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Sea Stories: Flashbacks


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Sea Stories:  Flashbacks

One of my shipmates is memorable, but not for a happy reason.  And we were only shipmates for a relatively brief time.  My Guided Missile Frigate was returning from a deployment to the Persian Gulf in May of 1987.  When we were east of Pearl Harbor, we received Immediate precedence message traffic informing us that one of our sister ships, the USS STARK (FFG-31) had been hit by two Exocet anti-ship missiles fired by an Iraqi aircraft.  She was on fire, listing, and ultimately suffered the loss of 37 crew members killed.  STARK was of identical construction to our ship, and had been with us in the Persian Gulf, performing identical duties.  I won’t go into the details and criticize STARK’s actions or lack thereof, but she definitely contributed to her own mistaken identity engagement.

Some months later, we were undergoing Refresher Training (REFTRA) in Pearl Harbor.  REFTRA is an exceptionally difficult and realistic 4-6 week period of training and inspection, overseen by a team chartered for that purpose.  Efforts are made to put a ship through its paces, as realistically as possible.  Drills are made very realistic; smoke generators will be blowing simulated smoke in passageways, electricity will be interrupted, members of the crew are designated as dead or injured, so that drill participants have to deal with casualties while simultaneously fighting fires, flooding, and battle damage.  Sleep is hard to come by.  Routine is regularly interrupted, night and day.   It is a difficult time.

A new crewman reported aboard during all of this.  He was a newly-promoted Second Class Damage Controlman (E-5).  DC’s are the Navy’s damage control experts.  They are trained and expected to fight fires, combat flooding, shore collapsing bulkheads and decks, improvise patches and basically fight for the ship’s life under the worst of circumstances.  And this man was a veteran of the USS STARK.  He had been awarded a Bronze Star for his heroism during her battle for life after being hit by two missiles.  He had worked with other members of the damage control party at first.  But later, as fires raged throughout the forward part of the ship, he manned a firehose, alone, kneeling and lying on deck spraying cooling seawater on the outside of the missile magazine, preventing it from overheating and exploding.  His actions may well have saved the ship.

At the time, the man had been rated as an E-4 Hull Technician Third Class (HT3).  HT’s were damage control specialists, pipefitters and welders.  (Their rating’s “term of endearment” nickname among some shipmates was “Turd Chasers”, as they had to repair sewage lines, among other systems.)  Right at this period, the Navy was resurrecting the old DC rating and populated it by splitting the HT rating.  Some HT’s became new DC’s, others remained HTs.  My shipmate had been crossed over to DC, given his experience actually fighting battle damage on USS STARK.  This was decided for him, not by him.  He was, in Navy parlance, “volun-told.”

In addition to his Bronze Star, the Navy had asked this man what he wanted as a reward for his heroism.  He replied that he wanted to attend welding school.  This was a very astute move; welders make good money in civilian life, and this education would set him up for gainful employment for the rest of his life.  So the Navy cut him orders to Welding School.

The problem was, DC’s are not expected to weld anything – that’s an HT rating function.  So DC was not a source rating authorized for attendance at welding school.  And when the man reported to the school, he was denied enrollment, as he was not of the proper rating.  And the Navy cut him a new set of transfer orders, to my ship.  Yes, to a ship of the same class as USS STARK, undergoing the most realistic battle damage simulations and intense training the surface Navy offers.  Great idea.

A few days after he reported aboard, the ship underwent a gnarly simulated battle damage drill.  Lights out, simulated smoke, screaming simulated casualties, simulated dead bodies lying about the decks, etc.  And this man cracked.  He was found wandering about the ship, dazed, talking to dead shipmates.  He lost it.  He was isolated, and Tripler Army Medical Center in Pearl Harbor sent over an ambulance for him.  He was gently walked to the ambulance, and departed the ship en route to the Psychiatric Ward at Tripler.  We never saw him again and forwarded his personal effects to the hospital when transfer orders detaching him from our ship were received shortly thereafter.

I’ve never really forgiven the USN for that particular bit of bureaucratic cruelty.







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Hell no.  I was there three weeks earlier.  She had just finished a multi-hour full-power propulsion run in preparation for a major engineering inspection.  She was therefore far from where she was expected to be by the shooting aircraft, based upon earlier position reports he had been given by another patrol aircraft.  Nonetheless, there were extremely well-defined procedures involving repeated radio warnings, and if that failed to do the job, locking missile fire control radars onto the aircraft, which would result in onboard radar warning systems giving the pilot a visual and audible alert.  And if all else failed, she had defensive electronic warfare systems (jammers and radar decoy materials), a surface to air missile system, and a radar guided 20mm gatling gun (CIWS) to defend herself with.

The radio calls were never made due to human error.  The electronic warfare system missile alarm was silenced, the operator not at his post. The decoy system was locked out.  Ditto the CIWS.  She first detected the missiles when the port lookout saw the first one VISUALLY.  She did NOTHING to defend herself, and absorbed two sea-skimming anti-ship missiles.

37 sailors died.  It was and is a tragedy, hopefully never to be repeated,

Edited by Gunboat1
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