CHAPTER 12

1947-50--NORFOLK-- USS NESPELEN

The Nespelen (AOG 55) was a well designed ship 310 feet long and 48 feet wide.

It was kind of a sister ship to the San Carlos being designed to support sea planes operating from temporary seadromes set up in remote bays of Pacific islands. The Nespelen class ships had tanks for carrying several million gallons of aviation gasoline. Transporting liquid cargo was our primary mission.

During the three years I was aboard the Nespelen we called at ports in Newfoundland, Greenland, Labrador, Canada, Bermuda, the Azores, Curacao, Trinidad and Panama out side the US. In the US we made at least one trip to Houston, Key West, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Our home port was Norfolk. You can see she was a seagoing ship.

Four events most vivid in my memory are: two collisions, dodging icebergs off the coast of Greenland and spending a month in the Arctic ice pack.

I was officer of the deck in both collisions. The first occurred in the Delaware river between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. We had a Delaware River pilot on board. We were enroute Newfoundland with a load of aviation gasoline for the Air Force Base at Argentia, Newfoundland. It was foggy with about a quarter mile visibility. There was too much traffic to keep track of all of it on radar.

One of targets on the radar screen suddenly broke out of the fog ahead of us on our starboard side. It was a Coast Guard Buoy Tender much smaller than we were.

In both the inland waterways and in international waters the rules of the road to prevent collisions are crystal clear. Either of the ship's captains may initiate a signal by blowing his whistle:

One blast signifies a starboard to starboard passing and two blasts signifies a port to port passing. The second ship agrees by sounding the same number of blasts. Neither ship is to change course until the other agrees and they are sure of each other's intentions

I sounded one blast for the starboard to starboard passing. Instead of agreeing the captain of the buoy tender sounded two blasts on his whistle and cut across our bow. We were traveling at about 10 knots. He got about a third of his ship across our bow before we hit him. The impact spun the other ship around and when it passed our midship its stem was perpendicular to our ship.

Since a buoy tender is heavily reinforced to work in ice, it escaped with a huge dent in the bow. A 3 foot hole was torn in our bow. We anchored at the first available space,

We understood that the Delaware River Pilot's Association is a family affair. Unless ones father and grandfather were pilots, the chances of getting to be a member are pretty slim. Our pilot was an 18 year old on his first job. He was naturally pretty badly shook up. I tried to encourage him assuring him we did every thing right and by the book. He didn't agree. He said the first question he would be asked would not be: did he do everything right? but, HOW COME YOU WERE UNDERWAY IN A FOG?"

We checked the damage, radioed a report to our Operational Commander, got permission to return to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for repair. I asked the replacement pilot what would happen to the young pilot. He said, "Nothing. It takes a collision to make a good pilot. Until he has one he thinks he is invincible. The earlier in a pilot's career he has a collision the better pilot he becomes."

Apparently the Coast Guard admitted fault and some money transfers took place. At least we heard nothing further about the incident

The second collision occurred a few months later. We were leaving New York City. Ambrose channel between the Hudson river and the Atlantic is about 1000 yards wide and well marked with buoys. It was foggy with visibility again about a quarter of a mile. I kept close watch on the radar. A large ship was coming into New York harbor. When it was about a half mile away the bearing was steady which signified we were on a collision course. I made sure the Captain was fully informed. He asked, "What can we do? We are on our side of the channel?" I pointed out to him that the water was still 20 feet deep outside the buoys and since our draft was only 18 feet we could get out of his way. He chose to maintain our legal right and stay in the deep channel.

The SS INDO CHINA looked huge as it broke through the fog headed for our gasoline tanks, I had made sure the quartermaster wrote down an almost second by second account of our actions. In accordance with the rules of the road, we backed down full and sounded a series of blasts on the whistle. With a collision imminent I sounded the collision alarm and stepped outside the pilot house.

My thoughts were, "Lord I will see you in a minute." I expected the ship to explode and I didn't want to hit my head on the ceiling (overhead) on the way up. The bow of the INDO CHINA missed our tanks by about 10 feet. As steel entered steel a twenty foot square of iron flashed red hot. It penetrated the Chief Petty Officer's quarters. The collision alarm sounded in time for them to evacuate. No one was injured.

