T) Heading back to the states – Spring '66

We hurriedly refueled at Subic Bay and headed south to try to out run the typhoon that was on our tail. But soon we started getting huge ‘rollers’. Waves up to 30 feet high that rocked us, sometimes near our design limits. I know that because there was a gauge on the bulkhead in the wheelhouse that showed how far we rolled over, and it had a mark at the design limits. The first day we had to fight the seas was bright and sunny but many came down with seasickness. I still had my sea legs so it didn’t bother me much. And again, many took to the rack. There was one series of waves that were so big that I had to walk on the doors of lockers to stay on my feet. During that time, I’d often go to the front of the foredeck, hang onto the railing and watch the sea ahead of us, which by this time had turned into a gray, wind tossed, threatening beast.

Huge waves would crash over the bow of the ship while the spray would make it up nearly to the bridge windows. Meanwhile, we’d be tossed around like a cork and many of us knew that if we lost headway, that is, if the engines died, we would probably be swamped.  Only hope then would be to toss out sea anchors, large canvas bags attached to the stern with heavy lines (ropes), that would use the ocean to keep us headed up wind of the storm. But they would only be needed if the engines died. We had had engine trouble on the way to Nam but were able to get back underway in a couple hours, but that wasn’t far from our minds. Neither was the fact that our welldeck was nearly empty, so we were riding higher in the water, making it easier for the seas to roll us over. Lost at sea, in a typhoon, isn’t something to look forward to. And a roll over would likely kill the engines and power so there would be no way to contact anyone by radio. Not to mention that a roll over would probably send us to the bottom of the sea in a matter of a few minutes.

Here’s a couple pictures of the Oak Hill at sea: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/LSD/LSD-7_OakHill.html

Note that the main deck is around 20′ above the bow deck. Then the bridge is another 30′ above the main deck. So since I spent most of my time on the bridge, and that’s the area that gets the most violent side to side tossing by the storm, I had some dicey times up there trying to hang on and not get tossed overboard.

That night, we were still trying to outrun the typhoon, and the swells had calmed down some, but as luck would have it, since so many were seasick, I had to go back up to a gun turret behind the bridge to stand watch. At around midnight. This wasn’t my normal duty now that I was a signalman, and I didn’t care to be pressed into that kind of duty because some twerp claimed he had seasickness, but, you do what you’re ordered to do. Anyway, I make my way up to the bridge in the darkest of nights I’d ever not seen. It was so dark I couldn’t see anything, even after having my eyes adjusted to the dark with the red lights we had below decks. I had to feel my way up to the bridge. A couple places I had to crawl a bit to get from one ladder to the next.  When I finally got to the turret, I still couldn’t see my hands in front of my face, called out to the seaman standing watch and we felt for each other in the dark, so I could get his binoculars. When he handed them to me, I felt for the leather neck strap, positioned it where I thought it should be, tried to pull the strap up over my head, and promptly slammed the binocs into my teeth. Breaking off a little chip from a front tooth. I can still run my tongue over that break but it’s now smooth from years of living, and it was too small to be noticeable. Then I stood my 4 hour watch, amazed at how intensely dark it was. No moon, stars, no running lights from the ship, nothing. Even after four hours, my eyes were still not picking up a thing. Pitch black is not just hyperbole. My relief was late as he had the same trouble I’d had making his way up to the turret. After several hours of just standing there, tossed side to side and up and down by the sea, slapped in the face occasionally by cold salt spray that you couldn’t see coming, buffeted by the wind, it was a true relief to be relieved.

The next morning I got up early, excited to see what the ocean looked like by daylight. By now the typhoon was bearing down on us and we were surrounded by the angriest seas I’d ever seen. Gray tossing seas with wind swept foam, towering waves, waves peaking, wind sweeping water and foam horizontally from the peak, and then breaking over like you would see at a beach. No birds at all, that in itself was unusual as we’d almost always see seagulls following the ship. I had to stand another watch up on the bridge, this time as a signalman, so I got time to see the radar image of the storm heading our way. When I saw it, it filled half the radar screen as it crept up behind us. The Captain didn’t want to over stress the engines so we were going a little slower then our 15 knot speed maximum but the storm was moving faster.

