Two Years before the Mast
By Al Bell
Al Creasy says that it is my turn to reminisce about my tour as skipper of USS MORTON. Alas, efforts to get copies of logs and the ship’s history failed, so I am relying entirely upon memory.
I reported to MORTON in December of 1980 after six months in the Prospective Commanding Officer training pipeline. My earliest requirement, despite not yet having relieved Bill Fox, was to pay a call on Rear Admiral Tom Ward, Commander, Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific. He explained to me that, since Admiral Hayward was then CNO, many of the dramatic, liberal changes in the Navy which had been instituted by the former CNO, Admiral Zumwalt, were going to be tossed out. He used the expression, “We are going to walk the cat back.” Foremost of the “important” changes he outlined was a return to the old short haircut restrictions.
I was taken aback, for I had expected a lecture on engineering readiness or a pep talk on the importance of closing out overhaul of MORTON well. I told Admiral Ward that I had just been visiting the Pentagon in Washington and that, walking down the hallowed passageways to the office of the Secretary of the Navy, I had noticed the many portraits of our illustrious naval heroes: Jones, Perry, Decatur, Farragut, etc. All seemed to be wearing haircuts that were the fashion of their respective times. After reassuring him that I would enforce the Navy haircut rules as if they were my own, I asked how we had gotten into the haircut business. Why were we enforcing some old Prussian rules when now there were better ways of controlling lice? Why make sailors stick out like sore thumbs among their contemporaries in town? He was not happy with my views on the subject and explained that it was a matter of discipline. That night, at a hail and farewell party for Bill Fox and me, the squadron commander, an old friend Captain Bob Kihune, asked me what on earth I had said to RADM Ward. I told him. He said, “No wonder! He called me to ask if Al Bell was going to be all right as CO of MORTON. I assured him you were okay.”
Before assuming command, I had a few of weeks of turnover from Bill Fox. This included tours of the ship, which was still in overhaul at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard (PHNSY). I vividly remember the agile way Bill disappeared down scuttles into the engineering spaces. I was much taller, and it was more difficult for me to fold myself into tiny spaces. So much remained to be done in those spaces to complete the overhaul that I began to doubt whether all of the King’s horses and all of the King’s men could ever put Humpty Dumpty together again. I developed a nervous tic in one eye just thinking about the responsibility that was soon to become mine. Bill’s hair was white; mine was brown. Would mine soon gray as well?
The tic went away soon after I assumed command when I realized what a hard working and competent group of sailors and officers I had inherited. My XO, Curt Fritch, ran the ship. Led by LCDR Bill Sperberg, our snipes soon passed the dreaded Light Off Exam (LOE) by the Propulsion Examining Board (PEB).
This event brought me into conflict again with my superiors. The engineers had really busted their butts to get the engineering plant ready for the LOE, having had no sleep for days. As soon as the LOE was passed, the shipyard demanded that we begin steam testing immediately, 24/7. I felt that the engineers deserved a few days off to rest. I had to go hat in hand to my squadron commander to make that happen. He reluctantly approved the break.
The shipyard had a big surprise for us before we managed to escape their clutches. They began testing of the after emergency diesel generator late at night, forgetting to reinstall gaskets they had removed from the exhaust line leading overboard. Hot exhaust fumes hit some electrical wiring in the degaussing room in the after part of the ship. A major fire erupted, made more serious by the fact that there was a full diesel fuel tank under that space. A dramatic fire fighting effort, led by MMCS Barden, extinguished the fire. Senior Chief Barden received a Navy Achievement medal for his valiant efforts.
Once underway from the shipyard we had major training to undergo in the spring and summer of 1981, including Refresher Training (REFTRA) and an Operational Propulsion Plant Exam (OPPE). One problem was that the OPPE examined you on casualty control procedures used whenever the plant was in operation during normal steaming in watch sections, while REFTRA focused on battle casualties at General Quarters. There were major conflicts in the actions to be taken between the two. Asked by my engineers how to handle the conflicts, I responded that during REFTRA we should do what the REFTRA folks wanted, then change back to the OPPE procedures for OPPE. This information somehow got distorted, and the REFTRA folks complained to my squadron commander that I was not taking REFTRA seriously. I was again in hot water.
