Standing Watch

If you happen to stumble across this page not knowing to what else it is connected, go to My Life In The Navy and start at the beginning with “Chapter 1- Boot Camp”.

I now realize that I forgot to include, in my previous chapter about Gitmo, three more observations.  The first happened more than once, so it likely recurred while we were on the way home, too.  Flying fish were unfortunate enough to pick the wrong time and place to do their flying and landed on our main deck.  Stewards (about whom I will have more to say in my next chapter) would eagerly scoop them up and head back to their galley. It sure beat dangling a line or a net over the side!  I don’t know if they ever fed any to the officers in the wardroom.  The stewards themselves were all Filipinos and, being from an island nation, were big on seafood.

The second observation involves the population at Gitmo.  Being that Gitmo is a US base inside a Communist country, it was surrounded by a fence.  Both sides had guard towers; the Cubans watched us and we watched them.  Despite that, I guess we had given security clearances to at least part of the Cuban population for, each day, several hundred natives would come pouring through the gates to work for our Navy.  I met two of them one day when I took a taxi to either the Navy exchange or the EM (Enlisted Men’s) club.  The driver said nothing to me but, along the way, picked up his buddy who jumped into the front seat.  From the back seat, I overheard their conversation.  I consider myself quite the linguist but, for the life of me, I simply couldn’t figure out what language they were speaking.  It certainly wasn’t Spanish or French, both of which I had excelled at studying.  Neither did it resemble any of maybe four other languages in which I knew a few phrases.  All became clear when one exclaimed “Holy sheet, mon!”.  It was ENGLISH!  That was my first exposure to the soft Caribbean accent.

Continuing with the idea that Cuba was a Communist country, even before our lookout spotted a periscope just as we were leaving, we had one previous encounter with Russians.  Long before the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1970 Russia was still a financial mainstay for her Cuban satellite.  From time to time a Russian freighter would slowly wend its way up the Guantanamo River past our piers, bearing, I suspect, sorely-needed machine parts for the moribund Cuban economy.  On its way out, it’d carry sugar cane purchased at higher-than-market prices to prop up their financially-ailing allies.  The freighters would observe military protocol, radioing for permission to enter our port and it was always granted.  We, however, took precautions that they wouldn’t get too near our piers and one of our ships was always sent to escort them.  In actuality, the Russians probably didn’t need to get THAT close to our moored ships to sneak a peek at what goodies they contained.  Guantanamo Bay itself is quite large and Hammerberg was once assigned the escort duty, slowly running circles around a freighter as she moved upriver.

Smitty had been right when he’d said “By the time we get back from Gitmo, you WILL be able to stand your own watch”.  Being the leader of our QM gang, Smitty stood no watch of his own but remained on standby 24/7 in case any of us four strikers needed him.  With 4-section duty, I would come off watch at say, 1600 hours (4 PM).  Wolfe and Yarashas would follow me from 1600 to 2000 and 2000 to 2400.  Coggins would have the “mid-watch” from 0000 (midnight) to 0400 and then I’d take over again from 4 AM to 8 AM.  It was a good rotation for, with it set up that way, each of us stood watch partly in daylight and partly after dark.  We each got all-around-the-clock experience.  Some QM functions are carried on only on daylight, others at night, while still others are performed regardless of time of day.

Please excuse me readers, if I now go on at length to explain exactly WHAT we did on watch.  If technical stuff is boring to you, feel free to skip the next two thousand-or-so words.  When navigating, three things are of utmost importance: where you are, which way you’re going, of course, but also when you are. 

WHERE we were at any given moment was determined by one of three means:

1.      When we were a considerable distance from any land mass, we used LORAN “A” (a\k\a LORAN Alpha). A machine down in our chart house, just below the bridge, gave us a numerical readout of maybe two or three figures.  We’d take those numbers back up to the bridge and lay them out them between pre-printed lines on our chart. We’d use a compass (a type of drafting tool shaped like a capital letter “A” with one sharp metal point on one tip and a pencil on the other tip). A reading of, say 1,650, would be a little over halfway between the “1,000” and “2,000” somewhat-longitudinal chart lines and we’d first lay the compass against a ruler\legend on the side of the chart to spread the tips apart the appropriate distance.  We’d then insert the sharp tip on the “1,000” line and swing an arc with the pencil out from it, marking it on the chart.  The second LORAN reading would also be used in a similar fashion to swing another arc, using a different reading, from pre-printed lines that were more latitudinally-oriented and had values like “20,000” or “30,000”.  Where the two arcs intersected was our exact location for, a nowhere else on earth would you be exactly that precise distance between the longitudinal “1,000” and “2,000” lines while, at that same time be just that precise distance between latitudinal “20,000” and “30,000”.  Three LORAN readings would make it even more precise.  We would plot those positions once an hour.

