It is dusk. In the South China Sea the USS Intrepid (CVS-11) is launching and recovering twenty four A-4 Sky Hawks and support aircraft every ninety minutes all day and all night. The converted Anti-Submarine Aircraft Carrier is about 100 miles from Viet Nam. We sometimes refer to our membership in the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club. I’ve never been in a Yacht Club, but I have an idea that this is not quite what it is like.
These hour and a half cycles go on for about ten days until it is time to get more bombs, gas and chow. Then we stop flying for a day and go through an “Un-Rep”, Underway Replenishment. We sail next to a big supply ship that has all of the supplies we need to continue our little part of the war effort. Then back to work. We stay out for about 30 days at a time.
Every thirty days or so we return to the Philippines for about a week. We do some hard core partying in Olongopo City out side of the Naval Base at Subic Bay. Additional repairs and replenishment are done there too. Not much time to develop relationships is allowed. It is not long before we are back at sea, flying missions again.
The ship turns all the time and a sense of compass direction is lost on us. “Airdales,” the folks who deal with the planes and flight operations, are less intent on the “real” Navy. The only times I can tell which way we are going is at sunrise and sunset. The most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I have ever seen have been from the deck of that carrier.
The work is hard for the entire crew. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off. Sleeping is tough as our Berthing Compartment is 14′ underneath the starboard catapult. You can imagine the noise generated by all of that equipment in the process of throwing a big jet plane into the air, one that carries nine 500 pound bombs. Sometimes it is tough getting rest. Then there is that odor developed in a room that can’t be more than 50′ by 50′ containing 115 swabbies.
Steam upwind, launch and recover, steam downwind prepare to launch and recover. Do it again. Most of the real work goes on out of sight of the glamor and excitement of the launches and landings.
Why are we here? I am truly unclear as to our mission. Why am I here? I guess some sense of duty. There is a lot of anti-war activity back home and some of it is creeping into our lives here. We all wonder why we don’t bomb Hanoi though. What is going on in a war where there are places out of bounds and off limits? Many of us have a real detached sense of the war. I guess I am ignorant of the political realities. I do know that in America there is a democratic system and to keep it and change it you MUST pay your dues. My father did in WW II. My country called and I answered.
I am an ABH 3, Aviation Boatswains Mate Third Class Petty Officer (E-4). I am assigned to the Crash Crew. We provide fire suppression and rescue on the flight deck. When the birds crash, we make sure the fires are out and the pilot and crews too. We know each plane and how they operate. We are also responsible for some of the things necessary for putting the flight deck in a position to land planes after a crash.
We have a big crane and fork lift that can literally dump damaged aircraft into the ocean if necessary. We have twenty foot square one inch steel plates that we can weld to the deck to cover major holes. I alternate between these jobs. Tonight I have the responsibility for fire control. In addition to the high tech Light Water and Purple K extinguishers we also coordinate each of the hose crews that will apply the ship’s water foam and high pressure sprays. Just like the war, high tech, low tech.
The flight deck is a blaze of color, sound and fury during Flight Operations. Different crews wear different colored shirts to distinguish their assignments. The crash crew and bomb guys wears red shirts, flight directors and crew leaders wear yellow shirts, repair guys and plane handlers wear blue shirts. The guys who handle the catapults and arresting gear wear green as well as the folks who fuel the birds. The activity is intense, and you have got to keep your head out of your butt or you can get a real thrill being blown down the deck, and maybe over the edge dropping 80′ in to the ocean.
The noise of the jets is numbing. The heat of the exhausts is searing. Intakes on the jets are deadly. Each time they land they go to 100% power just in case they miss one of the five arresting gear cables. If they “Bolter”, the power lifts them nicely into the air so they can try again. You have to be careful up here on the deck.
Occasionally a plane will “crunch” during landing and break something. A main gear, a nose wheel or something. “Hung bombs” often release upon landing, bounce on the deck and splash harmlessly into the ocean. They tell us the detonators need a couple of hundred feet to arm and we are much too close to the ocean for them to explode. Even though they don’t explode it is a pretty awesome sight to see them bounce and splash!
