I was approaching high school graduation in 1957 with the military draft still in effect, a left-over from the Korean War. I had done well in high school, and had been accepted by two universities, but had no ﬁrm idea what I wanted to do with myself for a career.
In my class of 34 students (the entire high school had 110 students), one of my best friends had decided to join the Navy. He, too, was a good student, but like me, had no real sense of direction for the future.
I chose to join him and enlist in the Navy to give myself time to ﬁgure out what to do with the rest of my life. My friend’s father was a WWII Navy Vet, and I suspect that was what inﬂuenced his choice. I had an older brother already in the Air Force, but wasn’t enamored by what I was hearing about his experiences. I somehow didn’t ﬁnd the Marines, Army or Coast Guard to be that attractive, either.
The Navy, on the other hand, was appealing in part because nobody knew anything about it. We were raised well inland, in rural northern Maine, and almost all the veterans we knew from WWII or Korea had been in the Army or Marine Corps. There was a certain charm to the idea of heading off into the mysterious unknown. We took our pre-enlistment tests and physicals in the ﬁnal months of high school, leaving only the swearing-in ceremony to be completed after graduation. My friend’s birthday was June 13th, so we arranged to be sworn in on the 12th. My birthday wasn’t until August. So, that meant my friend would serve exactly three years (we were entering on a minority enlistment, or before our 18th birthday, guaranteed to be discharged on the day before our 21st birthday). I was to serve three years and three months.
We left town on the appointed day on the train, bound for the city of Portland, where we would be sworn in. After the brief ceremony, and now set to enter basic training in Bainbridge, Maryland, we were given our travel orders. The ofﬁcer who had sworn us in took a second look at the orders and noticed that our service numbers differed by only one digit. I was 4912975, and my friend was 4912976. He handed them to us and said, since my number was lower, I was senior, and therefore ‘in charge of the group’ as we traveled. The ‘group’ was just the two of us, of course. We both thought that was pretty funny.
We were placed in the same 96-man training squad and spent the next three months in the hot, muggy coastal Maryland swamps outside Bainbridge completing our ‘boot camp’ training. I got to be the guidon bearer, so I had no riﬂe to carry around. I always marched in front of the unit wherever we went, ‘showing the way.’ Sometime in the ﬁnal weeks, we were informed that based on our test scores, we had been selected for what the Navy called NAPS, which was a ﬁfth-year, post high school program. Successful completion of that program led directly to entrance into the Naval Academy from the Fleet.
Within days of the end of basic, however, we were called back in and informed that the cutting scores had been raised. My friend was to stay in by a margin of .01, while I had been cut by a margin of .01. He went on to attend NAPS, and I was sent on to Electronics School. As it turns out, although my friend completed the program, he declined the offer of admission to the Naval Academy (it would have meant signing on for six more years). He was sent to radio operator’s school and we both were discharged in the summer of 1960. Sadly, right after we both completed our degree programs at University of Maine in 1964, my friend was killed in an automobile crash.
Arrival Aboard Ship
In late fall of 1958, I successfully completed what the US Navy calls ‘A’ school in electronics at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Illinois, on the western shore of Lake Michigan. The equipment used in our training labs was representative of what we could expect to ﬁnd in the ﬁeld. The radio, radar and sonar equipment was WWII and Korean War-era, made up of vacuum tubes, resisters, capacitors, and lots of soldered wiring. This was before the age of transistors and integrated circuits and miniaturization, so the equipment was generally large and bulky. Stereo was a new concept, and while television was developing as a new medium in American households, it was not used on Navy ships. There was no such thing as cell phones, personal computers, CD players, or wireless devices of any kind.
I entered ‘A’ School in February, and would have ﬁnished in September except for having contracted scarlet fever in August. After 30 days in an isolation ward in the base hospital with twice-daily penicillin shots, I recovered and completed the training course with a different group.
A day or so before leaving the base hospital, an orderly showed up with a new set of pajamas, a bathrobe and slippers. He also gave me a small mask to wear over my mouth. You’re going for a ride, he said. He then led me outside and pointed to a waiting bus. Keep the mask on, he instructed.
There were about a dozen other patients on the bus, some with crutches, some with body casts. We rode for an hour or so to the South side of Chicago and ended up at Soldier Field. There, we were escorted inside as special guests of an unidentiﬁed host to seats on the 50 yard line, close to the ﬁeld.
Before the game started, the public address announcer actually pointed us out. We were being treated to a pre-season exhibition game between George Halas’s Chicago Bears with Willie Galimore, Rich Casares, Larry Strickland, and Ralph Anderson against Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns with Chuck Noll, Ray Benfro, Bobby Mitchen, Lou Groza and Jim Brown. It was the very ﬁrst football game I had ever seen.
Chicago went on to an 8 – 4 season, ﬁnishing in second place in the Western Division. Cleveland ended with a 9 – 3 season, tied for ﬁrst place in the East but they lost in the playoffs to the Giants. Jim Brown was that year’s League MVP and rushing leader.
After completing my training I took a 30-day leave at home in Milo, Maine, with my next assignment in hand. A week or so before the end of electronics school, the time came to receive our duty station assignments. We were given a form to indicate our preferences (Its other name was the dream sheet). We were to make three choices, in rank order.
As this was most likely the one time in my life that I would get to travel and see the world, my choices were: (1) anything in the Paciﬁc theater, (2) anything on the west coast, and (3) anything west of the Mississippi River.
Someone, apparently, didn’t like my preferences, and I was assigned to a ship in New York — on the east coast. The ship was the USS Maury AGS-16. It did hydrographic surveys, whatever that meant. Someone said the ‘A’ in AGS meant ‘auxiliary,’ although that didn’t help either, except to clarify that it would be unarmed. I had visions of a tugboat, or barge. Nobody at Great Lakes had ever heard of it.
I was now at the end of my leave, traveling with a package containing a copy of my service record and orders to report aboard in early November. My immediate thoughts were that I would not be escaping the east coast.
After a full day on the train, with stops in Bangor, Portland, and Boston, I arrived at Grand Central Station in New York City late in the afternoon on the 11th of November. It was Veteran’s Day, a national holiday, and there was a limited number of trains operating. I was traveling with a large sea bag, which contained all my military issue clothing, and a small duffel bag which held my toilet kit and a few personal items. I had no civilian clothes, as enlisted men weren’t allowed to have then on the ship.
Taped to the outside of the package containing my service records was my travel order. It read: “Report no later than midnight 11/11/1958 to the USS Maury, AGS-16, New York, N.Y..” After leaving the train platform, I made my way up to the main concourse, which was all but vacant. I felt lost in the cavernous space with its massive constellation ceiling, and had no clue how to begin the process of ﬁnding my ship.
My attention was immediately drawn to the landmark information kiosk in the center of the room. Topped by its four-faced opal clocks, I spotted a middle-aged lady on duty inside the circular counter. I was certain she would be able to help me with directions. I reached the counter and retrieved my travel orders from my duffel bag. I showed them to her and asked if she might know where I would ﬁnd my ship. She rolled her eyes, I recall, probably thinking, aren’t all you Navy guys supposed to know your ships are based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard?
“Gotta be Brooklyn,” she said with a wink, and reached for the phone. “I’ll check for you,” she said. She was being very polite, and I was relieved to think she would shortly be giving me the directions I so badly needed. Instead, after a few minutes, she turned back to me and said, “How about that? It isn’t there. They don’t seem to know where it is.”
Now I was more than concerned. What do I do now? How was I going to ﬁnd my ship? Who to contact? I was beginning to imagine the ship at sea, somewhere, out of reach with me stranded in a strange city.
Just then, a man in a Transit Police uniform appeared. He said he was a WWII veteran, and seeing me in uniform and apparently in some difﬁculty, offered to help. After explaining that my orders contained no address beyond New York City, and that the lady behind the counter had already conﬁrmed that the ship was not at the Brooklyn Navy Yard — where it should have been, he said he might be able to ﬁnd out where I was to go.
He used the phone at the information booth and made a call. I didn’t ask whom he was calling, but eventually he was able to reach someone who reported that the Maury was at the Bethlehem Steel Repair Yard in Coney Island! I had no idea where Coney Island was, but when he said “follow me” I was more than happy to comply.
We went to the eastern end of the Concourse and he led me down a wide ﬂight of stairs to the street level. Outside, I saw a long line of vacant yellow cabs arranged along the nearly empty sidewalk and extending around the side of the building. The policeman directed me to stand where I was just outside the doorway, while he stepped over to the ﬁrst cab in line and spoke to quietly to the driver. When the policeman turned back to me, he waved me forward and said, “This gentleman will take you directly to your ship. Give him a $20,” and as he walked back toward the stairway, said over his shoulder, “Good luck, sailor.”