2.      Within, say, 20 miles of land, the process was similar but we used a radar repeater that stood next to our chart table on the bridge.  The distance to two or three points of land visible on our radar screen were determined by merely turning knobs on the repeater.  One knob swung the cursor around in a circular motion while a second knob pushed the cursor out from the center of the screen (our ship’s location) until it sat on top of the desired land mass.  An “odometer- type” readout told us how many yards it was to that point.  We’d then use the compass again to describe intersecting arcs.  Radar “fixes” would be taken on the half-hour.  Memorable points used for radar navigation were Montauk Point (the tip of Long Island, NY) and Block Island, just outside Newport, RI.

3.      With land very close at hand and many more things to run into, more constant updating of our position was essential.  Entering or leaving our home port of Newport, RI called for setting of the “Special Sea and Anchor Detail” which meant that nearly all of the crew had a job.  Cooks would leave the mess decks to serve as additional lookouts and even bosun’s mates (BM’s) would hie to the bridge to help with navigation.  A BM3 was the expert helmsman and one BMSN would take a position out on each bridge wing.  A ring would be fitted over the gyrocompass on the wing. The ring contained an eyepiece through which could be seen two items at once: the view ahead of us and the gyro reading.  I would stand next to the chart table on the bridge with a logbook. I was connected to the BMSN’s on the wings by a voice-activated phone line Once every minute, I bark out an order telling the wings what items they should shoot a bearing to.  (In Newport were at least three great points that were easily spotted: ”the house on the rocks” and both the left and right stanchions of the huge Newport bridge under which we would pass). These points of interest would change as we moved up or down the channel.  The officer at my elbow was doing the actual plotting of our position and there was no need for verbal communication between us.  He’d merely look to see what I was writing in the logbook and use it for his plots.

WHICH WAY we were headed was always of great importance.  Our gyrocompass, spinning at great speed down in our keel somewhere, was our mainstay in guiding the helmsman to steer a prescribed course.  From time to time, it would break down but, generally, our IC’s (Interior Communications) men could get it back up and running before its absence became critical.  Should it ever become irreparably out of whack, we always had our “mag” (magnetic) compass to fall back on.   As you may have heard, Earth’s Magnetic North Pole is constantly shifting and lines showing how its fluctuations vary are printed on each chart.  Ships would only order new charts even five years or so, but further magnetic deviations were printed annually in books.  Should we ever lose our mag compass at the same time as we lost the gyro, QM’s __COULD__ use those lines to give a fairly-close reading as to our heading but still we had even more backup.  Once each watch, I’d stand next to the helmsman and, while he watched his gyro, I’d keep an eye on the mag compass.  I tell him “Give me a ‘MARK!’ when you’re exactly on course”.  If he were steering, for example, true north at 090 degrees, the mag might be reading 105 for a variance of plus15 degrees.  I’d mark that in the ship’s log.  If, 3 hours later, the gyro went down when he was supposed to be steering 127, I’d tell him “Bring her right to 142” and we’d be headed just about where we should be.  With every QMSN doing this on his watch, it was never more than 4 hours since the latest comparison.