It took about two months to repair the ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The upside was that there was a big league baseball game nearly every day at Yankee Stadium or Ebbetts Field. Military personnel could attend by paying only 20 cents tax.

The Captain, LT, A.J. Quadrate, was a great guy. He had commanded an LST in the Normandy invasion. Although he was not to blame in either collision, he said he felt like the soldier who survived all of the battles he fought in during World II but was run over by a taxi the first day he arrived back in New York.

He requested to be relieved of command so he could finish his career with less jeopardy.

The inquiry into the collision was lengthy and tedious. Before I wrote up the log describing what happened, I made a rough set of notes. The investigating officer impounded those notes. I was asked to keep the Court informed of my whereabouts until the litigation was complete. Apparently the French company which owned the INDO CHINA and their insurance company made a satisfactory settlement with the Navy. At least I never heard any more about it.

If you look on the map at the country of Greenland, you will notice that the east coast resembles a giant cross cut saw except that the gap between the teeth (fjords) may sometimes extend inland at least a hundred miles. (We understand Greenland was given that alluring name instead of Iceland for propaganda purposes to attract colonists.)

In one of these fjords the Air Force found enough level land to build a landing strip and build an Air Force Base. Aviation fuel was needed to support the flight operations. Every summer we transported some of that fuel.

A natural law is that when warm and cold weather collide FOG is created. As we headed north we could expect to enter a hundred mile wide ribbon of fog. Also in summer the ice mountains experience some thawing and break off into pieces creating icebergs as big as battleships down to smaller ice islands called "growlers." After they fall into the fjords the melting ice causes a current which carries them to the ocean. It is well known that 7/8 of the iceberg is submerged and the "tip of the iceberg" represents only 1/8 of its true size.

It is evident that icebergs and growlers are a hazard to navigation as the passengers and crew of the Titanic discovered in 1912. It is especially challenging to navigate around them in fog having only radar for eyes.

On our first trip we had no sun or stars to guide us. We navigated by dead reckoning to the vicinity of the fjord we were supposed to enter but could not locate it on radar. In addition to the fog it was windy and we were experiencing high seas. The waters were poorly charted and we faced the hazard of hitting an uncharted rock island as well as an iceberg or growler. We decided the wisest action was to anchor when we found the fathometer showed we were approaching shallow water.

The Navy Regulations specifically instruct the captain who is going to drop an anchor to "select a safe place to anchor." The safest place is where there is deep mud which causes the anchor to dig in deeper when a pulling force is exerted on it. A rocky sea bottom is the poorest place to anchor because the anchor may drag or be caught between rocks so it cannot be retrieved. (The hymn writer who wrote, ANCHORED TO THE ROCK WHICH CANNOT MOVE had a good thought but illustrated it with a disastrous practice).

We did drop an anchor but checked our position by radar image on the coastline continuously to make sure we were not drifting. In the morning the fog cleared enough for us to see why we could not find the entrance to the fjord we wanted to enter. A huge iceberg was blocking the entrance, It showed up on the radar screen as coastline. As it moved slowly to sea we were able to maneuver around it and complete our mission. Returning south we saw that the growlers got smaller and smaller until they were entirely melted. That was a happy discovery since we could now make more speed and distance going in a straight line instead of dodging these nature made ice palaces.

This operating in fog proved to be good experience for me. Four years later I would be navigating my own ship along the Aleutian Chain with land visible only by radar,

In the winter of 1950 we were chosen for a special mission. Accompanied by two icebreakers we were to penetrate the ice as far as possible into Lake Melville in Labrador at about 40 degrees from the north pole.

We were fitted with a two inch belt of steel to reinforce the hull of the ship. We stopped in Boston for final equipping. I had heard that one of the causes of frozen feet is that when one puts on heavy socks with the same shoe size they are used to wearing, it actually cuts down the blood circulation and is counter productive.

I went to Filene's bargain basement and bought a pair of oversize plastic wool lined boots to accommodate extra pairs of socks. My initiative backfired. When a task surfaced needing extra exposure to the below zero weather, I volunteered since I was able to keep my feet from freezing. One of these tasks was to control the engines by phone while looking over the fantail to avoid letting the propellers hit large blocks of ice.

The Navy issued special cold weather outfits including facemasks.

