In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, during the war in Vietnam, the US Navy recommissioned the Battleship USS New Jersey for action in Vietnam off the Straits of Tonkin .
At this time as a recent college graduate with a degree in engineering, I worked as a programmer for North American Aviation – Autonetics Division, an aerospace defense firm in Anaheim California. This job, because it was with a defense supplier, kept me from being drafted into the Army, which was fine with me. Although I did feel a twinge of guilt because my brother and several of my friends were drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Autonetics had a contract to install a new computerized fire control positioning system on board the New Jersey, and I was on the team of 3 that were doing the custom programming work.
Of course everything was always behind schedule and the New Jersey sailed from San Diego to Hawai’i before we had finished the programming of the computer. We finished up as fast as we could and then flew to Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i to meet up with the New Jersey. The plan was to install the system before the ship left Hawai’i, then take a vacation day or two on the beach and fly home… cushy job.
When we got there late in the afternoon, my first impression was of awe, this thing was huge, like a floating city, a city bristling with very large guns! Each of the 9 large main gun barrels had an opening 16 inches across.
There was a long line of visitors checking out this giant war machine from another era, and it took awhile for us to get on board. When we finally got on board, we were surprised to find out that she would sail very early the next morning, and we wouldn’t have time to finish installing the system by then. We were going to have to stay on board the ship and install it while the New Jersey was at sea on its way to its first stop in Subic Bay, Philippines. Arrival was scheduled for 11 days later, and we also found out that now that we were on board we couldn’t get off before she sailed. We were literally embarking on a “John Wayne War Movie”, but this was a real war and I didn’t want to be in a real war just then. I remember thinking “what have I got myself into”.
My wife was expecting our first child any time now, and except for a very short phone call to our boss back home, we couldn’t tell anyone of the change in plans. Our boss would have to contact our families and let them know what was going on. I was able to write a letter to my wife several days later and send it back with the Navy destroyer escort that took our mail back to Hawai’i. I was hoping that long before then my wife would have gotten the change of plans.
Departure was very early the next morning (everything in the navy seemed to start “very early”) so when we left there was no one on shore to see us off except a Marine band and two lonely navy wives, very unlike the large crowd the day before when we got on board.
We were told that there was a rule that while sailing on board a US ship at war, which the New Jersey was, technical personnel (us) would be “in the Navy” with the rank of Lieutenant. “Instant officer”, that sounded very cool and cheered me up a bit … until later …
We were at sea for 11 days, and it was all like being in the middle of a John Wayne WWII movie, a frenetic, very loud movie. We each had our own rooms in “Officers Country”, mine had its own “view”, and we ate in the Officers Mess, which also meant that we had to pay for each meal, just like the other officers did. But the charge was minimal, even by the standards of the day. And the food wasn’t bad either. There was one other rule that I thought was odd, you would only get one cloth napkin at the start, and that same unwashed napkin would be placed at your table spot for every meal the whole voyage. Mine was pretty gross after 11 days.
I also learned to take a “navy shower”,
1. “water on” – wet up,
2. “water off” – wash up,
3. “water on” – rinse off.
The “water on” parts were very short. Every since then I take rather long hot showers and only turn the water off at the end.
When we weren’t working on our computer system we had the freedom to explore the ship, including the fire control rooms where the 16 inch guns were fired using targeting numbers generated by the new computer system we had just installed. The actual firing trigger devices looked to me like an “arcade game” with 3 groups of 3 “pistol grips” one for each gun with a trigger that the operator would squeeze like a pistol when the correct numbers from our system would show.
I loved roaming the ship, but was a little surprised at how easily it seemed that a person could fall overboard, there wasn’t much between you and the swiftly passing deep blue sea, very close below. Some of the sailors told us that it actually happened a few days earlier. They didn’t say whether the unlucky sailor was recovered or not.
Every morning I was awakened (early) to the sound of the crew “swabbing” the teakwood decks (yes most of the decks were teakwood not metal). This process included each sailor having a block of some abrasive material about the size of a large bar of soap. They scrubbed this block along the deck with a “broom handle” looking thing that wasn’t fastened in any way that I could see to the abrasive block. They did this early every morning. There was also the incessant metalic sound of other sailors using a hammer and chisel tool to chip away at rust that seemed to appear and reappear every day on all external metal surfaces. This was a very noisy operation as heard from my quarters. There was also daily practice firing of the many 5 inch guns, several of which seemed to be so close to my quarters that the room shook. And they were loud, very loud … early every morning.
But the real pyrotechnics was when they fired the big 16 inch guns. The ship had 3 turrets of these with 3 guns on each turret. Each shell fired weighed more than 2000 pounds and could be fired up to 26 miles. When these guns went off you could feel it throughout the whole ship and they were so loud that if you were caught outside close to one when it went off, it could affect your hearing. It did mine, to this day I still have a faint “ringing” in my ears from it.
After about 6 days we had to refuel the “smallish” but fast destroyer that had accompanied us this far. The destroyer would then turn around and go back to Pearl Harbor.
I was told that the New Jersey carried enough fuel to go around the world, so we could afford to refuel the destroyer.
This was when we also transferred the mail including my letter home. If you look closely at the picture on the left you can pretend that you see my letter to my wife buried in that little orange thing being passed between the ships. There was also one officer that had to go back to Pearl Harbor so he was in a “chair” on that line after the mail was transferred. I thought that would be a bit of a scary ride.
This process required the ships to line up close to each other and be almost “dead in the water”, while fuel lines were placed across from one ship to the other. While this was going on, an aircraft was spotted low and coming in fast. As it got closer I caught a glimpse of Captain Snyder of the New Jersey, and he was furious. The plane was a Russian Bear bomber, it had “snuck up” on us and it was almost over head. We were literally “sitting ducks” with fuel lines draped across both ships which were almost stationary. At the height of the Cold War and with relations with Russia over Vietnam being very tenuous, we didn’t know what was going to happen.
That was when it occurred to me that being an instant Navy Lieutenant might not be so cool right then. I also thought it was ironic that I could be at ground zero of the start of World War Three when I was just a humble computer programmer that wasn’t drafted because of my “supporting the war effort” occupation.
But the Russian bomber seemed to just be “sight seeing” and taking pictures, and after a few very low altitude passes, they left. I was very relieved. I could see that our crew member friends were too.
I wonder if somewhere in the world today there is a 70ish Russian ex-airman who has a different version of this story…
The rest of the trip was routine, for being immersed in a John Wayne movie, and with things like being followed by a submarine that didn’t identify itself, and listening to the crewmen tell how scared they were when the Russian bomber was overhead. So we finally arrived at our stop, Subic Bay, Philippines. The program was finished and I had given training to the navy guys on the use of the system. We were able to get off, drive a few hours to Manila through what looked like a scene from the movie “Back to Battan”, and fly home.
And the New Jersey went off to war with out us.
The whole experience gave me a much greater appreciation for our veterans, like my brother and my friends that served full time in the war in Vietnam for a lot longer than 11 days.