After I got off watch, I wandered down to the railing on the main deck, 20 feet above, and 15′ behind the bow. To experience the joy of the roller coaster ride available there. Hanging onto the railing, wind and sea spray in my face, being tossed as a small part of a giant ship,  it didn’t get much better then that. I hung out there for an hour or so, then headed in for lunch and a card game in quarters. But I couldn’t concentrate on the game, the call of the ocean was too great. Late in the afternoon, the storm had become even more ferocious. Tossing us around like a toy at sea. Most sailors couldn’t stand it anymore and headed for their racks, most to just read, others to sleep. I couldn’t do that with the sea as it was, it was just far to interesting, exciting and dangerous to avoid. And I toured the ship, fore and aft, topside and below decks. All the while planning a way to get out to the bow. Finally, I had a plan. I grabbed a Mae West life jacket and around 50′ of line and headed forward. Go back to that link and in the second picture you can see the bow, then two ladders going up to the main deck where I’d hung out several times that day. Next to each ladder was a giant roll of wire rope used to pull the ship into a slip, tie us to a dock, or lash us to another ship. These were multi-ton reels of wire cable that were seldom used but had the kind of excellent tending that all topside devices get so they were in the best possible condition. Both were stoutly welded to the hull. Between those two ladders was a door at the bow deck level that I made my way out of carrying my line (rope) and wearing my Mae West. I tied the line to a metal bracket near the door, and fighting the storm, worked my way over to the bow railing. I tied off there, then every 6′ feet of so, I’d lash the line to the railing, working my way to the bow. When I finally reached the bow, I was right there, at the very front of the ship.  I lashed myself in, and then just enjoyed the ride! The ship would meet a huge wave and be thrown upwards for 30-40′, then after cresting the wave would plunge down, down, down, until the spot where I was standing would be just a couple feet above sea level. Then the waves would be coming from every direction, tossing the ship not only up and down, but side to side. I was having a great time enjoying this great roller coaster when someone tapped my shoulder. Turning around, I find the Chief Bo’sons mate, mad has hell. He orders me inside, on the double, which I couldn’t do because I was lashed in, all along the railing. Nearly every 6′ over the 40′ back to the door. So, here he’s reading me the riot act while he’s hanging on for dear life, he didn’t even wear a life jacket to come out there. When I’m about half done getting myself untied, I yell at him, “Chief you’re not wearing a life vest!”, and he heads off back to the bulkhead door to wait for me while I untie myself, cussing at me the entire time.  I hadn’t even thought that the Captain and bridge crew could see me there on the bow. But even then, so what? I had lashed myself in, was wearing a life jacket, enjoying some harmless fun, who could complain? Well, the Captain could apparently, as he ordered the Chief to come get me. The Chief yells and cusses at me as he forced me up to the bridge to talk to the Captain. When I got up there, the first thing the Captain says is, “What were you doing down there, sailor? Trying to commit suicide?”

“No, SIR”, I stammered, not expecting such a question, “I was enjoying the sea!”. Then for the next 5 minutes or so, the Captain berated me about how dangerous that little stunt was, how it was dangerous for the Chief to have to come down and get me, blah, blah, blah. All the while I’m trying to slip in how beautiful the storm is and how much fun it was. For some reason, I felt he understood because he didn’t seem as mad as he appeared, every once in a while cracking a slight smile. But it’s all about discipline, isn’t it? Then he tells me that I’ll get a Captains Mast out of that stunt, but not for a few days, waiting for the storm to blow over I recon. When I got the punishment, what I had to do was go down below decks into a grimy, dank, darkish tiny room and with a small hammer, chip off all the old paint from some sort of sea valve. Then repaint it. I had to do that during my off hours. Took me 3 days of my spare time. Not to bad a punishment for experiencing one of the most thrilling rides of my life. I was later told by a couple of CPO’s that I didn’t get enough punishment, that the Captain had gone easy on me. What I did in real life was kind of shown in James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’. Riding the bow of a ship, but I did it during a typhoon. Take that, fiction writers.

But the final big push the storm gave us that night was evidenced by the sea ripping off those two reels of wire rope on the bow bulkhead and tossing them into the sea. There was little evidence that they’d ever existed except for the torn welds on the bulkhead. When they were ripped off, we could hear the screech of torn metal and feel a shudder all over the ship.

We rode out the storm for another couple days, I got to see the ocean at it’s worse, and during that storm,  I also got to make several course changes in the wheelhouse, something I’ll never forget. A lifelong trill.

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