|USS FRED T. BERRY
SHIP'S HISTORY ADDENDA
NO EXCUSE FOR COLLISION AT SEA
|After returning from the Med and a short shore leave, we
headed south for Port Canaveral for the most challenging Destroyer
assignment I ever experienced. We would be the "Telemetry" Ship
for Polaris Submarines going through their missile launch qualification.
Almost immediately after arriving, support personnel loaded aboard large air conditioned shacks anchored to the DASH flight deck. They looked like cargo containers, painted white with a door near one end. Power and communication cables snaked all over the deck. Admission was restricted to technicians wearing important looking badges.
Positioned amidships were the most beautiful telescopes I've ever seen with operators sitting astride as if on 40mm antiaircraft guns out of WW II, only the scopes were bigger and the platform more impressive.
The routine became predictable. We would go out to sea with each sub for about three or four sea trials and then on the last run the sub would launch a practice missile. On that last run, our ship would be loaded with VIP's and special guests all wanting to see this spectacular event up close and personal.
It was great duty: Underway at 0700, back by 1700 and terrorizing the natives by 1900. In the meantime I was promoted to LTJG and qualified as Officer Of the Deck, Underway. Perhaps as a precaution my Junior Officer of the Deck while we were underway was always senior to me, at least a full Lieutenant and it helped to know there was someone I could turn to for advice without embarrassment.
Each time a Polaris submarine went through this qualification process the base personnel would weld a special red antenna to their conning tower superstructure so that while the submarine was submerged our telemetry equipment could still capture and monitor their fire control data. This antenna was meant to be always about four to five feet above the surface. We could always see where they were, or almost always.
We went through qualification trials with a number of "boomers" and our ship was gaining accolades for our efficiency, ship handling and flexibility as the needs arose.
The British Navy had only one nuclear powered Polaris submarine at this time, the HMS Resolution. They needed to go through the qualification process and we were to be their telemetry ship. The British invited our ship's crew aboard for a tour. It was impressive to see this incredibly well organized technology in such compact space. We exchanged gifts representing our ship or our culture and invited their crew for a reciprocal visit to the Fred T. Berry.
So out we went each day in preparation for that big event when they would fire their practice missile. The day before the final run, we were going through the practice exercise. The seas were rough and confused with the wind building. As in every exercise, we were to maintain a parallel course keeping the submarine about 500 yards on our port side, each making about 5 knots.
I was the OOD and a little nervous about not having an accurate means of measuring distance to the antenna and maintaining our station. That day was a challenging task with nothing more than a stadimeter for range and the Pelorus compass repeater for bearings.
Our surface search radar was useless due to 'sea return' from rough seas. My request to use our Fire Control radar was denied as it would interfere with the telemetry reception. Hell, at least I thought of asking. We could not use our Sonar as this was dedicated to Gertrude, our underwater telephone and the only means we had to talk to the sub.
Our station keeping was eye ball judgment. I had briefed the lookouts to help me maintain constant visual contact. They were young seaman and lookout duty is boring. They certainly did not feel the same anxiety or "pucker factor" as a newly qualified OOD.
The rough seas continued to build and by noon we were rolling badly. Destroyers do roll a lot and we were maintaining that tradition. The Skipper called from the Chief's Quarters to say that the roll was too rough to serve lunch and informed me he intended to call the Skipper of the sub over Gertrude to suggest a change of course to ease the rolling.
That was the last instruction I received from the Captain until he was summoned in an emergency at my request. In the meantime, I continued to constantly check visually on the mast of the submarine to ensure that we remained at a safe distance. But suddenly the antenna mysteriously disappeared. I couldn't see it anymore. I could feel a growing gut wrenching panic. Where did it go? Did it sink? Was it disabled?
No one else on the bridge reported that it was missing. Not the Junior Officer of the Deck. Not any of the lookouts. Not any of the other bridge watch personnel. I began to have the disturbing feeling that I was the only one on watch, the only one alert to our primary duty of ensuring the safety of our ship and that of the submarine; to keep the presence of the other vessel constantly located. I had no other supporting means to determine or corroborate the location of what was now a possible hazard or a potential developing underwater disaster.
Seconds went by, with immediate action very much required. I did not much have time to consider any possible calls for outside assistance: Tell Sonar to immediately activate and locate the British submarine? Call the Captain over the ship's 1MC loudspeakers? Try to use the underwater telephone system to notify the submarine that contact had been lost?
All these thoughts went racing through my head in the next few seconds. None of these actions would provide quick and reliable resolution to the mystery. My overriding concern was to find that damn antenna mast and take appropriate action as required before I attempted a time consuming and possibly unnecessary alarm.
I was responsible and needed to take immediate action. I yelled to all bridge personnel, "Sing out with any contact of the Sub". This was the one action that could possibly result in some useful information in a timely manner. We needed to find that antenna. It had to be there, somewhere.
I concentrated on quickly performing my own search of the area from Port to Starboard using my binoculars. And then just as suddenly as it had disappeared, I located the now familiar red mast. I was astonished to realize that the submarine was no longer off the Port side where it had been only a few moments ago, where everyone else reasonably expected it to be. It was now very clearly dead ahead and at what seemed to be only about five hundred yards distance. Worse, the range seemed to be decreasing rapidly! Now real panic came exploding up from within.
