We Are Family

by J. Allen Whitt

My ship, the attack aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) was built for the anticipated invasion of Japan, but that day never came, so she was launched in 1946. More than two decades later (after her straight deck had been replaced by an angle-deck, and she had become armed with nuclear weapons) she was conducting bombing operations over Vietnam. We were at “Yankee Station” in the South China Sea.

One evening, I decided that the movie of the night in the Officers’ Wardroom wasn’t for me. I went up to the hangar bay and walked through the lines of planes, bending down to pass under wings, and stepping over aircraft tie-down chains. I stopped at a starboard elevator port so I could catch a fresh breeze and look out into the semi-darkness. The running lights of one of our destroyers were off to starboard and aft of us.

Usually the coastal mountains of Vietnam would be eighty to one-hundred nautical miles away from us. If we could see them at all, it was as faint washed-out shapes barely above the horizon. That night, however, they were plainly visible. Only fifteen or twenty miles, I guessed.

As I stood there, a bombing strike began. The explosions from our bombs erupted in clusters of brilliant flashes that played over the hills like lightning from a storm. But some only glowed behind a row of hills, masquerading as forest fires off in deep canyons. No sound reached the ship.

It was a surreal abstraction of darkness alternating with pulses of light, a display sealed behind glass, something that could not be heard, touched, nor influenced by us—out here.

But it could be—and it was.

That was the last bombing mission I saw. My Navy hitch was coming to an end—I would be going home (to Texas) soon.

I knew the final date by which the Navy was obligated to release me (December 18, 1967), but not exactly when I would be sent back to Treasure Island in San Francisco to go through the process.

About three weeks before my release date, I received orders to depart the ship. As the day arrived, I said goodbye to the men in my division (my replacement had not yet arrived) and to my fellow officers in the Supply Department, signed documents, tied-up a few loose ends, and packed my sea-bag.

That evening I lay on my bunk and waited for the word. The phone rang at 2100 on the dot. “Sir, we’re ready for you on the flight deck.”

This is it!

I went up, checked in with one of the deck crewmen, and was led out across the shadowy, windy, noisy, flight deck; the wind brought the strong smell and the warm feel jet exhausts; we dodged under wings of heavily-armed planes lined up to be launched. The ship’s COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) plane was loading a few other passengers and mail bound for Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. I was about the last one to board the COD. We were strapped tightly in our seats, facing backward (a cold-cat shot was always possible). Luggage was placed under a net at the far rear of the passageway.

A crewman yelled instructions to us over the roar of the props.

“Pull those straps TIGHT—and DO NOT let go!” I strangled the ends of my straps—I had seen many launches, and it was dramatic to simply watch from a distance. Out my window, I could see nothing but the port edge of the flight deck and darkness. On the aft bulkhead of the plane was a lighted box that contained one word: “STANDBY.” When the box lit up and turned red, it would mean that our shot was imminent—they were “cocking the gun.”

We all stared at that box. And waited.

I could feel the COD’s engines whining and vibrating as they revved up to top speed.  After maybe ten more seconds the box lit up, I was jerked against my shoulder straps as if the Jolly Green Giant had decided to rip me out of my seat, my head was forced down toward my chest, the COD accelerated from zero to maybe eighty or one-hundred knots airspeed in what seemed like three seconds, and I felt and heard a loud POP as the metal “t-bar” (tie-bar) snapped—releasing the plane from the end of the catapult. Abruptly, I felt almost weightless as we passed over and above the ship’s bow.

We made a long turn to port, and passed back by the ship at a distance of maybe a half-mile. Her deck was full of planes, and her running lights glowed in the night, making fleeting circles of light on the black waters. She raised a bow wave as she sliced through the sea at around 32 knots—launching speed.

At that moment, I understood why ships are called “she.” After some months or years aboard, you come to know your ship intimately—her movements, her sounds, her quirks and inclinations, the way she shelters and feeds and cares for you, lets you touch her—and move within her. You know her shape, and can easily recognize her from a distance (or in a photograph). She has a personality.

She normally charms you, soothes and pleases you—but she can also turn indifferent to you, even angry. You develop respect for her power. If she becomes inattentive or follows a whim, she can be dangerous. In rare instances, she may even turn psychotic, threaten you, unleash violence, injure you—kill you. We had lost fifteen men on one cruise. Most were pilots, but not all. One of our deck crew walked into a propeller—his head was never found.

* * *

I’d heard many times that Aircraft carriers were “floating bombs.” Frequently I had to step around or over carts carrying olive-drab 250- and 500-pound bombs (being staged for loading onto aircraft) in the passageway just outside my office. Stenciling indicated that some of them dated from World War II. I wondered if they were stable…

In addition to hundreds of tons of conventional bombs, there were a lot of other things that might blow too: thousands of gallons of jet fuel, big tanks of heavy-grade fuel oil for the ship’s turbines, high-pressure steam, nuclear weapons, magnesium flares that burned white-hot, air-to-air and air-to-surface rockets, many rounds of shells for our five-inch guns, machine gun and small arms ammunition—as well as about one-hundred heavy and fast-moving—often fully-armed—fighters and bombers.

We did have a near-disaster when a Zuni rocket fired accidently below decks. We spent all night at General Quarters. We also relieved USS Oriskany on station when she had a magnesium flare accident that ignited a fire; it burned through five decks and killed 44 men. (After she was finally decommissioned years later, she was stripped of useful things, and her battered and rusted hulk was used in Robin Williams’ movie to represent Hell.) Other carriers had similar accidents—we were relatively lucky.

But generally things went smoothly and without serious incidents.

It was a miracle.

Coral Sea got smaller and farther away in the darkness before the COD made a turn to starboard and she rotated out of my sight. After twenty-seven months and 140,000 miles, that was the last time I saw her.

She was decommissioned in 1990, and scrapped over the next decade. But, even today, her 140-million pounds of steel likely sails the oceans in other ships.

Over subsequent years, I came to realize that Coral Sea still has a hold on me. I have affection—love—for her. I remember her—and miss her. I am now wearing a baseball cap that has her name and likeness on the front. Around the VA Hospital (where I volunteer) other Coral Sea vets recognize it. We are family.

I heard about a sailor who wanted to be buried on the Oriskany when she was sunk in 2006 to make a fish-reef off the coast of Florida.

His wife had other ideas—but I believe I know how he felt.

 

THE END

Adapted from a larger manuscript, GIFTS OF SNOWFLAKES © J. Allen Whitt, 2011.

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