The meter was never turned on.
In spite of the holiday and light trafﬁc, it required nearly an hour through city streets, over bridges, through tunnels, and endless stop lights to reach the piers at Beth Steel repair yard. As we approached the waterfront, I was picturing a rusty old tub, but instead found tied to the pier a huge, freshly painted ship with over-sized ‘AGS-16’ proudly displayed near the bow. I had my ﬁrst look at the Maury, riding high on its hawsers and spring lines. I learned later that she had been built in 1943 as an Attack Troop Transport.
She was 456 ft long, had a 17,000 ton displacement, a beam of 60 ft, and a draft of nearly 30 ft. She began life transporting troops and cargo in the Paciﬁc during WWII. In 1946 her armament was removed and she was converted to a hydrographic survey vessel, ﬁrst deployed to the western Paciﬁc, then later transferred to the Atlantic Fleet. While I was aboard, our home port at Brooklyn Navy Yard was changed to Pearl Harbor, so she returned to the Paciﬁc once again. She ended her life in support of the Vietnam War, eventually retiring to California and decommissioning in 1969. She was scrapped in 1973.
The Maury was named after Mathew Fontaine Maury, the ‘father’ of oceanography. There was an identical sister ship called the USS Tanner AGS-15, which performed the same type of surveys. I never did see that ship, and I have no idea where it operated or where its home port was. I did get to meet one of its crewmen, however, years later.
I stepped out of the cab with my bags at the end of a long, steep gangway connected to the ship’s main deck. After watching the cab leave the docking area, I turned my attention to boarding. I tried to remember what I had learned at boot camp, or perhaps from one of the ‘A’ school instructors, about the ritual. The gangway was narrow, so with my duffel bag in my lead hand, I dragged my seabag behind me as I began the long climb.
About midway, I remembered I was supposed to salute the ensign (ﬂag) and then ‘request permission to come aboard’ from the Ofﬁcer of the Deck. I could see the OD up ahead, decked out in dress blues, but I couldn’t see the ensign. It was apparently back there, somewhere, but out of sight behind the massive superstructure. I was asking myself if I should salute anyway, or not if I couldn’t see anything, but I decided I would salute.
At the top of the gangway, I retrieved my orders taped to my travel package, tucked them under my left arm, and placed my duffel bag at my feet in front of me. I turned to the ship’s stern, came to attention, and rendered a salute. I then half-turned to face the OD and repeated the salute, adding “Request permission to come aboard, sir.” I then handed him my orders. The salute was returned, “come on aboard” was spoken, but not by an ofﬁcer. Rather, it was delivered by a Chief Petty Ofﬁcer.
After a few seconds, I realized I was frozen in place. After a pregnant pause, the Chief said, “Something the matter?” “Oh, no, sir. I mean, this is my ﬁrst ship, and I thought all Ofﬁcers of the Deck were supposed to be Ofﬁcers of the Deck,” I replied. “It’s a long holiday weekend, the Captain and all the ofﬁcers are ashore. In fact, most of the crew is ashore.”
He handed my orders to a young Quartermaster seaman behind him, directing the seaman to show me to my quarters. “Come aboard, son,” the Chief said again, somewhat impatiently. “And you don’t have to call me ‘sir’ any longer.” He was about 6 ft 4” tall, slim, and wearing his dress uniform. He looked to be at least 40 years old, with dark features, gray hair, and was an obvious ‘old salt.’ He had several rows of campaign ribbons signifying service during WWII and Korea, and his Chief’s stripes and his eight hash marks (each one representing three years of service) were gold — indicating good conduct. He was an Engineman, with well worn hands and grime permanently embedded in his knuckles and under his nails — clearly from having spent so many years in hot, greasy engine rooms.
In some ways, he reminded me of the instructor Chiefs I had known at Great Lakes, most all of whom were career enlisted men in an assortment of trade ratings before converting to electronics and becoming classroom teachers.
With the boarding ritual completed, and boarding invitation granted, I proceeded. I turned to grab my seabag and stepped aboard. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my duffel bag, which was still at my feet in front of me. As I began to step onto the deck, I tripped over it, and took a header straight onto the cold, steel surface. I ended up spread-eagled ﬂat on my face, staring directly into the black, spit-shined toes of the Chief’s shoes. To his credit, the Chief didn’t laugh, although I am convinced he was biting his tongue and probably thinking, Where in hell do they ﬁnd these people? All he said was, “Move it along, now” as I gathered myself. I was ushered to my bunk room, where I was directed to choose any one of the empty, numbered lockers to stow my gear. A matching numbered bunk was identiﬁed, which in my case was third from the bottom in a tiered-rack of four bunks suspended on chains from the overhead structure. There were 56 bunks in that room, slightly larger than a one-car garage. I was to spend the next two years as the occupant of that bunk. The bunk room itself was just forward of the bridge, and thus in the ship’s forecastle area.
Because the ship was a WWII-era vessel, with a ﬂat bottom, and (we imagined) vulnerable to breaking apart in rough seas, we often thought that if it were to fracture, it would be right at the bulkhead at the rear of our space — leaving us to drift off helplessly in the ship’s bow. That thought required some time getting used to, especially when talk of an impending Atlantic crossing was brought up.
As a postscript, the Chief who was the acting OD when I came aboard became a friend over the next several months, although our working paths aboard ship rarely crossed. I think he was privately hoping I didn’t fall down again and make a fool of myself. He was the most senior of our crew’s half-dozen Chiefs, and rarely talked about himself or his Naval career. I did enjoy, however, the few occasions when I was able to get him to talk about his wartime days on ﬁghting ships.
First Foreign Port of Call
The Maury remained at the repair yard on Coney Island until mid-December, after which she settled in against her home pier at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She had been at the Beth Steel Repair Yard for several weeks, and I learned that one of her last stops before arriving back in the States was in Antwerp, Belgium. The crew got to visit Expo 58, also known as the Brussels World’s Fair. Maybe I would get to see something like that, I thought.
The ship’s complement was about 300, with 20 ofﬁcers, 6 Chiefs, and the rest enlisted men. The ET unit included 15 technicians, a Chief and a Division Ofﬁcer. Our Division Ofﬁcer was a mustang, meaning he had begun his career as an enlisted man and received his commission later on. He was an excellent leader, and I stayed in touch with him for several years after I left the service. We were responsible for the maintenance of equipment in the radio shack, the cryptology shack, bridge radar and radios, and an array of sonar and depth recording devices used for survey work. Some of the same equipment was installed on the two sound boats, and several of the smaller work boats and barges. And then we had the shore stations, which will be explained later on.
A week into the new year, we departed New York for a short ‘shakedown’ cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After nearly a year at sea, the ship had undergone a variety of repairs at Coney Island. With several civilian engineers aboard to check on the their repair work, we set out for Gitmo. This was to be my ﬁrst trip ‘abroad,’ to a foreign country, although as it turned out, we weren’t allowed off the base in Cuba during our month-long stay there. So, as it happened, my ﬁrst trip to a foreign country wasn’t really to a foreign country.
The reason for our conﬁnement to the base could be seen by glancing toward the mountains in the near distance beyond the perimeter. On many days ‘smoke’ would erupt on the hillsides, which we immediately learned was the remnants of ﬁghting between the revolutionary army of Fidel Castro and Fulgencio Batista who had been battling for control of the island nation since the early 1950’s. Castro had actually won a few weeks before we arrived, and would remain in power to the present day (Fidel eventually relinquished control to his younger brother Raul).
We returned to Brooklyn, and were kept busy for the next two weeks preparing for a 9 month cruise to the eastern Mediterranean. Now I was at last going to experience real travel beyond the east coast. I began thinking that this assignment might just work out after all. Just prior to our departure, one of my fellow ET’s and I chipped in on a barber set. We decided we would cut our own hair, and anyone else in the unit who wanted one. We had only one barber aboard, and sometimes there was a long wait to get an appointment. Almost all the guys in the unit participated in our haircut service, and after a while we got pretty good at it. In time, however, my friend said he was giving it up and so I continued alone. Our Division Ofﬁcer even stopped by one day for a haircut, and afterward said he would see if I might use one of the empty chairs and professional equipment in the barber shop (there were three, but only one barber). Then, one night a week, I could go there and do a few haircuts at a time. I got the ok, and began working there. Only those guys in my unit were to be served, supposedly.
