When last we left our neophyte Ensign, fresh out of Officer Candidate School, he was awaiting word of his first assignment. This was 1965, only 20 short years after World War II. The navy was in an upgrade period, but still had many older ships at sea.
So it was to be that Ensign Hood would be heading for Norfolk, Virginia to be allocated to the ship’s company of USS Randolph CVS-15, a WWII era, Essex class, aircraft carrier. Ship’s company means the crew that is responsible for the performance of the ship, from the Captain to the lowest seaman, as opposed to the Air Group, which flies out to join the ship after it is underway. Ironically, the Randolph was launched on my first birthday, June 28th, 1944, making us nautical siblings of a fashion.
The Randolph had a fabled history over the years, with many WWII battle stars to its credit. It also was nearly sunk by a Japanese kamikaze pilot who plunged through its after flight deck while the ship was moored in Ulithi harbor in the Caroline Islands chain. Over thirty sailors were killed instantly.
The Randolph was also involved in the Project Mercury space program and picked up astronauts on two different occasions after they splashed down in the Atlantic, including John Glenn after his historical first orbital flight. You can read more about her history at this site.
Anyway, back to our intrepid sailor. Before reporting to the ship I was to undergo more training at the Naval Communications school, also in Newport, R. I. After two months of classes, particularly in cryptographic systems, I was on my way. Ordered to report on January 2nd, 1966, I spent the exact moment of New Year, 1966, traveling through one of the tunnels of the 20-mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Talk about a lonely feeling. Not one of my fondest New Year’s memories.
Reporting aboard the massive ship was even more intimidating. For the first week, I needed help just to find my way around. My main duty would be officer in charge during communication watches in the main communications office or “comm shack”. I was also assigned as Signals Officer. This meant I was in charge of over 20 sailors who manned the signal bridges. This is where the ships communicate with each other through visual means, using signal flags, flashing lights and semaphore, a type of hand signal using flags. The head of this crew was a Chief Petty Officer with over 22 years in the navy. To say that was daunting becoming his “boss” is to not do it justice. In my first meeting with him I simply said, “this is your gig, Chief, just keep me out of trouble while I learn my way and all will be well.” He did just that and was also terrific in helping me assimilate to shipboard life.
Speaking of shipboard life, aircraft carriers are like floating cities. All the necessities are there: Post Office (mail shack), banks (disbursing), hospital (sick bay), drugstore (commissary) dentists, barber shops, and even a movie theater while back in home port. This was nothing more than a projector and screen set up in the now empty hangar bay. This particular Essex class was over 45,000 tons in weight and 880 fleet long from bow to stern. Our ships company totaled about 2500 sailors and when the air group was aboard at sea, our manpower nearly doubled. By comparison, today’s super carriers, Nimitz class, are over 100,000 tons, over 1100 feet long and tally over 6000 in personnel.
I’m sure most of you have heard the motto “Join the Navy and see the world.” As mottos go, that one has to be in the top five all-time. During my two years aboard we visited the following ports: Jamaica, Bermuda, Virgin Islands, Florida Keys, Guantanamo, Gibraltar, England, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, and Spain We were also scheduled to visit France and Greece, but just then the 1967 “Six Day War” broke out, so instead, we spent a few weeks protecting our interests by cruising the waters off the coast of Israel. I know, this sounds more like a cruise ship itinerary, but those few days in each port were interspersed with weeks and months on end of steaming around in circles in the Atlantic Ocean tracking Russian submarines and standing port and starboard watches (12 hours on, 12 hours off, 24/7). I also don’t remember any Broadway revue shows, 5-star dining, onboard gambling casinos, swimming pools, etc. during any of our “cruises.”
I won’t bore you with the daily routines at sea, except to tell you that aboard a carrier filled with fuel oil, aviation gas for all the planes, plus the armament, the chance and danger of fire is ever-present. In fact, hardly a few days would go by at sea without the intercom or “squawk box” shrieking “fire in compartment such and such, all hands man your fire stations!” Fortunately many of these were false alarms or very simple put outs. If the identification of the compartment called out had the letter M in it, that meant it was a magazine (weapons storage) compartment so things were always a bit tense until the all clear was signaled. Many a famous aircraft carrier has succumbed to uncontrollable fires.
A few other occurrences do stand out, however. One day, during night air operations, a plane being catapulted off the flight deck accidentally flew up into the underside of another previously launched plane passing by. Both planes exploded and crashed in the ocean with no wreckage or bodies ever recovered. I remember being in the wardroom (officers’ mess) the next day and talking with some aviators that I had befriended. I noticed that they were playing cards and joking and I asked one “how do you maintain this jovial attitude after what happened to your friends last night?” His answer was uncomplicated. He stated that if they grieved and thought too much about it, they’d never get back in the cockpit.
I had the good fortune to get a first-hand experience of what it was like to take off and land on a moving target such as the Randolph. On two occasions I had to leave the ship while we were at sea. One was the death of a family member and the other was official leave to be the best man at a friend’s wedding. Both times I was assigned a seat on the mail plane that flew back to shore bases whenever the ship was at sea. It was a twin-engine prop plane (S2F) similar to the one used for sub hunting. On the first occasion, we took off by way of a catapult launch. From zero to 120 mph in a matter of a few seconds. Quite the thrill. The second time, the pilot wanted to practice his “deck launching” technique. He took the plane far aft on the flight deck and revved it up and let loose. By the time we were even half way down the flight deck we were airborne.
Returning aboard is quite another story. On one trip the pilot happened to be my Department Head aboard ship. While flying back to the ship he asked me if I want to sit at the controls. The co-pilot gave me his seat and next thing I knew I was flying the plane with my boss. Just a couple of very simple maneuvers, but I thought I was hot stuff for days after that. I think he probably would have gotten in trouble for doing that if command had found out. They never did. As we finally got within view of the ship, I looked out and saw a tiny dot in the middle of the Atlantic. That’s where we were going to land! In short order, I relinquished the seat back to the co-pilot. The plane landed without incident. When you hit the deck of a carrier at that speed, catching one of the arresting wires, your stomach keeps going though the plane stops. Everybody should get to do that one time in their lives! There’s no amusement park ride to rival it. I had then and always will have the utmost respect for our naval aviators. After all, I married the daughter of one!
Another memorable occasion was during one of my watches in the comm shack. Naval messages are classified as routine, priority, immediate and flash, depending on their urgency. They will also be marked unclassified, confidential, secret or top-secret depending on their content. I was the only officer on watch with proper clearance when a top-secret, flash message came through. This was the one and only message like this in my entire two years aboard. This was the moment for which I had been trained! I didn’t know if this was going to be the start of WWIII or what, but I cleared out the room and proceeded to decrypt the message. As it turned out, it was a message from a U.S nuclear sub requesting a rendezvous so a very seriously injured sailor aboard could be transferred to our ship forthwith for treatment at our top rate medical facilities. The positions of our nuclear submarines at sea was then, and I presume still is, highly classified. That was the reason for all the secrecy and suspense with this message. It was also the only 15 minutes of fame in my naval career.
And so, two years went by rather quickly and Ensign Hood became LTJG Hood (Lieutenant Junior Grade). Samuel Johnson once said this about naval service: “It’s like being in jail, except there’s a chance of drowning.” I had survived without drowning these past two years. However, I still had another year of active duty commitment. Yet I was to be married soon and I surely didn’t want to spend my honeymoon with 5000 other sailors instead of my new bride. So what could I do about this? Tune in to part three to find out…….