Storms and crossings—

We spent the months of September, October, November and December, 1970, at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in the condition of Post Shakedown Availability. This meant that if an emergency arose we were available to respond. This period gave the ship's crew an opportunity to correct any material deficiencies discovered during the summer's training and testing. It was also a time to hone our damage control organization and responsiveness to emergencies. A five-day fire fighting course was mandatory for all crew members. I satisfied this requirement by taking the course in late September, 1969, at the Treasure Island Fire Fighting School.

There were countless damage control and fire fighting exercises before, between and throughout both Westpac deployments in which I participated. We had to be kept alert to the possible dangers that surrounded us. Ship's areas that were especially watched were munitions magazines, bomb (including nuclear) storage compartments, paint lockers, and tanks carrying Navy Standard Fuel Oil, used to power the ship's engines, and JP-5 aircraft fuel. The major problem in nearly every fire would be inaccessibility of affected locations. Every crew man had to learn about past carrier fires, including viewing film footage taken at the events. Four of the most recent, serious carrier fires had been:

 

1965-

Fire in the machinery spaces of the U.S.S. Ranger sent her home early from Vietnam for repairs.

 

1966-

A fire aboard the U.S.S. Oriskany, while operating in the Gulf of Tonkin (Yankee Station), took forty-three lives.

 

1967-

Fire aboard U.S.S. Forrestal, off the coast of Vietnam, killed 134 men and damaged sixty planes.

 

1969-

A fire on the nuclear powered U.S.S. Enterprise, operating in the Pacific, killed twenty-five men and injured many others.

One freak fire caused little material damage to ship but produced a volume of smoke that poured out through air conditioning ducts into several compartments. The asphyxiation victims were unable to find their ways out due to the effects of zero visibility and panic. Consequently, it became part of fleet training that every man should be able to find his way either to the hangar deck or flight deck from both his berthing and working compartments while blindfolded.

Activity did not wind down until December, the month slated as the last schedule window during which men could take leave before deployment. The ship released most of its crew, and the few of us who already had taken leave, or who planned taking it overseas, had the honor of remaining aboard to stand all watches. Then suddenly it was January, 1971.

January arrived all too soon for those of us beginning to realize the day of deployment might actually come. By January 4 we engaged in a final rendezvous with Fleet Training Group near San Diego. Damage control held the main emphasis as the Group drilled and tested ship's crew to ensure we were ready for every possible eventuality, including nuclear blast and fallout. The venture included Interim Refresher Training. Concurrently, the ship conducted more Carrier Quals. In nine days the ship evolved 1,164 arrested landings. We then returned northward to Alameda for a few days of liberty before returning to San Diego and another bout of Carrier Quals totaling 1,150 additional arrested landings. While we were at sea the Sylmar earthquake hit Southern California on February 9, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage and cost sixty-two human lives, mostly from a collapsed, newly built veterans hospital.

Carrier Quals finished, we returned to Alameda. We picked up Carrier Air Wing Five and spent much of February and March conducting flight operations. The air wing and ship grooved together as a single fighting unit. We engaged in round-the-clock flight ops, special weapons exercises and ammunition underway replenishments (unreps). Finally, we returned again to Alameda to load the ship for our early April departure.

The last fifteen days saw the Midway being loaded with its initial supplies. These included food for 4,500 men, enough ordinance for a month's operations, and the first tank of fuel for the 6,000-mile trans-Pacific odyssey. All vaccinations were to be completed. All personal camera equipment required registering with the ship's Administrative Department. All personal radios and tape recording equipment had to be approved for shipboard use and registered after tested for detectable radio wave emissions.

Two events were planned for ship's crew and their dependents as sendoffs. The first was the "Dependents' Cruise" that began the morning of March 20. It allowed dependents a chance to explore the ship, go out for a brief cruise, and observe an air show. The second was the "Spring Fling," a party held at the Treasure Island Naval Station's officer's club the evening of March 29. It was a time of separation. The ship was ready. Now each man had his own personal evolutions to carry out in preparation for the long absence from loved ones.