My first reaction was that I had somehow drifted to the left and was over taking her, coming up her stern. I ordered, "All Back Full, Captain to the Bridge". I heard my orders repeated and the clanking sound from the Engine Order Telegraph. I vaguely heard from loud speakers the voice of the Boatswain' Mate of the Watch, announcing "Captain to the Bridge". He was also announcing to the entire ship another message: "Erwin, screwed up!"
I was transfixed on that antenna. I could now see without binoculars a wake from her antenna, white foam streaming away from her, as if the antenna was an arrow pointed at my bow. She was headed directly for me. We were not over taking her, we were on a collision course. I yelled, "All Back Emergency Full! Rudder Amidships"
Adrenalin has a profound impact on the speed of decision. I might be able to swing or twist my stern to port as we backed down and possibly, with luck the submarine would slip past my bow to starboard. I ordered "Port Engine Stop, Full Left Rudder".
It was too late! That awful, that God awful sound of solid contact, a momentary shaking and grinding vibration is something you cannot forget. With intense fear come two primary reactions, fight or flight. When neither is available, you freeze. I stopped breathing in a state of shock and momentarily not functional in a command sense. I suddenly had tunnel vision, starring at the last point of contact.
That second the Skipper reached the Bridge. The first thing I remember he said was, "Captain has the Con, All Stop". Then he said, "Thank you for not sounding the collision alarm. I hate that sound." His attempt at humor was so unexpected. I started to breath again and regain awareness of the situation. It seems only seconds later that the British submarine surfaced off our starboard quarter just like you see in the movies, with the bow streaming white foam from her gills and conning tower.
The Skipper saw the submarine surfacing and paused, looked at me and said something about stopping the screws helped the submarine Captain know it was safe to come up. I don't remember his exact words but I remember his sense of calm while telling me that. He was giving me a lesson in the middle of a major crisis, a collision at sea.
No damage had been incurred to the hull of either vessel but the red antenna was dangling down toward her deck. We later learned that we had a five foot hole in our sonar dome. We both headed back to harbor. Before we arrived, both Margaret Thatcher and Lyndon Johnson had been informed. This was an "International Incident".
The inquiry began immediately. For the next several hours as we returned to port, the JOOD, CIC personnel, watch personnel and I were questioned by the XO in the Wardroom. Everyone had their turn. Someone turned up with long sheets of paper spread out on the wardroom table; a plot which showed color coded traces of our individual tracks through the ocean. I wondered then how they had those when I had had no such information on the bridge. But I never found out what source those plots came from. Perhaps from one of the white telemetry shacks anchored on the DASH deck or maybe from CIC. I felt so ignorant, so inadequate and certainly not feeling like an OOD. I expected a firing squad.
It then became surreal. The Skipper, the Executive Officer and I went to a restaurant for dinner, just the three of us. They were so congenial, no recriminations, no blame. They made me feel like I was a teenager and they were my parents, calmly discussing an auto accident and saying they knew it couldn't be avoided, it wasn't my fault but at the same time probing for a few more details.
The XO explained that the British sub was being refitted with a new antenna at that very moment and that we would stick with the schedule and they would launch a missile the next morning. Damage and all, we would still be the telemetry ship.
Then the Skipper said, "As this was an International Incident, there will be no US Naval Court of Inquiry." Johnson and Thatcher had said to drop any inquiry and I suppose that was for security reasons.
The Skipper further said that he had talked to the British Submarine Commander over "Gertrude" at around noon suggesting a change of course. The Submarine Commander said he would review the request and respond. The Skipper told me that no response was received in CIC or Sonar. No "Gertrude" message was ever received.
As best I can understand, sometime after that lunch time conversation, the Submarine Skipper turned 180 degrees. In that turn, the sub banked to her starboard like an airplane. The antenna submerged during the bank and resurfaced only when they settled on course. A collision course.
The Skipper said I was not at fault and nothing would be mentioned in my Fitness Report, and nothing was.
The next morning was worse if that is possible. The ship was packed with VIP's, including one Vice Admiral. The Skipper still had not returned and we needed to get underway, the HMS Resolution had already departed. The Department Heads, especially the Operations Officer, were literally pacing the deck, alert to our Captain's absence and all watching the pier, hoping he would suddenly drive up. We could not delay another minute. Mooring lines to the pier were already singled up and ready to let go.
The XO took her out. Missing movement is unpardonable. For the Captain of a ship to do so only underscores the sense of his despair. And mine, I had ruined a fine Skipper's career.
About five miles out of port, a Coast Guard Helicopter approached our stern and lowered our Skipper in a harness onto the fantail. It was embarrassing to see so many civilian visitors taking pictures as if they thought this was just part of the drill. Our military visitors knew differently. He was still in civilian clothes and he raced up the starboard side to his in-port cabin to change.
One career destroyed and I seemed to have survived. It didn't seem fair and this event had a profound and lasting effect on me. We are given difficult tasks and sometimes the outcome is beyond our control and success by chance. But the Navy is adamant, "There is no excuse for collision at sea". Even if you could not have prevented it, as Captain of a US Naval Vessel, you share equal blame and there is NO EXCUSE. You are equally at fault in the eyes of the US NAVY. Maybe you don't go to jail but you certainly don't make Admiral.
The HMS Resolution successfully launched their Polaris missile, a flawless and perfect exercise executed on schedule. And my Skipper, CDR. C. De Armond was not relieved of Command. I was pleased, believing that perhaps the Navy is not so draconian.
Virgil Erwin, LT. USNR
OinC, PCF 67
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