All was not misery though; we did have a dependents’ cruise to Kauai. Because we were to perform some exercises at sea prior to the cruise, it was necessary for family members to fly to Kauai, where, after a couple of days of seeing the island, they would ride the ship back to Pearl Harbor. As we were about to leave the operating areas at sea for Kauai, Chief Engineer Bill Sperberg advised me that a stuck open auxiliary exhaust valve was causing us to lose 1000 gallons of water an hour and that the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was standing by to repair the valve if we entered port.
My reaction is unprintable! Because that would surely mean that our dependents would be stranded in Kauai and the crew would miss out on a well-deserved break, I refused to enter port and went down to see the valve myself. I figured that, at the least, we could gag the valve and go on our way; however, the snipes did me one better and actually repaired the valve as I watched – anxiously.
The dependents’ cruise was not without its problems. Our arrival at Port Allen, Kauai, coincided with the arrival of high winds. A tug and pilot were on their way to shoehorn us into the tiny harbor and pier, but I could not wait. I had to bring MORTON alongside the pier without help before the increasing winds made entry into the port impossible.
Once alongside, we hooked up to shore water to replenish our freshwater tanks, but the shipyard, bless their hearts, had left another little surprise for us. They had forgotten to remove a plug from a vent line to the freshwater tank when they had air-tested it. The high water pressure on Kauai soon burst the seams of the tank!
During most of my tour as CO, I complained bitterly to my squadron commander of the shortage of boiler technicians. We could not present required number of qualified watch sections to pass an OPPE, let alone give the few engineers we had the time off they needed for rest. When the OPPE finally came, all of our equipment and the few people we had were ready. We did all that was asked of us to the satisfaction of the PEB. However, after saying that our people knew their stuff, the PEB said that all we needed to pass was to show them one more complete section of watchstanders! Then, and only then, did we get the attention for which we had been asking all along. When we received more people, we passed.
The high point of my first year in command was Fleet Week in San Francisco. Our squadron was picked to steam to San Francisco in November 1981 for that event. In advance of our arrival I had printed in the POD a drawing of a naked lady who sported the tattoo of a sailor on her arm, sort of a spoof of the stereotypical sailor with a naked lady tattooed on his arm. Under the drawing I advised sailors to wear their uniforms on liberty in San Francisco so that the women would know that they were straight guys. Soon after we arrived and sailors went ashore in civvies, they came running back to get their uniforms on. It seems that San Francisco had so opened its arms to the Navy that sailors in uniform were being given free drinks and meals by local clubs and restaurants.
The height of the celebration was Mayor Dianne Feinstein hosting a big ceremony at the Civic Center Rotunda to present the key to the city to the CO and crew of newly commissioned USS San Francisco (SSN 711). Each visiting ship CO was honored, as well, by standing at the top of the marble staircase under the glow of a spotlight as his career biography was summarized, then, each in turn, marching down the steps between two columns of Marine Honor Guard to shake hands with the Mayor. There were dinners and parties each night we were there. It was great. The only downside was that our overworked engineers had to steam alongside the pier the whole time to provide steam and power to the ship nested with us.
After visiting San Francisco, we participated in exercises off of Southern California. One of these was an Electronics Countermeasures Exercise (ECMEX) near the Coronado Islands. Several more modern destroyers were posted at the apex of a triangle of OPAREA bordering the islands off of San Diego. Our job was to steam 60 miles north to the apex from the base of the triangle undetected and “attack” the destroyers by signaling “GGG” or “MMM” with flashing lights to signal attack with guns or missiles, respectively. They would listen with sonar, use radar, and attempt to detect our electronic emissions to find and destroy us. My tactic was to steam at full speed up to the Coronado Islands in total electronic silence while still out of range of passive sonar detection. Then we proceeded dead slow on one screw very close to the islands and in total blackout of lights and electronic emissions. They could not discern our radar reflection from that of the islands. They did not detect us, but we knew exactly where they were from their frantic radar searches picked up by our WLR-1 ECM receiver. We skunked them! Emerging from the early morning fog, we “sank” every other ship. My tactic had one drawback. We had passed so close to the islands that one main condenser’s sea injection scoop clogged with kelp! The engineers were not happy.
