MY LIFE IN THE NAVY

CHAPTER 6

Gitmo

If you happen to stumble across this page not knowing to what else it is connected, go to My Navy Career.

As stated at the end of Chapter 5, I reported aboard the USS Hammerberg (DE 1015) , http://www.navsource.org/archives/06/06021015.htm in Newport, RI, at 9 PM on Wednesday, January 7, 1970.  I hadn’t seen much of Norfolk, VA during the two months or so I’d spent there on the Conyngham. A return to Newport where I had attended QM “A” school a year earlier was welcome, for I had liked Newport.  Any further “touristy” ideas had to be laid aside, however, for the Hammerberg pulled out for Cuba the very next morning.

My idea of our mission wasn’t too clear until about our second day underway.  Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (hereinafter just “Gitmo”) had been a US Navy base since 1903 when Teddy Roosevelt had forced it on a puppet regime following the Spanish-American War.  Fidel Castro had taken power in 1959 and, while he loathed “Yanqui imperialistas” on his soil, there was little he could do about it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guantanamo_Bay_Naval_Base I haven't researched its entire history but, suffice it to say that, by the late 1960’s at least, the Navy used it as a training facility.  To my humble eyes and ears, it seemed that every ship in the Navy (or on the East Coast, at least) would make a six-week sortie to Gitmo about once every 3 years or so.  Since the prior visit, there would have been a substantial turnover in the crew and, like all the other ships’ crews, Hammerberg’s needed to practice working together in case we were attacked.  General Quarters (“GQ”) would be the order of the day and we would all get used to where our battle stations were and exactly what each of us would do in various scenarios.

I met my new leader, QM1 Aaron Smith (“Smitty”), that first day out but it wasn’t until the second day that he took me aside for a heart-to-heart “discussion”.  He had read my personnel file and knew that I had gone AWOL from my first ship, had a court marital, etc.  A “lifer” like the gunny at the brig, he believed in scare tactics to make a lasting first impression.  His words included something like “OK, candy-a**, give me any sh** and I’ll run you over the hill again!”  Surprisingly, I kept my cool and responded “You’ll get no problems from me if you’ll just treat me fairly”. The most-welcome words out of his mouth were “And, by the time we get back from Gitmo, you WILL be able to stand your own watch!!”  I tried hard to hold back my tears of joy, for that was EXACTLY what I had hoped to hear back on the Conyngham—someone was willing to teach me.  Standing my own watch would mean I could make QM3 and, thereby, never see “galley slave” duty again.

There is a fairly strong correlation between the size of a Navy ship and the make-up of its crew.  The QM gang on, say, a carrier or cruiser, I’d imagine, might consist of ten hands or so.  A destroyer escort such as Hammerberg rated only five, it appeared, but even so, we were understaffed because of the pay grades in our gang.  A DE probably didn’t rate a QMC (chief) but Smitty, as a first class, should have had a QM2 or at least one QM3 alongside him and he didn’t.  Instead, he had just me and three other QMSN’s.  Joe Yarashas hailed from St. Clair, PA, in Schuylkill County, just south of my home in Luzerne County.  I don’t recall Frank Wolfe’s hometown, but, like Joe, he was a high school grad with, maybe, only one year left in a four-year hitch.  They were both laid-back dudes who, while obviously way ahead of me in knowledge of the QM business, weren’t too motivated.  They were simply “getting shorter every day” and awaiting their discharges.  The most junior of our gang was named Coggins and his first name escapes me. Fresh out of high school, he’d probably served only a year or less.  I’m not sure if any of the three had been to “A” school as I had but, nonetheless, they qualified as “QM strikers”, too.  One could rise to that status from a lower status such as “deck ape” (bosun’s mate) IF one could get a  first-class or a chief to like them and give them a boost up.