So, after a few weeks of this, a radio operator showed up in line and asked if I could do him a favor — he had an upcoming inspection and not enough time to wait for the regular barber. I relented, and said, just don’t tell anyone. He had dark hair that grew straight out of his head, and I went at it. Very quickly, however, I recognized that I was making ‘holes’ in his hair, which of course I tried to smooth out, only to make it worse. By the time I was done, there were several patches of nearly bare skin showing. He didn’t look good, to say the least. As you might imagine, he received some very negative comments at his inspection, and word was passed back to my unit Ofﬁcer. I was never, ever, to cut anyone’s hair outside the guys in my own unit. Lesson learned.
The winter crossing of the north Atlantic, all thirteen days of it, was rough. At times, the tops of the swells rose 50 feet or more above our main deck level, and there were occasions when both the bow and stern of our ship were out of water at the same time. I recall on day 9, when we were just over half way across, and the seas were really rolling, and the sun was shining brightly, I asked a weatherman on the bridge for the weather forecast. He replied, as he always did to such inquires, with, “Hot and dusty.”
Eventually, however, we sighted land, which was the Straights of Gibraltar — or the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. We knew we were to make our ﬁrst stop in Tangier, and as a result, for fully a week before arriving we were drilled and lectured to repeatedly about the city’s reputation as a drug capitol. Apparently, it was all too easy to be tempted by street sellers offering cheap and readily available drugs. We were even warned about suspicious smaller boats visiting the ship’s sides while we were at anchor.
Before entering the Straights, we made a right turn and headed for the port of Tangier, Morocco. Something I learned just before we left the States was going to make this ﬁrst foreign port of call special.
It seems that my older brother John, now in his second year in the Air Force, was traveling extensively throughout the Paciﬁc region. At each different country he visited, he took the time to acquire two gifts: a mini cup and saucer for our mother Pauline (who collected them), and a miniature elephant statue, or bookend set, or decorative platter — something depicting an elephant, for our Aunt Elba (who collected them). I decided that I, too, would contribute to the collections, by adding my own gift set from each of the countries we would be visiting.
After we were safely anchored in the harbor (apparently there was no available space at a pier for our three-day visit) we were told we would be granted leave to tour the city, with one-third of the crew allowed ashore at a time from noon to 9 PM. I got to visit on the second day. Two of my fellow ET’s (electronic technicians) and I decided to stay together, and after exchanging our American money for Moroccan currency (about $30 worth) we were delivered to the foot of a commercial pier by one of the ship’s small boats along with a few dozen other shipmates.
From some of the crewmen who had visited the previous day, we were prepared for the ‘routine’ awaiting us as we arrived. As reported, we were immediately surrounded by a clutch of young boys standing by. They were guides-for-hire, and it was considered rude not to use their services. My two friends and I selected a 12 year-old, who fortunately could speak a little English, and he asked what we would like to see. I knew nothing about the City, except what I had heard about the famous market known as the Casbah, and asked to go there. One of my friends wanted to have dinner at a good French restaurant, and the third friend wanted to ride a camel.
Off we went, spending several hours at the market, enjoying a wonderful meal, and even getting to ride a camel. We had walked a long way and were tired, and by 8 o’clock, we headed back to the pier to await our ride back to the ship. Within minutes after arriving, I realized I had made a mistake: in my excitement, I had forgotten all about buying a cup and saucer and an elephant statue!
I then did something that could easily have made things worse. I called our boy-guide back and took him off to the side, out of earshot from my friends. I had about $12 left in Moroccan currency, and showed it to him. I asked him if he knew where to ﬁnd a miniature cup and saucer as well as a miniature elephant (further explained with a lot of hand waving, sipping gestures, and attempts to describe African creatures). “Sure, sure,” he said. “Can do.”
I told him I would not be returning to the City, but instructed him to deliver them to one of the small boat drivers, who would bring them to me on the ship. He said he understood, and would carry out the errand. Of course, all the way back to the ship, and all the next morning aboard, I was fully aware that the whole idea was silly. What was I thinking, I kept asking myself. That money was gone, and I was forced to admit that I had failed on my ﬁrst gift acquisition attempt.
Our electronics shop was two levels below the main deck, reached through deck openings and ladders attached to a bulkhead. At noontime on our third and ﬁnal day in port, I was deep into the repair of a sonar machine when someone yelled from above, “Hey, Sherburne! You’re wanted on the fantail!” We had no electronics gear back there, and I wondered who could be asking for me. I made my way up to the main deck, and walked to the fantail. There was a machine shop, a carpenter’s shop, and a rope locker back there, so I asked one of the crewmen who was looking for me. A second crewman nearby turned, got my attention, and pointed to the rail. What? What is going on? I stepped across the deck to the rail, looked out, and then down. There, almost 20 feet below me, next to the hull, was a small rowboat. There were two boys in the boat, one of whom I immediately recognized as our guide from the day before! He was holding a package in his hand, waving it at me. It was about the size of a loaf of bread, crudely wrapped in dirty brown paper and tied with ragged string. Oh my goodness, I thought. He did it! He must have found what I asked him for.
Now, the question is, how do I get it up here? I returned to one of the shops, found a short line, and lowered it down to the boat. The boy tied the bundle on the end and I began to slowly pull it up. I watched the boys in the boat disappear behind the stern, and moments later I felt a hand grip my shoulder, ﬁrmly, and a deep voice just behind my shoulder said, authoritatively, “What part of the instruction against bartering over the side didn’t you understand?” (Yes, indeed: we had been fully warned to avoid this practice — repeatedly) I stopped puling in the line and said, “Well, sir (I now knew that it was the hand of the ship’s Executive Ofﬁcer gripping my shoulder), you see . . . I’m not bartering . . . I’m just . . . “ “Shut up, bring that thing up here, and follow me,” he directed.
Minutes later, in his wardroom, with the package sitting on a small desk, he asked me to explain what was going on. I laid out the whole tale, the brother in the Air Force buying gifts and my plan to copy him, the day in town, my oversight, my stupid idea to give money to the kid-guide, my surprise that he had actually carried through. All of it. I was sure he only half believe me, equally convinced that that package could have been stuffed with a kilo of heroin, or a large bag of marijuana. “Alright,” he said. “Open it up.”
I began untying the package, inside of which were two small bundles wrapped in layers of newspaper. A good sign. I opened the ﬁrst, to ﬁnd a tiny cup and matching saucer, white, with a thin gold band around the edges. Just what I would have bought myself. My mother was going to love it. “See,” I said. “That’s just what I asked the kid to ﬁnd.” I then opened the second bundle, inside of which was a tiny, wooden statue of a . . . Rhinoceros! Surprise! It was expertly made, with excellent detail. “Well, it’s not an elephant, but at least it’s a close cousin,” I said, trying not to laugh out loud. I was remembering the difﬁculty I had trying to describe an elephant to a Moroccan kid.
The XO was also trying not to laugh, but ﬁnally he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He burst out laughing. I joined him, but only momentarily. When he recovered, he said, quietly, “Get that stuff out of here, and get back to work. And, don’t ever let me catch you doing anything like this again.” As I quickly scooped up the paper wrapping and gifts and exited his wardroom, I could hear him still giggling behind his door.
The next day we pulled anchor, entered the straights and headed for Barcelona, Spain. After that two day visit, we made stops in Genoa and Naples, Italy, Athens, Greece, and Izmir, Turkey. I made it my business to acquire a gift set in each city.
Shortly afterward, we proceeded to the southern coast of Turkey where we would be doing an extended survey. The area we set up on extended east about 600 miles from Antalya to Antalya. After three months operating in that area, we broke off and headed to Istanbul. We thought it was for a short R&R, but word quickly spread that instead of returning to our survey work, we were going to interrupt our schedule or a side trip into the Black Sea. We would be out of touch with the outside world for about six weeks.
It was about this time when I was captured by the Chaplain. We had in our crew a professional piano player from New York. He was very talented, and from time to time would entertain the crew along with a guitar, drum and base player. He also was the organist for weekly services. He was going to be leaving the ship, however, before we left Istanbul, which would leave the Chaplain without an organist.
One quiet Sunday morning, after services, one of my fellow ET’s, from Minnesota, decided to break out an accordion which he had acquired in Italy on our earlier stop there. He was a polka player, and a good one. He had actually bought two, one of which he was going to take home for a friend. There were three or four of us sitting around the Shop, and he asked if any of us knew how to play the piano. I had grown up in a home where my mother taught piano and violin lessons, and I had also played in the school and community bands. (drums) I had also sung in the church choir. While I couldn’t read music, I did have a good ear for it, and I did know how to play a few simple songs on the piano. I said I might be able to pick out a few notes, so the second accordion was broken out and soon we were having fun. I would play the melody on the keyboard, and my friend would ﬁll in with accompaniment and bass notes.