WHEN we were was the third essential element in navigation.  To get to where we wanted to be within a reasonable time period meant we had to make course changes at specific times.  Then, too, were we ever traveling in a convoy, all ships needed to make the change at the exact same time lest they collide.    As I described back at Chapter-2, the most accurate time was obtained from the National Bureau of Standards’ time-tick on WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado.  (WWV always knew the precise Greenwich Mean Time, based on atomic clocks at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.). We had backups in case of loss of radio contact in the form of three wind-up chronometers, which were “exceedingly accurate” timepieces down in our chart house.  I use parentheses around “exceedingly accurate” because, to a layman, they would seem to be exceedingly INaccurate.  They were housed down inside a table and mounted on gimbals to offset the rolling and pitching of the ship.  They could only be overhauled (i.e. cleaned, oiled, and adjusted back to exact time) maybe once every 5 years and said overhaul could be accomplished only in a shipyard.  Not even a destroyer tender had the craftsmen needed to do that job.  I don’t known when Hammerberg’s chronometers had last been overhauled.  All I knew was that, since then, they had gotten all out of whack.  One might be an hour and twenty minutes fast, the second one only 23 minutes fast, and the third might be 2 hours slow.  All of that mattered not much.  What counted were the RATES at which they were speeding up or slowing down.  Each morning, at 1000 I believe, it was the duty QM’s job to “compare chronometers”. You would take a stopwatch to the radio shack, get a WWV time tick, and start the watch.  Back in the chart hose, you’d compare the real time to what each chronometer was showing and make note of it in a 3-column log book.  Upon loss of radio contact, you would calculate and average gain or loss for each time piece over, say, a month-long period and then do some math.  You’d end up with, maybe, “A” gaining 2.2 seconds every 24 hours, while “B” and “C” had different rates of gain or loss.  Then, knowing how much time had elapsed since your last 1000 comparison, you could average the three and end up with danged close to precise time.  While comparing the chronometers, you also re-wound them and then reported to the bridge (or the quarterdeck if in port) “Sir, chronometers have been wound and compared” and a note of such was duly made in the ship’s log.  On the way home from Gitmo, I happened to have a mid-watch (midnight to 4 AM) and a course change around an island happened during that time.  The ship’s XO was the official Navigator and we QM’s were merely his helpers.  I got a real kick out of picking up a phone on the bridge to ring the heck out of the XO and waking him up at 2:35 AM.  He couldn’t get mad at me for, after all, it was my OFFICIAL duty to report that the course change had been made.  I would have been in official trouble had I NOT made the call. LOL The WWV time tick was also useful when, during one overnight watch, I helped Smitty do another thing that QM1’s do to keep their qualifications up to date: “shoot the stars”. I brought the exact time on a stopwatch out to the starboard bridge wing and then made note of what time it was when he observed the angle to various stars using a sextant.  He then retreated to our chart house and spent about an hour with the nautical almanac doing math to figure our position.

Another underway duty of a QM was to be the ship’s weatherman.  On the signal bridge was a hygrometer, consisting of two side-by-side thermometers.  The bottom of one was covered by a piece of cloth-like material that resembled the wick of a kerosene-fed hurricane lamp.   The lower part of that material was kept immersed in a container of water and the water leached upward through the cloth, thereby making the instrument a “wet-bulb” thermometer.  Since evaporation is a cooling process, the reading from this “wet-bulb” thermometer was always lower than the reading from the “dry bulb” one.  Comparing the two readings would give you the relative humidity for, the drier the air, the faster the evaporation would occur.  One would guess that, on the sea completely surrounded by water, the relative humidity would always be 100%.  After all, about 95% of the time, Hammerberg carried a rainbow along with it, in the spray thrown up by our bow wave.  That guess would be wrong, though, and we measured the relative humidity once per watch.

Our barometer was also an important instrument. We were under a standing order to report if it fell more than a certain amount over a certain time period, for that meant we were headed into bad weather.

QM’s also made two observations of the waves as we sailed along.  The height of the swells would be noted.  We’d also note the breaking at the top of the swells, for we could judge the wind direction from the way the spray was blowing relative to our course.  For example, if we were headed due North and the spray was coming directly toward our starboard beam, that would indicate an easterly wind.

Clouds were also observed, as we had been taught the various types of clouds back in “A” school.  Cumulus clouds were big, puffy white ones found at about 10,000 feet while cirrus were stringy ones at a much higher altitude. 

