get use to the seasickness but you adjust to the heaves by staying nearby the side and hurling over whenever the need strikes. You do have to avoid being in a place where you might be set off, like the mess deck. Water and crackers for 3 days does keep you from hurling on your friends. Then late on the third day, it’s suddenly like you’ve never been seasick, at least for most people. Some stay sick for days then after they seem accustomed to the sea, a storm will come up and they’ll be heaving again. There are others who never have a bit of trouble unless a big storm comes up…and some never get sick at all. I was the kind that would get sick that first 3 days after leaving port (but only after at least a months layover at port), then nothing would set me off after that.
I was happy to get my seasickness out of the way and on the evening of the third day, I was famished. Must have eaten 3-4 pounds of food. Then since it was Saturday, I watched a movie that evening with my popcorn and Pepsi. Being aboard ship, out on the vast ocean, under an amazing blanket of stars was…thrilling. I couldn’t get enough of all the new stuff I was getting to see and do. I didn’t even mind some of the cleanup details I’d have to do during the day because I was at sea. And the machine guns mounted on the forecastle, bow, and fantail were a source of endless fascination. When the giant 5″ gun was exercised, wow, shake you to your socks. I was invited to become a gun crewmember but being inside that thing when it was fired off would have been ghastly. Like being buried alive in a tomb that was dangerous, hot, crowded, and LOUD. I declined the invitation and avoided being drafted for that duty. But, there were plenty of guys who wanted to be inside that thing when it was fired…
And on the trip we were on, the first leg of our halfway around the world journey by ship, there would be plenty of times when the 40mm guns would be fired, as well as the machine guns. I got to fire the 40mm anti-aircraft guns and the machine guns. On the 4th day at sea, every gun aboard was readied, we all learned our battle stations, and the 5th day, we had a 4-prop plane fly around the ship towing a long, red, and fabric target. We spent several hours learning how bad we were at hitting the target. I was on the port side 40mm gun and came pretty close, every 4th shell was a tracer so you could follow the track of the shell on it’s way to the target and everyone on the gun crew got to fire off 8 shells, but like every other gunner, I missed. Everyone was wearing a may west (lifejacket) so it was difficult to raise or lower the antiaircraft gun with the hand crank, in tandem with the other guy who was cranking the gun turret around to target. One gunner led the target so far that his tracer went half way between the tow plane and the target. Yikes. He was jerked off the gun immediately. Eventually, the Captain came on the PA and chewed us out for wasting all that fuel of the target plane, the target ship, the ammo we’d blown without ever hitting any target, then he gave us all extra duty. Shame, shame.
We wouldn’t get much practice during my entire tour aboard, saving ammo I suppose.
Here’s what the shipped looked like in the early ’60’s close to when I was aboard. Can’t see much detail. See that thing hanging down on the side of the ship? That’s what we’d climb onto up above and it would be lowered down, one side at a time, and I’d get to prep or paint the side. Fun, not.
Here are some of the ships specs along with tour dates, a picture gallery and other interesting tidbits in the link below. To see other pics of the Oak Hill, open the link and scroll down to pictures:
Here is a nice picture of the ship at sea, the 40mm guns are in those turrets along the port and starboard sides. The machine guns, 38 caliber I believe, were all over the place, on both the port and starboard side, 10 or 12 of them if I remember correctly. This picture below is of an earlier time and they hadn’t been installed until after I came aboard.
If you notice, there are 4 reels of wire rope welded to the bulkhead (wall) just after the bow section. When I was aboard, there were only 2 rolls, one on each side, and they were about double the size of the ones shown in this picture. Very big, very heavy.
Our trip to Hawaii took around 13 days, we wouldn’t get to Viet Nam until early next year, the weather was fair, and I enjoyed myself on my off hours just absorbing it all…
But I’m getting ahead of myself, next time, we sail the open ocean and run smack into a typhoon.