As can see seen at the above-cited web site, a DE like Hammerberg was danged small as ships go.  It was only a little over a football field long (313 feet) and its beam (widest point) was barely more than a first down (36’9”.) Accordingly, it tended to bob about severely in rough weather.  The first night out of Newport saw a touch of rough weather and I’m not ashamed to admit that I lost my supper over the side.  LOL  Outside the ship’s bridge on both the port and starboard side is a little porch-like area called a “bridge wing”.  Protected by a chest-high metal wall, it consisted solely of a gyrocompass repeater that we used to take bearings (measure angles).  The repeater stood atop a metal column maybe four feet high, and, at the base of that column was a bucket tied on with “line” (rope, to you civilians).  The bucket was intended to be a repository for the stomach contents of sailors affected by “mal de mer” but, in the dark, I didn’t notice it.  It was extremely lucky that the bad weather kept any crewmates from lolling about on the main deck below me, for me I would have heard some serious cussing as I barfed over the rail of the wing.  That was the only time I ever got seasick and I soon felt like an “old salt”.  “Salty” is a Navy word used to describe one’s length of service; the “saltier” the sailor, the more used to sailing he was.  Smitty was truly an old salt and I never saw him get sick.  On the other hand, one of our division officers NEVER got used to the ship’s pitching and rolling.  He’d start turning purple with the casting off of our stern lines as we left a pier.

The weather didn’t improve as we headed south and we were forced off our intended course to avoid the worst of it.  What should have taken just three days ended up taking four but we finally pulled into Gitmo and were greeted by balmy temps and plentiful sunshine, conditions that persisted throughout our stay.  My first few steps back on land on a Gitmo pier proved how “salty” I’d become on that short trip.  I definitely swayed back and forth and appeared drunk. 

The six-week stay at Gitmo was set up to be, basically, a five-day workweek with weekends off.  We’d pick up our “riders” at the pier each morning and head out to the operations (“ops”) areas off the coast of Cuba for a day’s worth of GQ training.  The “riders” were instructors serving a hitch at Gitmo and their job was to teach us how to function as a unit under the stress of battle.  We’d return each afternoon, moor pier-side, and the “riders” would head back to their barracks while we set the watch for normal in-port conditions.

Hammerberg had been launched in 1954 and part of her history before I boarded her in 1969 can be seen at http://newportdealeys.com/DE1015/Hammerberg%20DE1015%20History.htm  While she had seen considerable overseas deployments, the closest she came to post-WW2 danger was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 when she patrolled the Florida coast.  It’s not nice to disparage my former floating home but, in reality, by 1969, I don’t think she truly qualified as a fearsome “man of war”.

Our most obvious armament was our sole twin-gun mount, housed forward of the bridge.  The guns were of the “3’-50” caliber and their specs can be seen at http://www.de220.com/Armament/3%20Inch/3Inch50.htm  (Apparently, per the Hammerberg web site cited above, our class of DE’s originally had TWO gun mounts but, by the time I joined her, the aft one had been removed.) The gun turret could rotate for a range of, I’d guess, maybe 330 degrees, leaving a blind spot of about 30 degrees aft of the mount.  (It would not have been nice at all to fire into that blind spot for such would had totally blown away our bridge.)  Our gunners got to practice on both surface and aerial targets.  They didn’t fare too badly when aiming at a small barge-like vessel called a “sled” towed by a tug.  The idea was to come close to it but not actually hit it.  I’m not sure how they measured how close we’d come but the tug didn’t move all that fast and we got satisfactory grades.  In the air, a Piper Cub-like small plane would tow a “sleeve” and, again, the point was to come close.  We actually HIT the sleeve once, an endeavor that got our captain severely chastised by the “riders”.  (The ranking officer on any ship, no matter its size, is its “captain” and ours was an LCDR (lieutenant commander) who, to my way of thinking, didn’t deserve to be commander of a canoe.  He was a “legend in his own mind” and, on the best of days, was a surly sort given to cursing out anyone who displeased him.  He’d cuss out his XO in front of the rest of us on the bridge and, more than once, threw his battle helmet to the deck in a fit of rage. (Can you say “Captain Queeg” or “Captain Bligh”?)  When it came to gunnery practice with a modern-day jet, Hammerberg failed miserably.  The gun turret could be manually swung around but, when it came to jet ops, a “gun-control radar” came into play.  An add-on to the radar used for navigation and scanning for incoming danger, this electronic marvel would note an incoming “bogie” and swing the turret around to face it. The jet towed no target and we were just trying to see if we could lock onto the jet itself.  Despite employing the “gun-control radar”  and posting additional lookouts to scan the sky, we were way too slow to respond.  A jet would come in really low, shaking our mast, and be long gone before the final syllables of “Here he comes!” reached our ears!  Most memorable was the fact that our guns made one helluva noise that would nearly deafen us on the bridge.  Beyond that, there was an overwhelming smell of gunpowder and a cloud of what appeared to be shredded newspaper would coat everything in sight.  I never asked the Gunner’s Mates what it was, but I assume it was some sort of wadding involved with the ammunition.

