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A Hellava Trip

By Commander Jesse H. De Loach, USN (Ret.)

In late October 1969, I had been in command of the USS ADROIT (MSO-509) for sixteen months and she had just completed an extensive shipyard overhaul at Deyton Shipyard on the wonderful, winding, Wando River northeast of Charleston, South Carolina. As all ships must after a lengthy overhaul, we were now winding up an intensive Refresher Training (RefTra) period. It was early Friday morning when we backed away from the Naval Station's mine warfare piers to sail down the Cooper River to its meeting with the Wando, under the Cooper River Bridge into the Charleston Harbor, past Castle Pinckney Island and Fort Sumter, and through the breakwater to the open sea. A long sea detail under the watchful eyes of the RefTra lieutenant commander Senior Observer and others of his party, but this day would complete our training. We had lost one of our four Waukesha twelve-cylinder propulsion engines earlier in the week without the time to do the extensive overhaul required; however, with two engines on one shaft and one on the other turning the variable-pitch propellers, we were allowed to continue RefTra. This last day’s exercises would be a full-blown Damage Control one followed by a Live Fire Mine Destruction one, which would require moving quite some distance seaward from the local operation area to conduct.

We were largely successful as the RefTra folks put us through our paces during the long morning and early afternoon; however, with a full rudder turn in response to the last DC exercise, one of the two engines on the starboard shaft blew a head gasket on one of its cylinders as the exercise ended. Now down to one engine on each shaft, the Senior Observer wanted to terminate training and advised that ADROIT return to port. As the commanding officer, I asked for my options if we could not complete the planned final firing evolution to which query he replied that we would now have to reschedule a complete RefTra in Norfolk, Virginia, in December. I had spent three years on a destroyer homeported in Norfolk and December there did not appeal to me at all; nor did I believe the crew needed to go through another RefTra away from homeport. Over the objection of the Senior Observer, I opted to proceed to the firing area to complete that one remaining exercise. He, of course, sent a message to his boss and I knew I was on mighty thin ice as we turned seaward.

Once on the range and dropping a 55-gallon drum over the side to simulate a mine, we took a position to approach the "mine" at the designated range and bearing while manning our new 50-calibre machine gun on the new O2 level extension and an M1 Garand rifle on the O1 level on the wheelhouse wing. The exercise required a hit with either weapon but both weapons had to fire. When the Observer deemed we were within the parameters required, I ordered "Commence Firing" and almost immediately the Observer called "Hit" and I ordered "Cease Fire!" Then a "BANG!" from the M1 shattered the air as the Gunners Mate Thomas got off his required round. The 50 had hit so quickly that the M1 had not had time to fire, with result that a perfect score of 100 on the exercise was downgraded to 75 for violation of my order to cease fire. My fault entirely for speaking too soon but still a passing grade and completion of all RefTra requirements. With the "mine" filling with water and sinking, we turned for homeport on our two shafts, while the Engine Room gang began removing all the tubing--"spahgetti"--from the engine with the blown head gasket in order to install a new gasket.

Our return from the Mine Destruction exercise was a long, slow one and we arrived at the piers to tie up shortly after the annual Friday night Commander Mine Force, Atlantic (MineLant) Oyster Bake had secured its festivities at 2200. I know the Refresher Training Group folks were not too happy to have missed that party—-nor were we of the ship’s company—but first things first. After doubling up all lines, we still had to finish the Critique of the day’s exercises to get our Refresher Training officially completed. Most of the individual and small group evolutions had been addressed during our slow run from the firing range back to Charleston, so the final, overall portion was wrapped up within an hour and the Refresher people debarked. We, however, had been previously tasked to proceed to the Naval Ordnance Laboratory Test Facility at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to escort the experimental Special Device Minesweeper (MSS-1)--a World War II Liberty ship that had been converted to sweep pressure mines--back to Charleston. The original orders would have allowed one, maybe two liberty days in the famous Spring Break city; however, we were now pushing the envelope just to get down there, reverse course, and immediately return with MSS-1.

