This happened in 1971, and the only reason i tell you about it now is that the cutter involved was the one I was sailing in at the time. That’s the Rush in the picture below, as she was many years ago, with the old 5-inch deck gun. She retired from the service this week, and I’m feeling nostalgic so bear with me. The story of the incident follows the photo.
The difference between a fairy tale and a sea story, in most cases, is that one begins “Once upon a time …” and the other starts with “Now this is no s*** …” I leave it to the reader to decide which category this falls into.
This really did happen over 40 years ago, and it’s true to the best of my recollection, although four decades of intermittent retelling may have altered real events somewhat.
Right out of boot camp I sailed in the USCGC (US Coast Guard Cutter) Rush, call sign WHEC723, which, at 378 feet, is one of ten of the biggest, fastest, and most heavily armed ships ever to fly the Coast Guard ensign. The war was on and the Rush had returned from Viet Nam only a couple of weeks before, where among other duties she provided offshore fire support with a one-gun battery.
The day after I reported aboard, we cast off from the dock in Alameda, California for ASWEX (Anti-Submarine Warfare Exercises) in the Pacific near Hawaii. I never had been to sea in anything bigger than my uncle’s 14-foot fishing boat, catching grouper in the Gulf of Mexico around Padre Island, so I was ill prepared for the adventure, and, strictly speaking, quite ill in fact. I spent a great deal of time the first couple of days at the rail.
By the time we got to Hawaii, however, I had my sea legs, and we docked in Pearl Harbor and had weekend liberty before heading out to do battle with enemy submarines. I was assigned to the deck force – chippers and painters, deck swabbers, bridge watch standers, and so on, but my GQ (General Quarters or battle station) billet was as trainer on the 5-inch gun.
For anyone not familiar, five inches is the diameter of the shell fired by the gun, so this was a hefty bit of artillery. It is the trainer’s job to crank a wheel to turn the gun from side to side so the barrel is facing the target, while the pointer, who sits on the other side of the gun, moves the barrel up and down, and also has the trigger.
We took a few practice shots before getting down to the submarine hunt, and I have to say that sitting right next to the gun’s breech when 30 pounds of Cordite exploded not two feet from my head was quite the shattering experience. I didn’t so much hear the noise as feel the shock of it to the pith and marrow of every bone in my body.
Then we went into hunt mode and hunkered down to Port and Starboard watches, meaning six hours on and six off at our GQ stations. I spent many early mornings trying to sleep on the metal deck of the gun mount, my foul weather jacket snug about me, and my sound-powered phones on, not so as to hear if the gun captain said anything, but to keep my ears warm. It’s amazing how cold it can get on a bare metal deck in December, even around Hawaii.
In that fashion we hunted enemy subs, and frequently made sonar contact with subs that were hunting us. Ever and anon the alarm would sound, I would jump into my metal seat and light off the mount, which I did by throwing a nasty looking power switch in front of me by my feet, and then we would swivel the gun around to make sure it worked, and wait to see what became of the contact sonar made with the enemy. Usually the sub outran or out-maneuvered us after a couple of hours, and we stood down, and I got back to my cold but quiet deck.
But then, for three days we chased one particular contact. I never was sure if we were catching up to him or if he was coming back round to harass us at some ungodly hour in the night, but I clearly recall thinking that 3 am was no fit time EVER to waken someone from sleep, however cold and rubbish it might be, and make him crank up a gun left over from World War II.
Did I mention that the Coast Guard gets a lot of Navy hand-me-downs? Our gun came off a decommissioned aircraft carrier. In any case, I had no idea what we would do with a deck gun, regardless how huge or old, against a submerged opponent, but that wasn’t my lookout – ours not to reason why, and all that.
Then one late morning when I was out of the gun mount and getting some much needed rack time, we caught up with the annoying little beggar who had been dogging us and nailed him!
Apart from the deck gun, a couple of mortars for star shells, a few heavy machine guns, and so on, the Rush had torpedo tubes, port and starboard, mounted to the second weather deck.
Oddly enough, no one bothered to tell me that part of our mission was to test a new torpedo, and that was what the gunnery lads fired at the enemy. Its mission, this fancy, high-tech torpedo’s, was to race down to where the submarine was, come within a hundred yards, register the hit electronically – the shooting solution, as they say – deactivate its engine, and surface for pickup and reuse.
That was the plan, but the torpedo had other ideas. Again for those not familiar, even a torpedo without a payload of explosive is quite a hefty device, over a half-ton of engine and machinery, a mini-submarine, in fact, with a velocity of 40 knots or more.
This one had, for the time, the latest sonar, heat, metal and motion detecting equipment available – a target seeking underwater missile. All the torpedo’s systems worked except its communication, the part that says the drill is over, your job is done, time to quit.
It kept going, this overzealous dreadnaught, and slammed hard into the submarine’s port tail fin. Then, because it didn’t explode but merely bounced off, it got angry and smacked her again, twisting the boat’s port side screw. Exasperated perhaps at not getting the fiery, destructive, and gallant end it was designed for, the torpedo struck the fin once more, but then gave up and deactivated.
The submarine, our annoying nemesis, now battered but by no means bowed, surfaced and sent really, really annoyed radio messages to the Rush. I wasn’t yet a radioman but I can imagine the terse and barely constrained rage of those communications.
But I wasn’t thinking about that when I was rousted out of my cozy rack and sent on deck. The master chief bo’s’n’s mate, also the gun captain of my watch who also had been rousted untimely, set us to work lowering a companionway ladder for the benefit of the crew of the crippled New Zealander submarine now tied alongside.
The ladder was a collapsible aluminum staircase with a platform near the waterline when extended, but just a compact collection of metal at the first weather deck gunwale at any other time, and seldom if ever had been used, the ship being so new, so it took a while to get the thing dropped and secured.
When we had nearly done, the chief and everyone else disappeared, and I was by myself, dutifully checking, per the chief’s order, that all the tholepins at the ladder’s top were belayed.
And so it was that I, a boot seaman apprentice on his first voyage, stood alone on the non-burning deck when the Kiwi submarine captain, red of face and stormy of visage, stomped upward toward me, apparently prior to his scheduled time, if indeed there was one for such a visit, and demanded of me –
“Where the bloody hell is your captain?”
The bo’s’n chief chose that moment to reappear, as I gaped, unable to speak, and, with great relief and gratitude, I pointed to him, my jaw working but no sound emanating.
Upon our return to Pearl, all hands were instructed, cautioned, urged, ordered NOT to get in the way of any New Zealander sailors whilst on well earned liberty, and, as far as I know, none of us did. But I had to laugh when I saw the red painted Kiwi design that the gunner’s mates stenciled on one of the port side torpedo tubes.
The Rush has a new gun now, a more modern 72-mm automatic last I checked, and she’s berthed in Honolulu instead of Alameda.
But I’m willing to bet the Kiwi stencil still will remain on the torpedo tube right up to the time the ship is decommissioned, though few will know why.
That is all.