Beyond our twin guns, we also had two means of delivering torpedoes.  Aft of the bridge and standing one level above the main deck were a hangar and a “helipad”  that supported something known as DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter). http://www.gyrodynehelicopters.com/dash_weapon_system.htm  Our “weps” (weapons) officer would fly this small chopper, with torpedo slung below it, by remote control, much like model planes are today.  The whole idea was to be able to engage targets far beyond the running time of torpedoes that began their trip underwater.  The weps officer could fly the DASH well beyond eyesight to the point where radar and sonar told him the target was, and then drop the load.    Between the hangar and the helipad stood one sturdy steel shield behind which the operator would hide lest DASH take off forward instead of aft.  DASH didn’t seem to operate very well and much cursing was heard behind the shield as we implored DASH to __please__ come back.  Its acronym was a well-deserved “Down At Sea Helicopter”.

The Hammerberg web site referenced above also cites our class of DE’s as having had “6-324mm Mk 32 (2x3) tubes / Mk 46 torpedoes”.   That would account for two three-tube mountings, one on either side of the ship.  To tell the truth, there MAY have been one on our port side but I recall only the starboard side mounting, and I thought there was only ONE tube.  That just goes to show I wasn’t really paying attention.  I do recall how it operated.  It would be hand-cranked to a position over the side and then compressed air would push the torpedo, with no more than a “dummy load” at its tip, out the tube to splash in the water and begin its run.  The same tug used for our gunnery practice would again tow a target and it may have been an underwater target this time.  What IS most memorable was the time that a Mark 4 acted up.  As in numerable submarine movies, an officer with a stopwatch would time the Mark 4’s run.  Given the distance to target and the known speed of a Mark 4, we’d know almost down to the second when to expect impact.  Allow me to make up some numbers here.  This particular time, we should have heard impact after 1 minute and 27 seconds but didn’t.  Dang it!  We’d missed again.  All noise from the Mark 4 should have ceased after 2 minutes and 38 seconds as its fuel was exhausted.  That didn’t happen either.  After a full TEN MINUTES, that little bugger was STILL running.  Worse yet, it had given up on the target and was chasing the tug itself!!  Even with a “dummy load”, the torpedo could have caused serious hull damage to the tug had it caught up with it.  Once again, more blue language filled the Naval air waves.  LOL

A remnant of our original weaponry stood on the fantail at the rear of the ship.  Hammerberg had once had the ability to fire depth charges and the racks used to roll them overboard were still there when I boarded but I never saw a depth charge, per se.  As will be discussed later, both the DASH helipad and the depth charge racks were subsequently removed in a Boston shipyard.

Navy ships sail in convoy formation with the largest “assets” like carriers surrounded (and thus protected) by concentric rings of lesser-importance ships.  Outboard of the carriers would be the cruisers and frigates and such, which would be surrounded by destroyers and the like.  On the extreme outside of the formation would be the smallest ships, the destroyer ESCORTS like the Hammerberg.  ‘Twas kind of ironic that I had joined the Navy to avoid being “cannon fodder” in Vietnam only to end up as potential “torpedo fodder” on the high seas.  Given my above description of how we fared in practice, we certainly would have been the first to be sunk if an enemy sub tried to get through to our carrier.

