Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Fleet

I initially went into the Navy because of my interest in communications. I wanted to be a Radioman. But the rate was closed and my choices were limited, so I ended up becoming a Signalman. I was'nt exactly sure what that meant when I agreed to the job. When I got to SanDiego for training, about a week into the school, I thought these guys are crazy! The Signalman rating is and was, an ancient art that used visual communications, such as semaphore, flashing light and flaghoist to convey messages. They are also well trained lookouts, and great at recognition and identification of various military vessels and aircraft. But, it was not radioman school.
About three weeks into the course, I was bombing academically. I was called into the office by the head of the Signalman school, Chief Warshawski. The Chief was a tough bird and he asked why I was doing so poorly? I explained that I wanted to be a Radioman, and if I could not do that, I would rather be sent to the deck force. Chief Warshawski looked me in the eye, and said "bull-shit" your going to finish Signalman A-School" After completion of Signalman school, the supervisors at the school were very savvy, and knew what each Sailor needed to become better at his job. They cut me orders to an oiler. They knew that Signalmen on supply ships were indeed very busy sailors.
I was sent to the USS Wicita AOR-1. An AOR (Auxiliary Oiler) is basically a huge floating quickmart, where Navy ships can pick up toilet paper, bombs and fuel. I got more than I bargained for on board the Wichita, as she was a highly operational naval vessel. My job also kept me outside in the elements during my entire naval career. So I learned what both military and logistical operations were about.

I arrived at Alameda Naval Air Station in the summer of 1978. Which was also the same place that my dad was stationed during World War Two. I learned very quickly that the Wichita was a hardworking ship, as she was constantly under orders to sail and spent very little time in liberty ports. Having our liberty ports denied for operational reasons was a comon occurrence on board the Witch.

The logistics ships in the U.S. fleet are an extermely important part of naval operations. No military force in the world can operated without logistics support, and the Wichita was the first ship in her class, her crew strived to maintain her good reputation, and to serve the fleet well.

Our main thrust of operations was "UNREP" (Underway replenishment). UNREP is something the average person would'nt believe if they did'nt see it. A fast moving Navy supply ship can go into a battle group and refuel and resupply an entire group in approximately three hours. It does not matter what time of the day or night it is either, nor does sea condition. The most important aspect of UNREP is the fact that the navy supply ship completes replenishment while moving at the top speed of the supply ship, which is generally 25 knots or so. The first time I saw an UNREP, especially night ops, we were alongside an aircraft carrier. I was so exhilirated I was jumping around like a kid in toy store. My shipmates thought I was nuts.

We also had two CH-46 helicopters on board, which performed more than a couple of functions, the most of impressive of which, would be to ferry cargo to ships in a battle group during UNREP Ops. So not only could we be refueling ships that were alongside, we could also deliver supplies simultaneously to distant vessels. The CH-46 crews had an extremely hazardous job and we lost two helicopters while I was on board theWitch. I think of the the Aviators who lost there lives often. I was on duty when one went into the ocean, taking the entire flight crew with. It was a tough loss for everyone.

UNREP was an inherently dangerous process. Seeing people injured or killed during UNREP became pretty routine. Everything from rouge waves to equipment failures and human error became our enemy during UNREP. It seems no matter how safe we tried to be, murphy's law would kick in.

On one ocassion. We were transfering cargo over to another ship via a "star rig". Which is basically two cranes attached to each other on each ship, which is attached by a high tension steel cable on which a winch (which about the size of a Volkswagen car) is attached that carries heavy pallets of cargo from the supply ship to the receiving ship. A steel cable parted shooting the rig towards the ship that we were resupplying. The rig hit the side of the other ship leaving a huge dent in its side.

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