Tuesday, May 14, 2019

I Thought I Was a Freedom Fighter Then Learned I Was a Storm Trooper: The Collision at Sea



Me on the port bridge wing of USS MARS passing under Golden Gate Bridge, enroute to San Diego just before the collision.

The Collision
It was a beautiful, crisp, spring day in San Diego. USS MARS gently nudged away from the pier and began a transit to Mazatlan, Mexico. The Secretary of the Navy was on board and he laughed and chatted up with the Captain on the starboard side of the bridge as we joined the Monday morning sortie as 3rd Fleet ships lined up to depart San Diego harbor in a column formation.
The beige hills of San Diego were dotted with desert vegetation, and palms. Freeways wound their way through this scene like pieces of white and black ribbon. Well-tended homes made of stucco with Spanish style tile roofs dotted the hills above the glistening high-rise buildings constructed with mirrored and green stained glass. They stood majestically over the harbor dotted with grey Navy ships. The tuna fleet owned by Star Kist, Bumble Bee and other companies were coming back in after early morning fishing operations.

The blue green water of San Diego harbor hissed with the wake of fast-moving police boats, luxury yachts of the rich and famous and graceful sail boats that strained to remain upright in the brisk spring wind.

My shoes were shined like glass, as was my trademark. I began to walk aft of the bridge and the Combat Information Center to my office. I was about to get out of the Navy and begin training at the Maritime Academy. For this reason, I was not in my normal position as a piloting officer, navigating out of the harbor. I only had three months left in the Navy. I had trained my replacement and now, I went about tasks of correcting navigation charts in my office.
Whistles blew and salutes were exchanged as the ships passed each other. The shrill sound of the bos’n pipe sounded as command were issued over the ship’s intercom “Now Man the Special Sea and Anchor Detail!”. “Underway, shift colors!”, “Sweepers, sweepers man your brooms! Give the ship a clean sweep down fore and aft! Hold all trash on station!”.
As I entered my office, my signalman friend motioned to me to come up to the signal bridge (where they have the flashing light signals and signal flags). He was on the upper level talking to a helicopter pilot.
I dropped off my charts and grabbed a cup of coffee.
I scurried up the ladder to the signal bridge. It was a beautiful sunny day. I could see the clouds looming off in the distance outside of the entrance of San Diego harbor. We steamed past the harbor entrance and Point Loma. The water turned a deep green color and the temperature changed as we approached the open sea. It was cool and the lingering fog off the coast enveloped us very quickly. It was cold all of a sudden and visibility went to zero as the fog swiftly came in. Our small talk turned to the weather and that is when I heard it, the fog horn on the starboard side.
Our eyes went starboard and our conversation stopped. The fog horn was close. Helicopters were headed out to land on us from the air station on Coronado. We began to turn to starboard to recover them. I heard the fog horn again…this time closer.
My friend, the pilot and me had our eyes glued to starboard.
First, I saw the very distinctive mast of a frigate come out of the fog. It was round and looked like a rook chess piece. I stated “I sure hope she is on the same course as we are.” The pilot and my friend nodded their heads in agreement….then..it happened…
The hull numbers of the frigate came out of the fog moving at a brisk 15 knots. We were also doing 15 knots. The bow of the frigate plowed into our starboard bow, on the M frame just aft of the forward gun turrets and the ammunition locker and just forward of the highly flammable JP-5 aviation fuel tanks.
The explosion singed my eye brows and I was knocked from my feet.  A towering flame loomed above us with yellow-red fire. I was airborne with the other two and we were able to grab the life lines as the frigate continued to have way on and push us to port. Funny, as I flew through the air, I looked down at my shoes. I thought as I looked down at them and sea below, “Man, this is really gonna fuck up my shine!” It is ridiculous now, as I think about it.
The ship listed severely to port, for seconds that seemed like minutes. For a moment, I thought, maybe I should let go and drop into the sea. I thought we were going to explode and be vaporized.
Somehow, we all held on. When the ship righted itself, we were flung like rag dolls to the other side. I could see the flames in my peripheral vision as landed on my face, stomach and chest on the nonskid deck that shredded my jacket, shirt and T-shirt. 
The ship began to list to starboard as we popped up on our feet. The deck began to shudder as the commands from the officer of the deck came out frantically “Hard left rudder!” he commanded too late. USS COOK broke away and began to spin wildly like a spinning top away from us and she disappeared back into the fog as I saw men tumbling over the side into the sea from her decks.