I once saw a Sidewinder missile fire upon touchdown from an F-8 Crusader fighter. That will make you butt cheeks pucker. I consider the 80′ drop into the ocean, should it be necessary. The Forestal just had a major fire and dozens were killed. Our ship is much smaller and there is less room to run and hide.
Sometimes the birds are shot up. They can lose hydraulic power and are real sloppy to handle using auxiliary control. Bullets make all kinds of things leak in a plane, especially the pilots. Besides hydraulic fluid, jet fuel leaking is a real problem. From a fire fighter’s angle it is nice to have the ship turn into the wind. When you are fighting a fire it is always good to have the wind at your back.
The days and nights are filled with 99% routine hard work. As dusk approaches this evening, the 23rd of September 1968, word comes down from the “Air Boss” that a damaged Sky Hawk is coming back and will be landing in the next recovery effort. He was shot up by ground fire over some target, somewhere. There is more tension now. We can only see the light on the wing as the bird comes in on final approach. He needs to land real bad. We assume the pilot is shot and hurt too.
The light on the wing is a real point of focus for those of us watching this plane land. It is an indication of the Angle Of Attack (AOA) of the approaching airplane, the angle it needs to be at, to be slow enough to land and fast enough to stay in the air. We have seen thousands of those lights. At dusk and at night all you can see is that light until, the plane hits the deck. This time the light indicates that the bird is in trouble. Everyone’s eyes are on those lights for the thirty seconds of final approach.
The nose is going up and down on the injured Skyhawk. We can tell by the lights on the wing. Three lights; red, green, and yellow. Each gives a visual indication of AOA. Red, green then yellow … Yellow green then red. Too fast, too slow. Too slow, too fast. And just before touchdown, way too slow. The Sky Hawk gives up the will to fly, makes a left turn and crashes into the flight deck, the Landing Signal Officer’s (LSO) Platform and then lurches in slow motion into the ocean.
There is a big explosion as the Sky Hawk hits the water. The sea temperature is about 65 degrees and the hot parts of the Sky Hawk are several hundred. There is a big steam cloud from the port side (left) of the boat. NO fire! There are several planes in the air that need to land. Fuel is critical and the birds have nowhere else to go. They have got to land or crash. The pilots either land on the Intrepid or pull those yellow and black striped handles and “punch out.” We have to make the flight deck ready for landing. Perform. Do your job. Two dead, one dying, one badly injured.
We get the deck ready to accept aircraft. The injured and dead are evacuated. Emergency landing lights are rigged to guide the rest of the planes in. We bring the birds down after much hectic but organized activity. All of the training and discipline pay off. The system works for the pilots in the air. The system does not work for my friend Bobby Lee Spencer.
Bobby Lee Spencer is dying. He was the enlisted radio man for the LSO. His left leg and right arm were ripped from his body by the A-4 as it tumbled across the deck and cartwheeled into the sea. A terrible wound ran from his left groin to his right chest. The Corpsman applied trauma dressings to Bobby and we put him in a Stokes Litter. He goes rapidly to the ship’s Operating Room ten decks below. He never had a chance.
Twenty four hours later, at dusk on the 24th of September 1968, between one of the innumerable 90 minute flight operations cycles, a small memorial ceremony is held. Three wreaths are thrown into the South China Sea to honor the three who died in the crash: the pilot of the plane that crashed, another young pilot who was just observing on the LSO’s platform and Bobby Lee Spencer. A prayer is said. Taps are played. Few tears. Flight Ops in five minutes. No time for pain.
I visit Bobby’s name on THE WALL every September 23rd. I think of his sacrifice and that of my 59,000 brothers and sisters whose names are on that Wall. I wonder if anyone else thinks of Bobby these days. His death hurts more now, than it did at dusk, the 23rd of September 1968. Now I have the time to hurt.
bruce edgerly roemmelt
ps.Â Last year I went to Rodger Water’s “The Wall” at the Verizon Center.Â They built a huge wall and asked for pictures and stories of loved ones killed in war.Â I sent in Bobby’s story, it was selected, and it was projected in the wall at every intermission throughout the entire tour.