Now let’s talk more about Castro’s impact on our naval operations.  As mentioned at the above-cited web site, he had, in 1964, cut off Gitmo’s supply of water, causing us to build our own desalination plants to convert sea water to potable water.  For most ships training at Gitmo, the shore-supplied water was just an add-on, as they had “evaps” or evaporators on board that would do the conversion as they sailed, thereby supplying most of what they required.  Hammerberg had another problem, though.  Our turbine engines simply kept breaking down, leaving us pier side when we should have been out in the ops areas training and “making water” as we went.  Our evaps couldn’t work while stationary and we got only what the shore could give us, about 10,000 gallons a day.  With a crew of about 12 officers and 121 enlisted, that much water didn’t go far; enough to cook our food and permit us to shower about once every three days.  Our below-decks berthing areas became quite smelly and some of us resorted to sleeping topside in the open air.  More than once I slept on the signal bridge, using a “Mae West” life jacket as a pillow.  I don’t recall seeing more than one or two rain showers all the time we were there and I was constantly amazed by an absolute absence of flying insects.  I don’t know what measures were employed by the base to control the insect population, but I never saw a single mosquito.

On the days we were allowed to shower, it was a very immodest affair.  A CPO with a stopwatch controlled a line of naked guys awaiting their turn under the water.  You got exactly 30 seconds to get  thoroughly wet and slop some shampoo on your head and soap onto your washcloth.  The water would be turned off and you’d jump back to the end of the line. While advancing in the line, you had to perform all the requisite scrubbing which, hopefully, was finished before it was your turn under the water again for a 30-second rinse.  Lack of privacy was nothing new to us, for the toilet “stalls”, even though they had dividers between them, had no doors.  Long conversations were held by shipmates parked on the metal commodes just a few feet apart.

Once or twice, our training involved “night ops” and we QM’s were warned to not trust any lighthouse or other aids-to-navigation along the Cuban coast.  It was firmly believed that Castro had moved at least some of them.   We trained with the carrier USS America, once at night and once in the daytime.   We did what was known as “plane guarding”.  Stationed just 1,000 yards (one-half of a 2,000-yard nautical mile) astern of her, we stood ready to rescue any downed flier.  Nighttime flight ops were the most interesting.  I could stand at the chart table on the bridge and keep an eye on the radar repeater alongside it.  Visible at any one time were up to four planes in ever-decreasing circles as they approached our position at the center of the screen.  It got so that I could judge on the screen when they’d be visible to the naked eye and then I’d step out on to a bridge wing to observe their landing.  It was quite a sight with the America’s landing deck all lit up.  Hanging off her port side was a large light called the “meatball” which would flash a bright red warning that supplemented any vocal instruction to “Go around! Go around!”.  I observed one poor bugger who needed four “wave-offs” before he finally got the correct glide path and landed safely.  I guess that, had he run out of fuel, he always had a second-chance landing site over at the Gitmo airbase whence came the jets we practiced with.  The America was still pretty impressive in broad daylight for her huge size dwarfed the Hammerberg.  Her crew was used to amusing themselves when playing with smaller craft.  As she pulled away at great speed when the ops ended, she flew a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag as “America the Beautiful” blared from her speakers.