USS Midway Familygram of March 1971

April 16 came, and with it arrived a swarm of well-wishers who crowded the Carrier Piers at Alameda. Loved ones hugged and said their goodbyes until the Midway lifted her fore and aft gangways, cast off the mooring hawsers, and pulled away with the help of tug boats. The aft flight deck, island and ship's fantail were crowded with off-duty sailors straining their eyes to get a last glimpse of someone on the fading piers. Finally we sailed west under the Golden Gate Bridge and over the sharp dividing line between the blue depths of the bay and the black depths of the ocean. Somewhere over there was our destination in the Domain of the Golden Dragon. First we would be initiated into an age-old dread known by seafarers, the ocean storm.

 

Our 1972 departure preparations were similar to those of 1971, including the party and dependents' cruise. During the winter months between 1971 and 1972 the ship underwent a conversion from the old Navy Standard Fuel Oil to cleaner burning Navy Distillate Fuel. The new form reduced the frequency with which black boiler soot would have to be blown from the ship's stack. The 1972 departure was close to April Fool's day and was followed very closely by the news media, as were all of that year's departures for Vietnam.

Things were falling apart on the home front as we began our war trek. On March 1, 1971, a bomb had exploded in the US Capitol building, detonated in protest of President Nixon's involvement in Laos. The further we ventured from the continent the more uneasy I became concerning the conditions we might find upon our return.

It was our beginners' luck to hit a storm. This one was not created by politics but by Mother Nature. It shook the Midway, in spite of her tremendous size, and tossed her about as if she were a small Destroyer. (Imagine what life must have been like on our Destroyer Escorts.) The ship's flight deck was some fifty feet above the water line. Yet often waves crashed well over her bow, sending great quakes throughout the vessel to jostle her inhabitants and make her straining expansion joints groan in agony.

Horizontal, thirty-foot-long antennas, which normally extended out from the flight deck's port and starboard sides fore and aft, manually had to be cranked up to their most vertical position. Still they were broken or twisted like pretzels by the tortured winds and waves. Armor plating on the ship's starboard side forward was designed to fend off initial blows from World War II explosive shells, bombs and torpedoes. Yet it was broken and peeled back as if the ship were an opened sardine can. The punctured and gnarled steel exposed interior plating to the corrosive elements of sea and air. Planes on the flight and hangar decks had to be lashed down and special watches set to ensure least damage. Communications with our terminating station became wounded with the destruction and mutilation of transmit and receive antennas. The crew, remembering the U.S.S. Neversail prediction, trembled along with the ship.

The Navy took great pains in keeping gear and equipment either lashed or bolted down to bulkheads, decks or overheads, including tables, filing cabinets, coffee pots, you name it. Periodically, a voice on the ship's public address system reminded us to inspect all areas for unsecured objects. If left adrift, otherwise docile objects could become dislodged and cause injuries or other problems. Living aboard a ship was sometimes not unlike living anywhere along the Pacific Ring of Fire, except we were always ready for our quakes.

Part of the time I lay in my bunk trying to sleep. I could feel and hear the furious, humming vibrations produced by the ship's engines as the Captain revved them up to increase stability. I also listened to the ship's groans and the concerns of the men as we experienced the ship's metronomic rocking from side to side. The end of each swing to port (the side where the flight deck's overhang extended farthest from the side of the ship) was punctuated by a crashing sound. It was as though we hit something very hard. Each crash would be followed by a lingering shudder.

The storm raged part of one day and all night before dissipating the following morning. When the winds finally died down and waves subsided a survey was made of the damage. Soon, the Commanding Officer passed word over the 1MCC address system that the Midway had been severely wounded. It would require at least a five-day convalesce at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The misfortune, which had ravaged the ship's structure and the crew's nerves, now showed its smiling face as the originally planned two-day layover at Pearl Harbor more than doubled. We could look forward to additional shore liberty and much extra work.

The Radio Communication watch schedule was set up so that each man would receive two days of liberty and three days of working aboard ship. I just recently had read James A. Michener's book Hawaii. I was looking forward to experiencing in reality those things that, before, I had only conjured in my own universe during reading excursions. The tasting of poi, a sticky substance that could be scooped up by hand and eaten, so favorably mentioned in Mr. Michener's book, was a top priority.