Then, came the order from the bridge, “Brace for collision!” also too late. “General Quarters, General Quarters, All Hands Man Your Battle Stations!” Came across the speaker followed by the steady bell of the battle stations signal.
I ran forward as did the signal man to his station. I shot down the ladder barely touching a step as I held on to the railing and used my boots to control my assent. Crump, crump,  crump, crump, our heavy sea boots hit the decks in seeming unison.  I was running in step with other frightened sailors and I headed to the Combat Information Center, my battle station.
Smoke began to fill the ship from the fire. The damage control team was shouting as hoses and pumps were being broken out to put out the fire and pump out the water.
I jumped on the radio telephone and contacted San Diego Harbor Control. I made the dreaded report that no sailor wants to hear, “May Day, May Day, USS MARS involved in collision at sea with USS COOK, we are on fire and listing to starboard!” I quickly obtained a position from the Dead Reckoning Tracer in this pre-satellite navigation era. I relayed our position to San Diego Harbor Control as casualty reports poured in.
Cooks had been burned when vats of hot food turned over on them in the galley. People had been injured when the bow of USS COOK penetrated our bulkheads and crushed their desks.
The deck continued to tremble beneath my feet as explosions continued to rack the ship. Paint chips fell down on the navigation table from the overhead. I began to take fixes to determine our position more accurately as I continued to report to Harbor Control. As a navigator, I had to complete spherical trigonometrical calculations while people shot at me. I had to remain calm as people screamed, fires and explosions rocked the ship. No matter what is happening, I have to remain calm and make my reports and calculations.
I was mildly aware of my chest and eyebrows burning from the flames that had singed me. As I was logging in information in a logbook, a table broke away from the bulkhead and slid across the deck from the ship listing. It pinned me against the bulkhead. Scissors and navigation instruments slid across the table and stuck into my chest and thighs. Other sailors pulled them out and helped me regain my footing lifting the heavy table off of my thighs. My flesh was stinging, my clothes stained with soot and blood.
For three hours, we remained on fire and gradually the damage control team go control of the flooding and began to pump water out. The bow of USS COOK had left a gapping hole in the starboard side of USS MARS. The hole was five feet below the water line and measured 45 by 35 feet. USS COOK had her bow pushed back to the hull numbers. The damage control team did an extraordinary job putting out the fire and pumping out the water.
We limped back into port listing to starboard. At one point I could walk on the wall as our list was so severe. 
News helicopters and looky-loos were staring at the heavily damaged vessels and some made fun of us. There as still t-shirts around that say “USS COOK, the First Ship to Land on Mars.”
We were all confined to the ship up to 10 P.M. that night of 14 May 1979. Investigators came in and taped up then confiscated our logbooks and records.  I learned the value of keeping good records. It would be the savior of my naval career as a navigator. The radar was not operating properly and I had been measuring its efficiency for years, logging and reporting it. I had been asking for repairs that did not come. It was impossible to see anything that came within five miles of the ship. Ironically, my middle daughter was born on this day in 1984.
Both captains were relieved of command.
We remained in San Diego for repairs for several months for repairs. I learned to love the city and hate the testimony necessary for the Admiralty Court Trial. I was so young and nervous that I stuttered and stammered when asked questions by the admirals during the trial. I missed my home city of San Francisco and lost a new love I had just started with a lovely Latina, my first Latina love.
I decided to fly up to San Francisco and drive my car back down since we were going to be in San Diego for a while. One of my ship mates overheard me talking and asked me to pick him up in Fresno. This was fateful.
As I drove back south from San Francisco, I stopped in Fresno to pick up this shipmate. I was too immature to hold him accountable when he was not ready. His mom begged me to wait for him. The entire day slipped away and I got tired driving back.
I let him drive my Manta Luxus and he wrecked it on the Grapevine near Los Angeles. Some drunk guys were driving a Volkswagen that broke down going uphill. They came to a stop in the fast lane. My ship mate, unaccustomed to driving in Los Angeles traffic, came to a stop behind them. Several cars ran into us from behind, the first being a station wagon. I was thrown through the sunroof and onto the pavement. He was pinned between the seat and the steering wheel.
He was paralyzed from the waist down.
Beer cans and bottles of liquor were flying out of the Volkswagen just before we hit them and they went flying down an embankment to the other side of the freeway.
Now, both my car and ship were heavily damaged. It was a troubling part of my life. My diving gear and a chess board I bought in Indonesia were destroyed in the crash.