Beyond training with the America, we also played games with a submarine whose name I never did learn.  In the course of normal, everyday business the bridge was under the command of an OD, or Officer of the Deck. Assigned by the captain to “have the con(trol)” for a four-hour watch just as I would be the QM on duty for that same period, only the OD could issue orders to the helmsman.  That would all change when we were involved with trying to track a sub.  Al that point, Sonar took “the con”, issuing turning and speed instructions to the helm via a voice-activated phone line to a messenger standing immediately next to the helm.  Our expert helmsman was a BM3 who had come up through the deck ape ranks and had stood many a watch at the wheel.  ‘Twas he who steered when we practiced close-quarters action with the cruiser USS Butte, passing stores back and forth via a line that had been shot across and then connected to both vessels.  In that delicate position, side-by-side, even the slightest “burp” of the helm could cause a collision.  All that went out the window when we played with a sub.  Since I had joined the Hammerberg directly from “A” school with NO deck ape experience, I hadn’t laid hands on a helm.  At some point, our nasty captain had been replaced by a much nicer man, one who seemed to take a liking to me.  With no other ships for miles around, he’d let me take the helm and golly, it was a real hoot!  We’d go zooming all about the ops area at near-max speed of about 25 knots.  When the order came up from Sonar to “hang a hard left”, I would just about stand Hammerberg on her side and all aboard hung on for dear life!  More often than not, practice with the sub would end in dismal failure.  She’d simply go hide in the shallows.  Our sonar pings would return so quickly that we couldn’t distinguish her from a reef or a school of fish.  At this juncture, I need to introduce the first of our three inanimate “shipmates”.  Gertrude was an underwater phone line that our captain could use to talk to the sub.  He’d just lift the receiver mounted on the bulkhead in front of his chair and bark out “OK, where the hell are you THIS time?”  Hearing the reply, he’d relay it to our helmsman and the chase would begin anew.

Back in port for the evening, my training would continue on the signal bridge.  All four of us QM strikers took turns standing overnight two-hour watches with the SM’s (signalmen).  I’d learned the rudiments of signaling at QM “A” school and they were supposed to know something about navigation, too, but I never saw them down in my work space on the bridge.  From time to time during daylight hours, I’d practice semaphore flag-waving with one of the SM strikers but at night, we played solely with their signal lights.  As seen in movies, the lights were fitted with louvers. With a flick of the wrist on a lever, the louvers would open and close, thereby emitting short and long bursts of light in Morse code.  Nancy was our faithful helper if we chose to maintain secrecy.  She was a green-hued filter, that when screwed onto the face of the light, would change the white light into infrared which could be seen only by those who knew it was coming and had donned special goggles.  Often, in port, we’d be “nested” pier side, with ships larger than us whose configuration would block any direct line of sight from our light.  At those times, we signaled by using “yardarm blinkers” near the top of our mast.  To operate them, we used a telegraph key to send Morse code but I wasn’t very adept at that.  (We were once tied up so close to a German ship that our bridge wings were only three to four feet apart.  One or two of our guys crawled over and brought back some warm German beer.)  During this phase of my Navy education, we decided to test our theory on the difference between seeing something and hearing it.  We invited a quite-salty first-class radioman (RM1) up to the signal bridge.  Despite having listened to Morse code for years and being able to transcribe it almost in his sleep, he had no clue whatsoever when SEEING the same Morse code.  Similarly, an SM1 wearing headphones down in the radio shack was like a fish out of water.

Our third inanimate crewmate was a dummy named Oscar.  He was similar to Kaw-Liga of song fame but he didn’t get to just stand around outside a cigar store.  Nope, poor Oscar would get darned near drowned each time our riders ran a “man overboard” drill.  The riders would sneak around, pick a crew member to be the designated “victim”, hide him in a gear locker, and have a lookout announce “Man overboard. Port side!”  At the same time, they’d pitch poor Oscar into the drink.  Upon hearing such an announcement, the entire crew would assemble at their normal morning-muster stations and the riders would time how long it took us to figure out exactly who was missing.  The longer it took, the more likelihood we wouldn’t find Oscar, as he was being left farther and father behind in Hammerberg’s wake.  Oscar, being made of the same kapok material as a life jacket, would just bob along waiting for us to come back for him.  The captain would swing us around 180 degrees and we’d sail in a counter-clockwise circle back to where he’d last been seen.  Upon spotting him, we’d slowly pull alongside and the deck apes would fish him out with grappling hooks.

At some point, maybe four weeks into our “six-week” Gitmo cruise, the Navy decided that, with all our engine problems, we had simply fallen way too far behind in our training.  We headed for Mayport, Florida (Jacksonville to you civilians) for repair.  We couldn’t be counted on to not break down on the way, so we left on a Friday afternoon and traveled along with a “Coastie” (US Coast Guard) ship that was headed for a liberty weekend in Bermuda.  If need arose, they could have towed us to Mayport from a far-away distance. After they hung a right and left us, another ship from Mayport would have come out to get us, but we managed to make it unaided. 