Heading back to Pearl Harbor I had a new worry. USS RICHARD S. EDWARDS (DD-950) and USS MORTON shared something in common besides being homeported in Pearl Harbor. We were the only two FORREST SHERMAN Class destroyers to have undergone the ASW modernization that gave us ASROCs and made us nuclear capable. That added a new dimension to the CO’s responsibility, since as can now be revealed, the ships actually carried nuclear tipped ASROCs. To do so the ship had to pass a Nuclear Weapons Acceptance Inspection (NWAI). This was a rigorous test of the ship’s security and ability to handle, store, and use atomic weapons. My worry was that we were scheduled to undergo an NWAI and an INSURV inspection the same week in the fall of 1981. The INSURV, a major inspection of ships in service, was mutually exclusive with an NWAI. Equipment that had to be operated for an NWAI had to be dismantled and open for inspection by the INSURV board. For the INSURV the ship had to get underway and perform a full power run; for the NWAI the ship had to remain alongside the pier.
Three weeks before the inspections, I sent a message to my squadron commander pointing out the conflict and requesting that one or the other inspection be rescheduled. There was no response. Two weeks before the inspections, I sent another request. No response again. Finally, one week before the inspections, I sent a personal message in which I reminded my squadron commander of Admiral Nagumo’s dilemma during the Battle of Midway. Nagumo did not know whether to load torpedoes on his planes to attack the US carrier task force, or to load bombs to attack again at Midway Island. As a result he had both bombs and torpedoes on deck when the American aircraft attacked and destroyed his carriers. I compared my dilemma to that of Admiral Nagumo. For example, if I dismantled the high pressure air compressors for the INSURV, they would not be available for ASROC loading. If I did not, the compressors could not be inspected by the INSURV board. When I arrived in port, I was counseled (chewed out) by my squadron commander on the impropriety of such a message. I would not have been so counseled had not RADM Ward misinterpreted my message to be flippant and disrespectful. The INSURV, however, was delayed until after our deployment and we passed the NWAI. It was about this time, I recall, that Commodore Kihune told me that the CO of USS RICHARD S. EDWARDS had resigned, saying that he could not handle the “constant fear” of being CO. If anything goes wrong, the CO is inescapably responsible.
Our final hurdle before deployment became a Combat Systems Readiness Test (CSRT) in February just before our departure for WESTPAC. It was after this series of tests that our grounding occurred. As the famous Bulwer novel begins, “It was a dark and stormy night…” We had to bring the CSRT observers into Pearl at night in rough weather. The standard practice was for the Officer of the Deck (OOD) to maneuver the ship to Papa Hotel, an imaginary point at sea, well outside of the channel leading into the harbor. At Papa Hotel the sea detail would be set, I would come to the bridge, and we would enter port. The OOD called me during dinner to inform me that we were 10 miles from Papa Hotel and proceeding there at 10 knots, so I went up to my cabin to shower and change uniforms for entering port. I should have had an hour to do that, but, after only 20 minutes, while I was still dressing, the XO informed me that we were in too close and that I should come to the bridge. When I arrived on the bridge, we were in good water, but only because the Operations Officer had taken over the con and stopped the ship. Due to navigation errors, the lieutenant who had been OOD had misjudged the distance to Papa Hotel, and, instead of informing me and stopping the ship, as required by my standing orders, he had moved the ship in very close to the Pearl Harbor channel. Below decks some sailors heard a crunching noise and reported it to the OOD, but he did not pass on that information to anyone. Unknown to me, he had pushed the sonar dome over the sand on Tripod Reef near the channel.
We entered port without further incident. It was only later, during a routine underwater hull inspection in Guam, that we learned that most of the paint had been sanded from the bottom of the sonar dome. Only the primer remained! Ironically, the sonar performed very well immediately after the incident during ASW exercises and torpedo firings off Kauai en route to WESTPAC. Although no repairs were required or were ever performed, my career was ruined at that point. I was just grateful to be allowed to continue in command. Fully thirty percent of COs are relieved for cause each year.