Just then, the Chaplain appeared. He was a full Captain, a four-striper, and was nearing the end of his career. He had heard the music and made his way down to our Shop (not an easy task). He could immediately see how well my friend was playing the accordion, and obviously knew music well. He pointed to him and said, would you be willing to take over playing the organ for church services? My friend declined, telling the Chaplain that he, too, would soon be leaving the ship for a new assignment. So the Chaplain turned and pointed to me, saying, well, you’re it. You’re my new organist. I’ve scoured this ship from bow to stern, and you’re the only one I’ve found who can play a melody. It’ll be easy. You’ll enjoy it, he said.
Non-denominational services were held in the library on Sunday mornings. The organ was a small, portable instrument contained in a folding box. It didn’t have a full keyboard, and was powered by two foot pedals that produced enough air to make sound. I had seen pictures of the instrument, strapped to the side of a donkey, being carried up some mountain by a Chaplain on his way to conduct ﬁeld services during the Korean War. The hymnal was ﬁlled with familiar songs, and the Chaplain said I could select any that I was already knew. There were many, but as it turned out, I could only play them in the key of C (almost all white notes).
After a few hours of practice, I was able to manage things, and began what turned out to be a regular activity for the next year or so. The most difﬁculty I had was with the Navy Hymn, which was not written to be played in the key of C, so on the hard parts, I resorted to one-handed ﬁngering and made it work.
My Division Ofﬁcer spoke to me about playing for church services some time later, and was curious how I had gotten involved. I told him the story about my friend and his accordions, and he asked, so, how much is the Chaplain paying you? I said, What do you mean, paying? My Division Ofﬁcer said, well, he’s got a slush fund and should be paying. I’ll speak to him. So, I went on the ‘payroll,’ as a church organist, for $5 a week, paid retroactively!
My mother, when I related this to her much later, was absolutely dumbfounded, knowing I couldn’t read music and had never had a lesson — from her or anyone.
I decided that prior to our trip into the Black Sea, I would send my gift’s home, and put the several sets together into a single package. I mailed it from Istanbul, and a day or so later we were off on our new adventure. No US Naval vessel had entered the Black Sea since Roosevelt attended the Yalta Conference in 1945, and we had to wait for the sub nets installed across the Bosphorus Strait by the Soviet Navy to open and allow our passage.
Six weeks later, we returned to Istanbul and, after a day or so, headed back to Turkey’s southern coast to resume our survey. I had received a stack of letters (all mail had been suspended while we were in the Black Sea), and began catching up on news from home.
In the third letter down, my mother wrote that they had received my package. Nothing was broken, and she and Aunt Elba were pleased with their gifts — getting a special kick out of the little Rhino. Regarding the companion cup and saucer set from Tangier, she wrote, you might want to know that when we looked on the bottom of the saucer, it said Made In USA by King Fireware. Incidentally, the same thing is on sale right now at our local IGA store for $2.95!
Cold War Hosts
Over the course of several days in Istanbul, preparing for our trip into the Black Sea, our crew grew by about 20 strangers. They arrived without explanation and immediately distributed themselves into our crew of 300, appearing in uniforms as both ofﬁcers and enlisted. Five or six of them were added to our electronics group, and we were put to work helping them to install a number of large tape recorders, antennas, and other radio receivers in a special space above the bridge normally used by the survey specialists.
After the equipment was installed, the room was placed off limits to everyone except those six men. We weren’t told, of course, but we were all certain the new crew members were from the CIA. We were cautioned, however, not to discuss this openly, or to get too curious about what we were seeing.
We left Istanbul, traveled northward through the Bosphorus narrows into the Black Sea, and began what was known as a ‘rough survey.’ That meant we would be making an irregular course, sampling depths and trying to get a feel for the entire area.
Within hours, we spotted a large Soviet Cruiser coming toward us on a parallel track. As it passed close by, we saw that its crew had ‘manned the rails,’ standing shoulder to shoulder in dress uniforms, and saluting as it passed. Our Captain quickly put out the word that we, too, would ‘man the rails,’ and a number of us were directed to quickly got into our dress blues and form up on our port side.
The next morning, a Soviet Submarine appeared and passed close by just as the cruiser had done the previous day. It, too, had its crew standing on the deck in close formation, so we repeated our ‘man the rail’ routine. The cruiser showed up in trail on our radar, about ﬁve miles behind us, and remained there. The submarine disappeared, but we guessed it, too, was back there, somewhere, following our random movements. Unless someone explained to them what we were doing, they must have thought our steering system was broken.
A few days later, a large Soviet ﬂying boat amphibian ﬂew past, just above the water, and within three hundred yards to our port side. It reappeared the next day, and for several days after that. We could see that they were photographing our ship on each pass. A photographer attached to our helicopter crew decided to return the favor, and began taking pictures of the plane with his large camera. When he developed the ﬁlm and enlarged the pictures, he discovered in a window on the aircraft a crewman holding the exact same camera! They were ﬁlming each other.
With all this activity, we couldn’t decide if the Soviets were trying to intimidate us, showing off their power and reach, or were convinced we were a spy ship. We had no guns, but we certainly had an impressive array of antennas that would have been of interest.
After two weeks or so, word was passed that we were going to Odessa in the Ukraine for four days, as guests of the Soviet Navy. This was about the time President Kruschev was visiting the US, so our visit was described as some kind of diplomatic exchange by the powers that be. The quartermasters put a large map of the Black Sea up in the mess hall, where we could see the City of Odessa as well as the countries surrounding the Black Sea. They included Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkey, Romaina, and Bulgaria — the ﬁrst four of which were part of the USSR. We had to keep reminding ourselves that this time was at the height of the cold war. Just visualizing how close we were to these communist nations helped explain the reason our mysterious crewmen kept themselves busy collecting information on USSR radio and radar systems.
Sometime during our Black Sea tour we made a brief stop at the Turkish port of Trabzon, located very close to the border between Turkey and Georgia. To my surprise, there was a USAF listening station located near that small city.
On the morning we arrived in Odessa, it was raining cats and dogs. As we approached the pier, under the direction of a Soviet pilot, we noticed several pairs of Soviet Sailors arrayed along the pier, standing at attention in full dress uniform — and soaking wet. They didn’t move until our ‘monkey lines,’ linked to our hawsers, cross over their heads.
At that instant, they broke rank and ran for the lines to pull in the larger hawsers and loop them over large bollards. We set up our gangway, and the next day in better weather began receiving visitors. We were open for public tours of the ship for about 4 hours each morning, but anyone who came aboard had to pass a gauntlet of a three or four screeners. These were large men, dressed in trench coats and wide-brimmed hats, who stationed themselves at the foot of the gangway. Only those who passed muster (party members?) were allowed to join the tour. About one out of ﬁve who approached were turned away. At low tide, with the gangway raised only about 10 degrees, the aft decks were slightly above the level of the pier.
We soon discovered that 75 to 100 ordinary residents of the city would gather there each day (these were people not allowed aboard for the tour, or perhaps didn’t even attempt to board). They were curious and most willing to engage in small talk with our crew. I was out there one day and decided to try something to enliven the scene. Our ship’s library was close by, and I went in and grabbed an armful of magazines (Look, Life, Newsweek, etc.) and newspapers (NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) — all dated of course, but from US publishers. I started handing them over the rail, and the people rushed to grab them and immediately hide them under their coats. It was like tossing candy to a group of kids.
With the help of a couple of shipmates, the library was quickly emptied of magazines and periodicals. Then I noticed that the people on the pier who had caught them began quickly leaving the area. It turned out that what we had done had caught the attention of the screeners, who started moving our way. It suddenly got very quiet, and the shift in mood was very noticeable. We had given them information they would never have been able to acquire otherwise. It felt strange, and somehow mysterious, and yet satisfying.
As we did at every port of call, our Chaplain arranged for a large group of orphaned children to visit the ship. Occasionally, a group of us would join the Chaplain for a visit ashore to an orphanage. On board, we treat the youngsters to ice cream, cake and soda, along with some token gifts. I, along with several other shipmates, served as hosts. We took two or three at a time on a walk-around, showing them our helicopter, our ‘steering wheel’ on the bridge, and our mess hall.
Our hosts, the Soviet Navy, ﬁlled most of the afternoon hours and evenings with invitations to the opera, ballet, circus, variety shows, and a tour of the city. A bus with 40 seats would appear to take a group of us to such an event, and our Captain decided it would be full of US Sailors when it departed. Ofﬁcers would run about the ship asking if you were on duty, and if you said yes, you were ordered to stop whatever you were doing and get into dress uniform and get on that waiting bus! I personally got to see a ballet performance (Swan Lake), an opera, and a variety show featuring the Soviet Army band with leaping and twirling dancers, jugglers, and tightrope walkers.