The entire body of our weather observations would be reduced to a series of numbers and then reported to the duty RM down in the radio shack.  The entire idea was that somewhere (at “Navy central”) weather reports were being constantly received from all ships underway and used by meteorologists to develop forecasts.  It must have been boring as all get-out for an RM to sit and send nothing but a long string of numbers and we QM’s weren’t very welcome.  I began to seriously doubt if they ever sent our reports more than 50% of the time.  One silly factor was the reporting on clouds.  On an overnight watch how WAS I supposed to know what type of clouds were overhead?  It was DARK!  I would just continue whatever the last daytime watch had reported and nobody was the wiser.

Back in Chapter 6 I mentioned that our nasty captain had been replaced by a much nicer man sometime during our Cuban adventure.  While we were quite busy on the bridge during that period, things calmed down quite a bit as we headed home.   I had forgotten his name over the years but, in researching some parts of this story, I came across a partial list of Hammerbergers at  It now appears that he was Lawrence Anderson, for his time of service begin in 1970, when I also served on her.  I’m now seeking to contact him.  I know it’s very unlikely that he’ll remember me because I served under him for only three months but I certainly recall him.  A quiet sort, he nonetheless kept a sharp eye on things and I believe he took a liking to me.  Most memorable was the time he said “Hontz, radar is reporting an unknown surface contact about 10 miles off the starboard bow.  Any idea what that might be?”  I responded with “Let me check, sir” and went off to study my latest Notice To Mariners publication.  I returned a few minutes later to report "My best guess, sir, is that it’s that weather buoy that was reportedly on the loose in this area a couple of months ago”. The sonuvagun knew that all along to be the right answer and he responded with a wry smile and “Not bad for a college boy”.  He then ordered a course change to come alongside the buoy and spent maybe 15 minutes taking pot shots at it with his GI-issue .45. 

April 17, 1970 has remained in my memory for nearly 38 years as this is written, for it was a day when I traveled by  sea, land, and air all on the same day.  Hammerberg pulled into Newport that day.  The other three QMSN’s may have been on leave shortly before she left in January, for they had been aware of her planned deployment to Gitmo.  As I have told, I joined her only the night before we left, coming from my restriction in Philly.  Smitty granted my leave request and I was one of the first ones off the ship.  I took a bus to the Providence airport . All the radios in the waiting area were tuned into news broadcasts as we hoped that Apollo 13 would make it home. It had landed safely by the time my plane took me back to Wilkes-Barre.  I guess I had written a few letters to Dad from Gitmo but only after I got home did I get to tell him everything about my AWOL adventures the previous summer.  I stayed with him for about a week and then returned to Newport.

Just guessing here, but I’d say Hammerberg spent the remainder of April in Newport and that maybe, around mid-May or so, we headed north to Boston.  The Navy obviously had plans in store for Hammerberg but said plans were not relayed down to us mere enlisted men.  We just knew we were going into a shipyard for some “work”.  Now, 38 years later, without too much effort Googling, I find that all I had needed to do was ask fellow sailors aboard another of the “Newport Dealeys”. [Navy ships are assigned classifications that are named after the first of a new type of ship. The USS Dealey (DE 1006) had been launched on November 8, 1953 by Bath Iron Works Corp., Bath, Maine, just 9 months before the same yard launched Hammerberg (DE 1015).]  The USS Van Voorhis (DE 1028) was even newer than Hammerberg and often moored next to us.  At one can read how she beat us to Boston, arriving there in January, 1970.

Like the Van Voorhis, Hammerberg was essentially being recognized as no longer a “man of war”.  At the Bethlehem Steel Shipyards in East Boston we, too, had our DASH weapon and its helipad removed .  In its place, the “yard birds” (civilian ship workers), installed a system which I now know was called ITASS (Interim Towed Array Surveillance System).  All we enlisted knew it that a new working space was built on the fantail where the helipad had stood and that some new crewmates came aboard.  They were berthed in the former DASH hangar.  We were never told exactly what equipment went into the new working space and it was all quite hush-hush.  We weren’t even supposed to talk much to the new crewmates, who were some kind of techies. A couple of pieces of equipment, however, simply couldn’t be hidden. An immense spool of rubberized “hose”, with a diameter of perhaps 3 inches, contained electronic wiring.  At the end of the hose was an item they called a “pig” with God knows what else inside it.  The new guys were to toss the pig off the fantail and then, by playing out the maybe-mile-long hose, drag it along below the surface behind us.  When it finished its work it’d be winched back onto its spool.  The only thing I could guess it that it must have been something really IMPORTANT because one yard bird accidentally stepped on one section and it reportedly cost thousands of dollars to replace it.  The scuttlebutt was that Hammerberg was to make a “Med cruise” and use the new ITASS to map the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.  ITASS would also measure all sorts of neat things like water temperature and salinity.  The reality was that Hammerberg was going to track Russian subs but we weren’t inside the need-to-know circle.  As can see seen at the above-cited web site, Van Voorhis departed Newport for the Med on August 26, 1970.  That pretty well coincides with the date I recall Hammerberg leaving and it’s darned near a lead pipe cinch that the two “Dealeys” convoyed across the pond together.  In Chapter 8 I’ll tell how I came to not go with Hammerberg.

