09 August 2017

Navy Memories #10: The Black Sea

Previous installments:
  1. Boot Camp Memories
  2. About Those Navy Memories
  3. First Orders
  4. Anchor's Aweigh
  5. Man Overboard!
  6. Reflections of a Black Shoe
  7. Destroyer Life and Ports of Call
  8. Warships vs. Big Waves
  9. The Accident, and More Ports of Call

In November of '74, the Wood* received orders to take its turn participating in Operation Silver Fox, and enter the Black Sea.

First, the background: the Soviet Union, or USSR if you like (kids, you can Google it), had always coveted a warm-water port for its Navy. It considered the Black Sea its possession. But of course, that rubbed Uncle Sam the wrong way.

So, for years, the Navy participated in the U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FON) program. It was a world-wide program, but the Black Sea was something of a special case. So they launched Operation Silver Fox, entering the Black Sea quarterly, and sailed within its waters just to remind the Soviet Navy that the sea didn't belong to them exclusively.

This irritated the Soviets, of course, and they sometimes retaliated. In 1988, a Mirka-class frigate deliberately sideswiped the USS Yorktown, causing minor hull damage. But that was long after my time, and not part of this story.

Back in '74, things hadn't escalated quite that far. However, Naval Intelligence had information that the Soviet Navy was building an aircraft carrier in the vicinity of Sevastopol (Crimea). So we had to go check it out. A detachment of cryptological technicians (CTs**) was assigned to the Wood, along with a trailer full of listening equipment and a Marine guard.

So we set sail to the east across the Mediterranean, through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara. Then on northeast through the strait of Bosphorus, past Istanbul, and into the Black Sea.

A more recent view of Istanbul, but looks very much the way I recall it,
taken at the same time of day as when we sailed past it to the north.

As many of us as were off-duty lined the port rail, looking at Istanbul from mid-channel. It was fascinating to see that ancient place, and we wished mightily for the opportunity to visit. But that wasn't part of the plans.

We sailed around the Black Sea for three days. The CTs listened, and took photos, and generally seemed pleased with the operation. At one point, we forced a sub to the surface, and some Russian destroyers came around to see what we were doing.

Actual photos taken during the incident described.

But after three days, the ship received a radio message that we had overstayed our welcome, and that we were to leave.
(Side note: I had forgotten to mention this previously. Since we were riding in a 30-year-old warship, the electric generator(s) tended to crash periodically. It was called "dropping the load", and the ship would go dead in the water until it was fixed. No lights, no propulsion, no nothin' until repairs were completed.)

So shortly after it was suggested that we should go, we dropped the load. Yep, dead in the water ... for five hours. The Soviets didn't think it was funny. Personally, I've always suspected it was deliberate, as a way to extend our "visit" until we were ready to leave.

After about four and half hours, an hour after sunset, a Soviet MiG was dispatched to see what we were doing. What the pilot found, of course, was a darkened ship sitting stationary in the sea. He wasn't amused either, and on his final pass, fired a few shots into the water off the port side of the ship.

Now the lookouts weren't amused, and all started talking at once. Those sound-powered phones got a workout. In fact, the entire crew was on edge, because we all heard the MiG's guns. We were in no actual danger, but everyone was awaiting a call to General Quarters.

Strangely enough, we managed to recover electrical power about 30 minutes later, and sure enough, "General Quarters" was sounded. We reversed our original course, as it's the only way in or out, and headed back toward the Mediterranean.

* * * * *

But there was one more incident of interest on that voyage. When we got back to the Med and rejoined the carrier's task force, a helicopter had gone down in the sea. All the destroyers headed to that location, but the Wood found the crew first.

I'll never forget our first sight of that white-helmeted air crew treading water and signaling thumbs-up as we spotlighted them in the dark. The sea wasn't cold, per se, but it wasn't exactly warm, either. We pulled those two out of the water, provided blankets, and turned back toward the carrier. She sent another helo to lift the air crew from our DASH deck***, and they were home again.

The rest of the cruise was less eventful. But we never did get to visit Istanbul. Darn it.

* USS William M. Wood (DD 715) - the destroyer on which I served.

** Cryptologic Technician (CT) is a United States Navy enlisted rating or job specialty. The CT community performs a wide range of tasks in support of the national intelligence-gathering effort, with an emphasis on cryptology and signal intelligence related products.

*** See http://www.gyrodynehelicopters.com/dash_history.htm


Sandy said...

Rev. Paul,

"Dropping the load" sounds a tad nerve racking to me!!! I enjoyed reading your story of your time spent in the Black Sea.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

I have always thought the Black Sea would be an interesting place to visit.

Rev. Paul said...

Sandy, under normal circumstances, dropping the load just means some down-time, like when the power goes out at work. When you're being harassed by enemy aircraft ... then not so much.

TB - in the end, it's just like sailing in any northern waters. We had to stay far enough from shore that the Russkies didn't think we were in their territorial waters, etc. We couldn't see much of anything, most of the time, except distantly.

threecollie said...

Another great yarn!

Rev. Paul said...

Thank you!