Whenever we weren’t off to some special event or show, we were allowed to take a few hours leave to go into town. This was on condition that we would swear to travel in groups of four and avoid any type of fraternization with young females.
On one such visit, our group made its way to the Hotel Odessa, a city landmark, where we enjoyed a very nice dinner of the local fare. We quickly discovered that the local citizens thought we were Germans (our uniforms are quite similar), in part because a visit to their city by a large number of Americans was a surprise to them. Apparently there had been no announcement of our arrival in the local media.
Quite often, as we were walking around, we were stopped by someone who could speak English. They had lots of things they wanted to know about our country, and in minutes, we would be surrounded by dozens of other people. Our discussion was immediately translated for the newcomers, and quite frequently a brief question or two evolved into a hour-long group chat. I did manage to ﬁnd a gift shop and selected a small cup and saucer set as well as a set of elephant bookends to add to my gift-gathering collection, and in a nearby music shop, purchased a balalaika for myself. This is a Russian stringed musical instrument with a characteristic triangular wooden, hollow body and three strings. While I envisioned learning how to play it one day, I unfortunately failed to learn how it was tuned. It never did get much use back at home later on, and I think I may have given it away at some point. I did buy a pack of the local cigarettes to take home, mostly because of how strange they were. If they were 3” long, 2-1/2” was an empty, paper tube with no ﬁlter. And the tobacco was awful. You could smell the thing from yards away. But, of course, they were cheap.
On the last day of our visit, my division head approached me and directed me to get into my dress blues. It seemed that I and two other shipmates would be making a visit to the Hotel Odessa (the second visit for me) to join a US Navy Admiral and his aide for a teleconference with a group of American newsmen and women based in Moscow. The Admiral was the Naval Attache from the US Embassy in Moscow, who had come to Odessa to welcome our Captain and the ship’s crew to the Soviet Union.
I and my two shipmates were selected to represent the crew on this occasion. I was from the northeast, the most junior in rank, and the youngest of the three. The second was from Texas, one rank higher, and a little older. Finally, the third was from Oregon, a senior enlisted man, and the oldest of the group. Apparently, we covered all the bases: rank, age, and geographic location. I knew my fellow crewmen only in passing.
We arrived at the hotel in a taxi, and were immediately ushered to an upper ﬂoor and the Admiral’s suite. His aide greeted us and welcomed us in, where we introduced ourselves and, in turn, were introduced to the Admiral and his wife, and the aide’s wife.
Across the room, we noted a young man from the hotel staff sitting next to a telephone. He was a translator, as it turned out. Within minutes of arriving, we noticed that everyone had their overcoats or fur coats on and were wearing gloves — as if they were about to leave for some destination or other. In fact, it was because the rooms in the large suite were cold. The only heat came from a small ﬁreplace. It was explained that all central heating in all public buildings in Odessa was turned on by a calendar date — a day in early December, per order of the Kremlin. The room was ornately decorated with marble ﬁnishes and stone ﬂooring, which itself made everything seem even colder.
After a few minutes, on a pre-arranged schedule, the phone rang. The translator completed his formalities and announced that the press corps in Moscow was ready. The Admiral pointed to me, indicating I was the ﬁrst to be interviewed. It was explained by the caller in Moscow that I was on a speaker phone, so a number of reporters on his end would be listening. I was asked to give my name, where I was from, how long I had been in the Navy, and how it felt being in a cold-war country. The two other enlisted men with me were questioned in much the same way. The Admiral then spoke to the reporters, and I thought we were ﬁnished.
However, the Admiral pointed to me and said, “They want to ask you some more questions.” When I got back on the phone, a reporter asked, “So, you being the youngest of the group, tell us what you think about the young ladies you’ve met during your visit?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. Remember: we weren’t allowed to fraternize at all.
So, I placed my hand over the mouthpiece, turned to my two friends, and said, “they want to know what we think of the local girls. What shall I tell them?” One of them said, “Tell them they look like weightlifters.” I said to the reporter, “Well, the few we met were nice. Very healthy. Like farm girls, or something.” It was the best I could think of at that moment.
Weeks later, back in Istanbul where we received all our backed-up mail, there was a letter from home with a couple of newspaper clippings attached. One was from the Boston Globe and the other from the NY Times. The headline of the AP article read: Maine Boy Finds Russian Girls Athletic, and went on to report on our ship’s visit to Odessa and history-making tour of the Black Sea.
The ship had a small ﬂight deck at the stern, and a helicopter and ﬁve-man crew operated there to ferry men and equipment to and from the beach or mountains in the area where we were surveying.
To explain this further, I’ll give you a quick overview of the survey process. A typical deep-water survey operation covered an area approximately 300 nautical miles in length, and approximately 180 miles in depth (starting 5 to 6 miles from shore). Prior to our arrival, a land survey crew would have installed cement markers in the ground — either on the beach, or in the mountains. The beach stations were used for low-frequency equipment (AM signals and long distance work), while the mountain stations were used for high-frequency equipment (FM and line-of-sight, or closer work). There were a series of three markers placed on the beach and two in the mountains, 100 miles apart from each other. The land surveyors also prepared a scale drawing of the coastline, indicating the exact location of each set of markers. Prior to beginning the survey, men and equipment was delivered by helicopter to each marker site.
On one occasion, four of us were taken to a mountain site. It was rocky and covered in brush, and the helicopter was unable to land. We were lowered on a cable, armed with saws and axes, and told to clear a landing space for the equipment. The helicopter then returned to the ship to bring its ﬁrst load, carried on a drop-sling beneath the aircraft.
We began hacking away at the bushes to make a cleared area when, to our surprise, we were suddenly surrounded by a half dozen native farmers holding shotguns — which they were pointing at us! We stopped our work, held up our hands, and tried to indicate that we were no threat. Not sure what to do and unable to communicate, we remained in place until the helicopter returned. It did, with a large diesel generator hanging below its skids. When the pilot looked down and saw what was happening, he immediately reversed course and ﬂew back to the ship with the generator still attached.
Several minutes later, it returned sans generator and came to a hover nearby. A man was lowered on a cable, and as the helicopter moved a short distance away and remained in a hover, he walked over to where we were still standing in place with our hands up. He turned out to be a Turkish Navy liaison ofﬁcer, assigned to our ship for the duration of our survey work. He spoke to the farmers, got them to lower their weapons, and was able to explain who we were and why we were there. Apparently, when the farmers saw that we were all dressed in at the same uniforms (dungarees and matching shirts, arriving unannounced by helicopter), they assumed we were going to take over their farms. At the Turkish Naval Ofﬁcer’s suggestion, we were subsequently provided with a small booklet that explained what we were all about in the native Turkish language.
At each location, a portable, aluminum transmission tower was erected directly above each marker. On the ground, at each ‘station,’ a pair of tents was set up. One tent contained cots, a water drum, and cooking equipment, and the other housed a radio as well as a special transmitter. The equipment was powered by a pair of portable, diesel generators. The generators would be run, on an alternating cycle, for 24 hours at a time, providing continuous power.
The special transmitter was built by the Sperry Corporation, and called Shoran. It was commonly used by oil companies to locate oil drilling rigs offshore. It operated on the same principle as Loran, a system of long-distance navigation in which position is determined from the intervals between signal pulses received from widely spaced radio transmitters. The ‘center’ station transmitter produced alternating AM signals at slightly different frequencies. Its job was to key each of the ‘end’ stations. The (left, arbitrarily called red) ‘end’ station’s receiver was tuned to the lower of the frequencies, while the (right, arbitrarily called green) ‘end’ station was tuned to the higher. Those ‘end’ stations then produced their own continuous stream of low frequency radio signals (keyed by the ‘center’ station’s transmitter).
The ship had a special receiver in a room above the bridge where those two signals were captured. A ‘red’ dial denoted the distance from the ‘left’ station’s tower, and a ‘green’ dial denoted the distance from the ‘right’ station’s tower. The distance measurement was based on the speed of radio waves traveling through the air, a known quantity. To conﬁrm that the distance was accurate, the helicopter, with a matching receiver aboard, would ﬂy over the ‘left, or red’ tower, zero out its receiver dial, and then pass over the ship’s antenna, calling out “mark” and report the distance. The dial reading on the ship’s receiver would then be calibrated to match the distance reading. The same thing was done for the ‘right, or green’ tower.