Beyond adding the new sonar equipment to the fantail, Hammerberg also took on a new piece of navigation gear.  LORAN C (\ak\a “Loran Charlie”) was a replacement for our old LORAN A.  It was a really heavy piece of electronic equipment weighing, I’d guess, maybe 150 pounds.  It was also very sensitive and it would hardly do to bring it on board using a crane-and-pallet lest it be banged up and broken.  Joe Yarashas and I were the swarthiest of the 4 QMSN’s so we got the job of handling it.  We initially tried bringing it up through the ship’s interior but found that it was too bulky to fit through the width of some of the ladders.  We ended up bringing it up outside the ship’s “skin” on a nice sunny day.  The path took us all the way up to the bridge wings, then inside the bridge and down one ladder to our chart room.  I think Joe got the easier half of the load, climbing slowly backward up ladders, while I hefted the lower end.  We had to be SO careful and move slowly.  I guess it took us over an hour to finally get it into position on the chart table in the chart room.  From there, the ET’s (Electronics Technicians) took over to complete the installation.  I don’t recall any actual sharp back pain resulting from this strenuous effort but, from what we will see later, it certainly didn’t do me any good.  The ET’s never did manage to get LORAN C working correctly for, even while pier side in Boston, it’d show us sitting in Long Island Sound.

I made two other observations while Hammerberg was in Boston.  The most obvious was the huge difference between high and low tides (the tidal range) compared to Newport.  Back in our home port I never even noticed the tide changing.  In Boston, the range was much greater.  At one time you’d walk uphill on the ship’s “brow” (gangplank) to come aboard and the next time would find you walking downhill.  You can read all about tides at  My far-less-than-scientific guesstimate would be that, since Boston was closer to the Bay Of Fundy,  Nova Scotia, than Newport was, perhaps latitude made the difference.  I guess I’m wrong about that, since there seem to be other variables at work, too.  Just take my word that, in May of 1970, there was a SIGNIFICANT difference.

I hadn’t noticed while we were pier side in Gitmo but it became abundantly clear in Boston that Hammerberg was discharging raw sewage into the water.  As a test, I purposely dropped something unusual (I forget what exactly) into a commode.  About an hour later, there it came, out a hole in Hammerberg’s side, and dropped on a “camel”, which was a floating wooden platform that kept us from banging against the pier.  The deck apes would, maybe twice a day, get out their fire fighting hoses and wash it directly into the Charles River. I saw little kids swimming in that same river just a few piers away from us and was reminded of the lyrics of The Standells’ 1966 #11 hit record, “Dirty Water”: “Well I love that dirty water, oh, Boston, you're my home”.  Back In Newport we were once ordered to attend a program where some sort of admiral would take questions from the enlisted men.  Assured that no reprimand would be forthcoming, I asked him point-blank about this pollution.  Ever the diplomat, he assured me that the Navy WAS working on installing onboard sewage treatment plants.  Only thirty years later did I come up with what WOULD have been a workable solution back in 1970.  Recreational vehicles (RVs) are able to discharge the contents of their sewage tanks into treatment tanks at campgrounds.  The Navy COULD have invented a PDR (Poop Disposal Rig) to be floated aside ships much as were the extant ODR’s (Oil Disposal Rigs) which I will mention in Chapter 8.