The storm ended on April 17, and it would not be until April 26 that we would arrive at Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, it was business as usual plus doing any repairs manageable at sea. Communication Department carried a supply of extra antennas, so we were able to replace some more badly damaged ones. However, a few of the antenna platforms would require more extensive, dock-side repair and realignment. Several messages were sent and received by us, and by virtually every other department on the ship, while ordering parts and requesting repair assistance from Pearl Harbor's Navy yard.

USS Midway at Pearl Harbor

 

Our storm was over, but back in the states massive peace rallies absorbed about 300,000 demonstrators both in Washington, DC, and San Francisco. The two-week, dual demonstrations, which began on April 24, included many Vietnam veterans, some of whom turned in their war medals to protest continued fighting. Seven thousand of the Washington crowd were arrested on May 3 for disrupting traffic, though the majority were released under court order. The demonstrations began four days after President Nixon announced withdrawal of 150,000 men from Vietnam (a deed that occurred on June 29) and five days before a major US and South Vietnamese troop invasion of Cambodia.

Initially, I was disappointed by Oahu's high humidity and temperatures, being unfavorably reminded of Michigan in mid-August. However, the beautiful vegetation made possible by the greenhouse effect quickly stowed any feelings of discomfort. Newman and I had liberty together on both our days off. The first day I rented a Ford Mustang and filled the nearly empty tank with gasoline. Filling up was a mistake, as it turned out, since we used only a quarter tank after driving all day. On the second day Newman rented the car.

Between the two liberty days we explored Honolulu, Wai Ki Ki Beach, Diamond Head, the Polynesian Village and many other places. The greatest attraction for me was the island's mountainous landscapes, where lush and beautiful flora was abundant everywhere and hardly controlled. Also, I was amazed at the cohesiveness of the people. Several different races and cultures closely associated in a surprisingly peaceful manner, not unlike life on the ship.

I discovered a drink that quenched my thirst and left no aftertaste; guava juice. I took another drink during our first liberty day that left a very bitter aftertaste. We had gone to see a place called the Sacred Falls. When we parked the car a fellow came over and said he was an official guide to the Falls. Since the Falls were on private property, it was his job to escort us to the locale and bring us back.

The guide drove us part way in his jeep until the road gave out and undergrowth became too dense. Laden down with camera equipment, we continued on foot. Just before reaching the Falls we came upon a stream that required crossing. Newman grabbed the steadying rope extending across the stream and stepped from stone to stone until reaching the other side. When I was half way across the steadying rope gave way mid-stride. I made what unglamorously could be described as a sacrum fall. My behind came to rest at the bottom of the stream. The water came up to my stomach. The camera and all film, both exposed and non, immediately filled with water. The Falls were quite beautiful as water dropped many feet in feathery splendor before our eyes. Unfortunately, my appreciation of the event had become dampened.

I suppose that, in a sense, I should be honored at receiving baptism near the Sacred Falls. There was sacrifice, too. The camera's light meter was ruined and remained so until repaired one year after my release from Active Duty. Also, the only extant pictures of Hawaii brought out of that time were a few taken at Pearl Harbor with incorrect light exposure. Later, my estimating of proper aperture settings improved.

 

I almost dunked the same camera again in August 1986. While visiting my sister and brother-in-law near Minneapolis, Minnesota, I climbed out of their cabin cruiser into a shallow anchorage on Lake Minnetonka so as to take a picture of the boat. After snapping the photo from calm, chest-high water, I began moving toward the craft when another boat sped by leaving a large wake. The wake's undulation lifted my feet off the lake bottom, while an undertow began easing my bobbing self out towards deeper water. Luckily my brother-in-law grabbed the camera from outstretched hands just moments before they were needed to stay afloat.

It surprised me that oranges were not grown commercially on the island. Newman and I even had trouble finding a bottle of orange juice. However, during our search I came across a place that sold poi. Saliva formed in my mouth as I bought a large bag of the gooey stuff. When we got outside I shoved my hand native-style into the pasty-looking, sticky mess and brought some to my mouth for a taste. It was awful! Apparently, poi is a food for which one must develop a taste, like caviar or Brussels sprouts. A disillusionment, this.