A brief word or two from my limited knowledge about the MSS-1 and why she needed an escort. The Liberty ship had been modified considerably by removing most of its superstructure and mounting on heavy springs a large box-like navigation/control station and crew quarters on the high point of the remaining superstructure. I was told that the hull of the ship was filled with ping pong balls, (actually it was styrofoam) which left no access for propulsion machinery including shaft, hence, no propeller. It’s locomotion was provided by four, outboard motors attached to sponsons, two along the water line on each side; steering was accomplished from the bridge by turning the outboard motors as on any outboard motor craft. As one would imagine, it was an unwieldy ship not designed for ocean voyages, but rather to detonate bottom-layed pressure mines as it moved through a littoral mine field and not sink when holed by one or more mines. You can understand the need for a manned control platform on springs! The MSS-1’s Officer in Charge was a Lieutenant Gene Cate. I do not know the number in her crew.

Back to ADROIT. As it was close to midnight and we were to be underway at 0600, I did not grant liberty, which endeared me to the crew, I’m sure. During the remainder of the night, the engine room people continued working to repair the engine. At approximately 0330, I descended the ladder into the engine-room to check on progress and get a first-hand report. Precious little time remained for testing and light off for pre-underway checks. While exchanging words with the lead petty officer, Engineman Second Class Larry Howe, I was advised that all twelve cylinders really should be included in the repair. I could only answer that we were locked in to sail at 0600 to fulfill our tasking and I wanted to meet that task if he could give me the engine. I was half way up the ladder when he stopped me with these words, "Begging your pardon, Captain, and meaning no disrespect, but why is there never enough time to do the job right but always time to do it over?" He gave me the engine in time--and also a concise assessment of the dilemma we all face one or more times in our lives. By the way, Chief Engineman Ballard was not ignoring the engine work but was, himself, gainfully employed during the night attempting to bring our potable water evaporator back on line.

We topped off fuel, lube oil and fresh water during the night. Commander Mine Division 44, Commander S. H. Applegarth, came aboard (ADROIT was the Division Flagship) as we singled up all lines, and we were underway at the appointed time on three engines, evaporator still down but otherwise good to go for our mission. The long-time Executive Officer, Lieutenant W. W. Mathis (later Rear Admiral) had recently detached and been replaced by Lieutenant junior grade (LTJG) Wilbur Bridges, who "fleeted up" from Engineer Officer to XO/Navigator. His replacement, Ensign Tom Mckean, and another newly arrived officer, LTJG Jon Ingber, had not yet been qualified as Officer of the Deck Underway, which left us with only the Operations Department Head, LTJG Friedman and the Mine Countermeasures Officer, LTJG Jay Beneke, as our qualified OOD’s, aforementioned two still in training. Not to worry about watch standers, however, because this was an independent venture and there was no dearth of bridge experience available in case of an emergency---Little did we know!

The weather was sunny and the sea was smooth as we passed Savannah, Georgia, on our starboard side--about the same time as the XO, LTJG Bridges, notified me that he was experiencing quite a severe headache. When it worsened as the afternoon wore on, I directed him to lie down in his darkened stateroom and try to relieve it with a nap. I reasoned that it was a tension headache caused by lack of sleep and his constant attention to administrative details the last twenty-four hours. Later, when I was notified that dinner was ready, I left the bridge, washed up in my cabin, and proceeded on to the Wardroom where I found LTJG Beneke flat on his stomach on the couch, shirt up, pants down around his ankles, and three or four people standing around him, one the Hospital Corpsman First Class. My surprise quickly changed to concern when I saw ice being applied to Beneke’s back and was told he was bending over inspecting chalk lines drawn on the deck by the RefTra people to simulate a blast hole during the DC exercises that had not yet been cleaned up by the Stewards. As he bent over, the Silex coffee pot on its burner just behind him had just suctioned all the water from the lower container to the top one and was being steadied by a Steward, who released his hold when someone asked him for a spoon from the drawer below the burner. Just then, the ship took a small roll, the top-heavy pot tipped and its boiling contents spilled onto LTJG Beneke’s back pooling at his beltline as he straightened up. His entire back was badly scalded. I do not remember eating dinner but was back on the bridge shortly thereafter and learned that LTJG Bridges was experiencing a worsening of his condition. The Corpsman brought his medical books to the bridge, and we poured over them until finally agreeing that the XO had all the symptoms of an advanced case of meningitis. Now I have two officers down, both needing hospitalization and treatment. The closest Naval Hospital is at Mayport, Florida, approximately six hours from our present position.