We left Boston sometime in May,1970 and headed back south to Newport.  Along the way, somewhere near the Cape Cod Canal, we proceeded though a degaussing range.  One can read all about degaussing at but I’ll give you a shorthand explanation here.  (I give kudos to my pal, Theron “Clock Doc” Jeffery here, for he is much more scientifically-oriented than I.)  I have previously mentioned the Earth’s magnetic fields and, per Clock Doc, a steel ship passing through them will build up, over a period of years, a certain magnetic charge.  Said charge, I knew, made us way too attractive to some mines and Clock Doc adds that it makes us quite attractive to lightning, too.  It is therefore quite advisable that every ship be “degaussed” every few years to rid it of that charge.  It was a simple procedure whereby we merely sailed between two points and were subjected to some sort of what I’ll loosely term “X-rays”.  Unlike what happens in the movie “The Philadelphia Experiment” where modern-day sailors get transported back in time and given the chance to avert the attack on Pearl Harbor, we Hammerbergers felt nothing at all.

Back in Newport, shipboard life settled down into a ho-hum existence.  We did run a few sea trials outside Block Island testing the new sonar gear and allowing the ET’s to mess with LORAN C but, other than that, the daily routine was quite boring. 

Once a week I’d perform another QM duty, winding every clock on the ship.  With my trusty key, I ventured into every space aboard Hammerberg that had a clock, from the captain’s cabin to the galley to the realm of the snipes (engine men) below decks.  The snipes delighted in pulling tricks on us topside “white-collar workers”.  Engineering spaces had voice tubes leading from one level to the next to allow communication over the engine noise.  “Yo, Hontz”, they once yelled, “Jones wants to tell you something”.  No sooner had I placed my ear to the voice tube than Jones poured a bucket of water down it!

Smitty was quite talented in carpentry and took advantage of our down time to build a false floor for the bridge.  All the time we were in Gitmo, water would wash into the bridge through an open window or door.  Although it would quickly drain out and be sent to lower decks outside the ship’s skin thorough “scuppers” (drains), anyone on the bridge would have wet feet.  Smitty’s false floor was built of sturdy wood, chiefly 2-by-4’s, in a latticework pattern through which any incoming water would immediately sink to the metal floor below.  With our feet thereby raised maybe 8 inches above the original deck, they got no more than a passing splashing.  Building it was quite the project.  We QMSN’s helped Smitty bring the lumber aboard and assisted him in the measuring, cutting, and nailing.  We then stained it to a dark, mahogany hue and added several coats of varnish to make it impervious to salt water.  The captain was very pleased with our project and saw to it that we got some extra liberty as payback.

Aside from that major project, Smitty and our QM gang pretty much just lolled about on the bridge, high out of view of the rest of the ship. I lucked out with respect to any more mess cooking duty such as I’d had to endure back on the Conyngham.  Apparently enough new hands to fulfill that need had come aboard since our return from Gitmo. A commonplace Navy term is a “nooner” which was a nap taken in lieu of going to lunchtime chow on the mess deck.  We invented our own new term, a “morner”, which was a “nooner, only sooner”. Smitty had, despite his initial reservations, taken a liking to me and, when not engaged in morners or nooners, we just BS’d or engaged in “grab-ass” games. We skated out of the most of the “Charlie working parties” (all hands below E-4) by claiming that our speaker wasn’t working and that we hadn’t heard the announcement.

Once or twice I did get caught on the main deck and ended up carrying huge crates of foodstuffs aboard.  The cases of frozen meat must have weighed a hundred pounds each.  The entire process was so silly.  Hammerberg would typically be moored as the third ship outboard of the USS Puget Sound, our tender which was pier side.  Puget Sound had, on her main deck, huge cranes that COULD have lifted entire pallets of cases up and over her main deck and then set them down on Hammerberg or the ship next to her.  Nope, we peons had to carry them all the way: up maybe 3 stories to Puget Sound’s main deck, across her main deck, down three more stories, and then across the two other ships!  Once aboard Hammerberg, we’d haul them all the way to the bow and then hand them down through a hatch, for our frozen lockers lie directly beneath.  Then we’d turn around and make the entire trip again.  This work, combined with the effort I’d expended bringing LORAN C aboard in Boston, caused considerable damage to my back, damage that reached its inevitable conclusion in mid-July.

Next up: :Navy 8: Hospital”

Written in January, 2008 by

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402