Leaving Boston we proceeded north to the bay connecting to the 20 mile channel leading to Lake Melville. The ice pack extended 40 miles offshore. We rendezvoused with the Navy's largest icebreaker and a smaller type breaker about the size of our ship. When the wind blew strong offshore the multi ton ice blocks, several feet high above the surface, would loosen enough to allow the ship to squeeze between them and make some progress toward shore. However, the ships could not be steered but would follow the path of least resistance.

The large icebreaker carried a helicopter which would try to scout out the least resistance paths through the ice which we called "leads". However if the wind blew hard from the sea the blocks were so tightly wedged we just couldn't move.

By taking advantage of favorable winds we eventually made it to the channel connecting with Lake Melville. The channel from the Lake to the ocean had a strong current flowing seaward and was free of ice although hazardous to navigation with it's sharp turns not marked by buoys.

Because of the still water the ice on the Lake was frozen solid about three to four feet thick.

A word about icebreakers. They are specially designed ships with the hull shaped like a football. The heavily reinforced bow is angled at 45 degrees to the water so it can climb up on the ice and break it by the sheer weight of the ship. It is equipped with steel propellers that will not be damaged by hitting ice.. It is equipped with ballast tanks and high speed pumps so the ship can be rapidly rolled to one side and then the other to keep the ship from getting trapped in the ice. In the stern there is a 6 foot "notch" to fit the bow of a ship being towed.

We were pioneering something not tried before. If the ice were on a few inches deep the breaker could proceed through it at five to ten knots.

But ice the thickness of that in Lake Melville required the ship to climb up on it and break it with the weight of the ship. We tried following behind. As the Breaker passed over the ice it had broken the blocks would surface and come together again like a jig saw puzzle. Since our bow was not angled for climbing we found ourselves wedged between the blocks of ice. So we tried towing with our ships engines at hill speed. That was OK as long as the IceBreaker traveled in a straight line.

But the IceBreaker would follow the thinnest ice and sometime turn at right angles to us. This would break the hawsers tying us to the icebreaker and our bow would come out of the notch and would crash into the ship supposedly towing us. We then tried following close behind the Icebreaker ship hoping to move ahead before the broken ice would resurface. That worked the best but if the IceBreaker encountered strong resistance and slowed or stopped, we would crash into it before our reversed engines could stop our ship's forward motion. Eventually we evaluated our capabilities and limitations and called the research project complete.

Our propellers were bent so badly they looked like a split piece of celery. We couldn't travel more than a speed of 5 knots because of the vibration, which shook the entire ship. We were ordered to the naval base at Argentia, Newfoundland to have our propellers replaced. We limped our way back through the ice pack and into open waters finally arriving at the base.

Enroute I received orders to report to The Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, New York with the title of Assistant Professor of Naval Science.

I was relieved of my duties and transferred to the base to await transportation back to the mainland for 30 days leave and then proceed to King's Point.

There was no scheduled transportation out of Newfoundland so another officer and I who was also being transferred faced a long wait.

A few days later a training flight of Navy Bombers came to Argentia.

The flight commander agreed to take us if we were willing to ride in the unheated and unsealed tail compartment where temperatures of 3O to 50 below zero might be experienced during the 4 hour flight to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.. We were anxious to travel so signed on. We put on about six layers of clothing, four pair of heavy woolen socks, and enough woolen hoods and scarves to cover our upper body. We looked like walking mummies with very little flexibility to bend.

After about an hour in the air the plane commander sent word back that they had some coffee up front and if we wanted to risk walking across the narrow 60 foot catwalk we could come forward. We did although it was pretty scary to look through the crack in the bomb bay doors to the ocean 30,000 feet below Up forward there was no place to stand or sit. We curled ourselves up like cats around the equipment and crew stations and had our coffee,

Apparently the plane commander had a flash of compassion. He told us if we wanted to stay up front we could for the flight duration but would have to go back to the tail for landing. Since there was no room to undress we sweated through the remainder of the flight before returning to the tail compartment which of course much warmer now.

The next morning we found a DC3 with seats available going to the Anacostia Naval Air Station at Washington, D.C. We were able to find another plane going to Norfolk shortly after landing.

Morena picked us up at Norfolk Naval Air Station We were about to begin a new phase of our military career, the first stable tour of shore duty after 18 years in the Navy..

 

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