In WESTPAC we had port visits in Apra, Guam; Kagoshima, Japan; Sasebo, Japan; Chin Hae, Korea; Hong Kong; Subic Bay, P.I.; and we anchored off the coast of Thailand. During the deployment we participated in a few major exercises, including a big one near Iwo Jima. In that one MORTON played the part of a Soviet destroyer trying to harass the carrier, USS ORISKANY. She was defended by the USS SPRUANCE, whose job it was to keep us away from ORISKANY. Despite her advantage of having gas turbines and variable pitch propellers she failed to keep us away during violent maneuvers that resulted in their squadron commander finally ordering me by flashing light to “Knock It Off!” To his credit, the CO of SPRUANCE told the squadron commander that it “Takes two to tango,” meaning the frighteningly close maneuvering was as much his responsibility as mine. I would give much for the videotape one of the sonar techs made of those maneuvers. We passed within a few feet of each other several times.
Off of Korea in a joint exercise with the ROK Navy, MORTON’s ASW team performed better than any of the other, more modern, destroyers in shallow water ASW defending an amphibious landing force from attack by USS DARTER, a very quiet diesel submarine. During the exercise review, the CO of DARTER told the assembled audience that, of all of the destroyers, only MORTON had successfully detected and intercepted him and that we had done so every time that he had tried to penetrate the screen. Former MORTON officer, Capt. P.T. Deutermann, accurately documented in his novel, Scorpion in the Sea, the superiority of the SQS-23 sonar in shallow water ASW, and we certainly proved it during that exercise.
The only remaining incident of our deployment that I feel worth mentioning is our General Quarters (GQ) as we rounded Vietnam en route to Thailand. Because there had been intelligence reports of ships near Vietnam being fired upon, I ordered .50 CAL machine guns mounted and manned on either side of the main deck as we approached that country. However, we were the third ship way back in a long column of destroyers en route to the exercise off Thailand. Late that night, USS TURNER JOY, in the lead, but not having any guns manned, reported that she was coming under fire from a machine gun. All of the ships went to GQ. Unfortunately, by the time TURNER JOY belatedly manned up, whoever had fired the shots had managed to speed off into the darkness toward land. I have always wondered what would have happened had MORTON been in the lead. We were ready to fire back on an instant’s notice without waiting to man up for GQ, and I would not have hesitated for even that instant to so order the gunners. I suspect now that the shots had been fired either by pirates, who were preying on boat people, or by a Vietnamese Navy boat charged with intercepting boat people. Either way, I would have immediately run them down and destroyed whoever it was without awaiting permission from anyone.
This deployment also saw the rescue of the 70 Vietnamese boat people, an account of which is available on USS MORTON’s web site. Also on the web site is my description of the ultimate scrapping of MORTON, which was a sad anti-climax to her fine service to our country.
When, prior to decommissioning, we finally had our INSURV inspection, the captain in charge of the board called the captain performing the engineering part of the inspection to the bridge toward the end of our full power run. The captain in charge told the INSURV engineer, “You had to see this from the bridge! This is the last time we will ever see a steam powered, twin screw destroyer at full power!” We were the next to the last of the FORREST SHERMAN Class ships to be inspected, and the INSURV folks knew in advance that that particular ship’s problems would not permit her to complete a full power run as MORTON had just accomplished successfully.
During my career I was always irritated by the Marines saying that the Navy mans equipment, while the Marine Corps equips men. Nevertheless, there is a certain truth to their expression. The expression, however, is not fully explanatory of a certain phenomenon recognized during every commissioning ceremony. The sailors bring life to the ship. That belief is behind the part of a commissioning ceremony where the crew marches swiftly on board the vessel. Ships are a complex interplay of man and machine. When you serve on a ship, you are an integral part of what seems to be a living organism. The men with their various skills and the ship with its various capabilities form a cohesive entity pulsating with life. When I walked the decks of MORTON as she was being scrapped, that life was totally gone. She was just cold, rusting steel. However, when I am with the crew members of MORTON of whatever generation, I feel that life again, even without the ship. There is a camaraderie that spans the years and brings back all of the good feelings without any of the pain of the hardships that we all endured.
Whether because of everything that happened, or despite everything that happened, my tour as skipper of MORTON was certainly the high point of my life.