30 March 2015

December 1973

U.S.S. William M. Wood (DD 715)

We were in the Mediterranean, sailing out of Elefsis, Greece. The skies had been black for days. The darkness outside seemed to seep into the interior of the ship, along with the chill of the damp sea air that pervaded everything. Seas didn't just "toss", they writhed and groaned like living things in untold misery, and shot up waves that looked like overhanging cliffs.
stormy weather at sea

The winds howled and moaned, and whisked tons of seawater into the atmosphere. The wash of ocean across the decks had become a familiar, if unwelcome, sight. The announcement was repeated hourly over the 1MC (P.A. system), "Weather decks are closed (off limits) to all hands. Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

Those who were susceptible to seasickness had been in their bunks for several days, as well. The rest of us tried to work, but it was nearly impossible to get much done when the deck beneath our feet was rolling and pitching fore and aft, side to side, with a continuous series of 15- to 22-degree rolls in all directions.

The gasket on the porthole in my office on the main level of the ship had dried out a bit, and wasn't completely watertight. This would prove to be a problem, later on.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

The only escape was in sleep. We lashed ourselves to our racks (bunks) with tie-down straps, and slept like babies. Well, most of us did. The rocking, rolling, rising and falling did wonders for those who had learned to embrace it. The forward rolls in this storm was occasionally so great that the screws would lift clear of the sea, and the change in pitch was distracting until we got used to that, too.

A ship in a storm at sea, but not MY ship.
Working hours at sea are different than in port. When tied up to a dock, the daytime shift was 0800 to 1700, with an hour for lunch. At sea, we worked 0800 to 1800, with two and a half hours for lunch. Many would go back to their racks and sleep during this time. It's not like we had anyplace else to go.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

We had taken on a new batch of sailors just before leaving port. That's not unusual; sailors come and go all the time, as their tours at one duty station expire, and they transfer to another. This time, though, we'd taken in quite a few newbies, and many had been on board for only a day or two before we got underway.

The storms started almost immediately, and it seemed that they'd never end. Those of us who had our "sea legs" watched in amazement as our feet drifted from one side of the midships passageway to the other, at times literally walking up onto the baseboards. This storm was something special; we all knew it. Or at least most of us did.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

The storms grew worse. Moving around the ship became more hazardous, and we used both hands, as well as our feet, to balance ourselves when we had to move. Using the head was an issue, and sailors had to brace themselves with both hands there, too. (This may sound funny, but try taking a shower when the stall is pitching from 22 degrees to the left, to 25 degrees to the right, and moving up and down at the same time. When we got ourselves braced as well as we could, we had to suffer the water sweeping from side to side as the water, too, obeyed gravity.)

Most of the parts of the ship were readily accessible, during this time, but there were two exceptions. The front and rear gun mounts had exterior hatches, and access was normally just a few steps from a rear door opening on an athwart-ships passageway, to the hatch on the side of the mount.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

Not so, during this storm. The weather was too rough, and tons of seawater were constantly washing across the deck, driven by gale-force winds. The gunners had to go through berthing* compartments to access their work areas. They went down a ladder, through the compartment in question, and then up another ladder into the base of the mount.

"Attention on deck: the weather decks are closed to all hands."

One of the newly-arrived Gunner's Mates was Joseph M (name changed). He either didn't understand what the announcements meant, or paid no attention. But more about him, later.

(As an aside, the Navy sends movies around to the fleet -- or at least, they used to, in the pre-digital, pre-computer age -- and we were shown The Poseidon Adventure, during the storm. Insert your own jokes here; you can't make this stuff up.)

On the worst day of the storm (the day after seeing Poseidon, naturally), we took a 36-degree roll to starboard. The ship heeled over, like it had done every minute or so for days, but then it didn't stop. The list increased. At my desk, I faced the port side. My chair started to scoot away from the desk; I grabbed the handles on the front of the desk - placed there for that purpose - and tried to pull myself forward.

The chair slipped away from me and tumbled across the compartment, crashing into the desks on the outboard side. I put my feet down on the deck and had trouble leaning forward, as the list continued to increase. Eventually I was hanging full-length from the handles, with my knees and toes dragging on the deck behind - not beneath - me.