Although Commodore Applegarth was not in charge as he would have been had the remainder of the Division been present, I certainly kept him advised of our medical situation and what I intended to do about it. He did not see the necessity to put in to Mayport but it was my ship and my officers so twice in two days I "took my finger off my number" and notified Mayport Harbor Control by radio to apprise them of our need for ambulances, fresh water---evaps still not working---tug and berthing assignment, with an ETA 0200. Neither I nor anyone on board had previously entered Mayport in daylight or dark, so a tug or guide would have been most welcome. For those of you who have entered that oasis, you will recall that there was only one range light set above a roadway across the far end of the harbor, a light that is particularly difficult to see when cars are crossing with headlights on. Due our original shortage of OOD’s, now compounded by our medical cases, and the fact this was an unfamiliar port, I had taken the Conn when setting the Sea Detail to begin our run-in from sea. Chief Quartermaster Holdson was performing as Navigator. No tug was available and a guide in the shape of a small boat did not materialize until we turned to port from the main channel to enter the harbor. With little light from a new moon, the whole harbor was quite dark as Lookouts and the bridge personnel attempted to make out and identify landmarks indicated on our charts, so even having the small boat’s stern light to follow was a great help. We learned that we would tie up port side to a Fleet Tug, an ATF, which was moored all the way forward on the port side seawall where our ambulances were waiting. Our little pilot boat left us as we crossed to the port side of the harbor and lined up to come alongside the ATF. Someone forgot to tell us that there was a camel---large floating work platform---also moored along the ATF’s starboard side, a fact that was not discernible until almost too late. Luckily, the foc’sle detail did give warning in time for me to back down and twist to make a wider approach. Finally, tied up, brow across, two officers into their hospital chariots, and connection made for fresh water, I borrowed the ATF’s land line telephone to make a voice report to the MineLant Duty Officer. By the time I was finished, the water tanks were full and, with our thanks to all concerned, it was time to get underway again. The pilot boat escorted us to the harbor entrance, and except for being a little shorter in officer count, we anticipated nothing but smooth sailing southward after clearing the main channel. Again, little did we know..

It was still dark when we cleared the seaward buoy and set course southeast for Ft. Lauderdale----again. I relinquished the Conn and set the Underway Watch; but under our shorter-handed circumstances, I found my chair and remained on the bridge. As I sat there, I mentally evaluated my three remaining officers: ENS McKean, formerly an enlisted man, was recently commissioned through the Navy Enlisted Scientific Education Program (NESEP); LTJG Ingber was already a member of the Bar of New York State and had recently come to ADROIT from a destroyer; and LTJG Friedman had a Masters in Industrial Psychology and had been on board for nineteen months. Although LTJG Friedman was the only qualified OOD, I had observed the others during the past two months of RefTra and determined they possessed the maturity and were gaining the experience necessary to handle a bridge watch. On the other hand, without the XO/Navigator and two more qualified OOD’s, I could anticipate my times away from the bridge would be of short duration.

I was about half way through trimming the hedges on the side of my house when the OOD interrupted my job by saying, "Captain, Engineering just advised they’ve lost the lube oil pump." As I opened my eyes, the sun was about half way to its zenith. I had been asleep and dreaming in my chair through the 0800 watch change and half the morning. Before I knew the exact problem with the pump, my first thought was that we could use the "spare" pump that was stored in After Steering. However, I then realized that the area had been cleared of all unauthorized battle spares during the shipyard period---spares of this and that that all good Ship’s Company acquire by cumshaw or midnight small stores shopping. It was up to the Snipes (enginemen) to get the installed pump back in operation as quickly as possible, which they did by fashioning a new gasket and doing some rewiring. I was fortunate to have a great engineering gang headed up by Eng. Officer McKean, Damage Control Assistant Ingber and Chief Ballard. Chief Ballard was on the verge of getting the evaps back on the line and with the pump back up doing its work, we should rendezvous with LT Cate and his MSS-l approximately 0600 Monday.