Oranges and poi aside, one thing visitors to Hawaii could count on was pineapple. On our last liberty day we stopped at the Dole Pineapple Pavilion. We gorged ourselves to stomach aches on the most tender, succulent and delicious morsels I had ever enjoyed.

We departed Oahu heading west on May 1 and trailed typhoon Amy for a day or so. The Captain skillfully kept us from scraping with her waves and 140 miles-per-hour winds. Saturday, the eighth of May, many of us were able to lie out in the sun, the first time I had done so in a year. Flight ops temporarily were suspended. The flight deck looked like Wai Ki Ki Beach during tourist season. Men in swim gear were stretched out everywhere. The sun blazed, and around us the blue sky and ocean displayed spectacular views. As usual, flying fish entertained, and occasionally a school of dolphins would make their presence known. There would be other days like this. They usually occurred on Ropeyarn Sundays, occasions defined by The Bluejackets' Manual as "times for repairing clothing and other personal gear, normally on Wednesday afternoons at sea."

I soon discovered that the sky seldom would be clear of clouds. There usually were billowing clouds somewhere on the horizon, since the horizon stretched out into infinity. Also, we were arriving along with the Southeast Asian monsoon season. Squalls were commonplace. The ship's navigators tried to miss these squalls whenever possible, but they could not always divert in time. The squalls were interesting in that the ship would be steaming along sun heated and dry then suddenly be enveloped by a deep cloud shadow complete with wind, rain and choppy seas. The squall would last as short as five or ten minutes. Then the Midway would be out in the sun again, drenched, with steam rising everywhere from her superstructure as she shed herself of the cooling shower.

One especially interesting squall produced additional activity shortly after our second Westpac crossing. It was May 8, 1972, and the ship was carrying on normal flight ops. The Captain announced over the 1MCC address system that a water spout could be seen two miles off the fantail. I was on watch in Faccon at the time, and my first impression was that a whale was spouting water from its snorkel. Suddenly, it came to mind that a water spout was a tornado over water.

I, along with much of the radio watch section then on duty and many other crew members, scurried to the island for a view of this spectacle. The apparition was as straight as a straw and approximately fifteen to twenty feet across where it touched the ocean. It extended directly down from an enormous cloud and lasted nearly fifteen minutes. Whatever noise it made was completely drowned out by the roar from aircraft on the flight deck, preparing in case it was necessary for them to abandon ship. The U.S.S. Roarke, one of our Destroyer Escorts (otherwise known as "tin cans"), moved so close to our fantail that I could have leapt onto her fo'c'sle. As we watched, another funnel formed but dissipated before touching down. Finally, the straw collapsed into precipitation as if unable to further support the weight of ingested sea water. I found it difficult to reconcile the long, slender, graceful, translucent projection with the ugly, roaring, black, and destructive mid-western tornadoes I had feared as a youth.

En route to Westpac we would cross the 180th Meridian. Each time we did so, members of the ship's crew received a certificate from the ship's representative of the "Golden Dragon, Ruler of the 180th Meridian." The certificate was our passport to oriental hospitality and access to the "Silent Mysteries of the Far East." Following is the wording used for the certificates:

 

Domain of the Golden Dragon

 

To all Navy Men wherever ye may be and to all mermaids, flying dragons and spirits of the deep, and all other creatures of the yellow seas, know ye that on the [1971] Fourth day of May Nineteen Hundred Seventy-One [1972] Sixteenth Day of April Nineteen Hundred Seventy-Two in the Longitude 180 degrees there appeared within my august dwelling U.S.S. Midway CVA41 RM3 C. W. Paige having been found sane and worthy to be numbered a dweller of the Far East has been gathered in my fold and duly initiated into the Silent Mysteries of the Far East. Be it understood: That by virtue of the power invested in me I do hereby command all money lenders, wine sellers, cabaret owners and all my other subjects to show honor and respect to all his wishes whenever he may enter my realm.

 

Disobey this command under penalty of my august displeasure.

 

Golden Dragon
Ruler of the 180th Meridian

Administered by
his humble servant

 

[1971]

CAPT. E. J. Carroll Jr., USN, Commanding Officer

[1972]

CAPT. W. L. Harris Jr., USN, Commanding Officer

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige

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