I guess we spent maybe a week or ten days in Mayport.  There was nothing for us QM’s to do there and only the “snipes” below decks were busy, getting the engines back in working order.  Well, I shouldn’t say that; the entire CREW was “busy”, taking “Hollywood showers”. LOL  It was such a relief to be away from water-restricted Gitmo and back to “civilization” that we’d spend up to a half hour under the welcoming spray!  The only other memory I have of Mayport is walking past a carrier that was berthed there.  I think it was the Saratoga (CVA-60) http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/ships/carriers/histories/cv60-saratoga/cv60-saratoga.html  That web site lists her length as being only 1,063 feet but it was positively humongous compared to Hammerberg and it seemed to take forever to walk past her.

For that week or ten days in Mayport, we entertained one silly idea.  We thought that, once repaired, we’d head home to Newport, totally done with Gitmo but, oh, noooooooo.

Doggone it, we had to go back and finish our training!

Back in Cuba, we picked up where we had left off, running around the op areas and practicing GQ.  Like all ships in training, we were entitled to one liberty weekend but we, theretofore, hadn’t had ours lest our failing engines leave us stranded somewhere.  We got assigned to go to Montego Bay, Jamaica.  We were on overnight ops on a Thursday night and would pull back into Gitmo on Friday morning, drop off our riders, and then head to Jamaica.  About 2 AM, we got a radio message.  Hammerberg was the only ship presently underway and we got selected to head PAST Jamaica to the Cayman Islands to rescue a fishing boat that had lost its rudder.  Our riders were really displeased because we didn’t have time to take them back to port and they would lose part or all of their usual weekend.  We Hammerbergers, however, held out hope that we’d see at least some of our liberty.

We steamed west at near top speed of 25 knots and arrived on scene late Friday afternoon.  The fishing vessel was Panamanian-manned and I thought for a bit that I’d get to use my Spanish skills.  After all, I had been assigned to the “Prize and Boarding Crew” which was a giggle initially.  “Oh, sure”, I had thought, “I get to go aboard if we ever capture a Spanish-speaking vessel.”  It turned out that the fishing crew spoke enough English to get by and we shot a line over to them.  The seas were very rough, though, and the line soon parted.  We decided to wait until Saturday morning in hope of calmer weather.  That paid off and we began towing her.  Given the likely possibility that the line would part again, we could only proceed at 5 knots, delaying even longer our arrival. The fishing vessel captain wanted to go to Kingston, Jamaica but that is on the south side of the island and way out of our way.  He was told that he was going to our original destination, Montego Bay, on the north side.

On Sunday morning we reached Montego Bay.  Our hopes had been dimmed to “Maybe half the crew will get liberty in the morning and the other half in the afternoon”.  Again, no such luck.  We anchored and two of our officers went ashore in our motor whaleboat to make arrangements for someone else to take over the tow.  I think they found some Coasties willing to take it down to Kingston and, upon their return to Hammerberg, we sailed back to Gitmo.  It was really a danged shame.  I have to tell people “Yes, I was in Montego Bay once, but I never set foot ashore.  I had to watch scantily-clad bathing beauties ski past us, waving, and all I could do is wolf whistle, stare, and wave back”.

FINALLY, on about April 14, 1970,  we finished our training and were cleared to head home to Newport.  A great cheer arose from the crew as we began to clear the Gitmo harbor and the deck apes turned loose a balloon from the fantail that bore an obscene message.  For that, they received a seemingly-stern reprimand from the captain but we thought that, within his heart of hearts, he was secretly chuckling.  Just as we all were settling into the normal underway routine, one MORE glitch occurred: a lookout reported seeing a periscope!  The rest of us could have tossed that dumb bugger overboard, for we spent the next four hours running a grid pattern in search of a Russian sub.  We never found it and, at long last, we were done.  Having left Newport on January 8,  we had ended up taking 3 months and 6 days for what was supposed to be a six-week mission.

Next up: Navy 7: Hospital

Written in January, 2008 by

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

 

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