MSS-1 was anchored off Ft. Lauderdale when we first sighted her by radar. She reported via radio that she was hauling in her anchor and would set course to meet us, which course would be along Longitude 80 degrees or Highway 80 as many mariners nicknamed it. We would have the advantage of the north flowing warm Gulf Stream and, like a tail wind for aircraft, pick up two to four knots "over the ground" in addition to our own speed. I do not recall what speed MSS-l could accomplish but we would match her since escort was our purpose. As she closed and passed us, we did a 180 degree turn and fell in 500 yards astern, matching course and speed.

From this point on, readers must excuse the omission of specific time references, not only due to the fact that this event was forty-eight years in the past as I write, and deck logs are no longer readily available, but also because the writer did not keep notes at the time. I assure you, however, that the mishaps are real and did occur as the return trip wore on. One bright spot---Chief Ballard fixed the evap problem and we were making fresh water again!

Thanks to the Gulf Stream, we were making good time up the highway until, that is, the engine that had been repaired last Friday night fulfilled EN2 Howe’s unstated prediction when it blew another head gasket! This time, however, it needed more time alongside the pier to do the job right! With one engine left on each shaft as would have been the situation in minesweeping with the magnetic tail streamed, we continued our task of escort service.

Although we were not entirely dependent upon our gyroscope and its repeaters since we were following in the wake of MSS-l, we really did not need another failure of equipment when the gyro decided to take a tumble, which left ADROIT with just her magnetic compass. As all Helmsmen and OOD’s were cognizant of magnetic bearing when steering true course by gyro, the only problem this caused for the OOD on the bridge was stepping back to check the centerline magnetic compass periodically. On the other hand, our little mishaps were being monitored by LT Cate and his people and were providing them a source of amusement in an otherwise monotonous transit. We of ADROIT, however, were not amused.

What I believed was the final straw, happened when the single engine on the port shaft decided it too, needed a rest shortly before reaching Charleston. At this point, there have been so many engine failures that I have lost track of which one hurt the most and for what reason. Now escort duty is beginning to be of less concern than whether or not we make port with only one operational engine on the starboard shaft. When advising LT Cate of our situation, he provided the final indignity by asking if we needed a tow! I am sure he was just trying to be helpful, but I could see him with a big "gotcha" smile accompanying his offer. I again took the Conn, set the Sea and Anchor Detail and gave LT Cate a negative---as I gave a silent prayer that the Lord would save that final engine.

