Monday, November 14, 2011

And the Band Played On

By Philip Gardocki

My first duty station was onboard the USS Oklahoma City, CG-5, otherwise known as the "Okie boat" or the "The Grey Ghost of the Pacific Coast." She was modified with extra communications equipment and berthing to support an Admiral’s staff, and was serving as the Commander of the Seventh Fleet’s flagship. She also had a significant "deck force" of four divisions and, as such, the electronics’ personnel were not required to man many of the extra details required to run a warship.

I was in our radar room during a refueling evolution, just staying out of the way of the real work topside. This radar room was a former 6" gun magazine and was located deep in the bowels of the ship. My boss handed Yowell and me a pair of buckets and sponges and said, "Number 5 needs some help."

Somewhere in the Pacific, USS Enterprise, CVN-65, refueling
USS Oklahoma City, CG-5, as photographed by the Author.
We understood immediately. Number 5 was our twin radar room across the corridor from us. They had a chronic problem with the condensation feed from the air conditioner in the compartment above them. The condensation would block up and cause a small flood that would then seep through the strike down hatch that was above their electronic equipment. Paperwork was filed to fix that hatch and feed, but nothing had been approved or implemented yet.

When I arrived in Number 5, I can’t say what I saw was abnormal. Yowell and I had been sent over here to help sop up water before but we were both "newbie’s", and I couldn’t say if I really noticed there was more water there or not, until my bucket was full. I remember noting that I had never filled a bucket before during one of these "problems".

I went up the ladder to dump the bucket in the upstairs head. This was a climb up a vertical tube that ended in a water tight door that is supposed to be "always" open. Not only was it shut, it was locked ("dogged down") with 6 latches ("dogs"). Whoever set those dogs was a lot stronger than I was. As I sought enough leverage to pry up the dogs, I cursed, "Who the hell set Zebra ("locked") on this door!"

The epiphany came when I released the last dog and saw the compartment above Number 5 and 6 had at least 3 feet of water in it. We were sinking! I slammed the hatch shut and started to redog it. Then, I remembered my buckets and realized that another three gallons wasn’t going to matter, so I opened the hatch, and emptied it. In a state of mild panic, I reset the dogs, probably tighter than before, and returned to the Radar rooms, breathless with the news, "The compartment above us is flooded!"

The looks on everyone’s face except Yowell’s told me that this was not new information. With the scorn reserved for us "pollywogs", I was told, "We know it’s flooded."

"Aren’t we sinking?" I replied.

"No, it’s just a break in the fire mains."

"Why weren’t there any alarms about this?" After all, there were supposed to be alarms covering any catastrophic events.

The answer, "Do you think the Admiral’s Flagship is going to admit it is sinking while conducting refueling?"

I have imagined the scene, the two ships moving through the waters at a stately pace, the Seventh Fleet Band playing a rag and the Oklahoma City slowly listing starboard. There were no audible alarms and no visible excitement. Like the emperor who had no clothes, everyone knew something was wrong, but was not willing to admit it. Beneath the pretended calm, frantic men were doing their best of avert a disaster. One engineer, who was in charge of distributing the fuel to the various tanks, was adjusting the flow to the starboard tanks, making the ship list even more than it should. His bed was in the port side of the flooded compartment and, while some beds were going to be wet, it didn’t have to be his bed! In the grand scheme of things, he was probably right - the same number of people were going to be inconvenienced whether or not the ship was listing.

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