On a large paper chart, nearly the size of a pool table, a graphic representation of the coastline and the three tower locations was displayed along one edge. In red ink, around the ‘red’ station, circular lines were drawn over the water. Each line represented the scale distance for each transmission cycle, beginning at zero at the beach antennas. The lines were then numbered out to the end of the survey ‘plot’ of 150×300 miles. The same thing was done in green ink for the second end tower. The result, on the oversized chart, was a two-color grid map made up of curved, numbered lines. Then, using a straight edge, a black line was laid over the grid parallel to the shoreline approximately ﬁve miles from the beach.
The ship was then steered onto that black ‘sounding’ line, following it for it’s full 150 mile length. A depth reading would be made every 30 seconds as the ship moved along the course line at about 7 knots. Both the speciﬁc location and depth were manually recorded on the chart for every sounding. At the end, the ship would shift 600 yards seaward and follow a parallel line back to the starting point. This was repeated until depth readings for the entire area were collected and recorded. The ship’s location could be conﬁrmed at any point along that line by following the red-green grid (example, 59.3 red, 94.1 green).
Of course, those reading were constantly changing with the ship’s movement. The Maury would remain on these survey ‘tracks’ for weeks at a time.
In the end, the oversized charts with their recorded data were rolled up and sent back to the States for dissection and conversion to a sea chart by cartography specialists. Supplemental information such as water temperatures, tide heights and sequence, bottom samples, water color, etc. were also added to the ﬁnished product.
At each transmitter station on land (whether beach or mountain sites), two men were assigned for 30 days at a time. One of them was always an Electronics Technician, who operated and maintained both the ship-to-shore radio gear and the special transmitter gear. The second man maintained the generators. Both shared cooking and cleanup duties. And both were supported by weekly visits by the helicopter which brought food and water supplies as well as the occasional treat.
A 30-day assignment in addition to the beach or mountain stations was on one of the two ‘sound boats,’ used for survey work. These boats were 56 ft long, twin-diesel powered, with a 6 man crew. The boats were ﬁtted out with the same receivers as the big ship, and using its sonar, surveyed around islands, in harbors, and areas within the 5 miles from shore that the big ship didn’t cover.
We also would beach the boat from time to time, and collect ground samples. We would walk into the water up to our shoulders and collect a bottom sample and put it in a small jar. Then we would wade ashore, taking a sample every 20 feet or so, until reaching the high tide line. We weren’t sure why this was necessary, or important, but someone came up with a plausible answer to this mystery.
If someday in the future, it was necessary to send a landing force to that particular beach, would the composition of the surface be capable of supporting a heavy tracked amphibious vehicle — such as a tank. Whether correct or not, it sounded good. It was just another case of “ours is not to reason why . . .”
On one occasion while on a sound boat, away from the big ship for over ten days, we spent a weekend in a small harbor next to a local village. On a Sunday morning, I was enjoying a cup of coffee while sitting on the foredeck in the sun. A wooden rowboat approached carrying two young men. One appeared to be in his late teens, and the other much younger — perhaps 12 years old or so.
With grunts and much hand waving (there was no way to communicate otherwise), the older boy was inviting me to join him and his young friend on what I worked out was a ﬁshing trip. I accepted and asked our boat captain if it was ok. He said I was free to go. I regret to this day I had no camera with me.
I took a seat in the bow and the older boy rowed the three of us out of the harbor and traveled a mile or so down the shoreline. He stopped the boat and used the oars to back its stern close to the beach. At that point, he changed places with his young companion, who manned the oars and began rowing straight away from the beach.
As the boat moved, the older boy began paying out a gill net. The net was about 4 feet wide, with pieces of cork and wood attached to the top edge and chunks of metal and rocks attached to the lower edge. The net ﬂoated on edge behind us as we moved out, and I noticed that we were moving in a wide half circle.
Eventually, we returned to the beach, and now the net was fully set. We remained inside the net and began moving back and forth parallel to the shoreline, steadily shifting our position outward. As we began moving, the older boy reached under the seats and pulled out a wooden pole. It had a round block of wood on one end with a cupped bottom — similar to a plunger. He stood on the wide seat at the stern, held the pole above the water, and began to sing a chant in a deep voice while dancing in bare feet on the wooden seat.
Every few minutes he would stomp his heels and at the same time drive that wooden block hard onto the water. It would make a booming sound, and I could see the resulting concussive ripples escaping underwater. It sounded a lot like dynamite going off. He repeated this for almost a half hour as the boat traversed the area inside the net.
Finally, he stopped and put the pole away. He took over the oars and we returned to the beach and one end of the netting. As the boat was rowed along the line of the net, the younger boy began retrieving and piling the net in the boat’s bottom near the stern. As he pulled it in, I could see that it had captured a sizable number of small ﬁsh — with looked like perch, about 10” long. He pulled ﬁsh after ﬁsh out of the net and tossed them onto the boat’s bottom. By the time the entire net was back in the boat, there was a layer of ﬁsh inside the boat was about 2 feet deep.
We went back to the harbor to a small pier, where a long line of male adults were waiting for us. Each one had a small bucket, which the boys ﬁlled until the boat was empty. What I ﬁgured out was that the boy’s job, at least for that day, was to serve up a daily supply of seafood for his village. I could only assume that one of the adult males was his own father, or perhaps an uncle. Afterward, he rowed me back to the sound boat. I shook his hand and did my best to thank him for the outing.
One other usual task was gathering data on water color. This was done by one of the hydrographers in the survey group. He had a set of painted wooden disks, about a foot in diameter, spaced 18” apart and linked together on a weighted chain. The coloring went from light gray through greens and blues to near black, and each disk was numbered. He would suspend the array of disks over the side on a pulley, and wait for someone to walk by — at random.
I happened along one day and was stopped by this ofﬁcer. He explained brieﬂy what he was going to do and asked me to watch a particular disk — in this case, #8. He lowered the string of disks into the water and I was to tell him when I could no longer see that particular disk. He would then mark a ledger, noting the observed depth. We were curious as to why he was doing this, and someone suggested that his data would be sent to the people responsible for deciding what color to paint submarines.
In other words, if the US Navy were to operate a sub in these waters, and it was to travel so many feet below the surface, what color should the top be in order for it to be undetected from the deck of a ship or from the air? This guy could tell them. Or at least that was what we supposed he was able to do. He didn’t say, of course. It was just another part of the mystery in some of our ship’s work.
I enjoyed the assignments off the big ship, at beach stations or mountain stations as well as the sound boats. The land locations were typically in remote areas, some distance from any local towns or villages, although on some occasions we were close enough to have visitors from nearby farms or ranches. In one mountain station, we were close to a village where local farmers brought us fresh fruit or vegetables form time to time.
From time to time, it was necessary to repair one of the radios, and one of the ET’s aboard ship would put together either replacement parts or perhaps an entire radio to send via helicopter to the shore station. The shipboard ET would then ride along and make the repair or do the replacement. I was scheduled for such a trip, to replace one of the radios, due for departure at 5 am. Late in the afternoon of the day before that trip, however, the ship’s main radar system went down, and I was assigned to help ﬁx it. The radar was old and very complicated, and working with another ET, we struggled to identify the problem.
As midnight approached, and the solution not yet in sight, I was pulled off the helicopter ﬂight. One of my fellow ET’s was to go in my place. It was almost 4 AM before we ﬁnally identiﬁed the problem with the radar and got it back on line. I went to my rack exhausted. At 5:45 AM I was rudely wakened by a loud call over the ship’s intercom. “Anyone with a photograph of the helicopter crash report to the bridge immediately,” it said. What! A helicopter crash! The same helicopter I was supposed to be on?
I quickly dressed and rushed outside to ﬁnd out what had happened. I saw dozens of crewman lined up on the port side, looking out at . . . nothing. We were 20 miles off shore. A small boat was just returning to the ship, with ﬁve men aboard besides the two-man boat crew. Those ﬁve included the helicopter pilot, its copilot, the Crew Chief, and two passengers — one of whom was my replacement.
I then learned that the helicopter had departed on schedule, but for some reason its engine had not produced the power necessary for it to ﬂy normally. It was a Korean War-era, three-bladed aircraft, which would take off by hovering above the ﬂight deck, move sideways, and then drop toward the water to gain lift. On this occasion, it reached the water and was unable to ﬂy upwards. Its wheels were dipping in and out of the water, struggling to maintain ﬂight. The ﬂight crew aboard recognized it was in trouble and immediately called for the rescue boat and its two-man crew, already suspended over the side and ready to be dropped into the water, to move out.