Book and manuals, normally held in overhead shelves with lengths of rope, began to rain down on my head and back. Drawers slid open, and papers on the desktop slid across and showered the compartment.

At this point, the office went dark. I tried to see over my shoulder, but couldn't because of the angle. I wound up looking under my arm, to see that the porthole was under water, and water was pouring in around the defective gasket. This was something new ...

I remember thinking, "We're going to have to clean that up."

Slowly, with shuddering, creaking and a groaning vibration felt deep in our bones, the ship began to right itself. It took a long time - too long - before the feeble daylight began to show through the porthole, and the water stopped running down the bulkhead.

It was a 36-degree roll; the ship's capsize point was 37 degrees. A great many of us got a little weak in the knees when we realized how close we came to a literal watery grave.

Almost immediately after righting, the call of "Man overboard!" was sounded. Our aft lookout had seen what looked like a figure in Navy uniform wash across the fantail, and then go through the life rail back into the sea.

Joe hadn't taken the warnings to heart. He tried to go out the forward hatch (front door, at the end of the passageway nearest the front of the ship), to get to the forward gun mount. One of the biggest waves of the storm had hit just as he opened the door, allowing quite a bit of water to enter the interior passageway. The next man to see it pulled the door shut, and was trying to figure out how it got open in the first place.

To make what is now a long story a little bit shorter, Joe washed across the main deck, went under the ship and came back up on the opposite side, at the fantail (the flat part of the deck, at the rear of the ship). That's what the aft lookout had seen. Joe was then sucked back under the ship, where he was pulled through the screws.

We conducted the standard enumeration of the crew, and his absence was reported to my office in very short time. The skipper, of course, had brought the engines to full stop when the alarm was sounded, and we performed an "Anderson" turn, where one screw goes forward while the other goes in reverse, neatly pivoting the ship in place. (This maneuver is not possible with single-screw ships.)

The lookouts finally saw Joe bobbing in the water, far off to starboard, and a diver went in to get him, trailing safety ropes. The ship, in the meantime, was now at rest, bobbing like a cork in the rough seas. Many of those who hadn't gotten sick before, became so now.

Joe was in very bad shape from being chewed up by the screws; "Doc" Brown, the corpsman, told me that Joe died three times on the table, while Doc tried to stabilize him and bandage the worst of his wounds.

We called a chopper from the carrier for an evac, and never saw Joe again.

* * * * *

Joe was from Anchorage, where I live now. For whatever reason, I was thinking about him recently. None of us then knew him very well; he'd been on the ship for less than a week when these events happened.

I don't know if he survived. If he did, I don't know where he is today. But as far as I know, no one has told his story before, and I thought it was time someone did.

GMG3 Joseph M., you are not forgotten. This old sailor salutes you; you made a mistake, and paid dearly for it.

But you were still a volunteer in our country's Armed Forces at a time when service was not popular, and you are remembered.

* Sleeping areas


Ed Bonderenka said...

Well done.

Rev. Paul said...

Thank you, sir.

Rob said...

Padre, thanks for sharing. I spent some time aboard ship with Navy JROTC. Mostly one day trips out of San Diego 1976-1978

drjim said...

Wow....just "WOW"!

Jenny said...


Rev - it's one thing to hear the story in person, but WOW was that framed well in the written word.

Thank you for honoring him so.

Rev. Paul said...

Rob - that's good to know ... shipmate. :)

Jim - some memories are more indelible than others, and this one remains vivid.

Jenny - thank you, too.

Anonymous said...

Most of us non-milspec folks don't have any idea what military folks have gone through.
And the media largely paints a victim picture (PTSD).
Or Sgt. Bilko.

Thank you for your service, and God Bless all of you who have served!


Rev. Paul said...

Guffaw, you're welcome. And I'd do it again - in a heartbeat.

Keads said...

Thank you for reminding all of the hazards of serving even if no one is shooting at you. Thank you for your service Sir!

Rev. Paul said...

That's so, Kelly; I just hadn't thought of it that way. Any sailor ever stationed shipboard could find 40+ ways to die, in a given day. The trick is listening to the old hands & avoiding those things. :)