We were already up on the Charleston Harbor Frequency and I advised them of ADROIT’s condition and need for tugs to meet us at Two Charley, the seaward buoy, to assist us up to MineLant piers. It was now about 1800 of our fifth day underway, cold and dark, on a hurting ship with quite a few fatigued folks on board. When Harbor Control came back with the fact all tugs were currently involved moving "cold iron" ships---ships without engine plants running---I advised LT Cate to anchor and wait for availability of tugs Thursday morning. I advised control that I was proceeding into port and requested the first available tug meet me on the way. I got an affirmative response and ordered the starboard anchor run out and held at the water’s edge ready for letting go in case my engine prayer was not answered while we were in confined waters. Shortly thereafter, I lined up on the course through the breakwater. With the starboard shaft pushing the bow to port, I had to carry varying degrees of right rudder to keep the two range lights lined up; without the gyro, I was using Seaman’s Eye to the best of my ability. Shortly after entering the breakwater, Harbor Control announced a problem with a ship at the piers, another MSO, and I caught the Commodore in my peripheral vision as he kneeled by the speaker at my chair to better hear what was happening. As I heard Control identify one of the other ships in our division as having a fire on board, my leading Electronics Technician came up behind me to report, "Captain, we have a fire in the radar room!" What could I do? We were at the height of readiness at Sea Detail, I am driving a one-legged ship---now without radar---through a series of constantly changing courses, and other than the Commodore, I am the only officer on the bridge. My short acknowledgement was, "Well, put the son-of-a-bitch out!" That reply is still fresh in my memory. The fire was extinguished quickly by the Damage Control Party, but the radar was gone. At this point, LTJG Ingber came on the bridge to report the fire out and asked if he could be of help on the bridge. As QMC Holdson was attempting to plot our position and handling Lookouts’ reports, I asked LTJG Ingber to work with the Chief and relay next course, time before turn and to turn and, in general, act as OOD. With ENS McKean stationed in the engine room and LTJG Friedman in the Combat Information Center, LTJG Ingber was a welcome addition to the bridge detail. Of course, with the radar gone, Combat was blind except for sonar but no one in Combat thought to ping on buoys to plot our positions. Thankfully, we were in our familiar homeport harbor, which reduced the apprehension we felt going into Mayport seemingly ages ago; however, I would have appreciated seeing the running lights of a tug approaching as we turned onto each new course!

Finally, we passed under the Cooper River bridge, made the short jog to port and then to starboard and lined up on the last course that would take us up to our home piers. On this final leg, not two hundred yards from a port turn to our berth, a tug became available and we were offered its help. Whether it was pride, being a little piqued that the tug did not show much earlier, or fatigue-induced poor judgment, I declined the tugs lines, but did ask her to stand by while ADROIT moored under her own power. As many of you know, the Cooper River is influenced by rise and fall of the ocean tides and the piers are at right angles to the current. When landing a ship alongside a pier, it is most important to know the tidal condition as related to which side of the pier has been assigned. To complicate the situation, a dam much farther upstream must be opened on occasion to reduce the water level in the lake it holds, which release can also affect the river current. I hate to disappoint you but all that being said, we hit a period of almost no current and were able to come alongside, tie up, and shut down our one faithful engine. Although traumatic in many ways, the escort mission was accomplished and we were home again. Tomorrow we start repairs.

HISTORICAL NOTES: USS ADROIT (MSO 509) faithfully served the U.S. Navy from 1957 through 1991 and was an active participant in the Gulf War. She was struck from the Navy records May 1992 and suffered the breaker’s yard in Wilmington, NC, in May 1995, the home of YN2 Al Hines who served on board 1967-69. He also salvaged the Captain’s Desk Lamp at the breaker yard, which I now have mounted over my home desk. Al's ADROIT website is great one. ADROIT earned the Battle Efficiency E 1968-69 and added a hash mark for 1969-70 as well as department E’s, and lacked only oneCompetitive Exercise to "three-pete" for 1970-71. She never missed a commitment during this period and never again experienced problems as in this story. LT W .W. Mathis, former XO, who departed just before this cruise, would return in 1990 as a rear admiral to be dual hatted as Commander Mine Warfare/Commander Charleston Navy Yard. LTJG Bridges did NOT have meningitis but a lesser illness and would return to duty within a couple weeks, while LTJG Beneke also returned shortly thereafter. Both officers would make the Navy a career as would ENS McKean. LTJG Friedman, a reservist, would be released from active duty the following month. LCDR De Loach, formerly YNC/LDO(Admin) before augmenting to Unrestricted Line, left for In-country Vietnam back-to-back tours December 1970 and retired 1 September 1974. LTJG Ingber became the Operations Officer and Senior Watch Officer shortly after this cruise before returning to civilian life in August 1970 to pursue a legal career. Look closely at the list of officers of the Naval Minewarfare Association and you will find him still serving. Chief Holdson qualified as an OOD Underway and subsequently captained a river Minesweeping Boat, MSB, of his own; Chief Ballard and EN2 Larry Howe---he who gave me that engine-- would continue their careers to retirement---Howe as Engineman First Class.

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