On board the helicopter, which that morning had the copilot in control, the crew chief went into action. He was a big man, and immediately signaled to the pilots that he was going to get in the water — hoping the loss of his weight would allow the helicopter to ﬂy. He popped his vest and jumped. It did not help, as it turned out. At that point, my replacement and the other passenger (a diesel mechanic, sent to service one of the generators) looked at each other and decided they had better get off, too. They let the pilots know what they were doing, popped their vests and then jumped into the water.
The copilot then continued moving the machine away from the ship and men in the water behind him, and then following ditching protocol, directed the pilot to exit the aircraft. The Pilot did so, and with the helicopter now well away from everyone in the water but still unable to gain ﬂight, the copilot rolled the machine to knock off the spinning blades. It immediately settled into the water, nose down, and began to sink. Its huge engine was mounted in the nose of the aircraft. About the time it reached vertical, the copilot popped up from below the water. Within a few seconds, the helicopter disappeared.
Meanwhile, the rescue boat was moving along and picking up the men in the water, one by one, until all were aboard. It then began its return to the ship — which was about the time I reached the railing. I soon learned that the aircrew’s photographer, who was on duty with his camera at the ready before the helicopter even started its engine, had begun taking photos just as the problem began.
Unfortunately, his shutter had locked open on his ﬁrst shot, and he ended up with a blank ﬁlm. Thus, the call for anyone thoughtful enough to have grabbed a personal camera and ﬁlmed the incident. It so happened that a young seaman in the deck crew had grabbed his Brownie and taken one picture. It was the only visual record of the event. It showed a lighter blue sky, a dark blue sea, and something dark sticking out of the water. That ‘stick’ was one of the tail rotors, and seconds after he took the picture, the aircraft went to the bottom. We were in 600 fathoms of water at the time, or 3,600 feet from the bottom, where the helicopter came to rest — and where it remained (and probably still does to this day).
A day or so later, we left the area and headed to Brindisi, Italy, to pick up a new helicopter and replacement ﬂight crew. The original crew were returned to the States, where (we were told) they would be kept busy for some time ﬁlling out forms and doing their best to determine why their helicopter had failed to ﬂy.
After a week’s travel, we made a wide circle off the port of Brindisi to await the arrival of our new helicopter. It came straight out of the port, low to the water, and seemed to be going very fast. It passed by on our port side, perhaps 50 feet high, and made a loop around the ship. Then it approached the ﬂight deck, came to a nose-high halt, and almost ‘leaped’ onto the ship.
The new helicopter looked somewhat like the ﬁrst one, except that it had four blades and was considerably larger overall. It had three times the lifting capacity as the earlier one, a much more powerful engine, and was able to take off straight up rather than have to drop over the side to gain lift. The pilot was an older man, wearing Lieutenant’s bars, and always had a stub of an unlit cigar in his mouth when he ﬂew. I was told that he had been ranked as high as Commander at one time, had more than 30 years of service, and was one of the original test pilots for resupplying ships at sea by helicopter during the ﬁnal days of WWII. He was something of a cowboy, apparently.
Several times, as he returned to the ship after a trip to a shore station, he would approach the ship and when he got parallel amidships, he would spin the helicopter around and ﬂy backwards — keeping pace with our movement. He and his crew remained aboard until we completed our survey work off Turkey’s southern coast. When we headed back to the States, making stops in Athens, Gibraltar, and Rota, Spain, he and his crew and the helicopter remained behind.
We returned to Brooklyn from our Mediterranean cruise in late fall, only to be scheduled for another cruise early the next year. In fact, we would be leaving the east coast altogether and making our new home port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was during this brief stay in New York that I had a side adventure that I’ll always fondly remember.
One day my Division Ofﬁcer approached me and told me that I and the ship’s Storekeeper had been selected by the Ofﬁcers to represent not only the ship but the entire US Navy for the next week. We were to be invited guests of the owners of the famous Grossinger’s Resort Hotel in the town of Liberty, NY, in the Catskill Mountains. It seems that Jennie and Harry Grossinger had a practice of inviting a pair of servicemen (and servicewomen) to enjoy a week’s stay each year, rotating between the uniformed services. It was the Navy’s week, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard was selected, and ultimately our ship.
I was given a week or so to have civilian clothes sent from home, and one Saturday my friend and I took a bus from Grand Central to the Resort. We had a memorable time, enjoying exquisite meals, lots of relaxing activity (swimming, billiards, sauna and massages), and nightly stage shows and performances. We were politely asked to leave a $20 in our room to tip the staff.
Soon after, we were on our way down the east coast all the way to the entrance to the Panama Canal where we made a nighttime passage. From there we went to San Diego for a few days, in preparation for our trip to Hawaii. When we arrived at Pearl Harbor, planning to be there only for a short stay, we were tied up next to the dry docks instead of a regular in-port pier. We were able to look down into the dry docks, and in one of them we saw a most unusual craft. It was not a submarine, although it had many of the same features. It turned out to be the Trieste, a bathyscaphe or diving bell, and it had just two weeks earlier made a successful dive to the deepest known site in all the world’s oceans called Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench. It reached more than 35,000 feet in depth, or more than seven nautical miles — straight down. The Trieste’s dive was featured in National Geographic later that spring.
The Maury was assigned to do a ‘rough’ survey of the Gulf of Siam, or as it know in more recent times, the Gulf of Thailand. We departed from Pearl Harbor and sailed ﬁrst to Guam, where we would top off our fuel tanks before heading to Thailand. Apparently our Captain had obtained the coordinates for Trieste’s dive site, and after departing Guam we made a slight deviation in our course to pass directly over that site. I never learned why the Captain wanted to do that. Perhaps he wanted to test our equipment’s capability, or to conﬁrm that there was such a deep hole in the ocean, or maybe he was simply a curious type. As it happened, we would be reach the site in the middle of the night.
I was assigned duty in the survey room, a large space above the bridge which contained a number of sonar machines, to monitor the performance of the equipment and backup the sonar operator. The Captain and one or two other ofﬁcers appeared to observe at midnight. The sonar appeared to be working well, and as we got close to the coordinates, the track it was making began to move sharply downward. The track was being made on a graph paper, which was moving right to left on spools inside the machine. The scale of the graph was from 0 to 30,000 feet on our machine. In the center of the metal plate across which the paper was moving was a stylus, cycling vertically on a small chain and making a small arch with the return of each sonar pulse.
The track moved to the bottom of the grid and then stopped — it had reached its lowest limit, but the paper kept moving. Minutes later, the track reappeared, moving sharply upward. It was immediately clear that the depth we were measuring was literally ‘off the chart.’ After the paper was removed, we used a ruler to extend the track on the left and right to approximate where the ‘bottom’ was, which we estimated to be something near 35,000 feet. We learned later that the depth recorded by the Trieste was in fact 35,815 feet. That is more than seven nautical miles. Straight down.
We spent several months surveying the Gulf of Siam during the spring of 1960, making two or three R&R visits up the Chao Phraya River to the City of Bangkok. There were some things that I found particularly interesting while we tired up the central pier. One was the passage of a monstrous dredge, making daily runs downriver and keeping the channel open. The river itself was the color of mud, and looked like you could walk on it (someone quipped that it was too thick to drink, but not quite thick enough to farm), but it was because of the enormous amount of silt it carried — especially during the monsoon seasons.
What was surprising about the dredge was that it was being operated by the US Corps of Engineers! It must have been under some type of contract to the nation of Thailand. The silt was carried well out into the Gulf, spreading out to create a nearly ﬂat bottom surface (which we later conﬁrmed). We also got a good view of the local industry.
One operation was going on near the center of the river, a few hundred yards away from where we were tied up. Three very large freighters were at anchor, surrounded by a number of barges loaded with freshly harvested rice. Scaffolding erected with bamboo extended from the barge’s deck to the ship’s rail, inside of which was a double pathway of wood ramps leading from one level to another.
From sunup to sundown, we watched as dozens of men loaded rice into reed baskets which they carried on their shoulder, following each other up through the scaffold to the ship’s deck. After emptying their load into the ship’s hold, they returned back down through the scaffold on the parallel rampway. There is no telling how long it took to empty the barge, but it must have taken weeks.
There were families living on the barge, and we would often see young children playing, wives and mothers cooking or doing laundry, and young boys ﬁshing. Without the use of binoculars, watching this activity was like watching ants at work. Tied up directly behind us on one visit was a freighter loading teak wood. Spread out on the pier next to the ship was several acres of milled teak logs, about 10” square by eight feet long. They were stacked like matchsticks in alternating layers. Two men would climb onto a stack and hand down a single log, balancing it on the shoulder of one man. The log carrier would then walk to a scaffolding with ramps and carry the log onto the ship, where it would be taken into the hands of another pair of men and arranged in holds or on the deck. The logs had to weigh close to 100 pounds, and we noted that the men carrying them all had well muscled legs and arms and wide shoulders, although none were probably taller than 5’-2”. This activity, too, went on all day, every day, for weeks on end.
To say it was hot would be an understatement. On one occasion, someone dropped an egg on the ship’s deck, and it fried on the spot! On another occasion, we had to stand for a ship’s inspection drill carried out for an Admiral who was visiting Bangkok (for some reason or other). The dress uniform of the day was modiﬁed to shoes, dress white pants, and a clean, white T-shirt. We stood at our assigned station, awaiting the arrival of the Admiral, for more than 10 minutes outside in the sun. Someone began to quietly laugh, and when we looked around to see what was causing him to laugh, he pointed down at his feet. We, too, looked at our feet. We discovered that we were standing in a puddles of black shoe polish, which had melted off our shoes from the hot deck. Fortunately, the Admiral appeared shortly afterward, and we were able to take a step out of the mess to avoid tracking it inside the ship.
Eventually, we were ﬁnished with our survey and began our trip back to Pearl Harbor. We had covered the entire Gulf area, some 120,000 sq miles, and worked near the coast of Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. There are four major rivers emptying into the Gulf, and the bottom depths were monotonously ﬂat in the range of 200 feet.
The return trip included a 10 day layover in Hong Kong, where we pulled out early to ride out a passing typhoon, a visit to Formosa — where we had to circle outside the harbor because of rough seas, and another refueling stop in Guam. Within days of our return to Pearl Harbor, the ship went into dry dock. It was expected to be there for up to six months, and several repairs were scheduled — including air conditioning, a new shaft and screw, and near-complete replacement of all our electronic equipment due to obsolescence. The ship was scheduled to return to Thailand for the next three years to complete a detailed survey of the Gulf.
Meanwhile, the entire crew was relocated to temporary housing on the base. Our only duty at that point was to appear each morning at 8 AM for roll call. The ship was off limits, due to the repairs, so the day was ours. Two other crewmen and I, as short-timers, were scheduled to return to the States for discharge processing, so each day, after roll call, the three of us checked what was called the ‘ride board’ to see if we were listed. The ‘ride’ could be a ship, a submarine, or an airplane — whatever someone came up with that would get us to the discharge center at Treasure Island in Oakland, California. We were told we couldn’t get our discharge in Hawaii because it hadn’t been a State long enough (it was admitted in August of 1959). It so happened that one guy in my travel party had a best high school buddy who was the Recreation Ofﬁcer for Pearl Harbor.
So, after roll call and a visit to the travel board, we went directly to the Rec Ofﬁce. We got free tickets to shows at the Waikiki Shell, free surfboarding instruction, bowling lessons, movie tickets, and a lesson in deep sea ﬁshing, and more. This went on for six weeks! I got to see Bobby Darren, Erta Kitt, and several Big Bands in evening performances at the Shell, tried and failed to stay on a surfboard at Waikiki Beach, and spent several outings on a sailboat cruising along the shores of Hawaii.
Eventually, our names appeared on the Travel Board on a Monday. We were scheduled for a 3 AM ﬂight out of Hickam Air Base on Wednesday morning, direct to Oakland. My two traveling partners decided to enjoy that last evening in Hawaii at a party with lots of booze, but I opted not to join them. Instead, I got a decent night’s sleep, and when we ﬁnally boarded the plane (a four engine DC-4) for the 9 hour ﬂight, I was the only one awake by the time we took off. There were about 10 of us on the plane, with all the rear-facing seats along one side.
A half-hour later, still in pitch blackness, we reached cruising altitude. Minutes later, the pilot appeared, pulled a portable bunk down on the opposite side of the cabin, and proceeded to go to sleep. At that point, only a single cabin attendant and I were awake. He brought me some coffee, and I asked if I might visit the cockpit. “Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.” I knocked on the cockpit door and was invited in by the copilot. He was in his right seat, making notations on a clipboard of instrument readings, and monitoring the auto-pilot controls. He pointed to the empty pilot’s seat and said “sit there.” So, I did, and we soon engaged in small talk about his time at the Brunswick Naval Air station in Maine, and his other travels and adventures in New England. He also shared his experiences as a pilot, and his duty in such locations as Greenland, the Philippines, and Italy. Several hours later the sky ahead began to lighten, and soon afterward the sun rose. The view was spectacular, although there was little to see in all directions other than the blue Paciﬁc.
I thought back to the time when I had asked the weatherman aboard our ship for a forecast while we were in the mid Atlantic. It didn’t look ‘hot and dusty’ to me down there over the Paciﬁc, either. Eventually, a glimpse of land appeared on the horizon, and then the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge emerged. As we reached the coastline, with the Bridge below us, the plane began a wide turn to the south. The pilot entered the cockpit. “Unless you can ﬂy this thing, you’d better let me have my seat back,” he said.
We soon landed safely, and I went directly to the out-processing center at Treasure Island Naval Base. I was there three days, going from one room to another, ﬁlling out forms, having medical checks, and turning in uniforms (except for one set of dress blues for the trip home). On the last day, I was directed to a room to meet with a panel of three ofﬁcers. Their task was to convince me it would be a good idea to remain in the Navy.
It turned out that the Navy really needed Nuclear Electronics Techs, particularly those already through ‘A’ school and some experience at sea. Of course, you had to be wiling to agree to six more years of service and accept assignment to the just emerging Nuclear Submarine Fleet. You’ll be in school four of those years, they said, and of course, you’ll be a Chief before you know it, they said, and there will be a cash bonus, they said, and you’ll get another stripe immediately, they said. They made it sound tempting. I knew much of what they were telling me was true, and not just hot air. I had spent a couple of months on temporary duty at the Newport Naval Base in Rhode Island while waiting for the start of Electronics A School, and there I saw several young newly minted Chiefs (all ET’s) they were talking about. I also knew that Electronics was a wide open rating, with rapid advancement.
But, I was only 20 years old and not quite ready or able (i.e., mature enough) to agree to a six year commitment and potential Naval career. And, I had met some brand new Electronics ofﬁcers, fresh out of Electronic Engineering Degree programs and OCS commissioning, and had convinced myself that I could do the same thing (however naive that might have been on my part).
And, ﬁnally, I had seen ﬁrst hand the difference between shipboard life of ofﬁcers and enlisted men, and decided that if I was going to make the Navy a career, it would only be with a commission. So, I declined the offer. I remained open to the idea of returning to the Navy after earning a college degree. I have often wondered how life would have turned out if I had agreed to the offer at Treasure Island, retiring at age 37 and a half, but of course only momentarily.
Today, in the Navy at least, those who are qualiﬁed for the ‘Nuke ET’ program begin with a six-year enlistment, about half of which is spent in specialized training. Nuclear-trained ETs operate reactor control, propulsion, and power generation systems in nuclear propulsion plants. They are also well positioned, after a career in the Navy, at a relatively young age, to complete an engineering degree or enter a very well paying civilian position in the nuclear industry.
Finally, as I gathered my things and picked up my leave and travel pay (my regular pay had topped out at $89 dollars a month) and airline tickets for my trip home, I remembered that I had college ahead of me (I had already been accepted by the University of Maine and saved enough to pay for the ﬁrst year). I also thought back to the time when my ﬁrst posting to a ‘ship in New York’ seemed destined to keep me close to the east coast. It turned out much different, of course, with something like 256,000 miles spent aboard ship (a good deal of that during survey operations), travel across both oceans, visits to European, African, and Asian continents, a few days spent behind the ‘Iron curtain,’ passage through the Panama Canal, travel in almost every time zone except for a few in the Indian Ocean, and a whole bunch of gift sets collected from around the world.
John Sherburne (L) and Paul Sherburne (R)
As a postscript, this is a contemporary deﬁnition of the work done by the USS Maury and its sister ship the Tanner. Note the introduction of survey-by-air, rendering obsolete the methods we used back in the day.
Hydrographic survey is the science of measurement and description of features which affect maritime navigation, marine construction, dredging, offshore oil exploration / offshore oil drilling and related activities. Strong emphasis is placed on soundings, shorelines, tides, currents, seabed and submerged obstructions that relate to the previously mentioned activities. The term hydrography is used synonymously to describe maritime cartography, which in the ﬁnal stages of the hydrographic process uses the raw data collected through hydrographic survey into information usable by the end user. Hydrography is collected under rules which vary depending on the acceptance authority. Traditionally conducted by ships with a sounding line or echo 42 sounding, surveys are increasingly conducted with the aid of aircraft and sophisticated electronic sensor systems.